Riding in Italy

Published on:  | Last updated: 19 March 2017

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What to expect

Cycling in Italy

One of the striking things about cycling in Italy is not so much the sheer number of cyclists, but the fact that its still very much a normal mode of transport for people of all ages. A senior on a bike is a pretty rare sight at home in London but a pretty common one in Italy. For getting around the centre of many Italian towns they are defin­itely the most practical altern­ative.

There are also cities where the proportion of people using a bike for their daily transport is among the highest in Europe - over a quarter of people in Bozen (Bolzano) and Ferrara use a bike day-to-day. But paradox­ically the car still reigns supreme: Italy has the highest rate of car ownership in the whole of Europe, and it’s noticeable that all though civic leaders are happy to quote the kilometres of cycle lanes in their city it’s rare to see these cycle lanes being achieved at the expense of the road space devoted to the car.

As a sport, cycling has given way to calcio (soccer) as Italy’s number 1 sport, but local cycle clubs still remain an important part of local life.

Critical Mass poster Rome

Critical Mass poster Rome

Roads and road conditions

In general Italian roads are very good, but there are a couple of things to bear in mind:

  • Italian roads live a very hard life: extreme temper­atures from very hot in summer to very cold in winter, heavy winter rains, mountains that move, earth­quakes, landslides, subsidence;
  • the quieter minor roads are also the roads that are likely to be lower down the list of prior­ities when it comes to maintenance.

In some areas you’ll find that unsur­faced roads have been preserved as part of the landscape: the strade blanche (white roads) of Toscana are the best-known examples. Often these roads are at least as well maintained as the asphalt roads.

You will find that that in the south there are more roads in poor condition.

What tyres/​wheels?

You’ll see plenty of Italian cyclists out with narrow tyres and racing bike wheels. You certainly don’t need an exped­ition bike, or even a contin­ental-European- trekking bike. But that said, if you’re travelling fully-loaded then a good pair of sturdy wheels are a good idea, and wider tyres will certainly help with comfort and give you greater flexib­ility.

Road safety

According to the OECD statistics for road traffic fatal­ities, Italy's roads are relat­ively safe.

It’s much more difficult to compar­isons of statistics of cycling safety as these depend very much on the numbers of cyclists on the road and how much they ride. My perception, which is entirely subjective, is that cycling in Italy is no more dangerous than cycling in the UK (or for that matter France). If you’re coming from the Netherlands or Germany where there are lots of cycleways then you may have a different perspective on things.

In any case, the large minority of cycling accidents happen in towns and cities: cycle touring on quiet country roads is pretty safe - and if you want you can stick to traffic-free cycleways and still have plenty of scope.

The Italian animator-cartoonist Bruno Bozzetto has made a very funny cartoon about driving in Italy ('A dysedu­ca­tional movie'): Come Guidare - Si e No (How to Drive - Yes and No). Not to be taken seriously, but some of it does defin­itely ring true.

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Drivers

Forget any stereo­types about hot-headed Latins, in my exper­ience, Italian drivers are courteous and consid­erate as any you’ll find. That doesn’t mean that you won’t come across the occasional jerk who thinks they own the road. But generally they will give you space (although you may just need to give them a nudge - see traffic tactics below). On narrow busy roads with oncoming traffic they may need to give you less space than they might do on quiet roads but that’s inevitable. This doesn’t mean to that Italian drivers are angels - see Bad Habits below.

Motorcyclists

There are lots of Italian motor­cyc­lists and Italy seems to be a popular destin­ation for motor­cyc­lists. I biker often seem to be drawn to the same roads as cyclists. On summer weekends in the more popular areas there can be a lot of motor­bikes around. This isn’t usually a problem - although I would avoid the Sella Ronda at weekends.

Now don’t get me wrong: so far as I can see most motor­cyc­lists are safe and consid­erate road-users, but there is a minority of esagerati tear-assing around.

Lorries

In Italy it’s common to see double-trailer lorries with a second trailer that’s as big as a medium-sized truck. If you’re coming from Britain where these aren’t so common your first encounter with one may come as a bit of a shock as it steams past you. If you come from a country where you have road trains then you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Lorry and trailer (carrying bottled water)

Lorry and trailer (carrying bottled water)

Using the horn.

Another thing that may take a bit of getting used to (depending on the road manners of drivers in your own country) is that there are still some Italian drivers who use their horn as it should be used: as an alert rather than to signify ‘get out of my way’. In mountainous areas in particular some drivers will us the horn (normally a double toot) to signal when approaching a blind bend. Sadly this very sensible courtesy/​precaution seems to be dying out, but drivers of large vehicles, buses etc still use it a lot. They are also pretty good about using their horns as a warning before passing - although this can be a bit of a double-edged sword as you hear the rumble of the engine and then out of the blue a really loud horn that sounds more like it belongs on the bridge of an oil-tanker than on a lorry. And yes, very occasionally you’ll encounter the jerk who thinks that sounding his horn entitles him to pass you too close and too fast.

Bad habits

That isn’t to say Italian drivers are angels: even though it’s illegal to use your mobile (cellular) while driving many, (most?) still do.

One situation to be wary of is the driver who has been patiently (or more likely, impatiently) waiting the oppor­tunity to overtake suddenly who seeing their oppor­tunity decides to go for it - appar­ently completely oblivious to the hapless cyclist coming the other way, Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen (it’s happened to me several times) and it’s very scary when it does, so it’s something to be aware of and watch out for.

And on the subject of bad habits, there's the tendency of some Italian drivers to throw their rubbish out of the window. I'm sure it is just a minority but I said a hearty 'Amen' when I saw this sign on a roadside in the Veneto appealing to drivers to stop throwing rubbish out of the window. The choice of a water bottle isn't accidental - along with cigarette packets water and soft drinks bottles make up the lion's share of roadside litter. (I'd also stress that I don't believe Italian drivers are worse than drivers in other countries).

Sign on a roadside in the Veneto appealing to motorists not to throw bottles out of the window: 'basta' means 'enough'

Sign on a roadside in the Veneto appealing to motorists not to throw bottles out of the window: 'basta' means 'enough'

Pedestrian crossings

One of the worst features of driving in Italy is the way many drivers ignore pedes­trian crossings. (And I should say, this isn’t a North-South thing: some of the worst behaviour I’ve seen has been in the North). I’ve had a car swerve round me as I’ve been crossing a road. Sadly reports of pedes­trians (often old people) killed or injured crossing at pedes­trian crossings occur regularly in local papers. Don’t get me wrong: there are many drivers who behave courteously and for some reason some cities seem to be better than others, but this is a common problem.

This can make life problematic for you as a cyclist as well: I’ve had a driver honk his horn at me because I had stopped at a pedes­trian crossing. And you can stop, and find that the waiting pedes­trian doesn’t cross - preferring to wait until the coast is completely clear. My advice would be to stop, but be aware of situations where you may be at risk from vehicles behind you who may not be expecting you to stop.

Staying safe and sane

As a touring cyclist, the problems you’re may encounter may be more likely to occur on the quiet roads than the busy ones - the sort of road where you start to think you have the road to yourself and you start to drift out on the bends … and so do oncoming cars and motor­cyc­lists.

Traffic tactics

I’ve found that if you ride along the edge of the road then most drivers will act as if you aren’t there, and if I ride a metre or so in from the edge of the road then they register that I am on the road and that they need to do a proper overtaking manoeuvre (I don’t think this is restricted to drivers in Italy, I suspect that drivers’ psychology is pretty similar wherever you are). Clearly you have to apply a lot of common sense - especially on narrow roads and on the approach to bends. I would also never do this where there is oncoming traffic but on quietish roads with little oncoming traffic roads I tend to ride a metre-or-so in, and then when I hear a car coming behind me, pull over.

When the going gets tough .. pull over

If you are on a narrow road you can find that traffic comes in bursts for example a lorry is followed by a group of cars, or even other lorries, who haven’t been able to overtake. Sometimes rather than getting stressed and buffeted in the slipstream it’s just easier to pull over to the verge for a few seconds and then carry on when the world has passed you by.

Tunnels.

You can go a very long way in Italy without running into a tunnel but it’s best to be be prepared for them - any mountainous area (and that covers most of Italy) will have tunnels somewhere. Often these are on the main roads that you’d probably be avoiding anyway, and often there is a way to avoid them, but every so often you have to take them.

The legal require­ments are that you need to wear high-viz clothing in tunnels and when visib­ility is poor. Personally I think a flashing rear light is more effective, but I’d defin­itely carry both. Sometimes it’s tempting not to bother - especially if the tunnel looks short - but often the tunnel turns out to be longer and darker than you thought. In a dark tunnel a vehicle coming up behind you sounds noisier/​scarier than it would on the open road; a nice big bright light on the back means you won’t be worrying about whether the driver of the has seen you or not.

Cycleways and cycle routes

Italy has a number of extremely good cycleways suitable for cycle touring, with the greatest concen­tra­tions in the north and north-east of the country especially the Südtirol and Trentino. If you’re looking to do a tour using predom­in­antly traffic-free cycleways then this is the part of Italy to go to.

Although there are a lot of very good cycleways there isn’t in practice a national cycle network. The FIAB national cyclists organ­isation are making heroic efforts to promote a national network, in practice local author­ities tend to seem to go their own way with cycleways having their own local names and signage. They also seem promote the cycleways as individual discrete entities, so while you’ll see very good signage on a cycleway the signs almost always finish with the cycleway. It’s rare to see signed on-road routes for cyclists (although there are very good excep­tions in Piemonte and Toscana). Local tourist author­ities tend (for perfectly under­standable reasons) to promote cycleways as destin­a­tions in themselves - and it is rare to see them promoting long-distance routes.

Bicitalia cycleway signs near Parma

Rare examples of Bicitalia cycleway signs, Parma

Signs on cycleways

You’ll often find that there are plenty of signs telling you that you are on a cycleway. Other signage is much more variable: in some places (like the Mantova area) it can be absolutely excellent, but in other areas it’s more problematic:

  • as a general rule, the national routes aren’t signposted (the Via Claudia Augusta is the main exception);
  • where cycleways are signposted the sign will refer to the local name used by the regional or local authority. This isn’t so much a problem for the major cycleways, but you it helps to know the local names;
  • if you are on the routes that use quiet roads then a gps with the detailed Open Street Maps map is pretty much essential.

Urban cycle lanes and cycleways

There are basically three types of cycle lane:

  • dedicated cycle lanes for the exclusive use of cyclists;
  • cycle lanes that are created by painting a separate lane on the pavement;
  • shared-use paths - these can range from a sign that gives permission to cycle on the pavement (sidewalk) to a traffic-free way that is for use by both cyclists and pedes­trians (a pista ciclope­donale).

Cyclists are required to use the first two types.

These are the signs:

Cycleway signs

Cycleway signs

Note that the cycle on the blue background is also often used to indicate an advisory cycle route that may also be used by other vehicles.

Warning sign - cycle route used by motor vehicles

Warning sign - cycle route used by motor vehicles

So far as I can tell these require­ments are widely ignored. That doesn’t of course mean that you might not be unlucky … My philo­sophy is to use cycle lanes where these have been provided but I draw the line when they have been provided by robbing space from the long-suffering Italian pedes­trian.

Many Italian cities make excellent provision for cyclists. There are a quite a lot two-way cycle lanes that are physically separated from the rest of the road. These are often excellent, but, they have their disad­vantages - at least from the perspective of the touring cyclist who doesn’t know the area. If the cycle lane is on your side of the road (ie your right-hand side) then it’s easy to switch onto it, but if it’s on the other side of the road you can be left with the dilemma of wondering whether to cross over and run the risk of finding out that the cycle lane runs out a little way further up the road, meaning that you then have to cross back over.

Pedestrians and pedestrian zones

Sign for a pedestrian-only area - 'eccetto velocipedi' means that the ban on vehicles doesn't apply to bikes

Sign for a pedes­trian-only area - 'eccetto velocipedi' means that the ban on vehicles doesn't apply to bikes

One of the great things about cycling in Italy is the fact that so many cities have a Zona Traffico Limitato - or zona pedonale. A Zone Traffico Limitato is an area where only local residents (and delivery vans etc) are banned, while a zone pedonale is limited to pedes­trians. Very often you’ll find that cyclists are allowed to use the zone pedonale (look for words like ‘eccetto velocipedi’ - legal-speak for cyclists) but there isn’t an automatic right and there are pedes­trian zones where bikes aren’t allowed. Again so far as I can see, this is widely ignored.

In purely practical terms the streets of the centro storico of most historic towns can be very narrow and if you are going to cycle them you need to ride with patience and care and be prepared to get off and push if need be.

The legal require­ments on cyclists are pretty similar to those in other countries. The major difference for some readers will be the requirement to wear a high-visib­ility gilet in tunnels, or outside of centres of population between dawn and dusk (strictly speaking half an hour after dusk and half an hour before dawn).

For the curious, here is the section of the Codice Stradale (Highway Code) setting out the require­ments for cyclists:

1. Cyclists must ride in single file whenever traffic condi­tions require them to do so, and never more than two abreast. When riding outside centres of population they must always ride in single file except when one of the riders is less than ten years old and is riding on the right of the other.

2. Cyclists must always have their arms and hands free to control the handlebar with at least one hand, and must be able at all times to see in front and to either side of them and able to undertake the necessary manoeuvres.

3. Cyclists are prohibited from pulling vehicles, except as permitted by the law. They are also prohibited from leading animals or being pulled by another vehicle.

4. Cyclists must dismount and walk with their bikes whenever they might be an obstacle or a danger to pedes­trians. In such cases they become pedes­trians and must act with common sense and care.

5. Cyclists must not transport other people on their bikes except where the bike is suitably designed and equipped. An adult may carry a child of up to eight years of age - suitably secured and using equipment as required by paragraph 5 of article 68.

6. Cycles constructed and licensed for the carriage of other people may only be ridden by the driver.

7. Vehicles to which paragraph 6 may carry a maximum of 4 adults, including the driver, plus two children up to ten years old.

8. The require­ments of Article 170 apply to the transport of animals.

9. Cyclists must ride on the cycle lanes or cycleways [piste] reserved for them where these exist, except where prohibited from doing so by regula­tions.

9a Cyclists riding outside of centres of population between a half hour after sunset and half an hour before dawn, or riding in tunnels, must wear a retro-reflective high-visib­ility gilet or bretelle [literally braces (suspenders) - similar to a 'Sam Browne' belt] that meets the require­ments of paragraph 4 of article 162.

Text in Italian

Art. 182. Circolazione dei velocipedi.

1. I ciclisti devono procedere su unica fila in tutti i casi in cui le condizioni della circol­azione lo richiedano e, comunque, mai affiancati in numero superiore a due; quando circolano fuori dai centri abitati devono sempre procedere su unica fila, salvo che uno di essi sia minore di anni dieci e proceda sulla destra dell’altro.

2. I ciclisti devono avere libero l’uso delle braccia e delle mani e reggere il manubrio almeno con una mano; essi devono essere in grado in ogni momento di vedere libera­mente davanti a sé, ai due lati e compiere con la massima libertà, prontezza e facilità le manovre neces­sarie.

3. Ai ciclisti è vietato trainare veicoli, salvo nei casi consentiti dalle presenti norme, condurre animali e farsi trainare da altro veicolo.

4. I ciclisti devono condurre il veicolo a mano quando, per le condizioni della circol­azione, siano di intralcio o di pericolo per i pedoni. In tal caso sono assim­ilati ai pedoni e devono usare la comune diligenza e la comune prudenza.

5. È vietato trasportare altre persone sul velocipede a meno che lo stesso non sia appos­it­a­mente costruito e attrezzato.È consentito tuttavia al condu­cente maggiorenne il trasporto di un bambino fino a otto anni di età, oppor­tunamente assicurato con le attrezzature, di cui all’articolo 68, comma 5.

6. I velocipedi appos­it­a­mente costruiti ed omologati per il trasporto di altre persone oltre al condu­cente devono essere condotti, se a più di due ruote simmet­riche, solo da quest’ultimo.

7. Sui veicoli di cui al comma 6 non si possono trasportare più di quattro persone adulte compresi i condu­centi; è consentito anche il trasporto contem­poraneo di due bambini fino a dieci anni di età.

8. Per il trasporto di oggetti e di animali si applica l’art. 170.

9. I velocipedi devono trans­itare sulle piste loro riservate quando esistono, salvo il divieto per parti­c­olari categorie di essi, con le modalità stabilite nel regola­mento.

9-bis. Il condu­cente di velocipede che circola fuori dai centri abitati da mezz’ora dopo il tramonto del sole a mezz’ora prima del suo sorgere e il condu­cente di velocipede che circola nelle gallerie hanno l’obbligo di indossare il giubbotto o le bretelle retrorif­lettenti ad alta visib­ilita’, di cui al comma 4-ter dell’articolo 162. (1)

Chiunque viola le dispos­izioni del presente articolo è soggetto alla sanzione ammin­is­trativa del pagamento di una somma da euro 25 a euro 99 (2). La sanzione è da euro 41 a euro 168 quando si tratta di velocipedi di cui al comma 6.

(1) Comma intro­dotto dalla legge 29 luglio 2010, n. 120 ( G.U. n. 175 del 29 luglio 2010 suppl. ord.), che si applica a decorrere dal sessantesimo giorno successivo alla data di entrata in vigore della legge cit.
(2) Per le violazioni del comma 9-bis la sanzione va da euro 24 a euro 97 (Decreto inter­min­is­teriale 22 dicembre 2010, tabella II).

Staying healthy - hydration and heat

One of the things I appre­ciate about Italy is the avail­ab­ility of public water fountains. Even so it’s important to carry plenty of water. If you only have one water bottle cage then look at fitting another, or find another way of carrying water. If you use smaller water bottles consider getting larger ones.

I think it’s also worth taking precau­tions against cramp. Sports drinks may contain fright­ening levels of sugar but they do seem to do the trick. You don’t need to drink loads of them - I’d say one a day at most. You can save money by buying them in super­markets where they generally cost half the price you’ll pay in a bar or even less if you get the supermarket’s own brand. Some super­markets also sell jars of powder mix (Isostar is the brand name). Sports drink powders (like Enervit) tend to be expensive and waste­fully packaged.

You can get tablets to mix with water. I’ve used these regularly although if you look at the labels you’ll find that you may be paying a lot of money for a tablet whose main ingredients are flavourings and sweeteners, the stuff to make the fizz, and a little salt.

I’ve bought a jar of these for my next tour.

Riding in the heat

Don’t under­es­timate the effects of riding in temper­atures of more than 30 degrees celsius (ie mid-eighties and above). My tips would be:

  • start early to make the most of the cooler morning hours;
  • avoid big climbs in the early after­noons;
  • take rest breaks in the shade so you cool down;
  • expect to cover fewer miles than you normally would at cooler temper­atures;
  • go high - the temper­atures at altitude are 6 degrees less for every 1000 metres of altitude
  • the late afternoon and early evening are also a great time to ride, but it’s worth having a good set of lights in case you don’t reach your destin­ation before it gets dark.

First-aid and medicines

Most of the items in my first-aid kit are more to do with treating minor ailments rather than emergencies: things like removing a splinter or thorn, or protecting a blister, or treating an infected mosquito bite.

In Italy over-the-counter medicines can be very expensive (eg 5 euros for few aspirin), so I tend to carry a few. Plasters and similar items are widely available from super­markets and aren’t partic­u­larly expensive.

Staying sane: mosquitoes

For me the number one worst thing about cycling in Italy in summer is the zanzari (mosquitoes). You can find mosquitoes pretty much anywhere, but especially near rivers and lakes, and up to altitudes of about 800 metres or so.

The worst times of the day are early-morning and early-evening. Here are my tips for avoiding mosquitoes making a meal of you:

  • cover up in the evenings - long-sleeved tops and pants - avoid the temptation to sit around in your riding clothes at the end of the day;
  • wear socks to protect your ankles and feet;
  • keep your inner tent zipped up as much as possible - the last thing you want is to spend the night with a hungry mosquito.

I’ve never had much faith in repel­lents - it’s pretty much 100 percent certain that they’ll find the one bit of you that you didn’t manage to cover. DEET may be effective, but it is really horrible stuff (believe me: don’t try putting it on in a confined space).

I have found that mosquito clickers are a help in dealing with the itchiness if you do get bitten.

Get in touch

Please get in touch if you find any errors in the information, or if there’s anything, good or bad, that you’d want other cyclists to know.


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