Dramatic, knife-edged monoliths jutting violently from the earth as if ejected from hell by mischievous devils, sweet flower-laden meadows watched over by lazy cows and pretty ponies, energetic pavement twisting up stunning passes. Yes, the Dolomites have always called out to me.
Rolling through picturesque Santa Cristina, a typical Sudtirolian tourist villagio.
In 1980, my new bride, Sharon, and I took our VW camper bus into the giant stone Italian Alps for the first time. Unfortunately, our schedule pulled us away before we were able to fully satisfy our longing to dwell in the stillness and stunning power of these pale mountains.
What followed were years of raising kids and going to work in our mow-the-lawn, drive-the-minivan, run-the-kids-to-soccer lives. All the time, the Dolomites were still calling.
With the kids grown, we managed to book a BMW 1200 GSA to do an Italian Alps photo shoot in 2006. A dark and dense curtain of rain embraced the Dolomites at the time, so we photographed Switzerland instead. Later, Harley came up with a sparkling new Ultra Classic for the Dolomites, but like a nighttime toothache, the dreaded rain came back. We took the Harley to the sunny French Alps instead to take the photos.
At the top of every pass is a spot to grab some refreshments and socialize
When planning this trip, however, we arranged no back-up venue. If need be, we would just grimly stay in rainy Northern Italy for a week and hope for a sunny day. Sharon booked us an apartment in a pretty mountain town called Santa Cristina. This would not be another 4000-kilometer journey dodging rainstorms; it would be an exploring-from-a-base camp ride.
Let’s Get It On
Sharon picked the Italian village, Santa Cristina, as our base, not because of its reputation for skilled woodcarvers, but for its status as a sunshiny mountain village. We allowed ourselves to hope for good weather. The apartment would give us plenty of space, secure parking, and a chance to save money by preparing most of our own meals. Nearly every pass would be taken on a lightly loaded bike.
Sharon’s in charge of the photos and trip planning; I get to pick the bike. This time, we got the dream motorcycle for alpine two-up riding: a BMW K 1600 GTL. The six-cylinder, 160-horsepower rocket even has a setting for rain, so it would be a blast even if we had to ride through a waterfall.
I also selected serious rain gear for us. Sharon wore her trusty BMW Streetguard 3 suit that really does what it claims to do: keep her warm and dry in the rain and cool in the heat. My friend, Scott Russell at BMW of Western Oregon, warned me that the BMW Rallye 3 suit was fabulous, but not great in downpours. I disregarded his advice and picked up a black one. He was right—although it kept me completely dry, the waterproof parts are worn under the tough exterior panels, so water can collect at low points.
Since the K 1600 has heated seats, I now know what it’s like to ride in a warm puddle. Still, if I could buy any gear, I’d get the same suit. The fit is perfect, and it otherwise has all the right features for me. Besides, most of my riding is not in the rain.
Digging Into the Dolomites
We arrived at the BMW factory under Munich’s cloudy summer skies. After packing the luggage compartments, we looked at each other. Here we go again, about to launch ourselves into foreign traffic patterns on an unfamiliar bike. Are we crazy? After exchanging smiles, we agreed; we’re crazy.
Adrenaline pumping and hoping we didn’t wobble as we left the parking lot, we blasted off on the four-hour ride to Santa Cristina. We both expected the clouds to darken as we approached the Dolomites. Like getting your stomach muscles ready for a punch, we tightened up as we pulled onto the no-speed-limit German autobahn.
You’ll probably think I’m a wimp for not taking the big bike up to redline in sixth gear, since such a thing isn’t legal at home. I must confess that I let the opportunity slip, as I kept the speed under 150 kph (about 90 mph). The silky-smooth K 1600 seemed to regard 150 as a mere warm-up.
We began our ascent to the bowl of peaks generally known as the Dolomites. As we approached Italy, the weather improved. It was as if a beautiful kept sister was brought out for us to meet. Those 1980 feelings came rushing back as ideal weather welcomed us. Perfect weather. Perfect roads. Perfect bike. Our non-stop chatter, through our Bluetooth headsets, faded to a quiet awe as we ascended.
Dwelling in the kind of euphoria that only bikers know, we pulled up to our pretty, painfully clean apartment. It had covered parking, Wi-Fi, full kitchen and far more space than we needed for just us. We dumped our gear and blasted off to explore the passes with our unloaded bike.
Pass roads usually have two faces; a steep side with tight switchbacks and a more gentle slope that allows a rider to maintain more speed through the turns. The tight switchbacks get the drama prize, but as riders, we like the speedier possibilities on the more relaxed turns. Some of the switchback turns are so tight, that, even on the nimble K 1600, we needed to slow to a walking speed to maintain lane position. Our favorite passes on this trip included: Pourdoi, Niger, Stella, Campolongo Pass, and Gardena Pass. On weekends, the tiny roads are often flooded with tour busses, bicycle riders and families in cars, so we prefer to ride early in the morning and hike or relax on the weekend afternoons.
Even If It Rains
You might think that a week in one place would get boring. Not so. There are 18 peaks over 10,000 feet in these Italian Alps. Sixteen motorcycle-friendly passes run through these magnificent mountains, and the northern Italians and visiting bikers are friendly.
In previous Alps trips, we worked to “bag” as many passes as possible. We checked them off like pilots doing a preflight list. Now we regard that kind of behavior as the equivalent of running through a museum with just a glance at each piece of artwork. Checking off passes is perfect for some Alpine bikers, but we like to linger, take a peek under the fig leaves, and try a second run at our favorite mountain routes.
This part of Italy, called Südtirol, swept back and forth between the Italian-speaking south and the Germanic north. Today, the locals regard themselves as Italian, but speak German and prefer Germanic foods and culture with a few spicy Italian influences. The kids study both Italian and German in school. English is the universal language for tourists, so it’s easy for monolingual Americans to tour in this region.
As the day to leave Italy approached, the sun began to show itself less and less, as if mischievous mountain spirits were teasing us. Clouds hugged the massive stone peaks near our apartment on departure day. I set the K 1600 to RAIN, turned on the seat heaters, pulled out of the garage into a downpour and pointed the bike back to Munich. Did we finally have our perfect Dolomite trip? Yes. Was it everything we thought it might be? Yes. Do we want to come back? Yes—even if it rains.
Bruce Hansen is author of Motorcycle Journeys Through the Pacific Northwest, Second Edition.
Planning for The Dolomites
Many bike-for-hire places offer gear rental. If there’s one piece of gear you want to fit perfectly, it’s your helmet. For that reason we took our own Shoei Quest helmets as carry-ons and checked a duffle with our riding gear.
Our bike had a navigation system, but, unless you plan to tour major cities, it’s really not necessary. What works best in the Alps is a list of towns through which you want to travel. Sharon and I used our Cardo G4 Bluetooth communication units to help each other navigate.
You will probably encounter rain on an Alp ride. Bring serious gear: jacket, pants, gloves and boots. We always bring waterproof touring gloves, like the BMW Allround 2 glove, and a summer glove like the Tourmaster Airflow. I love my motorcycle boots, but they are terrible for hiking. I wore gaiters over my waterproof hiking boots instead, and never got wet.
We brought our tablet with Wi-Fi. It allowed us to monitor weather, keep up with email, and check travel sites. You won’t find much free Wi-Fi in Südtirol, but your place of accommodation will nearly always have it.
We booked our apartment before leaving home, but it’s not necessary if you travel during low (rainier) seasons: before mid-July and after the second week in September. Anytime between those dates, I’d book ahead, as all of Europe is also on vacation. me
Some of the switchback turns are so tight, that, even on the nimble K 1600, we needed to slow to a walking speed
2012 BMW K 1600 GTL (shown)
BMW Streetguard 3 Suit (shown)
Tourmaster Airflow Gloves
Scala Rider G4 Powerset
Shoei Qwest helmet
Dolomites Cheat Sheet
Guided Tours of the Dolomites
When booking an apartment in the Val Gardina area:
Renting a BMW K 1600 GTL:
Castle ruins, though common in much of Europe, are rare in the Dolomites.
You can tell it's a weekend morning by the light traffic on this mountain pass road.