Stelvio Adventure Rally or Here Be Dragons
Old map makers believed the world was flat and painted dragons on the sea horizon. The Vikings, who apparently knew better, were the first European adventure riders and adorned their ships with dragonheads. The annual Italian Adventure Bike Rally took place at the Mountain View campground near Elk Park, N.C. about 1,000 miles from our homes in southwest Wisconsin.
Steve is a new member of the Wisconsin Moto Guzzi riders who showed up last September at a meeting on his SP3. He had recently moved to La Crosse from Chicagoland. Last year we did several local rides in our area, usually on his orange Stelvio. The Wisconsin Driftless Region is similar to parts of Arkansas and Missouri, with hills and valleys, which after our trip, I will call the “Tail of the Lab,’ smooth sweepers and friendly wagging. The area of the North Carolina rally I will call the Indiana Jones Snake Pit – like the overly-publicized dragon but without the tourist traffic. The highway has side roads that run up into the mountains and down into the hollows, on generally smooth pavement, unless you want to ride dirt and broken rocks, which are also part of the rally for the real adventurers.
I bought my Stelvio new in 2014 as a kind of high-powered packhorse. Deb got a new V-7 which she liked to keep free of unsightly bulging items that detracted from the lines of the bike. My ventures off pavement had been unintentional except for my gravel driveway. I envisioned this rally as one where we would receive some lectures about the bikes and a few riding tips.
Based on our rides, I assumed Steve’s Stelvio experience was similar to mine: some long highway trips. I never saw his bike with saddlebags until this trip when I noticed the Chicken, AK and Prudhoe Bay stickers. Steve is a man of few words and when asked, mentioned that he had, indeed, ridden to those places. I later found that he was not lying when a gravel road he led us on by the Wabash River turned to mud. Since he did not slow down to turn around I felt I had no choice but to follow his tire tracks in 3" deep mud. It took me about 15 minutes to get through the 1.5 mile mud section and reach Steve who kindly waited on the other side. I guess he assumed everyone with a Stelvio could ride like him.
I navigate by M.A.P.S. and have minuscule internet skills; Steve is not as good with M.A.P.S. but does have a GPS on his bike. I showed him the route and he programmed it into his GPS. This came in handy the next day when we were blocked by an accident on KY229 on the way to the Cumberland Gap. 229 is like one of our best Wisconsin roads but with smooth pavement and is almost uninhabited shortcut from London to Bailey’s Switch, avoiding the 4-lane. Steve got us turned around and onto a side road headed toward the 4-lane when he abruptly turned left down what I thought was someone’s driveway. It was paved for awhile until it headed down to a deep gravel section. I made it through that as he waited and we came out onto the freeway. We rode the Pinnacle road in Cumberland Gap Park which is a series of continuous switchbacks to the top where you can see three states. This was to be good practice for the rally.
We arrived at Mountain View where our gracious hosts Mark and Janine showed us to the only private room, which had 2 beds, a bath and coffee/fridge room. The rest of the adventurers pitched tents or slept in the 5-bed bunk house.
The bunk house is in the rear of Mark’s state-of-the-art shop. All of the buildings are fairly new and very well designed with 2 bathrooms for the bunkhouse and tent campers. Mark is a Honda and BMW certified tech and an expert on Stelvio, as I was to find out.
The first day I was 5th in a 5-bike road race, er, tour, over the snake pit roads. In Wisconsin we have occasional warning signs for “blind curve.” If North Carolina did that it would bankrupt the highway trust fund because every curve is blind. At a rest stop, after apologizing to everyone for holding them up, I commented that it takes a leap of faith that nothing bad is around the next curve to ride at the pace we were riding. One of the fast guys used to be a MSF instructor who emphasized safety as No. 1 but allowed that today it probably ranked about No. 3.
The next day, as more riders arrived Friday night, we split into 3 groups. Steve and I chose the “relaxed ride” as we hoped to actually see something beside the road surface. Mark introduced us to Colin, a 20-something polite young rider with a nondescript dirty old Yamaha, to lead our group. Colin’s girlfriend and her roommate were on identical new NC700 Hondas, and 2 guys with new V85TTs, made up our group.
I got behind the 2 girls, figuring that they were beginners. Maybe they were, but I didn’t see them again until I reached the end of the road and they were relaxing with Colin, waiting for us. I obviously should have taken up the rear, and did so for the next section. As for relaxing, maybe my geezer definition is different from 20-somethings.
When we exited the mountain course to the 4-lane divided highway, my Stelvio lost power as I crossed the median in a left turn and I coasted to a stop on the left shoulder of the passing lane. Luckily, traffic was light and was able to see me and move over. Assuming I would have to ship the bike somewhere, I asked a Harley guy who stopped to call his tow buddy. Steve took a look at the motor and saw the right throttle body assembly had somehow come apart. He then tore off a small piece of gum wrapper, inserted it into the damaged cup that holds the balljoint. We cancelled the tow and I rode back to Mountain View. Mark wasn’t back from his group dirt ride and we joked about the long odds that he would have a replacement part. Well, he only had 3 or 4 on hand, installed it, balanced the throttled bodies, adjusted the TPS and the bike ran better than ever.
That evening we all ordered wood-fired pizzas and Janine drove to Roan Mountain, TN, 5 miles north picked them up for a great camp dinner. The weather was beautiful in North Carolina the whole 3-1/2 days we were there. The food at the local bakery was also amazing.
We got an early start home Sunday and rode through occasional rain to Vincennes, IN, around 490 miles. Our favorite road on the trip was IN62 along the Ohio River from Dale to Corydon. Very scenic, curvy road, good surface, no traffic about 65 miles. We left Vincennes early Monday and were home by late afternoon, around 430 miles for me and 500 for Steve.
So-called adventure bikes are hyped for touring, off-pavement, and sport riding. With riders like Steve and Mark, they can do all that. At 76, my goal is to keep the rubber side down for as long as I can get on and off the bike. I managed to do that on this trip and am now a more confident and marginally better rider. Definitely back next year. (Don’t bother asking for the suite, I reserved it.) As a certified adventure rider, my new favorite tune playing in my head starts: “Get your motor runnin’, Head out on the highway, Looking for Adventure, Whatever comes our way . . . “