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Centopassi: Ducati Ride Through the French Maritime and Western Italian Alps

Riders admiring the view of the Massif de la Vanoise [Mountains] from the Maurienne Valley.

Riders admiring the view of the Massif de la Vanoise [Mountains] from the Maurienne Valley.

Photo Credit: Gary Eagan, Dream Engine and Ian Kerr

Gary Eagan
May 17, 2005
Filed under Guided Motorcycle Tour Reviews, Touring and Rallies

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Riding a Ducati through the Alps is roughly akin to stepping into the swelter of an old-time, biblethumpin’, Holy Rollin’, Glory Be To Everything tent revival. Salvation by the bucket, euphoria by the bale. Revivals claim to nourish your soul. Flogging a Ducati through the Alps gluttonizes it. A tent revival rolls within the confines of canvas walls. Riding among the Alps you are walled only by passes and peaks christened as Col de la Bonette, Briancon, Galibier, Col d’ Izoard and a legion of other crags, cols and massifs. Revivals promise you will “find the way” and be thankful. A Ducati in the Alps promises you will get lost and love it.

For five luscious days in July 2004, almost 100 moto-pilgrims ran a revised revival through the French Maritime and Western Italian Alps, gathered under the banner of the Centopassi, a motorcyclist’s celebration created by the combined efforts of Ducati Motor Holding and Dream Engine, an Italian marketing and public relations firm. “Centopassi” literally means “100 passes” and was further dubbed “The Multistrada Challenge.” While I doubt any of those playing in the event counted their bagged passes, I’d bet a favorite body part that all found some degree of moto-salvation.

This really is a two-lane, two-way road coursing through the French Alps above Val d’Isere. The charge of the Red Brigade ate up such roads with aplomb, never seeming to care how far the dropoff is if one blows a turn.

This really is a two-lane, two-way road coursing through the French Alps above Val d’Isere. The charge of the Red Brigade ate up such roads with aplomb, never seeming to care how far the dropoff is if one blows a turn.

The canvas for this drama was framed by a bevy of wild-haired, grinning Italian Ducati enthusiasts whose basic tenet seems to be that there is no shelf life for life. Live it or lose it. Fuel it with espresso, good food and adrenaline. Stick a key in the hole and ride that Ducati like someone else wants to steal it. Living life safely and sanely is for the truly crazy. The last inch of tarmac that blends with the lip of the void is clearly the best surface, so ride it always and ride it fast. Never ride the straight and narrow, only the bent and skinny.

The Centopassi’s call to arms first blared in 2003 as an event designed to showcase the behavior of Ducati’s then-new Multistrada. Designed by Pierre Terblanche, the ’Strada’s DNA is said to be one with the myriad passes in and around Italy, whose roads are often more rumor than real, with surfaces frequently bumpy, ugly and gouged. The skin on the roads over some of these passes would give Scarface a complexion appearing as silky as Cinderella’s. So when an invitation floated by for me to fly to Nice, France, link up with the Centopassi Posse, ride the event and report back, I grabbed my passport, some shirts and shorts and scrambled for the airport. The invitation to play with a Multistrada on its home turf was beyond tantalizing.

A portion of the “skills test” held at the end of each day’s riding; this one in Sestriere, Italy.

A portion of the “skills test” held at the end of each day’s riding; this one in Sestriere, Italy.

Reading the synopsis of the Centopassi, it appeared there would be two offerings by Dream Engine and Ducati—a Competition Class and an Iron Biker entry. The Competition Class would allow entrants to test themselves against the clock, not as a pure speed event (ho ho) but more along the lines of a tightly timed ride splashed with a batch of skill tests, also run against the clock. The winner would take home a new Multistrada. An Iron Biker entrant rode exactly the same routes, but without any clock or skill-test considerations and no shot at winning a new Ducati. The roughly $1,000 U.S. entry fee provided meals, lodging and transportation of luggage during the five day event. Iron Bikers could choose to take more time to suck up the grandeur of the French and Italian Alps and savor the flavors of inviting small villages and the overwhelming air of history ripe throughout that chunk of the planet.

My first task was to choose which game to play. Good choices, both. My decision was made for me when I stepped off the plane and into the French Riviera swankness of Nice. I was told that journalists could not enter the competition, and a separate group consisting of 16 writers would be led on the Centopassi route by a handful of supremely competent Italian riders, many employed by Ducati.

Just another beautiful Italian Alps road, this one on the road to Cueno. Sections of road like this represent the most casual riding, as most are far more technical.

Just another beautiful Italian Alps road, this one on the road to Cueno. Sections of road like this represent the most casual riding, as most are far more technical.

The Centopassi is a rolling revival, of sorts, and after starting in Nice, entrants wound their way through the French Maritime Alps, ending the first day in the Italian ski village of Limone Piemonte, about 120 miles and a few thousand turns to the east. Competition Class entrants were sent out at precisely timed intervals and the Iron Bikers were turned loose after the last competitor cleared the timing gate. Along the route, Competition riders would need to get time-stamped at a few declared checkpoints and an occasional surprise stop. It was imperative that each competitor average exactly 40 kph at each stop along the way. Anything more or less would result in time penalties levied against the rider.

A rider’s arrival time was measured electronically and calculated to a hundredth of a second. Most competitors simply wailed through the mountains and valleys, stopping shy of the checkpoints to sip an espresso or two. As their predetermined time to hit the line approached, they’d mount up, inch their bike toward the timing eye, hoping to trip it on the nose. And once inside of roughly 100 feet from the line, one could not touch toes to ground without penalties. At the skill tests, winding paths outlined by road cones demanded the rider navigate the courses without touching a cone or foot to ground, with penalties assessed for either infraction. Meanwhile, the Iron Bikers and journalists were banging corners, sipping espressos, lounging over lunches in small roadside cafés and absorbing the incredible scenery.

The starting gate for the Centopassi in Sestriere. In the background you can see one of the trams going up to the top of the ski runs where the Olympic Games alpine events will be held in ’06.

The starting gate for the Centopassi in Sestriere. In the background you can see one of the trams going up to the top of the ski runs where the Olympic Games alpine events will be held in ’06.

Organizers had carefully selected the hotels at each nightly destination, and most were four- or five-star concerns. We were informed the hotel in Limone was of lesser quality and a bit cramped. My room had a bathroom so small that when I stepped from the elevated shower my left foot ended up in the bidet. I just fired that puppy up, cleaned up my shiftin’ foot and was well prepared to face the coming day’s route and its thousands of turns.

While the Competition and Iron Bike riders were winding their way through the course, we journalists were being shown firsthand how Italians approach mountain motorcycling and traffic management. As an understatement, these guys are quick, competent and impatient. The riding style, shared by seemingly all Italians and most other Europeans, is much more aggressive than that in the USA.

One of many small towns in France along the Centopassi route.

One of many small towns in France along the Centopassi route.

After Limone, all entrants spent the next three nights in Sestriere, Italy, a ski resort that will host most of the 2006 Winter Olympic alpine events. From this exquisite location, where the accommodations were opulent compared to those in Limone, the organizers sent riders out on a different course each day over and through some of the most exquisite mountain scenery on this or any other planet.

Over La Bonnett, at 2,880 meters the highest pass the group would scale, through Val d’Isere, a ski town of staggering beauty when viewed from a few thousand meters above. Crisscrossing the Italian/French border sometimes hourly under the shadow of legions of spectacular peaks, riders also maneuvered ’l Alpe d’ Huez, one of the Tour de France’s most notorious climbs. This extraordinary hill is a 15-degree, non-stop, 13-kilometer road that is painted with names, slogans and artwork from top to bottom. Lance Armstrong, two days before we rode Huez, had sewn up his sixth consecutive victory on this pass, riding it in well under an hour. An estimated million spectators lined the sides
of the Huez, and two days later the sacks of garbage were piled up to 10 feet high in places. With photo stops, most of The Posse took a bit more than an hour to ascend one of bicycling’s most famous climbs. Possibly the most difficult decision to be made for any Centopassi entrant was whether to ride the incredibly twisty alpine roads with gusto or take a more laid-back ride and yank the camera out of the tankbag every 20 or 30 kliks.

A competitor waits for the timing clock to count down to set his precise starting time at the start of the leg in Limone, Italy.

A competitor waits for the timing clock to count down to set his precise starting time at the start of the leg in Limone, Italy.

At the end of each day’s ride, the longest being a bit north of 400 kilometers, the rolling Centopassi was warmly welcomed into its destination village. The entire town would show up to watch the skill tests, inspect the motorcycles, gaze at the goofily garbed riders and belly up to tables laden with local wines, cheeses, salamis and abundant other delights. Each day’s end was its own celebration, enjoyed as much by the town folk as the riders. In addition to Limone, daily rides ended and celebrations commenced in Sansicario, Oulx, Cessna and St. Vincent, all Italian Alpine villages.

Centopassi’s organizers went the extra klik to make certain there was little or no straight-line riding for the five days. Compared to last year’s event, the ’04 ride was more technical and twisty and graced by nearly perfect weather. Only one day saw rain and fog in the high passes, which only added to the otherworldly spectacle enjoyed by approximately 70 entrants.

I never really figured out what a “Pain Sandwich” is. This shop selling the sandwiches in Sestriere was right next door to one offering a “Baby Bar.”

I never really figured out what a “Pain Sandwich” is. This shop selling the sandwiches in Sestriere was right next door to one offering a “Baby Bar.”

Last year’s event was run a few weeks later and more to the eastern side of Italy. Starting earlier in the year and moving the fest to the west allowed riders to enjoy a greater shot at good weather, more spectacular roads and a chance to crest some of the most famous passes in the Alps.

When the event ended in St. Vincent, Italy, on July 25, no rider had hit the ditch, no frowns were worn and not an unkind word about the event could be heard. At the award ceremony, Italian rider Renato Zocchi had bested the 40-rider Competition Class and took home a 2004 Multistrada for his efforts. Zocchi, a former Cagiva works rider and Italian motocross champion, rode a highly modified Honda 450 Super Motard to inch out Multistrada pilot Alberto Pignat, the winner of the ’03 Centopassi.

The Posse takes a break, and a natural shower, along the Italian/French border. Clouds descend upon the passes with amazing quickness, going from clear and bright to moody and damp, or just purely wet, in a matter of a few minutes.

The Posse takes a break, and a natural shower, along the Italian/French border. Clouds descend upon the passes with amazing quickness, going from clear and bright to moody and damp, or just purely wet, in a matter of a few minutes.

After 10 timed skill tests, five timed finish lines and 15 timed checkpoints, Zocchi was a scant .15 of a second from hitting every mark on the button, an almost impossible feat. Pignat was only .01 of a second behind Zocchi, who credited his victory only to “concentration” and proper use of a standard, no-frills wristwatch to track his times.

As the wrapper was put on the event, it was clear that Ducati and Dream Engine had hosted the ideal forum to display the
heart and soul of the Multistrada, as well as nailed down the formula to challenge and entertain a very demanding clientele. And during the five days of The Posse’s wanderings, the 16 international journalists were in unanimous agreement that few better bikes than the Multistrada exist to ride the passes in the Alps. Of the bikes ridden, 47 were Ducatis, and a handful of BMWs, Hondas, Yamahas, one KTM (Duke), one MV Agusta, and one Triumph rounded out the grid. And delightfully, approximately 10 percent of the entrants were women, all of whom displayed superb riding skills.

The roads are so incredibly tight, narrow and bumpy that it is amazing one could even ride them on a chopper. This chap was doing just that in the French Maritime Alps near Saint Martin de-la-Porte.

The roads are so incredibly tight, narrow and bumpy that it is amazing one could even ride them on a chopper. This chap was doing just that in the French Maritime Alps near Saint Martin de-la-Porte.

The Centopassi is a flat-out winner. For any motorcyclist searching for a venue to combine other-worldly riding and outstanding company while scratching hard parts through some of the most beautiful, historically rich country on earth, a chance to ride with The Posse should not be missed. It is much more than worth the price of admission. If you don’t have a must-do list at the moment, start one. And jot down Centopassi ’05 as item number one.

For more information, see www.centopassi.com.

(This article was published in the May 2005 issue of Rider.)

The Posse after it landed in Cessna, Italy, at the end of the fourth leg of the event.

The Posse after it landed in Cessna, Italy, at the end of the fourth leg of the event.

The winner of the Competition Class, Renato Zocchi, only deviated from a perfect score by .15 of a second, inching out the secondplace rider by only .1 of a second.

The winner of the Competition Class, Renato Zocchi, only deviated from a perfect score by .15 of a second, inching out the secondplace rider by only .1 of a second.

When riding the roads near the Col du Galibier, France, it’s best to be on your game. The dropoff to the right is more than 1,000 meters.

When riding the roads near the Col du Galibier, France, it’s best to be on your game. The dropoff to the right is more than 1,000 meters.

MAP BY BILL TIPTON/COMPARTMAPS.COM

MAP BY BILL TIPTON/COMPARTMAPS.COM

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