Metzeler Alpine Motorcycle Tour

January 5, 2009
Adam Waheed
By Adam Waheed
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His insatiable thirst for life is only surpassed by his monthly fuel bill. Whether rocketing on land, flying through the air, or jumping the seas, our Road Test Editor does it all and has the scars to prove it.

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Normally, the sight of people waving and taking pictures as the plane you’re traveling in taxis to its gate is a sign that you’re sharing the cabin with someone special. Could it be a rockstar? Maybe an A-list Hollywood type? Or better yet, a long-legged supermodel? As I collected my bags, I didn’t recognize any such famous faces amongst the usual swarm of Italians decked out in their stylish threads and oversized designer shades. I did, however, upon later reflection, realize that my initial assumption of people looking for a glimpse of fame was nothing more than simple friendliness and intrigue. Welcome to Turin, Italy.

The occasion which brought us to this friendly Italian city, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics, was this year’s Metzeler Experts on the Road. The event is a motorcycle rally of sorts that allows FOM’s (Friends-of-Metzeler’s) to tour through some of Europe’s finest landscapes on a wide assortment of motorcycles shod in the tire manufacturer’s versatile line of rubber.

Our epic two-day motorcycle journey started from what was at one time the largest auto manufacturing facility in

The Fiat Lingotto automobile factory was once the largest auto manufacturing facility in Europe complete with a test track on the roof. It has since been closed and renovated into the Hotel Le Meridien Lingotto in which we stayed.

Europe—the Fiat Lingotto automobile factory. Designed by Italian architect Matte Turrco, the facility began operation in 1923. Utilizing a radical design, raw materials entered on the ground floor and the vehicles were assembled in stages as they moved up through the building’s five stories. Upon completion, cars would be run on the factory’s banked, rooftop racetrack for a final inspection. How cool is that? The operational facility has since closed, but has been renovated with one wing converted into the ultra-modern Le Meridien Lingotto hotel in which we stayed.

The plan was to leave early in the morning, as we had some 267 miles separating us from our evening destination of Gstaad, Switzerland. As usual, I was the last one ready, which meant my choice of motorcycle wasn’t a choice at all, and I was forced to take the only machine remaining – a Yamaha XT660Z Ténéré. A Yamaha what? That was my exact first thought, but as soon as I swung a leg over it I knew I was going to get on well with this one. With its tall, narrow seat and wide, upright handlebars, this is as close to supermoto as a dual-sport machine gets. And, no, you can’t have one because it’s only available in Europe.

2008 Metzeler Touring the Alps
You won’t see Yamaha’s XT660Z Ténéré in the U.S. It’s a real shame because the bike is a great machine, especially on tight roads.

There’s nothing like fighting your way through morning rush hour traffic to get the blood flowing – especially when you’re in a foreign country. And although the streets of Turin are congested with buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and anything else you can think of, traffic flow was only slightly chaotic. Getting out of the city was a snap and within about 20 minutes we had already reached the motorway.

We headed west, leaving the flat topography of Turin behind and headed towards the looming white caps of the French Alps. After a quick blast on the wide, smoothly-paved Torino Autostrada, we began climbing into France. Parts of Strada Statale 25, the two-lane road we tackled, were about as tight as a road can get without being classified a sidewalk.
Fortunately, the Ténéré and its short, closeratio gearbox was up to the task. First gear is especially low, and necessary for some of the really tight stuff. As a result, quick wide-open upshifts were not only recommended, but required in order to keep up with crazed Euro journalists looking to take home the non-existent Journo-GP trophy.

Riding on this type of road makes you grateful that Yamaha wisely chose Metzeler’s Tourance tire as OE fitment. Adhesion to the road was never an issue and the tires have a firm, stable feeling, which help counteract the soft-ish suspension of dual-sporters like the Ténéré.

After crossing into France via the Mt. Cenis Pass, we stopped at Ristorante Le Savoye, a cozy roadside restaurant adjacent to the bluer than- the-sky, Mt. Cenis Lake. Although you’d never be able to tell, this area has been a major pathway for thousands of years.

2008 Metzeler Touring the Alps
After a few shots of espresso, our Metzeler Experts on the Road crew stand still long enough for a photo outside Ristorante Le Savoye as we travel through France’s Vanoise National Park.

The Romans traversed it during their empire building days and Napoleon Bonaparte had roads built here in the early 19th century to link Paris and Milan. After soaking in the country scenery, it was coffee break time. Next to water, the single most important commodity essential to survival in Europe is coffee… Lots of coffee. And we’re not talking about the light brown, watered-down stuff we Americans prefer. We’re talking the thick black syrup – the kind that unclogs drains and get’s you more spun than a six-year-old in a candy store. After enjoying a few shots of espresso and some fresh croissants, we were back on the road.

A couple hours into our ride, we had already climbed to an elevation of almost 7000 feet. Fortunately, September’s late-summer weather prevailed and the temperature was surprisingly mild considering our elevation.

I was in absolute awe as we crossed into the serene beauty of the Vanoise National Park. Covering an area of over 500 square miles, France’s first National Park was established in 1963, to preserve the natural beauty of the Alps region. With the abundance of lush green valleys, snow-capped glaciers, and the unspoiled splendor of soaring pine trees and indigenous wild flowers, it can be difficult to keep your eyes on the winding pavement in front of you. Thankfully, chasing a few agro European and Japanese riders has a way of keeping you focused, which is perfect, because these alpine roads rival anything I’ve ever ridden in California – or the rest of the planet for that matter.

The mild Indian summer meant we’d be sharing the road with all types of cyclists, both motorized and non. Not a problem as the roads through the Alps are all wide-open and well-marked.

Exquisitely kept small mountain towns are sprinkled all along the D902 roadway which heads northeast towards Italy. These picturesque locales provide plenty of opportunities for fueling both machine and rider. Given the rather mild weather, there was an abundance of cyclists, both motorized and non-motorized, blazing their own paths across the Alps just as inhabitants have been doing for thousands of years.

When we reached the French-Italian border we stopped at Little St. Bernard Pass. Just about everything in Europe has some sort of storied past, but Little St. Bernard Pass is perhaps one of the most history-rich along our route. An ancient stone circle dates back before 500 B.C. and is believed to have been a ceremonial spot. A few hundred years later, it’s thought that Hannibal, the leader of the Carthaginian Empire, led his army along this region towards Rome and defeated the Romans in a series of battles during the Second Punic War. Much later, sometime around the 10th century, St. Bernard of Menthon established a hospice here, providing food, shelter, and clothing to weary travelers passing through this rugged region.

In between the flourishing soil and rocky landscape, the area is beset with ancient stone buildings in varying states of decay. It is amazing to think that structures like these, built so many hundreds of years ago, are still standing for us to marvel over and wonder about the secrets they preserve.

With stomachs starting to rumble we continued for another few miles until reaching the town of La Thuile. Renowned for its skiing, the tiny Italian town is a mecca for all things outdoor. We pulled up at the charming, chalet-like Ristorante Lo Riondet. Inside we were greeted with a never-ending supply of hearty Italian cuisine. After thoroughly rewarding our taste buds, we profusely thanked our petite chef and got back on the road.

Looking for the best Italian food in the world  Then make sure to check out Ristorante Lo Riondet.
An oasis within the Alps, Ristorante Lo Riondet serves up Italian-French culinary fusion like no other.  

After lunch, I swapped out the single-cylinder Ténéré for yet another motorcycle not available in the U.S., the Honda CBF1000. Loosely based on the CBR1000RR, the CBF is a half-fairing sporttourer designed to take you across long distances with speed and, of course, comfort.

As we headed north towards Switzerland, European Route E27 started to open up, allowing us to stretch the CBF’s legs. As the pace quickened, Metzeler’s Roadtec Z6 Interact rubber impressed with its high levels of grip and abundance of feel, complementing the CBF’s balanced chassis. In the States when you cross a border you are almost guaranteed to be welcomed with a large sign emblazoned with the state’s name, maybe flower, motto, etc. However, this is Europe. And there aren’t any signs when you’re blitzing across the Alps. So it can be difficult to tell what country you’re in… That is until you enter Switzerland.

The Swiss are all about pefection. From the taxi cab driver’s immaculately kept Mercedes to the perfectly manicured countryside. Without a doubt, the Swiss take immense pride in keeping their land beautiful.

There are no signs marking its borders, at least not on the road we came in on. Yet, as soon as you pass through the invisible border, you know instantly that you’re some place extraordinary. Close your eyes and imagine a place without flaws, where literally everything is manicured to perfection. Simple 18th and 19th century A-frame wooden houses with immaculately kept flower boxes perched on each and every window sill enhance the serenity of the area. In Switzerland nothing is out of place. It’s what you’d imagine a perfect utopian civilization to look like and truly has to be seen to be believed.

Clouds began to pair together as we neared our scheduled Swiss café break. By the time we arrived at the Ristorante Bivouac Napolean, it started raining. The sky cleared and the rain stopped as we rode towards the ritzy European holiday destination of Gstaad. Nestled inside a valley and surrounded by the Swiss Alps, Gstaad is a popular retreat for Europe’s elite. Posh hotels, extravagant shopping, and incredible skiing are all draws to this high-profile refuge. We pulled up at the Steigenberger Hotel Gstaad-Saanen just as day transitioned to night and after 267 miles of pavement pounding, it was time for a stein or two of strong German brew.

This is the view outside of my hotel room at the Steinberger Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland. Note the airport runway in the background. Gstaad is a popular destination for Euro elite looking to escape the daily grind.

Our plan for the second day was to push deeper inside Switzerland with our final destination being the city of Luzern. We were greeted to damp roads and chilly weather when we awoke early the next day. Considering that a good part of our ride was going to be on tighter sections, not to mention the slick state of the road, I traded out the CBF sport-tourer for another faithful dual-sport, the Suzuki V-Strom 650. As opposed to the Tourance shod Ténéré, the Suzuki rolled on Metzeler’s Tourance EXP tire. Although the Tourance and Tourance EXP are similar, the EXP is designed to be more off-road and wet weather oriented.

The combination of morning traffic and wet roads kept the speeds reasonable as we began our trip. But as we cleared the small towns surrounding Gstaad, the pace quickened in spite of sporadic puddles on the road. The difficulty in distinguishing the difference between the Tourance and its EXP sibling is proof enough of the functionality of the EXP. Even on soggy roads there was enough traction to allow us to keep up with those pesky Euros trying to pull away. The road dried as we passed the picturesque twin Swiss lakes of Thuner and Brienzer. From there we took the aptly named Sustenstrasse towards Susten Pass. Built during World War II, the pass connects the Swiss cantons (or states as we know them in the US) of Uri and Berne. We’re grateful they did because the views on this segment of road are unreal. You can see the powder-white snow of a two-mile high glacier melting into a crystal clear lake… It’s simply breathtaking.

Icy-white glaciers and crystal clear lakes surround you near Sustenpass. The scenery during this leg of our journey was simply gorgeous.

By the time we reached Sustenpass Hospiz we were as giddy as schoolgirls. It doesn’t matter what you’re traveling in, be it a motorcycle, car, bus or rickshaw, after a ride like that you can’t help but be in a good frame of mind. Taking time to indulge in more espresso and croissants only added to our over-excitement and provided another opportunity to switch to another model of motorcycle.

We were on the home stretch as we descended toward the town of Wassen. Due to its sweeping bends and deep corner entrances, the Honda VFR750 proved to be a prudent choice for this section of road.

Lake Lucerne greeted us to our left as we neared the Schloss Swiss Chalet – the end of the line for our Metzeler Experts on the Road adventure. We crisscrossed our way over bridges and under tunnels past the lakes and zigzagging tributaries into Luzern. The city itself is comprised of old-world architecture kept in flawless condition. Luzern appears far bigger than its 50,000-plus inhabitants lead you to believe. Houses, schools, business – everything is spread out more than other European cities, which makes the city feel much larger than it is.

We had done it, 300-plus miles across the legendary Alps. And despite, at times, treacherous stretches of road, rain, and 20-something over-caffeinated journalists, we didn’t get lost, no one went to jail and not even one bike touched the pavement with anything other than their impressive Metzeler rubber and the occasional footpeg.

Impressive indeed.

The Alps has the finest  most well kept roads we ve ever experienced period.
The Alps has the finest, most well kept roads we’ve ever experienced period.

Rating Touring The Alps

A little bit of everything: A tiny portion of urban gridlock, bowling-ball smooth, open highway and a colossal variety of well kept, curvy mountain passes that will make you never want to stop riding.

Prepare to witness the same unspoiled glory that Hannibal and Napoleon saw hundreds of years ago.

Once you’ve experienced authentic Italian cuisine in Italy, you might not want to cross the border. But if you do, you’ll experience French-Italian and German-Swiss types of culinary fusion near border towns.

At times, it can be hard to know what county you’re in and the native tongue its residents speak. And despite what you might think Europeans are friendly. Even though we’re only capable of speaking English, communication was as simple as a hand gesture and big smile.

In the larger cities we stayed, there’s something for any budget. As you move into the Alps options narrow, yet there’s still a variety of cozy, dream-like lodging options choices scattered all along our route.

We were lucky enough to ride a bunch of great machines: Yamaha’s XT660Z Ténéré, Suzuki’s V-Strom 650, Honda’s CBF1000, as well as its VFR750. All of them were great choices, but if you’re planning on going all pavement like we did you’ll definitely appreciate the added comfort and convenience of a luggage-equipped sport-tourer. 

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