Italian cycling’s a breeze with specialist board and lodging.
"When we descend into the Swiss border, be careful in the switchbacks — take your time.”
Was I in a dream? I thought to myself as I sipped my macchiato and listened to the rider briefing at Bormio’s Funivia Hotel.
This seemed too good to be real.
Alas, it was real — a fact my legs were all too insistent on reminding me with each stair climbed or swift step taken.
I was 15 days deep into a three-week cycling trip across northern Italy, with hundreds of kilometres and countless vertical metres in my travel-weary legs.
Accustomed to the almost pan-flat West Australian roads, I was out of my comfort zone but in a state of bliss.
Funivia Bike Hotel, in the Lombardy region at the foot of the northern Italian alps, was the second of two bike hotels I stayed at during my trip.
Dotted around Europe, these cyclist havens provide everything a rider needs — from guided rides around idyllic landscapes to gourmet meals and plush accommodation.
At up to €300 ($472) a night, bike hotels aren’t the cheapest option but their cost is easily justified by their convenience and truly unforgettable experiences they provide.
Once you arrive, all you need to worry about is getting on your bike and pedalling — the hotel takes care of every other detail for you.
The daily routine at these establishments is largely structured around cycling, though non-riding spouses and family members are catered for too.
Mornings always begin with a substantial breakfast with endless supplies of fresh food from the buffet, before we meet with our bikes for a short summary of the day’s events and hit the road.
Snacks are supplied and a support vehicle travels with the rider groups during the day — particularly helpful in Bormio where we were climbing into altitude and needed warm clothes for the descents.
There are always multiple stops during the rides at local cafes and restaurants, giving riders a taste of the local cuisine and a chance to enjoy more than a few coffees or vinos.
The cycling itself is tough but manageable, with a strong emphasis on taking your time and enjoying the view.
Bormio’s Funivia Hotel is one of Italy’s most popular bike hotels and is frequented by Australians, Belgians and Americans among a host of other nationalities.
It is set apart from a lot of hotels of this kind in that non guests can participate on its guided rides through the adjacent Stelvio eXperience Bicycle cafe.
The cafe, located underneath Funivia, is a cyclist’s hub. The walls are lined with posters of the sport’s forebears with axioms including “drink Tripels, don’t ride triples” and rules from the unofficial rider’s guideline the Velominati.
Funivia sits between three of the most talked about mountain passes in cycling — the Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia — naturally I planned to do all three.
At 2757m, 1852m and 2621m above sea level respectively, these iconic climbs each come with their own challenges — the Stelvio for its mere length, at 25km up one way and 22km the other. I climbed this picturesque mountain pass three times — once from two sides in one day — and was staggered at how long it took to tackle one mountain — ascending the Stelvio from the northern side took me more than two hours.
The Mortirolo was an entirely different beast altogether. Rising 1291 vertical metres in just 11.5km, this quiet and twisty road was feared by even the most successful professional cyclists.
This hill had dominated my thoughts in the days and weeks leading up to my trip largely because of the legend surrounding it.
Mortirolo Pass features in grand tour Giro d’Italia and is synonymous with big names in cycling including Marco Pantani, Luis Leon Sanchez and Ivan Basso.
A memorial to Italian cycling great Pantani sits halfway up the climb — a monument to one of the best climbers of all time and one of the most enigmatic characters in the sport.
“Attack, attack” read the chalk inscribed on the road in the final kilometres of the Mortirolo.
I had to laugh to myself as I concentrated on turning one foot after another on this terrifyingly steep road.
I summited the mountain steadily and reached the top with a smile on my face and a sense of satisfaction that has not left me to this day.
The Gavia, which I tackled on the same day as the Mortirolo, sits south of the Sondrio province and north of the Brescia province.
Climbing the Gavia I felt as though I was on the set of Lord of the Rings as I gazed out at the vast rocky outcrops and expansive greenery.
The corrugated surface of this gradual climb amplified its difficulty and meant I needed to concentrate on more than just steady pedalling, but all in all the Gavia was a picturesque and rewarding climb.
A week earlier I stayed at Lake Garda Hotel — a five-star establishment renowned for its luxurious accommodation and gourmet cuisine.
Located in Peschiera del Garda, a province of Verona 130km east of Milan, Garda Bike Hotel offered a top-class experience from the moment I walked in the door.
From the extensive buffet and fine-dining restaurant to the luxurious king-size beds and huge bathrooms, the hotel itself was a level above.
Located around the picturesque Lake Garda, the cycling was enjoyable and nothing like the diehard riding experience you would get in the alps.
I spent three nights in this rider’s paradise and rode through Verona, put my bike on a ferry to Limone sul Garda and spent a day in the stunning forest landscapes around Spiazzi.
Cycling around northern Italy is an ideal way to take in its idyllic scenery — travelling slowly enough to absorb details but fast enough to cover a lot of ground.
It is possible to do it independently and without the support of bike hotels, but I would not change a thing.
I was mostly alone in Italy, but I never felt lonely.
Sharing a passion with people from many different walks of life meant making meaningful connections was part and parcel of my stay — and I certainly made some friendships for life.
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