Riding in Italy

Published on:  | Last updated: 14 April 2018

Critical Mass poster Rome

Critical Mass poster in Rome

What to expect

Which side of the road do you ride?

In Italy, like most of Europe, people drive and ride, on the right-hand side of the road.This is surprisingly easy to get used to: normally you just go with the flow. I have to confess that there have been times when I’ve had a lapse of concentration and gone the wrong way round a roundabout, or found myself in the wrong lane after turning left on an empty road.

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 it’s 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.

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: temperatures that vary from very hot in summer to very cold in winter, heavy winter rains, mountains that move, earthquakes, landslides and 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 bianche (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 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 compare statistics for 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 that Italian drivers are angels — see ‘Bad habits’.

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 use 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: in particular, even though it’s illegal to use your mobile (cellular/handy) 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. 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. Again I should stress that 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 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 to 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:

  • major routes like the Via Claudia Augusta, München-Venezia and Ciclovia Alpe-Adria Radweg are well signposted, signage on the eurovelo routes is a lot more patchy;
  • 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.

Cycle lanes and cycleways

There are basically three types of cycleway:

  • dedicated off-road ciclopedonali for the exclusive use of cyclists and pedestrians — although you may find that farmers are authorised to use them to reach their fields
  • cycle lanes that are a separate lane on the road, generally these have some sort of protection;
  • a bike lane on the pavement (sidewalk)

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 know there is no requirement to use a cycleway or cycle lane. The only requirement I know of is that where there is a route that has a lane for cyclists and one for pedestrians, cyclists have to stick to ‘their’ lane.

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 that only residents (and delivery vans etc) can enter, 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.

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). These requirements seem to be widely ignored.

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.

You might also want to replace your plastic water bottles with stainless steel double-wall water bottles — even on days when my bike has been hot to the touch these have kept my water cool. They’re well worth a bit of extra weight.

I think it’s also worth taking precautions against cramp. I carry a supply of electrolytes tablets. They seem to work, and I can avoid sports drinks full of sugar and additives.

If you still do the sports drink thing, you can save money (and wasted plastic bottles) jars of Isostar powder mix are widely available in supermarkets.

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.


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