A cycling holiday is a self-focussed endeavour at the best of times. In July this year Jeremy and I set out to test the theory that it could also be a family holiday with three weeks cycling across five different regions of Italy with our 5yr old and 4yr old in tow.
This is Jeremy’s account of his rides on the trip (selfie alert). My rides while not quite as long were still spectacular.
After a marathon 31 hour door to door journey we arrived on a Sunday afternoon at our first stop, the beautiful alpine town of Bormio in the Italian Alps for a few days of riding. This was my third trip here and you always feel part of the family from the moment you arrive at the hotel. As far as riding goes, Bormio is blessed with some spectacular options…the Stelvio, the Gavia and the Mortirolo plus lots of other stunning climbs only the locals know. Can you ask for more in one place?
First up was Monday’s double Stelvio loop which tackles both sides of the Passo dello Stelvio in one day. From Bormio up to Passo Umbrail, which is about 4km short of the Stelvio summit, and took me 1½ hours of steady climbing followed by a long descent into Santa Maria in Switzerland where you ride through the valley, and back in to Italy, to Prato for a quick lunch. In the arvo it is a 24km/1,800m vertical ascent back up the other (more spectacular) side of Passo Stelvio over its forty eight switchbacks. This ride always brings me to the limit of my endurance and again took every bit of mental and physical energy I could muster to get to the top. The second climb was 2½ hours of unrelenting suffering…we had left the hotel at 9:30am and it was almost 4pm by the time I reached the top . After a quick change into warm kit for the descent, it was back down to Bormio to the hotel and almost 5:30pm by the time the ride was done. 100km, 3,250m of climbing and 8 hours on the road, not a bad first day.
My second ride in Bormio was the 115km Mortirolo-Gavia loop. It started with another beautiful day in the mountains. After a very scenic roll downhill through the valley heading south from Bormio we reached Mazzo Valtellina where the Mortirolo begins. This climb was the scene of some very dramatic racing in this year’s Giro d’Italia and has been described as one of the hardest climbs in the pro tour, not without good reason. 11km long with a 10.5% average grade over 34 hairpins this is a brutal climb. The summit is always a relief as you break out of the trees to some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, the sound of cowbells on the grazing cattle and of course cheers from those already at the top as you pass the sign marking the end of the climb.
From the bottom of the Mortirolo to Ponte de Legno, the lunch stop, and where the Gavia starts is 15km at 2-3% uphill which is much harder than you would expect when the pace is on. Passo Gavia is one of my favourite climbs, 18km long with 1360m of climbing @ 7.8% with the odd 12-14% ramp, it is very much a long hard HC climb and with the Mortirolo already in the legs, the progress is always going to be slow. Despite the difficulty level, it is also a very beautiful climb as you mostly ride the length of the mountain rather than carving your way up the slope. As you climb out of the tree line, you are blessed with some stunning views of glaciers on your left and snow-capped peaks far into the distance. You are treated to this view for most of the climb and in the sunshine it is a wonderful place to be.
Despite the views I was pretty happy to see the summit after more than two hours of climbing, although for me the Mortirolo-Gavia loop is just a little more endurable than the double Stelvio. After a couple of strong coffees it was once again time to don the warm kit for the descent. Having the right gear with you is so important on these high altitude climbs. The descent to Bormio is a fun fast one. It is quite steep, tight and technical at first, but after Santa Caterina about midway, the road really opens up and you get to take your hands off the brakes for extended periods hitting 80km/h on the way down (which is rare in these parts). Great fun on a beautiful day!
Our second stop was Peschiera del Garda at the Southern tip of Lake Garda, the largest of Italy’s inland lakes. Garda has lots of riding options from flat to undulating to mountains and I was hoping for a ride up the 1,600m ascent of Monte Baldo.
Unfortunately that ride was done the day we arrived so I missed my chance at that. A regular guest at the hotel from Sweden was looking for company to join a ride to one of the steepest climbs in the area. I had never heard of this climb although it was touted to be the hardest . We set off from the hotel the next morning with a group of four. Klaus, the Swede, Michele our wiry Italian guide for the day, me and another Aussie who had just arrived. The area around the hotel is reasonably flat so we set off at a decent clip. After a few k’s and a quick intros, the other Aussie turned out to be none other than fellow Rouleur Chris Gee! Chris was part of the way through a European holiday with his family as well. The drag to the bottom of the climb was about 50km from the hotel and not exactly flat but we got there averaging about 30km/h, not quite what you need before a monstrous climb. We made a short stop at the bottom of the climb to fill our water bottles and agreed to regroup at the top. Standing at the bottom we were looking up at a wall of stone that seemed to have been punched out of the ground. All I knew was that it was about 13km long and had 20% sections. And it was also a hot, humid 35degrees…the mid-morning sun had a real bite and the climb was on the sunny side of the mountain.
So off we went and literally as soon as we set off was a traffic sign proclaiming 20% grade…great intro to the climb! The road was very quiet and ominously not a single cyclist in sight. Needless to say after much suffering, and inching through sections at 23%, I made it to the summit alone. The summit was rather sparse apart from a large stone WW2 monument and a bar full of about 25 cyclists enjoying a drink in the sunshine. Where did they come from? With a cold drink I perched myself with a view of the road below to wait for the others.
From the summit of Passo Fittanze we rolled back down towards Garda. The afternoon heat was even more intense . The descent was great with plenty of long wide roads but with a few k’s still to cover, the odd punchy 2-3km climb had to be negotiated. We soon got to the slopes of Valpollicella which is a Tuscan lookalike with its vineyards and hilltop villages. The shimmering Lake Garda in the distance completed a stunning vista. No ride in Italy is complete without a stop for coffee or gelato and this afternoon a grande gelato was on order! Sdruzzina was a complete surprise and a stunning 1,300m climb…all up we rode 135km with 2,000m of climbing…sometimes not knowing what to expect is half the fun! Another great day out on the bike!
Cesenatico – Adriatic Coast
Third stop was Cesenatico on the Adriatic Coast and this areas claim to cycling fame is its much adored local Champion, the late great Marco Pantani. This is also a heaving family summer beach holiday destination and when we arrived it was incredibly hot and humid.
My only ride was with a small group of about ten and we headed off without guide in the morning heat. Heading away from the coast is about 20km of dead flat plain. In the distance are the foothills of the Apennines and this is where the good riding begins. The slopes are dressed with vineyards and the many little peaks are crowned with medieval villages and churches. Our ride route only had a short 3km climb of about 4-5% to negotiate into a beautiful little village with some great views over the plains stretching out to the ocean where we had come from. We meandered through the cobbled streets and stopped for a drink in a beautiful piazza. As we headed back to the hotel a steady tempo and a welcome sea breeze made the heat a bit more bearable. A dive into the ocean as soon as we got to the hotel was a welcome respite from the heat, a bonus for riding near the beach.
While the riding in Cesenatico was far from the challenges of the Alps or Garda, there is no shortage of beautiful vistas and unique experiences. One ride that I was hoping for but never got to complete was riding into the Principality of San Marino which is only about 20km away and towers over the coastal plain. Something for next time.
Our fourth stop was Fiuggi located about 45mins south of Rome which is on the western edges of the Apennines. Fiuggi hosted a stage of the Giro d’Italia this year and is one of Vicenzo Nibali’s favoured training destinations so I was keen to check out what the riding was like. Turns out there is very little flat ground around Fiuggi. You are either going uphill or down. None of the climbs are very long or have big vertical ascents. Most are around 2-3km in length with grades from 5-10%.
The first day we started our ride up Passo della Sella which is around the corner from the hotel, a decent snaking 6km climb at about 5%. From there it was continuously up or down all day. We passed some beautiful scenery and villages including the town of Subiaco! With an obligatory coffee stop we managed a 60km ride that quite easily felt like a hundred. The undulations certainly made their mark on the legs by the time we got back.
The next day we took in some of the roads used in the Giro stage. Once again some beautiful views and a very constant up or down profile to the ride. My legs were pretty tired from the day before so the second day was certainly a more relaxed endeavour. It was not hard to see why this area would make a perfect training ground. Any ride would be a constant interval session. I was sad I was not able to do the hotels signature ride which is a ride all the way to the Colosseum in Rome along the ancient Via Appia Roman road. Something to look forward to for next time.
Our last stop was in Pralormo in the Langhe region just south of Turin. This was my second visit here and it is one of my favourite riding destinations in Italy. Not just because of the riding but also because the food and wine is just exceptional, not to mention the truffles in Alba. My plans for Piedmont were the western end of the Italian Alps. The 18km long Colle delle Finestre, the Queen stage in this year’s Giro begins a short drive away in Susa. So that’s were I headed. Straight out of town we were on the climb and into a dense forest. The road was very quiet with only the odd car or motorbike breaking the sound of the heavy breathing in the forest. El Presidente had a cracking ride up this climb on his trip earlier this year for the Giro and I was not even thinking about getting close to his time.
10km’s of steady climbing on some nice roads and we arrived at the business end of the climb, 8km of dirt road lay ahead to the summit. I was not sure what to expect from the dirt section. In the Giro there was lots of talk about wheel slip and punctures. When we got there I could see why, it is rocky jagged slate and powdery dust, the surface was very rough and chopped up. It didn’t take long for me to really struggle with a rhythm. The handlebars and front wheel were constantly bouncing around and I had to keep swapping sides on the road to find any resemblance of a compacted path all this going up hill at about 10% gradiant.
The last few k’s are certainly worth the effort it takes to get there, with glorious views of the snow-capped peaks around. Once at the top it was time to regroup, take pics and get ready to head towards the next climb, Sestriere which is a big ski town and former winter Olympics venue. The descent on the other side of the Finestre was quite the contrast to the way up. The sealed road was super smooth with fast sweeping corners. It was lots of fun tearing down but after an all too brief descent we were in the valley where Katusha and Astana conspired to drop Contador in the Giro this year and heading towards the climb to Sestriere. The climb to Sestriere is ‘only’ a Cat 2, neither too steep nor long, but after the Finestre my legs were spent. After a bite to eat and recovering in the sunshine, we were only 45km in to a 90km ride!
The descent back to Susa was lots of fun but still a decent hit out for weary legs with the odd 2-3km climb to negotiate. A driving headwind through the valley meant sometimes you had to pedal to keep gown downhill at times. My plans for Piedmont had also included the Colle del Nivolet which is a climb of almost 50km…I guess there is no better reason to go back.
So after 3,000km of driving across five regions of Italy, 5 different hotels and bikes, 650km of cycling and over 13,000m of climbing I think a cycling holiday can actually be a great family holiday as well. Was it easy? Not really, but isn’t that what we crave for as cyclists…a new challenge? Sometimes the challenge involves more than just the bike.