Note: Our 50th year celebration includes a special tribute to three Classic ExperiencePlus! tours: Bike Across Italy, Best of Provence, and Cycling the Camino de Santiago. We selected these tours for what they represent, where they are located, and why they appeal to so many. This article celebrates Bike Across Italy and was featured in our December 2021 Rambler Newsletter. Join any departure of Bike Across: Venice to Florence or Venice to Pisa in 2022 and be treated to a special on-tour experience and commemorative Bike Across Italy cycling apparel.
Bike Across Italy Turns 50by Carol Busch - Thursday, December 16, 2021
Like ExperiencePlus! itself, Bike Across Italy: Venice to Pisa is a journey that has always been rooted in family. This formula has been extended to all destinations and as a result, ExperiencePlus! has always designed its tours to cultivate and share an intimacy with people and place.
On the very first Bike Across Italy tour in 1972 this meant camping every night. And, that first group of intrepid cyclists (no one was wearing a jersey let alone bike shorts) “ended the tour in grand style at the youth hostel in Pisa with drinks under the leaning tower,” as Rick shared in a previous blog post about how Bike Across Italy began. It also meant meeting our family at the family farm and having immersive food and wine experiences throughout the trip – something that still happens on every departure to this day.
While the tour has evolved, some key elements have remained. To co-owner Maria Elena Price, Bike Across Italy is not just a classic tour because it was the “first/original” tour. “It’s a classic because it brings together some of the best elements of bike touring,” she says, especially “the ability to truly see a place and get to know it as you ride along at the pace of two wheels.”
In fact, most people who go on the tour end up remarking more about the lesser known small towns they explored rather than the big and iconic ones. Plus, riders still see many of the the same sights that were on that first 1972 trip, including the family “farm,” Pisa, Lucca and the thrill of cycling over the Apennines.
Early evolutions of the tour we know today
We recently went back to Rick for more reflections on the early days of Bike Across Italy. His retelling of the tour’s evolutions highlights the many variables that affect how a route changes over the years – from avoiding traffic to discovering a perfect gelato, to the closing of a much-loved hotel. He writes:
“After a successful start for Bike across Italy in 1972 we failed to sell more than two people on tours in 1973. So, we took the summer off and returned to Oregon to travel and camp. After that we spent most of the 1970s completing five degrees between us at the University of Oregon and launching our family with Monica, who was born in 1978.
We started Bike Across Italy again in 1984-85 as a part of a suite of tours under the name ‘Italian Specialty Tours.’ These included bicycle tours, wine tours, walking tours, historical tours like Dante’s and Shakespeare’s Italy and Hannibal’s Italy. Of all these offerings, only Bike Across Italy caught on.
We conducted one tour in 1985 with brand new 10 speed bicycles that we bought from Elio Vicini’s bike factory in Cesena. Unlike the 1972 tours when we camped, this time we stayed in small family run hotels or pensions. In Florence we found a wonderful three-star hotel close to the center run by a family that had been in the hotel business for three generations.
For the first two years we started the tour with three nights in Paola‘s hometown of Forli, where we were well-connected. We stayed in Paola’s father’s hotel in Forli, a small pension in the center of town. This was a popular local hotel with a restaurant that specialized in regional food from Romagna. Some of our favorite food stories about eating on tour come from this hotel.
By spending three nights in Forli we could also work in a weekend ride with the local bike club, we could visit wineries, and we could visit the Hill town of Bertinoro.
From Forli, the tour went over the Apennine mountains to Florence and down the Arno River to Pisa. Over the years we have taken different routes on the 3,000 foot climb over the Apennine Mountains depending on which hotels were available.
In 1987 we decided to start the tour in Venice and go through Ravenna. We thought that Venice and Ravenna might attract more people. Indeed, by 1989 we were filling five tours every summer. A full tour was 22 customers plus the two of us as tour leaders. This was about the amount of luggage a 1978 Volkswagen bus could hold!
In the mid ‘90s we finally switched our route to go through nearby Faenza because of traffic in Forli and limited hotel availability. Around the same time we also decided to end the tour in Lucca instead of Pisa because we discovered it was a more pleasant town with good hotels in the Medieval city center.”
“While we’ve adjusted the small towns or lodging between Venice and Florence, we still love being able to stay in non-touristy places, where real Italians live in small towns and you can get a great flavor of Italy,” says co-owner Monica Price.
An Arrow is Born
Leading a group of 20+ cyclists across Italy in the early days had its navigational challenges. Customers had to stick together as they followed the leader, voice commands were often necessary but not always audible, and paper cue sheets were not easy to manage and update. The idea for what became the iconic ExperiencePlus! arrow came to life in 1985 during a dinner conversation in Vinci on Day 7.
“We’d had enough days of losing people or running after them, it was an issue on everybody’s mind,” Rick recounts in this ExperiencePlus! blog post on the history of the arrow. “Somebody in the group – I don’t remember who – said, why don’t you use chalk?”
Armed with an old Clorox bottle, a funnel, a little water and a 10-kilo bag of chalk dust from the local hardware store, the first arrows were born… or poured. In those days the two-person tour leader team consisted of founders Rick and Paola. One person drove the support van and the other rode with the customers. So, to test out this new method, Rick drove and stopped at key intersections to make arrows on the road.
This was a game changer that came with its own learning curve. There was the time some kids erased two critical chalk dust arrows one day and that sent three or four customers on a climb up Monte Trebbio, a classic climb in the Giro d’Italia. “Those kids taught us how to be very careful with the placement of our arrows,” Rick says.
But after some of trial and error the Experience Plus! arrow has morphed into a navigational tool that satisfies customers to this day. We call it “guided independence” and although it now competes with geo tracking software, it remains a standard feature on nearly all ExperiencePlus! tours (our Explorer tours provide GPS navigation only).
Lessons from the Road
Although its been decades since the first Bike Across Italy tours ran, one thing remains the same: cylists need to drink and eat. A walk down memory lane wouldn’t be complete without tales from the empty bottle and belly, as told by Rick:
“I can remember having dinner with a small group of nine or 10 guys. Toward the end of dinner as things were winding down somebody noticed the bottle of wine on the table was still half full.
‘Whoa,’ said the customer. ‘We paid for this we might as well finish it.’ And he served those around him.
No sooner had he done that than a fresh bottle appeared. This was local tradition. In Romagna the wine at dinner flows until dinner is over and people stop drinking it.
Another anecdote from that time took a little longer to unfold. Three days after we left Forli the group was sitting around talking about what great breakfasts they had had at Paola’s father’s hotel. Because it was a small hotel, staff that came in to serve breakfast also began to prepare for the lunch service. Some days that included a vegetable buffet with cooked spinach, tomatoes, and grilled eggplant. In setting this out while still serving breakfast, the staff didn’t know that their hungry young American guests didn’t realize it was not breakfast. They cleaned out the vegetable buffet before anybody could say anything!”