With quiet backroads rolling across the verdant hills of Tuscany, narrow switchbacks and stone tunnels winding up and down the majestic Dolomites and perfect cappuccino, fresh pasta and local wine at seemingly every turn, Italy truly is a cycling paradise.
High-end tour guides such as InGamba and Willie's World Cycling offer luxury trips inside Italy, but those experiences are cost-prohibitive for most of us. Here, we present three inexpensive ways to soak up the lush cycling culture of belle Italia.
Where a luxury trip could cost you US$5,000 or more for a five-day venture, a self-guided tour – which includes four-star hotels, luggage transportation between hotels, ride maps and even a performance rental bike – can be had for US$940 / €689 / £560 for five or six days if you share a room.
Italy Bike Hotels is an association of private hotels, primarily on the Adriatic coast, that caters to cyclists with daily guided rides, quality rental bikes if you need them or places to store and work on your bike if you bring your own. For the truly adventurous, you can follow the wheels of Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson and his buddies and ride from hotel to hotel with your belongings on a bike rack.
Road cycling in Italy – a lush experience
While many cyclists will gush about the charming roads and great terrain, tour operators are the first to tell you that the cycling itself is only a part of what makes riding in Italy great.
"What I love about cycling in Italy really comes down to the people," said Willie Joffroy, founder of Willie's World Cycling. "Of course the great regions – Tuscany, Piemonte, Veneto, the Dolomites – they have so many quiet roads. It is amazing how many times you can do a three-hour ride and see, like, six cars. But it is the people that really make the experience. There are always little towns that you can pass through, have a coffee, have a little panini. Drivers are very, very courteous. The culture in general has a love for the sport. When you ride through town, the old guys in the piazza always stop and look."
Tullia Caballero is the director of S-Cape Countryside Travels, which offers guided and self-guided cycling tours in Italy. She breaks down the enjoyment of the experience more simply. You have the "basic Italian ingredients: great rides, food, wine, new friends, happy faces, coffee, gelato and more gelato".
Tucsan roads were seemingly made for cycling
On a cycling vacation, you get to control the pace yourself, be it flying along or taking it easy. But Joffroy said it's easy to fall into the Italian style of riding.
"It's not about going out and hammering for three hours and going home and having a recovery drink," Joffroy said. "It’s about stopping for a coffee and a snack. I love that; we don’t have that culture in the US. The Italian pros do it, too; they don’t stop for an hour, but they stop to rest and chat."
Former pro rider Marco Saligari works with Willie's World Cycling as a guide when he's not doing race commentary for Eurosport. Saligari is quick to sell riding bikes with friends in the countryside as the heart of the sport. "Marco is just great," Joffroy said. "While he can tell plenty of stories about racing the grand tours, he loves to talk about how riding with friends, having a meal together, riding without numbers on your backs and just enjoying this beautiful country is what cycling is really about."
Taking refreshment at quaint cafes is easy – and part of the experience
Self-guided tours include hotels, luggage transport, logistics and a bike if needed
If you're sold on the idea of an Italian cycling vacation but think that a guided tour is too expensive but that going it alone seems crazy, then a self-guided tour, purchased through a company such as Randonnée Tours or S-Cape Countryside Travels, could be the perfect compromise.
Many self-guided tours can be purchased through a menu of sorts – 7 Days in Piemonte, Grand Tour of Tuscany, and so on – where the routes and hotel stops are organized for you. Here, the tour company will ferry your luggage from hotel to hotel, allowing you to enjoy riding from place to place with provided route instructions. S-Cape provides a detailed packet with its trips, with each day's route mapped out like a pro race bible, with careful turn-by-turn instructions plus elevation profiles and overall maps. Often, you can get GPX digital files for each day's routes, should you prefer to navigate with a Garmin.
S-Cape provides a packet of route instructions much like a pro race bible, plus a handlebar holder for the turn-by-turn directions. Often, you can get a digital GPX route file for use on a Garmin
BikeRadar went on an S-Cape trip with a few friends last fall and thoroughly enjoyed the format. S-Cape books four-star hotels, which are nice but not luxury, and the professional guides who map out the routes in advance can suggest coffee and gelato stops along the way, not to mention good restaurants in the destination towns. The pricing isn't too much more than you'd pay for the hotels alone, and you're getting the luggage service plus the invaluable local knowledge and map routes as part of the deal.
Should you not want to pay to fly with a bike (we certainly didn't), Randonnée and S-Cape can connect you with a performance rental. For our trip, for example, S-Cape connected us with Wilier Izoard XP rentals with Shimano Ultegra and FSA compact cranks. Definitely have the company specify exactly what type of bike you are getting ahead of time though, and consider taking your own saddle.
An example of the type of lodging S-Cape can provide for a self-guided tour
- Pros: Self-paced tour but with detailed maps; no airline bike fees; no car rental fees; complete bike/hotel/luggage transportation package
- Cons: No guide on hand for immediate assistance
Italy Bike Hotels cater to cyclists with ride guides, mechanic stations and a bike if needed
There are approximately 55 Italy Bike Hotels scattered around the country, primarily on the Mediterranean coast in the middle of the country. About 95 percent of cyclists who patronize these hotels don’t bring a bike, because one is provided for them on site.
A double room costs between €80 and 130, and includes breakfast and the services of a tour guide, who leads multiple rides a day from the hotel. The guides speak English and are sometimes ex-pro riders.
If you do bring your own bike, the hotels are equipped with workstands and tools if you need to make some adjustments.
As the name suggests, Italy Bike Hotels specialize in catering to cyclists
Plus, Italy Bike Hotels bridge the gap that sometimes exists between a great day of riding and the realities of Italian cities.
“Say you go for a nice long bike ride in the morning and come back at 2pm – all the restaurants are closed,” said Herwig Reus, an Italy Bike Hotels spokesman. “It’s difficult if you don’t know that. At Italy Bike Hotels, they have fresh food from 1 to 5pm: pasta, rice, meat and drinks.”
BikeRadar stayed in one of the newer Bike Hotels in Viareggio, on the Atlantic coast near Lucca. The riding there is tremendous, with flat, seaside options literally right out the door, and serpentine climbs through olive grooves close by. The accomodations are not luxury, but perfectly suitable for a modern traveler, and the friendly staff speak English. Tip: Don’t use the automatic coffee machine in the buffet breakfast – get a proper cappuccino made for you at the bar.
Some Italy Bike Hotels offer shuttles from nearby airports in Pisa or Bologna. For others, there is public transportation or taxis.
- Pros: No airline bike fees; no car rental fees; complete bike/guide/hotel package once on site
- Cons: Must arrange transportation to and between Italy Bike Hotels
Go it alone on a self-supported tour
As founder and owner of Clif Bar, Gary Erickson can now afford a luxury cycling trip. But he still chooses to travel light for the freedom and adventure of it. The bike below displays one of his setups for multi-day, self-supported tours that he does with friends and business associates like Gregg Bagni.
Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson prefers to travel without assistance
Last year, Bagni, Erickson and a few friends did a seven-day trip, riding from hotel to hotel on quiet backroads, and entirely on their own agenda, tackling many passes that often feature in the Giro d'Italia.
"Sometimes we'd have reservations, sometimes not," Bagni said. "We would wash our shorts and stuff every night in the bidet with hotel shampoo. It's wonderful because you get lost in 'eat, sleep, ride' for a week at a time."
Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson (second from right) has been riding unsupported on his summer vacations for more than two decades
"You want the bag to weigh no more than 8.5 to 9.5lb," Bagni said. "You might go a pound or two over that if you drag some food with you, but that dwindles down as the trip progresses."
Erickson calls these trips 'white road', after the color of the narrow roads on Michelin maps. It's a tradition he began more than 25 years ago.
Video: Gary Erickson on his 'white road' adventures
"We call it white road after Gary's thoughts – read his book, Raising the Bar," Bagni said. "Red roads are big, yellow is smaller, white is the back way. They are usually longer, with more climbing, but with a lot less cars and motobici. And they are always cooler and more rewarding."
To do a trip like this, you need a few key things: advance planning, patience, and a sense of adventure.
- Pros: Total freedom; the most inexpensive way to go
- Cons: Total freedom – you are on your own!
However you choose to go, we whole-heartedly encourage you to get to Italy somehow for a few memorable days on the bike. Ciao!