With the Giro on this month one aim is to cover aspects of Italian cycling that the race cannot quite convey, whether it’s reading La Gazzetta or watching the race on Italian TV and now a quick take on what it’s like to ride in Italy.
People often baulk at driving in a foreign country but even experienced motorists can think mamma mia! when they first drive a car in Italy. The lanes on the autostrada are narrow, cars drive so close it’s like their drafting and the twisting mountain roads or the urban alleys of Rome and Naples all takes a while to get used to. But the cycling is fine, as much as people can pull wild stunts in their cars they’re often considerate to cyclists, it’s no worse than elsewhere and often better. Sure there anecdotes and data alike catalogue the accidents but in general things work fine, people are used to cyclists.
All the tarmac roads are bordered by solid white lines on either side. Formally there are three categories of road, the Strada Statale, the Strada Regionale and the Strada Provinciale or state, regional and provincial roads, often abbreviated as SS, SR and SP and each kilometre is marked. If you’re 12km along the SS38 then you’ll see a blue sign saying SS38 12 and so on. These labels are administrative and strategic importance, for example an important link between two cities or across a mountain range is a statale, a small road between villages a regionale. The Passo Stelvio is the SS38 but often the cyclist is more likely to take the SR and SP roads as they’re normally quieter side roads. The SS roads are supposed to be centrally maintained and serviced by the state roads operator ANAS and there can be a uniform road surface applied, it rolls well and is very grippy. Most roads are well signposted, you don’t need sat nav.
As a rough rule the further south you go the worse the roads get. Some of this is due to poorer regions and the passing cyclist needs to be careful about complaining too loudly, sure the money isn’t there but they have other priorities than your carbon rims. But it’s a rough rule as all over Italy the roads have their moments, you’ll find difficult descents in the Dolomites and awkward ascents in Aosta. It’s not so much the small potholes you can hop over, but large sections of roads that are cracked or in a mess, a tarmac palimpsest. Most remain rideable, it just sometimes pays to hold back on a descent in case you come round a corner and beware that you may need to move out from your usual position close to the kerb so look ahead and plan.
So far a touch negative but it’s all rideable, just keep your eyes open. Unlike French roads they don’t melt in the summer sun. You can see the problems with the road as a reflection of Italy’s economic woes but it is a superficial matter. There is a huge road network to enjoy and even the small roads are often triumphs of engineering. Half the country seems to have terraced hillsides, rockfalls restrained by wire netting and there seem to be enough metal crash barriers by the road to reach the Moon and back. Just to preserve the roads is a Sisyphean task so the smooth surface can wait.
In rural parts of central Italy you can study the map, set out for a ride and discover some of the roads you’ve chose are sterrato, more commonly known to cyclists as strade bianche. They sound poetic and are worth trying because they’re normal roads used every day by locals rather than fire roads or back tracks. But the fun wears off with your drive train, it doesn’t long on a wet ride to churn up your gears and the grey paste will grind away your brake pads like they’re made of mozzarella and scour your rims. Cool in a pro race, expensive otherwise.
If you want to hook up with others it’s not so easy. This is because cycling is just so popular people don’t need to travel in from a far to meet up from a ride, people just go out with their friends nearby. But there are some, often leaving from a town square or a municipal building like a Questura. Just be warned, that mid-week ride out of Pistoia with people in Bardiani, Vini Fantini and Etixx kit can be the real deal rather than a replica ride.
Instead just ride on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you’ll be surprised just how many cyclists are out and about. A “salve” or “ciao” is a hello.
A lot of anglophone riders like to stop midway during a ride for coffee and cake but this isn’t a Euro thing. Find that group ride and a three hour ride means three hours of riding. Maybe on a very long ride you might stop for an espresso but this can be a pretext to ask the bar owner to fill up your water bottles. Still there’s nothing to stop you from having a break and sitting outside a cafe.
Italian cycling has a big pyramid structure with elite amateur teams right down to village clubs with a few ageing members. Jerseys can be crammed with so many sponsors as to make the Androni jersey look restrained. Some are loose associations, others are serious structures. It’s not uncommon to find a pack of identikit juniors in neat formation being followed by a team car, this is how Italians learn their drills from a very early age.
Meet the locals
You may think of Italian style and a nation of cyclists on Colnagos and Pinarellos equipped with Campagnolo and spotless kit but cycling in Italy isn’t for the dentist-lawyer-banker demographic sometimes cited in English speaking countries, it’s an ordinary sport for people in rural areas. Your just as likely to Specialized, Giant or Kuota bikes with Ultegra and often ridden by silver foxes rather than any high tech jewel.
Italy has many Pantani memorials whether long lasting graffiti like the one above, arty ones like that on the Mortirolo, giant ones on Monte Carpegna or less successful triumphant works like the odd Gollum-style one atop the Colle di Fauniera. It’s not just Pantani though, you can find memorials to Coppi and Bartali and many more.
Use Strava? Plenty of Italians do but years before you discovered the satellite tracking social media tool the Italians were timing themselves up marked segments. There are systems where you can punch a card at the start of a climb and then at the top so as to have proof of your time but increasingly these are rusting and it’s not clear they work any more. For others it’s just word of mouth and often a local climb, like Monte Serra, serves as a reference point for many. In the Alps the major climbs have markers every kilometre to inform the cyclist about the upcoming gradient and how far there is to the top, helpful but cruel if you’re on a bad day.
There are stores everywhere so if you visit you don’t need to bring a truckload of spares. Yes there’s Campagnolo but plenty use Shimano and SRAM so spares are equally available. Italian bike stores aren’t the conceptual experiences you might find in Melbourne, London or Tokyo, instead there are groaning shelves, a bit of dust and, best of all, often a framed maglia rosa or a rainbow jersey conquered by the owner.
Planet of The Apes
Ape? Not the simian kind but Italian word for bee. You may have heard of Piaggio, the Italian scooter manufacturer and its “Vespa” model, Italian for wasp. This is it’s worker bee cousin complete with a flatbed area at the back. It is ubiquitous in rural Italy, no training ride can avoid them. They’re easy to overtake and be warned their brakes are dire.
They’re made by Piaggio, originally – and still – an aerospace company but after World War Two the Italian army was diminished while and a wider population required cheap transport. The moped was born and with it the Vespa and huge sales which persist today, even in the face of competition from Japanese and now Chinese brands. The three wheeled Ape remains very Italian, they’re rare sights outside of the country, except India where it turns out Piaggio manufactures them.
That’s up to you, take your pick from several of Europe’s highest mountain passes. The Alps are like a crown atop the Italian peninsula going from the Mediterranean over to Slovenia and the Adriatic. The Apennines, the range of mountains that run like a spine down Italy, have some great roads too but don’t have the celebrity pull of the big Alpine climbs which only makes them more rewarding. If you want flat roads only then pick anything between Turin and Venice in the vast Po.
Remember that the Giro is only just able to venture into the Alps now. Don’t think that just because spring has come to Sanremo in March that the Alps are open, many passes are closed until late May and if the ski stations are kept open they’re often covered in slush and salt. So if you want the high mountains June to October is good.
A huge road network, many mountains and thousands of charming villages await: what are you waiting for? Italian drivers may have a reputation but a bike ride is fine, the trick is to keep your eyes open for the sketchy road surfaces. You’re bound to spot an ape and fellow cyclists out on a ride. As well as the macro like the high Alps, charming views and a huge choice of roads what can make a ride so rewarding is the micro, a memorial by the road here, some Giro graffiti there and maybe a local bike store run by a former world champion.