Climbing up 48 switchbacks to the summit of the 9042-foot Stelvio Pass was the highlight of our editor’s unforgettable Edelweiss Alpine adventure this summer.
Shivering in the falling rain and hail I swung down the kickstand and tried to relax. My arms and shoulders were tensed and stiff from clinging onto my motorcycle through the wet conditions. Straightening out my legs my knees creaked, but it felt wonderful. I trudged over to the stone wall across the road, kicking out my legs to get some blood pumping in my soaked boots. Looking off the edge, I took in the scenery below. A wicked series of switchbacks ascended out of the mist for what seemed like forever. I had just scaled the most memorable road I’ve ever had the privilege of riding – Italy’s Stelvio Pass.
Why was I atop the unforgettable 9042-ft Passo dello Stelvio? Well, MotorcycleUSA was fortunate to participate in this moment of euphoria when BMW invited us over to the Old World this past July to cover the 2007 BMW Motorrad Days. After the festivities concluded, the Bavarian marque had lined up a three-day Alpine ride with an industry leader in the two-wheeled touring industry – Edelweiss Bike Travel.
We were already familiar with Edelweiss, having sent one of our regular photographic contributors, Tom Lavine, over to document their Best of Europe Tour. Knowing what we were in for after Tom’s enthusiastic report, it took about a nanosecond to accept BMW’s hospitality. The difficult part was sneaking out of town before Mr. Lavine got wind of our plans. (He’s still a little upset about the whole thing.)
Our three-day tour was a slight abbreviation of the standard High Alpine Tour, a popular option for American riders. After arriving at the scenic Bavarian mountain town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen for Motorrad Days, we could see why.
We had just travelled through the picturesque landscapes of Southern Germany from our European point of entry, Munich – the usual destination for Americans sampling the Edelweiss European tour packages. At BMW Motorrad’s homebase, we had picked up our Beemer press bikes and made tracks for the Alps. (Edelweiss customers can choose BMW machinery, from Edelweiss’ own fleet, with other popular bikes, like the Suzuki V-Strom or SV650, available as well.)
Taking in the BMW Motorrad Days event was a memorable experience and, like most festival participants, we cut out of the festivities for a half-day ride on the surrounding mountain roads.
Our Alpine adventure took place aboard the Boxer-powered BMW R1200S, seen here before the towering Zugspitze – Germany’s tallest mountain.
With our Edelweiss guides leading the way we headed past the towering Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, and crossed over to Austria, motoring past the remnants of a pre-E.U. border station. It was our first true taste of the Alpine setting and it was awe-inspiring.
Taking meandering backroads through the forested terrain, our day included a cappuccino stop beside the breathtaking Lake Plansee. Making pains not to go totally Euro, I took sips from the dainty coffee cup without sticking my pinkie out as I took in the surroundings. Having grown up in the Intermountain West the skylines of various ranges in the Rocky Mountains are burned into my retinas, but I was still impressed by the sheer verticality and grandeur of the Alps. The limestone crags of the most notable of European ranges jut almost straight up, with the habitable valley meadows dwarfed by the mountainous surround.
Although I hadn’t set foot in Europe before, I felt like I knew the place. In its climate, flora and fauna, there isn’t much distinction from America, and as the descendents of a culture shaped in large part by hoards of European immigrants, most Americans will feel a keen sense of familiarity. I felt like I was in the land of childhood fairy tales, half expecting to turn the next corner and see a gingerbread house, a troll guarding an ancient stone bridge or William Tell shooting an apple off someone’s head.
Our half-day teaser in the books, our official Edelweiss tour started in full on Sunday morning to drizzling rain. Our spirits were high, however, and rain gear kept me dry, for the most part.
The riding conditions could have been better, but it would take more than buckets of rain to deter our editor from enjoying the three-day Alpine tour.
We moved south from Garmisch-Partenkirchen and were soon across the Austrian border, headed to our eventual base of operations for the next two days, Mieming, Austria. The ride was at a brisker pace than most tours, as all the riders in our entourage were magazine editors used to fudging the speed limits on press intros. This was useful in that there wasn’t a lot of waiting to regroup when the route changed roads, a complaint Tom had mentioned in his previous experience with the Edelweiss tour. One of the great things about the Edelweiss system, however, is you have the freedom to opt out of the planned activities and head off on your own, should you choose to do so.
During our three-day sojourn in the rain, I was glad to have our guide, native Austrian Markus Hellrigl, holding my hand through the serpentine Alpine roads. During a week-long excursion, however, I am sure that I would have been chomping at the bit to make my own tracks, a practice encouraged by the Edelweiss guides.
The riding in Europe is much different than the States, with motorcycles afforded a respect and presence on the road that is lacking in the USofA. Far be it from me to criticize our perfect culture (wink), but the average driver I encountered in Europe seemed much more competent than his or her American counterpart. The amount of times I saw mascara being applied, cheeseburgers consumed, or teenagers texting while at the wheel was a big fat zero. Instead, the European drivers I encountered seemed focused on, well, driving.
Every route we took on our journey, excepting the Autobahn (more on that later), was a two-lane road with center stripes for passing – similar to a small rural highway here in the States. And with winding climbs and really fast motorcycles, boy was there a lot of passing. The hazard was made much easier by the non-antagonistic attitude from most Euro cagers. In fact, more often than not, when approaching a vehicle it would pull over as far a possible, in some instances allowing enough room for a bike to motor past in the same lane.
Our American motojourno crew takes a pit stop to put the rain gear back on. Almost all of the miles, or kilos, tallied were on narrow two-land roads, with plenty of tunnels like the one ahead.
Lunch was served at one of our guide’s favorite restaurants, but getting there was an adventure all its own. Our group navigated up steep, sharp turns on a private road that in the U.S. would be considered a narrow golf cart path. During our ascent the natural beauty helped sooth nerves as the altimeter rolled ever higher, with narrow gaps through forest glens punctuated at 180-degree switchbacks with vertigo-inducing vistas.
Reaching our destination we were rewarded with a stunning panorama of the Inn River Valley below, with the region’s largest town and site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, Innsbrook, visible in the distance. Lunch was delicious, as we sampled tasty local cuisine, including the absolute greatest bratwurst and sauerkraut I have ever consumed. The lunch stop also gave us an opportunity to get to know our tour guide a little better.
Markus Hellrigl must be the ringer Edelweiss Bike Travel sends out for special assignments, because it’s hard to imagine a better tour guide. Markus was a genial, easy-going companion for our adventures, who seems happy and content with his life in middle age as a globe-trotting guide for Edelweiss. On the road for 180 days out of the year, Hellrigl has led tours the world over, including a now discontinued tour through Oman – the Austrian having previous experience in the Middle East during his younger days when he served as a peacekeeper at the Golan Heights. Markus was more than happy to answer our questions about the area, of which he was quite knowledgeable, having grown up in the Inn Valley.
Our Sunday lunch stop was perched on a mountainside high above the Inn River Valley. Here our tour guide, Markus, investigates the edge of a ramp used to launch glider enthusiasts.
Markus was able to provide snippets of local history throughout our journey, which as a major history buff, I ate up. He also answered the niggling questions a gaggle of pesky journalists will throw your way, including just what the hell an Edelweiss is anyway. Markus explained that it was flower that grows only in the high Alps. I thought as much, after all I knew the word from the Sound of Music song, but didn’t want to admit it. When another journalist mentioned the Von Trapp family Markus erupted in a hearty, good-natured laugh. Every tour there must be an American who makes a similar comment. It’s either funny or sad that 95% of the cumulative American knowledge regarding Austria is sourced from a Julie Andrews musical. I thought it was funny at first, until I started humming: “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How to catch a cloud and pin it down…” Then I concluded, it’s just annoying!
Already geared up for fowl weather, our ride got very interesting after lunch, as sunshine and blue skies were replaced with gloomy overcast conditions. We were undaunted, however, as the sheer beauty of the unforgettable surroundings pushed us forward without complaint.
Unforgettable is a funny word to describe the terrain, because the exact details of what roads and villages we passed through escape my memory. There were a number of occasions when we rode through a quaint farming village without stopping and I made a mental note to remember the town of ____. I was sure I’d never forget ____ because it was so beautiful and serene, but the place would get pushed out of my memory by the next town, which was also beautiful and unforgettable. Instead there is a conglomeration of twenty or more different places that have morphed in my minds eye as “small European village,” all with winding roads, a modest town square and the simple piety of an ancient church.
This was the journo following our editor during the horse charging incident. He claimed this was the result of a “leaky” riding suit. MCUSA withholds an official comment, but if you ask us…
The weather started to get real nasty once we began our ascent up a grassy mountain pass. Motoring up the summit, the sound of rain was eclipsed by the steady toll of bells from a herd of milk cows trudging their way back to the barn. I couldn’t blame them for trying to get some shelter, but the concept of “don’t fence me in” must have originated in the Alps because this was open range. Dodging clusters of curious road-going bovines with large cowbells, and accompanying manure piles (cow pies moistened by hours of steady rain on wet asphalt isn’t the optimal traction for two-wheeled travel) proved challenging, but it did turn the adventure dial up to 10.
Just when I thought I’d seen the last cow of the day we descended through several stands of Alpine evergreens. That’s when the horses started showing up. Several groups of magnificent looking steeds were also seeking shelter, this time under the trees. As a group of riders ahead went by one group, I made my approach. I could see one of them, a mare with a small colt, was ready to bolt, and the closer I got the more and more angry she looked. That’s when the adventure dial cranked up to 11 and twisted off in my hand as I had to throttle my way past a charging mare. Not sure about the 0-60 numbers for a four-legged filly, but it’s pretty damn impressive. Any innocent Austrian farmers traipsing through the woods that day were treated to a torrent of muffled English profanities while I almost soiled myself, but no harm, no foul.
Laid back and almost always smiling, Markus Hellrigl was the perfect guide for our journey, always picking the most adventurous of routes.
We had all put our faith in Markus, but thanks to some livestock obstacles and worsening weather my faith was beginning to shake. That’s when our already wet road started to slope down to an intimidating pitch and I realized the usual immaculate asphalt we encountered throughout 99% of our journey was about to give way to wet gravel and sand. At our next stop, when we chided him about the unexpected offroad portion of our tour, Markus just smiled and let loose a little more good-natured laughter, explaining it had been a while since he’d taken that route. Again, no harm, no foul.
By the time we reached Mieming, Austria, I was a bit worn out but still exhilarated. At my request Markus rattled off a list of the places we’d been, Kematen, Sellrain Valley, Kuhtai, the Heimenger Saddle… But they all blurred in my memory once my head hit the pillow and the day became fixed in my mind with the droning sound of a Boxer engine, the smell of rain and evergreens, and vivid visions of roving milk cows and charging horses.