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Rolling over some of Italian cycling legend Marco Pantani's training grounds, Cyclingnews guinea pig Shane Stokes is made to feel more than welcome at one of Riccione's Bike Hotels, where he gets a taste of training camps, Italian style.
For many amateur bike riders, training to race is something of a carefully-structured balancing act. After all, on-bike time is scarce when you are not lucky enough to be part of pro squads such as Discovery Channel or T-Mobile, with the daily grind of work or study, plus a thousand other time-consuming tasks all chomping mercilessly into the kilometres you can clock up on the bike. Professionals will argue that their life isn't half as glamorous as it is cracked up to be, but apart from those harsh early season classics and occasional dosages of Belgian toothpaste, the thoughts of riding your bike all day while others worry about the small details can sure seem sweet.
Sadly, the chances of inheriting the necessary physical and mental abilities to join Messers Armstrong and Ullrich in the peloton are pretty limited. Pros are a rather exclusive breed, after all. The closest that many of us will ever get to escaping from day-to-day normality and becoming full-time bike riders (albeit temporarily) is by signing up for one of the increasingly-popular selection of training camps that are available in Europe and elsewhere. There, you can pass your day pedalling happily, far from the maddening rush of modern living. And if structured correctly, the effects on form and morale can be very rewarding.
So how do they work? Generally, such deals encompass accommodation and some food, and will often feature guided training rides, cyclist-friendly roads and good weather. Time spent at the camp will enable participants to meet others of the same ilk (busy life/temporary respite/resulting overindulgence in cycling) and can be both physically rewarding and good fun. The chance to get some rays and top up the tan is also much appreciated, too.
There is a bewildering variety of training camps on offer, but following an invitation from the folks at Riccione Bike Hotels, Cyclingnews headed off to sunny Italy to sample the setup there. Riccione and the neighbouring town of Rimini are known as popular summer holiday destinations, offering blue skies, warm sun, fine beaches and great nightlife, However, in the spring and Autumn the emphasis in Riccione switches to that of cycling holidays, with an estimated 75,000 bed nights per annum generated for the 14 bike-friendly hotels which make up the group. Run by cyclists for cyclists, and steeped in the tradition and culture of a cycling-obsessed nation, there is a real understanding of what the participants require. Marco Pantani came from the region, after all, so these people know all about the sport and the passions it invokes.
Your Cyclingnews guinea pig was going to be staying at the Hotel Perla, one of the range which makes up the Riccione Bike Hotels group. The service began immediately after touchdown in Bologna airport, with Ernesto Bronzetti arriving to collect us from the airport. Friendly, bike-obsessed and with constantly-smiling eyes, it didn't take long to warm to Bronzetti, who runs Hotel Perla with his equally amiable sister Federica. His wife Kelly Gerla is also heavily involved, running the Hotel Gran San Bernardo nearby, another member of the Bike Hotel group.
"This is a real cycling friendly area," Bronzetti told us on the way back to the hotel. "People loved Pantani here and are very passionate about the sport. Cycling is very important and there are many fans in the region. It makes cycling in the area more fun, too, because there is a big respect for riders here."
Bronzetti is a real enthusiast about the sport, a fact which quickly became evident from the enthusiastic conversation on the way back to the hotel and also by the setup there. Walking into the reception area, the visitor is greeted by countless pictures on the walls relating to cycling. There's old framed magazine covers of Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and all the Italian greats of yesteryear, as well as a montage of impressive photos taken by Bronzetti. These are of the Settimana Ciclista Internazionale race jointly promoted by the Riccione Bike Hotels group each year, the professional teams which have spent time at the hotel (Fassa Bortolo and Navigators were staying there at the same time as Cyclingnews) and, of course, the participants of the camp itself.
Having checked in, it was time to check out the bikes we would be using. Those staying at the bike hotels can either use their own ones or rent some of the classy aluminium Eddy Merckx's on offer. Opting for the latter - and having sent height and inseam measurements prior to travelling - I was very surprised to find that the bike was set up in precisely the same way as my usual mount back home. Not only was there no need to change the saddle or handlebar position, it also came complete with a transfer bearing my name. Nice touch!
That attention to detail was replicated numerous times over the next few days. While in the hotel, visitors were provided with a free laundry service (invaluable to keep cycling gear in tip-top shape), good breakfasts, tasty evening meals, the use of a swimming pool and gym, friendly bar service and, for those with their own laptops, a high speed internet connection in each room. Those lucky enough to stay during the Settimana Ciclista Internazionle also got passes to the team presentation the night before the race started.
Of course, the main reason we were there was to ride our bikes. And here the service really excelled, with a lot of attention being paid to the needs and demands of the wannabe pros present. Hotel Perla - and each of those in the Riccione Bike Hotels group - employs several guides who take groups out each day, adjusting their speed and the choice of route to accommodate the different fitness levels and needs of each set of riders. Fancy a long spin at near race pace? Not a problem - Renzo will gladly rip the legs off you for a few hours. How about a slightly more subdued ride, or even a shorter, flatter, more gentle one? Wade and Mario can take care of that.
The routes, of course, are crucially important to the enjoyment and effectiveness of any camp. The Romagna region offers hugely varied terrain, from flat coast rides to attractive inland plains. Pantani trained here so as you might expect, there are also quite a few high mountains to be tackled should you want to follow in his wheeltracks. In order to make the selection of the day's spins easier, or to facilitate those who wish to do their own thing, every participant is issued with a map detailing 20 tried and tested routes; these are all rated in terms of difficulty and have a profile featuring total length as well as the different altitudes of hills and mountains along the way.
Even the names of these are enough to build up enthusiasm and a mental picture of what is on offer; the easiest routes are entitled "To The Glories of Romagna (Pantani and the Piadina)", "The Sea Lovers Panoramic Tour" and the "Sangiovese Wine Tour", while the more sadistic spins include "The Furlo Gorge", the "Three Regions Tour" and the gloriously titled "Boletus Mushroom Tour", which includes the gruelling grind up to the 1423 metre peak of Cippo Carpegna. Best of all, riders don't even have to worry about their food during and after the spins; the hotel provides training snacks and also a generous and tantalising spread once the participants return. A later evening meal will ensure that energy stores are fully topped up before the following day's ride.
Bronzetti says that the overall goal is to provide the best possible service. "We try to ensure that the riders are catered for in every way," he said. "Firstly, they have a room to store their bicycle and a workshop. We have tour guide leaders - there are three in my hotel - who look after the riders, and now also can cater for triathletes in their disciplines. There is a sports doctor to treat people if necessary, and in my hotel there is a Jacuzzi, steam bath, steam area, free entrance to the gym and a laundry to wash their clothes. Also, when the cyclists go out we have a rescue car so if they have any problems. The guide can phone and we can pick them up. I have a GPS system so that helps in that."
"In addition, we also have special food for the riders. We have 20 different routes on the Tour, and I can calculate how many calories the riders need after doing a spin. When they get back, we can replace their energy loss."
Bronzetti also personally tries to accompany the riders at least once during their stay, driving ahead of the group and taking top quality photos of them on their ride.
Given all that is on offer, participants tend to be very satisfied at the end of their stay. Riders from the US BiKyle team were in Hotel Perla at the same time as Cyclingnews and one of those, Michael Tacchi, was keen to sing praises about what he experienced there.
"We are enjoying the camp quite a bit," he stated towards the end of their time there. "We spend our last season training in Spain, in a comparable area along the coast. But we felt that this location had quite a bit more going for it. There were a lot more sections where we could ride on the flat, and a lot more areas where we could get into steep mountains.
"The hospitality at the hotel was very, very good. We really enjoyed it - they treated us like family, which was very important to us. As you know, cyclists have special needs and they were very accommodating. The hotel provides a very ample spread after the spins, very filling. You can then go for a sauna or have a Jacuzzi. We got very nice treatment and that was very welcome after a hard day in the saddle.
"Another good thing was that we got to meet people from other places - from different parts of the US, from the UK and from Ireland. That was fun, and so too to be here at the same time as the Navigators Insurance and Fassa Bortolo teams. All in all, the setup would get five out of five, if I had to rate it. I was very impressed."
Training in Riccione
While Cyclingnews stayed at the Hotel Perla, each of the 14 hotels in the Riccione Hotels Group offers the same excellent level of service and support. To view more details of the packages, simply surf on over to the website www.riccionebikehotels.it . Here you can find a wealth of information, including that about the hotels, the routes, the guides, the facilities, bike rental, special offers and how to get to the region. You can also order a free catalogue to be delivered by post.
Ernesto Bronzetti's wife Kelly Gerla runs another of the hotels, the Gran San Bernardo, and says that each of the 14 is run in the same way as the Perla. "All of the hotels have an equally high standard," she says. "The services are identical in each. The idea is to ensure the best possible stay for the riders who come along, making it a trip that they won't forget."