The Bandit's Italian Job

In my dreams I’m blasting across Europe on one of them new VFR800Fs. Matching luggage, heated grips, all the bells and whistles. These are unclean, unfaithful thoughts, and the Slippery Bandit (oil leak) knows I’m having them. She trundles on faithfully nonetheless. We’ve done 60k miles together, around the UK and Ireland but, like a couple in need of some counselling, the love’s gone. Complaints? Me, her horrible damping, vibration and ear-splitting exhaust. Her, my ham-fisted control inputs, propensity for dropping her and woeful maintenance record. Like all relationships, we need a change of scene. We need... a holiday. What’s that you say? Samantha’s getting married in Tuscany? France, Riviera, San Gimignano, alpine switchbacks on the return. Plan.

Friday night, D-Day, the allotted departure time. Revellers outside are treated to a heroic swearing display when I discover some arse-hat has defiled the Slippery Bandit. Wing mirror, wrenched from its socket, lies on the ground. Indicator dangles from its cable, swinging gently in the wind like a hangman’s victim. Fucker didn’t even leave a note.

Eurotunnel rescheduled and the folks at AyeGee in Welling provide the wing-mirror first thing. Gaffer tape does the rest and 24 hours after all the swearing we’re snuggled up in a cute little hotel in Pontaubert, a very picture-skew village on the border of the Morvan national park with classic, tree-lined roads straight out of a tourist brochure. They do a nice line in sleepy villages, fortress cathedrals and chateaus too. Would monsieur be liking zum wine wis hiz dejeuner? Don’t mind if I do.

You should never play with a Tom Tom when drunk. Upshot: wiggely-windy setting accidently engaged the boozy night before means it takes 14 hours to travel from Pontaubert to St Lauren du Verdon in Provence. Google said it would take six. Those missing eight hours are a combination of bum-ache and awe. The D981 goes through towns and villages straight out of the guidebooks, before tedium sets in past Cluny. It’s all worth it though. An unfortunate detour through the centre of Grenoble is rewarded with a stunning road. The Bandit breaths the cool mountain air and sings as the late afternoon sun brings out shadows and gobsmacking reveals following the N85 over the mountains. Past Gap, sunshine peaks out from behind a mountain and the sign says ‘Bienvenue a Provence’.

Running in to the Verdon park on the D952, sun sets, clouds gather in the distance and the road twists again. Lightning from a receding storm makes the clouds flicker like fizzing light bulbs, briefly illuminating a wonderful piece of tarmac. Man this road is good. Man I wish I had ridden it in daylight. Next time.

Ten pm and La Colombiere du Chateau hoves into view not a moment too soon. Tom and Barbara greet me. Yup, I’ll say it again. Tom and Barbara. Do not, under any circumstances, mention The Good Life. My B&B hosts have finished dinner but find me some much-needed cake and a few beers. Sitting me down with the rest of their guests, all of whom are German or Austrian, everyone immediately switches to English for my benefit, and we all have a laugh at the Anglo-Saxon refusal to learn languages. Tom and Barbara are bikers too. They know all the best routes through Verdon and the next morning send me off with tips a-plenty.

Moustiers-St-Marie is perched on a hilltop in the shadow of a mountain, overflowing with flower boxes, baskets and tourists. Cute lanes are narrow and the Bandit’s antisocial exhaust volume is ruining the vibe, so on we go, to la Routes de Cretes, the D23. It’s a circuit skirting the Verdon gorge, and it’s joyous. You can’t help but smile as you look out over Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It’s breathtaking.

Things to do as a biker on a travel holiday in the Verdon gorge: 1) Arrive at blazing-hot vantage points in roasting bike gear while everyone else is wearing shorts. 2) Leave helmet on as you walk around said vantage point. 3) Put camera on timer and make rushed, not-at-all natural poses. 4) Crawl on belly to edge of precipice for vertigo-inducing photo. 5) Crawl back. 6) Look back at other tourists and wonder why they’re looking at you funny. 7) Repeat at next roadside vantage point.

Back on the D952 to Castellane, skirting the river and lakes through second and third gear sweepers. Staying in the torqueband, the Bandit bounds from hairpin to hairpin like a joyful, gormless Labrador. She’s never experienced roads like this before. She has a heart, and it’s overflowing.

On a bike you get to see many sights in a far more involved, engaging way than your average driver. The French Riviera however, is probably best seen by boat. The motorway burrows through hillsides and every tunnel exit brings classic Riviera venues: Nice, Monaco, Cap-Martin. Each exit reveals more and more overdeveloped terracotta-topped identi-towns, from the cliffs to my left down to the sea on my right. A perfect example of how to take a beautiful scene and royally ruin it. Still, I’m sure if I was supping Crystal from a super-yacht down below, I wouldn’t mind at all. I’m rushing to make it to Tuscany when I should have stopped. Near La Spezia a black Peugeot 206 pulls in front of me and the driver turns, gives me wide eyes and repeatedly jabs his finger in to his temple. I don’t know what I’ve done to upset him, probably because I’m knackered. Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry and rest before you yawn. My judgement has rightly been called in to question. Then I run a red light. It’s time to pull in.

The final hour and the road to San Gimignano is probably epic but I can’t see much in the dark. The moon hides behind clouds and the Bandit’s weedy headlight is as welcome as a knobflavoured ice-lolly. We ride triumphantly in to San Gimignano to the sound of honking horns. I’m on the wrong side of the road.

The main reason for me being here is a wedding. Long story short, she said yes, he said yes, massive party, massive hangover, and then it’s time to ride home. The ride back has to take a different route so it’s time for The Italian Job. A fan-site suggests the mountain scenes were filmed at the Grand St Bernard pass into Switzerland, the Petite St Bernard pass into France and the roads in the Gran Paradiso national park. Best of all, they are fairly close to each other and accessible from the Aosta Valley in the far north east of Italy. New plan hatched.

Over the next two days we ride through Gran Paradiso. It is both Grand, and definitely a version of paradise. SP50 is staggering. Remember the bit at the end of The Italian Job, with the coach being hurled around single-track hairpin bends? It could have been filmed here. Judging by the pot holes and loose stuff they haven’t re-surfaced it since the movie was filmed.

The sun’s out as we climb, hairpin after hairpin, the Bandit beginning to gasp in the rarefied air. Clouds follow us up, obscuring peaks as we pass them. Emerald green lakes appear as we pass road signs conveying some kind of danger. Whatever. Just after the Colle del Nivolet the patchy tarmac runs out, and there’s a chain across a dirt-track. Aww! I wanna go further! I turn around and enjoy the road on the way down.

The final day, the run over the SS26, Le Petite St Bernard pass, or Colle de Piccolo San Bernardo. Endless sweeps form the road out of Terme Pre-Saint-Didier. Onward. Upward. Higher, higher. You could come back and spend a week running this road and the little ones off it. In fact, I think I will. Put a date in the diary and I’ll see you there.

RIDER >> WILL THORLING
BIKE >> SUZUKI BANDIT 1250S
DISTANCE >> 2000 MILES