Stella Alpina Rally
The 13km Fréjus border tunnel running under the Col de Fréjus between Modane in France and Bardonecchia in Italy was only opened in 1980, so back in 1972, depending where your journey originated the route was much longer than it would be today. Most motorcyclists had no choice but to take the long way round and if like me you were coming from central France you made for Saint-Jean de Maurienne and from there rode the breathtaking scenic routes of the Mont-Cenis pass which is in France with Susa in Italy.
This meant riding a much greater distance than the present-day shortcut via the Fréjus tunnel. More money on fuel, more time in the saddle, and more miles, but of course it was all worth it, riding and spectacular curvy road over the passes breathing in that clean summer mountain air and putting machine and rider to the test.
Stella Alpina 1972 - A photo taken during the Alpine Safari, between the Pramand fort and the Jafferau fort: the Bultaco Metralla 250 of my old friend Michel Baubet, member of the MC Dragons.
Mont Cenis is well known in French history book circles as the site of a famous military victory by the French Army of the Alps over the Piedmontese forces in 1794. A victory that enabled the French Army to invade and conquer the Italian peninsula.
Hence all the ancient military tracks over the passes connecting the ancient forts, vestiges of the Franco-Italian war when Savoy was still attached to Italy. These tracks were the haunt of Mario Artusio and always explored during the 3 days of the Alpine Safari following the rally.
These old military tracks were never maintained and long abandoned, so those taking part in the 'safari' never knew in advance how bad some passages would prove to be and how badly they may have been damaged during the previous winter. In fact so unpredictable were these routes, that on a few occasions we discovered they had completely fallen away and become far too dangerous. Reluctantly, the group had no alternative but to admit defeat and turn back.
Alpine Safari 1970's- Pulling motorcycles through the snow was often part of the game! You'd better believe that no 'safari' participant needed to listen to a lullaby to fall asleep at night!
The number of participants at the 3 days Safari each year was inevitably small, perhaps reflecting the potential ruggedness of the conditions, in fact never more than 30 riders.
Mario, was of course in his own ‘backyard' so to speak and more experienced than anyone else in that kind of 'enduro on road bikes'. Not many could match his riding skills on mountain tracks and he was a brilliant all-round rider, especially on a classic BMW.
Alpine Safari 1970's - Mario Artusio (white helmet), on his faithful classic R69S, helped by Kiki Blanchot (in front of the bike), at a difficult passage.
One of the highlights of the day during the safaris was undoubtedly the lunchtime break, a very welcome pause, for an al-fresco meal, and always at a breathtaking mountain venue, sought out by Mario.
Stella Alpina 1972 - Time to rest in the shade and enjoy lunch at a location between the Pramand fort and the Jafferau fort.
With a growing reputation as a 'must do' rally,the Stella Alpina attracted a large circle of international rallyists and in 1973 it was no surprise to anyone that over a thousand riders from all over the world took part.
That particular year, there proved to be far less permanent snow on the Colle del Sommeiller trail. There's no doubt that for some on their road bikes it helped them more easily reach the refuge, where they could purchase the coveted badge of the 1973 event.
Stella Alpina 1973 - Daniel Raphael (Rapha) and Gilles Jouanno, two 'die hard' rallyists from Britanny (both still active), posing with their bikes at the Sommeiller refuge.
I hope you enjoyed reading a little more of my early 1970s rally experiences. Next time I continue my recollections of the Stella Alpina rally with more images and anecdotes from 1974-75.
- Jean-Francois Helias