Putting a spin on Italy bike touring
Former professional cyclist Andy Hampsten talks about cycling tours in Italy.
The New York Times
Andy Hampsten, 50, may be best remembered by longtime cycling fans for overcoming a blizzard on a steep climb in the 1988 Giro d'Italia.
After retiring from professional cycling in 1997, Hampsten founded the Tuscan-based cycling tour company Cinghiale. But riders who join him, he said, need not brace for "a hammer session with an ex-pro."
"I like to stop in a village," Hampsten said, "grab something to eat, drink incredible wine and then get back on our bikes."
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Hampsten about touring by bike in Italy.
Q: Why is Italy your favorite country for cycling?
A: There are so many gorgeous regions to choose from — Tuscany, Barolo, the Dolomites, Piedmont — and all of the secondary roads are safe and not congested. They incline at a 6 percent grade, which is perfect for riding. And motorists are never irritated by cyclists the way they are in the States. If they can't pass you, they wait. Italy, as well as France, has a great culture of hospitality for cyclists. There's a government program called agriturismo, which gives loans to farmers to restore their historic homes and rent out rooms. They're reasonably priced and absolutely charming. Some have websites, but a better way to find them is by checking out the province's tourism board.
Q: How physically fit must you be for a cycling tour?
A: If you don't ride at all, you'll want to start riding three to four times a week for three months before the trip. Most of our trips are 380 miles, so that's 30 to 60 miles every day, about four hours each morning. But for people who race for recreation, our tour will be an easy week of fun riding.
Q: Any recommendations for cyclists who want to go on their own?
A: Instead of going to a bunch of famous cities that are 50 miles apart — whose routes will be jammed with traffic — I say pick a base in a beautiful region and get a map to find the sinuous secondary roads. The Touring Club of Italy publishes excellent maps, as does Michelin for France. A group called Erickson provides you with itineraries for all across Europe. Hard-core riders love them because they cover huge distances.
Q: Do you encourage people to bring their own bikes or rent them?
A: Bring your own bike because few rentals have good racing bikes. But check out airlines' policies before booking because some charge absurd fees. Delta, for example, charges you $300 for each bike round trip, whereas British Airways lets you check it in like baggage.
Q: The Tour de France starts on June 30. Any recommendations for where to view it?
A: The whole tour is gorgeous — it's basically a three-week commercial for France — so pick a village and go there three days beforehand. You can ride the course yourself, and then on race day, find a small road that intersects with the route so you can quickly retreat. It can be a circus. I love the Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees, which is less crowded than the Alps. Most people watch the final climb, but if there's going to be a history-making move in the race, it's usually on the second- or third-to-last-mountain, where there are fewer people anyway. In a village, the cyclists will fly past you. But on a mountain, you see them coming. There's this whole theater of anticipation. It's absolutely fantastic.