Bryn Davies plots three one-day routes around the Alps that make for the perfect addition to any European tour.
In days gone by, the Alps were a harsh and unforgiving landscape. An obstacle to be endured, not a holiday destination to be enjoyed. A handful of mountain passes had been constructed by the Romans to link the Italian peninsula with the rest of Europe (such as the Splugen Pass and the Grand St Bernard Pass), but the journeys up and over them were often arduous and dangerous.
These days, the mountains retain their wild, allure. They’re still ferocious and unpredictable, but in many ways they’ve been tamed by modern advancements and now, rather than being a great barrier, they’ve become the playground of Europe.
The few Roman roads that straddled the valleys remain in place, but more and more highways have been constructed, opening up the mountain landscape to anyone with two wheels and an adventurous soul. Where these roads were once vital links between ancient kingdoms, they are now enticing and thrilling rides for motorcyclists.
For some of you, there’s no doubt I’m preaching to the choir. But if you’ve never had the pleasure of riding the high mountain passes of the Alps, stop what you’re doing right now. Grab your wallet and get yourself booked on a ferry across the Channel (for a time when international travel is allowed, of course).
Whether you’re a seasoned Alpine veteran or a mountain virgin, the routes I’m about to show you will enhance any ride. Together with TomTom, I have plotted out three sensational one-day rides around my favourite areas of the Alps. They’ve been designed to offer you a full day of riding along the best roads while also allowing you to see the best sights as you go.
The riding in the day is the star of these routes, but I’ve also chosen the start and finish points with purpose. The towns and resorts you’ll stay in offer plenty of accommodation and serve as perfect bases for further excursions into the surrounding areas. You’ll also find cool, Alpine vibes, and plenty of good restaurants and watering holes. With riding so enjoyable in the day, it only makes sense to continue the good times into the evening.
While you can pick and choose these routes depending on where your summer tour will take you, they form the basis of a sensational ride across the arc of the Alps if you link them all together. Start with the day ride through the Vercors, head into the Alps and tick off the famous mountain passes (Col d’Iseran, Col d’Iozard, the Furka, Grimsel, Susten carousel etc.), and follow them around to the Stelvio Pass. Then, head east and into the Dolomites for a showstopping end to your tour. Plot this route and your mates will think you’re a world-class tour guide. Enjoy!
Europe’s most dramatic roads
The Alps are home to some of Europe’s highest roads, but it’s the French Prealps, or foothills, where you’ll find the most dramatic stretches of tarmac. The Vercors National Park and the Chartreuse Regional Natural Park in southeast France, in particular, are home to magnificent roads that are often overlooked. Their proximity to the more famous and higher mountain passes means they fly under a lot of people’s radar. I mean, why would you ride the seemingly innocuous country roads in the Vercors when, in just over two hours, you could be riding Alpine passes like the Col d’Izoard?
The answer is very simple. Throughout the Vercors and Chartreuse, if you know where to look, you’ll find a collection of awe-inspiring roads which take you over, through, and alongside towering cliff faces and deep gorges. The views are incredible, the riding exciting and, the best part, the traffic is minimal.
This 142-mile day route that I have put together here, will take in the best roads in this area of France, including the formidable and iconic Combe Laval. This balcony road adorned the front cover of issue 30 of ABR magazine, and it was a cover that drew more attention than any other issue we’ve put out. The road has been carved into the side of a near-vertical rock face with a series of tunnels blasted out of the mountain every now and then. It’s the perfect example of French road engineering, and when you ride along its narrow lane, only a small wall separates you and your bike from a long plunge down into the valley. It’s exciting, it’s pulse raising, and it makes for one heck of a photo stop.
Combe Laval comes halfway through the day, and either side of it you’ll find exceptional riding. From the moment you leave Voiron, the start of the route, you’re whisked along the Route du Desert, which carves its way through a steep and dramatic gorge. It’s the perfect way to kick off the day, and it’s merely a warm up for what lays ahead as you dive from Chartreuse Regional Natural Park into the Vercors National Park.
The sweeping bends of Route de Grenoble take you through Gorges du Foron before you turn back north and head for the Ecouge canyon. Here, you ride through a tiny, single-track tunnel which has been blown into a rock wall, and before long, a wonderful view of the French countryside opens up.
Next up is one of the stars of the show, the dramatic D22 balcony road which clings to the side of the Gorges du Nan
This takes you all the way to the wonderfully picturesque commune of Ponten-Royans, which is a great place to stop for lunch. You can even take a dip in the Bourne river which flows through the centre if you’re in need of cooling off.
Fuelled up, the dramatic Combe Laval is next. Sensational views and dramatic riding is the order of the day here as you ride the magnificent Col de la Machine. Up until Combe Laval, the riding has been all about the area you’re travelling through, but the Rousset Pass gives you the perfect opportunity to enjoy some more spirited riding before you end the day in the unfortunately named Die.
The best of the central Alps
Read any ‘top 10’ list of Alpine roads and the Stelvio Pass is guaranteed to be in it. It’s the sort of popularity that leads to people claiming ‘it’s not that good’ in the same way that hipsters claim certain music or coffee is too mainstream. The reality is that the Stelvio Pass is a sensational road through a magnificent landscape that’s an absolute delight to ride. Yes, it can be busy, but it’s got to be experienced at least once in your life, and the hot dogs at the summit are worth any amount of traffic.
But it’s not the only reason you should visit this part of the Alps. It’s all too easy to set your sights on the Stelvio Pass, ride it once or twice, and then blast off to another region. By doing that you miss out on some wonderful riding in the area. That’s why, for this route, we’re going to use the mountain town of Bormio, which sits at the foot of the Stelvio Pass, as our starting point, and the world-renowned Swiss resort of St Moritz as our end.
In the winter, the medieval spa town of Bormio is one of Italy’s premier ski destinations. In the summer it’s a great place to base yourself in for a couple of nights while you explore the mountain passes that surround it. You’ll be well catered for here, with a number of hotels and restaurants to choose from, and there’s a petrol station which will allow you to start your ascent of the Stelvio with a full tank of fuel.
Our route is 181 miles long and first heads north over the iconic Stelvio Pass. As I mentioned, the road can get seriously busy, but if you make it the first road you ride after breakfast, you’ll miss most of the traffic. If your morning coffee didn’t wake you up, the 75 hairpin bends of this mountain road will. The first 25 will take you to the summit, which stands at 2,757m (making it the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, just 7m lower than the Col d’Iseran in France), from where the mountain panorama is stunning.
Dominating the surroundings is the towering peak of Ortler (3,905m), the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps whose summit was the location of the world’s highest wartime trench. From here, it’s 48 more hairpins to the valley floor on the northern side of the pass, before you nip into Switzerland along the sweeping bends of the SS41. From here the riding is beautiful and the route takes you to Davos via the Fluela Pass.
The next pass you ride is a personal favourite of mine, the Splugen Pass. Straddling the border of Switzerland and Italy, it’s a rollercoaster of a ride with spectacular sights and mind-bending drama. On the Swiss side, a crazy staircase of 10 hairpin bends gets the blood flowing, and on the Italian side the road drops into a deep, narrow gorge, clutching to the side as a series of tunnels and switchbacks make the seemingly impossible descent.
There’s no rest once you reach the bottom of the road in Chiavenna, though. The final pass of the day is the tantilising Maloja Pass, which offers a perfect blend of fast, sweeping corners through a lush, green landscape, and a mental, switch back laden ascent to your evening’s accommodation in St Moritz, where you’ll be able to relax with the rich and famous.
When I’m crafting a route, I often look for what I call ‘the Holy Trinity of Motorcycling’. That is the culture, the roads, and the views from the saddle. Get these three aspects right, and you can’t fail to make a top-quality motorcycling route. It’s a maxim that has underpinned every route I’ve created in the past five or six years, and it’s one that’s so perfectly present in this one-day ride in the Italian Dolomites.
It’s hard to describe the Dolomites without reeling off a list of overused clichés. Breathtaking, awe-inspiring, magnificent and incredible are just a few that would be ideally suited. Here, in this north-eastern area of the Italian Alps, it’s not uncommon to find yourself parked up at the side of the road, neck craned upwards, admiring the monolithic limestone rockfaces that characterise one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most beautiful areas.
We start our route in the small town of Corvara, where you’ll find decent accommodation in a delightful setting (one of my fondest memories of touring in the Dolomites is sitting on my hotel balcony in Corvara, watching the sun disappear behind one of the towering mountains that surrounds the town). After an early breakfast, top up your fuel at the petrol station and be ready for non-stop thrills.
Immediately, you’ll be riding the Sella Rondo, a perfect circuit of four Alpine passes which circumnavigate the mighty Sella Massif. First up is the Campolongo Pass, then the Pordoi Pass, before you dive into the Sella Pass, and finally the Gardena Pass. Each one of these roads is sensational and, honestly, you could call it a day when you roll back in to Corvara after riding these four and you’d feel fulfilled. So, absolutely feel free to break this route into two days and do just that.
Otherwise, we carry on through Corvara and towards the Valparola Pass, where we ride under the dominant, hulking figure of Cunturines Spitze. This area was particularly busy during the so-called White War of WWI and there’s plenty to see along the roadside, including Forte Tre Sassi, an Austro-Hungarian fortress which is now a museum. And then there’s the crumbled remains of the Castelleto, a mountain which was blown up by the Italians to displace a particularly deadly Austro-Hungarian defensive position. Yep, they blew up a mountain.
We continue on over the Flazarego Pass and eventually Passo Rolle, a real favourite of mine which blends exciting twisties with beautiful views of Cimon della Pala, a peak that’s come to be known as the Matterhorn of the Dolomites.
From Passo Rolle, we head back north, riding the magnificent Giau Pass, which takes you underneath the towering rock spires of the Nuvolau Group, before dropping into the jewel of the Dolomites, the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Here, you’ll be able to park up for the night, find a great place to stay, and relax with a well-earned cold one reflecting on one of the best days of riding you can have on this planet of ours.