Make mine a Stella!
Jake Beatson's account of his first trip to the Stella Alpina Rally in 2019
I've always been scathing about vans; trailers, campers and caravans too. “Why not ride your bike to events?” I would grumble as I set up my solitary tent beside my bike amongst the forest of four wheelers at rally after rally. Quite apart from anything else, 'vanning' doesn't have quite the same ring to it as motorcycling, but even the most entrenched views are subject to change and pensioners such as I have to learn to live with the shame.
I can blame it on my niece who, in a bout of romantic inconsideration, decided to get married in Portugal the same weekend as Ali and I should have set off for France. Prepared to abandon my trip, I resigned myself to postponing it until a wedding-less year, but failed to appreciate the tenacity of a determined Geordie woman with a cunning plan. Before I could pour myself a conciliatory beer, it was decided for me that the Mighty Falcone would be whisked off to Italy by van as I was impressing the locals with my hirsute sartorial elegance in Faro.
A well used Ford Transit duly appeared, modified into sort of a camper, into which the previous owner had stuffed a couple of trials bikes for weekends in Northumberland. Further inspection revealed that shoehorning our pair of lardy bikes into the available space wasn't an option, so the next few weeks were spent undoing the conversion and re-doing into something that might work, although we had to remove the fairing from the Mighty Falcone as its bulk was just too much. We discovered that electricity was not a strong point of the previous owner, the entire conversion having been wired up in 2-core lighting flex, probably rated at no more than 3A and certainly considerably less than the 25A required for the 300W inverter he'd fitted. This 'loom' was held together with various bits of connector strip and insulating tape and with not a fuse in sight. We bought a fusebox, a couple of galvanized chocks from an outfit in Germany, a triple width ramp off eBay and moved the kitchen unit behind the front seats to give full width before rewiring from my copious supplies of junk. We finally managed to fit the whole thing together just before I Ryanair'd myself off to Portugal and Ali headed for Brion for a Guzzi rally with both bikes in the back.
By Monday evening I was back home with just a day to force the washing through the machine and pack up to fly off to Bergamo, one of those airports which the likes of Ryanair designate as Milan but which is nowhere near it. Arriving close to midnight my carriage awaits and we're soon ensconced in our comfy B&B to avoid having to unload the bikes in the middle of the night. It's Italy, it's hot and the air-conditioning consists of a half open window so we're awoken by the cock crowing at some ungodly hour and find we're sharing the car park with a Lamborghini.
We hit the road early for Mandello del Lario where the bikes are unloaded and a very welcome cold beer consumed before we hit town.
Last time we were there was the 97th Anniversary and there were literally thousands of Guzzis returning to their home town; goodness knows what 2021 will bring on the centenary. This time there are few and mine won't start. The Mighty Falcone always starts first kick so something is clearly wrong; either that, or it's got in a sulk for arriving back to its birthplace by Ford. Eventually, it does decide to fire up and seems to run fine, but I just know it's not right and it feels so much like last year when the coil died at a VMCC rally. Surely it can't have failed again so soon? I leave it running for a while until I'm scolded by the campsite owner into shutting it off for the benefit of the other campers. Understandable perhaps, as I left the stock double decker silencer at home and took the lighter but much noisier cocktail shaker instead and everyone's tent is full of noise and exhaust fumes.
We plan a tour on the far side of Lake Como and head for the Bellagio ferry a few miles north along the coast road at Varenna, stopping for fuel just next to the campsite. The bike doesn't feel right, working well at full throttle but misfiring at lower speeds and as I de-clutch to make the turn down to the ferry the engine dies completely between gears. I am forced to coast down behind an oblivious Ali, stopping about 20 yards from the ferry and having to do the push of shame in front of the hundreds of tourists thronging the shore, sweat dripping down my leather-clad body in the mid-day sun, as they gawp in their cool linen suits and summer dresses. We push both bikes to the side of the queue as it makes no sense to add to our woes by crossing the lake and get the tools out.
There's a stink of fuel and it doesn't smell like any petrol I've ever come across, more like diesel, but the journey from Mandello confirms it can't be mis-fuelling as it would have died long before here. The plug's sooted up and replacing it allows the engine to start again, exactly as it did last year with the coil. After a few minutes running it begins to misfire again and, sure enough, the plug's once again sooted up. I recall last year's futile carburettor dismantling and decide not to repeat it. Plug changed again but this time it won't start and emits a huge backfire through the open pipe which has the bystanders diving for cover. We have an audience too and a small crowd has gathered around the bike led by an enthusiastic local who, despite the clearly broken down posture of the machine, entertains the less indoctrinated viewers with superlatives on the wonders of the Moto-Guzzi single.
I have a spare copper HT lead in the pannier and decide to fit that in the hope that the ancient Halfords one might have succumbed to the warm weather. It's far too long so, rather than cut and have to make a new termination, I wrap it around the dynamo and once again it starts and this time keeps running. We decide to make a break for Mandello before the reluctant engine changes its mind, scrape the oil off our hands, pull on gloves and helmets and head for Menni's place where perhaps a spare coil might be located. There's nobody home of course or, if there is, they're not answering the door to the eccentric couple from over the water. A sad looking Lodola lies partially stripped outside, still strapped to the pallet on which it was delivered several years ago by the look of it, and the grounds outside are a mass of rusting machinery and old tyres.
We decide to head back to town before all the bike shops are closed but, on restarting, I make something of a breakthrough when I notice the dash lights dimming almost to nothing as the engine is turned over on the kick-start. It looks like the battery voltage is collapsing under load and even the points closing is enough to kill the voltage. It's only 16 years old too, having been relegated to the Falcone some eight years ago when it started struggling to churn the Harley over on cold mornings. You just can't get the quality these days, although perhaps rattling about in the back of the van was the last straw.
Surely, getting a battery should be easy enough in Mandello, and it is, as long as you're not fussy what you get. We try the garage next door to the campsite, fruitlessly, and then two of the many shops supplying parts for historic Guzzis and both can supply the original spec battery for an eye watering €130 or so. The problem is (quite apart from the cost, which would of course have been only £85 before the Great British Pound became the peso of Europe) that I don't want a gigantic wet cell battery. I ask for an AGM battery, but nobody seems to have heard of them, and although I could easily get one online, I need one now and not next week. We're directed towards a battery shop up the hill but fail to find it so give up for the night, take the obligatory photo outside the factory door and then get fed and drunk instead.
Next morning we're armed with a town map and a hangover and, while collecting some parts for a couple of Airone, find out exactly where the battery place is. It's no surprise we didn't find it as it looks more like someone's house than a workshop, and so it is, and it's deserted when we get there. A knock on the house door rouses the owner from his lunch and, despite our protestations, he comes down to the workshop so we can explain the problem. It's very useful when you're travelling with someone who speaks at least some Italian as English isn't widely spoken here, but once again we're offered the huge wet battery and once again we ask for AGM and get nowhere. Eventually, I spot what looks like a 'dry' battery on one of the oil stained wooden benches. Small, but probably good enough? Battery man shakes his head gloomily and says it's too small, but unearths a slightly larger one that he thinks might do, reluctantly accepting that “lo stupido Scozzese” will not be diverted. It's a sealed lead-acid, so it needs filled and charged, but we can collect in a couple of hours. Cash changes hands and the die is cast.
That gives us time to wander through the town and take in a Gelato down by the shore, the sun continuing to beat down unrelentingly.
You're never quite sure if you've actually resolved a problem until you have some miles under your belt, but the new battery seems to have returned the bike to its normal self once it's shoehorned into position and suitably packed out with the cardboard box it came in. The terminals are on the wrong side, but the wires still reach, and the comforting glare from the headlamp confirms its fully charged condition. We're due at a friend's house in Ortanella, set high in the hills above the lake, and Ali suggests this is as good a chance as any to test the bike, so I follow the Transit back along the lake shore, exhaust reverberating from the tunnel walls. The road from Varenna to Esino Lario incorporates a series of 18 hairpins, gaining some 1,300 feet as it does so, and the view from the clifftop is simply stunning. I've already stopped once for some photos and, although we agreed to meet at the top, I pass multiple junctions on the way, hoping that by choosing what appears to be the steepest route we will coincide at some point as I've no idea where we're going.
Ali, meanwhile, has stopped at a viewpoint and is following my progress by ear, the cocktail shaker pipe being audible from miles away as the overstressed engine thunders up the gradient, although she's only a few hundred feet away in a vertical direction. There is no respite as the road continues unerringly towards the summit, but the Mighty Falcone takes it in its stride, it's low gearing more than compensating for its meagre power output, until I turn the last bend and find the Transit parked up by the roadside.
We take some water and get talking to an Italian guy with a nice Guzzi outfit who's interested in the 'foreign' Guzzi and then continue upwards, along the cliff edge, a foot high wall being the only thing that separates us from the sheer drop of several hundred feet into the forest below. Gulp. I really don't like heights and it's a relief when we finally stop climbing and reach the grassy plateau where our host lays on cold beer and an excellent Italian meal. The bike rests under the eaves while our host questions with good reason, why it stinks of petrol.... “Just evaporation from the carburettor” I mutter reassuringly, thinking it's the tap leaking again but, as is so often the case, I'm wrong.
Despite the July sunshine, we awake to a chill in the thin mountain air, load the bike into the van and set off for the ski resort of Bardonecchia close to the French border and set some 4,000 feet above sea level in the Alps. This unprepossessing little town, host to the 2006 Winter Olympics, has been the base for the Stella Alpina Motociclistica Internazionale, or 'Stella' for short, since 1967, when organiser, the late Mario Artusio moved it from it's first location at the Stelvio. This is all new to me, my experience in off-road riding being confined to those occasions when I left the tarmac and hit some solid object in the undergrowth and a once only trip from Glendevon over the hills to Dollar on my Triumph Trailblazer, back in 1971. But Ali's an old hand, having summited on various machines over the years, including that most inappropriate of off-road machines, a Guzzi Le Mans with clip-ons and a full Stucchi fairing. The ride was conceived long before such fripperies as 'Adventure Bikes' had been invented and it was Mario's vision that the climb would be an opportunity for ordinary people on ordinary bikes to boldly go where no one has gone before, or at least where they would never have considered going.
There's a 'Blessing of the bikes' arranged at a church in town, an old tradition, and Ali's keen that we get there before it starts to meet up with all the others who also have been going for decades. The van is parked up in a gravelled area bereft of all facilities that benefits from the name of Campo Smith in name alone and we share our car park beside the river with a variety of campers, trucks, cars and show wagons that have apparently been mothballed for the season. Of course we're very short of time and by the time the bikes are extracted from the van, mirrors reset, etc., we have just a few minutes before we're supposed to be at the Kirk, so I fire up the now willing Militare and follow Ali's R65 in a cloud of white dust and out onto the town. It's clear pretty soon that we don't know where we're going as I trail disconsolately behind and up a thankfully deserted one-way street the wrong way. This is followed by a mad dash through narrow streets until we finally emerge onto the main drag, a wide and cobbled shopping street emblazoned with No Entry signs. My leader is unfazed and thunders on regardless. I on the other hand, am dissuaded from following by the several passers by who leap out into the road, gesticulating wildly at my errant progress, and finally by the Polizia, heading straight for me in the correct direction in their Alfa. Attempting some kind of compromise, I keep the engine running and, as the hill is steep, select first gear and walk beside the bike at tickover, studiously ignoring the police car and acting the part of an eccentric, motorised pedestrian. Ali is scathing about my cautious approach when I finally reach the top of the road and a welcome two-way street, but we do manage to locate the Church of St Hippolytus (the patron saint of fat mammals perhaps?) just as the service is about to begin. Being something of an atheist, this goes over my head, but they do have a translator who delivers the text in French, German and English (at least) as well as the native Italian, as this is indeed an international affair.
We follow the service with a trial run up one of the many passes, a series of hairpins slicing the side of the mountain, punctuated by huge transverse gullies to carry the snow melt off the hills. Not the sort of thing you would like to hit at speed... We stop at one of the many tunnels, where the road is wider, for a panoramic view of the village below and I feel my stomach lurching at the sheer drop. It's like sitting in the Gods at some huge theatre, with Bardonecchia as the stage, several hundred feet below.
Of course I have no intention of even attempting the Stella ascent with the Falcone and say so as we follow a few beers at the Station with a 12 course meal, consisting mainly of 10 different ways to serve polenta, in the foothills of the route. The ride up there was challenging enough, but at least it was tarmac, and the ride down was even more cautious, in the pitch dark with the sure and certain knowledge of the precipitous drops that suck away the feeble glow from what passes for a headlight.
The participants are persuasive though and, as Sunday morning dawns, I find I've agreed to at least take the trip up to base camp. It can't be that hard, can it, and I'm assured that it will be just fine. This provides me with the first introduction to the compulsive lying that characterises all those who ride the Col du Sommeiller, the Alpine Pass which joins Italy with neighbouring France, reaching around 10,000 feet as it does so.
The road starts off as tarmac, with a few vicious hairpins just to get you in the mood, as we retrace our route to last night's restaurant, but degrades rapidly as we pass it, firstly into a fair semblance of a forestry track, but then into a morass of dust and rocks. It's steep and punctuated with multiple hairpins and the water coursing from the Alpine peaks has washed away the surface leaving deep, stone-filled transverse ruts and deep channels running sort of, but not quite, parallel to where we want to go. I soon get into some kind of a rhythm, standing on the footrests to take the weight off the rear wheel and praying they don't collapse as they did once before while I was negotiating a cattle grid in Perthshire with excruciating consequences for the nether regions. I learn to avoid the channels as they self-steer the bike where they want to go rather than where I want to go, but in places there's no choice. As the ascent continues, the road deteriorates still further, not helped by the completely insane people who seem to have decided that travelling up in their hire car might be a good idea and are crashing through the rocks, ripping the underside off their vehicles and forming mobile barricades to progress. We're forced to a halt by a particularly stupid and inconsiderate Mercedes driver who gets a double dose of education into the profanities of Scottish and Geordie vernacular as we finally manage to squeeze past on a tight bend.
It's late in the day and most start early when the roadway is less cut up, the result is not only that the dust and rocks are much worse but also that we're meeting a continual stream of traffic coming the other way. There are far more of them than there are of us and, as the surface degrades, we find ourselves forced off the favoured path and into the more dangerous and unpredictable areas. I'm in the lead on the Falcone, followed by Ali, with Mick riding shotgun on his AJP, having so generously sacrificed his own Stella to help us on our way.
After what seems like forever, with the sweat carving fissures in the caked dust on our faces, I slew to a halt at a fork in the road. Down and to the left, there's a plateau with dozens of bikes and tents scattered around a cleared area and to the right I can see the road zig-zagging in a series of hairpins up the side of a sizeable cliff. “Where now?”, I cough, wishing I'd brought a dust mask. “Is this base camp?” Of course, I don't get a satisfactory answer and am urged to take the right fork, although I later discover that this was indeed the spot where I had agreed to abandon the climb. The road is becoming a road in name alone and the hairpins are lethal, totally blind and with gut wrenching vertiginous drops to send the unwary to their doom. The inside line is impossible, far too steep, so a wide line needs to be taken to have some chance of seeing what's coming the other way and to ease the gradient to one which the bikes can manage. The surface is fine white sand, punctuated by sharp rocks and all the bikes are white now, with occasional mud splatters where we have traversed one of the many trickles of water. I'm forced to stop several times, finding my route blocked by descending bikes and, in one case, a broadsiding quad bike moving at insane speed, but he has four wheels to my two and I know who would come off worse. About half way up this switchback, Ali calls it a day. Her R65 is bogged down in the sand and we need to stop to extricate it. Having done the route so many times before she has nothing to prove. I consider doing the same and ask Mick how far it is to 'The Plateau' where I believe we're trying to go. “Just another couple of bends and we're there” he lies and with that I'm committed to carrying on. We meet up with some others from the previous night on their way back down, one of whom tells me it's just another ten minutes to the top and there's a guy handing out badges to those who have made it. We manhandle Ali's bike round, no easy task, and as she heads off back to Base Camp I fire up the Guzzi again and, with Mick faithfully holding onto my tail, continue the long grind up the hill.
Ali has our bottle of water and soon my tongue feels like a leather strap in my mouth although the Buff does keep some of the dust from my lungs I hope. One final turn and suddenly we're on relatively flat ground with a gentle slope heading upwards in an incline that I previously would have thought steep, but now seems easy. Not so the surface; the fine sand has all but gone, the stream of downward traffic is unrelenting and I'm trying to pick my way through a maze of sharp rocks. By this time, we must be 8,000 or so feet up, I'm permanently in first gear now but the motor seems unconcerned with no altitude sickness, no return of the previous problems and not even any indication of overheating. Descending riders shout out “Eh! Falcone! Bravo!” in surprise at the vision of this unlikely apparition lumbering up the slope, surely the most inappropriate motorcycle on the slopes that day, if not the oldest.
There is a point in any journey where, no matter how bad it gets, you just need to keep going otherwise all the pain and effort has been for naught. I'm now bouncing from rock to rock and very close to going over the precipitous edge. I have learned to look well ahead and plan my route well before I get to the next hazard, but often I'm forced off that choice by opposing traffic. When the front wheel hits a rock, as it does often, it kicks the wheel one way or another and, just when I think I have it under control, the rear wheel hits the same rock with completely unpredictable consequences. Twice, the front heads straight for the edge and twice I somehow manage to avoid the catastrophic fall. Braking is clearly not an option and I discover that opening the throttle seems to stabilise the bike as well as anything, or maybe it was just luck that prevented a very rapid and once only descent. I'm in constant fear of a puncture or, even worse, a rock through the soft alloy underbelly of the engine; I don't imagine that my recovery cover extends this far up a mountain. We reach a point where the road widens on a long sweeping bend and I pull over for a break. It's like a moonscape with piles of white rocks and dark grey gravel and silt left behind by the melting glaciers. It would have been a great photo opportunity but Mick's keen to get on so we mount up and continue through the rocks. I can see the next series of hairpins up and to my right, a repeat of what we've just been through, but the surface is now indescribably bad, all the small particles having been washed away by the melting snows leaving only a jumble of sharp rocks to pick through. I'm forced off the 'road' in several places as there simply isn't any path through the chaos of stones and the forward planning succumbs to instinct and hope alone.
I recall climbing in the Ochils in my youth and always persuading myself that the next ridge was the top when it wasn't. It's the same again, each bend leading inexorably to another, as the snow builds up at the side of the track in huge drifts until suddenly we're in standing traffic and the show stops.
I manage to park the bike somewhere secure and realise I'm completely exhausted, mentally and physically. When I was a kid, 65 year old men were sitting by the fire in their slippers, not riding unsuitable motorcycles up mountains. I scrape the surface off a snowdrift and scoop some of the virgin snow beneath into my mouth where it combines with the dust to form a gritty slurry that I spit out before taking another mouthful, recalling that unique taste of snow from my childhood. Why does snow have a taste?
There's a party atmosphere in the thin air, the sense of achievement palpable and the babble of excitement in German, English and Italian fights with the buzz of two-strokes as some adventurous individuals head across the tundra to a steep hill of gravel where they attempt, and largely fail, to reach the summit. Getting back is another obstacle and several sink through the softening snow into the bog beneath to the amusement of the spectators. Of course the man with the badges has long gone so we have only a few pictures to record the experience.
The stink of fuel from the bike pollutes the clean mountain air and I discover that the odd smelling petrol is dripping from the fuel tap area onto the dynamo. Not evaporation from the carburettor then... The tap seems tight in its union and the hoses are secure so I effect a repair by stuffing some Kleenex into the damp area and hope that will prevent a fiery and explosive end to the trip.
It's around this point that I realise that the journey is only half complete and I still have to find my way back down the hill. Manhandling the bike 180°, I fire up the motor and start the descent, Mick still patiently taking up the rear. It's terrifying and, for me, much worse than the ascent where the gradient works to slow the bike when required. Even in its incredibly low first gear, engine braking isn't sufficient to control the downward progress of the Militare and I find myself crawling along, trying to feather the rear brake and avoid touching the front, while my bowels churn like an overloaded cement mixer and the sweat exudes from every pore. Right hairpins are the worst as about half way around all that is in front of you is the emptiness of free space into which the slightest error will send bike and rider to oblivion; not ideal when you suffer from vertigo. Progress is painfully slow and exhausting in the continuing glare of the summer sun but eventually we find ourselves within site of base camp a few hundred feet below us and stop for a photo shoot by the spectacular waterfall that borders the route.
As we remount, my side stand spring falls off into the dust. It's not broken, but neither will it stay on, so something has clearly been bent and I'm forced to drop the spring into the pannier and retrieve a couple of tie-wraps to hold the stand up. As we descend the last series of hairpins to Base Camp, I'm frozen with fear, each turn presenting a new vision of certain death and it's with great relief that we finally reach the junction.
I'd agreed to meet Ali here but it's been so long that Mick's sure she'll be sinking a cold beer back in town by now. Although I consider this entirely likely, I can also visualise only too well the consequences of heading back down, only to discover she had indeed stayed behind, so we part company and Mick heads down the hill without the burden of Captain Slow and I trundle the Falcone down the dusty path and across a ford onto the grassy plateau where I find a spot flat enough to deploy the centre-stand and spend a fruitless 10 minutes trying to get the side-stand spring to stay on, before lashing it back up again.
I can see no sign of Ali or of her bike but there are dozens scattered around, so I spend a futile 20 minutes or so searching just to be sure. There's a wooden building like a Swiss Chalet on the far side of the flat area and I discover this is a cafe and shop where I purchase a can of ice cold Moretti which is consumed with gusto on the limp back to the bike and I feel reinvigorated as I head off for the last leg down the hill. I stop just once, overlooking a dam and the stunning breach in the rocks that is the valley back into town, where I meet a couple from Ukraine who are just heading up. We swap cameras to take shots of each other before I take the last leg back into town where everyone else has been gathered at the Station, sinking cold beers for quite some time it seems.
Both bike and I are completely covered in white dust and mud but, apart from the broken side-stand and the leaking fuel, we're pretty much unscathed by the experience and the bike's still fit enough to take in the Singles Rally once we get back, although further investigation reveals that the fuel tank is split and leaking in three different places and there's also significant play in the swinging arm and steering head. Clearly the ride didn't do it any favours, but bikes are for riding after all and there's no adventure leaving them in the garage.
Of course I celebrate the lofty achievement with another cold beer; not a Stella unfortunately, for this is Italy after all, but a Moretti to wash down the first and most likely last ascent of the Stella Alpina on the Mighty Falcone. It seems equally appropriate.
It's over these beers that one of our companions reveals that last year, someone did go over the edge taking out not only themselves, but another two bikes from the lower level and I reflect that it's a good job they hadn't mentioned that in the morning... And that's the point; all this terror and challenge for me is but a walk in the park to those who have been doing it for twenty, thirty and forty years. They follow the day's activities with a few days of 'Safaris' up adjoining mountain passes, all of which look equally tough to me, but they are equally blasé about these, putting my little adventure into stark perspective as just another ride up a hill....
The van? Well, I wouldn't have got there without it, so from now on vans are just fine by me and I can live with that. Cheaper too with only one fuel cost and free accommodation if you're not too fussy where you stay, plus you keep the bikes fresher for the important bit and limit the mileage. Carry on Vanning I say; it reaches the parts old fools on old bikes can't reach.
Captain Slow: 14.11.19