Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How to Find the Perfect Tuscan Villa for your Bicycle Vacation

There’s a charming Tuscan villa with your name on it. The plan for the week is to ride to wineries and castles on a trusty steed rented from BikeRentalsPlus! Everything is arranged: the kids have the downstairs room, the pool behind the villa is definitely open for the week and the family will be dining on Florentine steak at local restaurants that you’ve painstakingly researched.

But you’ve never done this sort of thing before – what should you expect? Lucky for you, we’ve compiled the comments from our 2009 customers into usable advice for next time. First: a bit of wisdom on the Italian train system, and then we’ll dive into customer feedback.

Planes, trains and automobiles

After arriving by plane, many customers rent cars – or they take advantage of Europe’s favorite transportation: the train. This year, many of our customers sieged trains with bikes in hand, ready to ride off into the Italian sunset. But navigating the Italian train system is sometimes harder than it is easy, so we wanted to share some travel tips to smooth the path of future and returning customers.

First, make sure to book the right train. Regional trains (designated by a little “R”) are the only ones in Italy that will accept bikes. There is no need to reserve these ahead of time, although it’s not a bad idea to check out and print the desired itinerary online the night before. Go to www.trenitalia.com to find the perfect route (there is an English version). Enter the departure and arrival towns (spell the names right or it won’t work!) and click the “all solutions” button to view all regional trains.

At the train station, buy at ticket at the counter or through an automated machine – but don’t forget to buy a ticket for yourself and your bike. Bike tickets usually cost around an additional €3.50. On the way out, validate both tickets (stamp them) in one of the many yellow boxes on the walls in the train station, or else you might end up with an additional but unwanted ticket from train personnel who occasionally pass by once onboard.

After purchase and validation, located one of the electronic departure screens inside our outside to find out which “bin” (short for “binario,” or platform) the correct train departs from. Be prepared to do some awkward weightlifting: some train stations have elevators and most do not allow passengers to cross the tracks for any reason – unattended, or mostly at all. So the only way to get from here to there is to go down stairs with the bike and back up the stairs on the other side. Batting the eyelashes at strong Italian men sometimes helps in this predicament, if one happens to be female.

Once the stairs are behind you, hopefully the train is already waiting on the tracks. Now where the heck does the bike go? Look for the little bike icon on the train, usually right behind the engine in the front of the train (but sometimes also towards the back of the train). Take a deep breath: getting in the train requires lifting yourself plus bike up the steep steps into the train. Once inside, most likely the bike will be hung by the wheel in a small bike car – so it’s not a bad idea to remove panniers ahead of time, if panniers are in use.

If for some reason you are picking up a bike in Italy and riding to France, then taking the train back with your bike, regional trains won’t do the trick. Long distance travel requires a faster train with less stops, such as an ES, InterCity or Freccia Rosa. On these trains, riders must take apart and pack up their bikes so they will be considered as luggage.

Finding your way

You said:
“The maps were pretty sparse and we could have done with somewhat more detailed ones”

“The map scale was 1:200,000. This did not provide nearly enough detail. After our first day, we found a store that sold maps and purchased a 1:100,000 map.”

“Most of the small highways had no road signs, nor town direction signs at intersections... Often what looked like a fairly major road on the map was fairly small street in reality.”

Our marked maps are maps with highlighted rides – so customers need to be comfortable reading and following a map without other written cues. The Italian countryside is a puzzle comprised of tiny, bike path-sized roads along routes created in Roman times. As such, the roads are winding and scenic, but can be confusing. Part of navigating in Italy is being comfortable with the fact that at first, visitors do get lost – but it’s how they react that counts.

One suggestion is that all cyclists purchase the local Touring Club Italiano (green) or Michelin yellow map of the area they’ll be riding in. The most common maps in Italy are the T.C.I. 1:200000 regional maps; they work quite well for bicycle touring even though a more detailed map might be useful especially for navigation in a city. F.m.b. makes more detailed maps that are generally available at rest areas on the highwy or book stores.

All riders should have a map to help them make decisions on the road. Customers who have purchased routes from us can use them in tandem with the Michelin or Touring Club maps. For example, if you want to lengthen or shorten the route, use the Michelin map in concert with our routes to do so easily. TCI or Michelin maps of various scale can typically be found at gas stations, souvenir shops, etc.

After buying a map, get comfortable with your new friend. Check out the map’s key for clues on what kind of terrain to expect. Squint closely: there are little chevrons – or tiny black arrows – pointing toward one direction on the road. The direction the arrows point indicates a climb or a descent, depending on which way the route is ridden. Eventually, the arrows will point in both directions (with a spot in the middle sans chevron) indicating the top of the hill.

Look even closer at the arrows and to see what else they explain: road steepness. One arrow means a 4-7 percent grade; two arrows means a 7-12 percent grade; and three arrows means more than 12 percent grade (and requires a really good breakfast!).

Also, get friendly with the little red dots placed along each road. These points indicate distance – two red dots with a red number in the midde (for example, 8.9) represent a tally of the kilometers on that section of road. By adding up each of these sections, riders can easily make predetermined or purchased routes longer or shorter. Maps allow flexibility and aid in answering the question of whether to lounge by the pool or check out that castle on the next hill.

Know what to look for – find signs for villages along the way and try to find them on the map. Upon entering a town there will be a large white sign with black lettering on the side of the road that announces the city boundary. Upon leaving, there will be another large white sign with the same town name, except this one will have a red slash through the word, signaling that you are no longer in the town.

Cyclists also need to know what not to look for: road signs may fall in this category, as usually only the main roads are visibly numbered. Instead, use landmarks like lakes, mountain ranges, historical buildings or even towns. And don’t be afraid to ask a local. A friendly Italian can literally point you in the right direction, even if you don’t understand much of the spoken directions. It might be a good idea to memorize at least the basic Italian direction words (like straight, left, right, etc).

Mechanical difficulties

You said:
“Also, having to deal with a malfunctioning seat clamp while out on a long ride. I had to find a hardware store in a small town and buy an allen key.”

Before each rental, each bike is personally ridden and checked by our in-house mechanics. But as cyclists know, stuff happens out there – so before vacation learn a couple basics, starting with how to fix a flat tire. We will gladly come to your rescue in dire need, but we encourage all of our customers to know how to fix a flat, if the need should arise.

Most of the time, we enjoy meeting our customers and doing a short bike fitting with them – adjusting the seat height and handlebars, putting pedals on and making other small adjustments. Ask our representative for additional help if you think you’ll need to adjust something later – they can demonstrate easy moves like readjusting seat height or handlebars (with the help of tools, if needed).

In any case, bringing a couple simple tools (allen wrench set and pedal wrench if you’re bringing your own pedals) also might not be a bad idea. In some cases, we can provide tools to our customers. But we have a limited supply, so we cannot guarantee we’ll be able to lend any of ours.

Hungry and thirsty for more

You said:
“I probably didn't carry enough water or snacks as it was very hot.”

In Italy, one rarely experiences the “middle of nowhere” feeling – small towns are sprinkled like parmesan cheese across Italy. Bring at least one water bottle – especially during the hot summer months – but there’s no need to stress about running out of acqua. Each town has a public fountain with potable water – unless specified otherwise by a sign that reads “Aqua non potabile”. Look for a fill-up in main squares (called piazzas), along the main road in town or by churches and cemeteries, where Italian visitors need fountains in order to water flowers on gravestones.

If stops are included in each day (maybe a castle tour or a late lunch at a restaurant with a killer view) remember that Italian working hours are not like American working hours. Italian time is fluid: the hours on the window may say “Open at 0900,” but if it’s raining or visitors are in town, the owner might decide to come in later. Local shops do what they please, especially in small towns or non tourist destinations. While bars open early, Italian stores and restaurants typically open later (around 0900 or 1000) and will close during the day for several hours (usually around 1300-1530… or so). Think about polishing military time skills, since Europeans are very comfortable with the 24-hour clock!

Also keep in mind that many stores might also be open on at least one day of the weekend – typically Saturday, when they might be open for part of the day – but closed on another weekday. And since Italy is a Catholic country, most stores, restaurants (and some bike shops) are closed on Sundays – so keep that in mind when planning your vacation abroad.

A few things to definitely pack in the suitcase: a windproof and/or waterproof layer (especially if riding in the mountains or visiting during fall or spring), sunglasses, phrase book, sunscreen, your own helmet and/or pedals (we only provide flat pedals or toe cages) – and of course, an open mind and sense of adventure.

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