Alex Keefe discovers what happens when a novice rider tackles The Alps…
All images Alex and Stephen Keefe
It would have been fitting if freezing rain and high winds had battered us on the way to the ferry port. Instead, the nervous anxiety bubbling in my stomach was belied by the calm weather smoothing our ride along the A3.
Warm, balmy air circled gently inside my helmet as I consciously adjusted my rigid posture. I was riding a ruby red 2013 Honda CB500X and after sixteen months of itching to ride it, I expected to feel ecstatic. Instead, I’d spent the hours before our departure on tenterhooks, wondering if my nerve would hold.
It was late September 2018 and I was on my way to ride over one of the tallest mountain ranges in Europe, the Alps, having just passed my full-access motorbike test. Squinting into the midmorning sun, I considered – not for the first time – the naivety of my boldness in this undertaking and whether this was, in fact, the riskiest adventure I’d ever embarked on. To many in the biking community, I’m sure, this sinuous mountain range is mere small fry. But for a novice rider, a trip over the Alps is a daunting undertaking indeed.
Ironically, as a documentary camera operator, I’d happily climbed into various unsuitable vehicles and headed off into the unknown. Putting my life in the hands of reckless, fate-tempting petrol heads, without too much thought. In the spirit of my gung-ho profession, I’d even dragged a small underpowered scooter over the Atlas Mountains, my camera stashed under the seat. But the difference was stark. Instead of following people on dinky 50cc monkey bikes, this time I would have real power to tussle, and a group of very experienced bikers to keep up with.
More than two years prior, I’d sat cross-legged on Dad’s lounge carpet as we spent hours poring over large-scale maps of Europe. He reminisced about his many European adventures – including one trip to the Alps ten years before – describing with gusto the dramatic landscape, twisting mountain roads and gut-wrenching vertical hairpin bends. This trip, however, was cut short. The group had run out of time, skipping the northern route and turning their backs on some of the best roads in the Alps. Dad’s disappointment had clearly vexed him for a decade.
Right then and there, with his 60th birthday on the horizon, he set his sights on the Route des Grandes Alpes once more and before I knew it, I’d signed myself up too.
“Fantastic!” he enthused, “so you’ll have just over two years to pass your test, buy a bike and get some practice in, what do you think? Are you up for it? You’ll definitely want to make sure you’ve got a few short trips under your belt by that point, it’s going to be pretty technical riding…” he paused, his expression apprehensive. “And you’ll be riding with some slightly more experienced riders” he added, tactfully. The reality was, the ‘slightly more experienced riders’ would each have roughly 20 years of biking experience and many overland trips under their belts. Concerned though I was, the challenge was simply too good to turn down.
Picking at a torn corner of the flimsy map, my mind flicked back to travelling in the Dolomites years before as a teenager. Riding pillion on dad’s Triumph Sprint, I’d watched helplessly as we negotiated the tight uphill bends, vying for tarmac with top-heavy tourist buses. It didn’t help that midway through the trip the Sprint’s automatic chain oiler malfunctioned, the device gradually dousing the rear brake disc until the polished steel glowed an ominous bright blue. With trepidation we continued, without the use of the brake. There were no major issues, but the fear of overshooting the mountain edge and tumbling into a ravine stayed with me.
This was, however, long before I was to ride myself. That moment came years later, in Vietnam, when I hopped on a scooter for the first time. After riding it straight into a bush outside my hostel – an inevitable rite of passage, it seemed – I spent many blissful days cruising through the lush national parks, exploring the rugged landscape on two wheels. And it wasn’t long before I realised that this, undoubtedly, was the best way to see the world.
Back in the UK, with a learner’s permit in hand, it was no surprise that I found suburban riding a far cry from the tranquil hills of the South-East Asia. Astride my 10hp Honda 125 through the grey, nondescript landscape, I was often weighed down by frustration as I grappled with my lack of confidence and skill.
Digging deep into my reserves, I would attempt to muster the dwindling enthusiasm that I had stockpiled in Vietnam. I knew that riding in England would be a different experience, but I hadn’t anticipated the mental challenge. What’s more, I wasn’t prepared for the journey I would take in pursuit of becoming a ‘fully fledged’ biker; one of disappointment, setbacks and dogged determination.
To cut a long (and tedious) story short, in the two years that proceeded, I visited the test centre no fewer than 6 times. At some point during this period I eventually passed my module 1 (the 1st part of the license) and decided to buy a second-hand 48hp Honda CB500X. But that pesky license still seemed to elude me.
With a year left before the Alps trip, and my module 2 test booked (again) and only weeks away, I headed out one afternoon on my 125. My goal was to get some much-needed practice in. After an hour or so of cornering and incessant mirror checks, I was heading down a quiet residential street when the driver of a tall, white Mercedes Sprinter decided to pull out of a side junction, without checking to his right.
Observing this manoeuvre metres in front of me, instinct took over and I grabbed a handful of the front brake. Big mistake. Within a split second I’d gone from upright and aware, to flat on my left side and dizzy; skidding towards the barricading vehicle in a crushing synergy of textile and tarmac. The Sprinter stopped and so did I. But I had become wedged between the road and its cold metal underbelly.
I was forced to delay the test process again while I waited for my cracked ribs to heal. My confidence would be harder to repair. Luckily, I was stubbornly defiant and if anything, the accident only strengthened my resolve. Biking was dangerous, accidents can and do happen, but if this was a sign that I should give up trying, I simply wouldn’t accept it.
Finally, in June of 2018, I passed the second part of my bike test. The license was finally mine. With just weeks to go, and despite my elation, I was still plagued by anxiety about the trip. The fact remained that I was inexperienced and had barely ridden my new CB500X. My biggest concern, however, was not plunging into a ravine, but being the weakest rider of the group. I didn’t want to become a liability or hinder the trip due to my lack of experience.
With only a week to go, I checked my email inbox and found I’d been offered a last-minute place on an advanced motorcycle skills training course. Although as a novice I was intimidated by the word ‘advanced’, I decided to take the spot. For a full day, I practised doing tight turns on full lock, using solely clutch control and rear brake, as well as high-speed slaloms, emergency brakes and swerving around a person at speed (yes, really).
Finally, in the last few days before the trip, something extraordinary happened. I stopped questioning my ability and I made a deal with myself. Despite my fears, I was going to put my all into this trip. And at the end, if I didn’t absolutely love biking, if I didn’t feel that intoxicating, soul-reaffirming feeling that I had experienced before, then I would end my biking career there and then. Departing on sorry but definite terms. There was no shame in that outcome, only in letting fear prevent me from trying.
We had been riding for six days. Our five bikes were now tentatively ascending a narrow Alpine road that was knitted neatly into the landscape. Ashen rock formations rose up around us. Great pyramids of granite with white snowy caps dominated the horizon. Ahead, the road dipped in and out of view, clinging to the protruding rock face like a tenacious plant vine.
Beneath my helmet, my lips curled in anticipation. A series of perfect bends had just revealed themselves. Exhaling a steady, confident breath, I mapped out my next move. Tap the rear brake, clutch in, down to 3rd and gently release, sailing around the first bend with excellent road positioning. Encouraged and engrossed, I held my focus and the next three bends felt effortless.
In the distance, small rocks gently trickled down the slopes as I tore through the mountain range, surfing on a wave of euphoria. Finally, a long, straight stretch of sparkling tarmac came into focus, leading to the ultimate hairpin bend, before the summit.
As we rounded the final corner and I caught sight of the words ‘Col de la Bonette, elevation 2,715 m’ on the brown tourist sign, I felt the hairs on the back of my arm stand on end. I came to a stop, flicked off the engine and firmly released my grip on the handlebars. Sitting motionless, I exhaled the warm, sweet adrenaline and inhaled the cold bitter mountain air. The bet had paid off. Triumphantly, I dismounted.
Murray, a rider from our group of five, pulled me to one side and whispered “that was some brilliant riding, I was genuinely struggling to keep up with you”. I blinked back in disbelief, my head still buzzing from the ride. Next Dave, one of the most experienced riders in our group, approached me. Squeezing my shoulder gently, he beamed a wide knowing grin “well done – you’re clearly a natural!”
One by one the members of the group came over to congratulate me. It was hard to take in these small words of praise. It was the first time since we started the trip that I had stopped to acknowledge how far I’d come, and the group clearly saw it too. I felt a real sense of achievement and self-pride. Not only had I earned the respect of my fellow riders, but I remembered why I had felt so galvanized to persist with biking. And now that electrifying feeling was roaring deep in my core. On the apex of that mountain, I felt all the stress of the build-up to the trip, and the years preceding, fall away.
From a perpetual learner with a written-off 125, to a fully-fledged novice, I had managed to find my feet as a legitimate rider. My lack of confidence, which was largely unfounded, was the only true obstacle that I had to overcome. I owe a lot of my preparedness to FireBike, a free motorcycle training course offered by the Essex Fire Service. This was probably the best thing I could have done to prepare for the trip and without this last-minute crash course, I don’t think the trip would have turned out the way that it did.