24 - 28 April and 30 April – 3 May 2017
This section covers 280k from Livorno on the Italian west coast to San Marino close to the east coast (see separate section for San Marino) and afterwards 425k from San Marino past Garda Lake to Trento. My use of regions is arbitrary - I choose to call it Central Europe from Trento because it’s the “border town” to South Tirol.
Itinerary and weather
Sonia was also on the ferry, so we talked things over. She didn’t like to bike alone and even though I appreciated my newly-gained freedom, I felt bad leaving her in Livorno, so she came along to San Marino. From Livorno, it was more or less a straight north eastern ride to San Marino. We took some smaller roads to get out of Livorno, but from Cascina we stayed on often busy main road SS67 to San Francesco east of Florence – an easy flattish ride through Tuscany’s countryside with its many fields, rivers, towns and villages. The initial idea was to avoid Florence, but I needed a bike shop to fix my broken rear wheel bearings. Unfortunately, we got there on a holiday where everything was closed, but at least riding in and out of the city was easy, because there was very little traffic. Now that we were there anyway, we did a bit of sightseeing amongst other Ponte Vecchio (oldest bridge across Arno River and the only bridge that survived WWII), Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo with the impressive cathedral. It was overcast and the centre was packed with people (very stressful), so we only spent a few hours before having lunch by the river and continuing east. We could have stayed on SS67 going northeast around the mountains, but we preferred the straight eastern quiet, lush and secluded mountain roads. It was a bit crazy venturing into the mountains with completely crushed bearings, but we chanced it and took SR70 to Poppi followed by SR71 to Sarsina and SP28 to San Marino. The weather constantly changed from sunny to overcast and rainy but always very windy – according to the locals, unusually bad for this time of year, though that has been a common story most places I have biked on this trip. The bad weather mattered less in the countryside, but over the mountains it could have been nice with some better weather – at least for the views.
After San Marino, Sonia and I split up. She went south to Ancona to take a ferry back to Greece, while I went north along the coast to Chioggia. I took SS16, however, even though a main road I couldn't ride it all the way, so I spent much time navigating small roads through endless towns - this was especially annoying because it was Sunday and 10,000s of people were on their way home after a day on the beach creating countless traffic jams. After Ravenna, I took SS309 through a huge nature reserve. There was very little traffic, so I assumed Italians were more keen to spend the holiday on the beach than in the forest and wetlands. Both days I had a crazy NE/E head/sidewind creating sandlight and the second afternoon hours of heavy rain after a beautiful sunny morning.
From Chioggia, I rode west to Garda Lake on SR104, SR10 and SR249 through more countryside and passing a couple of beautiful medieval fortress-towns. I did Garda Lake in a day, riding up the eastern shore – the south eastern and north eastern corners were very touristic and crowded despite off-season and bad weather. Fortunately, the “middle section” was pleasantly quiet – maybe because there were only a few small towns or maybe because it was overcast and rainy until early afternoon. As the weather improved, so did the views of the lake against the backdrop of the snow-capped mountains. I wanted to bike straight north up into the mountains but the unreliable (bad) weather and low-lying snow made me ride up the valley to Trento (and later Bolzano and Merano). On recommendation, I rode the bike path, but it was much steeper than the road, worse quality, narrow, no right-of-way and poorly signposted – so I was quickly back on the main road.
Road quality and drivers
The road quality was an ever changing mix – sometimes great being smooth, wide with a shoulder but other times narrow without shoulder and in mediocre or poor quality. A few times, there was a bike path but seldom useful - drivers don’t respect them parking their vehicles there and compared to the road they were steeper, worse quality, narrow, no right-of-way and poorly signposted.
People still drove very fast especially the motorcyclists – until San Marino many drivers were selfish sqeeezing by, but north of San Marino almost everybody was cautious braking and waiting when there was no room to go around. Maybe it had to do with how used they were to bicyclists – until San Marino we still saw a lot of cyclists, but from San Marino I only met a few.
Camping and people
Camping was a challenge particularly in the countryside where everything was open and private – and the few forests were fenced. The best chances were abandoned roads or on public land next to a river or creek – as previously mentioned, wild camping is illegal in Italy, but the locals seemed relaxed about it.
When biking few people returned greetings but when stopping, people were usually friendly, curious and talkative. On the first morning after San Marino, I had just entered the road when a car stopped and a woman invited me to join her and some friends for a day of fishing/BBQ, etc. No Italian had invited me for anything, so I was flattered and tempted, but joining a group of Italian friends on their day of traditions could be challenging as could the language barrier. Also,I had just re-gained my freedom to bike as I pleased and it was a lovely day.Had I met her mid/late afternoon, it would have been perfect but not a whole day, so I turned her down and continued north.
Compared to Southern Italy, everything was more organised in Northern Italy e.g. fairly clean with lots of bins and recycling stations, normally working internet, etc.
The bike got worse day by day. My rear wheel bearings werenow so crushed that the wheel ”tilted” 6-7mm to each side, which must have been damaging with my heavy bike, especially on the curvy mountain roads. The constant loud noise was streesful (would it break before we found a bike shop) and very annoying – the constant grinding of metal and every few seconds large ”clank”-sounds sending shock waves through the frame. It was so loud that people turned around to see what it was - like driving a car with a broken exhaust pipe. In small mountain town Poppi, we unexpectedly found what looked to be a professional bike shop. The owner seemed competent, but unfortunately he didn't have time to fix the bike until 16 and it was only 11.30. Not much of a choice and anyway good timing on a rainy day, so we spent the afternoon finding a camp spot, lunch, internet and doing other bike maintenance. He first asked for 50 euro to change the bearings but settled for 30 euro which seemed fair...
My handlebar also got worse every day, turning with more and more friction. Possibly the main reason why I was very close to my first solo accident while touring. After a lot of rain, I almost fell on a slippery surface as the front wheel slipped going downhill with 25-30 k/h - I don’t know how, but I did an amazing save.
I had changed to a new sensor a few weeks before and still I was often struggling to get my odometer working. It must be poor quality, so be wary to buy the Bontrager, Trip 1.