Hairpins
The old St Gotthard

My first motorcycle trip with a lot of hairpins took place in April 1996, in the French Vosges and the Swiss Jura (the Alps were still covered with snow). I was on my BMW R1100GS.

The second one was in August 1996, when I rode some real Alpine passes: the Furka, the Nufenen, the old Gotthard, the Susten, and some smaller ones.

Because these were my first hairpin-experiences, I learned a lot!

I had done some hairpins on a previous trip, but those had taken place behind a very slow truck. So I might say that these trips brought me my very first real hairpins.

My very very first were the ones on the Col du Ballon. It was late in the afternoon, Saturday, and a bit misty, so I was the only one on the road.

At this point, I have to admit that tight turns never have been my strongest point, to say it gently. During my motorcycle exam, the examinator was so impressed by my rather aggressive riding style (I had been told she liked that, and I happen to like it too), that she took my miserable figures of eight and slaloms for granted.

And here, these type of turns had a very steep third dimension too!.

The trick to do a hairpin turned out to keep the turn very wide, up to the point where you can go in one straight line towards the stretch of the road. In a lot of cases (right-handed tight turns) this means riding on the left side of the road.

This also has the advantage that you can see upcoming traffic earlier (and they you).

 

Especially when ascending, you have to keep a certain speed, because stalling in the midst of a hairpin is not what you want.
For a flatlander like me who's very weakest point is doing tight turns, this is a real problem.

Of course, as always, the solution is to have confidence in your motorcycle.

"All right, I might not be able to get through these turns, but my reliable German BMW certainly is". I try to have the idea of the turn in my head (very wide, very smooth), and then I just try not to work against my motorcycle.

When the turn is not exactly how it was in my head, I say sorry to my BMW and promise that some day I will be able to coöperate, so we will make perfect turns together.

Another note to flatlanders: try to practice your very, very first hairpins on empty roads. On my first hairpin-day, cars with locals on the steering wheel were faster than me, which felt very embarrassing (and it was tempting to go faster than my own tempo).

For me, it works best when I aim at perfect lines instead of speed. It worked allright: on the second day, no car was faster than me, and on my second trip I was even faster than some Swiss motorcyclists (though this was not fair, because it was on the cobblestones of the old Gotthard where my BMW feels very much at home).

 

In Holland, it is very rare that you have to apply your brakes when stopping; in Switzerland, it is very rare that you stand still on a flat spot.

The easiest way to ride away from a stopped position on an ascending slope is:

Apply the front brake, release the clutch until you feel the front dive a bit, then just gently give some throttle and release the brake. You will now ride away without stalling and without a roaring engine.

 

Especially on Sundays, a lot of fellow motocyclists ride the same passes as you are doing. The Swiss ones usually have sport-type motorcycles and ride very reckless, passing where you cannot see at all whether passing is possible, going very fast through the turns (this means faster than me), well, you got the point.

For me, it was difficult not to adapt to this riding style. After a while, passing only at safe stretches makes you feel a compulsive safety whimp.

As a result, I created a dangerous situation for me and other people twice; the only two times during my motorcycle life until now. I passed a car in a curve and noticed too late that the curve was too sharp for my speed, so I almost hit the car on its left front (I could not slow down because of the traffic on the opposite side). I was lucky because the car driver noticed me and braked just in time.

The second time I passed a car while a cyclist was approaching us from the opposite side. There was plenty of room, but suddenly the cyclist changed his position to the middle of the road, obviously not seeing me. He was descending, with an incredible speed. This time I was the one who was able to brake and swerve behind the car, and I just missed the cyclist.

Hereby I apologize towards the people whom I brought in danger.

 

I suffer from a rather severe fear of heights. I can recommend a pass to get used a little bit to heights: on the road from Visp to Zermatt, you go right at Stalden, through Törbel and Moos, towards Bürchen.

The road is very small (you don't fit alongside a car), there are no safety-fences, and the sides are sometimes very steep (well, from my Dutch point of view that is).

Here, I learned to look at the road instead of getting dizzy about the steepness (though my hands got very sweaty, and I had to do a lot of talking to myself to keep on believing that I would not fall into the endless depths).

The Alpine-passes that I took are very spectecular. The Nufenen has wild and rugged scenery, with a mighty view of the Griesgletcher and the Griessee. I liked the Swiss part best, but maybe that was because during the Italian stretch I was following a Swiss BMW R1100GS (yes, I managed to keep up), so I had less attention for the magnificent grey rocks.

The old Gotthard pass (most motorcyclists took the new one, and of course you can take that one much faster) is paved with cobblestones, and has very tight hairpins, of more than 360 degrees. So it is a great pass when you are learning, like me. Just follow the signs "Via Tremola", because that's what it's called.

The second part of it has very good views and some sense of loneliness (during the first part you keep seeing the new pass), but for the mountains I prefer the Nufenen.

The Furka gets you almost as high as the Nufenen, and shows a view of the great Rhonegletscher.

I saw some mounteniers walking over the gletscher (so, bring your binoculars!).

 

Of course, the real Alpine passes are the most beautiful to ride because they get you so very high. It gets really cold and you come high above the tree-level. So you can feel the wildness, even though you are on a road.

But for nice turns, the smaller passes in the Vosges, the Jura, or the area around Basel are maybe even better. Southeast of Basel for instance, there are very narrow, very steep (sometimes 20 percent) curvy roads.

South of Basel are a couple of unpaved passes (on my Michelin map described as dangerous), which I want to ride in the near future. My only concern is that I am not able to pick up my bike alone (I suppose; maybe I can when I really have to), so I think I will do these passes with company.

 

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© Copyright - Author: Sylvia Stuurman , Pictures: Ernst Anepool .
Copyright 1993-now.
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