Published on: 7 April 2014 | Last updated: 26 December 2019
The roads you choose can make all the difference to your experience on tour. (‘Well duh’ I hear a lot of people saying). Italy has the highest rate of car ownership in Europe, combine that with mountainous terrain, and some roads can get very busy — but at the same time, there are others that stay blissfully quiet. So how do you pick the good ones and avoid the bad ones?
Picking the good roads and avoiding the bad ones
- look for scenic routes: the Touring Club Italiano and Michelin maps highlight scenic roads in green. I’ve generally found these to be a reliable guide (although I should say that not all scenic roads are marked in green — there are some areas where you could mark every road as a scenic road)
- take to the high road: I know, I don’t like climbing either, but the effort almost always pays off — the flat direct route along the valley bottom is almost invariably the busiest
- look for the old road: very often when new roads are built the old road is left in place while its successor is built — making it a perfect quieter alternative.
Avoiding the bad ones
Unfortunately, the road classification system doesn’t really provide a guide as to what sort of road to expect or how busy it will be. The classification system has more to do with who has responsibility for maintenance and management — a road can change classification crossing a regional or provincial boundary.
The Italian road classification system has:
- strade communali
- strade provinciali
- strade regionali
- strade statali
For the touring cyclist the strade provinciale and strade communale are usually the best bet. Although bear in mind that a strada provinciale between two towns is still likely to be busy with local traffic.
The strade statali can be the busiest roads, but they can be very quiet and scenic, especially in mountainous or remote areas,. There are also some strade statali where a new faster road (a superstrada or strada scorrevole) has been built alongside it, leaving the old road still with the same classification. (Strade regionali by the way are basically strada statali where responsibility for maintenance has been transferred to the regional government).
The Touring Club Italiano and Michelin helpfully mark the major strade statale in red (OpenStreetMap and Garmin City Navigator also distinguish these roads although they don’t use red). This isn’t an infallible guide — the SS1 for example, has stretches where it’s a motorway and stretches where you’ll see more bikes than cars — but as a guide to which roads to avoid it’s better than nothing.
When it comes to spotting the roads to avoid, there are two really important signals
- the road is shown as a dual carriageway (divided highway)
- it has an e-number — indicating that it is part of the European Road Network .
If your proposed route includes this type of road my advice would be to be very wary — avoid them if you can. In some cases these roads are classified as Strade Extra-Urbane Principali — these are really autostrade by another name and bikes are banned from them. The fact that a road is a dual carriageway doesn’t necessarily mean that bikes are banned from that road, but it is a warning sign (there’s more information about these further on).
Note: Google Maps does not distinguish between the different types of strada statale (although it does show E numbers) — unless you zoom in pretty close, and most people don’t. If you are planning your tour using Google Maps then I would strongly advise checking your route against another map.
Google Maps and other digital mapping are excellent, and of course free, but traditional maps still have their advantages: traditional mapmakers have worked out how to show a lot of information in one view, that information may also be shown on a digital map, but you may need to zoom in to find it.
The viamichelin.com website is a very useful resource for route planning as it enables you to enjoy most of the advantages of a traditional map without having to buy maps.
Here’s a screenshot from the viamichelin site showing part of the Lago Maggiore and the roads around it. I’ve arrowed:
- the busy road along the western coast via Stresa
- the SS629 is shown as a dual carriageway — bikes are banned from this road
- the quieter alternative along the eastern shore passing — with the more scenic stretches highlighted with green
Here’s a screenshot for the same area from Google Maps (in fairness I should say that if you zoom in far enough, the Google Map will show you that the SS629 is a dual carriageway):
Roads where you can’t ride (even if you wanted to)
The dual carriage ways (divided highways) are strade statali that have been upgraded to superstrade. The names can vary (eg strada scorrevole, strada grande comunicazione, strada extraurbane principale and strada grande viabilita’), but often these are basically autostrade but with the crucial difference that motorists don’t have to pay to use them and bikes are banned.
Some examples are:
- the SS1 through Toscana (official name the Variante Aurelia Grosseto-Livorno)
- the SS3 between Ravenna and Terni
- the Strada Grande Comunicazione Firenze-Pisa-Livorno (Fi-Pi-Li for short)
- the SS36 along the eastern shore of the Lago di Como
- the SS38 between Bormio-Sondrio and the Lago di Como and the SS38 MEBO (between Meran and Bozen)
- sections of the SS16 on the Adriatic Coast
- sections of the SS49 through the PusterTal.
Even when bikes are allowed, as well as the obvious problems of heavy lorries, these roads may go via long tunnels or high viaducts, and on some stretches you may find yourself riding for several kilometres until you get to the next exit — fine if that’s what you are expecting.
Map of roads (other than motorways) that are off-limits to bikes
Update: here’s a map of roads, other than autostrade, where bikes are banned. Please note: there are almost certainly others (if you find one that I’ve missed please drop me a line).
Note: the red lines show non-motorway roads that are off-limits to bikes; autostrade are shown in orange on the Google map.
Some other roads to avoid
There are also other roads where bikes aren’t banned but you’d want to avoid them. I couldn’t possibly list all of them, but here are a few:
- the SS9 Via Emilia —the main road through Emilia-Romagna linking cities like Imola, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Fidenza
- the SS16. A road that follows the Adriatic coast for hundreds of kilometres, and from a quick look at the map looks like it might be an attractive option. The problem is that for much of the route there’s a rail line (on an embankment) between you and the sea. So forget any ideas of sea views to compensate for the traffic
- the Via Cassia in Toscana between Empoli and Colle Val d’Elsa.
If you are planning your own route, particularly through the more mountainous parts of Italy, then you’ll want to think about tunnels and how to avoid them
Here’s a map of tunnels on non-motorway roads in Italy. Again, I can’t guarantee that this is complete, and I’ve tended to ignore tunnels that are less than 100 metres long. If you find one that I’ve missed please drop me a line).
Zoom in on the area you are interested in. Click on the tunnel icon for more information on the length of the tunnel and alternatives (if there are any).
Tunnels generally aren’t off-limits to bikes, but there are a growing number of tunnels where they are banned (these should be indicated in the information about the tunnel).
Personally I avoid them where I can. Make sure your map shows tunnels —and avoid them when you can. If a road in a mountainous area is very straight: be suspicious. (Note: Google and OpenStreetMap maps show tunnels, but only if you zoom in quite close —it’s always worth checking your route in detail, but this is where cross-checking against a traditional map is worth the extra time).
In some cases you can avoid the tunnel by looking for the old road around the mountain. My experience in the Dolomites was that very often the road was still there —still serving as an emergency escape route. There are exceptions of course where the old road has been blocked or swept away as a result of a landslide —which may be the reason the tunnel was built in the first place. If you’re in luck, a local cyclist may come along.
Tunnels may also be built as bypasses around towns and villages —so again, ask yourself where the old road would have gone.