www AlpineRoads com Biking In The Alps

General Information

Am I up to it ? Hotels, B & B, Camping and Youth Hostels
I don't have much time, where should I go first? German/French/Italian words
How far can I ride in a day? List of Alpine Passes
When to go What are your favourite roads?
Weather
Attitudes to bikers
Luggage
Tools
FAQ - Documents, Money etc
FAQ - Roads, Law etc.

Am I or indeed my bike up to it ?:

Assuming you don't own a piece of junk, basically, YES! Prepare to ride up to 2000km a week on average, plus 1000km getting there and back (from the UK). So make sure the bike is in good condition. Chain, tyres, brake-pads and oil. You don't want to be wasting valuable holiday time looking for a shop in northern Italy, or wherever, just to buy a set of tyres which is going to cost you as well, as you'll probably end up having to pay full bike-shop prices. I always find the first 3 days to be the hardest - it takes time to adjust to the more intense riding and conditions. After that I find things settle down and I can really start to enjoy the end of day post-mortem (not literally hopefully).
You may find some stretches extremely strenuous, the concentration needed (especially in bad weather if you decide to ride) can be exhausting, especially on the more tricky sections (really tight, steep and bumpy). Despite this, it's pretty unimportant what sort of bike you have. Our group has been comprised of various combinations of bikes and experiences over the years: experienced ZX-10, Yam 600 Divvy, a novice Suzuki GS500E, a young girl just passed her test on an Aprilia 125 Extrema, to Triumph Sprint and T595 Daytona, as well as some Japanese choppers. Obviously, some roads suit some bikes and riders better than others; so whatever you are riding, you will probably find at least one road where you are in front and the others can't keep up.
NOTE: At altitude your bike will start to lose power - up to 30% at the top of some of the higher passes - due to the lower atmospheric pressure, the air contains less oxygen for any given volume - but mostly because the reduced pressure starts to cause the mixture to become extra rich. Don't worry though, the same thing's happening to everyone else as well. Unless, of course you have state-of-the-art fuel-injection on your machine.

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I don't have much time, where should I go first?

If you have only a limited amount of time, and it looks unlikely that you'll be back for a while to "do" the rest, then I'd recommend you go to one of these areas. You should be able to cover them easily within a week including getting there, barring mishaps.

Between these you'll have time to choose some other stretches as well.

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How far can I ride in a day?

A tricky one, this, and one that we get asked quite often. It depends on so many variables that I can only give you a general answer. The things that mostly affect the distance you can ride include:

  • weather
  • time of year (due to traffic etc)
  • the type of roads you prefer to ride on
  • how many bikes are in your group
  • how experienced you are,
  • and what distance you are used to riding.

Martin drew up this graph of the miles per day we did from a selection of our trips. This doesn't include days where we didn't ride at all for whatever reason.

As you can see there is a fair spread of values, with the peaks at 160 and 230 miles or so. What this represents is anyone's guess, so I'll leave the interpretation up to you.

Bear in mind that you'll be on small, unknown country roads most of the time, you'll probably not really average much more than about 45mph, dropping to around 30mph if you include lunch and photo breaks. Looking back through my notes of old trips we rode between 180 and 200 miles a day usually, on the road about 10am and stopping at about 5 - 5:30 ish. That dropped to 55miles on a very wet Grimsel pass, and over 500 on a blast back up into Italy. I'd plan on about 200 miles a day for those days you actually ride.
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When to go:

The Alps are high enough to have snow falls throughout the summer. So always have in mind that a high route may be blocked for bikes for a day or so after a storm. To avoid most of the snow and freezing temperatures at the tops of passes go after mid-June. Before that, keep to the lower passes and get the electrically-heated fur undies on. Most major passes are officially closed until mid-June, so plan to be flexible and have an alternative "low route" available.
We have had many emails along the lines "I really want to ride the Stelvio/Grimsel/Iseran, I'm going the first week of June, do you think I'm mad". Quite frankly, yes. Those high passes are extremely unlikely to be open that early. The lower ones and the areas further south will be fine, but those big ones can't be relied upon to be opened until the 3rd week of June at the earliest.

The start of July is when the main holiday periods start. This means 1) there's more traffic on the roads, and 2) most of the hotels etc. will actually be open (assuming they're not full). The good news is that most of this early holiday traffic is just passing through from Germany to Italy and doesn't stop much. The last few years the Alps haven't started filling up until mid or end of July.
Mid September is pushing it a bit, the first major snow falls happen around then and it is beginning to get a bit nippy again.

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Weather

The Alps are a rain-magnet, and it frequently snows in summer on the higher passes (though it doesn't always settle on the road ). It is very frequent that you start a journey in scorching conditions and 15 miles later you're shivering. So have your waterproofs, bear-furs and bikini at the ready.[ thumbnails]
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Attitudes to bikers:

On the whole the average Brit. biker will find the attitude towards bikers a breath of fresh air (if often accompanied by a whiff of garlic). At worst attitudes are neutral, at best you can find hotels and pensions reserved just for bikers. Hoteliers and restaurateurs have woken up to the fact that by alienating bikers they are losing a large source of income. There are a growing number of especially "biker-friendly" places springing up all over the place and some of these places provide lists of the best local roads and sometimes a workshop and recovery service. We've even been given good local road tips by a German border guard while Martin waved the traffic through. (The roads were in Austria - was he trying to tell us something?).

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Luggage

It's up to you really - we did our first trips with old Greek-island-hopping rucksacks bungeed onto the pillion. Hard or soft, it's up to you, just don't overload. Make sure the weight and distribution doesn't affect the handling, or get in your way. Otherwise you won't enjoy it. Not a bit. Hint: We always take a couple of black bin-liners - always useful for making sure everything stays dry in a downpour, and can help keep the dirty skids away from the cleaner shirts.

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Tools etc:

If you're in a group you can share some of the tools amongst you. It's a good idea to make sure that you have one of every tool to be able to remove the bodywork and tank; to get to the plugs and to remove front and rear wheels (tyre changing tools are hardly worth taking). Anything more than that and you'll probably need a garage anyway. I recommend a length or two of thick, insulated wire - this can double as an emergency jump-starter cable and to tie on bodywork/luggage in a scrape. You only need one can of your favorite chain-lube. In Italy, motor oil is generally only available in 2litre bottles, a bit of overkill for a top-up. A way of siphoning petrol is all too frequently useful.

What are your favourite roads?

We get asked this question fairly often, and unfortunately just as the proverbial meat can also be poison, we would like to offer a list of our favourite stretches in each region. We thought of an overall rating system, whereby evey stretch gets a mark, but that really is just too complex and of questionable value, so we decided to stick with our own personal top 3 list.
If you dissagree with our selections, well, that's life. We'd be interested to hear your choice and reasons why, though.
Our Top 3 roads in each region.


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Hotels, B & B and Camping

are generally easy to find in the Alps. Large towns only have more expensive hotels. There are very few Motels. In Italy away from mountains and lakes accommodation is particularly difficult to find. In general if it ain't scenic forget it in Italy. An Austrian pension with breakfast should cost max. €29 (ÖS 400), normally around €18. English is spoken in quite a few places though less so in Italy and France. Try the gîtes in France. In Italy, B&B is scarce, so hotels are the place to stay.
I've compiled a list of some hotels in the various regions:

Camping

[This is what Mark thinks: I carried my one-man around on the Suzuki no worries. Bungee it on properly and off you go. Of course as soon as you start with tents and sleeping bags and stoves and footballs and sun loungers then it gets a bit tight for a pillion on a sports bike...]

[From Jonathan Schuster:] Very easy if you have the cash for a lightweight hiking tent; Mtn Equipment range is very light and small - 1.8kg, 40cm x 15cm roll. Any good goose-down bag can pack down to nothing and weighs 500g. Don't need cooking stuff - for the cash u save on the hotel you can buy beers and a good dinner!!! Often sites have nice cafe/restaurant anyway. Most expensive we paid was DM30 for a tent and 2 riders in Bingen am Main. France is generally cheaper. In some places you might need to be a member of the Int'l Camping Club - if they have spaces, and refuse to let you join on the spot just keep argueing politely and say you will stay just one night - we have never been turned away.
I did a cursory search for camping sites and here's what I came up with. Please let us know of any sites you can recommend.

karmabum which has loads of links
camping europe and its main sub-site:
campingeurope.com/campings which has links to :
camping-switzerland Switzerland
camping.it Italy
Campfrance France

Youth Hostels


[Thanks to Neal for this:]
Membership in Britain costs £12.50 per year and that entitles you to stay in any youth hostel in the world. The quality varies from hostel to hostel but they're all clean. A lot of hostels on the continent have mixed sex rooms but in Britain its single sex. If you book up early enough you can fill a room for your group. The prices in Switzerland were excellent at approx ?10 to ?12 a night including breakfast. Grindewald is a brilliant place to stay, the quality in the main building is as good as a hotel, with balconies in your room with views to the mountains. It's not for everyone but it can be great especially in the larger hostels. People tend to be a bit more sociable, we've had some good alcohol inspired evenings with complete strangers. One more thing, if you plan to stay in Switzerland, book early, they fill up fast because they're so cheap.

website for UK: www.yha.org.uk
international: www.iyhf.org
swiss: www.youthhostel.ch english version

So, if you have any advice on camping please let us know, as you can see we know bugger-all about it.
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