Before I did this trip for the first time, I had a lot of questions. Going into the trip the second time, I had people ask me a lot of questions. So here’s my FAQ. Your results may vary. Please feel free to contact me at khg at uw dot edu if you have other questions!
Can I do this trip? How hard is it? My answer has 2 parts: It’s definitely really hard. It’s definitely really doable.
It’s definitely really hard. Do not take this trip lightly! Even if you’re an awesome, strong, experienced cyclist! You want to be trained up for it. It’s hard to ride at something other than your own ability (sounds weird, but bear with me here), so you want to be ready to do difficult rides, day in and day out. There were some people who were faster than me when they rode, but didn’t ride everything every day, because they weren’t in condition to sustain that effort day after day. I heard more than once something along the lines of “if I had known how hard this was going to be, I would have trained for it.”
Or to be more concrete: each year I’ve had over 40,000 feet of climbing, in about 300 miles. Train for this trip!
You need to have the basics covered–good bike fit and equipment, and fitness to ride day after day. Experience doing mountain climbs and descents is physically and psychologically useful, though some people without access to mountains substituted headwinds and/or parking garage ramps in their training. But I can not stress enough that you need to be physically and mentally ready to do challenging rides day after day. You also need to be ok with the possibility of not being the best cyclist on the trip–or as I said to one person, ego is way too heavy to carry up a climb with you.
It’s really doable. I also think that, with the right training, and almost more importantly, the right attitude, it’s a trip that is possible for more people than think they can do it. The rides are challenging, but there’s also a lot of support on them. Though the climbs are really hard, the hard bits tended to be sandwiched with rest stop sandwiches (and chocolate and cookies and espresso), view enjoyment, and relaxation. I thought the rhythm of the days was actually pretty mellow. And it’s a lot easier to do difficult things when your every other need is taken care of–that is one of the great, delightful luxuries of this trip.
Correct gearing helps. Macho = stupid. The lower the better–I have a compact 50-34 on front, and a 12-29 cassette in back. I had some very strong riders eyeing my 29 cog wistfully. And M, who had a 32 on back, summited the Giau and said “I didn’t think that was that hard!”
And the beauty of the setting takes away a lot of pain.
That said, for most people this is likely to be a vacation that puts you at your limit pretty much every day. If you think that sounds like the most awesome thing ever, and support it with good bicycle fitness, you will probably have a blast. If you don’t think that sort of challenge sounds enticing, the best bicycle fitness in the world probably won’t make it fun. Apparently there are some people who relax on sunny beaches for their summer vacation–but those of us without that good sense, there are the Dolomites…
I’m not a racer/pro–will I be completely out of place? Not at all. Each of the three years I have gone (to date), there was a range of ages (20’s to 60’s or 70’s) and cycling backgrounds. If anything, the racer/pro would be more likely to be the odd one out. Moreover, Andy really works to promote a relaxed, friendly riding atmosphere. You can race to the top of the mountain if you want to, but you’re not leaving until Andy determines that a sufficient quantity of chocolate has been eaten, sights seen, relaxation accomplished, etc. Seriously. Andy runs on chocolate. And he’s a pusher. The double whammy of on-bike difficulty, and off-bike quantities of food and wine tends to make most people pretty mellow… I won’t say that there wasn’t awareness of who was getting up climbs first, but (after worrying my first year that I’d be laughed out of town by a bunch of cool cyclists) my experience was that people were really welcoming and supportive.
Should I rent a bike or bring my own? I really don’t know what to tell you here. Traveling with a bike is a pain in the neck, and expensive. It’s definitely way easier, and perhaps cheaper, to rent. The bikes that you can rent for the trip are nice–people who rented seemed happy with them. But if you have a special bike, it might still be worth it to bring it. I’m really glad I brought my own. For what it’s worth, I used the Pika Packworks EEP Travel Bag, which I am quite happy with, and having a steel bike probably makes me less anxious about packing it. Some people had bikes with travel couplers, which makes for a much more wieldy suitcase, and potentially a cheaper trip.
If you do bring your own bike, I recommend being comfortable unpacking, assembling, disassembling, and packing it. (This advice goes double if you have travel couplers!) You’ll likely be jetlagged when you get to Italy, and rummy with post-ride fatigue at the end of the trip, so you don’t want those things to take too much brainpower.
What should I pack? Elaine at Cinghiale will send a pretty complete packing list. Consider it carefully, especially the cold/wet weather recommendations. I generally prefer to pack lightly, so for this trip I plan on doing laundry in my hotel room sink after each ride. I pack a combination of pieces to give me an outfit for pretty much any weather/conditions. This works out to about 4-5 each of jerseys and bottoms, plus accessories and overlayers. My best winter gear makes the trip each year. This has worked well for me, but some people packed enough to stock a small bike store, and seemed pretty happy. And they didn’t have to do sink laundry. Even if you use it only once (or even are faced with the possibility of needing it), you will not regret bringing those deep-winter gloves, your warm coat, etc. Even in summer it can be really cold at the top of a mountain! Wool is awesome.
I also suggest packing enough in your carry-on that you’re ok if your bags don’t show up. My carry-on list reads: Cycling shoes, Pedals, Saddle, Helmet, Cycling glasses, Garmin, One set bike clothes, One change of clothes.
You’re crazy! That’s not a question.
Ok then, why?!?!?
Challenge, personal growth, beauty, community–