Italy, Day 3 Motorcycle Tour


In order to properly capture the details of an experience, it’s important to write them down quickly so as not to have life intervene and fill your head with the urgent day-to-day things that distract you. So it’s with some embarrassment that writing this account of our European vacation has taken more than two months and I’m still not done. I’m beginning to wonder if I can do it justice with that much of a time lapse. Fortunately, I scribbled a few notes down during the trip to keep track of where we were on each day and of course, I have the pictures, which is a great help because they are in chronological order thanks to the numbers applied to the filenames by the camera. So before writing, I can refer to the pictures and stitch the trip back together in my mind.

Silvio with 3 of the 4 bikes

Our third day in Italy would be the day we would take the long-anticipated motorcycle ride, something that Silvio and I had first starting talking about nearly 8 months prior to our trip. Silvio rides his bike nearly every weekend in the summer and the fact that he has nearly 20,000 km on the odometer after one year will attest to the fact that he does a lot of long trips. Silvio’s daily commute is less than 2 km each way and so that hardly registers on the odometer. And this is his third Honda VFR in 6 years. With each new bike he accumulates miles faster than with the previous one.

I ride my BMW just about every day from March through October and have only managed to average about 5,000 miles a year and that’s primarily due to my daily commute which is about 40 miles round trip. When I graduated from college more than 20 years ago and had fewer hobbies and distractions, I took quite a few trips with my motorcycle friends into the Colorado mountains, camping out each night and covering as many as a 1,000 miles in a weekend. I have many fond memories of traveling to Colorado’s mountain towns and experiencing many of them for the first time on a motorcycle. I’ve also taken a few rides to South Dakota’s Black Hills, including visiting the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on two occasions. Terri and I also visited in Yellowstone National Park and Montana on a motorcycle, back when we were much younger and could endure 500 mile days of motorcycling (and that was after working for half a day ;-). Our longest trip was on the Harley and lasted 10 days stretching from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and then through Ontario, Canada and coming back through Niagra Falls. We had also taken the Harley on a trip from Pennsylvania to Maine and back.

Now we just take leisurely afternoon cruises up into the mountains and are home by dinner time.

The previous day we had ridden about 100 miles to Lecco and back so I was feeling comfortable on the VFR. This day we’d be riding with two of Silvio’s motorcycle friends, Stefano and Luciano. Stefano spoke very good English, but Luciano spoke only Italian so we’d have Silvio and Stefano do the translating for us. Both of these men had full riding suits and 600 cc sportbikes. Stefano was riding a Honda CBR600 and Luciano was on a Kawasaki Ninja. Silvio would be borrowing a 600 cc KTM dual-purpose bike from Luciano since Terri and I were riding his VFR.

We left about 9:00 a.m. and we headed back up toward Lake Como. Prior to arriving in Italy, Silvio had proposed several routes and the Lake Como/Switzerland route one looked like it had the most scenery and altitude changes. Of course the weather in the mountains can change, and so we were willing to take any of the routes had the weather had not cooperated, but it was a very nice day, although visibility was a little limited due to humidity until we got into the higher elevations.

Silvio and his friends usually ride for an hour or two before stopping for a rest and that suited us fine since we hadn’t really taken any long motorcycle rides in a while and would be in a completely new environment. I found out that the extra horsepower provided by the VFR would be very welcome, even necessary, to keep up with these riders. Silvio and his friends seemed to be able to move through traffic like it wasn’t there and like I had mentioned in a previous posting, the practice of passing cars on a motorcycle is quite common in Italy. In the U.S., it might seem like an aggressive riding style, but in Europe, no one takes offense to it. At our first stop in Varrena on Lake Como for some cappuccino, I apologized for holding up the group, at which point Stefano informed me, tongue-in-cheek, that we’d not be able to win the speed record they had hoped, but it would be OK. I had the extra challenge of being on a new bike, with a passenger, riding in unfamiliar places and so they were very gracious in giving me some permission to lag behind, although I did my best to keep up with them so as not to spoil the trip for them. I can’t think of anything worse than having a sport bike and having to ride it slowly.

Lake Como looking out toward Bellagio

After a short stop, we were back on the road, heading north up the east side of Lake Como toward Switzerland. I couldn’t get over the number of tunnels we went through. It seemed like every few hundred yards we’d enter another tunnel. Some of them were long and dark inside and since it was sunny outside, there wasn’t a practical way to manage my sunglasses, so I had to tilt my head down and look over them when we got into a tunnel if it wasn’t well lit. After about 30 minutes, we had reached a small town of Chiavenna, and we headed to the northeast up toward the mountains through many twisty roads and switchbacks that were about as challenging as I’d ever experienced. Occasionally, we’d go through a small village, but for the most part, the road traversed the unspoiled beauty of the Italian Alps. After about another 30 minutes, we pulled into a very small village of Stuetta near the mountain pass and just below a massive dam and surrounded by mountain peaks, most of which still had a lot of snow. Nestled in this setting was a rustic restaurant, aptly named ‘Ristorante Bar’. It was quite busy since it was around lunch time but there wasn’t any problem getting a table. We had an excellent meal that included pasta that was unique to that region. It had a purple color with a kind of cream sauce, and it was very good. After the meal, we gathered outside the restaurant and prepared to enter Switzerland which was only a few miles up the road. In a few minutes, we were crossing into Switzerland at Splugen Pass. Just after passing through the entry point, Luciano pulled over and instructed us to do the same. We looked down into a mountain valley with an incredible maze of switch backs that seemed to go on forever. I could hardly believe my eyes.

Restaurant at Stuetta

Hairpin turns near Splugen, Switzerland

There were plenty of other cars going down into the valley, so that eliminated the potential
for a race, much to my relief, since passing cars on that type of road with narrow switchbacks wasn’t safe nor would it be easy. Terri told me later that the sight of all those turns terrified her, but after having climbed so many on the way to Splugen Pass, I figured it wouldn’t be any different and it turned out not to be. Going down allows you to better see what’s ahead, especially the traffic coming up at you so you can react accordingly. There’s nothing worse than riding through switchbacks where you can’t see on-coming traffic because sometimes people assume there won’t be anyone coming and thus will use your side of the road which is a common practice in sharp turns.

Shortly after arriving in Switzerland, we stopped at a gas station to fill our tanks. The fuel is about 20% less expensive in Switzerland than in Italy. The taxes on gas in Europe are more than the cost of fuel itself, and that’s why it costs more than 2x what we pay in the U.S., and now that fuel has nearly doubled in the past few years, they are paying nearly $8/gallon. Even though fuel wasn’t exactly cheap in Switzerland by U.S. standards, it was low enough that everyone wanted to wait until we got there before filling their tanks. We’d fill the tanks again before leaving Switzerland.

Near St. Moritz

The scenery in Switzerland was spectacular. There are lush mountain valleys with tall grass and wild flowers surrounded on every side by snow capped mountains. There were mountain lakes with a deep blue color surrounded by green grass and mountains nearby that were postcard-perfect. The Colorado mountains are quite beautiful, but the Swiss landscape was absolutely stunning. Most of Colorado’s mountains rise from valley bases of 5,000 to 8,000 feet and reach to heights of 12,000 to14,000’. In Switzerland, they rise virtually from sea level. For example, Lake Como is about 650’ above sea level, but the nearby mountain peaks are 10,000’ and they tend to rise abruptly like walls of granite which greatly adds to their dramatic appeal. The roads that scale the mountains are steep and twisty, making them ideal for motorcycling. Sure, you can find easier roads through the Swiss mountains, but that wouldn’t be as much fun. After reaching the town of Splugen, where we refueled, we traveled to a gorge called the Via Mala-Schulcht which had a stairway going down to the bottom of a deep gorge. From there, we continued on and then climbed up to Julierpass and stopped again for an espresso before heading into in St. Moritz which is a picturesque ski resort. We stopped to take some pictures and then headed back toward Lake Como. The road back was pretty easy and by the time we got back to Lake Como, we stayed on the autostrata that seemed to consist of 90% tunnels. I’ve never spent so much time traveling in tunnels in my life. They were dark, high speed tunnels where we traveled nearly 80 mph. Terri later told me that was by far the most terrifying part of the trip. The tunnels made a short circuit past Lake Como back toward Milan and thus we were home after what seemed like a fairly short ride.

By the time we got back, we had traveled about 450 km, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but many of the roads we traveled resulted in slow progress, especially the twisty ones with switchbacks and those that went through small villages, so we really felt like we had done a lot of riding that day.

When asked where we’d like to ride the next day, we asked if we could do something that might be a little more relaxing, which got a big laugh from even Luciano who understood enough English to know we were exhausted after that much riding.

Oskhosh 2006 follow-up


As I mentioned in a previous posting, I had a mishap on the way back from Oshkosh this year where I clipped a barricade when landing at Plattsmouth, NE. It resulted in a severed brake line and one destroyed wheelpant. Fortunately, I was able to make a temporary repair using parts from a hardware store with the generous help of an RV builder by the name of Kevin Faris. Over the past few weeks, I’d been thinking about how best to repair the damage to the brake line and decided to make some upgrades to the brake lines on both sides. My friend Don has always had considerable consternation over the way that my Nylaflow brake lines were connected directly to the brakes, even though it is done exactly according to the LongEZ plans. Even the Cozy MKIV plans call out the same approach as shown below.

Cozy Plans Brake lines

The caliper is in close contact with the brake pads and so it absorbs a lot of heat. It gets hot enough that sometimes after taxiing in a crosswind, you can’t touch the fittings on the caliper without burning yourself. In a crosswind, the EZ-style planes will tend to try to point into the wind and so you have to apply the downwind brake to keep them from turning. One of the techniques EZ flyers use to reduce heat from the brakes during a crosswind taxi is stabbing the downwind brake periodically to steer away from the wind and then letting the plane weathervane into the wind while taxiing so that you make a series of semi circles along the taxiway. It may look a little strange, but it really helps to prevent a brake from overheating. There’s nothing worse than dragging a brake for an extended period of time to generate excessive heat. In some cases, this has been enough to melt the gear leg which is made of fiberglass and epoxy. When that happens, you’ve got a big repair job ahead of you. But melting a brake line can be very serious too because the LongEZ needs them not only to stop, but also to steer and when you’ve lost the ability to steer, you can end up off the runway and into a ditch or obstacle.

The advice in the Cozy plans is to wrap the Nylaflow brake lines in a thin blanket of ceramic material called Fiberfrax where it attaches to the brake. This material is glued in place with silicone and wrapped with aluminum tape to act as an insulator from the heat radiated from the brake disk. As you can imagine, it makes a mess of things and it doesn’t help with the heat conducted from the fittings on the brake. Another solution recommended by my friend Don and which he uses himself is to install a section of Teflon line with a stainless steel braid covering between the Nylaflow line and the brakes. These are available in standard lengths for about $10. I bought a few of these made by Earl’s Performance in 10-inch lengths (p/n EAR-63010110ERL) from Summit Racing. They are pressure tested to 4000 psi, well above the 1000 psi rating of the Nylaflow tubing.

New braided stainless steel/Teflon lines

Nylon, the material from which Nylaflow is made, has a continuous service temperature of about 200 degrees F. Teflon has a continuous service temperature of 500 degrees F. In addition to making this upgrade to the brake lines, I also sliced into the rear of the landing gear and removed the old Nylaflow lines that had been in there for 23 years. I have wanted to do this ever since I bought the plane. The LongEZ manual called for the brake lines to be installed and covered with fiberglass/epoxy, making it somewhat of a permanent installation. The Cozy plans recommended using a tunnel constructed of soda straws and held in place with a covering of fiberglass and epoxy so that the Nylaflow lines can be slipped through it removed and replaced easily. We also made this change to the gear legs on both sides.

Comparison of Van's Pressure Recovery and 'football' style wheelpants

I’ve ordered some new wheel pants from Van’s that are called ‘pressure recovery’ wheelpants and should work better than the football shaped wheel pants that I had previously. The football pants were not very effective in reducing drag. Kevin gave me this tip and so I took a picture of my football shaped wheelpant setting next to his pressure recovery style wheelpant and his definitely looks more aerodynamic.

The next upgrade I’m considering is to add fairings to the gear legs that would be more aligned with the direction of flight. The standard gear, which appears to be shaped like an airfoil, isn’t really an airfoil and isn’t very well aligned with the direction of flight. This is a lot of work and I’m reading through the newsletters from the Central States Association to see if I want to tackle a project like that while I’m installing the new wheel pants.

I’ve also added some of the photos I took at Oskhosh here.

Italy, day 2


On our second day in Italy, we visited Lake Maggiore and took a boat ride out to several famous islands in the lake. Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and it’s surrounded by tall mountains on all sides. It’s about 30 miles in length and extends about 8 miles up into Switzerland. Silvio took us up one of the mountains near Omegna, just west of Lake Maggiore, where we had lunch at a restaurant at the summit, seemingly miles from anywhere and up a long road filled with switchbacks which would have been a great road for motorcycle riding. Silvio told us that the restaurant was a destination for many motorcycle trips that he’s taken with his friends. The meal was excellent and there was so much food that we didn’t think we’d be able to eat dinner that evening.

Isola dei Pescatori, Lake Maggiore, Italy

After our lunch we traveled over to Lake Maggiore and where we caught a boat to take us for a tour of the Borromean Islands. The Borromean Islands are a small group of islands just off the western coastline of Lake Maggiore. There are 4 islands in total, but only two are open to tourists. We first circled around Isola Madre, the largest of the islands and got to see some of its buildings and beautiful gardens. It did not appear to be open to the public although there were some people on the island. Next we stopped at the Isola dei Pescatori, the only inhabited island which is a small fishing village. Its main street was about 8 feet wide. Since it only takes a few minutes to walk the length of the village, there is no need for cars on the island. This island was home to many cats.

Palace Garden at Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, Italy

We later got back on a boat and visited the main attraction, Isola Bella, which has a palace that from the outside looked like it might have been closed because it was very weathered looking. However, it was in fact open to the public and the interior was beautifully restored. It had many beautiful works of art and amazing furnishings. The structure was built as a summer palace by Vitaliano Borromeo in the mid 1600’s. The island was originally just barren rock but using boats to bring soil, Borreomeo built it up into a beautiful 10-terrace garden with many type of plants. The garden was absolutely breathtaking. We walked around the palace and garden for about an hour before catching a boat to return to the car

Palace at Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Later that evening we had dinner at Silvio’s house and took a walk through the neighborhood of Vedano and had a drink at the Kilkenny Pub, which we thought was ironic since we had just come from Kilkenny, Ireland a few days before.

Palace Garden at Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Italy, day 1


Our trip from Ireland to Italy was a relatively short hop, only about 1200 miles and we landed at the Linate airport near downtown Milan around 11:00 a.m.. Our friend Silvio was there to meet us and took us to his home where we’d be staying for a few days. We’d stayed with Silvio and his family on several occasions when we visited Italy previously.

I first met Silvio in 1992 while working on a product known as a ‘headspace sampler’ for HP in a division that is now part of Agilent Technologies. I was an R&D engineer for HP and Silvio worked as the chief electrical engineer for a company in Monza, Italy which had developed a headspace sampler that is an input device for Gas Chromatographs. The HP division where I worked was located in Avondale, Pennsylvania and we were looking to expand our product line by offering a new headspace sampler with an HP brand name but we didn’t want to design one from scratch. This kind of deal is quite common and often times a product will be customized and offered for sale through a company other than the one that designed it, especially if the company has better brand recognition than the OEM (original equipment manufacturer). In the case of the headspace sampler, we made some changes which included re-designing the keyboard and user interface prior to offering it as an HP product. It was a commercial success and the relationship, as far as I know, continues to this day and the product has had a number of updates over the years.

A headspace sampler is an automated sampling device that takes samples in small vials (usually about 40 ml) and incubates them at a controlled temperature to get the volatile compounds to fill the space above the sample. Then the headspace sampler pierces a rubber seal on the top of the vial with a syringe and pulls out the gas over the sample, i.e., the ‘headspace’, and injects it into a gas chromatograph. The sampler can have many vials and run the samples unattended into the gas chromatograph for days at a time. The gas chromatograph separates the compounds in the gas and analyzes them with a detector to determine the concentrations of various compounds. A headspace sampler is typically used when the substance cannot be effectively vaporized. Generally speaking, most samples are injected into a gas chromatograph as liquids and then vaporized in an injector which is at a high temperature. But not all substances will vaporize properly. Anything that contains solids is a candidate for a headspace sampler to help measure the volatile compounds it contains.

One of the more interesting parts of that program was getting to go to customer sites to see how the product was being used. I found the police lab in New Jersey quite fascinating. We installed a unit there and I talked with the chemist responsible for drug testing. Since blood cannot be vaporized because it contains cells, headspace sampling is an ideal way to check for the presence of alcohol and other drugs in blood. When I asked the lab technician how frequently he found drugs in blood, he said that almost all of the blood samples gave positive results. I guess that makes sense since a person’s blood would be unlikely to show up at a police lab without some reason.

I’ve since moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado to work on HP’s data storage products, but it’s still gratifying to know that the program we worked on together many years ago resulted in a product line that is still around. We have managed to keep in touch with each other over the years with periodic emails and visits.

Silvio and his son Davide visited us last October and we began discussing a possible trip to Italy since it had been a long time since we’d been there. I believe our last trip was around 1998. We had also promised some of my relatives in Ireland that we’d come back soon after having visiting them in 2003. So we decided to visit both countries this time and take at least 2 weeks off which turned into nearly 3 weeks. As I mentioned in a previous posting, we also planned to visit Brussels and Amsterdam on this trip.

One of the things we talked about for future visits was the possibility to do a motorcycle ride in Italy. Silvio had asked his insurance company if his coverage would apply to loaning his bike to a friend and found out that it did. Renting a high performance motorcycle in Europe can be a hassle with high daily fees and high insurance rates. It’s also impossible to adjust your schedule should poor riding weather make it impossible to take the trip at time you’ve reserved for it. They want the money in advance, too.

Shortly after arriving at Silvio’s home, he gave me a familiarization ride on his Honda VFR-800 by having me follow him through the streets of Monza while he used his son’s motorbike to visit a local store. After I got back, he decided to have us follow him for a longer ride which ended up in Lecco, which is at the southern tip of Lake Como. I quickly realized that in Italy motorcycles pass cars at every opportunity and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The cars will even move over to give some extra room up so you can pass. If they don’t move over, you can use the stripe down the middle of the road as your ‘passing lane’. It seemed like a very aggressive riding style to me, but like they say, “When in Rome… or in Monza… that matter… :-).

Terri rode on the back of the VFR-800 to Lecco and it was a good indoctrination to the Italian style of motorcycle riding. I was impressed with the horsepower of the VFR-800. Even though my BMW R1150RT has more a larger displacement engine (1150 cc vs. 800 cc), the VFR has neck-snapping acceleration and a very high red line that allows it to keep up with sport bikes more easily than I could with the BMW. I looked forward to putting the bike to the test when we got to climb up into the Alps… but that would have to wait for another day.