Stella Alpina Rally

The Stella Alpina rally is one of the legendary classics of Italian motorcycle 'raduno', such as the Madonnina Dei Centauri, the Pasubio, the Rosa d'Inverno, the Stelvio, and the Rimini San Marino.This auspicious gathering has been held on the second weekend of July ever since 1966 and continues to the present day.

With the exception of the initial 1966 gathering, held in the mythical Passo Stelvio, every meeting since has been in the ski-resort town of Bardonecchia, near the Franco/Italian border at the end of the Frejus tunnel which links both countries.

Bardonecchia (circa 1970's): the Italian Alpine town is famous in the motorcycle rallying world for being the venue of the Stella Alpina Motociclistica Internazionale rally, and for its 17-mile long trail to the Colle del Sommeiller.

In motorcycle 'die hard' rallying circles it's thought that the idea of organising the Stella Alpina originated in the mid 1960s from a bet between two dedicated motorcyclists: the Italian Mario Artusio, (then enduro and trial rider, and later president of the BMW motorcycle club of Turin); and the Briton, Harry Louis (editor-in-chief of the magazine "The Motor Cycle").

They met on an Alpine tour in 1964 exploring some narrow gravel roads in the Italian-French Alps. The following year they met again, this time in Piedmont, and the idea of an international alpine motorcycle meeting began to gel.

Apparently, (so the story goes), a heated conversation then took place between them concerning the highest Italian destination to be reached on a motorcycle. For Harry, it was without a doubt the Stelvio Pass, located in the Italian Ortler Alps between Stilfs ("Stelvio" in Italian) in South Tyrol and Bormio in the province of Sondrio, with an altitude of 2757m. Mario of course disagreed, telling him it had to be the Colle del Sommeiller rising to 3009m and located in Piedmont, Italy, in the middle of Susa Valley.

It's also said that French motorcyclist Jean Murit, (the organiser of the legendary Chamois 2770 rally in Val d'Isere), supported his friend Mario Artusio' s dream of holding an Italian version of his Chamois Rally, held for the first time in summer 1965, and which Mario attended on his faithful flat twin BMW.

Chamois 1965 - Mario Artusio (on his BMW) in conversation with Jean Murit (white jacket), the organiser of the legendary Chamois 2770 rally in Val d'Isere.

STELLA ALPINA 1966

There is very little known about the 1966 rally except for the fact the meeting took place on the 24th July 1966 and was organised as a ride from the spa town of Bormio to the 2757m high Stelvio Pass. We do know though that the meeting was attended by just over 200 motorcyclists representing nine countries, including riders from Australia and New Zealand.

With hindsight I guess I could have collected some first-hand information and personal anecdotes from Mario himself when I saw him at the 8 meetings, (mainly in the 1970s), I attended myself. He was kept very busy during the weekend of the rally of course, but there were opportunities to chat afterwards and during the Alpine Safari; where every year he led a small group of brave motorcyclists who endured summer heat, aching muscles and daily fatigue on a 3 day endurance test of mountain trail bashing using regular road bikes.

I didn't realise at the time, all those years ago, that those memories would be of any help to me when 45 years later I am searching my memory, endeavouring to relay an accurate story of the history of his Stella Alpina rally. Mario sadly passed away long ago, taking with him the best memories of his creation.

The only photo of the 1966 meeting I have in my collection was given to me by my good friend, Gilles Gaudechoux, himself a dedicated collector of motorcycle memories and records, (both rallying and racing), and a long-time member of the club CM Raboliots from Romorantin in Sologne. He still rides motorbikes and attend motorcycle events.

Stella Alpina 1966 - A classic BSA followed by three flat twins BMW during the ride from the spa town of Bormio to the 2757m high Stelvio Pass

STELLA ALPINA 1967

In 1967 the Stella Alpina rally moved to Bardonecchia and that's been its home for over 50 years.

The 1967 meeting was attended by a small group of dedicated motorcyclists (mostly British, German, and Italian), and proved an enjoyable occasion for all. Most of the road bikes were classic British bikes such as BSAs, Triumphs, Nortons, Royal Enfields, and even a few Vincents. There were also expensive Earles Forks BMW of that era.

Since 1967, the concept of the rally has remained true to its origins. The objective is to ascend from the town of Bardonecchia as high as possible up the Colle del Sommeiller. The route up the col first follows a narrow, twisty tarmac road to a small village (Rochemolles). Then the tarmac ends and the gravel trail ensues, with numerous zig zags.To make the ride even harder and more challenging, it's not unusual for snow and ice at that altitude to further hamper the efforts of those who attempt it. Each year, the end of the ascent is marked by the imposition of permanent snow creating an impassable barrier.

At the end of the ascent there's no formal organisation, only a van awaiting those who have reached the top. There, for a small fee, an inscribed commemorative rally medal and a light snack awaits you.

Stella Alpina 1967- A smiling Mario posing with his faithful R69S at the Colle del Sommeiller

STELLA ALPINA 1968 and 1969

The 1968 meeting saw a much greater numbers of participants. In part this was due to the large variety of brand new Japanese motorcycles available at the time, attracting more young people into the sport.

A year later at the 1969 meeting there was even a bigger crowd of riders from all over Europe.

For the very first time, in 1969, even the French magazine 'Moto Revue' acknowledged the existence of the Stella Alpina rally in its pages. It was extremely rare at that period for such a publication to talk of a rally,except for the usual yearly report narrating the infamous Elefantentreffen at the Nurburgring. Whatever their motivation, Moto Revue made a special effort by publishing a photo taken at the Colle del Sommeiller, showing Jean-Marie Debonneville seated on his sidecar.

For younger international rallyists who might not be familiar with their names, let's say that Jean-Marie Debonneville, Robert Sexe, Kiki Blanchot, Michel Perdrix, and Simon 'Zorro' Moulon, are without a doubt the five most famous motorcyclists on the French rally scene from the 60's to the present day.

Stella Alpina 1969- the legendary French rallyist Jean-Marie Debonneville

By the end of the 1960s, this gathering that had started barely five years previously as a simple group of friends, had earned the reputation of being one of the most important events to attend. In the motorcycling rally calendar the Stella Alpina had become a 'must' for elite international rallyists, and for the lucky ones who could afford to travel long distances to foreign countries on two or three wheels. The Stella Alpina ranked next to the Elefantentreffen (Germany), the Dragon (Wales), the Troll (Norway), the Lions and the Steel Horse (Belgium), the Hondsrug (Netherlands), the Chamois and the Millevaches (France), the Madonina dei Centauri and the Pasubio (Italy).

- Jean-Francois 'Fanfan' Helias
(MC Dragons)

I hope you enjoyed reading my account of the Stella Alpina rallies held in the 1960s, as much as I enjoyed recalling the stories and sharing them with you. The story though is not over yet. Next time I will be sharing my memories of the 1970s, more precisely the ten meetings held between 1970 and 1979. There are some great stories and anecdotes and lots of photos too.