The Alps and Dolomites: Curves, Curves, Curves

Text: Robert Lamishaw • Photography: RoadRUNNER Staff

Riding up to another set of hairpin switchbacks, the fifth or sixth mountain pass we've climbed today - OK, now, focus on the road...set up for that right- hand switch back, downshift, look up the cars coming...drift to the outside curve, look through the curve, lean...lean...lean more...nailed the apex. OK, roll on the throttle...easy...up shift, pass that car while you can, oh boy, another switchback...these things come one right after another...look through the coming, slow down, down shift, stay wide, lean, throttle...and repeat over and over and over.

Welcome to the Austrian Alps and the Dolomites.

The mountain range between Austria and Italy offers some of the most challenging motorcycling roads you can imagine and vistas that take your breath away. Green valley's with flowing rivers, spectacular mountain views, deep, dark forests, bare rock faces that dare the most intrepid rock climbers to test their skills and courage, churches that go back centuries, villages that cling to slopes so steep you wonder how a goat could find footing, and roads that are smooth, clean and challenging. If Walt Disney had tried to combine the best of the Rockies, Sierras and Pennsylvania Dutch country with beautiful European architecture and a thousand years of history, southern Austria is what he would have wanted to end up with.

The tour - set up by Christian Neuhauser, the publisher of RoadRUNNER and advertised as a "riders' tour" - was one trip that certainly lived up to its billing! Born and raised in Tamsweg, a small Austrian town about 60 miles southeast of Salzburg, Christian has a wealth of local knowledge and planned a trip that reflects that, taking us through spectacular country, over roads he grew up riding and to places that most tourists never even hear about much less visit.

Unlike some tours, with chase cars, luggage vans, spare bikes and such, this tour was set up like you and I tour in real life. That is, we carried what we needed on our own bikes. This worked out well as we would stay in one place for several nights and then do a series of loop rides from the hotel; so there wasn't a lot of packing and unpacking. There was only one hotel where we stayed one night and most of the time we'd arrive at our inn late in the afternoon, around 4 or 5, park our bikes for the night, enjoy the mountain scenery, the great local beer and the company of a strangers who soon became a group friends.

One big advantage of this part of Europe is that everything is actually close together. Although we rode an average of 150 miles a day, we were rarely more than 40 or 50 miles from our lodgings. Our days were spent zigzagging across mountain ranges, often crossing a pass on one side of the mountain, twisting and turning down into the valley below and then riding up the other side of the same mountain to another pass. But it didn't matter; this wasn't a cross-country mileage trek. We were experiencing the land and each turn offered new vistas and challenges.

To help keep things interesting, Christian threw in visits to some of Austria's best national parks and the most picturesque towns and villages. Very early in the trip, for example, our ride included crossing Austria's highest pass road, the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse and a stop in the beautiful village of Hallstatt, one of the oldest Celtic settlements in the world. And, no matter where we traveled, there were always curves and more curves, some so tight you could practically meet yourself coming.

Americans used to wide straight highways will find the Austrian and Italian roads a real experience. Most of the roads were what I'd call single-lane farm roads - narrow without any centerline and maybe only 12 to 15 feet wide - but often busy with two-way traffic. Staying on our own side of the road and looking through turns was a skill we quickly developed and, while the roads were narrow, they were very well maintained. In the US, maintenance of these types of roads is generally the responsibility of the county and thus typically in poor condition, but not so in Austria or Italy. Considering the harsh Alpine winters and the heavy traffic these byways see, including commercial trucks and large tourist buses, the road surface was nearly perfect, a real joy to ride. A significant part of the $ 5 to $ 6 a gallon you pay for gas is well spent supporting the infrastructure.

Another significant difference we noticed was, unlike modern American highways where engineers use brute force to cut through mountains, the roads in Austria and Italy reflect an older, more organic, approach. They seem to flow over and around the countryside; they follow the rivers and curves of the hills; they are part of the land and, on our nimble and powerful BMWs, we learned to flow with the rhythm of the road. Riding these narrow, twisting, rising and falling by ways put one in mind of what it must have been like in America in the 1940s, before the freeways, when roads went through towns, not around them, and seemed a natural part of the countryside, not just something to be tolerated. Of course, we were doing all of these musings on near-new BMWs, some of the most dependable, high - tech, high performance motorcycles available, but that's the nature of nostalgia. You forget the bad bits, like leaky, oil burning, undependable, poorly handling bikes you used to ride, and only remember the romance of the road.

To say that riding the Alps and Dolomites was challenging, educational and even inspirational understates the experience. The folks from RoadRUNNER put on a memorable tour and I, for one, am looking forward to going back with them next year