The locals of the northern Italian region Emilia-Romagna are said to have one of the highest qualities of life of any people in Europe. It is a wonderland on and off the bike…
“The people want you to go home with a big smile – it’s in their DNA,” says cycling ambassador for Emilia-Romagna, Fred Morini. With a great climate, superb cuisine and magnificent stretches of road for a range of cycling desires, Emilia-Romagna is a region to be embraced by all cyclists. The area may not have the famous climbs of the Dolomites or the instantly breathtaking scenery of Lake Como and surrounds, but it presents as a terrific prospect for a cycling holiday in Italy.
Immediately south of Milan and Venice, Emilia-Romagna almost stretches the width of Italy with its tourism hub concentrated along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which faces east. There are over 5,000 hotels to choose from in Emilia-Romagna which can be overwhelming when booking a trip in a faraway land. How can a person be expected to confidently select a suitable hotel with such a wide range available?
A ‘person’ choosing the right place to stay is one thing, a ‘cyclist’ is far more complicated. Arriving at a hotel with a bike can sometimes draw ire from hotel staff and can result in awkward exchanges as the cyclist tries to explain the importance (and expense) of the bike.
Luckily, a cyclist’s selection is made simple thanks to an initiative called ‘Terrabici’ – ‘Land of Cycling’.
Terrabici is an organisation which provides a carefully selected catalogue of ‘bike friendly’ hotels. Currently, there are 36 hotel partners and they are classified with a rating system: ‘one bike’, ‘two bike’, or ‘three bike’ based on how accommodating they are for riders. ‘One bike’ hotels in Emilia-Romagna have lockable bike storage, massage therapists, and workshops capable of servicing road bikes. ‘Three bike’ hotels are special because they incorporate the qualities of the ‘one’ and ‘two’ equivalent, and offer daily cycling tours, support vehicles and bike hire if required. Most importantly, all of the hotels in Terrabici’s index will accept a bike rider and not scowl at the sound of a freewheel down the corridor or cleats clicking on the foyer’s tiles.
Terrabici is quite strict about which hotels it invites to join the consortium. Having a core group of hotels allows thorough research and correspondence and ensures the program is kept to the highest standard. Furthermore, Terrabici invites visitors to contact it first before booking a holiday in Emilia-Romagna. This is yet another service to ensure that the right hotel is chosen for the needs of the cyclist. The initial consultation is free of charge and gives anyone looking to have a holiday in far off lands a guarantee that they will get the most out of their trip. Is there anything worse than staying in a place which is unfriendly to bike riders when cycling is the purpose of the holiday?
The hotels with tour guides offer peace of mind for those worried about getting lost or realising that they missed out on the best aspects of the area after a ride. With a guide, the best routes are mapped out and the local rider knows where the drink taps and best coffee shops are located.
Terrabici is not the only reason to head to Emilia-Romagna for a cycling holiday. Food and drink is requisite during a long day in the saddle, and for refuelling after a ride. And the excellent cuisine here leaves no one wanting.
Emilia-Romagna is known for its piadina – a plain flatbread that’s served toasted, hot or cold. “Everyone makes piadina, but no one makes it like we do here,” said one proud local. And she’s right. Eaten plain, with cold meat, or used to mop up the last remaining sauce from a pasta dish, Emilia-Romagna’s piadina is as versatile as it is delicious.
Seafood is also a common luxury in Emilia-Romagna. Armies of fishing boats depart every night at about 10.30 to catch dinner for hungry locals and over-indulged tourists. During our visit this June the most memorable delicacies eaten fresh from the Adriatic were mussels, pipis, squid, and scallops. These, along with an ocean of other delights, are often served in a marinara sauce or bathed in butter and garlic. Combine these with a local prosecco or white wine and it is all too easy to tastily replace the calories lost during a day’s activities – and maybe a few more. Does it matter? Be guilt-free, you’re on holiday.
The gourmet riding continues with dozens of boutique wineries, olive groves, and cheese factories to explore. Beaches are littered with sunbeds and bars, as well as musical and theatrical entertainment to ensure a relaxing time on the sands of Emilia-Romagna. But all of these luxuries should be reserved for after riding… because there is plenty of road cycling to enjoy in this part of Italy.
Sure there is no Stelvio, no Gavia, no Mortirolo but there are plenty of comparatively short, steep hills to test any cyclist. There are also sweeping descents through a rolling countryside with few cars and no traffic lights. The road surfaces are generally pretty good, especially the ones the Giro has raced on recently as they generally get a fresh layer of hot mix for the race – your bike purrs on the black silk.
On the whole, drivers are extremely welcoming towards cyclists. They will wait for you at roundabouts and wave you through stop signs. Rarely is there any animosity unless the cyclist is doing the wrong thing – stick to the right shoulder and you will be given plenty of space.
Climbing in Emilia-Romagna is a joy. There are no giant mountain passes but there are plenty of hills to get up and over. Generally, they are relatively short (up to about five kilometres or a little more), but the gradient often varies, which tests the rider’s ability to adapt, recover and accelerate.
One rider who excelled living in Emilia-Romagna is Marco Pantani. He is a legend in the region, especially in his hometown Cesenatico where there’s a museum dedicated to him. Montevicchio is also known as ‘Pantani’s climb’ and has the rider’s name painted on the asphalt at different intervals on the ascent leading to a shrine at the summit. It is four kilometres long with an average gradient of seven percent, but kicks into the mid-20s around some of the hairpins – this one is better to cruise up because going hard will definitely blow up the legs!
Alas, there has not been a professional cyclist from Emilia-Romagna with anywhere near the same palmarès as Pantani. The only pro since ‘Il Pirata’ is 23-year-old BMC rider Manuel Senni who is yet to have a professional win; but 2015 is his debut season and locals remain upbeat about his prospects spruiking his talents whenever given the opportunity – in their eyes he is already a champion.
Going up is fun but coming down the hills of Emilia-Romagna is always extremely rewarding. The corners are all well cambered and are almost bermed meaning that braking is optional on most bends.
Many of the tight hairpins have convex mirrors mounted halfway through them so cars can be seen around corners and the rider can judge whether cutting the apex is safe and appropriate. This feature allows for confidence at speed – something absolutely necessary on unknown roads. There are no speed advisories into the corners so the descents can also act as an ideal skill/bike/brake test sites… see the bend, dig in the front wheel, stay relaxed, and see what’s around the corner. Baaaarp!
Aside from terrific roads, Emilia-Romagna boasts plenty of impressive scenery. A highlight is San Marino – the fifth smallest republic in the world at a mere 61.2 square kilometres. It is a tax haven for residents as they only pay around 15 percent tax on their income – less than half of what Italian citizens do. Don’t expect to move in any time soon though as one can only live in San Marino if they are born there… or are married-in. And with a population of 36,000, buying a lottery ticket is probably a safer bet than banking on finding everlasting love in San Marino.
The route there is a cycling gem. San Marino is perched on the edge of a sheer cliff which is visible from all over the region. Riding there is a journey through rolling hills among vineyards and other Italian agriculture. It culminates in a nice five kilometre climb with rewarding 360 degree views and duty-free shops. This place seems like a fairytale town and must be visited.
Riccione is a nice spot for a family holiday. There are plenty of tourist shops and restaurants, and it’s long beach stretch along the shores of the Adriatic is perfect when ‘rest’ is scheduled. Simply setting down a towel and launching into a game of beach cricket is forbidden but most hotels have arrangements with the sunbed operators so permission will be granted to lie above the sand free of charge. For Australians this is a bit odd but it’s how the locals like it.
For those looking for a bit more nightlife but also potential to hang out on the beach, Cesenatico is the place. The riding is not as immediate as Riccione but about 10 minutes out of town, the busy roads turn into quiet streets for dozens of kilometres. It seems to be an area for younger Italian holidaymakers as there are more bars and nightclubs than neighbouring towns. Far from being ‘overrun’ with youth, however, it still has a laid-back charm which is not easily imitated. There are multiple five-star hotels for those wishing to spoil themselves.
Perhaps the nicest place to stay for those not interested in laying by the beach is Verruchio. It is the stereotypical hillside Italian village. The cobbled streets are like rabbit warrens lined with restaurants and bars which will happily sell their wares after a generous tasting session. When climbing to the town’s highest point, the view stretches from the Adriatic to distant rocky mountains. In the foreground, there are terracotta roofs which appear centuries old, churches, and a clock tower. One of the coolest aspects for cyclists is the tiny Lapierre dealer which has a pump, tyre levers, and chain lube shackled outside the entrance for 24/7 access.
Italy’s cycling community has an obsession with amateur one-day competitions and Emilia-Romagna is proud to host a couple of gran fondos. The Novecolli in Cesenatico is the world’s longest running gran fondo and has 13,000 participants. (The 2016 edition will be the 46th running of the event and entries open in November.) There are two events to choose from with the main fondo travelling 205km with 3,840 climbing metres. Last year, capacity was reached 18 minutes after entries opened, filled with riders from 48 countries including 10 Australians! The Novecolli occurs in late May and according to race organisers, it has only rained during one of the 45 events so far… pretty good odds of having a pleasant ride.
The Gran Fondo Via del Sale is at the beginning of April and is limited to 4,500 participants. This gran fondo’s longest course is 150km with 1,300m of climbing. It seems much more relaxed than the Novecolli and would be a great way to kick off a cycling expedition.
With excellent cycling weather from April until late November, Emilia-Romagna is a great place for a holiday. Perhaps the region’s best asset is its versatility – there is something for everyone, cyclist or not. There would be little resentment from the family as you embarked on a daily ride because there is plenty to do. The area also lends itself to ‘doing nothing’ if relaxing is on the agenda.
As promised, Emilia-Romagna leaves visitors with a smile thanks to a suntan, a belly full of piadina and prosciutto, and some kilometres in the legs. The laid-back attitude is infectious and it would be near impossible to depart Emilia-Romagna in an unrelaxed state. The 1000 cycling tourists who visit Emilia-Romagna each week in spring and autumn can’t be wrong so if planning a holiday in Italy, a stint in Emilia-Romagna is mandatory.
(RIDE visited Italy as a guest of Emilia-Romagna Tourism.)