Escape to Orta San Giulio – cycling holiday

Last year’s cycling holiday in Tuscany whet our appetites for another European two wheeled adventure, thoughts wandered to Spain, France and possibly Italy again.  Initially it started out as just the two of us, but then Sara mentioned that she was going to be in Northern Italy for the summer, staying with her parents.  With her semi-retired Bianchi holiday steed, she was suitably equipped to meet up with us and act as menu translator extraordinaire.  Darren decided after little persuasion that it would be a good idea too, as he had no plans for his summer, being abandoned by Sally his wife.

With a loose idea of numbers, and a point in the general direction by Sara, the search for somewhere with suitably gorgeous riding terrain, accommodation and places to visit was sought out.  AirBnB has fast become our go-to place for finding somewhere to base ourselves when on foreign adventures and after much procrastinating we zoned in on a pretty little lakeside town called Orta San Giulio, on the edge of Lake Orta, about 45mins north-west of Milan Malpensa airport.

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Main Square Orta San Giulio

The beginning of August is peak season in Italy, so there was some urgency to securing a booking, as appropriate properties seemed to be disappearing fast.  Due to lack of suitable properties, initially we felt we had to make compromises, but regardless we settled for a Charming little duplex apartment on the town’s main street.  It featured one lavatory and up to seven single beds, four of which were upstairs in the beamed loft.  No double beds…. as mentioned compromises were made, but it did offer us incredible flexibility.

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Main Street Orta San Giulio

Spare beds seem like a waste, so my nephew Iain decided he could probably fly down from the UK for a few days with bike in tow, sometime later my niece Megan was roped in for a few days diversion while on her European Inter-Rail tour.  Six people one Loo, this was going to be interesting!

Our riding group here in Dubai is sometimes referred to as AGMC Team Rolls Royce, which makes us sound way more posh and competent than most of us are.  One of the mandates of TeamRR is that we have regular strategy meetings, often taking the form of a post ride recovery brunch.  During one of these meetings, Brett voiced the opinion that we should all do a cycling holiday next year, our response was bu**er next year, what about this year. Two weeks later there were nine of us signed up to invade Orta, with Brett, Megs and Steve finding rooms in a hotel 200m from our apartment.

Flights and the other aspects of the plan fell into place relatively easily.  With the area being unknown to us, it seemed like a good idea to figure out some rides before departure, so that we could upload routes to our Garmins.  Some of us were not as strong riders, or as good climbers as others, so optional climbs were built in to the easier routes to add a bit of extra exercise for the keen.  A dozen or so suitable routes were mapped out using Strava Heat Maps to figure out where the locals rode most.  The best clue was to look for squiggly lines on the Strava Heat Map as they generally highlighted a good climb.

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Strava Heatmap of Lake Orta

Packing up your bike and all the required bits for a foreign trip requires an act of faith, a bit of preparation and a suitable box or case.  We used a mix of manufacturer supplied cardboard boxes, as well as Scicon bike bags, both worked very well.  As I was travelling up to Ireland for a week before heading to Italy, I used the cardboard box option, as it is much lighter and I could get two bikes and a 15kg suitcase in my 40kg Emirates baggage allowance.  Emirates is excellent in this respect, as it only cares about the total weight of your baggage, so there is no extra charge for a bike.

Along with the bikes, helmets, shoes, some basic tools, spares and a travel track pump were put in the box.  One of the spares we always carry is spare derailleur hangars, this proved to be a wise move after locking up my chain between the front chain-rings and ripping off the rear derailleur and sending it through the rear wheel spokes while in Northern Ireland.  Shimano parts are easy to find, but a derailleur for your specific bike can be a show stopper.  The rear end of my bike was well and truly trashed, with the derailleur plates, cassette and chain ring all bent, as well as a broken spoke.

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Bu**er

Thankfully when it happened I was 2km from home and flying to Gatwick the next day, a visit to Evans Cycles warehouse was rapidly penciled into the plan.  £300 later, my bike was back in action with a new Di2 derailleur, Ultegra cassette, chain-ring, spoke and a trued wheel.  Evans car park in the summer is an excellent place to fix a bike; they even offered me a job.

After a few days of riding in West Sussex, while visiting friends, it was off to the main event in Orta.  Easyjet was our carrier of choice to Milan Malpensa (MXP) and everything worked fairly seamlessly, both bikes arriving with no issues.  By the time we got our hire car organised, it was time to pick up Darren from T1 where he had just got in from from Dubai.

Three people, three bikes and our luggage squeezed nicely into our hideous little Fiat Qubo.  Although Darren’s neck required a few days of physio after sharing rear head space with his bikes front wheel, but as a Yorkshireman he will do anything to save a penny.

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We arrived in Orta to be greeted by a late afternoon downpour; the main car park in Orta is remote from the town centre, as the streets are positively Medieval in width, designed for horse and cart.

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View from the car park when it wasn’t raining

So we trudged down the road in the teeming rain to the apartment, with a plan to return to the underground car park to build up the bikes later.

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Bike building time

The apartment turned out to be exactly as advertised and perfect for our purposes, even if it was on the fourth floor, still post ride stretching is meant to be good for you.

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Apartment with a view

Our first ride the next morning was the Orta lake loop, which rapidly became our default ride for new arrivals and also recovery in afternoon if we had done a morning climb.  The loop is a 38km spin around Lake Orta, with a nice constant 5% climb of 200m to work the legs a little, but generally pretty flat.

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The Orta loop is all on main roads, generally the traffic was light, very patient and bike friendly.  The views were all we could have hoped for and more, with stunning scenery and perspectives across the lake.

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Out on the Lake Orta loop

A local café in Alzo di Pella became our standard meeting and watering hole, especially if someone decided to do an optional climb up to Quarna Sotto.  Waiting with a cappuccino or even a Prosecco just seemed so much more civilised.  After all it was mostly downhill the whole way home.

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The plan for day two was for Sara to arrive in the afternoon, Dawn was still nursing a bad shoulder from a race crash earlier in the year, so decided to wait for Sara to arrive and we could all do the lake loop in the afternoon.  As we had a free morning Darren and I decided to do one of the shorter local climbs up to a village called Coiromonte, which was only 11km away.

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Starting almost from the town of Orta, this little 570m climb was a perfect introduction to the hills, for us world-is-flat Dubai riders. Winding our way up to Coiromonte village on a perfect road, we were only passed by three cars and by far and away the nosiest thing on the way was the cows with their alpine bells musically clanking in the fields.

The next day Darren, Sara and I decided we should go and investigate Mottarone, possibly one of the best climbs in the area.   Mottarone is a lovely little climb of 1170m topping out 15km from Orta at a Ski resort.  With gradients up to 18% and constant grinds of 15% it promised to be bit of a killer.

Mottarone

A bit of a monster Mottarone was too, but with such beautiful weather and scenery, it seemed rude not to keep tapping and grinding it out, gradually winding our way up to the cool of the cloud.  Darren and Sara climbed the extra 90m to the very top; I decided that the road junction just short of there was good enough for me, pathetic.

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Over the next few days the rest of the team gradually joined us, by which time we had thoroughly investigated the local restaurants, pizza places and watering holes.  Just like Team Sky we find time is rarely wasted in research.

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Our favorite Pizza spot

Early the following morning Brett and Steve decided that they should wander off to do Coiromonte as a leg warmer, before our scheduled group ride.  However a wrong turn at the village of Armeno found them making it half way up Mottarone and were taken a bit by surprise at how hard the so called little climb was.

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Much entertainment was had over the lunch table, especially when they found out that I had made it to the top, particularly as I possess the poorest climbing prowess of the group.

Our afternoon ride that day had the whole group represented and was a tourist spin over to Lake Maggiore.

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Initially not the nicest of routes, as we went through a few fairly industrial towns to get around to the head of Lake Maggiore, but once heading South all was good.

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Winding along the lakeside, through the incredibly picturesque towns of Stresa and Arona, we slowed the pace down to drink in the views, with coffee stops on the side of the road a pre-requisite.

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Coffee stop Lakeside Maggiore

Needless to say the boys had to have another crack at Mottarone, dirty tricks were attempted by some unknown person, by hiding the front wheel of Iain’s bike, as it was anticipated he would be the fastest, having youth, fitness and weight advantages in spades.

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Desperation tactics

This of course was futile, as he was secretly planning to ride my bike, as his Felt was a bit lardy.  With the fact that I had got to the top firmly in the back of their minds, they all slayed the hill and the natural order of things was resumed.  Megs also got to the top, which really only surprised herself.

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Steve’s climbing handicap

Over the next couple of days we settled into a routine of group and individual rides, to suit our various needs for rest, recovery and activity. A longitudinal study was conducted on the recovery merits of Cheese, Prosciutto, Salume, Pizza, Pasta, Gelato and various liquid products that were available on every corner in Northern Italy.  A tough job, but we persisted none the less.

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Life in our little apartment worked out really well, the tired trudge up the flights of stairs became so normal we hardly noticed it, especially as the fridge usually had some suitable recovery tonic waiting for us.  A strict six minute Loo time slot was generally adhered to by all and no noticeable Princess moments were experienced.  What we lost in privacy and the comfort of a double bed was easily made up for with banter and camaraderie.  The general consensus was we wouldn’t have changed a bit of it, but next time I want a double!

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Orta San Giulio proved more by luck than anything else a perfect place to base ourselves, while it lacked a supermarket; there was no shortage of restaurants, bars and gelato emporiums.  The local roads were generally excellent and we probably only scratched the surface of the available local rides.  We were blessed with almost perfect weather and ideal cycling temperatures.

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What a brilliant week that was, thanks to all involved.

Ciao, Crank

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