There were two things we knew when we decided to take a week long family cycling trip through Italy in late May/early June 2018. First, we knew it would require more planning and preparation than any of our four-wheeled trips. In a car, it’s an inconvenience when you pick the wrong route or an off the beaten track hotel. On a bike, you risk family mutiny. Not to mention saddle sores. We also had a hunch that because two of the four of us lacked any measurable time spent on a bike on actual roads we *might* be biting off slightly more than we could chew.
We were right on both counts.
Yet, it was exactly those things that made the Tour de Ballbach (with a nod to Lynette Martin for coining the phrase) a smashing success. The intensity of preparation (travel anticipation is a subject I wrote about here) combined with a plan that was certain to get us out of our comfort zones — all in different ways — made for a family trip that will linger longer and sweeter in our collective memories. It’s the kind of trip I would whole-heartedly recommend and do again.
With that in mind, my hope is this blog might offer specific suggestions if cycling Piedmont’s is on your bucket list but perhaps more importantly, offer a few tips and lessons learned for planning a family cycling holiday that could be anywhere. Just don’t expect as many excellent options for carbo loading outside of Italy.
T-Minus 10 Months: Planning
The more sensible route for a first time cycling holiday would be to work through a touring company who provide the bicycles, the routes and shuttle your luggage from point A to B. While it was an easy google search to find some of those companies, we quickly decided to take the full plunge by going it ourselves so that we could have more autonomy with the routes and places to stay. I did however use this touring company’s website for some general guidance on good areas for cycling.
Once we made that decision the next order of business was insuring that all of us had road bikes. That mountain bike your 13 year old has or that 3 speed cruiser bike you love to ride around town is not going to get the job done. In our case, that meant buying two new bikes — my first ever road bike and a bigger framed road bike for our sprouting teenager. While we thought about potentially bringing two bikes and renting the other two bikes, the logistics of that plan — and insuring that the quality of the rented bikes would be comparable to the owned bikes -- quickly became untenable when details like airline travel and bike store hours came into play. So Tip #1: Do not go hybrid with your sourcing. Either choose to rent all your bikes or bring all your bikes.
(After exhaustive research I did not actively participate in until sizing specs and a color choice needed to be made, Brett bought both of our new road bikes from the German company Canyon. If truth be told, it was a much better bike than I needed but it also made me feel like a real roadie. Tip #2: Get Mom the best bike.)
The second order of business was figuring out how to transport our bikes from London to Turin, the nearest airport in Piedmont. There were two ways to do this: ship our bikes ahead or take our bikes with us as checked bags. We decided to go the checked bags route which then influenced which airline we choice. British Airways (in comparison to the lower cost airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet) had the most generous bags allowance as they consider a bike bag the same as any other regular sized checked bag. We booked way in advance which made the fares reasonable (£150 round trip per person.) Tip #3: Skip the low cost airline and book early.
(We also had an option for renting or buying bike boxes/bags for airline travel. After another research project on benefits of hard sided boxes versus soft sided bags and factoring in plans for future trips like these, Brett decided to buy these EVOC bike travel bags and was able to get them off Amazon UK. They were shockingly easy to wheel around and did their advertised job in protecting all the bike components. Tip #4: Please borrow our bike travel bags.)
The third decision was figuring out how we would transport our stuff. Bike panniers for all of us or one bike trailer for Brett to pull? As if this was really a decision. Here's the Aevon bike trailer Brett found. Aside from some back and forth on getting the right hitch, Brett was wowed by quality of the French/German company's excellent product. Tip #5: Please borrow our bike trailer too. Your use will help to amortize the cost faster and make us feel better.
Once our biking gear was in place, we moved to planning the route and places to stay. We had everything booked by the end of September 2017. Finding places to stay is my research jam and because I was booking everything 10 months in advance, we didn't have any issues in not getting our first choice.
Day 1: Bon Courage
You know your teenager is living in an alternate universe when the day before departure he says, “Wait, we’re taking the bike bags on the plane?” Apparently some important details were missed when communicating how we’d be traveling to Italy for our cycling holiday. I only wished for a log of the 87 tasks completed including biking attire, spare inner tubes, bike tools, etc before Day 1 to wave in his face.
Bike bags packed, we hailed two cabs from our house in London to Victoria Station. Brett called me from the other cab saying his driver suggested we be dropped off at the "Back of Palace Road" for step free access at Victoria Station to the Gatwick Express. He called back 30 seconds later to say that his driver was actually saying "Buckingham Palace Road." Heavy British accents are not always easy to understand. Miscommunication averted.
Four big green bags on rollers in a crowded train station is its own kind of celebrity. People stare and point and ask questions. And while we managed dodging people through the train station, on to the Gatwick Express, and through Gatwick Airport, it was a relief to say goodbye to the big green bags at the airline check in counter. Tip #6: Have a good made up story for what's in the bag. It's surprising how many people don't guess bikes.
After the 1 hour 45 minute flight to Turin, we arranged to have a van transfer to the hotel. Watching four people and four bike bags squeeze into a van is what I imagine making Italian sausage is like. I did however send bike bag measurements in advance and our driver was imbued with confidence that is was "ok!" And it was.
In Turin, we stayed at TownHouse 70, a centrally located hotel that was easily accessible to the train station where we would be departing from the next morning. In our planning it became clear that we needed a solution for storing our bike bags while we were cycling around Italy. The easiest solution we could come up with was to chose a hotel for our first and last nights that would be willing to store our bags for the week. TownHouse 70 was happy to do that for us along with arrange our airport transfer both directions. And while we didn't know to ask, the hotel rooms had plenty of non carpeted floor space so it was no problem to assemble and break down the bikes in our rooms. Tip #7: Pick one customer friendly hotel to bookend your trip and then tip them well because you will be a presence.
We arrived to the hotel early in the afternoon which gave Brett time to get two of the bikes and the trailer assembled before dinner. Colin stayed in the hotel to do homework revisions and Lawton and I went out for gelato plus spontaneous outlet store shoe shopping. Because why not buy some new Italian wedges on a cycling trip when a) we have no room for extra stuff and b) I have a foot injury and shouldn't be wearing wedges.
We had dinner at Pastificio Defilippis, a pasta restaurant that started in 1872. We carbo loaded on traditional ravioli with meat and sage, gnocchi with sausage and rosemary ragu, ovali with chicken, olive and oregano, tajarin with bacon and smoked burratina and our first Piedmont red - a Barbera d'Alba. Fortified for the journey until ...
If the teenager started the day being clueless, the 11 year old ended it after dinner with an air of blah when he announced: "I'm not really ready for a holiday."
Bon courage would be needed for us all ...
Day 2: Grind it Out
Brett, who has a history of being intimidated by anything mechanical, finished assembling the last two bikes before breakfast. It was impressive how organized and thorough he was with all the equipment and tools. Once the trailer was packed we realized we were running a little heavy and so we jettisoned a few more things to store with the bike bags. Like my new wedges. And maybe the second pair of sandals I bought outlet shopping.
By 11am we had checked out and were on our bikes in route to the Porta Nuova Train Station. We stopped in this Turin square to capture the start of our journey. This was a highlight moment for Brett. After all the planning, the gear, the self-instruction, he had got everything to work.
At the train station we bought tickets to Carmagnola which was a 30 minute train ride to get outside the city. By 12:30 we had started cycling. We arrived at our hotel at 8:30pm. It was 8 hours of cycling with one cafe stop and lots of "catch your breath" stops. Tip #8: There's no better place for your 15 year old to order their first cappuccino. Cycling and cappuccinos are a thing.
We rode 70 km and the last 20 km was virtually all uphill, much of it at 12% grade. The larger point being: IT WAS AN AMBITIOUS FIRST DAY. When planning, it's easy to think you're going to take the fastest route but once you are on the road, the best route for cycles is usually not the shortest route. And I now know to notice elevation on a map when picking hotels. Tip #9: Do not use Google Maps for cycling. You need detailed paper maps.
We got our detailed maps before we left from Stanfords. They were well worn by the end of our trip. The rocks on the map are our start and end points for the first day. From Camagnola through Guarene and Neive to the pink highlighted X at Benevello was our route along the yellow highlighted top line. The goal is to avoid red roads and find the white roads.
It was a day that required all of us to grind it out. Colin learning to use his clips to avoid a clipastrophy. Lawton understanding what it means to endure when you are physically spent. And me learning to not freak out watching truck drivers going 90kph pass my babies who are no longer babies. Honestly I hated the first 15 kms which were on busy, poorly paved service roads but when we turned onto our first "white road" and the rolling hills of Piedmont came into our first view, I had my highlight moment. Colin had his highlight moment on his first long serpentine downhill where his need for speed for satisfied. And Lawton had his when he pulled up to the hotel and realized he had done it.
Day 3: Divide So Some Can Conquer
We stayed at Villa D'Amelia , a charming very Italian hotel with restaurant and pool, for our second and third nights. We all walked into the small hilltown of Benevello that looks over the Langhe Valley - home to hazelnuts, beans, and lean beef - in the morning. Lawton and I lounged around the hotel pool which we had to ourselves in the afternoon while Brett and Colin rode a picturesque 55km loop to Monforte d'Alba. They saw more cyclists on that stretch of road than anywhere else during our week. Monforte d' Alba is also the town my good friend Jeannie stayed in and she recommended both Dimora I Manichei and Hotel Villa Beccaris as two places to stay.
Tip 10: Spending two nights at the same hotel is a great way to plan a cycling trip. It's nice to have the second day to have an out and back ride for those who want it and a rest day for those who don't.
We then took a cab into the lovely, "moneyed' town of Alba in the early evening to wander (while the boys sat in the square and did revisions) and then have dinner. We ate at La Piola, the modern restaurant on one of Alba's main squares with a simple chalkboard menu and Piedmont specialities.
Day 4: The Day the Wheels Came Off
Day 4 had us leaving the Langhe region (home of Barbaresco & Barolo) heading into the Monferrato region. The first 35km was beautiful riding along a ridge line and up and down moderate hills. The roads were quiet and we were outriding the rain clouds. Everything was going splendidly until the last 3km steep descent into the town of Canelli.
On the descent, Lawton lost control of his bike on a tight turn and crashed into a wall. Thankfully he wasn't badly hurt, only banged up but he blew his front tire and was pretty shaken. We didn't see it happen as Brett was ahead and I was behind but we heard his screams. A young English guy who saw the crash stopped to help Lawton. What was less helpful was him telling me: "That was horrid. Sickening to see."
Brett fixed Lawton's tire and we rode slowly into Canelli to find lunch. Lawton was naturally timid to get back on his bike but he pushed through. He pushed through finding a bike store to buy him a new helmet, through 2 more flat tires on his bike post crash, through a costly wrong turn. At 55km in, when we knew there was something more wrong with his tire, we called our destination hotel for help. A car came for Lawton and I just as a thunderstorm rolled in. Meanwhile, Brett and Colin carried on riding in search of a bike mechanic.
Unfortunately the bike mechanic determined that there was something permanently wrong with the tire but they didn't have a replacement one in the right size and it was unlikely that any bike store in the area did. Our only option was to order it from Amazon Italy and hope that priority delivery worked.
The route was from the rock on the left up along the yellow highlighted line to Canelli up to Nizza Monferrato and to the pink X at Casalotto.
Adventures do have their highs and lows and Day 4 was a low day for all of us. But it was also the kind of day that shows character. Brett's calmness and ability to problem solve through any issue was on full display. His judgment is always sound, his temperament always kind and stressful situations only magnify those qualities about him. Colin, in growing maturity, stepped up to take a leadership role for the family like finding a lunch spot while Brett was busy fixing the bike. Lawton had to ride on when the last thing he wanted to do was get back on the bike. And I did not let fear take hold and make me spiral (something I am prone to.)
It helped too that our landing place that night was at La Villa Hotel. The hotel (which is mostly a romantic getaway for couples) is owned by an English family who bought it 13 years ago and beautifully restored it. The outdoor space and gardens are particularly lovely. It's a gem of a place with an outstanding set four course dinner at their restaurant La Vie for those who wish to eat in. We most certainly did.
Tip 11: Book hotels that have excellent restaurants on site so you have flexibility on staying in or out depending on how tired you are.
Day 5: Chewing the Handlebars
With Lawton's bike out of commission, he and I were forced to take a second rest day. After a morning at the pool, we took a nice hour long walk into the nearby hilltown of Mombaruzzo. The plan was to meet up with Brett and Colin after their ride for lunch.
The guys had another incredible ride but rolled in to lunch an unacceptable 50 minutes late and chewing the handlebars in pain. The second wrong turn of the trip meant several kms of unexpected uphills between them and the doghouse. Although with a turn success rate of something like 68 out of 70, it was hard to be annoyed for long.
After a sweaty lunch at a charming La Marlera we stopped by Moriondo Virgilio, a local cafe where they serve fresh amaretti cookies. (Mombaruzzo is actually the town where the amaretti cookie started.) After the walk back and a late afternoon ping pong tournament, we dined in again at La Vie. Us with all the couples.
Tip 12: If you do take a rest day, take a walk instead. Something about walking and the fresh air is great for conversation.
Day 6: Amazon Delivers!
Back in the saddle! Checkout was at 11am and the Amazon package with Lawton’s new tire arrived at 10:58! No plan B or C needed. We had a smooth 60km ride to our next destination, not even a snake in the road made us flinch (for me, this is growth!)
Day 6 was about heading North from Casalotto to Grazzano Badogli which is still in the Monferrato region. This area of Monferrato was particularly beautiful.
We stayed at a gorgeous guesthouse on a vineyard called Tenuta Santa Caterina. The guesthouse has only six rooms and only one of the other rooms was occupied when we were there.
The guesthouse doesn't have a restaurant on site but it's in a small village and so we walked to the local osteria for a late dinner. The breakfast in the morning was excellent but we didn't have time to enjoy the guesthouse or tour the vineyard as this was the only place we stayed for one night. (I did however order some of their wine to be shipped back to London.) It's definitely a place to come back to for an adults only weekend.
Day 7: Save the Best for Last
The last day of riding was perhaps the one I was looking forward to least. We had to make our way back to Turin and it was too far to cycle the whole way back so we knew a train would be involved. After much map huddling we decided to train back to Turin from Asti which meant that we could do a cycling loop near the area we we staying.
At these things often go, our last 60km ride before we hopped the train in Asti was the best ride of the trip. Fewer cars, gorgeous scenery, just right lumpy terrain. We had also found our riding grove. With Colin leading and then lying in the grass like a lion in wait for all of us to catch up, Brett shredding the granny gears to pull the 60 pound trailer up the hills, Lawton finally relaxing on the downhills, and me no longer worrying that we sometimes had to share the road with cars.
Of all the maps I've shown here, this yellow loop is the one not to miss. (Asti is the red area in the lower left corner where we caught the train.)
We did have a snafu in Asti on the first intercity train we tried to take. Apparently you can't bring bikes on the intercity train but no one told us and so we got kicked off. A very angry woman literally pushed us and our children off the train. It was actually bizarre how physical it was. Lawton suggested the woman might have been part bull dog. An hour later, we were on another (bike legal) train in route to Turin. The conductor on the second train however was so friendly and restored our faith in Italian train travel.
In Turin, we zigzagged through a busy city center to get back to our hotel. We had a fabulous final dinner at Ristorante Consorzio. After a week of traditional Piedmont food (which we loved more than any other region in Italy) it was nice to have a modern take on it. We might have licked our plates. Lawton especially enjoyed his starter which was anchovies four ways (not pictured.)
The next morning we got everything packed back up in their bike bags and flew back to London in the afternoon. It was notably how much easier it seemed to all of us wheeling the green bags on the journey home. After a week of much harder challenges, that part seemed like a piece of cake.
Tip 13: If you are half-wheeling the idea of a cycling trip, it's time to get out of the saddle! Ping us with specific questions and remember - we have gear to borrow!