Switchback

From the BMW Owners News, March, 1989

By James P. Smith, Ph.D. BMWMOA Member 12333

For some, Motorcycle Heaven might be thundering through the clouds on the endless Alpine back roads of an enchanted faraway place, visiting one charming inn after another, in the company of a variety of other motorcyclists.

For others, it might be gliding down from those clouds over snow capped mountains into the crisp forest air scented of Larch Pine and fern, banking lower to the spring fragrance of mossy green meadows sprayed with a riot of buttercups and wild pansies. Or, it might be inhaling the fresh cool scent of a body of water over the next rise, and coming to rest on the shore of a lakeside palace which is your home for the night. Could all this be possible? Yes!

Motorcycle Heaven was made possible by the seemingly mundane occupation of road building. Mundane perhaps, but a highly specialized type of construction that resulted in the thing that makes Motorcycle Heaven a reality — the switchback.

It is the switchback that takes one up to this heaven several times a day and it is the switchback that punctuates the thrilling roller-coaster ride down between each ascent. Without the switchback, the road to heaven would be so ordinary and unchallenging that when you got there you would not know you were there. Indeed, it would not then be heaven. For you must go up to heaven, mustn't you, and this cannot be done without the switchback.

We all know what switchbacks are. Some call them hairpin turns, corkscrews, twisties, or simply sharp corners. From a distance, the roads connecting them look like zigzag scratch marks on the mountainside.

The more rugged the mountain range, the greater the need for switchbacks. A gentler mountain range might be traversed by longer, sweeping curves — a capital earthly pleasure to be sure — but by no means the thrill that switchbacks promise. The Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, Andes, Himalayas, Pyrenees and Appalachians are all heavenly steps, more or less remote, and more or less traversed by switchbacks. But, the best path to Nirvana (with earthly pleasures along the way) is not found on a Himalayan back road, but rather in the European Alps.

Coming down a series of switchbacks in the Alps can be more than exhilarating. Snow covers most of the top. The air is crisp and pure. You start down much like a skier — half frozen. The slalom descends to spring grass, wild flowers, and finally lush forests in a matter of minutes. But, even hugging the mountain around each switchback does not conceal the shear plunge revealed beyond the road as you lean into each turn. An outside curve takes you within inches of the edge, and the euphoria of feeling free of gravity is cut short by the next turn, and the next — intoxicating but not incapacitating. Where else but in heaven can you get so high without a hangover — or without being arrested? Where else but in heaven can you feel a sense of power and control as you look down, as though the mountain was yours?

I discovered Motorcycle Heaven through Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, Ltd. I read an ad of theirs in a touring magazine and decided to go on their Alpine Adventure tour. I've gone on their tour six times over a ten year period, and each time has been a different adventure into Motorcycle Heaven. I don't consider myself an aggressive joiner or tour oriented person — I have traveled alone by motorcycle in Europe, and with others apart from a tour, but the Beach's tour is special, and sharing it with them and those who go on their tour is what makes it special. That's probably why about 50% of those who go on their tours are repeat customers. Man-made roads date back 3,000 years B.C. Trade routes, called "Amber Roads", ran across Central and Eastern Europe to transport commodities such as amber, which was valuable for its use in jewelry, as well as primitive medicine.

In the region of Fern Pass near Imst, Austria, a ten yard stretch of stone road with wheel grooves was discovered. The grooves date from pre-Roman times, and are about six inches deep and a yard apart. The grooves were chiseled in the stone to give the wheels a firm hold. The bases of many grooved roads were filled with loose rubble, which provided some give and acted as a cushion for vehicles passing through.

The Romans were inherently reluctant to build roads over mountains, preferring a straight path, even if it meant passing through marshland. And when it would have been economical to cross a range of mountains and thereby make a short connection between two towns, the Romans, working on the principle that "seas join but mountains divide," built their roads as near the coast as possible. They rationalized this behavior with the knowledge that coastal roads could replace shipping when winter storms made sailing impossible. But there was no way around the high Alps.

Many Roman roads, especially in the Alps, should be regarded as feats of strength rather than architectural wonders. They were often roads thrown across rivers rather than bridges. The men who built them were brilliant tacticians, not artists. Their workmen were not skilled stonemasons, but legionnaires, who were often called upon to pick up their swords while busily felling trees or chiseling stone.

Roman distaste for travel in the mountains has been adequately substantiated: Years of bitter fighting against the tough mountain tribes of the Samnites and Volsci; the Roman's love of the sea and the kind of landscape that many of their poets immortalized in verse; Cicero regarded mountainous country as unsuitable except for a short visit; Livy thought the Alps ugly; and when Cesar took his army over the Alps, he closed the curtains of his litter and worked on reports.

But remember, crossing the Alps two thousand years ago was full of hazards. With 17 Alpine passes in fairly frequent use, only two were safe — the Julier Pass near St. Moritz (7,500') and the Brenner Pass, which reaches 3,500 of its 4,494 feet before encountering a switchback. On the Julier Pass, wide bends built by the Romans survive to the present day.

Most Roman roads built over the Alps were narrow. But their most striking feature was that they were steep. The Romans did not like bends in the road, or ones that climbed and dipped. they would build a viaduct to cross a valley, rather than take the road down and up again. One still remains intact on the road to Andermatt south from Wassen, spanning a crevasse that modern switchbacks circumvent on their way to higher altitude.

Whereas the Greeks tried to adapt their road building to the lay of the land, the Romans with their straight line principle, were in constant conflict with nature. They not only adopted a process of leveling and excavating, bridging valleys and tunneling through mountains, but made it a basic principle of their road building technique. The result was a gigantic onslaught by man on nature — an unprecedented effort to change the face of the earth. By building roads and bridges in this manner, it seems the Romans felt they had a civilizing mission to fulfill, once the fighting was over.

Besides their preference for a straight line because it was the shortest distance between two points, the Romans, it would seem, defied the natural contour of the land as an expression of power — the power of a conqueror bringing superior knowledge and skill to primitive people. To that end, they invented the tunnel-road. The Urartaeans and Assyrians had chiseled into rock to build aqueducts long before the Romans, but the Romans were the first to build roads through the mountains.

Part of the reason for their obsession with straightness, was the fact that Roman vehicles with their fixed axles could travel more comfortably on roads with fewer bends. However, concessions were made as to width. A country road had to be four feet wide so that a peasant could walk beside his horse or ox. A common road used by livestock going to and from their pastures in the hills, was much wider. A church path in the Middle Ages had to be wide enough for a man to pass with a dead corpse on a cart. More often, a road had to be the width of a knight's spear carried crosswise. If the spear touched a peasant's house along the way, the house was often demolished.

But in the Alps, even a narrow road required an enormous amount of manual labor to build. However, with their dislike for tight bends, the Romans spared no expense and the amount of material used was great. Many of the roads seemed to be built so specifically for marching soldiers, that a vehicle would have difficulty using them. They were too steep for draught animals, and it seems the slaves were used to push carts over the mountains.

Roman roads were a tremendous achievement in their time, and never equaled in the Middle Ages, yet in the Alps little remains of their straight line determination. Most roads have reverted to the natural contour of the land, and it is the switchbacks that make them ideal for motorcycling. My favorite are the switchbacks going over the Furka Pass in Switzerland where you can enter the translucent blue world of an ice cavern in the Rhone Glacier. On any sunny weekend from Spring to Autumn, you'll find 80% of the traffic on these Alpine roads consists of motorcycles.

While modern road building techniques have perfected the switchbacks, they have also brought a curse — the freeway. Each year reveals more evidence of their encroachment. The seven mile tunnel under Mont Blanc that connects France with Italy, even though an engineering marvel, is one example. Another is the long tunnel under the Simplon Pass; or if you prefer to go over the top, there is a freeway bridge to help you on your way; or the tunnel under the Grand St. Bernard Pass — one would think reincarnated Romans were diligently back at their never ending work.

But, will they be any more successful than others who try to "straighten out curves" Fortunately, the Europeans seem equally determined to repair and improve the switchbacks, which indicates their love for the mountains and a desire to preserve the natural shape and beauty of the Alps for others to see and enjoy. However, just in case, I will return as soon as possible to experience them again before the "enemy" advances further.

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