The red bike leaned sharply as we ascended the winding mountain road. I clung to Thomas, my arms wrapped tightly around his waist. We were near the border of Austria and Italy, approaching yet another mountain pass. So far I had enjoyed myself, despite my initial hesitations to ride on the back of my boyfriend’s motorbike. I remembered a younger, perhaps wiser version of myself that had once said not only would I never ride on a motorcycle, I sure as hell would never date a guy who drove one. Life experiences had since taught me … never say never.
A blanket statement of “I will never” laced with fear, seemed quite ironic now, coming from a girl who had spent most of the past five years fearlessly exploring the world, begging the question “Why Not?”. My decision to become a scuba diver, kitesurfer, mountain climber, and skydiver indicated I was comfortable with a higher degree of risk than most and had proven the ability to conquer my fears. My choice to spontaneously sail the South Pacific for three months on tiny boats, to live in a jeep while driving across the Outback, and to transverse Morocco and the Sahara desert off-road in a cluncker were all adventures that I had chosen to do without hesitation.
But there was still something about the thought of riding on a motorbike that turned my stomach in knots. I had ride on a motorbike for the first time in 2008 with Mr. Haus, a sweet Vietnamese motorbike driver who toured me through the Central Highlands. A memory that to this day brings a smile to a face and a shiver down my spine for reasons not entirely associated with the motorbike itself.
Perhaps my fear resided in having to relinquish control, and seemingly put my life in the hands of others trusting that my driver and all the others on the road would proceed with caution; the ladder proving itself harder for me to do in the company of those crazy Italian drivers.
I rarely use logic in a decision-making process; however, when it comes to motorcycles, I have a laundry list of frightening statistics stored away in my head to justify why myself and others should not go for a ride. I didn’t want a biker boyfriend as I want my man to live a long life and according to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) “Motorcyclists were 25 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash per vehicle mile traveled in 2009, and five time more likely to be injured …”. A stat my Swiss boyfriend would dismiss with the roll of his eyes as irrelevant as American’s are crazy and are allowed to drive without helmets in some states, thus making this stat null and void.
Sensing my disapproval, Thomas once asked me “Please don’t make me get rid of my bike one day.” I promised him I would never make him do anything. While I didn’t understand why such a logical intelligent guy would continue to ride a bike given the obvious risk of bodily harm, I did accept that his bike seemed to make him very happy . In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder if my sense of fearless adventure and acceptance of this motorbike in our lives would one day be abandoned and replaced by worry in my old age? My parents had once owned matching motorcycles, a fact that to this day I cannot accept from such risk averse individuals by which I am sure I must have been adopted.
Thomas assured me that he is a cautious driver and I was in good hands. “I would never put you in danger” he promised. He made a mistake in telling me about his three motorbike crashes (one of which totaled his first bike), lucky for him he escaped without injury. He was responsible in the sense that he wore all the protective gear on the market leaving no skin exposed. He gave me his old motorbike clothes, boots, and a back protector. As I pulled on his old pants that had seen better days, I couldn’t help but wonder the story behind each tear and hole.
I was quite nervous when we peeled out of our driveway in Switzerland, destination unknown. It wasn’t the unknown that worried me, but the getting there by motorbike made me sweat. Thomas promised to take the mountain roads whenever possible that contained less traffic and as I would learn is much more fun for the driver and obviously more beautiful than a freeway.
We headed east through the tiny country of Liechtenstein stopping to photograph the 13th century castle high on a mountaintop.
Somewhere in Austria, I realized I really must trust this guy. I had no idea where we were or where we were heading next and I didn’t care. He was taking me on one of the most beautiful rides of my life and I was having fun! Despite the fact that we were dangerously close to the edge of a steep mountain, I was able to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenes unfolding around every bend. Below us were unobstructed views of sweeping green farmland sprinkled with tiny white houses in a cluster of villages. The Alps seemed to go on forever and I was unable to distinguish a difference between countries.
I suspected that Thomas was driving more slowly on my account, taking turns less low to the ground than he would have done on his own. I would come to understand his love for his bike and desire to take me on this five-day motorbike tour through Europe. He was right … being able to feel the wind, smell the fresh mountain air, to feel more connected to the earth while enjoying the thrill of the ride was an experience that could not be duplicated within the confines of a car. I felt the temperature change as we ascended the still snow capped Alps. It was springtime, and the mountainside was just beginning to blossom beautifully where the snow had melted away.
Thomas stuck out his left hand again as another biker passed us going the opposite direction, an apparent universal greeting in the biker world. There were things these people just knew, and I was a rookie biker chic who neglected to tuck my long hair inside my helmet resulting in a bird nest of knots that would take Thomas and I over an hour to detangle at the loss of many locks. After the third time of putting my gloves on before my helmet, I finally understood this was not the most effective order of suiting up.
As much as I enjoyed the beauty and thrill of the ride, there were some less desirable events of the tour. The unexpected and ongoing torment of the worst allergy attack of my life had me sneezing and snotting inside my helmet. My eyes watered to a point that Thomas thought I was crying. Additionally, I was out of motorbike shape you could say, my bum and arms feeling quite sore only a few hours into our ride.
I did love the adventure and plan to have no plan. We stopped at every mountain pass to enjoy the view and warm our bodies with a cappuccino. Occasionally we would look at a map to decide where to head to next. At the Timmelsjoch mountain pass (elevation 2,474 m, 8,117 ft) on the border of Austria, I realized we would be descending into Italy, and the city of Venice was not too far away. I asked Tom if he would take me there, explaining that I had waiting to experience Venice with someone I love. He said sure, why not, but pointed out that a detour to Venice would mean a very long drive home the last day.
On our way, we passed through the Dolmonites mountain range in the northern Italian Alps, numbering 18 peaks which rise to above 3,000 meters. It was here that we saw many beautiful mountain landscapes and the “Rainbow Lake” of Carezza.
We arrived in the famous canal city at dark, having neglected to reserve a room in advance to the amusement of the first innkeeper who assured us we would not find an available room that weekend. Perhaps it was luck, but we did find a room, and got a great discount at that!
After spending the next day in the city of love, we continued our journey through Italy. Our path home would conveniently take us through Lake Como, and I wanted to surprise my friend Sarah with an unplanned visit. Thomas looked at the map and gave me some options. We could reach Como in five hours if we took the freeway most of the way; or we could take mountain roads, which would take us at least eight hours. After a short visit with Sarah, we would have another four hour drive home to Switzerland. I wanted to reach Como in time to have lunch with Sarah and my sore bum agreed we should take the shorter route. “Let’s take the freeway” I decided.
As we merged onto the five lane freeway, I immediately thought this was a mistake. The lanes were jam-packed with traffic moving at a speed of 130km/hr. My body stiffened with anxiety and for some morbid reason, I couldn’t stop myself from envisioning my death as a result of a tragic accident. Danger seemed to encircle us. To the right I noticed a distracted driver texting; to the left a car abruptly changed lanes without a blinker. This was exactly what I had feared all along. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and terrified that we would inevitably crash, not because Tom is a bad driver, but because there were so many other cars, so many other factors at play that were beyond our control.
I closed my eyes and rested my head on Tom’s back, praying for our safety. As much as I tried to push the images out of my head, I tormented myself with gruesome accident scenes, envisioning my body flying off the bike as a car side swiped us not seeing us in his blind spot, my tiny body splatting on the ground soon to be ran over by oncoming traffic.
When I couldn’t take it any more and knocked on Tom’s helmet, as he told me to do if I ever needed him to pull over. I was shaking when I got off the bike and I told him how scared I was and didn’t want to drive on the freeway any longer. He pulled out his map and concluded we really had no choice than to continue on the freeway for a while longer. He was quite surprised by my fear taking my reaction personally and feeling offended that I didn’t trust him as in his mind he would never ever put my safety at risk. I explained again that I did trust him, but did not trust the drivers around us. To my outrage he claimed “for such a tough girl, you are being quite a wus right now!” Needless to say, that comment did not go over well.
Pissed off, I climbed back on the bike accepting the fact that we had no choice at this point but to continue on this freeway for a while longer and hoping he was right that the traffic would thin out as we got further away from the city. Against my never say never philosophy I assured him I would never ride with him on a freeway again! To me the reward of driving on a freeway produced no reward for the risk.
Calmness was restored to my mind when I saw the huge glistening lake of Como. I had spent alot of time in the Como area and was happy to be back. We had finally arrived at Sarah’s house in Varenna, Italy. My bum ached and my knees and arms felt stressed and pained. I wanted off the bike.
Sarah was very happy to see us and laughed hysterically when she saw us rock up on a motorcycle. She said we looked quite professional and asked me if I had not been scared? Despite my desire to always be fearless in life, I admitted I had indeed been absolutely terrified on the freeway. I didn’t tell her I chose to embrace my fear in order to reach her by lunchtime as I had promised.
After a way too short visit with my friend Sarah, we mounted the bike once again for a four hour ride back to Rapperswil, Switzerland. We would cross another beautiful mountain pass near the Italian town of Spulga near the Swiss border.
Aside from the frightening freeway ride, I really did enjoy my fun mini-European motorbike tour. I am glad I chose adventure over fear but realized it is okay to be scared sometimes and admitting it doesn’t make you a wus it makes you honest. If your gut tells us something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t … trust your instincts.
Will I ever ride on a motorbike again? Yes, but preferably on mountain roads.
Will I ever become a hardcore biker chic and buy my own motorbike? I doubt it. But as I have learned over and over again, NEVER SAY NEVER.
To see more photos of my 2012 European Motorbike Tour CLICK HERE.