The pages of just about every motorcycle magazine are covered in articles about the newest, the best or the most-hyped ‘adventure bike’. I’m not going into this topic because I’ve only tried three or four of the alternatives and I don’t really like most of them!
However I have two conflicting passions, I love to travel by bike and hate purely practical, bland and uninspiring machines. I’ve found myself travelling with semi-practical but truly fascinating bikes like my KTM 990 Super Duke and my dearly-missed Kawasaki ZZR1400. This is where the ‘adventure’ bikes come into play, they do have one thing going for them: comfort, specifically pillion comfort. So when it came to replacing the ZZR, I had to find something exciting, powerful, light (-ish) and with a proper-sized front wheel for road riding – cue the Ducati Multistrada 1200S and my full conversion to European-made bikes (the fact that both are from somewhere near the Alps, is probably not a coincidence).
That’s how I ended up with what is a much-flawed adventure bike, but the perfect ‘superbike’ for the potholed roads of the real world. I’ll get to the flaws soon enough, but first let me introduce you to my first trip on the big Ducati.
Being based in The Netherlands for the first time and with most of the obvious biking destinations already under our belts, the choice for this year’s trip was a country most of us tend to forget, or to cross in a dash for the most northerly point of mainland Europe: Norway, here we go!
Depending on your nationality or background, Norway is the country of codfish (the delicious Bacalhau for those of us of Portuguese origin), sardines, or more accurately, oil! Lots and lots of the black stuff that makes Norway one of the richest countries (GDP per-capita) in the world.
If you like travelling however, the raw natural beauty of Norway is so much more impressive. It’s the land of the Fjords: the massive glacial valleys where ocean meets the sharp cliff faces of mountains with snow-covered peaks.
The premises for planning our trip where that it would take place from 23rd August to 6th September 2014 (two weeks); be as low-cost as possible but without camping (no space for camping gear, and Cátia – my GF/the pillion – is not a fan of sleeping outdoors), and if possible rooms with private WC; there would not be too many 300km-plus days so that we could actually enjoy the ride and scenery instead of racing to the next checkpoint; and Catia wanted to visit some friends in Oslo, and also go to Stockholm.
This set of constraints dictated that there wasn’t enough time to go to Nordkapp (and no real point in doing it really, other than to be able to say I’ve been there!), so I focused our route on trying to make the most out of the Fjords. The official Western Norway tourist board site “Fjord Norway” was priceless for the planning. All the information you can ask for, in a simple and well organized manner. (Got to love the Scandinavians!)
The hotel bookings were all dealt with online beforehand as I like to know how much I am going to spend and it helps me plan each leg of the journey. If you plan on doing the same, here is a top tip: pay a little extra for the “free cancellation” rooms, as this allows you to adjust your route on the go if something doesn’t go according to plan.
Also in trying to keep the budget in control we packed our 50L roll-up bag with food supplies and a camping stove for picnics on the road. Food prices in Norway are so high that if we opted for eating in restaurants we would’ve easily doubled the whole budget.
Come Friday 22nd August, we left after work with the bike loaded with both side panniers, a Kriega US20 tank bag and the 50L roll-up bag and began a dreadfully wet five-hour ride on crowded Dutch motorways all the way to Bremen in Germany (320km). After a nice beer and a kebab, it was time to get some rest and try to dry out our gear. My trusty boots (Dainese Pannier) had at this point let me down and started leaking badly.
Saturday was the proper start of the trip, a full day’s ride from Bremen across the entire length of Denmark to catch the evening ferry from Hirtshals to Stavanger.
And what a day it was! 661km under almost constant rain – at times so intense the motorway looked more like a river. It was a mid-August weekend and with it came the never-ending traffic jams of people carriers and laden-to-the-roof German estates – good thing the Ducati is narrow enough to filter between traffic and noisy enough that cars know we’re coming (the fuelling at low speed however isn’t perfect for this kind of riding…).
Anyway, after a long day in the saddle with a quite few stops for fuel and €4 espresso we made it to the ferry with time to spare. Funny enough, ending up parked behind a ZZR1400 just like the one I used to own, a nice opportunity to play spot the differences.
The ferry: what can I say about the ferry? Well being that this article is for a non-continental magazine, chances are you’ve already been on a ferry crossing. I’m not a fan of them (bit claustrophobic and boring really) but what I really don’t like is strapping the bikes down. I’ve shipped my bikes by truck a few times and crossed from Santander to Portsmouth and there is usually always someone to help you with the bloody straps. I genuinely hate ratchet straps, they get all tangled and never seem to be properly set-up when you first pick them up, forcing you to take the damn thing apart and make 10 attempts before you actually get the thing to ratchet properly (or maybe that’s just me…).
Well the Norwegian/Danish staff were as helpful as a wooden log and apart from a few holes on the floor and a couple of half tangled straps there wasn’t anything to help us secure the bike. This resulted in much swearing and almost an hour spent trying to get the damn thing properly fastened. At this point you may be mocking my strap handling skills, but I must mention I wasn’t alone in my struggles. A German couple on a new R1200GS and a K1600GT as well as a few other guys were also having difficulties!
Sunday started with the two of us scrambling to get all the luggage from the cabin and on to the bike before the 7am docking time. I don’t usually wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but I do need my cup of coffee (the proper stuff: short and strong espresso, none of those buckets of dark brown water everyone outside of Portugal and Italy insist in calling coffee!) before jumping into any kind of activity. So you can imagine my mood leaving the boat at 7am, with no coffee, soaking wet boots, sweating under my gear from all the running around and being greeted by a dark grey sky and pouring rain! I’ve just arrived in Norway and I already hate it!
(A short note just to ask you one thing: am I the only one who struggles with feeling comfortable on the bike after disembarking from a long ferry trip? It just takes me a while to regain full control of my balance… It’s not a serious problem but it takes me a while until I’m entirely comfortable on the bike again…).
You can probably guess there aren’t a lot of places open in a small city like Stavanger on a Sunday at 7:30am, so after a vain attempt at finding an open caffeine dealer we decided to try our luck and head to our hotel for the night and see if we could check in… “early”!
From the moment we arrived at the Himmel & Hav , it marked the change in the mood of the trip. The staff were absolutely wonderful and not only allowed us to check in and have a shower at 8am but even offered us some much-needed coffee and breakfast! If you’re ever near Stavanger, stop by, it’s a wonderful little hotel with direct access to the beach.
I had planned to ride to Lysebotn and back but in this weather there wasn’t really a point in doing it, so we opted for a cruise in the Lysefjord that you can take from Stavanger harbour – costs €50 per person and takes about 2.5 hours. Upon returning from the cruise even the weather co-operated and the sun came out! What do you do when it’s August, you are at a beach hotel and the sun is out? Go for a dive of course! A very short one I must confess, 12ºC air temp isn’t quite what I’m used to in August!
Monday brought with it the sunshine that would accompany us for the rest of the trip, a wonderful day’s riding that introduced us to the beauty of Norway and its wildlife (and by wildlife I mean two girls showering naked in a waterfall by the side of the road!).
Heading North from Stavanger we took the ferry to Tau before catching the E13 to Sand and then the E520 to Roldal. The roads are great and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. One minute you’re at sea level at the bottom of the fjord with the ocean at your side, the next you’re 1000m above it in a mountain plateau with freshwater lakes and snow-covered peaks. It’s day two in Norway and I’ve fallen in love!
Tunnels, tunnels and more tunnels! That was the main focus of our Tuesday. In Norway you have short tunnels, long tunnels, spiral-shaped tunnels and even roundabouts inside tunnels! Just take your pick. There was a lot more than just tunnels today, but the fact I made a mistake and rode a 7.7km tunnel twice, while it was being resurfaced and the air filled with dust, did make them memorable.
Second day heading North in the Fjords and the impressions of the previous day are even stronger. It is gorgeous! It’s as if God mixed the West Scottish Highlands with the Alps! As for the Ducati, well, after a couple of days of not really feeling comfortable with the bike on the twistier roads, today I can finally say she is starting to please me! First it was a matter of misaligned luggage unbalancing the bike, then low pressure on the front tyre. The rest was really just me adjusting to riding a trail bike (even if it is a bloody quick and road-focused one) fully laden with luggage and pillion, after a few years on a much lower bike with a very different riding position and steering feel. There are however three pretty obvious qualities this bike possesses which are a lot better than the ZZR1400 I had before: comfort, holding a line mid-corner trough bumpy and pothole filled road surfaces, and lifting the front wheel in the air in 3rd gear!
But, back to the route: starting in the outskirts of Roldal we headed north on the E13 under a timid sunshine with the heated grips put to good use. We made a short stop for a photo opportunity at Latefossen Waterfalls, then set off again as the deep valley was still in the shade and there wasn’t enough light for good photography.
A few kilometres later and there we were, coming out of the valley and at the side of the Hardangerfjord with the sun shining on a completely still water surface turned into a near perfect mirror. Granted everything is REALLY expensive in Norway, but at least you get to see the amazing landscape twice!
A small detour to the E7 took us through a steep climb up a mountain face, and inside a set of impressive spiral shaped tunnels all the way to the tourist view point of Voringfossen Waterfalls. At 183m tall they are seriously impressive but still only the 83rd highest waterfall in Norway!
At this point I have another one of my top tips: don’t stop at this bus-filled tourist stop and instead keep going for about 2km until you see the signs saying “Fossli Hotel”, take a left and go through the bumpy narrow road that gives access to the hotel’s parking lot. There is a toll booth with a guy sitting half asleep in the sun, but a “Hey we’re bikers! We don’t take up parking space”, and you don’t have to pay. From the hotel parking lot you have a short foot path that leads to the edge of the cliff for an amazing view of the falls; definitely worth it!
As you usually do, I had a plan for where to go next and that was the Sima Hydroelectric Dam, a supposedly impressive dam, but – I missed the correct turn twice and then got distracted with ice cream so we decided to carry on and head to Ulvik for another well deserved stop in the sun.
There we were enjoying the sun, laying on a pontoon facing the fjord when I noticed a curious Norwegian wearing the most dreadful green shirt (I have a problem with one specific shade of very light green…his shirt was that exact colour) admiring the Ducati. We engaged in the usual chatter: where are you from? The Netherlands but we’re Portuguese, etc. As usual it turns out the guy was incredibly nice, lived in Bergen and had gotten out of work early to go for a scenic car ride.
“I have an electric car!” he said proudly.
“Really? Which one?” I asked with my mind on the hundreds of Tesla Model S that seem to crowd the Norwegian roads.
“A Nissan Leaf!” he said.
“Er, that’s nice…” We chatted for a little longer while he recommended that we take the longer and more scenic route to Bergen. It was after we set off that I found myself thinking: what a stupid thing of me to feel disappointed when he said his car was a Leaf. Ok it’s not exactly an exciting vehicle but the fact was, the guy was clearly there with same purpose as me, to simply drive for the pleasure of it. This led me to a second consideration: it’s 160km from Bergen to Ulvik and the Leaf’s range is somewhere from 160-200km which means the guy was waiting (for how long?!) to have the battery charged so that he could return home! Hmmm, electric cars are great for riding around town but they still have a long way to go if you want to do this kind of thing! Or maybe in 30 years’ time these guys will be like today’s old school bikers who tell the tales of their heroic rides on those “wonderful” unreliable pieces of (…cough cough) 2-stroke engineering.
I’m getting a bit sidetracked again – the rest of the day we spent heading to Bergen, first on the winding and twisty road climbing out of Ulvik and then, due to another navigation error, on the mostly boring and busy (for Norwegian standards) E16.
Remember how this trip started with copious amounts of rain? Well, Bergen is the rainiest city in Europe with upwards of 200 days of rain per year, but it greeted us with amazing sunshine and clear skies, both on the Tuesday afternoon and the next morning. Lucky us!
For the 6th day of the trip the plan was to head west on the E16 to Voss, but because I had already ridden that road the previous day, we opted to leave via the E7 to Eide, before turning back to Voss on the E13, a longer route but an option that proved to be brilliant. The E7 is beautiful, good fun to ride and gave us one of the most amazing lunch stops of the trip: a picnic area by a bay with crystal clear water. Stunning!
After Voss and a section of road works that left us and the bike covered in mud, we stopped at the Tvindfossen Waterfalls for some photos and a session of tap dancing in a creek to try and clean our boots. We then rode to Gudvanger to see the Naerofjord , which at 250 metres wide and 10 metres deep in places, is the narrowest and shallowest navigable fjord in the world.
It was already past 5:30pm when we arrived at Gudvanger and the plan was to ride to Flam and try to get to the FV243 mountain pass early (-ish). However after a very enthusiastic recommendation of the Naerofjord Ferry Cruise by a gentleman at the Gudvanger souvenir shop we decided to take the two-hour long ferry that would leave us directly in Flam. At 440 NOK it’s a lot more expensive than regular ferries (usually 75 or 80 NOK for bike, rider and pillion) but it’s more of a scenic cruise than regular transport, and it was worth it – two hours relaxing and enjoying the views.
Arriving at Flam you have the option of riding the Laerdal Tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the world. One thing I can tell you after riding through hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, including the Mont Blanc, is that it is… very boring!! Nothing to see for miles and limited speed all the way. So top tip, whenever there is a big tunnel there is usually an awesome mountain pass that goes over it – the bigger the tunnel, the better the pass!
Laerdal is no exception and the FV243 is one of the most stunning roads I have ever had the pleasure of riding! You start by winding your way up the side of the mountain with the Naerofjord at your side, stop at the Stegastein Viewpoint for a breath of fresh air before continuing uphill until you reach the amazing plateau on top of the mountain: void of vegetation and filled with massive sphere-shaped rocks and small lakes of molten snow. After this awe inspiring ride over the plateau, the downhill stretch is properly twisty and bumpy. MASSIVE fun on the Multistrada, bringing out the amazing capabilities of the Ohlins suspension: firm enough to allow for a committed ride but absorbing every bump in a way that enables the bike to hold a line perfectly while keeping the pillion’s back in one piece. This road truly made me fall in love with the Multi’s handling.
I have several years of riding hyperbikes (1100XX, K1200S, ZZR1400) and it took me some time to get used to the more upright ‘trail’ position of the MT1200S but I can tell you that on this road (actually on this whole trip) there absolutely wasn’t any other bike I’d rather be riding.
Day 7 arrived with us riding from Laerdal to Stordal the long way, heading north to Stryn before turning East to the FV15 and its awesome corners, and testing the MTS’s ground clearance before turning to the Old Strynfjell Road with its amazing sights, bumpy corners and a long final unpaved stretch. This road is made for big trailies (yes, even for one that is basically a superbike in disguise)! In terms of pure cornering fun the bit of the FV15 before turning to the Old Strynfjell Road was the best of whole the trip and it almost made me go back and ride it again!
The plan was then to catch the ferry across the Geirangerfjord to Helesylth, and to climb the mountain via the FV60 to Stranda before crossing the fjord again heading to Stordal, but yet another slight guidance malfunction led me to the more direct route via the FV63. I can’t therefore tell you how good the FV60 is, but I can tell you I don’t think I missed much, considering the awesome views and fun corners on the FV63.
For all the great things this day had for us, my favourite has got to be the awesome picnic table we secured for our lunch. Standing on a small floating dock to the side of the road on top of a turquoise coloured lake. WIN! To finish the day on a high we had our own cabin at Stordal camping with the Ducati parked right in our porch. Not too bad for budget accommodation!
Come Friday and it’s Trollstigen day! A relatively short ride, covering from Stordal to Alesund. We arrived at the Trollstigen from the south so were actually on the top of the mountain looking down at the famous switchbacks. Because I usually prefer uphill corners to downhill (unless I’m on my mountain bike) there was only one solution: to go down, then up and then back down to continue our route. I did have to explain my ‘tornante’ [hairpin] hating pillion I wasn’t going up and down that road for my own pleasure but for science! And only to be able to properly write to you about it after!
Like many other “Bucket List” roads this one was relatively crowded, the buses and caravans making it hard to get a rhythm going and I actually ended up having the most fun on my first downhill run.
Now, I am going to confess that I’m not a big fan of Stelvio-style roads like this. Yes, hairpin corners can be good fun, but the problem with famous roads is they are always busier than others nearby and the 180º turns are just too tight and narrow to actually get any rhythm going on anything other than a Supermoto. The fact is I had a lot more fun on the roads that led to Trollstigen. Just nearby you can find brilliant sections of roads alternating hairpins with larger radius corners, less traffic and better visibility allowing you to ride harder without the imminent danger of a head-on collision with a bus stuck in the middle of corner doing a 3-point turn.
Do I still recommend heading to Trollstigen? Sure! Just not for the 11 hairpins, but for the amazing views and the great roads on the way there, especially if you are coming from the south.
The surprise of the day was reserved for the afternoon, when we arrived early at our hotel, the Glede po Reis B&B, and the owners (a very nice British couple) suggested a ride to a nearby sandy beach.
What a great suggestion it was! Accessing the beach through a dirt road next to a farm, you end up directly on the sand. I spent the first half-hour taking pictures and attempting to relax on the beach with cinematic style images of massive powerslides on the sand going through the back of my mind. I just couldn’t resist the urge to try the Multi on sand!
First of all, the Multi is not a bike that crashes well: too many fiddly, pretty plastic bits. And I don’t even have any crash guards yet, so the prospect of dropping my brand new bike 3000km from home was not something I took lightly but the opportunity was just too good to resist! Off with the side panniers, traction control in Enduro mode and there I went for an experimental run on the hard-packed sand; decided it was enough and parked it!
It didn’t last long though… I just had to go for a second try on looser sand and with bit more speed!
Caution was obviously the main concern and my offroad skills are limited to a push-bike, still there was fun to be had and I was actually really surprised with the amount of traction the Michelin PR4s had on the more hard-packed sand and how easy and agile the big Ducati was. I just wish I had a beach like this near home to try it again after installing some crash protection!
The last day on the fjords arrived far too early but it did come with another “Bucket List” road: the famous Atlantic Road, and the most amazing place I’ve ever stayed in: the Sveggvika Hotel in Averoy.
You probably know as much of the Atlantic Road as I did, and that is the photos of the amazing bridges that seem to jump over the ocean from island to island. Well, that’s basically it! Two funky-looking bridges and a couple of good photo opportunities. The road itself has little interest as a biking road, but does provide fantastic scenic views, especially on the last stretch, closer to Kristiansund.
The highlight of the day was once again reserved for the afternoon. We arrived at Averoy and the GPS ordered me to turn left onto an unpaved road and continue for 2 kms. Great! Another chance to try the enduro mode, and to explain to the pillion that I didn’t choose the hotels based on whether or not they included dirt access roads! The view was breathtaking – dramatic looking purple clouds over a stripe of orange sky and an ocean of still water and scattered islands.
After quickly unloading the bike we stood on the deck and marvelled at the scenery trying to absorb each and every colour change until the sun went down. I just wish I could translate in words the feeling of utter happiness and calm this place imprinted on me. After days of picnicking and low cost meals we ordered a grilled steak and a beer and started a plan to move to Norway and buy a place like this. Dreaming is free and this is one dream I shall keep; who knows, maybe one day!
From Kristiansund to Oslo we had a looong Sunday, 560km on what is one of the busiest roads in Norway with speed limits between 50 and 80km/h, a total of 7h46 minutes of riding plus the much-needed stops along the way. Not a particularly good day, the riding was tiring and boring and we reached the point at which we left the fjords and started heading back to civilization.
One day in Oslo was more than enough for us. Staying at a friend’s house was wonderful but the city itself is relatively uneventful and filled with potholes. We enjoyed Vigelands Park and the Holmenkollen but for some reason had higher expectations of the Norwegian capital.
Come another long day on the saddle and a new country: 565km to Stockholm on the flowing Swedish roads where everybody seems to be going 10 or 20km/h above the 100km/h speed limit. A very welcome pace after the extremely low and highly enforced speed limits of Norway.
Unlike Oslo, Stockholm was a very good surprise, and with sunny skies and warm weather it is hands down one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. Beautiful architecture, feel-good atmosphere and lots of things to see and do. With limited time we opted to walk around town and visit the Vasa Museum where an almost intact 17th century ship is on display. One of a kind and definitely worth the visit!
With our trip already well into its return leg, we left Stockholm on Thursday heading to an overnight stop in the coastal city of Helsingborg (also worth a quick stop if you’re in the area) before catching the morning ferry to Denmark.
Copenhagen was the last stop of our trip, and thanks to the priceless help of a friend that I hadn’t seen in 15 years, it was a day well spent that included cycling, boat touring, a military vehicle exhibition, a live concert and even a rollercoaster ride! Top day in top company!
The last day of the trip arrived far too quickly, but duty calls and with work restarting on Monday we decided to try and make it all the way from Copenhagen to Amsterdam on Saturday so that we could rest on Sunday. We succeeded and arrived home in the evening after 794km of sunny autobahns and wet Dutch motorways.
The first trip on the Multistrada was over and we are in love with Norway and the Ducati. Compared to other touring or trail bikes the Ducati has many flaws: the fuelling is not very good below 3000rpm and it hunts the revs at constant throttle; the gearbox is a bit clunky and finding 1st gear when riding around town isn’t easy; it is a bit stiff compared to the GS or the Triumph Tiger 800; the combination of the factors above and the gearing make the Multi a pain to use around town in rush hour traffic. Then again, that’s not what she is meant for! Also, the side panniers are not very big or sturdy (they are waterproof though), it’s not the easiest to clean when it gets muddy, and it has all those electronics but no cruise control.
But then you look at that single-sided swingarm, the trellis frame and hear the sound of the Testastretta when you rev it to 10,000rpm and you forget all those little niggles. It has a lot of things I love that made me buy it over the alternatives, for example a proper 17-inch front wheel for road riding that’s still perfectly adequate for any kind of dirt track/fire road; the 150hp Testastretta engine that makes it an utterly fun and exciting bike to ride (only the new KTM Adventure comes close); and the fact that it is a proper road bike with the capacity to handle bumps and kerbs and the odd dirt road.
Also, it’s light and agile, and the ride-by-wire throttle has the best feel of any I’ve tried. Not too light, not too heavy, it feels just like an old-fashioned mechanical throttle. Then there is the very bling and very effective Ohlins electronic suspension combined with the best looking dash on the market, which is an important feature when riding in the Netherlands as it’s the only thing you look at all day long!
In the end though, it’s a Ducati. It feels like something special, not just like another bike, a tool or a home appliance.
[Ed’s note: the title, “The Northward Route”, comes from a translation of the Old Norse word “norveg”, believed to be the origin of “Norway”.]
Check out Ricardo’s blog for more photos and a preview of a video of the trip:
To see a fuller, more photographically-luxurious version of Ricardo’s trip report, see Issue 187 of The Rider’s Digest, downloadable right here.