Riding: The San Boldo Pass is the perfect test of rider and machine


The roads in Veneto are motorbiking heaven, and the mountains and hills of the Dolomites are the ultimate playground. They’re the perfect mixture of fast, flowing, open bends together with tight, technical and challenging tighter corners. And the best bit? Base yourself somewhere central like Asolo and you’ll have a myriad of great roads and riding just 30 minutes from your doorstep.

A round-trip from Asolo to the San Boldo Pass and back is a perfect four-hour test of rider and machine. The back roads heading out from Asolo are great for warming up tyres and getting your eye in; there’s nothing too technical here, but there’s some nice riding as the road rises and falls as it cuts its way between the hills, then the speed increases considerably when you pick up the main toad to Feltre. It’s fast and grippy, with flowing bends carving their way through the valley floor. The tarmac is bumpy in places, enough to keep you on your toes, and the occasional rut in the road is deep enough to suck tyres in and take you off line, but never enough to feel out of control.

And then the fun really starts when you leave the main road and follow the ancient ‘Prosecco Road’ as it snakes it way from vineyard to vineyard. There’s a mixture of all kinds of bends, from really tight and slow hairpins to kneedown fast sweepers, though the higher up the valley you go, the more the road narrows, the surface becomes more agricultural and the amount of traffic increases considerably; there are cyclists and fellow riders everywhere, making it hard to find a rhythm and any sense of flow.

I’m riding my RSV-R Aprilia Factory R with another RSV-R for company, mine running open Akras and the other running open one-off Termis, and the noise of our Twins booming off the rockface next to the narrow road we’re racing along is intoxicating, especially the banging, crackling and popping as we downshift in unison. But that’s nothing compared to the sound we make as we attack the San Boldo Pass from the Tovena side.

The San Boldo Pass is nothing short of invigorating. It may only be 11 miles long, but it’s very challenging, with hairpin after hairpin to test you as the road snakes its way up the side of the mountain range. Every hairpin is first gear, and as soon as you exit and snick up to second, maybe third, you’ll find yourself hard on the brakes as you bang down the box and tip the bike in ready to double back on yourself. Boom, braaaaaaap, boom, cackle, pop, boom, braaaaaaaap, boom, cackle, pop. Over and over and over again.

The highlight of this section of tarmac is undoubtedly the Mountain Pass, the SP 635, which consists of five tunnels with hairpin turns, and six bridges. Yes, hairpin turns within tunnels. This part of the road is narrow, really narrow, and is one-direction only, controlled by traffic lights. As we approach the lights, they’re red and as we filter to the front of the queue we kill our engines. All we can hear is the feral wail of a big-twin attacking the climb we’ve just done ourselves, followed by the high pitch whine of an inline four. It sounds like victory. After a couple of minutes, a Ducati Multistrada and a Kawasaki Z1000 join us at the head of the queue as we wait for the lights to go green.

And after another two minutes, the lights change and it’s our turn to complete the San Bolo Pass. The noise as our small ragtag army of four bikes tackles the tunnels is loud, so, so loud. It’s amazing. The tunnels themselves are really narrow, and the first gear hairpins are really, really tight, with very little room for error. Then it’s a quick blast into the open air, over a bridge before banging down through the box, darting into another tunnel and turning back on yourself.

It’s hard work. Fun yes, but really hard work, and by the time we get to the top, and pull into the Guesthouse at Genziana, the bikes’ engines are pinging and the brakes and rubber feel red hot. A beer has never been so well deserved. It’s 28 degrees, I’m knackered and I’m smiling like an idiot. Why? Because I know I’ve got to do it all again to get home. Bring it on…

Better riding – how to ride in the wet

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Wet weather riding tips – the basics of riding in the wet are the same as riding in the dry. The secret is in staying smooth…

RELAX – Many riders don’t enjoy riding in the wet and most actually avoid it where possible. It’s completely the wrong approach. The reality is that the skills you need in the wet are exactly the same as those you need when you’re riding in the dry, namely you need to be smooth with your inputs and you need to be relaxed on the bike.

The biggest secret to good bike control is to ensure you’re in the right riding position. You need to be comfortable and leant forward slightly, with your arms bent – they need to be parallel to the road, and this allows you to steer the bike with the lightest of touches. This is important. If you’re holding too tight and the bike slides in the wet, this movement will be amplified and you’ll actually stop the bike from correcting itself.

CORNERING – Another mistake many riders make in the wet is that they corner too gingerly. I’m not talking about really attacking bends, but riding confidently and making progress. If you tip-toe through the corners, virtually upright, on a closed throttle, you’re not generating any cornering force and your tyres will be generating very little grip. It’s a viscous circle – the bike’s feels nervous and twitchy, you back off, the bike feels even worse, so you back off more.

It sounds crazy, but by riding more confidently and smoothly, you’ll actually be generating some cornering and braking forces, which in turn allows the tyres to grip. Still not convinced? Then try this – gently side your fingers across glass and they will simply glide across. Now try it again but this time push down with increasing force and they will begin to dig into the surface. Again the secret is smoothness.

ACCELERATING – Good throttle control is the key to wet weather riding, and I’m amazed at how few rides are able to demonstrate this basic, but essential, skill. Again, it’s all about smoothness – any big input will break traction and light the rear up, whereas smoothly winding the throttle provides drive and traction.

BRAKING – The best way to brake in the wet is to brake exactly the same as you would in the dry – squeeze the lever and apply it progressively. Never, ever grab, as any sudden input will break traction.

You won’t be able to brake as hard as you would in the dry, and this needs to be reflect in your riding, but you can still brake surprisingly hard.

The rear brake comes into its own in the wet, and by trying to provoke a rear-wheel lock up I can use it as a gauge for assessing how much grip is available – a vital tool for helping you to ride to the conditions.

ROAD POSITIONING – Wet weather means you’ll have to compromise your road position. Road markings, cat’s eyes, manhole covers and overbanding will all be very, very slippery and all should be avoided where possible.

You may also have to adjust your position on corners as gravel could be sitting on your ideal line, so keep your vision up, look as far forward as possible and try and anticipate any hazards.

Caught by the fuzz

CBR nabbed

It’s 4.30pm in the afternoon, I’ve been riding for some nine hours already, and I’ve wasted the best part of 90 minutes getting lost on the outskirts of Prague. I’d lost the signs for Brno as soon as I entered Prague and quickly found myself snared in its ring road system – pulling over to ask for directions didn’t help either; the further east you go, the greater the language barrier. And the problem with riding with no maps or sat nav and relying on a crude set of directions stuck to the tank is that once you deviate from said route you’re screwed.

After finally extracting the CBR 600-RR from any one of the featureless roads feeding Prague’s endless industrial estates I picked up the E65 and saws signs for Brno, still some 130 miles away.

The traffic thinned out after twenty or so miles and the CBR’s tank had just been brimmed, so I decided to gun it and cover as much ground as possible in as short time as possible. The next hour or so disappeared in blur as I cut my way through traffic, comfortably cursing around the 120mph mark, happily minding my own business and dreaming of a cold pint and a hearty steak.

After draining another tank I stopped to refuel. I was now only 30 miles from Brno. And then it happened. As I overtook the clapped out red Skoda on my right, I glanced over and saw a video camera gaffer taped to the dash pointing forwards. It looked odd but as I checked out the driver and passenger, a couple of weary middle-aged men, I didn’t think any more of it and as I left them behind and they got smaller and smaller in my mirrors I forgot about them completely. Soon they had disappeared from sight altogether and my mind started drifting to getting out of my leathers and enjoying a hot shower.

Five minutes later I saw a some blue lights in the distance. I looked down at my clocks, eased off the gas and cruised to the inside lane. They couldn’t be for me – I pretty much had the road to myself. Must be an accident somewhere. I glanced in the mirrors again and they were much closer; they were clearly shifting. And then they were alongside me, a red police stop matrix sign flashing angrily in the brand new VW Passat’s rear windscreen.

I pulled over and was instructed to follow them. After some five minutes’ riding we pulled into a lay-by and were greeted by three riot vans and two marked squad cars. I removed my helmet and was surrounded by police. They spoke no English, I spoke no Czech. There’s an uneasy stand-off until I started talking German to one of the female cops. ‘This your bike?’ Well, no actually it wasn’t. It’s a Honda press bike. ‘Does Mr Honda know you have his bike?’ Yes, I guess so. After handing over my passport, driving licence and the bike’s V5 and certificate of insurance, the battered red Skoda pulls up. “You were speeding. We have film of you doing 140kph in a 80kph limit.” I ask to see the film. They decline…the camera’s not working. They’re going to impound the bike or I can pay a €350 fine. I hunt through my wallet – I’ve got €25 in shrapnel. The cops in the unmarked Passat offer to take me to a cashpoint, but I’ll have to leave the bike, the key, my Arai, my Kriega rucksack, my passport and my driving licence with their mates in the lay-by. It doesn’t feel right, but I’ve got no choice.

After some 20-minutes in the car the road we’re on is getting narrower and narrower as we head further into the wilderness. It’s getting darker too. The silence isn’t helping the mood, and I realise I’ve no idea if these are real police or not – I haven’t seen a single piece of ID yet, and the Skoda was clearly fucked. I’m trying to exude calmness on the outside but inside my stomach’s doing cartwheels and my mind’s racing away from me, my thoughts bouncing off the rev limiter– they’ve got guns, nobody knows where I am or what’s going on. It reminded me very much of when I had got carjacked in a new TT at a petrol station in Latvia when I was working for Audi…I could just sense something was going to happen.

And then in the middle of nowhere we pulled up, and there on the corner was a cashpoint. I withdrew the cash, handed it over and the mood changed instantly. The policemen’s grimaces were replaced with smiles, they started laughing and joking, and even put some music on the radio. I started to relax.

We eventually double backed on ourselves, rejoined the motorway and arrived back at the lay-by, bike and luggage exactly where I’d left it. I got out the car, asked for a receipt and they just smiled and drove off. And the others did the same. I’d clearly just been robbed, in broad daylight by the police, and there was fuck all I could do about it. Their beers were very much on me tonight.

I suited up, fired up the bike and cautiously made my way to Brno, still seething inside my lid.

When I look back on it, it’s things like this that make trips abroad. I loved that bike, proper loved it and can remember pretty much every one of the 24,000 miles we covered in the six months I had it in 2010. Yes, I’d been royally shafted by the people who were supposed to protect me, but it could’ve been worse…they could have recorded my real speed.