From Mandello del Lario to the Stelvio Pass

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Category: Dailies

It happened by accident, this strangely symmetrical mix of bike and destination. Needing to escape from a town with its population temporarily doubled by the Germans in laced leather trousers that inexplicably descend on any European bike event, I made some vague excuses to Guzzi’s press people, grabbed the keys to the new Stelvio NTX 8V and headed north up the shores of Lake Como. My destination? Alpine adventure.

The alpine peaks that surround Mandello del Lario are the kind that hold much promise, but little reward. Too rocky for roads to penetrate, you’re instead confined to the shores of the lake with old people in Pandas and hoards of motorcycle enthusiasts riding enthusiastically slow. Those peaks do look pretty when you’re sitting in traffic though.

No plan, no map, no Internet access, only the vaguest idea of where in the world I was and no desire to pay $30 a megabyte for data roaming on my iPhone, I just figured I’d head north and hope for the best. Italy is south of Switzerland and there’s some mountains in between, right?

Plans firmed up at a gas station when a group of fellow Guzzi riders responded to my bad, “Parla Inglese?” with equally bad, but Brummy-accented Italian. Regional accent barriers slowly overcome, it turned out they were heading back to England via the Stelvio pass and why don’t I join them that far? Sure, especially because it’s impossible to track down an old-fashioned paper road map in the 21st century, even in this very old-fashioned part of the world.

That plan worked out at least for the first five miles, which is as long as it took to discover that these guys weren’t riding fast enough to make my newly aggressive travel schedule possible. Mandello to the Stelvio and back again, all before 6pm, requires something faster than 65mph. Especially when you’re making up for not having the vaguest idea of how far the journey by just riding as fast as possible and hoping that’ll be good enough. During our brief gas station conversation, I’d at least managed to establish that the way there involved going to St. Moritz and turning right.

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Looking at this map, you can see that it kinda did. At least it got me there, in the end. Simply heading straight up the SS38 from the lake would have been much faster. The Guzzi factory really needs an arrow sign entitled “Stelvio Pass, 166km, that way.”

But getting lost is sort of the essence of adventure and it turns out that going this way might have added about three hours to the trip, but it also added two more alpine passes. If the success of a day spent riding in the Alps can be measured in the number of alpine passes ridden — can you think of a better quantification? — then two passes one way and the one to rule them all, twice, is a pretty good day, right?

You’re likely as familiar with the Stelvio pass as I was when I embarked on this trip. You’ve seen it on Top Gear and you’ve read about it in car magazines. 48 hairpin turns and, at 9,045 feet, the second highest paved road in the alps. It’s closed for snow most of the year, but in September, the precipitation is usually just rain.

The pictures you always see of the pass are actually of its eastern face. I’ve always been a bit boggled as to why this is considered such a good/epic/famous driving road; a bunch of 1st gear hairpins connected by straights look visually dramatic in pictures, but just sound like a pain in the ass in real life. Go fast in a straight line, brake to a near standstill, slowly teeter around a hairpin while feathering the clutch, then go back to full throttle when things straighten out. Sort of Europe’s equivalent of the Dragon or Snake, hoards of lycra fetishists, drivers with more supercar than skill and mad bikers come here from all over the continent. In reality, a mix of 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear corners with decent vision through them would probably make for more fun riding. But, Stelvio is a unique challenge and as good a destination as any when you’ve got a good bike and a day in the Alps to kill.

The reason you always see pictures of and hear about the eastern part of the road are because the western side, from where I approached, is the stuff of literal and metaphorical nightmare. At least on the east you have guard rails and run off in places. On the west? It’s shorter and only has 36 turns, but just look at this, it’s more a gymkhana with caravans thrown in than it is a riding road.

These pictures are coming to you and to me via Google Earth. This isn’t the view I had, in fact, I had no view. It was foggy (or maybe cloudy, this high), raining and cold. I got through it one corner at a time, largely because that’s all I could see. My pictures come from the Bernina Pass, which was bright and sunny and warm just a few peaks away. Being able to see 10 yards in front of you helps with photography as much as it does with riding.

My first taste of the 1st gear hairpins didn’t come on the Stelvio or Bernina though, it came just after the Swiss border and was a bit of an eye opener. Steaming along a quiet country road at 100+, I overtook a group of Germans on old BMWs only to find myself deep into an unexpected hairpin. All those trail braking mumbo jumbo Michael Czysz browbeat me with a couple years back called upon to help, I made it around, but it’s a good thing there wasn’t a Eurovan full of lederhosen coming the other way. Then the second hairpin and a third. More like uphill u-turns than real riding. Then, the shame of it, the pack of classic BMWs passed me into, through and out of the fourth. Me! Mounted on a brand new motorcycle, fully leathered and, I thought, riding well.

Latching on to the back of the group, I set out to learn what they were doing. It turns out that 180°+ hairpins require a unique approach, but one grounded in general fast riding principals. You already know about racing lines and the importance of vision, you just need to adapt them to corners that are only 30 feet long, but change their elevation by 10 feet or more in that same space. The trick, it turns out, is to use the vision afforded by our lack of roofs — hairpins must be a blind nightmare in most fast cars — to look up and backwards as you approach the corner, identifying the presence and position of oncoming traffic on the step of the road above you. If it’s clear or if the car is running wide, then move all the way left, trail braking the bike into the sweep of the elevation. Use that to catch your momentum and add grip, turning sharply to seriously apex the corner once the bank catches you. Smoothly roll on the power and exit the corner. It’s not so much different from a track, really, just one where you take corners flat out at 20mph.

The NTX is perfect for this stuff too. Sitting bolt upright with your arms spread out to the wide bars, it’s easy to rotate your head fully and look up and and to the side. Those wide bars help you crank it over when it’s finally time to turn too, but it really doesn’t take a huge mount of effort to steer the NTX. The 150-section rear, spec’d to enable the fitment of knobbies, but here wearing road-biased Pirelli Scorpions, rolls over on its side in a manner alien to most modern bikes and their too-wide rubber. 1st gear is short enough and the torque strong enough low down — 85lb/ft at just 5,800rpm — that you’re off the clutch and on the power as soon as you’re past that 20mph apex. That new motor really takes off between 6 and 8,000rpm though. A range you’ll reach in 1st and 2nd before the next hairpin. Cross that 6,000rpm barrier and the 1,151cc air/oil-cooled twin adopts a much more menacing, deeper exhaust note, delivering 105bhp just as it’s time to start looking behind you and braking for the next hairpin.

And “new” isn’t an exaggeration anywhere on the NTX, despite wearing very similar looks to the old bike. Along with the new motor, its four additional valves, oil cooling and additional 5 lb/ft, there’s even a new frame, newly integrated tank/upper fairing that holds 8.45 gallons of gas, a larger windshield and a new exhaust. Those additional valves and new exhaust bring the most noticeable changes, the extremely rough fueling and peaky delivery of old have been replaced with utterly smooth response to throttle inputs and a torque curve that’s been shifted strongly into the low- and mid-range.

The NTX 8V, which has yet to go on-sale in America, decreases rear wheel width to 4.25-inches to make selection of dirt rubber easier and receives a host of additional accessories as standard. Switchable antilock brakes, traction control, panniers, crash bars, spotlights, wire wheels, and extra-large windshield and additional wind deflectors on the side, bark busters. All that boosts the distance capability and comfort of the bike while making it seriously rugged. You get the feeling you could throw it down in one of the hairpins, pick it up, and ride it a couple hundred miles back to Mandello with only an apology to show for your trouble. In matte black — the only color available on the NTX — the whole thing feels ready for the Zombie Apocalypse. It just needs “Medusa” decals on the panniers.

This being Western Europe, things are a long way from being a post apocalyptic wasteland. Crossing into Switzerland from Italy, even on a minor road, sees rough pavement switch to glassy smooth. The fields by the side of the road adopt a manicured look and wood smoke wafts from chimneys as wood lodges cling to picturesque hill sides. Dilapidated Fiats give way to brand new BMWs and Audi wagons wearing M and S badges, but the driving slows down as laws become social contract instead of red tape. Riding fast on a bike, you begin to stand out.

Lacking any sort of paperwork for the bike, I was a bit worried about crossing out of the EU and into Switzerland, then vice versa over by the Stelvio Pass, but the guards didn’t even look up from their desks as I failed to head the stop signs that informally mark the border.

So past Lake Como, over the border, past a lot of cows, over the Maloja Pass, through St. Moritz, up the Bernina, past more cows and a glacier, down the Bernina, over to Italy, then up the Stelvio. Success. But, I’d come all this way to ride it, so down the eastern side, a u-turn, then back up.

Covered in fog and rain and beset with cars and therefor traffic jams on each corner, the Stelvio ended up being more a destination to list rather than definitive experience. With the onboard thermometer reading 7 degrees Celsius at the tourist trap cafe up top and equipped only with summer gloves, the ride became more about just getting through than it was having fun. The invariable presence of oncoming cyclists on the narrow pass makes passing impossible, except for the kind that qualifies more as lane splitting as the cars begin queueing up to slowly tackle each hairpin. It’s easy to imagine white knuckled fathers quietly cursing under their breath as bored children play video games or piss their pants in the back seat. Nothing to see but a nebulous wall of blank white space and a narrow black strip of asphalt leading into it. Over and over again, 48 times on the way up. 160 total if you go over and back like I did.

Riding down a pass requires an equally unique approach to riding up one. The lines are the same, but out goes the positive camber of the uphill sweep, replaced instead with a road that falls away from your front tire. Looking down for oncoming traffic is easier than looking up, which is good because you want to be on the opposite side of the road — there are no lanes — every other corner. But, it’s in this circumstance where the NTX really begins to shine.

This Moto Guzzi is invariably compared to that BMW. You know the one. And not without reason, not only are the specs extremely similar — air-cooled longitudinal twins, single-sided shaft drive swingarms, single-plate clutches — but the Italian bike was created specifically to benefit and conquest sales from the German. Some things about the GS are better — it’s nearly 100lbs lighter than the NTX to start, although it admittedly comes with fewer options — but there’s two big differences that right here, heading down a wet alpine pass, really make the Guzzi shine. Conventional forks and traction control. On the Stevio, applying the front brakes compresses the front suspension, steepening its angle and making steering both faster and more confidence inspiring as weight transitions to the front wheel and the contact patch grows. Say what you will about the benefits of BMW’s dive-free Telelever, but when you want front end feel, there’s nothing better than a traditional set of telescopic forks.

Trail down into the corner, double check for oncoming traffic, hit that apex and roll on the throttle. Like pretty much any other shaft driven bike, there’s a lurch in the NTX from a completely off throttle to on. In the rain, on a narrow, slippery, wet road, in 1st gear, that’d usually spoil confidence and therefore speed. It’s a lurch that, despite smooth fueling beyond it, can easily break traction on the rear tire just as you need to apply power most carefully. But that standard traction control really helps here, as much in your mind as in reality. Any minute slide is caught, so you’re able to find more speed through more lean angle without fearing a crash. Going down actually become more fun than going up.

Back out of the national park that surrounds the pass and there’s a sign for Sondrio. I know where that is. Out onto the dual carriage way and it’s an easy 100 miles home where a plastic tub of microwaved Penne Bolognese and a bad bottle of cheap red wine awaits, but not before a $65 fill up. In Italy, at least the bikes live up to expectations.

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