Extreme Exhilaration

Story by Misti Hurst// Photos by Tomas Covinha
February 15 2017

Whether the hairpins are on mountain passes or on one of the world’s most storied racetracks, the memory of such rides will live on forever

On the fourth day of our epic 10-day adventure through the Italian Alps and Germany, I found
myself behind the hotel bar pouring drinks with bartender Ilian, waitress Maria and my friend Nicole. Nicole was decked out in a pair of lederhosen and I in a dirndl, the traditional dress of Austria, South Tyrol and Bavaria. Both of us were drinking large steins of beer and shots of Limoncello, Prugna and Grappa with the locals.

Italian Alps winding road“But what are you doing here?” one customer asked us incredulously. “You’re really off the beaten path!”
“That’s exactly the idea!” I replied.
His name was Scott, from Scotland, but he’d lived in the area for 30 years. He said he was “gobsmacked” to see us, it being the first time he had witnessed tourists riding there. He told us that Germans, Austrians and Italians ride those particular back roads, but not tourists.
“You’ve come to the most beautiful place in Italy,” he declared. “How you’ve done that from so far away is really amazing! This is truly magnificent to see you here!”
And it was magnificent to be there.

There were 18 of us in total – riders from Canada, the United States and Australia – plus three guides from Germany. We were together for Leod Motorcycle Escapes’ “Italian Alps and Sachsenring tour.”
Our adventure began a few days earlier in the Bavarian party town of Munich. Tour master Cat McLeod led us through the city to Hacker-Pschorr brewery for our welcome dinner: enormous platters of sausages, bacon, sauerkraut and potatoes accompanied by large mugs of German beer. There we got our first taste of the unique and varied personalities that we’d be riding with for the next nine days.

Getting on the Road

Italian alps motorcycle rideEarly the next morning, we crammed our track gear bags and luggage into the back of the support van. Our crazy German guide, Matthias, would transport our belongings to the hotel in the Alps while we rode, we hoped.
Everything went smoothly as we picked up our reserved bikes from the largest BMW dealership in Germany. I started on an R1200R, but had a chance to ride the F800GT as well as the F800R, which was my favourite of the three by far. The staff walked us through the specifics of each of our bikes and then we were off, playing follow the leader through the streets of Munich.

As we took the autobahn out of the city, the scenery changed from interesting to absolutely breathtaking when we passed the emerald-green lake of Tegernsee, crossed into Austria, rode over old Brenner Pass and through quaint villages, then up over Penser Joch pass. The riding was already intense and amazing, and many of us were stunned by the concept of lane splitting and passing on such insanely narrow roads. We were practically rubbing elbows with sports cars, buses, cyclists, hikers and wildlife.

Around 7 p.m., we arrived safely at our Swiss-inspired, castle-like hotel in the small town of Carezza, Italy. It was sunset, and the looming jagged mountain peaks in the backdrop were turning a stunning purple. And 18 tired, grinning riders and drivers were hungry for dinner and a cold jug of beer.
That night a bunch of us stayed up very late under the stars, getting to know one another over the local beverages.

The Dolomites Call

course rideMorning came quickly. The sky a perfectly clear blue, the air warm and humid, not crisp and cold, as I was expecting. Cat arranged our large group into three smaller groups based on speed, riding ability and special requests as noted from the day before. We fuelled up and headed out, one guide leading, another acting as sweep.

Every bike was equipped with a GPS, with the hotel name and location set in case of separation. Each leader followed a carefully designed route that had been collaborated on by our guides Norbert, Angela, Matthias and Cat, with authenticity and “off the beaten path” in mind.

Our first full day of riding through the Dolomites was impressive. We tackled 12 stunning mountain passes in a tiring but amazing 10-hour day, crossing Passo Carezza, Passo San Pellegrino, Passo di Valles, Passo Rolle, Passo Cereda and Forcella Aurine, before stopping at a tiny restaurant at the base of a striking hillside. There we enjoyed a delicious lunch while listening to the sound of kids playing soccer on the fields below.

Back on the bikes, we swept up and over Passo Duran, Zoldo Alto and Passo Staulanza, then paused for a break at the popular and massively scenic Passo Giau.
We stood at the summit with our mouths agaped at the 360-degree view of awe-inspiring nature: ragged mountaintops jutting toward the clear sky, shades of green illuminating the hillsides and twisty ribbons of asphalt meandering along the edges of steep cliffs.

Raw Natural Beauty

“I feel like we’re in a scene of Lord of the Rings,” our photographer, Tomas (Toe), whispered as the rest of us tried to forge the image firmly into memory, knowing that the photos wouldn’t do it justice.

There were motorcycles everywhere – every colour, brand, size and era. At that moment I realized that we were all there for the same experience, the same flow of endless curvy roads, breathtaking scenery, freedom, speed and adventure.

“I’ve seen some beautiful things,” said Brady, the youngest member of our tour, “but this right here is the best raw natural beauty there is. It doesn’t get any more stunning than this.”

We stared and we took pictures, breathing it all in before putting our sweaty touring gear back on to ride down the other side.

The next passes, Passo Falzarego and Passo Pordoi, blended together in a blur. Hairpin after hairpin, twist after twist, curve after curve, it was like a dance: a line of riders sweeping through the wind.

Ending a Great Day

Our three groups arrived back at the hotel exhausted and just in time for a barbecue dinner and bonfire. There we sat, happily sharing stories of our day with one another and our fellow European riders.

Day three in the Alps was equally amazing as we traversed Passo Nigra, Würtzjoch, Passo Gardena and Passo Sella. These roads flowed with different alpine scenery as we zipped through vineyards and apple orchards, past castles and through picture-postcard villages. We ate lunch under a clock tower in a tiny town with cobblestone streets.

It was hard to keep our eyes on the road with blankets of green squares patterning the hillsides, immaculate chalets and lush flower baskets dangling from shuttered windows all vying for our attention.

Dinner at the hotel that night was outstanding, and Cat passed around Talisker single-malt whisky from his hometown on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

Most Challenging Passes

Our last day in the Alps was the most challenging as we climbed Nova Levante and then Passo Manghen, one of the toughest, most technical roads in the Alps. It was scary, exhilarating, difficult and amazing. At the top, we hugged each other, proud of making it there safely. Cat bought us the most delicious salami I’ve ever eaten, served on a cutting board with a sharp knife. “The only purpose of this road is to enjoy life,” he said, grinning.

We rode Passo Brocon, as well as Passo Rolle, Passo di Valles and the Passo San Pellegrino again before heading back to the hotel for the final evening. It was bittersweet to be done touring, but we were all excited for the next stage of the adventure.

The Legendary Sachsenring

Early the next day, we meandered back to Munich, returned the bikes, collected rental cars and shuttled up to Chemnitz, arriving in the middle of a massive lightning storm. We crossed our fingers for a dry, sunny day at the track and were rewarded the next morning.

Getting our first glimpse of the MotoGP circuit of Sachsenring was awesome. All of us literally bounced up and down with excitement as we were led into our group’s own garage, where seven BMW S1000s fitted with tire warmers waited for us. We would be participating in an organized track day with other riders. Assigned to us for both days were mechanics Andy McLeannan and Rico Vetter, and a dedicated track instructor, Luca Sammet.

After listening to a translated version of the riders’ meeting, we geared up and were ready to hit the track. I started in B group, along with three others from our tour group, which was led by Luca for a few laps before tackling it on our own. Sachsenring is a difficult track with many blind turns and tricky corners, so I put all of my racing skills to the test and began picking up reference points as quickly as I could.

One of My Best Experiences

It’s nearly impossible to explain the exhilaration of flying around an incredibly fast and manicured track like Sachsenring, except to say that it’s on the highlight reel of my life. By the third session, I felt more at ease with the layout and more comfortable on the stock S1000 set in Race mode.
The local riders were courteous, safe and friendly. There were a few crashes, but the marshalling was amazing and the day ran on a perfectly crisp schedule. I was highly impressed with the incredibly well-run track day put on by the organizer M3 (Triple M).

Each track bike had a transponder to record live timing. After each session, you could come in and check your times, compare them against others in your group and see where you stood overall, and everyone did just that. During the noon break, officials went through all the stats and reorganized the riders into groups according to their lap times, shuffling me into A group. I found this an effective way of ensuring safety and consistency on the track.

The afternoon sessions were even more fun as our times improved and we became more comfortable with the challenging circuit. There were smiles, laughter and high-fives all around.

At the end of the day, there was the usual bench racing banter, comparisons of lap times and typical competitive predictions for the next day.

Ballet on Four Wheels

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we had the opportunity to take a “drift taxi” ride. What better way to scare the pants off a self-professed control freak who hates being a passenger? I had to do it.

I jumped in the back seat of the BMW M4 with Ruben, the track manager and an experienced rally car driver, at the helm, while another from our group, Armin, rode up front. As it was, it was the best 35 euro I’ve ever spent.

Flying around wet corners sideways, drifting to the edge of the track, hauling down the “waterfall” with Ruben poker-faced, one hand on the wheel while I screamed in the back. It was an entirely new perspective of Sachsenring circuit.

Mentally and physically exhausted, we refuelled together that night at Turm-Brahaus in Chemnitz with hunks of pork, schnitzel and beer before falling into a blissful sleep.

What’s That Smell?

Incredibly, the second day at the track was even more exhilarating. The smiles were bigger and the competition fiercer as we all pushed a little harder to beat our times from the session before. I tried out my new wooden knee pucks, purchased from a track vendor, and literally laughed out loud in my helmet when I smelled “campfire” as I railed around the corners.

As it stood, I came out with the fastest time of our group – followed by Aussie racer Clint, and our talented photographer, Toe – and 18th fastest out of all 156 track day riders. At day’s end, Matthias, at Cat’s request, plunked down a box of Champagne bottles so that we could stand on the actual MotoGP podium and pretend we were winners. Posing on the top of the box and spraying my new friends with Champagne was another insane highlight of the trip; we even sang the Canadian national anthem.

It was time to say goodbye to our new German track friends as our epic adventure began winding to a close.

The Speed Doesn’t Stop There

In the morning, we sped back to Munich via the autobahn at 240 km/h. That afternoon we had a few hours to check out the sights, my first real “touristy” moment of the trip.

Cat’s intention in creating Leod Escapes was to provide a motorcycle experience more focused on the route and authenticity of the adventure than seeing the popular attractions. He wanted clients to escape their day-to-day lives, and live a roller coaster of thrills and excitement for the duration of the tour. To do this, he combined scenic road riding with track riding in the perfect blend of motorcycle adventure travel, and ensured that everyone left with an accurate understanding of the real place they just visited. “Travel spins the head at high speed,” he said, laughing. “Motorcyclists, we are all one big insane family.”

During our farewell dinner at Ayinger beer hall in the old centre of Munich, we lifted our glasses and belted out a traditional “Gute Laune!” (cheers), a phrase Matthias had picked up from inebriated outdoor concerts in Germany. We passed around favourite photos, reminisced about special moments and laughed at fond memories. I showed Cat the video of me, Clint and Toe standing on the podium showering each other with Champagne. His eyes welled up with tears as he looked at all of us, one by one: “This is my dream,” he said. “It’s sitting right here at this table.”


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