On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 11/1/2015
It’s not always about the miles
Cycle-touring in Northern Italy, Part I
I've done a fair amount of cycle-touring over the years. (By cycle-touring, I mean those journeys where you leave home for at least a few days and travel new roads in new regions.) Looking back through my log books, I can add up the days spent in this delightful activity over the past few years: 226 stages totaling 14,524 miles, which works out to an average of 64 miles per stage.
On a tour in Italy a few years back, I logged about 600 miles in ten stages, and on a more recent tour I put together in Provence and the French Alps, I racked up 900 miles in 14 stages…65 miles per stage. Both those tours included many huge summits steeped in the lore of the Giro and Tour, from the Stelvio to Galibier, from Mortirolo to Izoard. Some rides were over 100 miles and 10,000’ of gain. They were big tours for riders with big ambitions.
That was then; this is now. Now is my most recent cycle-tour in Northern Italy during September, 2015. On this tour, I rode a measly 400 miles in ten stages. But as the title at the top asserts: miles aren't everything, and a great deal of entertainment and achievement can be wrung out of rides of 39 or 55 miles, especially if one has the right attitude, if the roads are winding through the Italian countryside, and if one's riding buddies are good company. (The buddies in this case were my friends Robin and Clay from the Santa Rosa Cycling Club.)
After I had worked so hard in planning and organizing that Provence-Alpes Tour, I vowed the next Euro-tour I did, I would pay the money and sign up with a good, catered tour company…let someone else do the planning for a change.
And that's what we ended up with this time: one week each at two different "bike hotels" where we rented their bikes and did the routes they had laid out (more or less). At least that's the general idea. But the devil is in the details, and the details turned this into a tale of two tours: each week—each "tour"—was a wonderful adventure, but each was distinctly different.
One difference between the two tours was that, while the second week's hotel provided guides to lead the rides, the first week was what they termed self-guided. The caterer provided route books to steer us along their appointed paths, but no guides. Due to a misunderstanding between me and the caterer ahead of time, I believed their route slips and maps were going to be virtually useless. So I put on my route-planning hat and went to work, laying out some really sweet stages. When I finally got my hands on their route books, they were somewhat better than useless, but I still liked my own routes better! (So despite vowing to pay someone else to do the planning this time, I ended up figuring out all the routes for the first week after all.)
That first week was centered around Lago di Como and Lago di Lugano, two picture-postcard lakes in the province of Lombardia, snuggled up amid the foothills of the Alps along the Swiss border. I had cycled in the region on my previous Italy tour and had some familiarity with the roads and towns, which helped with my route-plotting. The caterer's plan was that we would stay two nights each in three hotels, doing loop rides from each hotel one day and then riding to the next hotel the second day, etc. They would schlepp our luggage between the hotels. The hotels were in the lakeside towns of Cernobbio and Bellagio and in Val d'Intelvi, a pretty, upland valley overlooking Lake Como. All of the hotels were excellent. Beautiful locations and quality amenities. And as frosting on the cake, before the tour began, we spent a couple of days at a friend's lakefront villa in the pleasant little town of Bellano, on the east shore of Lake Como…not a bad place to get over one's jet lag. After those early days, we took a slow ferry down the lake to Cernobbio, stopping at pretty much every town along the lake. We didn’t mind the slow transit. We had the entire day to fritter away, and we enjoyed seeing every village.
There were a few reasons why our miles didn't match those of previous tours. One was our agenda going into this vacation: we really did want to dial it back a little and not do such epic, leg-breaking rides. Okay. But even so, I had laid out routes that were longer and hillier and generally more ambitious than what we ended up doing. What happened? First of all, I was very sick in the weeks leading up to the tour…borderline pneumonia, as noted in my September column. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say I crawled out of my sickbed and directly onto the flight to Milano. I actually had about half a week of decent health—although still very weak—before we left. That caused me to pull in my horns considerably when it came to the longer, hillier options I had envisioned doing.
And then there was the weather. After months of perfect, balmy sunshine in Northern Italy, things turned nasty just as we arrived: rain predicted for every day of our stay. Oh boy. In the end, I suppose we can count ourselves lucky that it only rained (hard) now and then. But it threatened to rain almost every day, and those dark clouds looming on the ridge lines caused us to choose the shorter options on several days.
Our first ride was the worst in that respect. After a dry and hopeful start, we rode into drizzle and then steady rain along the shore of Lago di Lugano in Switzerland. We plugged away at it for a while, trying to stay upbeat—we were, after all, riding along one of the world's most beautiful lakes—but when drenched morphed into hypothermic, I was the first to cry uncle. I got no arguments from my pals. We turned tail and headed for the hotel. (I was quite concerned that the wet conditions would cause my bronchial congestion to come roaring back and scuttle my entire trip.) After trading cold showers outdoors for hot showers indoors, we spent the afternoon exploring the lovely town of Cernobbio, buying wine, and settling in at a pleasant ristorante to wile away the evening.
And that pretty well sums up why I say it's not always about the miles. Big rides or small, rain or shine, we were on vacation, kicking back in some of the most charming villages and gorgeous landscapes around. We could be just as happy sitting in a lakeside cafe, nibbling a pizza and sipping a Sangiovese, as we might have been logging big miles over some mountain pass. It was all good. On my previous Euro-tours, with those monster stages over the big passes, we often staggered into our hotels just minutes before the dining rooms closed. I can recall a few days when we were fortunate to find anything to eat at all, never mind having any time to explore the pretty villages, etc. Now, with our more laid-back rides, we had at least half of every afternoon for exploring our new surroundings.
But cafes and wine-sipping aside, it was still, at least in theory, a cycle-touring vacation. We never lost sight of that and I believe we got our money's worth in that department, after that discouraging beginning. We lost another whole riding day in that first week, when it was already pouring at breakfast. (This was on one of our transfer days between hotels, so instead of riding, we piled into the shuttle van with our luggage, took another ferry ride across the lake, and then, after checking into our new hotel, explored the super-quaint village of Bellagio on foot.) But all of the other days we rode, and we did almost all of those rides dry and even sometimes with our shadows chasing us along the little country lanes. No need to itemize every quaint village we visited or every hill we climbed or descended, but it was almost always best-quality biking fun. Although the only famous summit we crossed was Madonna del Ghisallo, we still piled on the elevation gain, surpassing the standard benchmark of 100' per mile pretty much every day. (I'm going to assume you know what and where Ghisallo is. If not, click on the link. It was one of the marquee attractions of this tour and well worth the price of admission: the 4-mile, 9% climb to get there.)
I began this column with the intention of covering both weeks—both tours—in one go. But I can see this is already bulking up as a pretty hefty read, so I've decided to break it off and deal with the second week in my next column. Besides, the two tours turned out to be so different in so many ways, they each deserve their own story.
A word about the caterer for this first week. You may have noticed that I haven't named them or provided a link to their site. For the most part, they did a good job and delivered on all the things they had undertaken to do. The hotels were excellent. The luggage was moved when it should be. The bikes were good. (Mine was perfect; there were minor problems with the other two.) So no complaints, really, except for a whole lot of little things that were a bit off. We came away with the impression that they were more concerned about their own convenience and bottom line than they were about supporting us. I have no desire to trash them in some flaming, on-line review. It wasn't even close to being that bad. But I can't whole-heartedly recommend them either, so we'll just leave it at that.
When we get to the second bike hotel in the following week, and we see how this sort of thing really ought to be done, you'll understand why the first caterer suffers in comparison. Check back next month for the story about the second tour.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com