This June, we completed our second bike tour holiday and cycled from Milan to Rome — 750km in total.
A few people have asked me how we planned and organised everything, so I’ve put together a few things we discovered to help you plan your own bike tour.
Picking a route
This was the hardest part: how do you pick how far to go, where to stop and which routes to take?
First, we decided on where we were going to start and end. Since neither of us had ever been to Rome, we picked that as our goal and figured we could probably get there starting from Milan.
You’ll need a route planning tool that offers cycling-optimized directions and knows about elevation. Google Maps had perfect cycling directions for the flat areas of France we toured through in 2014, but cycling directions currently aren’t available at all in Italy.
Instead, we used Komoot, which offers biking directions and also takes long climbs and road surface into account. Komoot also have pretty good iPhone and Watch apps, so you can rely on it for navigating on the go.
Enter in your rough start and destination points for each day and play with the route options and distance until you find something you’re comfortable with. We started in Milan and picked Montebello — a small town roughly 70 kilometers away — and started looking at places to stay in that area on Booking.com, AirBnB etc.
Book something, then repeat for the next day. Use Tripadvisor and other sites to help you find nice towns and areas to aim for in the region you’ll be travelling through.
How far to go
Honestly, you can probably go further than you think. Figure out how many kilometers you manage per hour on a longish tour in your area. Then multiply that by 3-5 times (though bear in mind that your bike will have a lot more weight on it).
We did around 60 km a day, with 90 km being the farthest in a day. But we also aimed to get into our next town in the early afternoon so we could do some sightseeing as well, so you can easily manage more kilometers if you plan to spend more hours riding.
But remember: it’s a holiday. Take as much time as you need and do the distance you’re comfortable with — you can always pick out a scenic detour if you’re too comfortable and want more of a challenge.
Booking in advance?
We chose to book all our accommodation in advance. It’s nice not having to find a place to stay at the end of a long ride. The disadvantage is that you have less flexibility to adjust your schedule along the way.
If you’re worried about not hitting your goals or other delays, try to find accommodation with flexible cancellation policies. Most of the places we stayed at let you cancel 1-2 days before your stay, so worst case we would have had to pay the full cost of a cancellation for one or two nights.
Navigating on the go
As I mentioned above, we used Komoot to plan our routes and also used their iPhone app on the road. There are two ways of using it:
1) Turn by turn audio
The easiest way to go, but can be a bit annoying. You put in headphones (or just one for safety), hit go and Komoot will tell you which turns to take. Usually there are long straight stretches in-between turns, so it’s not too distracting. In cities and built-up areas, this is my preferred way of getting around.
2) Map guidance
Alternatively, you can use the turn-by-turn navigation without voice prompts. This means you’ll need to be able to see your phone: I have a front Ortlieb case with a clear sleeve for a phone on top. I can just about fit my iPhone 6 Plus inside and that lets me see the map and turn arrows if needed.
However in the bright sunshine, you’ll usually only be able to make things out easily in the shade, so you’ll need to have a rough idea of your heading beforehand.
Bonus option: watch navigation
Komoot also supports Apple Watch, and I found that option really useful as well. Instead of having to peer at my iPhone, you get a taptic alert and watch notification telling you where to turn.
It was often also easier to find the right Italian road after seeing it written on the watch, rather than hearing it pronounced.
GPS navigation is a big battery drain and we had planned full days of cycling, so I wanted to make sure we could rely on phone-only navigation without having to worry about power. And since I tend to overthink these things, I over-prepared as well. So: How do you charge your iPhone on a bike tour?
First, I got the Busch & Müller LUMOTEC IQ2 LUXOS U LED light. This is a LED headlight that provides a 70 Lux beam and also includes an internal LI-ION battery and USB port (Peter White cycles has a very detailed write-up).
When you’re not using the light, your hub-Dynamo will charge the battery, allowing it to provide a steady 1A USB power charge.
You’ll need to cycle faster than 15km/h for about 10 minutes for the system to accumulate enough juice, and then it starts providing power to your phone.
While using your iPhone with GPS and the screen on, the steady power trickle will prevent your battery from being drained, but it usually won’t be enough to actually charge your phone. And if you’re going slower (e.g. when you’re on a steep climb), the system won’t have enough power and your phone will stop charging altogether.
At the end of a day’s ride, my phone was usually down to about 50% using the Luxos alone, so having a tizi Tankstelle 5x USB charger was great for rapidly recharging our phones and my watch before we headed out into town again.
Bikes and bags
Both have Shimano Nexus 8 internal hub gears, which are really reliable, offer decent gear coverage and are completely enclosed, so there’s little chance of something getting bent or broken in transport.
We also equipped both bikes with puncture-resistant Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires: There is a lot of glass and other crash debris along the roadside in Italy, especially if you’re somewhat off the beaten track, so I’d strongly recommend puncture-proof tires (or a lot of spares).
I debated getting front panniers for a while, but ultimately we decided we had enough space. And honestly I’m glad we didn’t take more: the temptation is always there to pack in unnecessary stuff, so having a constraint helps you focus on the things you really need.
Gear and equipment
Aside from cycling clothes, casual clothes for the evenings, we also took rain jackets (although we were lucky enough to miss the torrential thunderstorm in Milan by one day) and beach stuff (with really thin & light microfibre towels).
As for bike equipment, I packed two spare inner tubes, a puncture kit, Lezyne mini pump, a bike multi tool and additional tools for any necessary repairs. All the tools do add a bit of weight, but I did need to make an adjustment to the brakes on my wife’s bike and had to loosen my front tire to fix a problem, so I’m glad I had it all with me.
There are bike shops in most larger cities, but most days we didn’t see any, so I wouldn’t rely on having replacement parts immediately nearby.
Locks and security
Two cable locks, one long cable to wrap around all the tires and one smaller chain lock. Most nights we were able to lock the bikes somewhere inside the premises of the b’n’b or hotel and the few times we did leave them locked up on a street, I felt confident all the locks were fiddly and different enough to deter a potential thief.
We tried to avoid leaving the bags locked to the bikes unattended and kept everything in eyesight. When we did leave stuff locked to our bikes outside, we took our top bags with valuables (and tools) with us, leaving only clothes and other less expensive stuff locked to the bike. You could still get into the bags or cut them off if you were determined, but I doubt my smelly cycling clothes are that enticing.
I hope you’ll find parts of this useful if you’re thinking of planning a similar trip. It’s quite a different way of seeing a country and we’ve loved both of the bike trips we’ve done.
Italy was definitely a bit more challenging than the very beginner-friendly Canal-du-midi tour through France that we did the year before. You have far fewer cycle paths, more hills and a few unavoidable stretches of fast highways you have to cycle along.
But the hills offered some glorious views and really fun rides down, being by the sea meant we could hit the beach a few times and there are so many lovely Italian villages and cities to discover along the way — I’d definitely recommend it.