Stella Alpina 2005: The Polenta Riders

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The Story


If memory serves well, it all started around fall 2004 ... Spanish Bob (who is not Spanish at all) launched a poll at the website, asking for ideas about a European AdvRider meeting. Later, GiorgioXT continued the organisation and it finally turned out that the "Stella Alpina" would provide both a suitable location and date. The second week-end in July should guarantee nice weather, the region offers lots of legal gravel and the landscape is gorgeous anyway.

Being more the occasional lurker on Advrider, I came into this rather late. However, Stella has infected me ever since I have been there in 2002 and the idea of meeting even more crazy people sounded like a good excuse to take some of my holidays. Let's go!


For a start ...

The weather forecast for this weekend, at least in Switzerland, was not too nice, but I was hoping for a time similar to 2004: Rain until the very last moment and then lots of sun throughout the whole weekend. Indeed it started not too bad ... friends from southern Germany turned up at our place on thursday evening and on friday morning the sky was seriously overcast but it was dry.

We started from my home (near Lausanne) on friday morning and even the huge black rainfront over Geneva withdrew while we were coming closer. We managed to cross the city on a Friday morning around 08:30 without any traffic problems (was this really Geneva?) and into France. Still overcast, some occasional light rain but mostly dry, and temperatures were fine for riding.

GiorgioXT had set a meeting point at the Col de l'Iseran around lunchtime, which is almost exactly 250 km from my place. Starting at about 07:30, this gave us an ETA of 12:30 if we would stick to the route suggested by ViaMichelin. Of course we didn't and the occasional gravel road, smoker's stops, a loose steering head bearing on one of our bikes, roadworks and a flock of cows crossing the street near Bourg-St Maurice made us arrive at the Col around 13:30. Still in time, since the whole bunch of AdvRiders (who did not yet know they would soon become PolentaRiders) was assembled in the café.

Meet the AdvRiders

As usual, Col de l'Iseran is a cold and windy place (2770 m, what did you expect?), so - after picking up Capnopol's Caponord, who opened the "drop your bike" competition - thirteen bikes with fourteen people headed south. The way to Susa leads via the Col du Mont-Cenis, which presented itself as a turquoise-green jewel embedded in a green-and-yellow landscape under an alpine-blue-white sky. Following the road on the west coast of the lake, we made a stop at the Refuge du Petit Mt.-Cenis (2110 m). The Crêpes are recommended :-)

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Colle delle Finestre

Next step ... down to Susa, yet another stop. I briefly started to ask myself if this was going to be an old man's party since we seemed to stop every few minutes ... but it turned out that someone merely needed to pull money from a wall to be able to buy some, uhm, "throat disinfectant".

From there, up to the Colle delle Finestre. Those who did not know the area were greeted by this sign, which is Italian and means "motorcycle paradise ahead" ;-). A part of that road has been re-paved recently (Giro d'Italia), but this did not reduce the fun of riding since several of the lower hairpins were decorated with a fine layer of dust or gravel ...

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After twenty-something of the thirty hairpins in the lower part it started to get slightly boring, but the upper part of the Colle (with another 24 turns) is a gravel highway. Bavarian was so fascinated by the landscape that he got off his GS even before we reached the summit (he was not the only one undergoing increased gravity, but at least I had my camera ready ;-). And since this happened in the shadow, he was so kind to repeat the figure in the next turn, which was in the sun and where he scratched the valve covers on the other side (think symmetry!). Unfortunately no photo here.

From Colle delle Finestre (2176 m) it was just a short jump to the Agriturismo Plane dell'Alpe where GiorgioXT had arranged for dinner and sleep. This was where we had the first Polenta, of course preceded by a series of appetizers and accompanied by sufficient amounts of red wine. Three friends of Giorgio joined us during the evening, two of them on real motorcycles: An 1981 R80 G/S and a difficult-to-date XLV750. Outside, a few clouds were coming up and the rifugio was soon in the shadow of the setting sun. I postponed the compulsory picture of the site for the next morning, when I thought we would have a bright sunny morning sky with a gorgeous view.

Nobody knew that this was going to be an error.

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Waking up on Saturday morning, it was clear that I did not have too much wine the evening before, since the only cloud that I saw was still rather far away. And outside.

A "certain" lack of sleep was present, but this was due to Zmeagol's huge resonating body that had filled the room with impressive snores. Bavarian and myself went downstairs, got some coffee and started breakfast. A faint memory of the evening before was that GiorgioXT had suggested an early breakfast and to start the engines at about 08:30. I finally dared to have a look into that room whose door was still closed and found this wild scene. Note that this was 08:23, seven minutes left ;-)

In the meantime, the weather was degrading. Instead of a light morning gaze, fog was coming up and started to cover the landscape. At the time we got ready to ride, the fog had mutated to thick fog with rain.

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Since we were in the "middle of the mountains", we engaged on the Assietta. It's a gravel road - like many others in this region originally built for military purposes - that follows some spectacular summits of the region, over about 36 km. A road sign just after the rifugio said that the road was blocked due to roadworks, but who in Italy works on a Saturday?

We should soon find out.

After a few km, we crossed a small truck whose driver explained us that the road was chiuso. Well, not a problem: if a truck comes through, we would certainly come through, too.

Still a few minutes later, we passed a concrete mixer.

Yet another few minutes later, we ended up behind an excavator that was taking up the whole road. And the concrete mixer soon closing behind us.

The workers at the excavator insisted that the road was definitively chiuso, chiuso, chiuso!, but in the meantime Giorgio's italian friends - riding a few minutes ahead - had somehow managed to pass. And after long, veeery looong minutes of arguing, Giorgio indeed managed to have the workers move their excavator about one meter to the side ... which was all we needed. A second obstacle was a compressor, nicely positioned in the middle of the road but only of minor importance. Better a few meters of mud than turning around.

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(... and yes, there was also that story with the shepherd's dog who chased - and got! - the KTM950, since the rider ignored ATGATT ... but that's up to someone else to describe, since I did unfortunately not witness this event :-)

The fog did not disappear, though. A few times there were moments when the rain stopped and the clouds got brighter ... that's where I was hoping to break through the upper parts of the cloud and to get one of those famous "above the clouds" sights. It should not happen, though.

We safely continued the Assietta down to Sestrieres, stopped for a quick shopping and watched the rain converting into a heavy downpour. We already knew that we had lots of fun together and that we were spending a great day. Who cares if it rains?

We did not yet know about the little road that was waiting before we would merit lunch.
We did not yet know the menu either.
We did not even dream of the dessert that composed the way back.

It was going to be a remarkable day!

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Valle Argentiera

The rain got a bit weaker, the dog-bitten-and-now-stitched KTM rider joined us again and Giorgio got the confirmation that the next rifugio was indeed waiting for us. SpanishBob had rendez-vous with a friend in Bardoneccia, so he left us for this afteroon and went his own way, accompanied by Bavarian and Capnopol.

The "rest of us" made our way from Sestriere to Valle Argentiera. It is a beautiful, wide valley, stretched along the river Ripa and is apparently used by the locals for hiking, camping and relaxing. The road is an easy gravel road, albeit with a number of huge-but-late-to-see-bumps ;-)


We did not have the blue sky that we were hoping for, but at least the rain ceased ... until the moment where Nighthawk lost the water bottle that he had loosely attached to his luggage. The bottle broke open, water poured out and the rain started. Simultaneously.

Foggin' weather. I should have taken the RT.

Only a few km more until rifugio "Alpe Plane". Let's just get there and eat.

From the wide, flat gravel road we switched onto a narrow gravel thing and virtually without transition we found ourselves on a steep path upwards, covered with a mixture of blank rocks, fine mud and gravel. And all that was soaking wet.

I was too occupied to keep the GS going, so no photos here. In the lower gears the rear wheel spun, in the upper gears I did not have enough torque. And I did not have the intention to stop in the slope. This picture was taken on the way back - it is almost impossible to visualize the steep path, but perhaps the trees can give an idea.

The path finally ended on a small open stretch, giving us some time to breathe ... and to hope that Giorgio had another, alternative way back in mind. The ideas of going down that slippery slope with street tires (most of us had Tourances) was not very appealing. Anyway, from that stop it was just a short way to the rifugio and at least the way there was not as steep as the path we just made.

It was only mud. Or better: it was only mud.

After a short gravel path, the final 700 m (or something like this) was fresh, creamy mud, distributed in and around grooves that had been created by 4×4 tracks. Sliding towards rifugio "Alpe Plane", the first thing I did on arrival was to reduce the pressure in the rear wheel. By the way: most of the crew made this section without dropping their bike! The only casualty was Nighthawks Honda CB750, with a broken turn signal.

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A well-merited break ... and guess what we had for lunch!

During the lunch break, the rain stopped for a short while and left its place to some hail. Imagine the scenery: You are sitting inside a mountain hut, warmed by a cosy fire, enjoying good company, red wine and Polenta. Outside, the rain changes with hail, and that foggin' fog is coming up again. Errr ... can't we simply stay here?

Digestion of the Polenta raised our morale again and after a while we got ready for the way back. It turned out that there was indeed an alternative way down ... it just had a few minor disadvantages: It was steep, it was narrow, it was exposed ... if one of the Boxer engines would hit the rocks on the hillside, it would not be too funny. It's the small diagonal line leading to the lower-left part of this picture, the lower part is better visible in this image.

It was obvious that we would take the same path back that we had come.

And we dit it.

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The main thing is to go one by one and very slowly. Controlling the speed with the clutch and front brakes, we all made it. If the bike starts sliding, do not try to stop it but just steer it. And the grooves filled with gravel turned out to be wonderful "guides" if everything else was slippery.

Nobody hurt, all very proud. Lots of Adrenaline, but without major problems. Here are a few impressions from the final meters (back on gravel).

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... and from there we got to the next rifugio. There is still one Polenta left, one full evening and the next morning.

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Vallée étroite

By the time we were back on "safe ground", it was well after 17:00. GiorgioXT had announced us for dinner at the next rifugio for 19:00, so we got on the way. We even had the chance to enjoy a few minutes of sunshine ... but only as long as we were stopping at a gas station. As soon as we reached Bardoneccia, the rain set in again and in a downpour we followed the road that leads into Vallée étroite or Valle Stretta (literally, the "narrow valley"). Again, this must be a beautiful region if it is not hidden under pouring rain ...

This valley is politically part of France, but it is only accessible from Italy ... probably a remainder from the early 20th century, when the whole area was a frequent subject of fighting. Most of the gravel roads in that region were constructed as military roads, designed for moving huge cannons drawn by horses. As a consequence, they are usually rather wide and will virtually never present a slope of more than 12%. In addition, the solid engineering makes that these roads can still be used today - mainly by mountainbikers and motorcyclists. Thanks to Giorgio for background information !

Our next "hotel" was rifugio Re Magi, which is situated at the very end of Vallée étroite. GiorgioXT had done very well to reserve in advance, since the rifugio seemed to be fully booked at the time we arrived - probably more than 100 people were there and just like us everyone else was trying to get his or her clothes to dry somehow, somewhere. Finding the rooms was not easy either, since the inner architecture of the rifugio resembles a labyrinth ;-)

Shortly after our arrival, we had the chance to enjoy our third polenta in just about 24 hours. Rob (aka Franco) had joined us, too and - you may guess it from the pictures - we had a great time. This is where the Polenta Riders were born. Invented by a scotsman with a sausage.

A few repairs on Nighthawks CB750 (fork, turn signal etc.) were required, but after the meal and helped by the red wine, digestifs etc. all this went very smoothly.

And nobody knew that the night would bring snow.
And nobody knew that the next morning would bring a bicycle race.

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The return trip

Getting up

One of the nice things about sleeping in a rifugio next to a small river is that you cannot differentiate between the noise of the rain and that of the river. Indeed I woke up and found that the rain had ceased. There were still thick clouds hovering in the mountains and it was apparent that there was snow above ca. 2200 m.

Which meant that the people that were attending the "real" Stella Alpina next to Rifugio Scarfiotti (2156 m) had probably passed a cold night and had snow on the tips of their tents. I presumed that most of the road leading up there had turned into something like mud by now. And there would be snow on the final 12-km gravel road up to the Colle Sommeiller. Of course.

Since I knew that area from previous years and my gloves were still not dry, I decided to prepare for the way back home. I packed my things, loaded most of it on the GS and while some others were still deep in their sleep I headed for breakfast.

Italian breakfast seems to be in strong contrast to italian supper. The latter is usually very rich, lots of different antipasti following each other until you get the principal dish, but the breakfast turned out to be rather sparse: White bread with butter, marmelade and coffee. Fortunately, Possu had brough a little pot of Marmite for everyone - Thank You, Possu!

While we were sipping our coffee, the "landlord" of the rifugio joined us and explained that she had just received a phonecall from the local police. There was a bicycle race coming our way (yes, in that weather) and if we wanted to leave we'd better be out of the valley before 09:00. Or wait until 12:00.

It was about 08:30 and it started to rain again.

Foggin' weather. I should have taken the RT.

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Leaving north

I finished my breakfast in a hurry, said a much-too-quick Goodbye to everyone I saw, got the payments arranged with GiorgioXT (who in turn arranged all the payments with the rifugio - Grazie!) and was on my GS. After adjusting tire pressure down in Bardoneccia I met Capnopol and we traveled together for the next two hours.

Col du Mt-Cenis in the cold rain is not very much fun, but at least we were not confronted to snow. The col is at about 2083 m and instead of the blue sky that had greeted us two days ago we were facing clouds that were hovering above the lake. Quite a spectacular view!

I made a quick stop at the cheese hut to get some Beaufort, Gruyères (not the real stuff - this is France, while real Gruyères is from Switzerland) and another green, filthy matter with a delicious taste. If the weather was not so good for motorcycle touring, it was at least appropriate for transporting cheese :-)

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Some more cols

Entering France, we turned west and followed the road. It is not a very spectacular road to ride, but not annoying either. The weather got better almost by the minute and I finally had a chance to get my summer gloves out of the panniers!

Capnopol had about 1 Mm to ride on that day, so we separated a while after Bourg-St. Maurice when he hit the highway. I continued my "almost usual" way back, leading via the Col de la Madeleine to Albertville. From there, taking little back roads, towards Geneva and then home.

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A big Thank You! to all of you who made this weekend a success, in particular Giorgio!

Apart from the roads that we rode on this weekend, the region has many more highlights that invite to legal gravel touring. Many of these paths are indeed public roads, maintained with considerable effort, so you really want to ride in a way that remains "compatible" with the environment and the people up there.