GRAVEL • BIKE PATHS • ALL ROAD TOURING
"Everything old is new again," as the song goes, and nowhere is this more true than in the realm of cycling. Gravel riding is all the rage, but anyone familiar with cycling history knows that in the proverbial "old days," riding on unpaved roads was the only kind of riding there was. Ironically, it was actually cyclists who demanded paved roads. And now we want to avoid them!
It's no wonder "gravel" riding has become so popular. It's not only that distracted, impaired, and self-important drivers have made road riding more stressful, if not outright dangerous. It's much more than that. What could be more exhilarating than leaving the paved road behind and heading down that enticing dirt lane you've always passed by on your road bike, filled with curiousity and a spirit of exploration and discovery? You find yourself pouring over maps, discovering obscure routes to new destinations and concocting unpaved routes to familiar ones. Every outing becomes an adventure. It's a return to the joyous cycling of childhood, when you discovered the freedom that two wheels can bring. And you don't need a dedicated "gravel bike" to do it.
I started exploring unpaved roads over a decade ago on a cyclocross bike that I bought for just that purpose. My vintage steel bike with space for 32mm wide Panaracer Pasela tires became an all-road bike for my husband. We rode them on the Asiago Sette Comuni Plateau, in the Feltrino, and even at Coce 'n Bike, a delightful mountain bike event for which they were perfectly suited. In 2019 I had an all-road frame (shown above) custom built by esteemed framebuilder Antonio Taverna of Cicli Vetta in Padua. it's already carried me to many wonderful places, and left me dreaming and planning for many more.
The Veneto region offers an extensive and varied array of forest roads, farm roads, riverbank trails, and old military roads dating from the Great War, With hilly areas, plateaus, pre-Alps, Dolomites, and even pleasant flatlands to choose from, every level of gravel rider will find unlimited terrain to his or her liking and ability. (The Italian word for gravel bike is bici gravel).
Numerous gravel events have sprung up too, including some that are non-competetive and laid back, and others that are randoneeé style and more demanding, Some are listed on the granfondo, ride, and gravel ride calendar.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” -- Ernest Hemingway
Gravel Roads, Bike Paths, and Bikeways
The idea of cycle touring always appealed to me, but riding a bike laden down with bulky racks and panniers did not. Even worse, many of the enticing routes I'd seen in magazines were either partly or entirely unpaved, and the accompanying photos showed cycle tourists riding mountain bikes. I've been riding with drop bars for almost 50 years, and find the MTB riding position and lack of hand positions to be uncomfortable. Therefore, my cycle touring fantasies seemed never to be fulfilled, and for years I could only fantasize about how much fun it would be to head out on a ride and not have to turn around and head back...to arrive in a charming village and find an inviting B&B where I could spend the night, and enjoy a simple, hearty, dinner at a cozy inn.
When I bought my cyclocross bike back in 2009 (for the express purpose of "gravel" riding), I realized it could be just the vehicle for those mixed surface routes, but that still left the dilemma of how to carry my gear. Fast forward, and enter bikepacking bags! The minute I saw them on a manufacturer's website, I knew that my dreams of touring could finally become a reality. They are not only light, svelte, and compact, but versatile as well: since they don't require racks, they can be attached any type of bike, so you can tour even on a road bike. A bikepacking seat bag is also ideal for carrying extra articles of clothing needed on day rides in the mountains or for running errands, and is better than wearing a backpack.
With a gravel or all-road bike, you can combine long-distance bike paths and signed routes, unpaved roads, and low traffic back roads, to create a memorable adventure. Many bike paths and routes are not far from train lines, and regional trains are all equipped to carry bikes. Trains are also handy for getting to and from areas with interesting routes, Note that it's necessary to purchase a ticket for your bike, which you can do on board.
There are many ways to enjoy cycling. I know how exhilarating and rewarding it is to reach the top of a famous pass, but slow and easy can be regenerating and rewarding as well: To ride for curiosity and for sensory and emotional stimulation. To live in the moment and not be in a hurry to get anywhere. To be open to serendipity, say yes to opportunities that present themselves, and never say, "I don’t have time now; I’ll do it next time." A destination is only a framework, not a plan. The ride’s the thing: just let it unfold on its own. Expect nothing, and something special will always happen when you have no expectations or objectives…and find the specialness in moments and encounters.
"If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else." - Yogi Berra
A view of the attractive stone bridge on the main road, from the Ciclabile delle Dolomiti rail trail. I was riding a converted trekking bike, with drop bars replacing the flat bars. It was much better for this purpose than my cyclocross bike, which had a short top tube and wheelbase, and a higher center of gravity, which negatively affected the handling as well as the comfort on long rides.
April 2018. This section of the Brenta bike path was obliterated forever by a landslide. It had already been closed for several years due to impending danger.
In October 2018, the violent, apocalyptic, mega-storm named Vaia destroyed sections of beautiful bike paths and routes, some which I had ridden only the month before. Some paths were repaired, only to be destroyed again by another storm the following year. Work on others needed to be set aside for more urgent, critical, projects, like clearing and securing main roads, removing millions of downed trees, and dredging lakes, like the one in Alleghe, of rocks, silt, and branches. The specatacular Serrai di Sottoguda, for example, suffered massive damage and restoration is still ongoing. Unfortunately, there is no way to know the current condition of these paths and routes, other than asking at the local tourist offices.
Potential users must also realize that some bike paths are paved, others are sterrate--unpaved, and still others are a combination of both, which makes little sense, Paths with a stabilized earth surface can be ridden on road bike tires, as long as the surface is well maintained, which is not always the case. In some cases environmentalists have opposed the paving of bike paths. Perhaps there is an erroneous assumption that most users will be riding mountain or trekking bikes with wide tires? There are unpaved paths which, if paved, would allow road cyclists to avoid heavily trafficked roads. On the other hand, they are delightful to ride on a gravel bike.
All things considered, bike paths and bike routes offer a safe, relaxing, and delightful way to visit enchanting hidden corners of our region. You can see videos of many of them (with more to come) on the BiciVeneto Channel on YouTube.
Trains are also a great way to get back home when you're tired.
all photos © April Pedersen Santinon.
BIKE PATHS & BIKEWAYS
Bike paths, rail trails, bikeways, and designated, signed, routes on local roads with little traffic (piste ciclabili, ciclabili, ciclovie), criss-cross the Veneto Region, and more are in the planning and construction stages. Authorites recognize that they are a great source of sustainable, environmentally-friendly tourist income, which helps support local enterprises such as B&B's, cafès and eateries, transport services, and bike repair shops. Cyclists are desirable clients too: they don't pollute or cause parking problems and traffic jams; they are respectful and well-behaved, don't get drunk or use drugs, hold rave parties, or get in fights.
Bike paths and bike routes are for the most part easy (though we encountered a 15% uphill on one!) and accessible by all levels of cyclists and all kinds of bicycles. But easy doesn't have to mean boring, and who says every ride has to be challenging or epic, anyway? Bike paths and cycleways take you to enchanting places, and offer sights and views that you can’t see from the roads, with no need for route planning and navigation. You enjoy meeting all sorts of people along the way, lingering, savoring and photographing scenery and architecture, and finding fascinating historical places that you didn't know existed.
There is no official regional site dedicated to bike paths, so learning about them, and then finding them, isn't always easy. I usually read about them in local news articles, but specific information is often vague, inaccurate, or totally lacking. Where does the path start and end? Is it actually complete, still under contruction, or still in the project stages? Is it a separate path, or just a signed route on local roads? Some Investigating is usually necessary, with the answers found on the sites, blogs, and public FaceBook pages of local residents, towns, and organizations, on Apple and Google Maps, Street View, Open Street Map, and Komoot (which can also have erroneous information provided by clueless users). The sites of local entities are not always updated, and the maps they provide are often imprecise, and consequently, useless.
Google Street View images
Vaia had destroyed this beloved footbridge over the Cordevole in Peron, which happens to be on one of my favorite routes. Restoration was finally completed in April 2021, to the joy of all, especially since it is faithful to the original design and materials.
© April Pedersen Santinon.
© April Pedersen Santinon.
I never realized what an encumbrance and inconvenience an automobile is, until I toured by bicycle!
• Car: What a great view! Drat, there's no place to pull over to take a photo. Bike: I'm stopping right here.
• Car: That restaurant/cafè/B&B/gift shop we just passed looks inviting; I hope we can find a place to turn around. Bike: Nice place, stopping.
• Car: We need to start looking for a gas station. Bike: Oh boy, my favorite energy bar, yum.
• Car: What's causing this endless line of cars? Accident? Road work? Landslide? Bike: Ride on.
• Car: Wrong turn, how can we turn around on this narrow, winding, road? Bike: No problem.
• Car: All the parking places are taken. Bike: No problem.
• Car: To check out that B&B or hotel: find and pull into a parking place, lock the doors, take your valuables and leave nothing in sight, Bike: Ride right up to the door. Buongiorno!