Above me Huascarán was “blushing”, as the locals say. As I fastened the double D-ring strap on my helmet and turned my face skywards, Peru’s mountain summits, including the highest of them all, Huascarán, were bathed in a burnished red alpenglow, waiting to welcome the sunrise proper. Perched at the top of an Andean mountain pass, my day’s travels lay before me, starting with some magical, meandering, pre-dawn blacktop.
For me, the best way to take on a summer trip that assaults all your senses in the right way is from the vantage point of a motorcycle seat, and being in charge of your own two wheels also gives you far more freedom to explore.
Taste the freedom
Not for me the restrictions of wide-laned roads of boring sameness and static queues of traffic, looking for the quickest route from A to B. On a motorcycle I can truly enjoy the tightest of hairpin bends and the most challenging of roads on my summer travels. Nowhere more so than the Cañón del Pato, also in north-central Peru, where two majestic mountain ranges – the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra – just a few metres apart in places – flank the vertiginous gorge and Rio Santa river at the bottom.
Adding to the adrenaline rush is that this particular stretch is around 45km of unsealed, makeshift road complete with 35 one-lane wide, unlit, roughly hewn rock tunnels; it’s easy to see why this road is considered one of the most dangerous on earth. But its danger makes it an exhilarating, terrifying and jaw-droppingly spectacular journey to try on a bike; feel the blood thunder in your ears as you disappear into the murky tunnel depths, honking your feeble horn furiously in case you meet an impatient logging lorry, before emerging into scalding sunlight on a cliff-framed ledge of gravel, psyching yourself up for the next 34 tunnels.
Danger makes it an exhilarating, terrifying and jaw-droppingly spectacular journey to try on a bike
Not that you always have to travel so far for summer riding adventures. Grab a European roadmap and hunt out the local roads – designated D or bis in France, for example – to find less busy, more meandering routes.
Grab a European roadmap and hunt out the local roads to find less busy, more meandering routes
Explore Italy and discover some picturesque, dizzying roads that are a little off the main tourist radar. Forget the glitzy and crowded Stelvio Pass; try the beauty that is the SP251 instead, the Italian side of the Colle dell’ Agnello in the Cottian Alps and the third highest paved road in this part of the world at 2,744m. It’s not for the faint-hearted, carving its tapering, single-track way through the mountains between France and Italy, offering up genuinely Instagrammable – #inspo – views with each passing kilometre. The French side is a much easier but still gorgeously scenic ride and provides a chance to catch your breath behind your chinbar vent on the way down.
One of the unexpected but added bonuses of summer touring is stumbling across extra hidden tracks in whatever area you’re riding through – even next to the fairly obscure route you are already on. After trying the aforementioned SP251, imagine discovering an old, steep, unpaved military track over the pass that was built way back in 1744, called the Strada dei Cannoni, connecting two forts. Definitely one for wall-to-wall sunshine and a big adventure bike on dual sport tyres; it’s what riding a motorcycle was made for.
Keep your cool
While guaranteed azure skies and balmy temperatures are what make summer riding enjoyable, there’s an art to staying cool while you’re at it. Choose kit that strikes the right balance between protection and ventilation – all of the gear, all of the time is still the mantra you need to follow. Surprisingly, lots of skin exposed to the elements is much harder to keep cool because as air rushes over it as you ride along, sweat evaporates, which in turn makes you dehydrate faster. Mesh textile or vented jackets, perforated summer gloves, Kevlar-reinforced jeans or breathable textile trousers with CE certified knee and hip protection are all designed for better air circulation and warm-weather riding.
Choose kit that strikes the right balance between protection and ventilation
Don’t be tempted to wear a normal cotton T-shirt under your jacket – it will become very sweaty, very quickly. Try a moisture-wicking long-sleeved undershirt as a base layer instead. Swap fully lined, black winter riding boots for lighter coloured, shorter boots; what you lose on the waterproofing front, you gain on the cooler feet front, particularly if you also wear socks that are made to wick away sweat.
Two other really useful additions to your summer touring arsenal are a hydration pack and a cooling vest. Fill the hydration pack with half ice, half cold water – not only will it keep the water colder for longer, it will also keep your back cooler, especially when stopping at traffic lights and the like, while making sure you are keeping up your water intake. The cooling vest may seem like overkill but it really helps on longer rides in very high temperatures. It’s designed to be worn under a ventilated riding jacket and works after being submerged in water. The vest then absorbs and retains the water, releasing it as you ride along through evaporation.
It’s all about the ride
Taking such steps to combat the heat, I was able to enjoy my bike tour of the breathtakingly picturesque Andean villages of Peru, leaving me free to dodge the last of the local dogs chasing me away and to wave back at the wide-skirted campesino girls as I passed them guiding their flocks of sheep along the potholed roads. All I had to do was ride the last 40 kilometres of the day to the next village, avoiding coca-leaf chewing, cheerful lorry drivers and random herds of goats strewn across blind bends along the way… all in a day’s riding.