Provided by: David H. Hessell
Rob Beach, president of Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures, Ltd., really makes it easy for you to enjoy some of the best motorcycle riding in the world. His playground, the Alps, are unmatched as far as riding goes. True, there are other famous riding destinations. In fact, Rob can place you in Norway, New Zealand, or even on a new dual-sport ride from California to Las Vegas if you so wish, but the Alps hold a special place in motorcycle riding circles - and for good reasons, they are the Alps after all, and they are in Europe.
Roads that get you from one side of a mountain to another tend to be interesting. They start at the bottom and work their way up and over before taking you down the other side. It is not an easy task to build such roads, nor is it an easy task to ride up and over such roads. There are few roads in the United States that compare or prepare you for such an adventure. Add in other riders, cars, tour buses, bicycle riders (lots of them), cows, goats (and their deposits!), fog, rain, snow, road construction, gravel, tunnels, and the pure scenic wonders that distract you, and riding in the Alps can tax even the best of riders.
What really makes this a riders delight, is that it goes on and on, day after day, for two weeks. Tight switchbacks, long gentle sweepers, mountain pass after mountain pass, autobahns, back roads, or even Rob’s “special” roads that tend to be farm paths just wide enough for a tractor, makes the riding unreal and something that draws riders from all over the world to experience time and time again. They are without a doubt special, very special.
This past June I joined Rob and the rest of a very large group of riders on what would be my second experience riding motorcycles in the Alps. I loved it. The riding was more than I could conceive, but what made this tour so remarkable was the people involved. First off, Rob and his staff, made it stress free. I was met at the airport by a smiling Italian, Patrizia Quercetti, who just happened to be Rob’s girlfriend and a bundle of energy that was on her eighth tour with the company.
After spending the first day in a daze adjusting to the jet-lag, Bob Wilkins, who hails from New Zealand and plays the role of the van-driver, luggage handler, and mechanic, went over the BMW R1150R that was to be my companion for the next two weeks to make sure I knew what button did what before leaving the parking lot. He then took the lead and led me on a “test-run” out and around the German countryside. Being this was his twenty-fourth tour, I just shut up and followed him, did what he did, drove where he drove, and enjoyed the ride. No maps, no reading signs, nothing but trying to remember how to turn off the turn signals. Nice.
Bob’s German wife, Barbel Schilling, was the last member of the staff and, along with Rob, was happy to join any rider, or riders, that didn’t want to worry about reading road signs or stopping to check their map every twenty minutes, as a tour guide. True, she was “only” on her fourth tour with Beach’s, but due to the fact that she is German, lives in Germany, speaks German, and just happens to ride her Honda Trans-Alp 650 like a true European, I had nothing to worry about the first real riding day of the tour. I just fell in behind her and followed her lead. It was easy: her top-case had the words, “Beauty Case” written across the back, a nice target to follow.
That is one aspect that makes a Beach Alpine Tour special, the people that run it. If you throw in Rob’s seventy-three tours, the four people that run the show have over one hundred and eight tours under their belt, speak more languages than are necessary, know the roads, the passes, the countryside, the hotel operators, and the best place to escape for the afternoon in six different countries. They form a great team which knows and understands both motorcycles and motorcyclists. A perfect combination for a European motorcycle adventure.
The second aspect, if you take for granted that the Alps are a given, of a Beach Alpine Tour that makes it special are the people that take the tour. As I mentioned before, this was a large group, thirty-one in all, counting the four tour leaders. What a group we turned out to be. Many were first time European drivers, some new to BMW motorcycles (Beach’s brand of choice), and even a few new to motorcycle riding altogether. There were several husband/wife teams, two father/son duos, and even one father/daughter pairing. But what really made this one group special was the fact that about one third of the people came from Central America - Guatemala being the country of choice. To put it all into perspective for you, at any given dining table, one could hear English (proper English from New Zealand), American (both Northern and Southern), Italian, German, and Spanish - all at once. Many a night I sat at the dinner table with my two friends from Guatemala, the Bottos: Tony Sr. and Jr., whom I met and rode through Norway with last year on another Beach Adventure, and just laughed, not understanding a single word of the joke, but getting the meaning of it anyway. The people are what make a tour special, and this group was no exception.
The Alpine Tour takes you up and over and around and through about four countries (six, if you really want to). I started in Germany, cut through Austria and Liechtenstein (a bonus), added Switzerland and Italy, and, just for the pure joy of it, detoured into Slovenia (another bonus) before heading back into Austria and back “home” to Germany. Mountain pass after mountain pass. To be honest, I can’t even remember how many passes, what pass was where, or what hotel went with what city. Two weeks buzzing around Europe is really just a blur. One great ride, sight, experience, meal, hotel, and photograph after another. I believe I went over six major passes in one day. It really is hard to put it all into perspective. First off, and I can never get over this, is the fact that I’m there in the first place. On a motorcycle. Looking down into an Italian, or German, or better yet, a Swiss valley from the top of a really big mountain. With snow still on the peaks, cow bells ringing in the distance (or a foot away). Me, a kid who grew up in the “flat-lands” of Northern New York. It is pure joy, and the reason I go there in the first place. Yes, the riding is excellent, but it is really only part of the story.
As a photographer, I tend to look for the little things, or the details, that make any one given scene special. A photograph is a slice of what lies before us, it is just a part of the whole scene that stretches out in front of us. Taking (or making) photographs is my way of remembering what I thought was special about any given place or time. I believe that is how I think as far as tours go. The whole experience is really a series of smaller memories that link together to make up the whole. My memory of the tour is made up of the many “snap-shots” that help me piece together where and what I did.
A few of the special moments that I remember could not be photographed. The sound of the cow bells, the change in temperature as I climbed in altitude, feeling the heat of the sun as the rain stopped, the smell of the forest as I drove through the shadows, the music that played in my head as I walked through Salzburg ... I know you have seen the SOUND of MUSIC. These are what I remember. The narrowness of some of the roads Rob guided us through, the rocks and gravel that were around a blind curve (can’t remember which pass, but I remember thinking how wild this all was), the sides of mountains covered in flowers, buildings so old that Columbus could have stayed there - if he was ever in the neighborhood (who knows), the sound of the police siren, the unbelievable number of bicycle riders charging up a mountain pass, being passed by the same cyclists on the way down said pass, looking at a menu. These are the things that made my adventure mine. Thirty one people on the same tour, only one tour experience for me. Even with my slides in front of me (forty rolls) and the guide book, remembering the tour as a “whole” is mind-boggling, I tend to remember the little things - the things that made it a European adventure. The door bells, the flower boxes in the windows, the road signs. Oh, and of course, the money. The prices never mattered because I never knew how much anything was anyhow. The “Euro” was pretty easy, but the Swiss Franc kept me guessing. Fun.
Taking a motorcycle tour is much more than riding a motorcycle. It means different things to different people. Some people are true riders that love to carve up mountain pass after mountain pass and spend all day pushing the limits of their riding skills. Others just want to relax and see the country side, soak up the European culture, and enjoy a picnic along one of the thousands of lakes that dot the landscape. Some like to shop. Others are there to experience the food and drinks that are famous in the region. Many are there to do it all. That is the lure of the Alps. People return year after year to do all the things they didn’t do the last time they were there. It is a vicious cycle.
I was there to take pictures. I like to take pictures of what it is like to tour on a motorcycle in the Alps. True, riding is a major part of being on the tour, but I enjoy stopping and recording on film the little things that make Europe special to me. The people you see along the road, the churches that are the focal point of every little town or village along the way, the Rhone Glacier, Dachau - the Nazi concentration camp that is now a museum, Salzburg (The Sound of Music), the view from every hotel room. All this and more is what I enjoy about a motorcycle tour in the Alps. I took my time, photographed what I could, and then hopped on the bike and went looking for my next image. How much fun can one person have?
What really sets a Beach Motorcycle Adventure apart is Freedom. Freedom to do what you want to do when you want to do it. Many days, I would wake up, have breakfast, then take off on my own. Yes, I can get lost with the best of them. I also can have fun with the best of them. It is really the same thing. Lost? No, I was never lost. I had no idea where I was every once in a while but that is part of the game I play. Maps? Yes, I had more maps than I could handle (the Beach family really prepares you in advance). I can even read a map pretty good. I just never really needed one. The key for me was to read the handbook I was given, pick a pre-planned route - usually the shortest, due to the fact that I like to stop a lot for photos, and then go. I write down the names of the major cities and place that in my map case. Simple. I just follow the signs.
The true freedom is in the route you chose. There were long routes, short routes, side routes, and even “Rob Routes”. These are best taken with Rob himself due to the fact that I think he just makes them up as he goes! True, he does utilize GPS, but I am certain that his riding companion, Patrizia, the “I want to go fast” lady, side-tracks him as he drives and they just pick the wildest roads they can find. I joined them a couple days and never regretted it a second. My problem was that I like to stop too much. No problem. There were as many options as roads.
Trust me, I lived in Germany for three years, but I never saw Europe as I did on this tour. The routes offered in the handbook are not the regular tourist routes. Following Rob or not, you have the chance to really see the unique back roads of Europe that are far removed from the tour bus route, or even the normal tourist route. True, they all end up at the major sites (mountain passes, and the major cities), but it is how they get from point A to point B that makes all the difference. The roads traveled set this tour apart, these are truly the back roads of Europe - or in Rob’s case, the farmer’s paths of Europe. Very special and quite unique.
Rob and Patrizia went one way, Barbel another, and everyone else just joined in as they desired. The Latin American crew broke up into smaller riding groups, others went their own way, at their own speed but, as strange as it seems, everyone seemed to just appear for dinner out of the blue. I am always amazed at this. Thirty-one people on twenty bikes (something like that) and they all find the hotel in time for dinner. Amazing.
Think about that. Find a hotel in a village, or a city, you have never been to, in a country where you have problems reading the road signs, where you can’t speak the language, and ... well, to tell you the truth, a few times I thought I was no where near where I needed to be, and, just as I had given up, around the next corner, there was the hotel. The collection of BMWs out front were the clue. Ha. I laughed every time I made it on my own. I think the freedom to find your own way around Europe is worth the cost of the trip. Then again, having a guide is worth double the price when it is late, you’re tired, and it’s raining. The choice is up to you. The tour is set up so that it can be as organized or disorganized as you wish, for me, that one aspect alone is what makes the whole vacation priceless. Freedom to explore the Alps at your own pace. The hotel, breakfast, the motorcycle, and dinner is all taken care of, it is up to you to connect the tiny dots on the map. Each night after dinner, the highlights for each route in the book are discussed, and the rest is up to you, or you could join Rob and probably cover parts of all the routes. I can honestly say that, in some cases (the days of “follow the leader”), I know were I went and what I saw, but I have no idea on how I got there. That is the joy of joining a Beach’s Motorcycle Adventure. Freedom.
Another aspect that makes going on a Beach Motorcycle Adventure special is the fact that it is a family business that ran its first organized tour in 1972. Thirty years, much of it in the same area, with the same hotel managers, over the same passes. Rob’s father, Bob Beach, and his wife, Elizabeth, started the company after touring Europe in 1969 when they purchased a new BMW motorcycle in Germany. Their passion for motorcycles and Europe became their vocation and they have been involved in the business ever since. Although they no longer lead tours (last summer was their last) and have given up the reins to their son, Bob and Elizabeth Beach are still very much a part of the success, and growth, of the company.
The personal touch is what, to me, makes this touring company special. You want to talk about little details? Months before you depart, the information arrives. Books, maps (Did I mention the five or six maps I received?), all the paper work that must be filled out, a day-to-day handbook with a list of all the people on the tour, as well as all the hotels, addresses, and phone numbers, another set of lists for the refrigerator door so your loved ones know where you are and how to reach you, a L.L. Bean Catalog for your choice of company T-shirt, sweatshirt, Polo-shirt, bag, or whatever (shipped out before you leave), and a motorcycle riding safety book with tips on dealing with European roads and drivers (I wish it was that easy). I even received a signed copy of John Hermann’s book, MOTORCYCLE JOURNEYS THROUGH THE ALPS AND CORSICA. That, to me, is how to run a touring company. They have a system and that system works. Many of the riders are return customers. I think John Hermann is the leader there - he started in 1975 and is still going strong.
And now for the clincher. The day before I left for Germany I got a phone call. It was Rob’s mother on the phone asking me if I was all set and if I had any last minute questions. Elizabeth Beach on the phone asking me if I was all set for a motorcycle adventure in the Alps. That is the “little details” that make this trip what it is. They answer all the questions before you ask them and then make sure you don’t have any more. I like that. I also like the Alps. I look forward to my next conversation with Elizabeth.
The Author: David H. Hessell
This article originally appeared online at jorbins.com
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