In 2009, the editor of a major print motorcycle magazine approved a story about a trip to the Alps. When we returned from the journey and submitted the story, we learned that the magazine had gone out of business. In my 10 years as a journalist, it was the first time I ever had a story not go to print. Here is the article in all its glory. europe06100 copy

7 Secrets of Alpine Travel

by Bruce Hansen
Photos by Bruce and Sharon Hansen

This story began 20 years ago when, as a newlywed, I took my bride camping in Switzerland. As our asthmatic VW camping bus wheezed into a campground, a BMW boxer twin glided past us. We watched it gracefully ascend the narrow mountain roads and wondered what secrets lay beyond the pass. We had to leave the next day so the whole idea of riding a motorcycle and exploring what lay beyond the pass became one of those dreams that emerged each time we’d read about an Alps trip.
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What was behind those grand, misty peaks? What were the roads like? Was I skilled enough to accept the challenge of these passes? When BMW confirmed they had a press bike waiting for us, we would find the answers to these questions, discover the secrets of the Alps and become infected with a powerful desire to return to the rooftop of Europe.
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With a sense of wonderment, I found myself on a new BMW 1200 GS Adventure blasting down the autobahn at 120 kmh. Sharon and I, no longer newlyweds, were watching the mountains become closer and our expectations becoming higher.
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To prepare for this trip, we had studied book by America’s authority on Alpine motorcycle travel: Motorcycle Journeys Through the Alps, by John Hermann. We had also done some net surfing and posted questions in rider forums like www.sport-touring.net.
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Secret 1
Time

We decided to motor to Andermatt, Switzerland for our first base of operations. We had made reservations before going so we would have an apartment with kitchen, secure parking and the most shockingly beautiful view imaginable. It turns out, that reservations are not really needed if you travel from the end of June to the middle of July. Most of Europe is not yet on vacation. Our whole apartment building was virtually empty. The first secret we learned: travel during late June and early July.
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Secret 2
Skill
Next secret to learn: Am I skilled enough to ride this ride? Even though I ride more than most bikers, I’m always questioning my skills. Other bikers can take the turns faster, ride longer and never seem to get lost. Alpine roads are narrow and the hairpins are shockingly tight and steep. If you can’t handle such a hairpin at slow speeds on a loaded bike — prepare.
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To train for this trip, some riders wisely practice narrow figure 8’s in a sloped parking lot. Life on the European roads would be a great deal easier if a rider was familiar with the signage. Study the signs on this web page before leaving: http://www.ideamerge.com/motoeuropa/roadsigns/
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Many European bikers ride powerful sport bikes in an aggressive manner. They routinely depend upon oncoming traffic to perform emergency maneuvers to avoid collisions. Other European bikers will plop their girlfriend on the back of an underpowered scooter and do the same road. The secret is to ride your own ride. Don’t worry about keeping up with the speedsters. Pullouts provide a place for you to let aggressive traffic get safely past you and give you a chance to exercise your camera.

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Secret 4
Pleasure
Enjoy the culture. I remember a time when I rented a bike in the state of Washington. That trip I avoided taking any ferries since I wanted to stay on the bike, not a big flat-bottomed boat. As a result, my tour of Washington State had too much freeway and no island time. What a shame.

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When you tour Europe, be sure to spend some time off the bike and exploring. We’ve walked into a monastery while the brothers were practicing Gregorian chants, we’ve stumbled upon a village wedding where the whole town dressed up in local costumes and tapped a barrel of beer for all to enjoy, we’ve explored ancient churches full of medieval relics. An Alps trip is more than the road.

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The roads! They’re like nothing I’ve ever ridden. Not only does a biker get tight sweepers with revealed apexes, that rider also gets an astounding view. As if all the most perfect natural scenery in Europe was pushed together into one place — a place as pure and mesmerizing as a child’s first view of Disneyland. Is it real? Sometimes it can become too much. I learned that I don’t really enjoy a series of 50-hairpin turns one right after another while a glacier cracks a smile for my camera. I want to get a look at the glacier.
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My favorite roads afforded fabulous views, had turns relaxed enough to maintain some speed and provide that rush of joy that keeps me returning to motorcycling each vacation. My top 7 roads were: Timmels Jock Pass, Oberalp Pass, Deutsche Alpenstrasse, anywhere in the Dolomites, the roads surrounding Berchtesgaden, Maljoa Pass, and Splugen Pass.
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You might wonder if you can do this ride by yourself. Since I’m a stubborn do-it-yourselfer, can speak reasonable German and have a well-organized bride, doing it my way suits me fine. We met people who took a brief guided trip, then set out on their own with a rented bike. This trip would have been far less fun if we weren’t already veteran European travelers. If you are doing it yourself, my last secrets are for you.
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Secret 5
Gear
Some bike rental places offer motorcycle gear when you pick up your bike. My advice would be to bring your own. In the early summer, the Alps can be warm or even hot during the day, showery in the evenings and chilly at the passes. I wore my BMW Santiago suit. It’s light, armored and the waterproof insert truly is waterproof. Some people wear leathers and pack a rain suit. Nearly every rider we saw had serious motorcycle gear. I’m not a racer, but I wear an AGV race helmet because it seems immune to buffeting. When we were flying home, biker-friendly Canada Air gave us a free seat upgrade when I showed my helmet and asked about comfortable seats.
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Secret 6
The Bike
Get the right bike for the ride. Since we were riding two up for three weeks, I wanted a powerful bike with plenty of storage. The GS Adventure has metal cases that swallowed all our gear and a waterproof tank bag that held all 20 pounds of my camera gear. Despite all this, it felt light in the turns, pulled strongly up the steepest roads and didn’t embarrass us on the freeways. It was the perfect bike for our trip.
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I think the perfect bike for your trip is one that your are already familiar with. Strange roads, odd signs and funny traffic patterns does not a great place to learn a new bike.
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Secret 7
Directions
I look at my tankbag directions on a stateside tour, and it’s mostly highway names. To tour the Alps, you need the names of towns. Highway names change from country to country and countries can change every few hours, but the town names are well marked and fairly easy for even me to find my way. Even so, I got pretty good at making U turns with the fully loaded GS. The secret to not getting lost is to make a list of towns through which you need to travel. A GPS is unnecessary unless you want to travel in cities.
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Toward the end of the trip, Sharon and I returned to that Swiss campground we visited so long ago. We hiked a trail past a crystal pond and talked about our joyful, intense experiences with the roads, culture and exploration. Climbing back on the powerful bike we watched a young couple gaze at us as the powerful GS purred up the mountain. We wondered if we had just infected another couple with our travel bug.
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Bruce Hansen is author of
Motorcycle Journeys Through the Pacific Northwest, Second Edition. Whitehorsepress.com
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