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I know riding the Alps in winter sounds mad but the Alps are a part of the world I simply fell in love with and riding through them on a m/cycle must be one of the greatest experiences ever in life. However this year I plan to go to the Dolomites this November and am just trying to gather info of what the conditions will be like and what bike I should take etc. Normally I would go anywhere on my Honda XL700 Transalp which has just about toured the planet so far but as this is a rather large bike i was thinking of something smaller simply for the snow and ice. Looking at other members write ups I noticed one chap rides his CBR125 just about anywhere. I own a CBR250 so perhaps I should take that or on the other hand I do have access to a XT66R!! If anyone on the list has any experience of riding the Alps in winter i would love to hear of your experiences.
Last three seasons I've been commuting in and out of Oslo all year round, regardless of weather...even during the worst of snow storms. After too many very close encounters, I finally ate it... and got just a tiny bit wiser, and decided only to ride if condtions were good and the forecast promising.
Spiked tires and rough thread can do only so much for you. Even if you can stay up right on flat straights, down hill can be impossible if it is slippery and you have to slow down or come to a full stop... even controlled braking from the slowest of speeds and you will either fall over or not stop until you crash into something - no ABS or rider skill in the world can keep the bike up if there is no grip and gravity is at work. Riding is usually not the biggest problem - stopping is... which you will have to do a lot of in and near towns.
Imagine deep loose snow, with some ruts and ice underneath, in a bend on a slight downhill slope, right before an intersection... you are riding at 20 kmh with your feet down, trying to slow down for an oncoming red light with crossing cars and pedestrians, without falling over. You are thinking that if you are so lucky to be able to navigate the turn, there is no way in hell you will be able to stop at the light - this as gravity wants to take your bike, down, down, down, the slope, like a heavy sled. You find you are so right, it appraoches all so slow, and so far ahead... there is ample time to try anything before reaching the intersection, and you do. In fact, you could probably have made a nice long prayer if you had your calm about you. But, there is nothing you can do... you navigated the bend somehow, but tires are locking up even with ABS, and the only thing keeping your bike upright is your legs, with your feet fimly sliding accross the road... you are no longer sitting, you are standing/sliding on the ground, holding the bike up by the handle bars, slightly askew, but still moving forward... and miraculously you somehow slip through to the other end, among all the pedestrians and passing cars, all missing you by inches in both directions... and everything is ok, and you are utterly stoked "Yeah baby!". Riding in snow can be quite exhilerating!
Then, a hundred meters later, having sped up a bit on a "safe flat stretch" while making a mental note to get some snow chains, a taxi cuts in front of you and slows down just enough for you to have to put on the brakes, and you slam into him... Nothing big, but you come to an understanding with mother earth, not to ride in these conditions again.
There are lots of hills with lots of traffic in the alps, and snow and ice does happen, even without your permission. If the road is dry - no problem. If the road has ice and snow on it, it can still be ok with spiked tires as long as it is relatively flat and straight and you don't have to do much stopping. And if there is no traffic, then it can be super exiting. But snow on black ice on bendy hilly roads with traffic????
a few winters ago I witnessed a French biker in the Norwegian mountains that couldn't make a right turn and slided into the oncoming lane where he was run over and killed. It was nothing he or anyone could have done to avoided the accident except not have ridden at all.
If you are prepared to sit it out until roads are throughly cleared (which could be a very long time), then I'd say go for it... after getting the appropriate tires and snow chains for extra measure. If not, then I would advice against it.
Please don't ask me where to get snow chains as I have no idea.
If you're going in November you could get lucky. We have a home from home in the alps and I frequently go down there by bike in November. It's a very variable month - sometimes it's glorious autumn weather with warm sunny days (ok, with somewhat chilly nights) and other times the snow ploughs are on overtime. This was last year (ok it was the end of October but nothing changed for a couple of weeks afterwards) -
Whereas a couple of years earlier (pic taken on 11th Nov) with the road covered in sheet ice -
Generally the snowploughs etc from the local councils do a very good job of keeping the essential roads open. Note that's essential roads. Some of the great rides in the summer take in (in my neck of the woods anyway) passes like the Galibieer and the Croix de Fer. They're not classified as essential routes and are just left blocked over the winter, so once the first snow falls that's it for many of the roads you might want to ride. The ones that are left are generally busy as everyone who lives in the area uses them to get to work.
I know it seems obvious but the biggest problem with riding in the alps in winter is that they are hilly. On a bike that means that sooner or later you'll be faced with trying to stop going downhill on ice. Wheelie's warning about the difficulties of doing that sometimes is not to be taken lightly. The consequences can be much worse than just sliding along the road a bit and pulling the bike out of a ditch. Even without the hazards of hitting other traffic while you're sliding there are bends near me where only an easily missed armco barrier separates you from a 500ft drop. I've gone down that road in winter in a Land Rover fitted with 4 wheel chains and been uncertain at times whether I could stop. A bike in those conditions would be an absolute nightmare.
Often you don't even need obvious stuff like snow on the roads. A cold night can freeze mountain runoff water where it crosses the road so an early morning start can find you coming around a corner on a dry road to be faced with an ice slick across the tarmac. Usually I prefer to follow a car or something so they slide first!
A small lightweight bike is definitely an advantage when it comes to trying to deal with adverse conditions but on the other hand you have to get there first on it - and then you might be wondering whether it would be quicker to get off and walk on some of the climbs. How do I know - meet my winter hack bike, a mid 70's Suzuki 120 in mid prep for next years Elephant rally. Dog slow on level roads and a second gear grind on some alpine hills, it's about as lightweight as it gets short of backpacking. Based on my experiences with this I'd say choose your transport carefully if you don't want to remember the trip for all the wrong reasons!
Thanks for all that info and photos guys. I live here in Scotland so am quite use to snow and icy conditions but as you say, going downhill is extremely dangerous. I have 3 bikes here and was planning on taking my Honda XL700 Transalp again but if its going to be mighty cold then I may take my small CBR250. That would be hell for such a mighty long trip but she would make it. The other bike I have is a Suzuki DRZ400 but the problem with this bike is that it is a "Supermoto" and I cannot get any off-road tyres for it so its not very good in icy conditions although I have used it loads in those conditions in Scotland. Perhaps a small off-road 125 may be the best.
I will watch the weather and see what its like a few days before and decide then what to take. I just prey its not going to be another mighty cold winter;-)
If you're lucky you will manage 50 - 75 K's at a time sometimes a lot less if the road is not a meter under the snow. You will be the only bike on the road. You will be freezing. When you pull up at a servo you will be looked apon as if you have just had your way with the the village goat! You will be greeted with "what the hell are you doing man"
The only good thing about riding the alps in winter is the schnapps, the sausage machine which are great to hug and in answer to the questions on your sanity the only answer is and I quote " It's all good mate, I'm from Australia !"
Often Passes are closed due to very deep snow and ice. I stayed at Innertkirchen in the Swiss Alps inearly June this year after meeting a group of very thirsty Sweedish blokes. We all had to do quite a bit of re routing and in my case back tracking due to pass closures.
The upside is you will find a fellow bikers in the same boat and more importantly somwhere to pull up and discuss alternate routes over a or 16 ! The locals will only too gladly inform you of closures and alternate routes.
Do they ever close the mountain passes in the winter or do they try their best to keep them open?
Why keep them open anyway? The roads are for commercial use i.e. those which access the ski resorts will be maintained and those which cross international borders will receive more attention than the high routes that join up a couple of villages.
We went to La Plagne one year on the bike for a bit of late season skiing in early April. We were snowed in for 5 days staying with my brother near Bourg-en-Bresse but then the weather improved. When we arrived at La Plagne we stayed up at the high resort at about 2000metres and the snow above this was just about ski-able. When we left it had snowed heavily overnight so the mountain road was pretty dodgy but the main roads were fine. In the afternoon we rode up to the col de Petit St. Bernard and the road was dry and really good fun. We got to within about 100 metres of the Italian border and found the col was closed (until the end of May) and the snow on the road was 2 metres deep. We had to backtrack through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and when we dropped down to near Turin it was a balmy 25 degrees at six o'clock in the evening.
I know this is the end of the season rather than the beginning but I think you'll find most of the high passes are closed from mid October to the end of May. As Backofbeyond says the weather is very variable throughout the winter.
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