Julian Challis does battle with sleep deprivation, sheer drops and Italian farmhands as he competes in the 2018 Hard Alpi Tour – Images: Fotografica Sestriere and Julian Challis
n the immortal words of The A Team’s Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plan comes together! As I cross the finish line in the stunning alpine village of Sestriere, I’ve ridden an incredible 530 miles since I left Sanremo some thirty-six hours earlier.
I’ve had around two hours of sleep, tackled everything from sweeping military roads, across vast mountain ranges and tight, slippery woodland trails to terrifying climbs alongside sheer drops in thick fog in the middle of the night.
And against seemingly impossible odds and some of the hardest endurance riding I’ve ever experienced, I’ve done it – I’ve completed the infamous Hard Alpi Extreme Tour. And I feel on top of the world.
But the fact that I even knew about the event, let alone be in a position to compete and finish it, is a collection of happy although totally unplanned coincidences. Last year, myself and Mrs Challis were holidaying in the beautiful Italian seaside resort of Sanremo.
While sat in the Hotel de Paris having breakfast, we noticed a succession of tents, inflatables and marquees being set up in the beachside car park opposite, all of which had a distinct motorcycle feel. By the end of the day, those structures had been joined by literally hundreds of adventure bikes, all kitted up for serious riding rather than the usual Starbucks-based adventures.
This was clearly a massive event, and by now my other half was struggling to believe that I knew nothing about it or indeed that it was mere coincidence that I happened to pick Sanremo for our holiday, let alone book a hotel that was right in front of the parc ferme…
When we watched the first of the competitors leaving the start line at 11.00 pm that same night, the bikes and riders bristling with spotlights and adventure essentials, I knew that this was an event I had to ride.
So, a year later and having spent month after month fettling the Yamaha Tenere that I’d bought specifically for this event and catalogued in ABR’s Head in the Shed section, I’m riding the bike down the esplanade in glorious sunshine to the same parc ferme. It’s Friday morning and I’m accompanied by my two teammates who had ridden the tour the previous year.
We park up the bikes and queue for our start slot later in the day, pleased to have got position fifteen from the forty-or-so teams that are tackling the Extreme version of the tour. The Discovery and Classic tours go out later on the Saturday and Sunday, each taking a slightly shorter and different route to the 80% off-road journey we’ve signed up for.
The bikes are a mix of mainly adventure specced BMWs and KTMs, my Japanese alternative being very much in the minority but still suitably equipped. The event proper starts for the 450 riders sat in the somewhat unlikely setting of the Sanremo Casino Theatre.
We’re treated to a presentation on the Yamaha T7, somewhat bizarrely as they did a very similar presentation in 2017 and the bike seems no closer to production. We then have the roll call and national anthems of all nationalities taking part, at which point the relevant riders stand and are obligingly clapped – we’re among only about six-or-so Brits so get a pleasingly big cheer.
There’s a full safety briefing following on from this with all riders reminded of important things like not riding beyond your ability and keeping safe rather than racing – this is a tour, not a competitive event after all. With a complimentary and enormous buffet with champagne to finish for the Extreme riders, it’s a nervous wait for the 11 pm start.
Now, despite the seemingly organised decision to allocate start numbers, it’s clear that this makes not one jot of difference to the hundred or so Extreme class riders who are now chomping at the bit to get off the line and onto the course. While a team of Hard Alpi Tour (HAT) helpers check paperwork, scan FIM cards and try to maintain order, the competitors jostle for position, gesticulate crossly at one another and get generally hot under the collar.
We eventually clear the line at 11.25 pm amidst the glare of flashbulbs, cheers from the crowd and an excitable if unintelligible commentary over the tannoy. Before we leave the town, the course loops round in front of the casino for another photo opportunity before heading along the coast road and away from the town, it’s great to finally get going and out on the road even if some competitors are treating the road sections like the Monza GP.
We’re following the route from a GPX file that most have downloaded to a Garmin, which was my plan and why I’d borrowed a Montana from a TRF mate. What I hadn’t realised was that you can’t run the thing on the USB cable as the screen simply goes blank, so I’ve resorted to plan B which is to use Viewranger on my iPhone – although I can’t recall properly setting the route up, it seems to be there so I’m at least vaguely aware of where I’m going.
Soon the route leaves the main road, follows a series of ever tighter and steeper roads before plunging into the first of thousands of lanes we will ride. And this is also the first wake up call for me as prior to this I’d kind of naively assumed that the Hard Alpi Tour would not really be that hard and that the lanes would be simple gravel tracks and easy going for the adventure bikes – sort of like trail riding ‘light’.
Man, was I wrong as we tackle some really tricky and rock infested lanes that climb further up the hills and between the valleys as we head for our first checkpoint at Dolceacqua. The final part before the check is a hairpin-littered road climbing to the summit, and the risks of the event are bought into focus as a rider on an Africa Twin scuttles off the road on the outside of a hairpin, just managing to haul it up before disaster.
With our cards duly punched by a man with the tool you use to make holes in belts, we set off again straight away. It’s just after 2.00 am and away from civilisation, it is scarily dark but also uncommonly hot for the middle of the night.
We now head into more open country, following more stoney lanes and tracks slicing across the Rocetta Nervina region that borders France. There’s no let-up in the terrain and now we have the added danger of the tracks being bordered by massive and unseen drops into an inky abyss.
The sweet spot of the track is close to the edge, but with the implications of getting it wrong so potentially disastrous, most elect for the bumpier route away from the edge. The course takes us through a series of long, sinister tunnels left over from the Napoleonic era, their walls dotted with alcoves for candles and the floor a slippery combination of mud and rocks.
The final tunnel has HAT staff stationed at the end to ensure we turn right to avoid the unseen 400ft drop. After an hour-or-so more riding we start to drop down from the open farmland with the soft ding of cowbells and through an endless series of forest hairpins to reach the second checkpoint in a tiny village. My legs and fingers have been twitching with an ever-present threat of cramp, so I’m glad to stop.
A happy band of local volunteers provide us with cakes, espresso coffees and water in equal measure and with the time now 4:01 am it’s time for our first fuel stop for the bikes too. Italians seem to have totally dispensed with serving staff at fuel stations which is good because you can now get fuel at any time, although the machines seem to exhibit a petulance that is entirely continental.
When we eventually persuade the machine to both accept notes and deliver fuel we’re off on our way once more. The GPX takes us ever onward and east towards Pigna, and again we’re climbing back up yet another mountain range with those rocky tracks next to a precipice.
I’d been warned about the need to upgrade the lighting on the Tenere and although I’d fitted hyper-bright bulbs and a central spotlight, I could easily have quadrupled this and still been struggling to see where the trail was heading at times.
When the sun finally starts to rise at about 5:30 am it’s a huge relief to replace the long shadows cast by the headlights with the soft light of the new dawn. We stop at the top of the hill we’ve just climbed for a breather and to take in the achievement of our first night done.
Only one more to go then… With the hard bit behind us for the moment, we press ever onward, heading roughly northeast by the ever-rolling ribbon of trails that intersperse incredible landscape.
We hit some beautiful trails through lush green deciduous woodland and it’s a perverse pleasure to pilot the big Tenere along lanes that I’d normally be trail riding on. The bike’s not missing a beat, and all my preparations from the screen to the rear brakes are on point. After a couple more hours we’re beginning to run out of steam a bit so it’s good to catch up with another refreshment point laid on by the organisers at Bardinetto.
While others seem to be settling down for a massive sleep, we restrict ourselves to a strict hour in the cold comfort of the car park. Strangely refreshed, it’s off again and we’re continuing to wind our way east. The bikes are more spread out now, so we see less of the other teams out on the trails. After another massive climb followed by a commensurate fall, we drop down to the main road, but my progress and potentially my event is thrown into jeopardy.
Taking in a left-hander, I’m a tad closer to the centre of the road than is perhaps wise, which would have been fine had an Italian farmhand not been doing the same from the other direction. Our resultant grabbing of brakes and swerving sees us glancing off each other, the quad heading for the wall and the Tenere being hauled up just before the opposite bank of the road.
In the traditional language of blokes, we shrug, suck our teeth, shake our heads and then nod, shake hands and head on our way once again. After a stretch on the black top we’re back to climbing again and, with the staggeringly good weather, the views are incredible as we pass by enormous mountains and gorges filled with swirling clouds below us.
In what seems like just a few minutes but is in fact a few hours, we take the switchback road that drops into Garessio for lunch and another break away from the bikes.
The staff serve up fresh pasta and parmesan with meatballs and we hungrily devour the feast. There are spaces to sleep here, and although we doze a bit, our slumber is rudely interrupted by a plump Italian child on the other side of the fence who has decided he’s going to ride his two-stroke mini moto at full throttle.
Eventually one of the Italian riders screams obscenities at him until he stops. We refuel the bikes in the town and then head for the toll road that will take us over the next few passes. I’m not sure whether there was meant to be a charge, but the old man waves us through happily.
The road is fantastic and technical at the same time, the challenge made keener by the occasional oncoming traffic trying to swat us over the cliffs to the side of the road. Quite incredibly considering I’ve been riding for nearly sixteen hours, I’m still feeling fresh and maintaining the standing position that is essential on these trails. The toll road is presumably Roman in origin and the patches of original laid stone still left can easily catch you out.
As we climb further, the clouds swirl in and rush up the side of the track in an icy blast and they’ve barely lifted as we get to the mountain checkpoint. The HAT staff punch the card again and furnish us with cold coke and snacks, but I’m cracking out the Jelly Babies in my rucksack – the food of kings!
The road drops down through the lunar rock landscape until we start to catch the tops of the snow runs, marked out by the sinister outlines of the ski lift gantries shrouded in mist around us.
The air is thin and cold and I’m pleased to be losing altitude. An hour later, a slippery stretch of grass at the end of the toll road takes us to a charming little ski lodge where, bizarrely, they are serving mulled wine. When in Rome, Rodney!
The route takes us eventually to the evening meal stop in the Limone region, but to get there the GPX route seems to want us to go through the pedestrian shopping area of the pretty little ski village.
We oblige, and the locals seem genuinely happy to see adventure bikes cruising past the shops. Again, we’re fed with freshly cooked pasta and tomatoes with bread and oil to accompany the repast which goes down well. We really need some more sleep, so another forty-five minutes is spent passed out on the grass by the children’s play area, homeless style.
Slightly refreshed and with the sun going down on the second night, we hit the road again and another series of trails, tracks and roads takes us into the darkness.
Viewranger seems to have lost the track so I’m now following the route on Bike GPX which shows me the way with a simple red line on a white background, but I like the Tron-style minimalism.
We follow a long woodland track that is covered in soft grass and takes us through deserted farmhouses and up into the hills. The headlight of the Tenere picks out slender weasels and stoats darting across the tracks, while slippery frogs spring off into the undergrowth to avoid the tyres. It’s a truly magical experience that I feel privileged to be part of.
By about 10 pm we’re in need of a pick-me-up and luckily the next card stamp point is in a tiny village under the shadows of a similarly tiny castle. We stop at the café and order double espressos washed down with Red Bull and are almost tempted by the waitress’s kind offer to allow us a room above the cafe to get some sleep in.
Eschewing the temptation and the bonhomie of the villagers, we fire up the engines and press on.
The next checkpoint is about four hours away, so we need to clock up some serious mileage despite the terrain and the thick fog that has descended over the area rendering the high trails even more dangerous than they already were.
My skills on the Tenere have taken a steep upturn more out of necessity than anything else as I pick my way over an endless supply of finest Italian granite in the blacked-out landscape. When we reach the Ristorante Cianabie at around 2 am it’s like a scene from a disaster movie with the bodies of the riders scattered everywhere both inside and outside.
We grab a bit of food and half an hour’s sleep before remounting for the last big push towards dawn. Although we’ve managed to stay vaguely together for most of the time, by the time I’ve reached the main road an hour or so later, I’ve totally lost track of whether my teammates are in front or behind me. With no phone coverage and no way of contacting them, I’m left with the conclusion that I need to man up and just finish the event regardless.
I’ve got a motorcycle and a map – what more do I need? The route takes me towards Paesana and after that I climb again out of the town into the countryside once more. The trails here are particularly technical and would be a challenge in the day, but in the dead of night, it feels like I’m a long way from home and the KTM EXC that would be eminently more suitable for them.
I come up behind a guy on a GS that is clearly having difficulties on a rocky climb, so stop to help him back down as his combination of little legs and heavy bike is working against him and an expensive off is imminent.
Once safely down and reunited with his mates, I ask them to keep an eye on me as I attempt the climb, but almost to my surprise, the Tenere and me ace it and blast into the distance. Now an inadvertent solo competitor, I’m going to get the job done whatever.
Dawn comes half an hour later than the previous day at 6 am and the relief at natural light is immense. I drop down into another unknown town and refuel the Tenere once more, confident that that will be the last before the finish. An hour or so later I reach Pomaretto where there is breakfast of croissants, coffee and fruit with the other competitors that have made it this far.
The final trails beckon and I’m determined to enjoy them. After a great stretch of tarmac climbing out of Pomaretto, the route takes a right and heads up into the mountains again and onto a truly stunning trail that apparently forms part of the Italian leg of the Trans Euro Trail. And you can see why – you would be hard pushed to find a nicer place to take an adventure motorcycle than this.
I blast the Tenere along the sweeping route being careful to avoid the not-inconsiderable number of bikes coming the other way or indeed the ever-present drops to the side of the trail.
A group of riders has stopped at the summit point for photos, and as I’ve spent more time in the past six hours riding with a couple of Germans than my own team, I join them in the festivities and schnaps. And so, I’m on the homeward stretch towards Sestriere, the final destination and the endpoint of this incredible ride.
What started as a poorly thought out plan has resulted in me buying an adventure bike, spending eight months fettling it and learning how to ride it and then travelling all the way to Sanremo to take part in this amazing festival of adventure motorcycling.
As I cross the line close on forty hours after leaving the Italian Riviera, I can honestly say that this has been one of the most incredible rides of my life. Hard Alpi Extreme Tour – done.
Want to ride the Hard Alpi 2019?
If you fancy replicating Julian’s adventure and taking on the Hard Alpi next year, it’s both relatively simple and very achievable. First off you need to find two or three mates that want to ride the event with you, as teams must be three or four riders. The team needs to ride together throughout the event, not just occasionally meet up and then have half of them disappear into the distance.
The trails and roads are both tough and dangerous at times, especially at night and if you get a problem or have an accident you need your mates to be there, not in the next mountain range… You’re also going to need a suitable bike, and that means one that weighs over 150kg, so don’t think you can wheel out the Beta XTrainer and make it super simple.
Clearly, the lighter the bike the easier the task on the rough stuff, so Husky 701s and KTM 690 Enduros are the obvious but maybe non-sporting choice, but don’t forget that the lower fuel range on these bikes will mean more fuel stops, and the petrol stations are not necessarily on the GPX route.
Plenty of riders compete on big adventure bikes like the BMW GS or KTM 1290, but you need to be pretty good to take on the Extreme course on these bikes, even in the dry. Add in some rain and only the hardcore riders are going to complete the entire course. Mid-sized adventure bikes are therefore the most suitable and common option in the parc ferme, and if you prepare your bike in much the same way as the Tenere, you won’t be far off the mark.
Which brings us to the three classes – Extreme, Discovery and Classic which, as you might expect, are progressively less taxing. Which you pick will depend on your experience and indeed how much of a challenge you want, but don’t lose track of the fact that whichever you chose, this is NOT a race.
The Hard Alpi is a tour and the point is to have fun and arrive at the finish, not do it as quickly as possible and take unnecessary risks. Even if you have chosen the Extreme option, you don’t have to do every trail and the organisers have cleverly put in sections that can short cut the route if you want.
Food and rest stops are provided throughout the event at various points on each route. OK, so the final thing you need is to plan how to get there – Sanremo is in Northern Italy, so you need to get yourself and your bikes to the start. If you ride there then you might need to think about fresh tyres before you start the event, especially for the Extreme option which involves lots of off-road.
If you take the bikes in a van, you’ll need to find somewhere to park the van while you are riding, and don’t forget you’ll have to ride back from Sestriere to Sanremo to load up the bikes and return home. If you are up for a fantastic event in stunning landscapes, this could be the one for you!