Sunday, June 20, 2010


Started in 1935, this year's Grossglockner Hillclimb marks 75 years of going fast uphill in the Austrian Alps.  The photo below gives a pretty good idea why someone would choose this location for a timed race; lots of hairpins and bends, a constant climb, and spectacular scenery (well, when the clouds part). 

 It's a 15k run to the top from a toll booth entrance, and to be honest, most of the corners have low stone walls which wouldn't do much to catch a rider should things get out of hand.  In other words, better wear your parachute, as it's a looong way down in some spots.  But to give cliff-divers mercy, atop the stone walls are sharp vertical  rocks embedded every 5 meters, certain to knock one senseless before a fall.

Conditions the morning of the race were dry roads at the start and grey skies, with thick fog for the last 3km towards the summit, visibility about 10 meters.  Lousy for taking race photos, but I stationed myself at the finish line before the 'roads closed' time, and climbed down the mountain for the best vantage points, of which there was endless opportunity.  While moderate in the gorge below, the temperature up top was around 4degC, so I climbed around a lot!

One could hear the riders from 10km away, like angry bees and bears making their way up.  Making films in such conditions was mostly a long shot of white with noise, followed by 3 seconds of flashing motorcycle, then more noisy whiteness.  Pointless in other words, unless making an art film.
The weather gods smiled wanly mid-pack, and the spot I chose suddenly grew a full km of view, and I was able to photograph my Swiss hosts ('Team Greaser') as they sped past on their Vincents and Harley WR (Beat of two shots up on the Harley WR,  Michael Bachmeier of Kraftstoffe on the Black Shadow above, Walo on the Black Lightning).   The wet ground and low visibility meant dampened race speeds, but it looked like big fun anyway, and some riders were down on the tank the whole way up, throttle wide.

Walo was really giving the Lightning some stick, and it sounded better than good, it was awesome.
While the fog slowed things down, it made for some great spooky ('geistlich') atmosphere shots at the summit.  The Moto Guzzi Condor below dates from '37, sounded great, looked stunning.
Below; Sunbeam on the edge of the world.  1927 Model 9 flat-tanker.
A couple of Big Twins; an MX100 Brough, ridden from England, and a '47 Indian Chief from Germany.  There were plenty of non-race machines moving up the pass, and all added something to the event.

As one might expect in Austria, a lot of BMWs filled the ranks, but from vintages rarely seen outside Europe.  The '28 R63 below keeps an R68 company...

Two Douglases (Douglii?) from the flat-tank era made a glorious ripping noise; low as ferrets, they have such panache on the road.  This SW5 came from England.

And a few other rarities for a Yank; This Triumph TWN hails from Germany; built under license from the English Triumph, they made models completely different than their namesake.  This prewar two-stroke racer is one example.
An Inter among us; always nice to see the late Featherbed models, which can be made to go very fast with some attention - this mid-50s example looks bone stock.
Fastest and loudest award went to the small flying squad of Morgan trikes which filled the sidecar class.  Every type of racer showed up, JAP KTOR and JTOR engines, specials with bronze crankcases and alloy heads, and this example, which would have originally housed a 4 cylinder Ford engine, but sounded far more interesting than that.
For color, you can't beat a Harley Panhead with risers and a sissy bar...
More BMWs; an R12 on the left, an R57 on the right, in their natural habitat.
Rivals at rest, looking more like friends these days.  Mid-30s Norton Inter with similar era Velocette MAC special.
The Smoking Section: lots of DKW two-stroke racers from the early 30s to the mid-60s, a glorious howl coming up the pass.
Truly local flavor: quite a few Swiss Motosacoche racers made the grid, sounding surprisingly loud and really moving out.  
Back at the bottom of the hill, and only 10 o'clock, the next race began at 5pm, so what to do?  Walo insisted I take the Black Lightning out on dry roads and up the pass.  So, a little gas, and she fired right up as always on the run-and-bump.  I offered to pay the ranger-frau at the tollgate, but it was 'no way no how no racing bike until 5pm!', or the German equivalent, complete with scowl and plugged ears (the BL is loud).  
So, we turned around, and went the other way, as it was miles down a beautiful river gorge to the next village, the road was dry, we had encouragement from the owner to give the Lightning a good test run, the bike was raring to go, and so was I.  

Oh, the glory!  A fantastic and magical motorcycle, fast as all getout and the raucous bang reverberated down the stone walls of the road banks.  With the throttle twisted hard, she lunged forward with mountainous torque, and kept going faster.  Nobody not nothing was getting in my way, the bike shot past every car and bike on that twisty road, mad quick and handling impeccably, even the very short bars didn't slow cranking over into the turns.  Bumps didn't deflect the bike at all, it never got out of shape, even with a full handful of throttle while banked over in third gear.  This was by far the fastest Vincent I've ever ridden, and the best handling, no comparison, somebody did something right on this baby, it's pure magic, and we got along great.  The ride up the gorge was even better of course, and the sound of that engine wound out in second and third gear made me want to keep going all day, up and down that little road, lack of plates and lights be damned. 
But of course, I wasn't in freewheeling California, and one of the race organizers greeted my return with a frown, as it seemed my 100mph antics were 'endangering the whole event'; he gave Walo a talking to as well!  Gee, I thought this was a race meeting, my bad.  Strange that racers were flying up and down the gorge all day, but there was only one dressing-down... there is a deeper story here which I'll reveal only if you buy me a beer...
Racers with road registration were allowed to 'parade' into the village of Bruck, which looked and sounded more like an invasion with all the unsilenced machinery, narrow streets, and high stone buildings.  
The locals seemed to enjoy the thrum of visitors, and some brought out their own bikes to join us for a light lunch and drinks.  The Honda above became a genuine Cafe Racer!
Like a fine watch, the best Morgans have Complication: this Mog has two of everything, and a big JAP JTOR engine, packing a lot of Urge up front.
A genuine BSA Daytona Gold Star, so called as it was built by the factory to race on the sandy beach course in Florida.  What this gorgeous beast thought of the cold, rain, and (soon) snow, 'Where's the sun?  Where's the beach?'
A nice replica of a Works Honda, this one looked and sounded the part.  
 Hot stuff race tech in 1928, on this Velocette KSS: 'square' ML magneto, AMAC TT carb, ohc Velo engine with a real oil pump, and a positive-stop footshifter.  Ooh.
Hot stuff race tech, circa 1950: racerized Vincent Black Shadow, with twin TT carbs.  Fast and loud.
The Vintagent chats about Brough Superiors with the owner of an SS100...
The town square nicely filled.

It was a pleasure bumping into Hiro from Lewis Leathers, whose photographs have graced these pages before, on the Brough Superior launch page at Norton & Sons in London.  Thanks Hiro!
English Vs in Austria; two KSS Velos and a Vincent.
As the afternoon wore on, a light sprinkle became a shower, and I was offered a ride up the mountain on the racing Black Shadow, which of course I agreed to!  A borrowed rain suit, a pair of too-small boots, and a helmet, meant I was ready for anything, which included the rumor of snow at the summit.  Hey, I've never raced in snow, so let's give it a shot.  
With race number 131, a half hour would pass before my turn at the starting gate, as riders were flagged off every 30 seconds.  Some of the lucky ones had umbrellas, I just sat like a duck and got soaked to the skin.  Didn't mind a bit.
6 riders from my turn, the starter waved his flag frantically, calling off racing for the day, as the snow was accumulating quickly, and 6 inches were soon coating the ground.  The first riders had their own chance to experience snow apparently it isn't the getting up which was the problem, it was coming back down in icy conditions which was treacherous.  As far as I know, everybody got back ok.
Snow stops play in late June...but we were in the Alps, and had our fun, so no regrets.  Next year, the Klausenrennen!