Road biking in Umbria

A world full of beautiful back roads wending their way through valleys, fields, medieval hilltop towns, up mountains. Umbria is a great place to ride.

It’s known mostly for food and festivals. Where I was, the countryside is dotted with agri-turismo places — basically farms where you stay the night, get fed and if you like, help on the farm, or go riding, hiking, mushroom picking, whatever you want. I was fortunate, though, to be able to stay with friends. So I’m of no help in finding accommodation.

It was quiet, remote, and 100 per cent authentic.

There are downsides to this authenticity. Everything is not arranged for your amusement as a tourist. There is suburban blight, industrial wasteland and charmless modern agriculture. You’ll really want to speak Italian or start learning how to use Google Translate.

Come for the views, stay for the tarmac

Monte Santa Maria Tiberina
Monte Santa Maria Tiberina

But on the upside, it seemed a lot easier to get support for your bike where I was than it might have been, say, an equivalent distance outside Ottawa. There were bicycle shops and public fountains in almost the tiniest of towns. And while roads are narrow and cars drive fast, I encountered no close-passes, road rage or other cycling nemeses. Possibly because roads are so narrow, cars often slow or stop to ensure they can squeeze past oncoming traffic. So they’re used to slowing and not passing. Also I got to moto-draft tractors.

The paved roads I rode were, for the most part, in quite good shape. There was one stretch of the SP42 that was dangerously pitted and on the verge of collapse, though, and sometimes cycle trails turned to dirt. One I found blocked by a chain link fence.

It is hilly. Well — more so than I’m used to, anyway. Here in Ottawa, you seek out the hills, typically by riding into Gatineau Park where the longest climb (up the Fortune Parkway from Meech Lake Road to the Belvedère Huron is around 6km long, gaining 190m at an average grade of 4%. Where I was in Umbria there was no need to search out hills. They found you. I would start every ride 680m above sea level, descend to the Tiber River valley, go up and down a lot, then cap off every ride with some sort of climb. There were three: the Tease, the Tourist and the Terror. All of them involved about as much elevation gain as your average Gatineau Park Loop. So any other climbing was over and above what I’m used to.

Other climbs are in the range of eight to 16 or 20km long, with gradients between 4 and 7 per cent. Earnest effort is required, to be sure, but apart from the gravel track up Monte Nerone, I didn’t encounter anything overly difficult.

If that sounds exciting, know that it’s not mountainous. I had thought about taking the rental car and driving north to do one of Italy’s epic mountain climbs, but the drive times were all in the four to five hour range. And I was keen on keeping it simple and not spending time in the car.

I did have to change my frame of reference on how many kilometres constitutes a ‘proper’ effort. In flatland, I consider 60 to 70km to be a cute, pre-breakfast jaunt — a good distance for intervals or intensity. A long tour is anything over about 120km. More than 180km is a challenging endurance ride. But all the extra climbing made me recalibrate. 40km became the new 60km, etc etc. Do consider this if, like me, you don’t do a lot of hilly rides, before you commit to that 120km raid. Elevation gain is significant.

RidewithGPS earns its subscription fee here. When you’re planning a route, it gives you a crib sheet of major climbs and descents that you’ve put on your route, including elevation changes and average gradient. Select a climb from the list and it situates it on your map in case you have second thoughts.

Finding the good routes

I found one of my routes on this site. But It helped me a lot to have RidewithGPS and specifically users on RidewithGPS. Namely Iron Donkey. They run biking tours out of a small town close to where I was staying and with a little adaptation I was able to put together rides with some confidence that I wouldn’t be routing myself along a freeway, over a cliff or along a rutted donkey trail. Mostly.

There was one bit of improvisation where I got it wrong, namely the route I took up Monte Nerone. On the map it looked like just another squiggly road up a really tall hill. In reality it was a barely viable rocky path which required lots of walking, especially when it kicked up to 12 per cent gradient on rocks bigger than my fist.

There is a perfectly decent paved road that goes all the way up to the top, but mister “Death before double back” had to plan a loop route.

Some things I discovered in putting together routes: SS is Strada Statale, generally busier, wider roads. Rideable, but can harsh your mellow if used for long periods of time. SP is Strada Provinciale, a regional road. Most likely paved though not guaranteed to be smooth. Autostrada anything is a highway and no go zone. Named roads are frequently paved but can turn into gravel of declining quality the further you stray from the SPs and SSs.

Renting or bringing the bike

I considered briefly the idea of bringing my bike from home. But in the end I decided that the rental cost would beat the cost of a bike box, baggage charges and the aggravation of getting the bike, in box, from Ottawa to Heathrow to Stansted to Perugia and back again by a large margin.

The rental bike

What I really needed from my bike were the power meter pedals. And those are easily detached.

I think if you travel a lot to go biking, it’s possible the rental fees — 50 euros per day or thereabouts for a nice road bike — might add up to the cost of a bike box. But really, I think bike vacationers know that they’re bringing their bike not to save money but to get more enjoyment out of their holiday.

Because a lot of the time rental bikes suck.

My rental bike was pretty much standard fare. It had good geometry, components and was respectable from my bike snob point of view. The rental company was friendly, reliable and helpful. But there’s just something about rental bikes and problems that seems inevitable. This time, my chain broke. This being Italy, however, there were a lot of options for getting it repaired. My sister and I found a high-end bike shop in Città di Castello that fixed it for free (though likely because we were also buying a bike rack). So in the end I lost no ride time to mechanical problems.

The weather

Fatigue on the other hand, yes. Heat? Yes. I lost time to fatigue and heat for sure.

Italy is pretty hot in summer. I went in July, which is normally when vacationers avoid Italy because of the heat. But that was the time I had. So I just dealt with it. I’m not at all used to cycling in high heat. We don’t get all that much of it in Canada. Not really.

I brought my lightest kit, bought some electrolyte tablets and did most of my riding early in the morning, aiming to be home before 11am. I mostly managed it, except for climbing Monte Nerone where a late start and a terrible routing error meant I didn’t get out of the sun until 2pm. And even then, I completed the ride. It’s just I had to stop to recover for a bit on the Uppiano climb. My heart was thundering and yet my legs seemed to be rubber.

It’s pretty easy to find water — whether at a public fountain or at a café in a small town. No one ever made me buy a bottle, for example, if I was out. I’d put a tablet in one bottle and leave the other ‘pure’.

My general guideline is that if the cicadas are so loud as to drown out all road noise, it’s time to find shade and stop pedalling.

The rides I did

I did my riding about an hour and a half north of Perugia, Umbria’s capital. Far and away the defining feature of this part of the region is the Tiber River (Fiume Tevere). All the towns are built on hills in its valley or on the valley walls.

So routes in the area involve flat stretches through the Tiber Valley itself then short, sharp climbs up to the towns, then back down again. You do steeper, sustained climbs if you want to change river valleys, say, to go to Arezzo, which sits on hills overlooking the Arno River. I got a taste of that when I rode to Cortona.

This shorter ride sends you down “the stairs”, through the valley past farmland and sparsely settled suburbs then to the outskirts of Città di Castello, then back up and over the hills to Monte Santa Maria di Tiberina. Taken as mapped, you ascend the Montesca Uppiano, which Strava describes as a 7.62km climb that gains 365m of elevation for an average gradient of 5%.

A lovely little metric century off into another river valley. More of a proper site-seeing loop, this one, where you travel out of the farmland up into wooded hills (with… oh… about 20km of light (2-4%) climbing) before desending into the Arno River valley and cruising through two medieval towns, on roads lined with manicured trees, ornate villas. Many many espresso opportunities therein.

Then you climb. About 18km steady of somewhere between 3 and 5% gradient as you’re heading back toward the Tiber valley. But you get to coast for about the same distance until you hit the valley floor at kilometre 80 of this route.

This route descends the Uppiano climb (aka Montesca Uppiano) and takes you into and through Città di Castello (not through the pedestrian-only walled city, you do get roads, but they’re urban) and then heads north west to Sansepolcro through farmland along flat roads.

The route back toward home takes a significant jog eastward at Fighile all the way past Pistrino before turning back uphill toward Citerna. I think this is because the gradual climb up to the town gives you some lovely views while sparing your legs a bit. Judging by the hairpin turns and its length, I’m guessing the Località Atena is a harsher climb.

Citerna itself is the reason for the ride. A small but well-appointed hilltop town that welcomes visitors without being all tourist-trappy about it.

So I had to Do a Climb™. I couldn’t come all this way and just cruise the Tiber Valley. And Monte Nerone is the tallest one in these here parts. I learned afterward. This route has you riding peacefully through attractive rolling hills, through farmland and woodlands, once you get past Promano, which for me involved some confusing wayfinding and tense-making involvement with traffic.

Montone, Pietralunga and the route to the start of the climb are lovely. For the climb itself, know that if you follow my track you will want wide tires and good lungs. And possibly front suspension. From where I veered right off the SP28 at Massa to where I joined the SP Monte Nerone is gravel and boulder track that has bikeable stretches but has a number of places where the big rocks and > 14% gradients were too much for me and my 28mm road tires.

If you cannot abide doing an up-and-back, maybe try going back down the other side through Piobicco, if you have the time.

It may be because I did this route on a weekend, I saw a lot of other road riders but I imagine this circuit is a popular one. Certainly the part that’s on the Arezzo side of the hill, between Campi and the SP39. The Santa Maria alla Rassinatta climb itself is 10km long, gaining 525m at an average gradient of 5 per cent. Which makes it a Cat 4.

This is a down-into-the-valley and back up again ride. Not a lot of new ground here, but trying some different roads here. Was fine. A bit more time spent on working roads amid traffic.

It’s not likely your start point will be the same as mine, but in case you’re considering it, know that the road through Poggio dei Cerri is a dirt track deeply rutted by vehicle tracks and not maintained, though it’s marked the same as the graded, rough gravel Via San Martino.

This route features a stretch of hard packed dirt multi-use trail along the Tiber from Selci Lama to Città di Castello. And of course the usual ‘mild’ Umbrian hills.