Half the enjoyment of a tour is, for me at least, in the planning. While there is a lot to be said for heading off with no idea what adventures lie ahead, the expectation of knowing where I am going and where I intend to be lets me relax and enjoy the ride.
I have spent much of my life travelling to Scotland’s west coast but I have only done it the once on two wheels. On that occasion I didn’t really have the correct tool for the job. Don’t get me wrong, it was a blast on the S1000RR but boy did I feel the effects of so many miles in sports bike position. When it was suggested we return to do the North Coast 500 I relished not only the possibility of doing it on an adventure bike but also I would be going further north that I had previously ventured.
I dived into the forums and spent a few hours on Google maps scoping out the route. I quickly realised that there was a sense of urgency due to the popularity of the route and the availability of accommodation, or lack of it. I had bought a North Coast 500 guidebook and took a look at their suggested tour itinerary but the advice I got was that I was undercooking the mileage. The suggestion was that there was little going on with the east coast and that I should be cracking on to Durness where the best of the west coast starts. With this in mind I’ve drawn up my initial plan and will continue to revise in in the coming weeks.
In a few days time I depart to the US to ride the Dragon. In a previous post I talked about my last trip and had promised some information on what the Tail of the Dragon is, and this is the purpose of this post. If you like your motorcycles but are not American you may know of the US129. If you are American you will almost certainly know of it. Forgive me for what follows is a blatant cut and paste job. I promise that my next post on the subject will be my ride reports.
The Tail of the Dragon
Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap with 318 curves in 11 miles, is America’s number one motorcycle and sports car road.
Designated US 129, the road is bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest, with no intersecting roads or driveways to hamper your travel. It is considered “the destination” for thousands of motorcycle and sports car fans throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
The 11-mile stretch of the Dragon in Tennessee is said to have 318 curves. Some of the Dragon’s sharpest curves have names like Copperhead Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Wheelie Hell, Shade Tree Corner, Mud Corner, Sunset Corner, Gravity Cavity, Beginner’s End, and Brake or Bust Bend. The road earned its name from its curves being said to resemble a dragon’s tail. The stretch bears the street name “Tapoco Road” in North Carolina and “Calderwood Highway” in Tennessee and is signed entirely by US 129
The nearby Cherohala Skyway is quickly becoming a destination too, with its remote 60 miles of breathtaking scenic mountain highway.
The Cherohala Skyway (sometimes called the Overhill Skyway) is a 43-mile (69 km) National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina in the southeastern United States. Its name is a portmanteau of Cherokee and Nantahala, the two national forests through which it passes. Along with multiple vistas and overlooks, the skyway provides easy vehicular access to various protected and recreational areas of the Unicoi Mountains, including the Citico Creek Wilderness, the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the remote interior of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
The skyway gains over 4,000 feet (1,200 m) in elevation, rising from a low point of just under 900 feet (270 m) at Tellico Plains to a high point of just over 5,400 feet (1,600 m) on the slopes of Haw Knob near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. The North Carolina half of the skyway terminates near the south shore of Lake Santeetlah.
The area also has other incredible roads like the Moonshiner 28, Devils Triangle, Diamondback 226, Six Gap North Georgia, The Snake and Great Forest Service Dual Sport and Jeep Roads.
In a previous post I mentioned that back in 2015 I visited some of my friends in the US. Flying into Atlanta we rented a Camaro and did a four state round trip taking in The Dragon aka Deals Gap, Knoxville, and finally, Hilton Head Island for a bit of beach relaxation.
It was on this trip that I first experienced the R1200GS through a rental and had a blast riding the US129 ‘dragon’ during the day and drinking beer sat in hot tubs in the evenings. This year I plan to return in July and at this stage have barely given it a thought although I will be just doing the week in the cabin at the base of the Cherohala Skyway. What I do know is that a very generous friend is allowing me to use one of his bikes during the trip. Its a lifesaver as I had entertained the notion of renting a GS from Eagle Rider in Atlanta but the cost for the duration was over $2000 in comparison to $600 for a Mustang/Camaro from Atlanta airport to get me over to the dragon for the same rental duration.
Hopefully between now and the trip I will share with you some more information on the dragon and the surrounding area. In the meantime I hope you enjoy my video of 318 curves in 11 miles from my last trip.
The lack of posts on here and on Facebook are an indication to the lack of riding that has been taking place. As the weather continues to improve the trips out on the bike will become more meaningful. As I look forward, inevitably I take a glance back and I’ve been reminiscing on last years rides and the tour of the Alps, looking over the photos and watching the video.
It occurred to me that many who might stumble on this blog might not have seen the links to the Garmin Adventure sites. Even on Facebook where they were initially published they are a little fragmented and as a resource they may be invaluable as they would give people access to the GPS routes. So without further explanation, here they are:
Lets start this post with an important fact. The S1000RR has gone, in fact this happened back in February as many of you will know who follow my Facebook posts. I had hinted at the possibility on my last blog post. In hindsight it was very much a foregone conclusion with the decision even preceding my first ride on a GS that I had rented for my trip to the Tail of the Dragon (US129) in the Smokey Mountains. I had made my mind up. Don’t get me wrong, I love the RR and by comparison the GS (affectionately) can be a bag of spanners but I’ve had more fun on that rental on the 318 curves in 11 miles than I’ve had on any bike. It was also in the knowledge that a GS would open up a whole new world of possibilities, like touring the Alps, and so the RR was traded in for a brand new R1200GS Triple Black with all the toys.
Now that I had the tools at my disposal the next step was to decide upon and plan a trip. This was initiated by a work colleague (lets call him Nick, because that’s his name). His friend Brian, and the third member of this trip, had previously used a company called Bikeshuttle. Basically you ride to Northampton, load your bike on a lorry with all your gear, get a shuttle to Luton airport where you fly out to Geneva. After a restful night (and a few beers) in a hotel your bike is then waiting for you the next morning outside the hotel having come overnight and overland through France. Thats the boring motorway miles (and unnecessary mileage on the bike) dealt with.
Planning the Alps
The planning had been maticulous and had at its core a set of routes that I had been sent by someone on a GS forum who had previously done the Alps. The routes did exactly what we wanted by taking in some of the best roads that the Swiss, French and Italian Alps could offer. I set the routes up in Garmin Basecamp and transferred them to the Navigator V SatNav. I also bought paper map backups of all of the Alps in case the new fangled technology failed and I created an in depth itinerary with maps, route information, snippets of Wikipedia information on the key passes, hotel bookings and a checklist of things that we needed to take. The fact that no-one read it was a problem. I once read that if you plan to ride as a group then make sure that everyone invested in the planning of route. I can’t stress that enough in passing on that tip.
The only deviation from the original inherited routes was a slight detour south. To be specific, Monaco. The plan was to put the bikes around the F1 circuit.
As far as prepping the bike there was little to do. It was way off its next service and had fresh tyres. From where I had come from packing was a luxury. Not only had I bought a 40L roll bag that happily say across the ample rear seat. I had luggage, lots of luggage, two panniers and a top box. Luxury! I’d be packing extra underwear for this trip.
The general plan was to head from Geneva to the French village of Bramans. From there we would head south to Menton, away from the Alps, where we could easily visit Monaco. Heading back towards the Alps to get us on our original route we would stay at La Norma before heading off to a place just north of Martigny. We would then ride the Rhone Valley to Andermatt which would be a hub for tackling all the main Swiss passes for a couple of days before heading to Lauterbrunnen, the Swiss Yosemite before returning to Geneva once again.
The transfer to Geneva was as painless as it could have been and we arose on the next morning to find our bikes lined up in the sunshine to the rear of the hotel. It didn’t take us long to load up and get on our way. The route would take us into Geneva (the hotel was actually just inside France in Thoiry) and then south. After tackling the city centre we rode for a good hour before I began to have suspicions that we weren’t on the route. Stopping for breakfast it became apparent that the SatNav was trying to take us to the fastest route to Bramans and not follow the pre-defined trips. Looking at the maps and desperately tinkering with the navigation settings had us ready to try again but it became evident that we would have to change the days route. We had gone way too far south west and were at Annecy and way off course. The plan was to head a short way north and then east towards Thônes. Once there and happy that I was getting to grips with the SatNav I entered a new route on the fly. It did mean that we had to abandon much of the planned route but we had made two discoveries. The Navigator V would fight to get off the good roads if you had ‘fastest’ route planning set and also the waypoints that I had told me not to alert me about had become ‘shaping points’ which were more advisory than actual waypoints. All was not lost though as having got back on track we stopped for lunch in La Clusaz and our first taste of a Swiss ski resort. We carried on along the route, stopping off at the spectacular Lac De Roselend with its azure blue water, and then broke off at Bourg St Maurice to take the road through Val-d’Isère and the Col de l’Iseran to approach Bramans from the opposite side than initially intended.
The accommodation at Bramans was an indulgence on my part, although the others secretly liked it too. We had opted for a bit of glamping in a wood walled, canvas roofed ‘tent’ on a camp site. It was all part of the adventure touring experience and the location was stunning at the foot of the mountains. We would also encounter the first of many was the bell towers that were an ongoing feature of our trip. While they do go silent overnight they start up again very early. Pretty much every place we stayed had a similar tower. There are no need for alarm clocks in the Alps.
We set off very early the following morning in the sunshine having wiped the dew from the bikes. We set off just as the bell tower decided it was time for everyone to be awake and as the early mist cleared we rolled out of Bramans. This was the long ride down to Menton on the south coast of France. Our initial route took us over Mont-Cenis to Susa in Italy where we would have breakfast.
The road down to Susa is a treat with well maintained roads, hairpins and sweeping curves. Easily one of the best on the trip. Leaving Susa it was all about getting our heads down on the Autostrada with the prospect of tolls. Having hit the coast we followed it around and back into France on a series of quite spectacular elevated roads.
The accommodation at Menton was a nice change from the basic lodgings at the Bramans campsite being a 3 star hotel with underground secure parking, a rooftop terrace bar and a short stroll to the beach where we enjoyed a few beers and a bite to eat. Being in France it would have been rude not to dive into a bar and watch the host country beat Germany in the Euros where secretly I was cheering on Germany on behalf of my GS. But as France won we had to endure the streets erupting at the final whistle and car horns until the early hours.
The next morning we took in a petit dejeuner on a side street before loading up once again and heading for Monaco. Monaco, what a shit hole. A cramped town of traffic and high rise buildings. We fought our way down to the harbour and took a look at the collection of ridiculously lavish yachts moored up before preparing for the main event of a couple of laps of the F1 course (Circuit de Monaco). We followed it best we could given the road works and the amount of traffic but despite this I’d say we took in all the best bits, the starting grid, the Mirabeau, the tunnel, Piscine and La Rascasse. All this with out getting caught by the gendarmerie. We got out of Monaco as soon as possible after our laps with another slog on the Autostrada in prospect, and with one last look at the place from Palace Vista we were gone.
We decided to let the Nav V take us the absolute quickest way to our next stop, La Norma, forsaking the excellent road that we had rode down to Susa. But as we racked up toll after toll we wondered if it was worth it. Already smarting from the constant payouts we then got hit with another €29 to take the final tunnel (T4 – see below) out of Italy. It was a fine feat of engineering through the mountain but it brought our journey to something like €150 in tolls alone!
To quote wikipedia:
The Fréjus Road Tunnel is a tunnel that connects France and Italy. It runs under Col du Fréjus in the Cottian Alps between Modane in France and Bardonecchia in Italy. It is one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes between France and Italy being used for 80% of the commercial road traffic.
Construction of the 13 km (8.1 mi) long tunnel started in 1974, and it came into service on 12 July 1980, leading to the closure of the motorail shuttle service in the Fréjus rail tunnel. It cost 2 billion francs (equivalent to €700 million at 2005 prices). It is the ninth longest road tunnel in the world (as of 2014).
On the other side of the tunnel we got our bearings and punched the accommodation address into the SatNav. Climbing up another set of hairpins we arrived at La Norma and to the treat of a perfect little purpose built ski village. There were bars, restaurants and shops. The perfect way to relax after a long ride.
By now we had properly got to grips with the Nav V and I was changing the shaping points to waypoints on the device. This made a massive difference and we were following the routes with confidence. This all made for one of the best days of the trip, back though Col de l’Iseran (the D902 is a treat), Col de Petit St Bernard and Col de Gran St Bernard on the way to Martigny. We started with another coffee in a small village with a newsagent, come tobacconist, come coffee shop who sent us across the road to a patisserie to get our fresh croissants.
I’ve yet to mention the weather but it had been glorious sunshine and this made the views all the more spectacular to the point where we stopped all to often to take photos. Its hard to pick out a specific road as they were all stunning but the top of the Petit St Bernard was one that particularly stood out. We stopped for a rest and a coffee in the village at the top, got our picture of the carved St Bernard dog and carried on to more great roads roads, hairpins and scenery at an ever increasing rate. We stopped at the top of the Grand St Bernard for lunch. It had a crazy feel about it with all manner of vehicles pulling up and a row of wooden huts selling souvenirs including the obligatory stuffed St Bernard dogs. We dropped down and towards Martigny before another short climb that took us to the evenings accommodation at Salvan, just north of Martigny. The place we had picked was a nice self contained apartment but the owner was a little strange and made up wear croc shoes in the apartment, which was a pain when you are trying to unload a bike and going in and out, boots off crocs on and vice versa. Salvan was our first stop in Switzerland as all previous overnight stays had been in France and in Euros and while the exchange rate had currently been suffering this was nothing to how expensive we found Switzerland, especially food. A word to the wise for anyone following our footsteps. Be prepared with plenty of Swiss Francs… or bring sandwiches.
The next day was another scorcher. We were now heading towards some of the most well known Swiss passes. I did mention having riding buddies who preferably get involved with the route planning and with an itinerary of which I had the only copy. Explaining the route and repeating the names of the passes was getting tedious. Regardless we were back on the road heading through the Swiss valleys that follow the Rhône with its many vineyards (it was pointed out, have you ever seen a bottle of Swiss wine?).
We had decided that after a number of days of heavy riding we would break the passes up a bit and tackle the others on the second day we had in Andermatt. So heading up and over the stunning Grimsel Pass we turned around and after stopping back on the other side to take a number of photos of the Furka Pass we dropped back down to the junction onto the Furka and rode up it where we then stopped to take pictures of the Grimsel Pass. I should mention at this point that I was loving the way the GS was eating up the hairpins. What was slightly disconcerting was the lack of barriers and I did my best not to peep over the edge for fear of a bit of target fixation and a considerably long drop!
Andermatt is a very nice place to stay and perfectly located for any number of great rides. If we had opted to base ourselves at one location for our whole trip then this would have been it. Not only that we had what was probably the best hotel on the trip, the Alpenhotel Schlüssel. Clean modern rooms, private underground parking and staff who couldn’t do enough for us. After settling in we went on the search for food and found a place that was showing the Euro final. I’m not sure if it was the fact that the locals weren’t interested, or the fact that the heavens opened for the first time on the trip, but we watched the match pretty much alone. Ronaldo went off the pitch injured early on but still managed to win the game single handedly. At the final whistle a Portugal fan appeared in a car and drove around Andermatt until the early hours blowing their horn. Turns out at least one person cared about the result.
The weather report for the next day was ominous and unless we wanted a severe soaking in a thunderstorm we would have to restrict our riding to half a day. We ditched the original route of Oberalp, Lukmanier and St. Gotthard for a half day around the passes missed on the previous day. We set off to do a loop on the St. Gotthard Pass to Airolo but then head west over the Nufenen pass and back around on the Furka again (having enjoyed it so much the first time). The weather had cleared up after the previous evenings downpour which we were very grateful for as our route took us on the Tremola with its miles of twisting cobbled road that I’d imagine could be interesting in the wet. Finding the Tremola caused some confusion. The SatNav knew exactly where it wanted to go but I was hesitant as the initial road gave the feeling that we were going to end up on a goat track. After circling a couple of times we committed to the road and I’m glad we did. Its still hard to get my head around how long it must have taken to lay all the cobbled road in its precise fanned out pattern. We stopped for photographs just below the new road/tunnel high above us. Dropping down to Airolo we had breakfast and carried on to the Nufenen. At the top of the Nufenen we stopped for a photo opportunity with the three flags of the two cantons and the Swiss flag and met three guys on a pair of GSA’s and a new Africa Twin. They had obviously been offroading and the bikes showed it. One guy worked at a BMW dealer, the other guy was sold his GS from the dealer and the third guy worked at a Honda dealer and was riding the demo Africa Twin. He mused that his boss was going to kill him when he saw the state of the bike. I thought to myself that they should just stick it in the showroom window unwashed, like one of Charlie Boorman’s bikes. We carried on back over the Furka where having regularly stopped to enjoy the views the first time I took the opportunity to open the bike up and enjoy it at speed. I’ve still yet to get my knee down on a GS yet. Arriving back in Andermatt we were a little frustrated that the weather was still holding and we possibly could have done the original route although with the previous days modifications it would have been at the expense of the Nufenen so all in all I was happy.
The next day the rain was still to come. All the reports were for thunderstorms and torrential rain so with this in mind we decided just to take the most direct run to Lauterbrunnen, although this would still take us over the Susten Pass, however by the time we reached our turning point at Brünig the sun was still shining and we decided to go for the run over the Glaubenburg. The roads were different to other routes consisting of tight roads through wooded areas and opening up to farmland and grazing cows. It was Emmental country after all. As we climbed higher the weather turned. Initially we rode into a cloud with next to no visibility and the moisture then turned into light rain which then turned into some of the heaviest rain I have ever rode in. The only saving grace is that in anticipation we were all dressed in our Motorrad Rain Lock jacket and trousers. Our gloves and boots were less protected and were drenched. As we dropped off the pass we reprogrammed the route. Get us to Lauterbrunnen ASAP!! At a place just outside of Thun we spotted the oasis that is BurgerKing and cold and wet we turned in to the car park. I have previously mentioned the prices in Switzerland and this is probably one of the best examples. I had a Whopper meal which cost me 18 Swiss Francs which works out at just over £14. What is it back home, around £5.99?
And so we arrived at Lauterbrunnen rightly described as the Swiss Yosemite with is steep rock faces and tall waterfalls. The cloud was low and there was no way that you could see the Eiger although we were close to its base. On paper our accommodation should have been one of the best and it was certainly one of the most expensive. In reality it was one of the worst, in fact I can easily say that it was one of the worst places I’ve ever stayed. Give me back the tent we had in Bramans! On arrival we were presented with two keys to the two ‘double’ rooms we had booked. The man on reception tried to explain about the bathroom access but I was too cold and wet to listen fully. When we got to the rooms it took us a minute to realise that there were no bathrooms or toilet in either room. What our guy on reception had tried to explain to us is that the only shower and toilet was on the floor above and shared between every other room in the hotel! Despite this we ditched our gear and got some warm dry clothes on while trying to dry our gloves and boots on whatever heat source we could find.
Lauterbrunnen is certainly a strange place. It doesn’t take you long to realise that there are Chinese people everywhere, even to the point that one of the red flags on the front of the hotel that I had assumed was a pair of Swiss flags was in fact a Chinese flag. Why? I have no idea. Digging out the phone we searched for somewhere to eat having decided that eating in the hotel possibly wasn’t the best option. We were directed to a campsite that was half a mile down the road that had a well reviewed restaurant on site. In fact it turned out to be a very nice restaurant come après–ski bar. Weissbier and Wienerschnitzel all round then. I did wake up that night and need to relive my bladder. Not fancying strolling around the hotel in my underwear I decided I needed to be ‘resourceful’. The room had a wastepaper bucket and there was a window. I’ll leave it at that and say no more about Lauterbrunnen.
And back to Geneva
The final day had promised more of the same weather wise. That coupled with the need to get the bikes back to Geneva and get them loaded on the lorry to see it on its way meant that the group decision was to take the fastest route back to our starting location. Once again the rain suits were out and we headed back to Thun, Bern and Lausanne before reaching Geneva in good time. With the bikes handed back to Bikeshuttle it was time to review our ride and compare notes with the others that were arriving back from their routes in Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria and Corsica.