On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 12/1/2015
But wait there's more
Cycle-touring in Northern Italy, Part II
This is the second in a two-part report on a recent cycle-touring vacation I enjoyed in Northern Italy. If you didn’t read Part I last month, and if you want the whole story, go back and read the first installment first. But in case you’ve already read that piece and your memories of it are a month old, a brief recap: that was the first week of a two-week-plus cycling vacation with some friends. That week explored the region around Lakes Como and Lugano in Lombardia. For the second week, we moved east, all the way across Italy to the Adriatic coast.
For each week, we paid for rental bikes, accommodations, and some forms of support for our riding adventures. The two weeks were quite different, not only because we were in different regions but because of the different ways in which all the details were arranged. In the first week, the caterer remained very much behind the scenes and hands-off. We met one of the two principals briefly on our arrival day and the other one even more briefly on our departure day. Our bikes were waiting for us at our first hotel, along with our book of routes and a few tools for mounting our pedals and adjusting seat heights, etc. After that first, brief chat with the caterer, we were on our own. They did not own or operate any of the three hotels where we stayed. I have no idea where their offices are or where they keep all the bikes in their rental fleet. They cut some deal with each hotel for our accommodations and then move our luggage at the appropriate times while we cycle between the hotels. It’s a reasonable business model and it did in fact work pretty much the way it was drawn up. All in all, we had a great time, in spite of the less-than-ideal weather that put a crimp in our riding agenda now and then.
But there were just a few little, niggling details that weren’t quite right, and overall, we felt the whole arrangement tilted slightly toward the convenience of the caterer rather than toward the comfort of the customer. Believe me, I am not a high-maintenance princess. I can put up with all sorts of things not being perfect. But we had paid a hefty fee for this package and in the end, it left a teeny bit to be desired. However, none of the little problems was in any way substantial enough to taint our enjoyment. We were riding and sightseeing, wining and dining, in one of the world’s great regions. We were happy campers.
So anyway…onward to the second week: on across the country to the Adriatic coast and the Hotel Alexander in the seaside resort of Gabicce Mare. We were heading to this particular hotel because my friend Robin had already stayed there at least three times before and couldn’t stop talking about what a great deal it was: how nice the staff and accommodations and food were; how well organized their bike concession was, and so on…and all at an astonishingly low price. (I’ll get that price topic out of the way right at the start: I won’t quote exact figures, which may change before next season, but we paid about half as much for our second week and got about twice as much for the money, compared to the first week’s package.)
Our pal Clay had to return to work after the first week, so on our departure day from Lake Como, the caterer drove us all to the airport north of Milano. Robin and I said “Ciao!” to Clay and hopped on a shuttle bus to the Stazione Centrale in downtown Milano, where we had tickets on the Frecciabianca—the fast express train—to Rimini, a larger city about half an hour north of Gabicce Mare. In theory, you can take a train to a smaller station just five minutes from the hotel, but that would be the “regionale,” the local train that stops in every little backwater town along the line. It takes a lot longer. The Frecciabianca whizzes smoothly across the country at about 120-mph, with—if I remember correctly—just one stop along the way, in Bologna. You can also fly in and out of the wonderfully named Federico Fellini International Airport in Rimini, but I have no idea what combination of puddle-jumper flights you would have to string together to make that happen, nor what the flights would cost. For us, coming from Milano, the express train worked best, especially because Roberto, the owner of the hotel, picked us up in person at the train station. I don’t know if they do that for every single patron of the hotel, but they did it for us.
In contrast to the hands-off approach of the caterers in the first week, here, at the Hotel Alexander, the support was decidedly hands-on. Cinzia and Roberto own the hotel and Roberto is the jolly impresario who keeps things lively every day. Their two managers, Eleanora and Camilla, couldn’t be any nicer or more efficient in staying on top of the needs of their guests. In fact, the whole staff is great. Several of the waiters in the dining room were such engaging characters that at the end of the week, I felt a bit sentimental about saying goodbye to them. We felt like part of a big, extended family while we were there.
And while talking about the support of the staff, let me mention the food. Three meals a day are included in the package. (Only breakfast had been included during the twice-the-price first week.) There was always a long buffet of items specific to whichever meal it was, and then there’d be whatever special items you wanted. At breakfast, Gianluca was standing by to cook our eggs however we wanted them (perfect scrambled eggs for me every morning and an omelet for Robin). And no matter how late into the afternoon our rides took, they were standing by when we returned, ready to serve us up pasta with all the trimmings. (In fact, they close up the lunch service at 4 PM, but we were never close to that late.) After happy hour in the bar or by the pool in the evening, we would wander into the dining room for another helping of Cucina Italiana…more good food than most people could shovel in, with a very decent house wine included with the dinner.
But what about the bikes? That certainly is a good part of the reason we were there. I was on my bike every day I was there, which amounted to five longer rides and two little twiddles around the town on off days. One of the off days was an official rest day mid-week—we rode a little bit anyway—and the other was a day that threatened rain and caused me to chicken out on the proposed ride. Then, when it did not rain as much as had been predicted, I and another friend from the hotel did a little two-wheeled exploring around the town, down along the waterfront. The longest of the five full rides was 55 miles. None of them was brutally hard, but they all contained a fair bit of up and down and sometimes quite a lot of it. Although the distances were not all that great, every ride felt like a full helping of cycling enjoyment.
I am obsessive-compulsive to a ridiculous degree about planning my rides and making sure everything is just the way I want it. I can’t help myself. I am an inveterate route planner. So even though I knew we would have guides to lead us on our rides out of this hotel, and that they would figure out our routes, I still spent some time in the months before the tour looking at all the little back roads around the region in Google. I came up with my own list of roads I wanted to ride and places I wanted to visit. Then, having reassured myself that there was plenty of good riding in the area, I just let all that go and threw myself on the mercies of our guides: let them take me where they wanted. In the end, after all the rides were done, I realized they had taken me to pretty much every spot I had been hoping to visit, down every little road I had thought looked like a winner. All the items on my bucket list got checked off.
Getting out of the towns almost always required a few miles of busier boulevards and highways, but it only took a few minutes to be out onto little lanes and up into the hills. Most of our riding was in the southeastern corner of the region of Emilia-Romagna, just inland from those seaside resorts, amid the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, a landscape that looks a lot like Sonoma County: rolling meadows and hillside woods of oak and sycamore. One way it’s not like Sonoma County: hill villages. There seemed to be an almost inexhaustible supply of lovely villages, often with ancient, fortified districts at their centers. Some were quite tiny and others were much larger, such as the independent republic of San Marino and the grand old city of Urbino.
I can’t even begin to remember all the little hill towns we rolled through or where we stopped for coffee and croissants midway through the rides. I recall that one—Fiorenzuola di Focara—is famous as the place where Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. Two others—Gradara and Mondaino (I think)—are said to be the towns where the rival families lived that gave birth to the legend of Romeo and Juliet. And then there was Tavullia, hometown of moto-racing superstar Valentino Rossi. (Not all the local color is from the distant past.) Any single one of these charming towns, if plunked down on a hilltop in California, would be absolutely teeming with tourists. Folks wouldn’t be able to get enough of its quaint charms. But here, although the most precious and spectacular of them are tourist draws, many are still sleepy no-places, with more locals than visitors and not many of either. The towns were the dots on our connect-the-dots meanders through the rolling hill country. It was all made to order for pleasant cycle-touring. Once again, as in our first week, we didn’t do any famous cols from the racing world, but they tell us the Giro did run right past the front door of the hotel on a recent stage.
The hotel takes its “bike hotel” designation seriously. There are displays of vintage bikes in the lobby and other bike-themed items around the hotel. But the heart of the operation is a shed out in the parking lot where their fleet of bikes is stored (and where their resident mechanic keeps them in good shape). I did a quick count and came up with about 36 bikes. A dozen were cruiser-type bikes for moderate rides along the coast. The rest were fairly high-end racing bikes, mostly but not exclusively Bianchis. I had a Bianchi Intenso with Ultegra gruppo. (I had a Trek Madone, also with Ultegra, the first week, and both bikes were perfect, as far as I was concerned.)
There are two guides on the staff: Chris and Fabrizio. Chris is also the resident bike wrench. He’s younger and races mountain bikes when he has the time. He’s very strong and appears capable of leading out even the most ambitious amateur riders. Fabrizio is a bit older—but still youngish—and guides the more moderate riders on routes that might be slightly shorter. Robin and I switched back and forth between the two groups. Both guides are good at what they do, but I especially enjoyed riding with Fabrizio. He’s very conscientious about keeping track of his riders, but is also full of fun and good humor.
Although not all the guests at the hotel were there for the biking, quite a few were. During our week, we were joined, on one day or another, by a nice guy from Sacramento, 11 members of a bike club from Adelaide, Australia, a couple from Slovenia, and a couple from Luxembourg. About half the Aussies were stronger riders and the rest were cruiser-bike types. In the two couples, the husbands were quite fast and the wives a bit more moderate. It was a good mix, and they were all good company, both around the hotel and out on rides. There were also a few Italians on the rides, and that makes an interesting story, all by itself.
We had made our reservations for the week many months before the trip. Then, months later, while we were e-mailing them our bike fit measurements, they let us know the legendary old pro Claudio Chiappucci would be staying at the hotel while we were there and would be going out riding with us. This is something the hotel has arranged as a promotion. I’m not as a rule attracted to offers to hobnob with a famous racer. But judging by many well-attended events I see out there—from fondos to VIP dinners—a lot of people are, so it probably makes great marketing sense for the hotel. For me, quite the opposite was true: I was a bit worried that I would be embarrassed by trying to keep up with riders much better and faster than I am at this point in my tired old career.
However, I needn’t have worried on that score. Chiappucci, now 52, still rides at a high level and is in good shape, but he was there to make nice with the clients, and he rode at our pace…pretty much as fast or as slow as we wanted to go. I was relieved to find I could keep up; that my legs were not going to be chopped up in chunks and served for lunch. More to the point, it turns out he is a genuinely nice guy: very accessible and cheerful and full of mischief, never appearing to take himself too seriously. In Italy, his days of glory (back in the ’90’s) are still remembered and respected. (People see him ride by and point or call out.) But among our international group, not everyone knew quite who he was. But I knew, and as soon as we met, we got going on stories about those old races…who did what, when. Perhaps he was just being polite, but I got the impression that he appreciated my grasp of the history of the sport and that I could more or less hold up my end of a conversation in that department, so we spent a fair bit of time over bottles of wine, hashing through the old lore. Chatting with him felt like doing some living history experience: he had stepped aside to take a phone call at one point and when he came back, we picked up our conversation, with me bringing up an incident in an old Giro involving Gilberto Simoni, and he said, “Hey, that was Simoni on the phone just now!”
In addition to Claudio, there was a fellow who I believe is his son-in-law…a good bike rider. There was another pro there too, a current one: Mattia Pozzo, with the Vini Fantini team. (He could be best described as a domestique working for team leader Damiano Cunego.) His career will probably never reach the heights that Chiappucci’s did, but on the other hand, he’s exactly half the old pro’s age and is in the pro peloton right now…except when he’s riding with us. (We’ve been over this before: even the humblest domestique is still light years faster than any of us middle-aged tourists.)
After climbing to Mondaino and another hill village that first day, we started down a steep, twisting descent, with Chiappucci and Pozzo on the front and me tucked in just behind. I was happy when we had climbed the hills at my pace, but now I was a bit frustrated that we weren’t descending all that quickly. But I was amused to note that, as we carved down the hill through a series of tight hairpins on less-than-perfect pavement, Chiappucci was riding with just his left hand on the bars so he could continue to gesticulate, in the standard Italian fashion, with the other hand. (Go ahead…try that yourself.)
A little later, we came to another downhill. This time, I could see Chris describing it to Chiappucci. I wasn’t sure what he said, but I surmise it was something to the effect of: “It’s six K with brand new pavement, light traffic, and no intersections…let’s go for it!” Chiappucci doesn’t wear a helmet, just a black cycling cap with hell fire flames on the side. (His racing nickname was El Diablo and at this point, it’s pretty much his trademark.) I watch as he snatches the cap off his head and stuffs it in his pocket, and I think: “Okay…here we go…” He and Pozzo and Chris get it cranking, slicing and dicing down the hill, with me, Robin and one of the Aussies hanging on for dear life behind and all the rest of the riders long gone, off the back. That was fun. At that point, I was past any reservations I may have had about hanging around with celebrity pros. I’m like, “Hey, I’m carving down an Italian hillside right behind El Diablo! How cool is that?” I still wouldn’t go out of my way to arrange a cycling vacation around a hook-up with an old pro, but as this deal just fell in our laps, and as the old pro turned out to be such a charming and funny goofball, it was all good…value added.
Our designated rest day involved an adventure that was almost as much fun as a bike ride. Anyone who was interested piled into a funny little shuttle bus and was driven up into the hills to a nice winery—Tenuta del Monsignore—for a lavish lunch and an endless marathon of tasting…well, flat out boozing, really. Chiappucci, Robin and I ended up down at one end of a long table, working hard to empty several bottles of assorted varietals…Sangiovese, Cabernet (two of them), Nebbiolo, Spumante Brut… Finally, when a big carafe of grappa was set in front of us, we had to shift down into our little rings and get serious. Some of the Aussies up at the other end of the table seemed to think grappa is just another kind of white wine and were knocking the rocket fuel back at a great rate, with results that led to some of them singing and dancing on the patio and others to sliding off their chairs and under the table. (I’m only exaggerating a little, and as proof of that I can note that at least one of them was so hammered she didn’t show up for dinner that night, nor for breakfast the next morning.) This hilarious afternoon, with good food, good wine, and good company, and without a bike in sight, was as much fun as any ride we did.
So…once again, I make the case that it’s not always about the miles; that bike adventures can and should include more than bikes and big rides. Anyone who shells out their hard-earned dough to tour in Europe and then does nothing but ride…well, they’d be missing the point, I think.
I don’t know what my next Euro-tour might include. The Dolomites are still on my to-do list. But beyond those legendary, high-profile peaks, there are thousands of miles of little roads in dozens of different countries, just begging to be explored…from Scotland to Croatia; from Sweden to Portugal. Most of those roads don’t come with famous bike racing pedigrees. They’re just…roads. Roads connecting those cute little villages with the sidewalk cafes, cobbled streets and historic, eye-candy architecture. We’ll never get to explore them all. It’s like those great buffets in the hotel dining room: more goodies on offer than we can possibly get to. But give me a little time and I’ll bet I can come up with a plan to sample at least a few more of them.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com