Cycle Touring Entries

Biking over Stelvio Pass

Stelvio Pass. Passo dello Stelvio. 2758m. 75 zig zags.

But the hostel owner in Menaggio had told me I would be fine. No worries mate, she’ll be right.

Start of Stelvio Pass

Beginning the climb up to Stelvio Pass from Bormio

It wasn’t until the day before that I started researching what was actually involved. Around 1500m of climbing over 22km. I had climbed about 700m up to the church of the patron saint of cycling. But all of the Stelvio Pass stories online were from hard-core road cyclists in full lycra talking about how hard it was. Uh oh.

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The Sentiero Valtellina

I had the best time at Menaggio Youth Hostel – La Primula. A group of us went canyoning with Alberto from Lake Como Adventures which was awesome (and we even made it into one of his website’s photos!). I went for a walk up to Refugio Menaggio with an Australian backpacker. And every night the hostel put on a delicious (and cheap) meal and we all hung around outside drinking house wine and chatting with other backpackers. Highly recommended. My only regret is that I somehow never went swimming in the lake, I’ll have to go back.

Refugio Menaggio

Refugio Menaggio

But enough of the sales pitch. I spent a bit of time at the hostel trying to work out where to go next. Eventually I worked out – based on a lot of searching of the Italy Cycling Guide website – that there was an off-road cycle route from Lake Como to the east, the Sentiero Valtellina. This almost joins up to another off-road cycle route coming down from Austria – the Via Claudia Augusta. The only problem was Stelvio Pass in the middle. I discussed this with the hostel owner who assured me that I would be fine cycling over the pass. No problem. Just a casual 2,700m pass. Oh well, I figured as a backup I could always catch a shuttle across.

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A visit to the patron saint of cycling

Lake Como is a common destination for cycling-inclined travellers. There are many day rides and you could easily base yourself there for a week and explore. One of the popular climbs is up to the church of Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling. At the start of my cycle tour it felt very appropriate to make the climb.

Bike on the boat to Bellagio

En route from Como to Bellagio with a fully loaded bike

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Arrival into Italy

I successfully transported my bike on the train from Chamonix to Zurich to visit some family friends. A few days before I was due to leave I still hadn’t confirmed my cycle route. One main cycle route from Switzerland into Italy seemed to be over St Gotthard Pass. The prospect of a lot of traffic on the road scared me off. On the advice of my Swiss friends I decided to catch trains all the way to the town of Chiasso on the Swiss side of the border.

Swiss train tickets

It took three train connections to get to Chiasso

On arrival in Chiasso it suddenly struck me that I was now a solo traveller. I was all alone. What I had dreamed of doing for so long suddenly seemed very intimidating. Oh well, there was only one thing for it. Time to find lunch.

I picked a restaurant and was immediately struck by a practical difficulty of travelling solo with a bike. I sat at an outdoor table in the restaurant to watch over my bike. But then I needed to go toilet. How inappropriate is it to take pannier bags into a restaurant’s toilets? Deciding that this was going too far, I attempted to mime to the waitress that I wanted her to watch over my bike and made a dash for it. In the early stages of my trip I was constantly terrified of my bike being stolen in a situation like this but on reflection it was pretty unlikely in a busy restaurant.

After lunch it was time to head to Italy! I was pretty excited about crossing an international border by bike. It turned out to be a bit of a non-event, the officials just waved me through. The road into Italy was a bit scary but the traffic wasn’t too bad and I cruised down the hill into Como.

Border crossing between Switzerland and Italy

Cycling across the border into Italy

On arrival into Como I cycled around the waterfront and into town. Spotting a Vodafone shop I went in and bought an Italian SIM card with €20 prepaid. It took about 15 minutes and the entire time I was anxiously glancing at my bike out the front of the shop. Again, my bike didn’t disappear and I was newly equipped with mobile internet. Google Maps here I come!

I had booked into the YHA hostel in Como and spent the first night with a group of other backpackers standing by the lake eavesdropping on a random concert. Maybe travelling by myself wasn’t so scary after all.

The slightly pornographic bike shorts

After about four weeks of travel Mum and I had arrived in Chamonix, France. Chamonix is a mecca for outdoors stores so I got keen on the idea of getting kitted out for my impending cycle tour. We came across the bike shop Zero G Chamonix where I tried on some bike shorts and started talking to the shop assistant. He started telling me, in French, about how great it is to have pockets in bike shorts (future Brittany can confirm that it is pretty great). After a while I discovered that the shop assistant, I think his name was Tom, was from the UK so after shaky start in French we were able to continue in English.

Tom informed me that the shorts I was wearing were actually intended as liner shorts, to be worn under a second pair of shorts. My mum claimed that this was ridiculous and that they were fine to be worn as is. I did a bit of a twirl and Tom informed me that they were ‘a bit pornographic’. Continue Reading

The amateur cycle tourist

Hello, welcome! This section of our blog is all about me (Brittany) and my cycle travels around Italy in 2014. I planned the trip before Andy and I got together, so after seven weeks with my mum in Europe I was travelling solo.

It is now 2016 and I am writing these blog posts retrospectively. At times it was difficult to find information on cycle routes and what it would be like, so I thought I would write about my trip to share my experiences.

Why cycle touring?

I first wanted to cycle tour after reading the book Long Ride for a Pie: From London to New Zealand on Two Wheels and an Appetite. Tim Mulliner’s account of a cycle touring adventure in pursuit of a good Kiwi pie. The interaction with locals and freedom to go anywhere really appealed to me.

Once I finished uni and had more free time, I started avidly reading cycle touring blogs. I researched equipment and international cycle routes. I obsessed over different pieces of gear: touring bikes, folding bikes, leather saddles, folding bikes again. I even bought Ortlieb pannier bags to match all the cycle tourist photos online.

Picking a route

Finally in 2014 I had enough money and leave to take a ten week holiday to Europe. Seven weeks of travel with mum, ending in Switzerland. Then I had three weeks to cycle tour by myself before flying home.

I originally thought I would go through France as I can speak French pretty well, but I was caught in the throes of indecision. In the end it came down to price. I asked the travel agent which airport in Europe typically has the cheapest flights back to New Zealand. The answer was Rome or Istanbul. Istanbul was too far away from Switzerland – looks like I was going to Italy!

By the time I left New Zealand my plan had developed as far as: “Cycling from somewhere in Switzerland, through Italy, to Rome. Must be in Rome for my flight on 8 October. Will try to buy a cheap bike over there.”

With the exciting but scary prospect of no equipment and barely a plan, I left the country.