Julia LaPalme

Riding Naked Through The Alps

Touring the Alps on a wing, a prayer, and a pair of Aprilias

R

ide a few minutes in the Dolomites and you’ll find five different visions of Italy. Arcadian alpine slopes—with long-tailed sheep and scolding shepherds—are just a minute outside little Germanic villages that could easily be mistaken for Austria or Switzerland. If your route dips into a valley floor, you’ll likely find the cold concrete of fascist Italy in the form of hard, old infrastructure that keeps on powering the manufacturers of machines and parts. And should your route ascend to the peaks, you’ll find a skier’s paradise that keeps its lifts busy through the summers with bicyclists and hikers and paragliders. And everything in the middle? That’s a motorcyclist’s Italy. The Italian Alps, by both reputation and fact, are among the finest places in the world to ride a motorcycle. Well-paved roads ascend dizzying heights by way of technical switchbacks. Little roadside hotels cater to motorcyclists, and Italian policemen do little but tip their hats generously at minor traffic violations. It’s a kind of rider’s nirvana. Naturally, we overdid it. I blame the Tuono.

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Credit: Robert Martin

A visit to Aprilia doesn't do much to blunt the impression that it's predominantly a race shop. You'll find its facilities just west of Venice. The factory, where bikes are put together, that's in Scorzè, but the headquarters and the race shop—the beating heart of the company—is in Noale. You'd expect the corporate hometown of one of the great Grand Prix champions to be awash in its machines or for the corporate campus to be a monument to its success. Instead, you'll find a modest converted bicycle factory in a pragmatic little town. The works gates are just outside the central square, and like most famously effective racing operations Aprilia is a good citizen. It raises no hell and is, by all accounts, a fine and quiet neighbor. Peer between the gray roofs and the only outward distinction from a hub of agribusiness or manufacturing are rows of neat race haulers.

And our bikes.

How do they make such undeniably desirable machines?

Aprilia and Tuono
Ride a few minutes in the Dolomites and you’ll find five different visions of Italy. What better place to ride Aprilia’s flagship Tuono V4 1100 Factory and sibling Shiver 900?Julia LaPalme

There's no apparent magic under those roofs. There's no secret ingredient. Just 70-something years of hard work trying to make the fastest damned thing on two wheels. Young Valentino Rossi and Marco Simoncelli GP racers crowd the lobby, and there are so many trophies stashed about that they overflow into workspaces. The place screams race shop. Maybe that's why when Aprilia buckles down and makes a streetbike, there's nothing else quite like it. Why, when we see the Tuono 1100 Factory and the Shiver 900 just inside the gate, they're exuding exactly the magnetism we traveled to Italy for.

The Tuono is an old friend—and a good one. Aprilia’s Tuono is maybe the most fearsome naked bike on the planet. There might be faster motorcycles, but it’s hard to call a single one more charismatic or evocative. With the help of a 155-hp V-4 engine, the Tuono belches out effortless little wheelies through at least half of its gears. And with a big, wide handlebar and comfortable ergonomics, it’s as content ripping through miles as it is straightening hairpins.

The Tuono is an old friend— and a good one.

Our example, a Factory, comes equipped with upmarket Öhlins suspension and electronic gadgetry like wheelie control and an up/down quickshifter that many motorcyclists swear they don’t need but should want. When I inevitably receive an Italian speed camera citation in the mail, the photo will likely depict me lofting the front wheel in the air. Again, I’ll blame the Tuono.

Mother and children
Aprilia’s brawling Tuono is something of a hometown hero in Noale, just west of Venice.Julia LaPalme

The Shiver 900 is new. It might be close to the Tuono in displacement and have the same heritage, but the machines couldn't be more different. Where the Tuono is 1,077cc of tension and excess, the Shiver is rangey and stable. Its V-twin grumbles a quiet, civilized growl to the Tuono's quick-revving snap and snarl. You'll not be wowed by the power or light weight, but there's no denying Aprilia's touch. The Shiver is an entirely approachable machine, as comfortable cruising as it is keeping up with Aprilia's flagship.

We’re through the countryside and into the foothills in no time. Signs announcing the small towns we ride through start to show two names, one Italian the other German. We wind and climb relentlessly, both machines entirely in their element. Little wisps of snow appear in the shadows of rocks and trees. The best roads follow rivers and gorges, and every one seems to point toward a high mountain pass made famous by the Giro d’Italia, or the movies, or a war. Within the lifetime of this magazine, these mountains were Austrian. Their people still fiercely cling to their Germanic heritage and the German language. The battles fought to claim the Dolomites during the first world war were as fierce and ghastly as those on the Western Front, and they left behind spectacular scars.

Landscape in the alps
Santa Maddalena, nestled below towering peaks, hosts one of the most breathtaking views in Italy—as well as a festival dedicated to Speck, the famous south Tyrolean bacon.Julia LaPalme

Riding the roads, exposed to the wind and dizzying heights, you get a small sense of the challenge and the scale of that war. The Italians and the Austrians were industrious. They tunneled and chiseled their way through rock to plant explosives underneath each other. They cut cart paths into outcroppings to protect from artillery that spiraled to safety through solid rock. When we emerge into the long, low afternoon sunlight at the Lake Fedaia, we venture across the roadway on top of the dam and up toward the Marmolada Glacier, which was so thoroughly tunneled and inhabited by Austrians in 1917 that it was often described an underground city. In minutes, we’ll rip across miles that took them years.

The clouds keep coming, and golden light filters through a few thin cracks. We stop reflecting and ride like hell for the mountain village of Canazei, hoping to beat the rain. It descends just as we find the last hotel rooms in town and falls steadily through a bone-tired dinner of good pasta chased by grappa and a lemon stuffed with ice cream.

Sella Pass is an icon. An ascending tangle of switchbacks and scenery. It should be a highlight of our trip, but the weather has turned. The first cold storm of the season is blowing through, and with it comes a treacherous and icy fog. The slick shoulders of the Tuono’s Pirelli Diablo Supercorsas—typically so brilliant at finding traction—dance outward in gut-wrenching slips and slides. It’s so slick our boots hardly do better. Never mind that we can’t see the spectacular Sella Towers through the curtain of precipitation. When we finally make the summit it’s an incredible relief.

The going does not improve. Every molecule of dripped hydraulic fluid or leaked oil has risen to the road surface. Descending into Brixen for shelter is harrowing, and we take every roundabout like it was our first. I’ve never been so happy to ride across rough-cut cobblestones in my life or as sore from the effort of constantly clenching the bike back into place under me. We hit town with our bikes and our gear steaming, which looks impossibly macho. It belies the truth—that we’re feeling just as beat as we are heroic and delighted by the accomplishment of just bringing both motorcycles down from the mountains unharmed.

village in Lombardy
A quiet village in Lombardy makes for a nice breather after days of tackling relentless high mountain passes like Sella and Stelvio.Julia LaPalme

Not to say we don’t make good use of our machines. We trade often and amuse ourselves with their racket. Every tunnel is an opportunity. We laugh like idiots, wringing each bike through its range, delighting in the booming of the V-twin, or the gobsmacking thrust of the V-4. The sound of the Shiver only grows on us. It’s a gutsy noise, clean and bassy and represents motorcycles well. The Tuono? It’s otherworldly. Better that it represents all of Italy. Someone should make it an ambassador.

The rain is galling. It settles in for the evening, but we’re determined to put up a fight. By morning, the weather is well ahead. We set out, frustrated, into the same viscous fog. Ascending through a valley near Santa Maddalena, the clouds get so thick and low that they obscure entire herds of sleepy sheep on the side of the road. They’re nothing but white clouds in gray. If it weren’t for lazily jangling bells, we wouldn’t know they were there.

motorcyclist headlights
The Shiver 900 might be close to the Tuono 1100 Factory in displacement, and have the same heritage, but the machines couldn’t be more different in feel or intent.Julia LaPalme

The hills above Santa Maddalena are reputed to have one of the best views in all of Italy. Pissed off, soggy, and still exhausted, we decide to wait out the rain. Somehow, it works. Santa Maddalena comes out in little slices—The dark lines of the Funes Valley then the steeple of the church. By noon the steep crags of the Dolomites peek out from behind the village. It’s as bright and green and pastoral as any place I’ve ever seen or imagined. Italy once again secures its place in our good graces. The roads are drying, and our motorcycles once again feel compliant and eager under us. We’ve waited it out, we’ve won, and we feel invincible.

So we gun it for Stelvio.

Stelvio Pass is a righteous beast of a road. So epic, in fact, that Alfa Romeo named an SUV after it and Moto Guzzi an adventure bike. We'd encourage anyone listening to do the same with their firstborn. It's that impressive. Take the road from east to west and start tallying switchbacks at Gomagoi, the old Austrian fort guarding the road, and you'll reach 48 just on the way up. Or, more likely, you'll lose count. It's not just the twists and turns; it's the relentless pace of the hairpins. And the view—the way the road ascends out of sight and disappears below you. It's important and plied by a regular bus service, so you'll share its tiny confines with startlingly nonchalant Italian bus drivers. Simply put, it must be seen, and to see it, you have to throw yourself at it. We do. I've never laughed as long, or as hard, or come so close to stalling a barking-mad motorcycle by lugging it around corners so often.

Alps mountain pass
In the Italian Alps, well-paved roads, like Stelvio Pass, ascend dizzying heights by way of technical switchbacks. Little roadside hotels cater to motorcyclists, and Italian policemen do little but tip their hats generously at minor traffic violations. It’s a sportbike rider’s nirvana.Julia LaPalme

It’s snowing gently at the top. Instead of resenting the weather, we plod up onto an abandoned stretch of the old road, shut off the bikes, and watch the sky color up over the ribbons of asphalt below. When the light is gone, we start the bikes again and let the sound of them reverberate off the stone walls. It’s late and the weather is just foul enough that we have the road to ourselves. Switchbacks and bends and glorious downhill sweepers. We keep the bikes in the first two gears and let them wail and fill the night with noise. It’s heartbreaking. Do we sound spoiled? We are.

It’s late when we get to Bolzano, but a little hunting turns up a handsome B&B that caters to riders, skiers, and other lost causes. The owner greets us at the door in a well-worn Minnie Mouse sweatshirt, packs away a vigorous-sounding guard dog, and shoos us and our grimy gear toward the nice, warm garage before pointing us at the last open pizza joint in town. It’s an impeccable day and will remain one of my finest riding experiences for about eight hours. We break for Lake Como in the morning.

There’s a perfectly good highway between Bolzano and Lake Como. It brushes past a little Swiss peninsula then swings west to meet up with the northern reach the lake where you can take the highway south again through seemingly endless tunnels along the eastern edge of the water, straight to the Moto Guzzi factory. The highway’s the fast way. It parallels train tracks through a valley floor lined with big-box retailers, and all the way tiny signs point the curious toward terraced vineyards and monasteries on the hills above.

Ferry to Bellagio
We take the ferry to Bellagio, park the bikes by the lake, and wait out the sunset.Julia LaPalme

It seems foolish to fetishize old Italy. To cheapen it with cliched images of rural life and old churches. There’s so much more than good wine and renaissance art. There’s the vitality of Italian manufacturing. Natural beauty. Spectacular roads and generous people just dying to practice English while your Italian fumbles. There’s fantastic modern architecture to contrast with the castles and cathedrals. But, god, is it easy to fall into that trap in the quaint and obscure villages above Strada Provinciale 21 in Lombardy. Young men pick grapes off the vine then shuttle them into old, waiting trucks. Lamborghini tractors sit in sheds and barns. We ride past an old lady doing laundry in a communal tub fed by spring water. From the next hairpin, if you squint, you can see the parking lots on the valley floor where shoppers buy their detergent at massive, modern markets. It feels like a century away.

We make Lake Como for lunch, eat lakeside in Mandello del Lario, home of Moto Guzzi, and wait for their museum to open, which it does for exactly one hour on weekdays. You'll likely see only one employee, a perfectly dressed and slim security guard. And then you'll be left alone with some of the most special motorcycles to ever bark out an exhaust note. The famous V-8 Ottocilindri, the V7 Monza record machine, the 1955 350 world championship bike. And weird things. The Daytonas. A Baja racer. Italian police bikes squeezed in tight with California Highway Patrol machines. Handbuilt models of Guzzi's wind tunnel. It's like you've been let in on a secret, and it's all yours until the dashing security guard strolls through saying, "Okay, guys, we close."

sunset
Sunset on Lake Como, north of Milan, as we reach the Western extent of our travels and aim back toward Venice.Julia LaPalme

We take the ferry to Bellagio, park the bikes by the lake, and wait out the sunset. As we do, a succession of Italians approach the Tuono. The Shiver is pretty enough, but it’s always the Tuono. And, as they’ve done all week, they touch the tailsection of the motorcycle gently while they talk about it. Like it’s a precious thing.

It struck me as odd at first. A little intrusive. But they’re us. Enthusiasts blessed by some unspoken permission to indulge themselves with the curves of someone else’s machine. These are the same people who grow up in little villages twisting their wrists and tilting their heads in a gesture that can only suggest popping a wheelie to a passing motorcyclist. The same ones that, as teens, ride their own wheelies alongside you on cobby mopeds and dirty bicycles. They’re the past, present, and future of riding in Italy—why it’s so good and why it has been for so long.