December 31, 2015
Italy is a country in love with the bike. On any beautiful day, you will see Italians of all ages, from teenagers to octogenarians, enjoying a ride through the countryside. From flat river valleys and plains to hills and mountains, interconnected by picturesque towns and villages, there are routes for all types of riders. What better way to experience Italy than escaping from the main tourist routes and exploring the countryside as the Italians do — by bicycle.
There are twenty distinct regions in Italy, each with their own history, culture, and unique food and wine. Tuscany is probably the best-known region to tourists, but the ideal location for your bike adventure may be a region you haven’t considered yet.
The terrain should be well matched to your cycling preferences. Tuscany is beautiful, but quite hilly, and may not be the best choice for non-climbers. Some popular areas, like the Amalfi Coast and Cinqueterre are not well-suited for bike touring. Others, like Calabria, remain secluded, so you may not find adequate facilities along your tour.
We've found the best regions for cycle touring are the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Emilia-Romagna, but even in these regions you need to select your route wisely, as all have some challenging terrain.
This ties in a bit with the where above, but typically the months of April to October are the best times.
You will want to find where attractions are not as busy. For example, avoid the Dolomites in August, when everyone from Germany is on vacation there. Also, avoid the heat in the south of Italy in August, and be aware that resort areas close down in September.
Renting a bike in Italy can be an adventure and quality levels vary greatly. Many hotels will list that they offer bikes, but these are usually city bikes or cheap, not well-maintained, hybrid bikes. Many bike shops may have an extra rental bike or two lying around, but they are generally limited in size and quality, and tend to be old bikes traded in by customers. If you are doing a cycle vacation in Italy, we suggest you bring your own bike.
Italian trains do carry bicycles. The trains can be very busy on weekends on some routes, so book in advance. You do need to purchase a ticket for your bicycle and load it on the train yourself.
Cycling is a mainstream form of transport in Italy and Italian drivers are very accepting and more experienced sharing the road with cyclists than drivers in the U.S. Yes, Italian drivers typically drive fast and can be a bit aggressive, but be confident and take your position on the road, especially in Italy's numerous rotaries or roundabouts. If you hesitate, the driver will take advantage and pull ahead. As a cyclist, you can ride on pretty much any road in Italy except for the Autostrada.
Bicycles in Italy are legal vehicles on the road. Those who ride touring bicycles must have at least two independently operating brakes, a bell, a red taillight, headlight, and yellow reflectors on the pedals. Road bikes and mountain bikes do not have to be fitted with these safety items, but lights are recommended as some roads may have unlighted tunnels. You must have front and rear lights at nightfall on all types of bikes. Italian law does not require helmets for cyclists.
Throughout Italy, there are many signed bike routes and bike paths with more and more being built each season. These are a fantastic resource and a great way to travel. However, this is not a nation-wide coordinated effort. Many communities are building their own paths and the quality varies from paved surfaces to gravel and dirt paths. Signs are not uniform, nor can you count on every turn being properly marked.
Your Garmin or other GPS system can be used in Italy. You can purchase the Italian maps and plan your route. However, this is best used as a tool to supplement your knowledge of where you wish to go. The maps available from Garmin are outdated, from 2007, and given the Italian love of road construction, you will find errors. The aforementioned bike paths are typically not part of the urban plan used by Garmin, MapMyRide, or other mapping software. Use GPS as one tool of many to be used to navigate, including route maps, basic knowledge of your route, and common sense.
Vernon McClure has been an Outdoor Guide and Instructor in Northern Italy for the past 25 years. He is author of an online guide for outdoor activities in Italy. Kathy Bechtel is a trained chef and food blogger familiar with cycling, and together with Vernon, designs and leads customized cycling tours in Italy. Learn more at: italiaoutdoorsfoodandwine.com.
Photos and story by Vernon McClure and Kathy Bechtel
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