Personally I think the most amazing time to ride in the Alps is late May and early June when the passes open for the season. This is when the alps still have snow and it makes for some incredible photos. It’s also a brilliant buzz to ride the roads when you have 1-3 meters of snow piled up either side of the road.
Of course there is a down side as it’s very hard to predict when the passes will open, there is no definite date as it’s totally dependent on Mother Nature. The main routes, the ones used by commercial traffic are generally open throughout the year, but the tourist routes, the D roads e.g. D902 will only be cleared when the local authorities are sure there it will not snow again.
In the French Alps, the highest passes near and north of Briancon (Cols Galibier, Iserian) may not open until late June. But even if these passes are still closed there are many lower passes you can choose from if for example you want to ride the Route des Grande Alpes in late May. I’ve done it many times, you just have to go with the flow and adjust your route if necessary.
Once you get to the more southern Barcelonnette area almost every pass should be open by late May or the 1st week of June with the exception of La Bonnette, Col d’Allos and Col des Champs.
July and August are obviously the most popular times but you will have to contend with a lot of tourist traffic. Make sure you avoid running into the Tour de France circus, check the dates and routes of this before you go to avoid. Unless camping booking hotels etc before you go is also a good idea, if not you’ll need to start looking for a hotel around 5-6pm.
The Pyrenees is roughly the same in all of the above. The main exception is August when the Pyrenees is flooded with Spanish looking to escape the oppressive heat of Madrid. August is when most Spanish office and factory workers take their holidays and head to either the coast, the Picos or Pyrenees. So, between the heat and the tourist traffic you will not see me in the Pyrenees in August.
A lot depends on you and the bike you’re riding. But I’d never plan on riding much more than 300km in a day in the Alps or Pyrenees. The alpine roads require a lot of concentration, add altitude into the mix and you will start to tire after 250km. If your day includes fairly regular photo stops and say an hour for lunch a 300km route equates to a solid 8 hours in the saddle. So, for a 300km route through the Alps/Pyrenees you should plan to hit the road by 9:00am to arrive at your hotel for around 6pm, tired but relaxed with plenty of time for a shower before looking for a meal and a pint or two. If you are short on time and have to do high miles then avoid alcohol and caffeine which will do you no favors at high altitudes. Higher altitudes also increase the risk of dehydration so at a minimum you need to drink half a liter of water every 150km assuming you are fit and not starting the day dehydrated from the beers of the night before.
As long as it’s reliable, has good brakes, a minimum 200km fuel range, and you can handle plenty of hairpin turns on it you’re good to go. Be sure to have it properly serviced before you go and I strongly recommend fresh tyres, brake pads and fluids. Also be sure your battery is good to cold start your bike in the mornings as even in mid summer the temperature can plummet below 0C overnight at higher altitudes. The last thing you want is to be looking for a new battery, brake pads or tyres half way through your trip.
Yes and no. Fuel stations can easily be 100 km apart depending on your route which is fine for most bikes. However many of the stations in remote areas or ski stations are now unmanned/automatic, so a credit/debit card is essential. Also beware some of the auto petrol stations may put a standard pre-charge of up to €100, they then pay you back the difference at the end of their fiscal week or month. This means your bank account can get cleaned out shockingly quickly while on a tour. The auto stations, especially those in France, Italy and Spain are a pain and can often be confusing, especially if it’s your first time using one. Some manned stations also require you to pay before you fuel up. Also look for fake credit card ID scanners in auto stations placed by the local scum bags.
Do not rely on a SatNav to find a petrol station for you. I can’t remember how many times I’ve turned up to a station indicated by my Garmin only to find the station has been turned into a chemist or simply went out of business as long ago as the mid 1980’s.
If I’m on a bike with a 300km range I never ride more than 200km without stopping for fuel, the last 100km or last 5ltrs of juice in my tank I view as my reserve unless I know exactly where I am and where I am sure of finding an open fuel station. Also remember, in rural areas even the maned fuel stations close for lunch between 1pm and 3 or even 4pm.
The exception is the Spanish side of the Pyrenees where fuel stations are plentiful, have fuel attendants/cashiers, and most do not close for lunch. Many will also have a little tapas bar which is great if you don’t want to waste the best part of a day sitting around in a restaurant. You can find one close to almost every border pass as they get good business from the local French who cross over into Spain to buy cheaper fuel, booze and tobacco.
I now ride a BMW F800GS Adventure which has a range of about 450km+ which I have to say has added to the stress-free freedoms of riding motorbikes in rural areas. I’ve come across many lads who carry a few liters of juice in 1ltr fuel bottles. I’ve rarely done this as it adds unnecessary weight to the bike, if you adopt my minimum 100km of fuel in the tank rule as your reserve level you won’t need to carry fuel bottles.
Yep, and you’ll need more than that. The weather is highly unpredictable in any mountain range in any country. To give you a good example, in 2013 the ski stations closed in May for the season in the Pyrenees – as is usual. They reopened again for a few weeks is June as I called my 2nd tour of the 2013 season short as the weather became dangerous! In the high Pyrenees it was snowing in June, followed by rapid melting, torrential rain, hail and flash floods. All across the Alps the conditions were similar. Over the years I’ve experienced very cold weather in mid summer in the Alps and these days the weather has become even more erratic everywhere it seems due to global warming or whatever.
In the Alps in from late June to early September it’s more than likely you will have blue skies and 20+ degrees C, but it’s not guaranteed! On a bad day it can easily be 5C and hammering hail!
In the Pyrenees from mid June to late September you’ll more than likely see 25C+, but in the early part of the season thunderstorms are common, especially in the western/Atlantic end of the mountain range.
Long story short, even in July/August you need to pack good rain gear, mid level base layers and a set of gloves suitable for a northern UK/Ireland style spring/autumn as well as summer kit for riding in the Alps.
The Pyrenees is generally warmer, in July-August it’s usually baking hot, especially on the Spanish side. If I hit bad weather on the French side 9 times out of 10 I’ll ride into glorious weather by crossing over onto the Spanish side. If it gets too hot on the Spanish side in June/July I’ll bugger off to the French side were it’s a bit more pleasant, being Irish with delicate pain skin there is only so much heat I can handle
Also be aware that temperature and weather conditions can change drastically with altitude. If I hit cool temperatures (6 to 10C) and wet weather at an altitude of 800 meters it’s a fair bet that it will be 0C or lower with sleet or snow along with zero visibility at 2600 meters. So, if it’s already cold and wet at 800 meters I’ll check my route to be sure the road I’m on won’t take me higher than 1500 meters, I’ll not venture much higher in bad weather as it’s not worth the risk from a safety viewpoint. More than once I’ve rode into the center of a storm cell at high altitudes and it was always a terrifying experience.
Avoiding thunderstorms in the mountains is not always possible. If you do ride into one your best option is always seek shelter indoors. Do not keep riding your bike on an open mountain side if lightning is close. It is a myth that rubber soled shoes/boots or car/motorbike tyres will shield you from an electrical discharge, and the bikes electrical field may help attract a strike.
Thunder and lightening storms are very common in the Pyrenees and particularly frequent in the western Pyrenees and central and southern Alp regions from May to the end of June so you’d be doing yourself a big favor by taking this advice seriously.
If you have a smartphone be sure you have a good weather app installed and check it every evening and morning before you head out. If it was raining the night before keep a sharp eye on the roads as rain run off will drag debris, even large boulders onto the alpine roads. Even in good weather never assume the road around the next blind corner is clear as hikers, sheep or goats on the mountain sides can still cause loose rocks to roll out onto the roads.
Todays best seller is the GoPro by a long way – However I strongly suspect this has mostly been due to very good marketing. The GoPro is a traditional style camera adapted for action applications in a small form factor. I don’t use the GoPro as I don’t think it’s particularly well suited for a motorcyclist.
Recently I’ve seen lads wearing the GoPro mounted on a chest harness which is fucking insane! If you were to come off a bike at any speed and land front down or roll any cam strapped to your chest will pulverise your ribcage and internal organs. Avoid, Avoid, Avoid this madness!!!
Arguably from a safety point it’s bad enough having a cam stuck to your helmet, but it will more than likely break off as soon as you hit the dirt and not enhance your woes from multiple impacts on soft tissue like one attached over your easily mashable lungs or heart.
Never forget, a motorcyclist’s first and primary duty is do everything he/she can possibly do to ensure a safe ride and return home to their loved ones in one piece. Strapping a hard object like an action cam over vulnerable and rather essential organs that are almost guaranteed to receive multiple impacts during a spill is the height of stupidity.
Personally I use the Drift Action cams (HD170, HD Ghost) which have a form factor far more suitable to attach to a motorbike helmet. Bullet style cams have a good form factor too, however they have their own set of drawbacks and limitations which I find too restrictive.
The quality of the video file itself is absolutely key to the process. Both the GoPro and the Drift produce similar video qualities, there are some differences between the two, but after a bit of post processing the resulting video will be excellent on both. So, in the real world where video enhancement editing is implemented any argument where someone’s opinion states that one cam produces a better picture over the other is essentially irrelevant. For example, Sony DSLR’s produce a picture slightly colder than Canon DSLR’s, but with a few tweaks in photoshop or the like you can adjust the picture’s warmth, contrast etc. with video this can also be done with editing software like Sony Vegas. Different tool, same principle.
Straight from the camera the video may not look great which can be because of ambient light effecting the picture. But because of the quality of the video itself (captured data) it can be processed and enhanced “fixed” in exactly the same way as with still digital photos adjusting the color saturation, sharpness, contrast etc to create a great, almost studio quality video all through the length of the video. So, as for the action cam I’d recommend either the GoPro or the Drift action cams for this, personally I choose the Drift simply due to it’s physical dimensions and form which for me make far more sense when attaching to a helmet. If you only intend to attach a cam to the bike itself then what physical form your device takes makes little difference, ease of use, functions and price can be your main reasons for choosing one over another.
The main points when choosing an action cam as a biker for me are:
- Form factor
- Ease of use
- Battery life
- Video quality
- Memory card size
Your next consideration will be choosing how to mount the cam, if your mounting to the bike the best way is to choose RAM Mounts, this company makes excellent mounting systems for just about every device including the Drift and GoPro cams. I usually attach my Drift Ghost Cam to the side of my helmet with high strength velcro for 3 main reasons:
- It gives an excellent natural feeling perspective – a great pilots eye view of the bikes cockpit and the road ahead.
- This location works with the bike and helmets natural wind deflection characteristics which helps deflect flies, rain, debris away from the cams lens.
- As I use velcro to attach it to my helmet it’s not a permanent fixture which make’s it legal. I use just enough velcro so it’s securely fixed while riding, but not so much that it won’t fall off easily in the event of a spill.
With mounting the GoPro on a helmet it’s a different ball game which is a big reason I don’t use it, the perspective is unnatural and it suffers from wind blast as it sits high on top or off to the side, so you have to clean the lens regularly. It’s all too easy to spot the lads videoing their ride with a GoPro as they look like they have some form of big mad mushroom sprouting out of their lids
The next tool for action videos is the post processing software, with still digital photos many use Photoshop or Canons version Digital Photo Professional for editing. With video you also need specific editing software, I use Sony Vegas Pro which gives great bang for the buck. It’s easy and fun to learn with plenty of tutorials on YouTube as it’s the video editing software of choice for many amateurs and professionals alike. Video editing is another essential skill, but the basics of creating a colorful, balanced, clear video is exactly the same as in still photography. I’ve just upgraded to Vegas Pro 13 which has some major color and definition enhancement tools which makes a massive difference to the video.
For example in September 2014 I rode from Donegal on the North west Coast of Ireland to Almeria in South East Spain via the Pyrenees, the theme if this route was to capture the wildly differing landscapes in photos and video. The constantly changing light, weather and colors of this 2 week ride could have been a major challenge, and it was to a point. With a DLSR it’s easy to compensate for light levels as you can quickly change the camera’s settings to suit the light etc. With an action cam it’s far more difficult to do on the fly as you ride which is why mastering editing software is such a big deal in this game.
Here is a link to my latest vid of my Donegal to Almeria trip edited in Vegas Pro 13 If you watch the Ireland section carefully you’ll see a lot of dull, overcast clouds which created flat, muted colors on the unedited origional recording, with the editing software I was able to bring out the real color of the grass etc which makes all the difference to creating a vibrante video. The way I edit, adjust or enhance both digital photos and video is exactly the same, only the tools differ.
Use Michelin Maps. This is for historical reasons. The Michelin company was originally a french company that manufactured rubber way back in the long long ago. With the advent of cars they started making tyres and then helped construct the french road network. They then went on to secure the contract for making all the road signs in France. Then they started making maps which were color coded to match the road signs, the colors of which they still hold the copyright of.. Therefore, while navigating France via a paper map, Michelin Maps are the only maps that are color coded to match all road signs. So, as long as you are not color blind, it’s a littler easier to use Michelin Maps then say AA maps.
It’s then easy to find scenic rides, just look for the D roads that have a green highlight running alongside them. Of course there is a little more to it than that, trial and error, exploration and talking to fellow bikers local to the area etc. Another good resource to help plan your route is Michelins website www.viamichelin.com, chose motorbike, discovery route, no tolls in the route options list and it will produce a good route option to use as a base route which you can fine tune to suit yourself best.
Michelin produce 3 main types of road maps, these are colour coded:
Red Cover – Large Scale National Maps.
These give you an overall view of the whole country (you see the big picture) with all the main routes viewable, good for planning a quick route from Cherbourg to Cannes using primary roads. Not good for viewing junctions, many small regional (Pyrenees/Alpine Passes) roads will not be listed. I tend to use these in my initial planning stage to work out my route from Roscoff the Grenoble for example. On the road however the red maps are hard to use and lack the detail you need for anything other than motorways. One of these is good to have stuck on your tank bag to navigate the motorway from Calais to Lyon.
Orange Cover – These are regional maps which show primary and secondary road networks.
They will also show scenic routes so perfect for fine tuning your route. I’d usually carry a few of these with me in the tank bag to cover all areas I’ll be riding. For riding the Route des Grandes Alpes for example I’d at least carry:
Yellow Cover – Local Maps.
These show a very detailed view within each French department, these are what you want for really exploring the tiny backroads of an area. Or, say my final destination was Nice and I wanted to explore to Cote d’Azure I’d also carry the following two maps:
For more info on road types and navigating in Europe and answers to other questions see my Virgins Guide to Touring »