Just deciding where to go is the biggest hurdle...
There are over 100 cycling holiday itineraries available on Freewheel Holidays at any one time and often suggesting where customers should go is one of our biggest challenges. We’ve found that selecting a cycling holiday is not like choosing a ‘normal’ holiday by the beach or going on a city break. There are different things to consider when researching potential cycling holiday routes such as the difficulty of terrain, overall climbing in the itinerary, to get an e-bike or not and the variety of hotels used along the way. Just deciding where to go on a cycling holiday for the first time can be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.
My wife, Jilly, and I were looking for our summer holiday around the August Bank Holiday and despite almost daily searches, nothing was appealing nor cost-effective. A combination of high flight prices and the school holidays meant that options were limited out of the North West. Going to Sunny Beach in Bulgaria from Glasgow was looking like the most favourable and cost-effective option! Then it dawned on me. Why not go on a cycling holiday? I am always telling people why they should go cycle touring and now it was our turn. I saw Jilly as a potential customer and realised her personal experiences of the cycle tour would be the best feedback of all to pass onto our customers.
I talked to Jilly about going on a cycling holiday and she liked the idea, but in a romantic twist, I would keep the destination a secret until arriving at the check-in desk in Manchester Airport!
We would fly with Jet2 direct to Pisa from Manchester with a packed 7-day cycling itinerary starting at the famous ‘Leaning Tower’. We would then cycle down the coast to Piombino approximately 250 kilometres away. The schedule also included a day excursion to Elba. The small island that is famous for being the place that Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to. An ominous location because if the cycle tour is not a success, then I could find myself in exile as well!
Whilst Jilly is a keen cyclist, our history of riding together has often ended in a falling out. To be brutally honest, previous cycling mini-breaks to France, Germany and even short rides around Rochdale have had mixed success. However, this holiday would be made easier and more manageable as luggage transfers, detailed route notes and maps along with on-route signage are all included. Combined with an electric bike (e-bike) for Jilly, I was feeling confident that the cycle tour would be a success as we landed in Italy.
Pisa is known for the famous leaning tower and the hordes of tourists drawn from all around the world and eager to get a humorous selfie are a testament to that. I noticed as my bike was propped up for an obligatory photo that the tower is actually shaped like a banana and almost vertically straight at the top.
The cycle tour started at the tower and our first ride was an out and back to the seaside and carnival resort of Viareggio. The town is famous for building some of the most luxurious superyachts in the world but is also home to faded 1920 art-deco buildings that run along the promenade. One of the attractions of going on this cycle tour was being able to ride during the day and then relax at the beach, yet I didn’t take into account that most Italian beaches are privately run, so hiring two sun loungers can be a costly business.
After waiting until after two o’clock to get a cheaper rate, we found a nice beachside ‘club’ with an elegant 50-metre saltwater pool and spent the afternoon by the sea basking in 34-degree heat. We returned to Pisa by train with our bikes and had dinner back in the city centre. The waiter also said that we were probably the youngest cycling holiday customers that he had ever served!
Our point-to-point day of real cycling started in the port city of Livorno about 15 minutes by train from Pisa Centrale. Taking the bikes on-board the train was no issue and after negotiating the early morning traffic, we had little time to stop in Tuscany’s second-largest city. Out of all of the places that we visited along the way, we both felt that Livorno was so understated that we should have spent more time there given the city’s rich maritime history and Venetian-style canal network.
The route soon joined up with an excellent coastal path next to the Italian Naval Academy and the small ‘E’ direction stickers on lamp posts made escaping the city easy and efficient. It was on the outskirts of Livorno that we faced our significant cycling challenge. A 6-kilometre hill climb up twisty mountain roads that were not only an early test for our riding relationship, yet with the electric bike, riding up from sea level to 350 metres was no challenge for Jilly as she powered through in ‘Tour’ mode.
We reached the Hotel Miramare in the small coastal town of Castiglioncello. A large period style hotel that has welcomed guests such as Winston Churchill and the former Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini since the 1920s. The town was a lively place with more locals than tourists and the afternoon was spent swimming lengths in the marina. We had dinner in a nice restaurant next to the train station and ended up translating the Italian menu using a mixture of broken English and Google Translate.
The cycle tour was progressing nicely and the combination of locally sourced food and excellent cycle routes was really making the cycle tour an enjoyable challenge. I am always telling people that on a cycling holiday, the bike is simply a means to get about, but I think it is more than that. Over the course of the week, you really get to ‘know’ your hire bike and grow quite attached to it. Jilly by this point was loving her electric bike and even though it is heavier than a standard hybrid bike, the increased power meant that the day-to-day stages were no problem at all. She was becoming enthused about cycling holidays and the included services.
We were doing something that we were both enjoying as a couple, but importantly, we were exploring Italy by bike and the famous Tuscan landscapes without hiring a car or meandering around on a packed tour bus or train.
Day 4 of the cycling holiday was probably the most typically Tuscan of the whole tour. We started off riding through the sprawl of Italian beach resorts before heading inland to the small, walled wine village of Bolgheri. We rode on quiet roads through vineyards and alongside the tall, narrow trees of the sun-drenched rolling hills of western Tuscany where every turn is almost postcard-perfect.
We stopped for a quick picnic pizza lunch and headed back down to the coast. One feature of the tour has been riding through tall pine forests and the route to our hotel in Castagneto Carduci was no exception.
The cycling highlight of the week took place the following day riding on a famous section of the Strada del Vino e dell’Olio from Sassetta to Suvereto. The exciting hairpin bends, undulating terrain and hilltop villages made for great riding over the 13 kilometre climb. Whilst this tour is fairly easy going by the coast, it is quite challenging the further inland you go. The route around Elba Island is the toughest part of the holiday with more traffic and tough, mountain passes to climb.
The route into the port city of Piombino is quite industrial but is negated by the wonderful views over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Another highlight was the one-hour ferry crossing over to Elba. I always enjoy arriving into a destination by ferry and there is no better small travel pleasure than wheeling a bike out of the front of a ship from the car deck!
We left the bikes at the seafront hotel in Piombino that overlooked the sea after spending the day riding around Isola d’Elba and exploring the small port town of Portoferraio. We even found time to swim in the sea at a free public beach to conclude the holiday.
Jilly was sad to have left her e-bike locked up on the terrace for the final time as she felt that the extra power had really improved her overall cycling experience and wants to buy one of her own! I was just pleased that we both had a great time together and had a thoroughly enjoyable holiday riding through some of Italy’s most famous landscapes and exploring Italian beach resorts that are full of character.
All of the elements that make up a cycling holiday fused together to create a memorable experience with minimal stress and fuss. All we had to do was book the flights, follow the route notes and make sure we knew which hotel we were staying in. Everything else is taken care of. Upon her return, Jilly has become almost evangelical in her praise of cycle touring and has spent time convincing others that they should do the same upon her return.
Notes about the article
This article appeared in the Tameside Reporter (19/09/2019) and forms part of the Freewheel Holidays 'Travel Geek' series.