Switzerland revisited

The most beautiful vistas, the smoothest roads, the cleanest air and possibly the most amount of waving to other bikers you’ll ever do. After a 20-year break from Switzerland I headed back in search of Alpine passes

There’s something about a big road trip that excites, from floating the idea to mates in the pub to the last minute prep the night before, the buzz from planning and undertaking a ride to a foreign land far away using only a motorcycle is unequalled. Just 504 miles – a day’s ride from Calais – gets you to the Switzerland, arguably home to the most aesthetically-blessed mountain passes in Europe.

But first, a little trip down Memory Lane: it’s Summer 2000, I’m on an Aprilia RSVR Mille, my photographer buddy is on his CBR600. I’m travelling light with just a tailpack, rucksack, and Michelin map (remember those paper things?) in a plastic bag bungeed to the Aprilia’s plastic fuel tank. Neither machine is really suited to the trek to Switzerland, but that’s what made it extra-interesting. We left on a Friday, came home on Sunday, a total of 1600 knackering miles in just three days: an exhausting, back-breaking, cramp-inducing, character-building journey of epic proportions that left such an impact on me it instantly became a favourite destination for years after until fatherhood arrived and life got in the way. Fast forward to 2024 and with the kids grown up, I decided it was finally time to head back to sample those Swiss roads with my wife Polly. It’s been two decades since we were last there. I have a blurry memory of us riding like the wind and making it back from Geneva back to our home in the UK – that’s 700 miles in a single day (including a ferry crossing).

Throwback to 2001: the bike was an Aprilia RSVR Mille, a completely inappropiate bike to go touring on, which only makes it even more memorable

Now of course, I’m older, wiser and definitely less flexible for that kind of charade on sportsbikes. What’s more, Polly had chosen to chill out behind me as pillion instead of riding her own bike so I needed a suitable bike and although my humble 2008 Triumph Tiger 1050 could’ve filled that role Kawasaki very kindly offered me a brand-spanking shiny new 2024 Versys 1000S GT adventure tourer, complete with full luggage for the job… it would’ve been rude to refuse. Joining us on the trip were my buddies; Jason on his Fazer 1000, Joe on a VFR800 and Hoff on a brand new BMW R1300GS. I spent way too long pulling my hair out trying to plot the route and the various Alpine passes on Google Maps and it wasn’t until I turned to my trusty old paper Michelin map of Europe and Switzerland that the pieces started falling into place. Sometimes you just need to go back to basics and a good old-fashioned paper map makes prep so much easier.

4 bikes, 6 days, 1 big road trip

As there was a small group of us, we pre-booked accommodation to guarantee a place to sleep every night, over the flexibility of going wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. If it were just the two of us I’d happily wing it so we weren’t tied to any particular destination and could make use of that flexibility in case there was a change in the weather. I naively thought booking a whole four months in advance would be plenty of time to choose decent hotels with secure parking, but this wasn’t the case at all. Many places were already full so there were a lot of emails and hotel-shopping before we finally got all the accommodation sorted. Lesson learned: the earlier you book, the better.

Steady filtering on the pesky M25

Navigating the chaos of the M25 motorway on day one reminded us of why we were heading for sunnier shores with sections as clogged as an obese diabetic smokers arteries. Filtering with the width of the Versys and its spacious 28 litre panniers took a little more focus than usual but no kneecaps were lost, no car mirrors were bashed and the cases remained scuff-free by the time we rocked up at the Folkestone Channel Tunnel crossing. I love it when the Google Maps gives me an ETA not realising I’m on a bike and can slash that time down with a bit of smart riding.

I also love the speed and convenience of going by rail to cross the English Channel but the trade-off is the missing of that sense of a journey you get with a sea ferry crossing. Riding on and off at the other end of the train half an hour later is akin to stepping into an elevator as opposed to taking the escalator where you can see and experience the distance you cover, though when you have several hundred miles to cross before the end of the day it’s definitely the preferred option as it saves valuable riding time.

Le Shuttle, formally known as Eurotunnel. It’s a quick journey but we waited AGES queuing at both Folkestone and Calais ends

We’d hoped to swing by the old race circuit in Reims but the rain we’d escaped in the UK found us again, and it was angrier too, which meant we kept going instead before finally stopping in the French town of Dole for the night, just short of the Swiss border. After a 550 mile stint, much of it through some torrential downpours of near-biblical proportions, I was appreciative of the waterproof kit I had on – a pair of Astars Hyde XT Drystar gloves, Astars CR-8 Gore-Tex boots, Oxford Mondial 2 MS jacket and trousers meant I stayed bone dry. Great waterproof kit that is breathable, protective and all-day comfortable is always worth the investment.

Alpinestars Hyde XT Drystar all season gloves did the trick without being overly bulky. Perfect for slotting underneath a jacket cuff

Going from France to Switzerland the guards at the border don’t bat an eyelid as we’re waved through with no checks. The thing that is immediately noticeable is the change in asphalt quality – the standard of French roads can vary but Swiss roads are butter smooooth and are in five star condition. Potholes? I don’t recall seeing any at all in Switzerland.

We spent the next four days zig-zagging across Italy and Switzerland and its incredible ribbons of asphalt, enjoying some truly stunning scenery, though a surprising number of passes I had planned into our route were out of bounds in mid-June due to excessive snowfall during Easter. Typically, by the end of May they’re all open so if you’re heading that way I’d suggest going from late June-onwards. We were also plagued by unusually wet weather at times, which forced us to rethink our trip to the Stelvio Pass. Due to their closures and thunderstorms we missed out on the Grimsel, Furka, Susten, Nufenen, San Bernadino, Julier, and Bernina Passes. We ticked off just two passes on our list of ten – the Simplon and Gotthard Pass, both were excellent and Gotthard was supremely beautiful with its walls of snow and white-topped mountains. It speaks volumes that we still sampled so many amazing roads and crazy vertical landscapes despite missing out on a huge chunk of the passes I’d set my sights on.

The Simplon pass was one of the few passes open by mid-June, with quite a few still closed due to surprisingly heavy Easter snowfall

The other noticeable thing is the camaraderie abroad. I’d forgotten just how much other bikers wave in Europe, and it’s not just a subtle nod but full on waves of acknowledgement with the left hand. The lower to the ground, the cooler. The roads, both toll and otherwise, are a joy to ride, aided by the fact that there is so much more room. For example, France has similar population numbers but over double the land mass – this means the roads are less knackered, drivers are more courteous and more likely to move over for motorcycles.

Biker acknowledgment came from all shapes and sizes: If there was an engine inbetween two wheels you’d get a wave!

Quick shout out to my trusty Quadlock phone mount and wireless charger too. I fitted this to the Versys in under 30 minutes and the ability to use Google Maps on the bike while keeping the phone charged was a game changer. We’ve come a long way from trying to read a paper map in the rain at night using the headlight for illumination, and I’m here for it. Quick mention for the HJC RPHA lid too, my first helmet with an internal sun visor which was a godsend in the Swiss tunnels as well as night time – no need to carry a spare clear visor.

The HJC RPHA 71 features an internal sun visor activated by a lever under the chinbar
Quadlock set-up with vibration dampener and wireless charger connected to the Versys battery was a game-changer

The Versys 1000S GT has been magnificent. It posseses a silky smooth 118bhp inline four cylinder motor that will lull any pillion to sleep when combined with a top box and French toll road – ask me how I know. The weather protection was outstanding too, the hand guards and fairing keeping the worst of the rain at bay, not just my torso but legs too. The handling was superb throughout, even two-up on a tight uphill switchback fully-laden proved no problem. The Versys cornering lights were useful on a couple of the nights we were out and I am officially a cruise control convert. A 200-mile tank range was reassuring, too. If I had to bitch about something on the Versys 1000 it would be that the engine could benefit with a little more low-down grunt and the seat is on the firm side for shorter riders who end up sitting on the narrower front section. The latter is an easy fix with a swap to a Corbin seat or some kind of gel pad. The quick-release panniers were so slick in use and I’d even sussed out the knack of pushing the top box down while pressing the button to open it… The truth on how impressed you are with a bike is though is how many times you look on ebay for the latest prices, and let’s just say I’ve spotted a few bargain Versys 1000 SE GTs in my preferred white colour…

All this stuff, including two humans was lugged 1900 miles across Europe by a Kawasaki Versys 1000S GT without fuss

Of the other bikes that came along, Joe’s VFR blew a headlight bulb, Jason’s Fazer lost a bolt holding his gear lever in place (that was a fun fix in the rain…) and Hoff’s BMW keyless ignition threw the occasional strop. There’s also a BMW R&G crash bobbin and front mudguard extender laying on the side of the road somewhere in France. Other than that the bikes didn’t miss a beat, including the big Versys, arguably taking the most strain being two-up.

Opting for the scenic route home to the UK, we headed (again) to Reims in a bid to visit the old circuit. As luck would have it, sideways rain forced us to change our plans again, it just wasn’t to be – mid-June of 2024 was a bit of a soggy one. 1900 miles in a week and needless to say, I’m already planning a return next year… for July.

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