Have motorcycle, will travel… and here are five of the greatest roads a motorcycle adventurer can travel.
Western Fjords, Iceland
If you ever get the chance to travel around Iceland, with or without a motorcycle, just do it. It’s rugged and spectacular beyond belief. Take all the volcanoes of the Andes, the glaciers of Patagonia, the thermal geysers of Yellowstone, the fjords of Norway, the lakes of Finland and add in more waterfalls than you can count. Throw it all on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean and take away all the people, and you’ve got Iceland. There’s better lamb than New Zealand and better seafood than Tasmania.
In the remote Western Fjords, the nesting grounds of gorgeous puffins are so tame they peck at your iPhone as you take close-ups. It’s called Iceland for a reason, however, and you’ll need lots of warm gear. I spend much of my year riding in the Himalayas, the Rockies and the Andes, and I’ve been colder in Iceland in the height of summer. But it’s definitely worth it and, for a motorcyclist, the roads are sensational!
Leh to Lamayuru, India
This is deep inside India’s region of Ladakh, known as ‘Little Tibet’ and the road takes us to a 1,000-year-old Buddhist monastery, clinging to a hillside in the accepted tradition. The road climbs a very steep mountain and, although it’s not as high as the 4,000 metre passes we’ve accomplished in the previous week, this road is more spectacular because it climbs and loops back upon itself so many times. You can stand at the top and gaze back down upon 15 or 16 road loops below, and marvel at the sheer drop‑offs to the raging river 1,000 metres lower. There’s actually a much easier alternative road to the monastery through the low river valley but we don’t bother to mention this until everyone has made it via the spectacular high road. One lady rider a few years ago suffered from vertigo and she taught me some choice new Buddhist words at the monastery when she discovered she hadn’t actually needed to do the higher route.
Dades and Todra Gorges, Morocco
Within a short distance of each other in Morocco are two rivers called the Dades and the Todra. They’ve each carved deep gorges in the naked landscape, different yet similar. Mankind’s tradition has been to use such natural channels for access and transport, so roads have been built through these gorges. They are absolutely spectacular examples of engineering and a sheer delight to ride.
The Dades Gorge has been used in photographic advertising for Moto Guzzi in recent years, which has resulted in greater exposure as a destination for dedicated two-wheeled adventure seekers.
Dolomites, northern Italy
A longtime favourite with European riders, the mountains of northern Italy attract bikers by the hordes. Weekend Warriors with big fat sticky tyres try to carve ‘a fast lap’ through the region and sometimes the biggest threat to a motorcyclist is another motorcyclist, with scant regard for road rules or biker protocol. But the breathtaking scenery of the Alps and the marvellous road engineering is a combination too alluring to resist, and the biggest magnet of all is the famous Stelvio Pass, an impossible series of loops climbing high in the Dolomites between Italy and Austria. I’ve done this pass on one of my favourite bikes, the Suzuki V-Strom, and can testify to the euphoric feeling it brings to be nailing corner after corner.
Khardung La, Ladakh, India
The highest road in the world has become something of a pilgrimage for motorcyclists in recent years. High in the Himalayan region of Ladakh in northern India, K-Top, as it is affectionately known, reaches the dizzying altitude of 5,600 metres. There is some contention as to whether it is still actually the highest road, as the Chinese claim to have recently built a higher one just across the border, but it is apparently only navigable by 4WDs and mountain goats.
When I first took a group to Khardung La in 1995 we were the only bikes there; indeed we may have been the only bikes in Ladakh. Nowadays there are many tour operators cashing in on its popularity and there are often dozens of bikes up there from several different companies on each day of the limited season. I believe I may lay claim to holding the record for the number of ascents; I have ridden this road several times every year since 1995 and have stood on the top more than 50 times.
The attraction is simply the scale of the Himalayas. The greatest mountain range on earth also comes with the greatest canyons, massive rivers, huge plains and sweeping plateaus. The Khardung La is still relatively low compared to Everest’s height of 8,848 metres, but it’s two-and-a-half times Kosciuszko.
At the top of the pass you can gaze towards Pakistan to the west, China to the north and India to the south. Three of the world’s nuclear powers stare off at each other here, in a volatile and unsteady relationship. The road to the top is a military route built by the Indian Army and special permission is required from the authorities.
Convoys of army trucks are a constant obstacle and the road is poorly-maintained; there are deep potholes, sharp rocks, muddy streams and washouts, snow and ice on the road, even in summer. All these add a challenging dimension which makes the final achievement of standing on the top of the world so much more satisfying.
As told to Men’s Style by Mike Ferris, motorcycle adventurer and tour operator.