Alun Davies goes mountaineering on two wheels following the legendary Stella Alpina adventure rally route in the Italian Alps
A little tumbleweed blowing down the road would have livened things up. Having just pulled off the motorway and on to the main street, it felt like we were riding into a scene from a sci-fi movie, where all the townsfolk had been hoovered up into a spaceship, and were now (more than likely) being anally probed by three-headed aliens. As is the way in modern movies.
It was 9pm on a Saturday night in July when we rode into the Italian Alpine town of Bardonecchia, the location of the legendary Stella Alpina Rally. Things were so quite that as we parked up the bikes the thought crossed my mind: had the floundering Marie Celeste been boarded by a resident of this town then the mystery would have been re-told as a vibrant tale of a well-attended get together.
Anyway, before I slide too far sideways with tales of suspected first contact, I’ll swiftly come back on track and stress one important fact. The Stella Alpina, or to give it its proper name, the Stella Alpina Motociclistica Internazionale, is a very well-attended informal motorcycle rally in the Alps.
I stress ‘informal’ as it’s that which sets apart this mass gathering of adventure bike riders in the mountains. With that in mind, it was of supreme importance to our band of three that we honour this particular commandment of the Stella. And it doesn’t get much more informal than showing up a week late for the rally, does it?
The Stella has a history stretching back to 1966, when the original meet kicked off far to the north of Bardonecchia at the Stelvio Pass near the Austrian border. The story behind the original rally goes something like this: Two bikers, Italian Mario Artusi and Brit Harry Louis, had been arguing the toss over how high they could ride a motorcycle in the Italian Alps. Harry, a director of the publication The Motorcycle claimed the location of the highest to be the 2,758m crest of the Stelvio whilst Mario, a member of the Turin BMW club and therefore a man with local knowledge, suggested that it was more likely to be the Colle del Sommeiller at 3,000m. The difference being, the Stelvio was all tarmac whilst the CdS was mostly unpaved.
Anyway, to cut a longish and relatively uneventful story short; after knives were drawn, limbs were severed and the Mafia cut a few heads off horses, the Italian argument won the day and from 1967 an informal gathering of the adventure riding clans, under the very formal heading of the ‘Stella Alpina Motociclistica Internazionale’, has taken place on the second Sunday of July within shouting distance of the town of Bardonecchia.
Socialising aside, the objective, and main focal point of the rally, is to ride as high as is safely possible on the Sunday, which in a good year will see the massed ranks of two-wheeled mountaineers topping out on the summit ridge of the Colle del Sommeiller.
However, at an altitude of 3,000m, it’s common for late-lying snowpack to prevent vehicular access to the ridge and the ride is considered ‘done’ at a lower elevation. The highpoint is signalled by a van selling stale sandwiches, refreshments, t-shirts and pin badges – and that’s about as formal as proceedings get.
So, having arrived a week late we were relieved to find out from the only local to have escaped the alien abduction that the route up to the Colle was still open to the public. Apparently, and I’ve yet to confirm all the facts, the train is locked down by the authorities for all but one week of the year and they’ve allegedly re-introduced crucifixion for anyone caught revving up the trail during off-season.
The reason for our party-pooping late arrival was mundane. Every July, I attend an industry leading exhibition in Freidrichshaften, a lakeside town in southern Germany and gateway to the northern Alps. On the upside, I get to ride the Triumph over to Europe each year and pack a week’s worth of touring after the exhibition. Better still, my mates Jason (KTM 990) and Spencer (BMW 800 GS) get to come too.
In 2009 we return to the UK via a long loop through the Italian Dolomites and in 2010 the plan was to check out the Stella. Unfortunately, the exhibition and Stella dates clashed, which is why we rode into a deserted Bardonecchia one week after the event.
Morning broke in the Alps and we discussed the ride down to Bardonecchia over a coffee; we came to the conclusion that no matter what was in store for us today, the trip to Bardonecchia was worthy of a trip from the UK in it’s own right. It doesn’t matter which route you take to this town, you can’t avoid the Alps, or some of the best roads and scenery in the whole of Europe. Even the quick run, by motorway, from Albertville in France, which includes passing through the horrifically expensive, eight-mile-long Frejus Road Tunnel is as pleasant as motorway riding is ever going to be.
Our route had taken us down through northern Switzerland to Chur, where we took a detour up and over the Furka Pass and down into Interlaken. From there we’d snapped a quick side trip to view the infamous north face of the Eiger before taking sweeping roads through picture postcard villages into Gstaad where we stopped to take tea – you don’t drink tea in Gstaad, you take it, with a pinky in the air.
Next stop was Chamonix and Mt Blanc and then down the magnificent D1212 to Albertville, a road that must surely have been commissioned by a passionate motorcycle rider. From Albertville it was motorway all the way through to Bardonecchia with the spectacular Vanois Range to our left and barely another car or lorry on the road.
If the ride down had been our last ever motorcycle trip, this it would have been a satisfying end to a life on two wheels. But it wasn’t, and today we were taking on the Stella, or the be more accurate, following the route taken by the rally the week previous.
We’d read vastly differing accounts about the conditions on the route, viewed many a video on YouTube and even studied the trail on Google Maps (it’s on there, clearly marked) but even so we were still unsure of what 45kms of off-road riding with a climb up to 3,000m (9,843ft) would involve. To add some perspective, that’s twice the height of Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the UK) with another 1,000ft added on for good measure. And there’d be no van to sell us stale sandwiches up the top either, a bitter blow which we managed to overcome with some freshly made paninis from the local bakery.
Finding the route could not have been easier, we just followed the signs from the centre of Bardonecchia to Rochemolles up a narrow, twisty, single-track lane that cuts through a forest as it ascends a steep-sided Alpine valley. At Rochemolles the tarmac ends and the fun begins.
At roughly the halfway point on the trail, between Rochemolles and the Colle there is a mountain refuge, the Rifugio Scarfiotti, which serves a hearty food of the type mountain walkers and climbers dream about. All the info we’d read claimed that the route below the refuge was far easier than that above, and that’s exactly what we found.
If you can handle a bike on a dusty trail, with the odd rock here and there, and the occasional loose gravel zigzag there’s nothing to sweat over. And with the sun out in full force and a perfect blue sky sat atop snow-covered peaks, the conditions were close to perfect, though I’d imagined it would be a lot trickier in an Alpine deluge.
We decided to stop off at the refuge, which a week previous had been the location of a high-altitude tent-city for travelling hoards of Stella fans. When we arrived, we were the only customers. A quick chat with the refuge guardian confirmed that 400 or so bikes had taken part in the 2010 rally, quite a gathering considering the informality of the event.
Above the refuge, the trail takes on the characteristics of all Alpine routes when they ascend – the big, steep, rocky mountains. The zigs get tighter, the zags get gnarlier and aging trail riders slip discs as they stand on pegs. And so we climbed with yours-truly looking smugly over his shoulder at Jason and Spencer while attempting to clean the Stella on a top-heavy Tiger. And I didn’t take a ‘dab’ either; I just toppled over in slow motion as a small rock step caught me and the bike wanting on a blind corner. Fortunately, my packed lunch, which was stored on the dropside, survived the full crunching force of the fall – I could see the paninis were intact through the hole in the pannier.
In reality, the section immediately above the refuge is doable by anyone with the nous to ride a bike from the UK down to Italy. It’s all a matter of limiting speed to comfort levels and not looking over the edge – there’s a fair old drop in some parts. There’s also a specific waterfall as a backdrop for piccies.
At the top of the zigzags the trail levelled out for a while then came a few more gravelly 360’s and it was up and onto a short plateaux section with the ground conditions generally a mix of fine gravel and small stones. Once again, nothing to trouble a competent rider. Ever on a road bike, but if you’re going to have an off, this is more likely to be the place. And Spencer duly obliged as his front end washed out on a tight turn.
By now the Colle was in sight, almost within touching distance, and it looked to be clear of snow. Unfortunately the trail leading to it wasn’t. a 60m-long patch of late-lying snow covered the route and within the first 10ft Jason’s KTM was being sucked in. the snow was deep and wet; the same consistency you’d buy off Mr Whippy. No way were our big heavy bikes going to break trail through this morass.
We walked around looking for a bypass but there wasn’t any worth contemplating without a chopper. And so that was it, we’d reached the snowline and we’d taken part in our own, very private and informal, Stella Alpina Rally.
Alun Davies Editor of Adventure Bike Rider and a bit of a squirrel when it comes to Triumphs – he’s got three stashed away in the garage.
Spencer Grey Mr Gadget. Always a good man to have on hand if you need the latest warp-drive headphone-mounted fuel-mapping zippo – he carries them in all available colours.
Jason Ziel Cool, calm and collected. Nothing seems to phase our Jase, other than Alun and Spencer.
Alun – Tiger 955i
The best of the bunch when it comes to the tarmac. Whipped both the KTM and GS in comfort high-speed cruising, roll-ons from 40-80mph in top and from a standing start to 80mph.
Spencer – BMW 800 GS
The best all-rounder, load carrier and by far the most fuel efficient of the three. Outpaced the KTM in comfortable motorway cruising and was neck-and-neck on roll-ons and standing starts.
Jason – KTM 990 Adventurer
King of the off-road, but found wanting in all other areas. The small tank size is a serious pain when touring and fully loaded the front end goes missing above 75mph.
Name: Graeme ‘Scouse’ Hoose Age: 50 Home town: Derby Bike: BMW R1100GS
It’s more addictive than crack cocaine… or it’s Marmite. On my first visit, I never made it to the top and ever since it’s been an itch I had to scratch. I loved it; my long suffering partner in life and other adventures, Jules, hated the heights but gave it a good go and got her bike way past the badge van. This year she told me to go and get it out my system. I arranged to meet up with ADVrider mates Jim and Col in Italy and set off across Europe – riding straight into a heat wave.
The Saturday ride up to the campsite at Rifugio Scarfiotti didn’t bode well with heavy cloud and drizzle all the way from Bardo, but it clearer into a deliciously chilly star-filled night. We soon settled into the Stella groove. Col being a Stella virgin stood watching in wine-fulled awe as the “mad feckers” rode to the top all night with headlights crisscrossing the sky like searchlights.
Sunday dawned overcast but warm-ish and we made the top in record time, pausing only to get the most important item – the badge! Unfortunately the summit was snowed-in again this year around 90m from the top, which roughly translates as a mile of trail.
The decent was not so good, I ended up with two prangs as a result of going too slow on the way down, christening both sides of my new crash bars and seeing a lot of plastic parts disintegrate! We began the return trip the following morning after I’d Gaffa taped my bike together, riding back through the heatwave via Col du Galibier and the Col du Madeline into Alberville. The journey home took a bad turn when we hit a storm in Dijon, but the following day was a pleasant bimble towards Calais. The problem is the itch is still there. I’ve yet to hit the summit… but I will return!
Name: Annette Ferre Age: 44 Home town: Lymington, New Forest, Hampshire Bike: 2000 BMW F650GS
Where were you 10 days after taking your bike test? Me? I was halfway up the Col du Sommelier in Italy, attempting the Stella. Ready or not, I took my test on the Thursday, bought an F650GS on Sunday and by Tuesday I was heading off to Italy, together with my husband Jonathan on his Africa Twin.
We battled through high winds and torrential rain all the way from the New Forest to Italy. At least a dozen times I was ready to give up and go home. But my confidence was improving with every hour – until I was passed going downhill round some hairpin bends on the road to Bourg St Maurice by a group of ageing Lycra-clad cyclists!
My first off-road experience was the day before the Stella Alpina rally. Our friend Enzo took us around Susa and Bardonecchia. I’d been appointed four personal outriders for the day and only came off once while going round a gravel hairpin – I swear the guys caught the bike and me before we hit the ground. I even managed to stand on the pegs!
The following morning, absolutely terrified, I set off with Jonathan and a group of other English bikers. After the first rocky hairpin, taken at walking pace, I realised that I had to get a grip and just get on with it. So, cranking the throttle, standing on the pegs and looking way ahead, I got going. Now all the things I’d been told began to make sense and whilst it didn’t yet feel easy or natural I was more confident and achieved my first goal: the Rifugio Scarfiotti campsite. Stopping for a while to catch my breath, I looked up and all my fears returned. The track got narrower and twistier and there was a bloody big drop on one side. Setting off again, this time in traffic, I slowly reached my next goal: the obligatory photo at the waterfall. I made the medal point successfully, but there were more and more bikes passing me on both sides and I was starting to get really nervous. My speed dropped and I started making mistakes. We hit a traffic jam at the infamous rock step and I completely lost my bottle. Watching the local boys squeezing round a stuck 4×4 on their crossers and cutting up everyone else, I knew I couldn’t go any further.
That was the end of my Stella experience and I headed back down to the base camp, to wait for Jonathan, who did make it to the top. I felt a little disappointed but also proud of what I’d achieved in such a short time.
Name: Stephen Brooman Age: 46 Home town: Staple, Near Canterbury Bike: KTM Adventure S
I’ve made the trip to the Stella Alpina twice. The first was in the early noughties and I was riding my faithful Africa Twin. We decided to stay on the French side of the Alps. Driving through the tunnel, we pitched up at the Stella on Sunday morning. I’d only been off-roading a couple of years and my friends had never ridden off-road, but it was a glorious sunny day and we both made it to the very top. We saw loads of GSs, lots of two-up big trailies, but our achievement was a bit tempered when we also saw a Honda Silver Wing and a couple of scooters; it was a great day out though.
We last went in 2004. The ride down was fantastic and took in some of the huge French Cols. I was on my virtually brand-new KTM Adventure S. These bikes had been out for less than a year and it draw quite a crowd in Bardoneccia. The weather had not been so kind to the Col de Sommelier and large sections near the summit had been washed away so the gazebo was pitched about two-thirds of the way up. Still there were loads of road bikes attempting the climb and the big KTM was in its element – absolutely fantastic!
There was, however, one thing that ruined it for both of us. Lots of ‘tossers on crossers’; big groups of guys who brought motocross and enduro bikes down in vans then proceeded to rip up and down the track all day long, not really in the spirit of the rally and the reason we’ve not been back since. Well, that and the fact my mate doesn’t want to take his shiny pan European up that goat track!
Name: Colin Mann Age: 46 Home town: Norfolk Bike: Yamaha Super Tenere
This was my first year at the Stella and I was totally blown away by the atmosphere of the event, I’d ridden across France into Germany, then Switzerland back into France and on into Italy in a two-man team: friend Jim on him BMW R850R and me on my 21-year-old £800 Yamaha XTZ750 Super Tenere, aka ‘The Beast’.
Dressed in its advantage camouflage and with panniers made from an old ammo can, I’ve never had a bike so photographed. The Beast happily ate up the 2,600 miles – the last 766 miles in one day from Albertville France all the way home.
We were lucky this year. The weather was right and we both made it to the top, though not quite to the weather station hut; I’ll definitely be making a return trip next year.
The Stella has a very special friendship and camaraderie that I’ve not found in many places. You could go a lot further in the world and still not see such a stunning landscape and ride such a fun trail.
You don’t need a £12,000 bike or the last gadget to do it either, you just need to get up and go!
The Stella Alpina 2011
The 2011 Stella Alpina Rally will take place on Sunday 10 July and the ABR team will be riding out to Bardonecchia once again, only this time we’ll make it to the party on time. If you fancy riding down and you’d like some company, check out the ABR forum for details. www.adventurebikerider.com