Category Archives: touring

Brief Update: Safe Return Home

We arrived safely back home at around 11:30pm Toronto time Monday the 18th, after 2 stopovers (one in Frankfurt, the other in Washington, DC), and a lot of confusion in the Naples Int’l Airport. Certainly a bad experience with staff, which lead to us both nearly missing our flight, and also damage to our bicycles. But more on that will come with the Naples posting later.

Internet from Rome and south of there had been extremely spotty, and expensive at times (5 euro per hour at a few of our hotels – and still slow by N. American standards), so we haven’t yet posted about our visits from Siena onwards. Besides, making time for blog-writing was difficult, what with all the sights planned.

For the next few days, I will be writing-up the log of the rest of the trip. So, expect Montalcino’s write-up tomorrow, then that of Montepulciano on Friday, followed by posts for Orvieto, Viterbo, Rome, Pompeii, and Napoli and our returning flight in the next week-and-a-bit.

After a GIANT lazy spell, I will (finally!) be posting the rest of the trip, and updating the blog. Stay tuned.

Day 4: San Gimignano

Note: we are staggering our posts as we have been finding the internet to be slow and spotty coverage. All our posts are behind a few days.

June 4 was our first true riding day, where we were tested by the Italian hills and our fully loaded bicycles. The weather cooperated with us for the most part, but we did have to stop around 2pm for about 45 minutes to avoid a down-pour. We found refuge under the overhang of the roof of San Andrea, a tiny country church, about a third of the way between Florence and San Gimignano.

We were certainly expecting hills – but I think we (*Ryan*) somewhat underestimated the actual magnitude of the climbs. Here are some stats for our Florence-San Gimignano trek:

Total Distance: 60.5 km

Average (Moving) Speed: 9.98 km/h

Max Speed: 49.3 km/h (gotta love the ride down, after the long climb up!)

Min Elevation: 81 m

Max Elevation: 443 m

Total Elevation Gain: 2087 m

We found that our unlocked Galaxy Nexus phone was invaluable for guiding us out of the maze of one-way streets that make up Florence. Whenever we got lost (which happened often), the built-in GPS and maps on the phone made getting on track an easy(er) process. We picked up a SIM card for the phone in Florence, on the ride in from the airport, at Telefonia Italia Mobile, affectionately known as ‘TIM’ locally. €20 got us a €15 credit for calls and texts, plus one month of free unlimited data/internet, which suits us wells since we are here for 18 days. More details on the phone and SIM cards will come in a future post. Based on our experience so far, we would call it the best €20 investment to date.

As it is a hill town, one can see San Gimignano from the distance, giving a spirit-lifting boost of energy for the final tough hills into the city gates. We thought its imposing spires and towers made for an interesting contrast with the Tuscan countryside:

We made it!

We rented a small apartment for the night; affitacamere (rooms for rent) were actually pretty common in San Gimignano. Ours came with an expansive view of the fields below the town from its windows.

We met up with some friends who were also staying in town at the same time. They rented an apartment in one of the towers in the main piazza, across from the town church. A shout-out to Jeff, Juliet, Charlotte and Maxine! Hope you are enjoying the rest of your trip!

Jeff, Juliet and family stayed in this medieval tower.

The town’s main square.

When we arrived in town, the day tourist crowds were all gone and it was very quite. It was nice to have the town all to ourselves, and see the locals. We would say that the nicest time to visit San Gimignano would be late afternoon, with a late dinner and evening walk, and a stay overnight. The next morning came with a quiet breakfast and stroll for some nice views and pictures. We managed to pack up and escape around 11AM, just as the surge of day-tourists started again.

Arrival in Italy: Days 1-3 in Florence

On Friday we flew in to Florence, after a 7-hour flight from Toronto to Frankfurt, and then a short 2 hour commuter jet brought us into the Gallileo Gallilei airport of Florence. Understandably we were slighty worried about how well our bicycles fared in the flight – or if they even followed us to Italy in the cargo hold of the plane. However, everything went smoothly and our bicycles survived undamaged – likely due to our “leave them no chances to break something” approach to packing them. It took us a little over and hour and a half to unpack the bikes again and move all our equipment from the duffel bags to our panniers, and then off we went. But very slowly, due to the narrower italian roads and zippy cars scooting about haphazardly.

Our babies – they are ok!

All packed and loaded on the way from the airport to the hotel.

Although initially scary and seemingly devoid of order, we have come to find that Florentine roads have polite and highly skilled drivers, always willing to give bicycles the right of way, if only by a smaller margin than we are used to. Our hotel took a while to find, but has been a great home base. We were allowed to store our bikes in our hotel room, and since we are only on the 2nd floor, we consider ourselves lucky in terms of bike-hauling. The compact city is easily walkable, but its tall stone buildings and narrow cobblestone roads opening into piazzas made it a metropolis for us. People fill many streets, and nearly as many mopeds and scooters buzz along the vias as well. Cycling isn’t difficult, but we had to go slowly on many roads, as people on a stroll didn’t jump out of our way as North Americans do.

Almost everywhere here we have been able to find english-speakers in stores and restaurants. The only exception to this is in the smaller churches and in the local food market, where little old nuns, priests and the local fruitvendors understand little to no English. These less “touristy” locations have a more authentic Italian feel to them, and we have made use of hand gestures and our limited Italian vocabulary to get by, and enjoy ourselves nevertheless. We did, however, see all the standard attractions Florence had to offer, and were not disapointed. It is an amazing city. The duomo and its huge dome is a spectacle that was well worth visiting. We climbed over 500ft upwards through small rock staircases in the walls to enjoy an unparalleled view of the cathedral floor from a catwalk, and then outside to see the entirety of Florence from the dome’s top.

From duomo’s roof.

We also visited the Accademia Gallery, where we saw Michelangelo’s David (which you really cannot appreciate until you have seen the original up close), and enjoyed a large collection of late medievel and renaissance paintings. Seeing how art evolved in this time period, how the artists influenced/imitated one another, and the effects this had on religious artwork was interesting. On Sunday after an all-Italian mass in the small but beautiful Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, we managed to enjoy the city simply by cycling around. We saw the street life (and bought some apricots in a local market), crossed the Arno river to ride to the hilltop San Miniato monastery outside the city for a good view, and finished off the day by grabbing a gelatto.

NOT the real David, but a David none-the-less

View from San Miniato

San Miniato monastery exterior

The food is also wonderful here, from a simple, fresh Pizza a Pomodoro as you walk the streets at lunch, to the full, 3 course meals at one of the trattori that line the many piazzas. It gives us a better appreciation of the phrase, La Dolce Vita!

Enjoying the good life.

 We will leave you with a few more pictures from the trip. Ciao for Niao!

Drinking from a nasone – the proper way.

Duomo roof relief, the centre ‘eye’ is the oculus.

Duomo floor and hall – view from catwalk.

Campanile or belltower, from the roof of the cathedral’s dome.

Stove/Fuel Choice for Italy

In Italy, we hope to cut our costs down somewhat by cooking as many of our meals as possible. But, the availability of stove fuels is somewhat different that North America, meaning that choosing a stove is a little hard. White gas (camping fuel), and the standard EN417-threaded butane canisters so plentiful here are quite scant in most of Europe – Italy included. Across the pond, Campingaz’ dominance in the market means that its own proprietary canisters are ubiquitous throughout much of the continent, to the chagrin of many tourists, who won’t have much luck finding EN417 butane canisters for their stoves in all but the largest cities in Italy.*

*Update: We have completed our tour of Italy, and in fact did not have too much difficulty locating the EN417-threaded canisters.  We purchased our refill at an odd little “Liquigas” shop in Siena, a chain which appears to be unique to Italy. There are more of these shops, and so our advice would be to start the search there. The cylindrical, hairspray-type bayonet canister were no where to be found in the country whatsoever.

I, myself, am not a fan of the Campingaz canister system nor their stoves, which are relatively heavy and seem (to me) to be of inferior fit-and-finish to many MSR, Snow Peak, and Primus stoves. While MSR offers the Superfly stove which can fit both the EN417 and Campingaz canisters, it also happens to be fairly heavy and large – not something I’d want for travelling light. So, I broke down and ordered a stove that has consistently been praised for its light wight and compactness, performance, durability + quality of build, and simmering ability: the Snow Peak GigaPower SS Stove. But, you can’t have everything: the GigaPower runs only on the EN417 canisters.

Snow Peak GigaPower butane stove

In one of my earlier posts, I talked about cutting costs by using a butane can refill tool; you can top-off a used canister with one of the spray-paint shaped bayonet cans available in most hardware/grocery stores. In Italy, these cans are also supposedly common, and so I plan on finding one GigaPower canister in the camping stores of Firenze (Florence) where we fly in, and then continuing to refill that can as we travel on through the small hill-towns of Tuscany.

Another helpful tip for tourists: if you are willing to pay a small premium, many plumbing shops/hardware stores in Italian cities sell the EN417-threaded canisters for brazing torches, which can be used in a pinch.

Revised Italian Itinerary

*Watch for updates on this page.

The Italian cycling trip has changed quite significantly in the second rendition. Now, we will be avoiding the western oceanfront and heading through the heartland of Italy: Central Tuscany. The stops include  Firenze (Florence), where we’ll be flying in, followed by cycling through the great Italian hill towns of San Gimignano,  Volterra, Siena, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Orvieto and Viterbo. From Viterbo, the rest of the inter-city transit will be done by train; we head to Rome through the Ferrovie Regionale (regional railway), then Pompei and Napoli (Naples).

Some Sights:

Map

View Cycling Italy in a larger map

Itinerary

May:
     31. Depart from Toronto, Flight to Firenze (Florence)
June

  1. Arrive Firenze –> A few sights, then sleep off the jet-lag
  2. All Day Firenze
  3. More Firenze
  4. To San Gimignano (47km)
  5. To Volterra (27.5km)
  6. To Siena (48.5km)
  7. All Day Siena 
  8. To Montalcino (36km)
  9. To Montepulciano (37km)
  10. To Orvieto (64.6km)
  11. To Viterbo (42km)
  12. To Roma (Morning Train)
  13. Roma
  14. Roma
  15. To Pompei (Morning Train)
  16. Pompei
  17. To Napoli (Afternoon Train)
  18. Napoli, Flight to Toronto

Italy Trip: Itinerary in Brief

The planning continues, and now I’ve managed to figure out all the stops, the route and where we will camp on our journey from Florence to Rome, Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast. The aeroplane has been booked – leaving May 31 from Toronto Pearson, to arrive June 1 in Florence. We will be returning almost 3 weeks later, flying out on June 18th with 2 layovers (Frankfurt, Germany, and Washington, D.C.) before we arrive back in Toronto.

The Itinerary in Brief:


5/31 –  18:40 departure from Toronto
6/1 – 14:00 arrival in Florence! —-> Rest-up day.
6/2 – Touring Florence, seeing the sights.
6/3 – Florence to San Gimignano: 74km
       – 8:00 departure by bike
       – ETA 17:00
       – 17:00 – 20:00; dinner + evening in town
       – 21:00; Lodging – arrival @ Camping Baschetto di Piemma
6/4 – San Gimignano to Colleoli: 53km
       – 8:00 -13:00; breakfast/tour/lunch
       – 13:00 Depart
       – ETA 19:30 Colleoli
       – Lodging: Local Agriturismo
6/5 – Colleoli to Pisa: 43km
       – 8:00 Depart
       – ETA 13:00 Pisa
       – 13:00-17:00; Visit Leaning tour + duomo, museums, and explore town + got to market for food
       – 17:00; Lodging @ Camping Torre Pendente + Dinner
6/6 – Pisa to Orciano Pisano: 43km
       – 8:00-11:00; breakfast, early morning exploring town
       – 11:30 Depart, after lunch
       – ETA 17:30 Orciano
       – Lodging @ Camping Elena Country House
6/7 –  Orciano Pisano to Castagneto Carducci: 49km
       – 9:00 Depart
       – 13:00-14:30 Stop @ Rosignano Marittimo for sights, lunch
       – ETA 18:00 Castagneto
       – Lodging @ Camping Belmare
6/8 – Castagneto Carducci to Scarlino: 57km
       – 9:00 Depart
       – ETA 17:00
       – Lodging @  Camping Baia dei Gabbiani
6/9 – Scarlino to Grossetto: 40km
       -8:00 Depart
       – ETA 16:00
       – Lodging @ Agriturismo Il Querciolo
       – 16:30–21:00 Ride into town, Dinner, explore sights.
6/10 – Grossetto to Montalto di Castro: 73km

       -8:00 Depart
       – ETA 18:00
       – Lodging @ Camping Pionier Etrusco

6/11 – Montalto di Castro to Civitavecchia: 43km
       – 9:00 Depart
       – ETA 14:00 Civitavecchia
       – 15:30; FR5 Commuter ‘Ferrovie Regionale’ into Rome
       – ETA 16:00 Roma
       – Lodging @ Cheap B&B near Termini Station
6/12-13 – ROMA!
       – Two full days of exploration, sights, rome.
       – Lodging @ Cheap B&B near Termini Station
6/14 – Rome to Amalfi (by Train)
       – 8:00 Breakfast/ Packup
       -9:40 Train form Termini Stn. to Vietri-Amalfi
       – ETA 13:10 Amalfi
       – 13:30; Hotel check-in/drop off bikes, lunch
       – 14:30-21:00; Explore area/sights + market for groceries
       – Lodging @ Hotel
6/15 – Amalfi Coast!
       – More exploration & sight-seeing
6/16 – Amalfi to Pompei (by Train)
       – 8:00-12:00; Morning in Amalfi, breakfast
       – 12:00 Hotel checkout/ pack-up + lunch
       – 13:15; Depart from Vietri-Amalfi Stn.
       – ETA 14:05 Pompei Stn.
       – Explore the scenery/countryside by bicycle until evening
       – Lodging @ Hotel
6/17 – Pompei to Napoli (by Train)
        – 7:30; Early breakfast
        – 9:00-15:00 Explore Pompeii Ruins + On-The-Go lunch
        – 16:00; Depart Pompei Stn.
        – ETA 16:30 Napoli Centrale Stn.
        – 16:50; hotel check in, lock up bikes in room
        – Dinner, Exploration & Night on the Town
6/18 – Napoli/ Last-day Packup + Flight
        – 9:00 wakeup + breakfast
        – 10:30 Head to Naples Airport
        – 13:10 Departing flight
        – ETA 23:10 Toronto Pearson

Most of the beginning of the jorney is by bicycle, is the far-less-crowded Tuscant leg of the journey. Shortly after Civitavecchia, the only direct-route roads become crowded, fast-traffic Via Regionale (Regional Highways) – not nice for cycling. Therefore, for the rest of the trip, we will be bring our bicycles on the train with us as we travel which adds ~5.00 to each train ticket), and use them for sight-seeing and local rides in town. The economic and short 30 minute and 1hr Ferrovie Regionale (Regional Train) rides will allow us to see the Bay of Naples, Pompei and the Amalfi Coast without taking a longer trip, and without risking our necks on the hillier/more crowded roadways of south-western Italy. 

Italian Trip in the Planning

From early June this year, for two weeks, I’ll be in Europe. Mostly Tuscany, to be more specific – since my dad and I are planning to do little father-son bike trip in Italy this summer. Italy isn’t quite the most cycling friendly nation out there, I will admit (the Netherlands, Germany or France would be much better choices), but the Mediterranean climate, Roman ruins and picturesque scenes wherever one goes have swayed us.  That, and I kinda want to say “Hi!” to the pope.

Pisa’s Leaning Tower. I bet you a nickel this is
the image that appeared in your brain when you read “Italy.”
As a veteran map-reader (from my boy-scouting days), I have been assigned the somewhat-daunting task of planning the cycling route, and all of our destinations. With a guidebook or two, and tips from friends, I’ve got the basic event agenda structured. But, what is really difficult however is the route forming; Italian roads are notoriously narrow (no shoulders!) and the drivers frequenting them are just as notorious for their high speeds and impatience. 
Google Maps is a wonderful tool for this, and I have been using its full potential to see possible routes, right down to the elevation, and (thanks to street view) whether or not there are provisions for cyclists. Street view certainly also helps when trying to determine the road’s traffic volume. 
Check out the Route:
View Cycling Italy in a larger map
Itinerary (So Far):
Day 1: Arrive by plane in Florence. Tour the city for the day, then sleep off the jet-lag.
Day 2: Cycle from Florence to the historic San Gimigiano. 
3: San Gimigiano to Pisa
Days 4-10: Pisa, south along the Italian west cost, arriving in Rome. (The route has been mapped, but not the stops)
Day 11: Rome!!
Days 12-14ish: Train south to Naples, visiting Pompeii and the Amaplhi coast. 
If you have any suggestions/tips, feel free to leave some below in comments. 

New 29er Monstercross from Surly

Quite a few years ago, Surly introduced the then-revolutionary Karate Monkey frameset (they claim it was one of the first commercially-produced 29er frames). Now, Surly has taken the concept behind their utility bike, the Troll, and bumped it up from 26in wheels to 29in:

The new Surly Ogre.  Credit: Surly Bikes
Surly says that their new frame has geometry similar to the Karate Monkey (which, by following their numbers, it does), but with all the function of the Troll. What does this mean? Well, it has:
– Front and rear Canti/Linear brake mounts
– Disk brake tabs
– Double dropout eyelets, both front and back (so you can mount fenders and racks all round!)
– Specifically design for fender clearance (yay!)
– Fits up to 29 x 2.5″ tires, more that one should ever reasonably need
– Full-housing cable mounts 
– Surly-compatible trailer mount
The bike seems well-equipped to be an all-rounder, off-road (or road) tourer, or nice singletrack companion. 
The only quibble I have with this frame is that there is no down tube cable stop, or place to bolt one on (as in the Origin 8 CX700). Be prepared to have to DIY a cable stop if you want to use drop bars. I like the offset seat tube, which will definitely aid in fender-izing your bike. 
So far, the bike frames aren’t yet in stock or in stores, so there isn’t much to go buy in terms of user reviews. Twentynineinches.com reports that the Ogre frame+fork combo will likely be offered at a sub $500 price, similar to the Karate Monkey ($475 MSRP). However, don’t forget the price on novelty! I suspect that the price will be slightly higher than the Karate Monkey, due to this model filling in a niche market (with the Salsa Fargo, Orgin8 CX700, Singular Peregrine and little else competing with it). 

"Tandem"

Lets get to the picture first:

I’m on the left; O’Malley is on the right. Pay no attention to
the photo-bomber in the back. 
Explanation: With the parts removed from my old blue GT Vantara frame, it was simply sitting around, and with a rusted chain stay that proved troublesomely flexible on the Peugeot UE-8 frame of my friend  (the “$33 Touring Bike” ), we thus decided to swap all of his parts over the Vantara. 
I am lending the GT frame to my pal (under the condition that he guard it well), and so was stuck with figuring out how the get the Peugeot frame home with him riding on the other bike frame. Quite quickly, this freak was born. First, the front wheel was removed from the Peugeot, and the rear chainstays (which, remember, were too flexible) were bent to fit the front hub. The front wheel was slipped onto the back of the frame, and the fork was zip-tied through its eyelets to the other bike’s rack. A bungee cord was added for good measure. 
It worked; he got home safe and sound, with both frames. 
The Vantara, interestingly enough, is able to use old 27″ wheelsets, even though it has cantilever brakes and is designed for 700c. By adding a a thick washer to both sides of the rear hub, we were even able to adapt it from 126mm to fit the Vantara’s 130mm rear spacing. Worked like a charm. Too bad the same couldn’t be said about the Peugeot’s front wheel – the “French Standard” 90mm front hubs from back in the day never work with any new frames (which are 100mm). The bolts and quick release are always too short, nor would I really want to add washers if I could, and possibly jeopardize the front’s handling. 
Technically, it is still a $33 dollar touring rig, with a loaned ~$70 frame (the front wheel is lent also!). But don’t  let that fool you! Decent, non-rusty, frames can be had all around for free, and just a few will give you all the parts you need to build a cheap touring-ready steed. For any Torontonians out there, I recommend “Bike Pirates“, and even better still is the “Community Bicycle Network“. These guys sell quite a few complete old bicycles for cheap, and have used parts from derailleurs to BBs to handlebars for only a few dollars each, so you too can build up an entry-level rig.