I’m a firm believer in the benefits of a life outside of work, and one of my main non-work passions is bicycle touring. My husband and I like to say that our daughter (who’s now going on 13) got *us* into bike touring; it’s something she’s always loved, so we kind of followed along, and now it’s an activity that we really enjoy doing as a family. So, while other families are at Disney World, we find ourselves, for better or worse, in places like this:
That’s the summit of the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, the highest paved road in Austria. It was awesome, or possibly I was so exhausted and oxygen-deprived that I was just hallucinating…
Our absolute favorite place to bike tour is Italy; we’re far from alone in this sentiment, because Italy is possibly the most bike-friendly (or bike-obsessed) place that we’ve ever been to. And take that with the knowledge that we live in Boulder, Colorado, which is consistently rated as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US. We’ve done two major bike trips in Italy; we rode from Lake Geneva to Salzburg across Northern Italy in 2012, and in 2014 we did a loop from Milan to the Lakes Region, through the Dolomites (including the legendary Stelvio Pass!) and back to Milan via Lake Garda. Each trip was about a month long and we did both trips self-supported (no chase vehicle) while carrying our own stuff and staying in hotels. We planned the trips ourselves and traveled independently, and I’m a frustrated bike touring guidebook author, so I thought I’d write up some thoughts on planning your own bike trip in Italy in case others can benefit from our trials and errors (and there have been a lot of both!).
Deciding where and when to go
Our favorite guidebook is Ellee Thalheimer’s Lonely Planet Cycling in Italy (you can read my review of it at that link), which sadly seems to be out of print. You could try to locate a used copy, or read online bike touring forums such as Crazy Guy on a Bike, or steal an itinerary from one of the many organized bike tours that go to Italy. We’ve only biked in Italy in July and August, and only north of Milan, so our experience is limited in terms of geography and time frame. The weather in the Dolomites is lovely in July and August with warm days and cool nights, but even in Milan, it’s *really hot* at that time of year. If you want to tour south of Milan, I would recommend going in the spring or fall, *not* at the height of the summer. You might experience a lot of rain or none at all: on our 2012 trip we had one day of rain, and on our 2014 trip it rained almost the entire first week. But the Dolomites are truly stellar. Check out this view, from the breakfast room of our hotel in Cortina:
What to do about bikes
Taking your own bikes: For both of our trips, we took our own bikes–one tandem and one single–, which have S&S couplers and fit in cases that can go as regular luggage items. Coupled bikes are a bit of an ordeal to assemble and disassemble (we allow most of a day for the two bikes), but they allow you to bring your own, full-size bike without paying luggage fees. To my knowledge, British Airways is currently the only international airline that will allow you to take a bike without couplers in a standard hard case without paying an oversize luggage fee. If you don’t have a bike with couplers and you want to take your own bike on the plane, make sure to research and print out the airline’s bike transport policy before you go: we’ve seen fees as high as $250 per bike, with a tandem potentially being charged double. Here’s Bicycling Magazine’s article about flying with your bike, and a pro’s account of fitting a bike into a semi-standard suitcase, for further reference. Also important: most airlines hate transporting bikes, and may try to charge you the bike fee *even if your bike fits in a standard-size case*. I’m a pretty mellow person, but this is ridiculous, and therefore it’s OK to answer with a white lie. So before you travel, practice saying, with a deadpan face, “It’s sports equipment,” in case the baggage agent asks you what’s in the case. It’s just some sports equipment. Our Italy bike guide recommends learning the statement, “Non è un bici; è la mia valigia” (It’s not a bike, it’s my suitcase) for such a situation.
Taking your own bike is great in many respects, but it’s logistically complicated: most Italian taxis cannot fit a bike case in the trunk, and the cobblestone streets of most Italian cities are not fun when you’re dragging a 50 pound bike case behind you: find a hotel near the train station!
Renting bikes in Italy: Definitely possible, but probably best suited for short trips, or trips where you’re only riding part of the time, due to the hassle and expense of renting. Italy has *tons* of bike shops, but you should contact them ahead of time to make sure they have the kind of bike you want, and definitely don’t count on bike shop employees speaking English. There are also numerous “bike hotels” in Italy; we saw one in the town of Bormio that rented very high-end road bikes, which could be a good option if you want to travel around by train or bus and then ride in various places. If you’re in Milan, I highly recommend AWS Bici, near the Stazione Centrale; they don’t speak English but are *ultra* helpful and took pity on us when we needed an emergency wheel fix just as they were trying to close!
Getting creative: If you’re not up for the hassle and expense of the options above, you can look at non-standard options. You could take a fully folding bike like a Brompton or a Bike Friday, and we’ve seen people doing serious rides on those types of bikes. You could buy a bike in Italy and ship it back home by mail, or try to sell it when you leave. You could look at Italian Craigslist and try to buy a used bike when you get to Italy. The viability of these options depend on your budget and how long you’re staying!
Deciding whether to book ahead or wing it: For both of our trips, we reserved the majority of our hotels ahead of time. In my experience, Italian hotels are fairly laid back and do not often require a deposit to reserve a room, but some will ask for a deposit by credit card or PayPal. Our rationale for booking ahead was that in some popular places (Cortina, Bolzano), there are very few inexpensive hotels right in the center of town, and after a long day of biking with potential adversity such as bad weather or mechanical breakdowns, we didn’t want to then have to look for a hotel. The obvious downside of booking ahead is that you’re fairly locked into an itinerary, but we felt that the tradeoff was worthwhile. On our 2014 trip, the weather was pretty dreadful for most of the first week, and we were really glad to have hotels booked so that we could head there immediately upon arrival. One navigational tip: Italian cities, especially the Medieval ones, are kind of a maze of streets and alleys. It’s a good idea to map the location of every hotel you’ve booked, and either print out the map or save it on your phone or GPS; it’s also helpful to know the major landmark (train station, main piazza, cathedral) that’s closest to your hotel.
Costs: On both our 2012 and 2014 trips, we found that we could travel very comfortably for about US $200-$250 per day for three people (so about US $70-$80 each, per day), with the euro running about $1.30. We stayed mostly in two-star bed and breakfasts and small hotels; we also landed a couple of very nice hotels on Booking.com, and stayed in a couple of hostels in Switzerland where hotels and food are extremely expensive. This budget meant that we ate breakfast at the B&B, had some bakery snacks or fruit and cheese from a supermarket for lunch, and generally ate dinner at a pizzeria. We generally ride 6-8 hours a day, so we don’t spend much money on tours or sightseeing unless we’re taking a rest day, but we also do not make a huge effort to do things as cheaply as possible. For example we only stay in hostels if we’re in an area where hotels are really expensive, and we do not generally cook our own dinner. You could probably cut your budget to around $50 per person, per day if you stayed in hostels and cooked your own food. Organized tours have their pluses, but you should definitely expect to pay $200-$400 per person, per day to go with a reputable company, so it’s a very significant cost difference versus a self-planned trip. More on this below!
Assessing the difficulty level of your itinerary: This is a tough one, because one person’s “easy” ride is another person’s “you’re trying to kill me” ride. But in general, the Italian river valleys are pretty mellow and the mountains, or at least the Dolomites, are about as steep as it gets. Even having trained in the mountains of Colorado, we were pretty blown away by the steepness of some of the roads in the Dolomites. When we rode Passo Fedaia, a regular on the Giro d’Italia, the steepest section was so steep that after I stopped to eat a snack, I had to angle my bike diagonally across the road to start again, because I fell over when I tried to start while facing up the hill. So, definitely check out the elevation gain and grade of the itinerary you’re planning on doing.
Finding bike-friendly hotels: In northern Italy, we had *zero* problems finding bike-friendly hotels, even when we needed a hotel in Milan that would allow us to assemble our bikes in the courtyard. Likewise, the hotel in Cortina had us roll our bikes right through the lobby to put them in the storage room. It’s definitely preferable to find hotels that have an indoor or lockable area to store your bikes so that you don’t have to lock them on the street. In our experience, centrally-located hotels are thrilled to have bike tourists because they don’t have to deal with parking, which is almost nonexistent in some of the Medieval downtowns.
Taking bikes on trains and ferries: Generally doable, but make sure you research the specific train or ferry in advance. For example on the Lake Garda ferries, you can take bikes for a small supplemental fee on any car ferry, but not on a hydrofoil. You can take assembled bikes for a small supplemental fee on regional (slow) trains, but bikes are technically supposed to be boxed to go on the faster “Freccia” trains. Taking your bike on a train often requires some fairly arduous maneuvering; you often have to carry/lug/shove your loaded bike down a flight of stairs to get to the underground passageway that leads to the correct track, then up another flight of stairs, and then lift the bike into the bike car on the train. The bike car is normally marked and often at the very end of the train; getting your bike onto the train can be a bit stressful but it’s generally doable.
Riding in Italian traffic: Riding on Italian roads can either be extremely nerve-wracking or less nerve-wracking than riding on US roads, depending on how you look at it. Italy has many bike paths, but roads generally have a very narrow shoulder or no shoulder at all, even highways don’t always have breakdown lanes, and mountain roads do not always have guardrails. In some places, such as rotaries/traffic circles, the only choice for bikes is to merge with the auto traffic and ride on through. My take: once you get used to it, riding on Italian roads is fun, because (at least in the areas where we’ve ridden), drivers are a lot more accepting of bikes on the roads than in most of the US. For example we encountered a construction zone where bikes were simply waved through while cars were forced to wait; when there’s a long line of cars stopped for a flock of sheep, or a bus making a U-turn, or whatever, it seems to be taken for granted that bikes will zip to the front of the line without waiting. These kinds of behaviors might get you run over or at least honked at in most of the US, but Italian drivers seem fine with them. Likewise, on our 2014 trip, we had to ride on a short section of the Superstrada (very fast highway), and the drivers in the right lane simply went around us with no problem. But just be prepared that Italian drivers *expect* bikes to ride fairly aggressively, and that in many cases, you have no option but to ride in the traffic lane. If that doesn’t sound appealing, pick a route where you can ride primarily or exclusively on bike paths. Another factor on Italian roads is tunnels; sometimes very long, very dark tunnels. The more modern tunnels are fairly well-lit and sometimes have a bike lane, but the older tunnels do not. Make sure you have good front and rear lights, and ride together if you’re in a group.
Language: Not surprisingly, it’s helpful to know at least a bit of Italian. In northern Italy, most people speak at least some German (and the South Tyrol area is basically bilingual) and some people speak some English. Tourist office employees generally speak at least some English, but we encountered lots of hotel owners and restaurant employees who spoke no English. It’s definitely worth doing some Italian for travelers CDs or an adult ed Italian course to get ready. And if you’re biking in the mountains, make sure to learn the two most important phrases: è molto ripida (it’s very steep) and non posso respirare (I can’t breathe).
Bike touring with kids: Our daughter is probably not your typical 12 year old, but she *loves* bike touring, and we’ve been touring with an adult-kid tandem since she was 7. Italy is a very child-friendly culture, and Italians seem to take their kids everywhere; most Italian towns and cities also have excellent parks and playgrounds. With younger kids, a bike path-oriented tour with a kid trailer could be a lot of fun! Here are my husband and my daughter, crushing Passo Giau on the Burley Duet:
Dealing with the unexpected: “The unexpected” is definitely a factor on any self-planned bike tour. Getting lost, sick or hurt, having your bike break down or having horrible weather are risks on any trip. If you want the security of being able to call for a bailout, it’s best to go with a group. Some examples of “the unexpected” that we’ve encountered are: the hub of our tandem wheel shaking loose while in transit, necessitating an emergency repair; rain, rain and more rain; getting lost in general; mis-reading a map and riding up the wrong pass in the Dolomites (but a very pretty pass!); arriving at a hotel a week later than they had our reservation booked for; scouring Milan for bubble wrap to re-pack our tandem’s parts (DHL on Via Plinio near the Lima subway station sells it by the meter!); a critical bike path being closed for construction with no apparent detour (thank you, kind bike shop employee, who used a combination of Italian, German, English and pantomime to show us the route!). If these kinds of things strike you as part of the adventure, a self-planned bike trip is a great idea. If these strike you as a catalyst for an emotional breakdown, then check out organized trips!
What about organized trips?: With the caveat that I’ve never done an organized bike trip, here are my thoughts. You’ll trade some freedom for some security, and the cost will be at least double, and maybe four times what you’d spend on a self-planned trip. That being said, organized trips are great if you have an ample budget and want to leave the planning to someone else, or if you don’t know anyone else who likes bike touring and you don’t want to go alone. However if I were paying that much for an organized trip, I would ask some probing questions about what support services the outfitter offers, other than planning the itinerary (because you can plan the same itinerary for a lot less than the outfitter charges). For example: Does the support vehicle drive behind the slowest person? If not, how do you get a pickup if you need one? If you summon the support vehicle by calling, does the outfitter provide cell phones, or do you have to have a phone that works in Italy? If the weather is so bad that no one wants to ride, does the support vehicle have room for everyone and all the bikes? Does it make multiple runs to the next town? If not, what happens? If your bike breaks down in the middle of the day, will a guide or mechanic try to fix it, or do you have to go in the van for the rest of the day? These questions are nit-picky, but they are the type of thing I would ask before I plunked down $5,000 per person for a two-week trip that I could have planned myself for $1,500.
If you’ve read this far and really want to geek out, here’s our 2014 trip itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Milan. Collapse.
Day 2: Tour Milan. Assemble bikes.
Day 3: Milan to Lecco/Lake Como
Day 4: Day ride to the cycling museum/shrine above Lake Como
Day 5: Lecco to Sondrio
Day 6: Sondrio to Bormio
Day 7: Day ride to Passo Gavia
Day 8: Rest day in Bormio
Day 9: Bormio to Prato allo Stelvio, over the Stelvio Pass
Day 10: Prato allo Stelvio to Bolzano
Day 11: Rest day in Bolzano
Day 12: Bolzano to Selva Gardena
Day 13: Selva Gardena to Cortina, over Passo Gardena and Passo Falzarego
Day 14: Rest day in Cortina
Day 15: Cortina to Caprile, over Passo Giau
Day 16: Caprile to Canazei, over Passo Fedaia
Day 17: Day ride, part of the Sella Ronda loop
Day 18: Canazei to Bolzano
Day 19: Bolzano to Trento
Day 20: Trento to Riva del Garda
Day 21: Rest day at Lake Garda
Day 22: Ferry to Desenzano, then ride to Brescia
Day 23: Train from Brescia to Milan
Day 24: Fly home
I could go on…but this is a huge post already. Feel free to add your own experiences or ask questions in the comments!