Motorcycle touring in Italy: the basics

What’s so special about the motorcycle riding in Italy?

Italy has everything you could wish for in a motorcycle touring destination - whether you want golden sandy beaches, towering mountains, gently rolling hills or intriguing cities crammed with history. The summers are warm and generally extremely sunny, the people are friendly and the food… let’s just say that you won’t eat badly on a trip to Italy.

What we particularly like about the country is that each region is slightly different to its neighbours. The landscape, the food, the place names, the roads - everything changes as you move around Italy. From the Germanic northern provinces to the laid-back south, it’s a country packed with character. This makes it a hugely rewarding destination.

It’s also well set-up to receive motorcycle tourists. It’s a massively bike-friendly country and, as Europe’s third-largest economy, has excellent facilities. Hotels, cafes and garages are plentiful. It’s easy to tour in comfort, even in the wildest corners of the country.



So where should I go?

It does depend on what kind of riding you want. Mountain-lovers are spoilt for choice, with sublime passes to ride in the Dolomites, the Aosta Valley and around the Italian Lakes in the north, as well as in the high Alps and Piedmont in the north-west, not to mention the Apennine range that extends south down the spine of the country.

The rolling hills of Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna are criss-crossed by mazes or serpentine roads, fragrant with fields of lavender vineyards and citrus groves. They have high enough hills to offer passes of their own, usually topped by ancient walled towns, while the plains hold historic cities. And for motorcycle race fans there are the modern attractions of Monza, Mugello, Imola and Misano racetracks.

The further south you head, the higher the average temperature gets and the closer Italy’s history rises to the surface. It’s not just the Colosseum in Rome and Pompeii outside Naples - there are monuments everywhere and the countryside is far quieter than the bustling north or the teeming cities.

If you want a bit of seaside sunshine on your motorcycling holiday, with the option of a day lazing on a beach, Italy’s the ultimate destination. From the Italian Riviera to the Adriatic coast, or the broad bays of Puglia and Campania and the amazing islands of Sardinia and Sicily, there are miles and miles of amazing rides besides the glistening blue Mediterranean.

To help you pick precisely where to go, we’ve put together the RiDE Guide to Italy, where we’ve picked base towns all across the country, with a number of daytrip loops radiating out from each one. We also have five short regional tours that will fit with a week off work - as well as two complete tours of Italy if you take a two-week holiday.



When is the best time to go?

September is perfect: much of Italy takes its summer holidays in August, so prices rise, hotels get full and roads get busy. Also high summer can be scorchingly, almost oppressively, hot in the middle of the day - not to mention adding in your protective motorcycle gear.

By September, temperatures are merely deliciously warm and the roads are quieter. It’s the ideal time to visit Italy.



Do I need an international driving licence?

No. Your standard British driving licence is all you need, because we’re all part of the EU. Remember, changes to the UK licencing laws have done away with the paper counterpart as of Jun 2015, so you only need to take the plastic ID card showing your motorcycle category entitlement (in fact, you should have destroyed the paper bit).



What about insurance?

Most motorcycling policies nowadays will cover you for riding in Europe for a number of days - on some it’s 14 days, on others 30. All will require you to notify the insurer of the dates when you will be in Europe. You can check your policy documents or simply pick up the phone and check with your insurer when you call to notify them that you plan to go abroad. If you need any extra days’ cover for a longer trip of if your policy doesn’t cover you to ride in Italy as standard, your insurer will probably be able to provide that for you - in return for a small supplementary fee. The most important thing is that you don’t set off without talking to your insurer first.



What about travel insurance?

We do strongly recommend taking out a travel insurance policy that includes medical cover with repatriation. Don’t rely on travel insurance that comes free with credit cards: check its terms as it may not cover you for motorcycle trips. If you are covered, great - but if not, you will have to shop around to find a policy that will cover you for riding big bikes (many only cover 125s). This is where a high street insurance broker might save you a lot of time, if not money - but better to get the right policy than buy the wrong thing online.

As a citizen of an EU member state, you should be able to get medical treatment in Italy as long as you have a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC - the E111 card - free from www.ehic.org.uk). However, if you get seriously ill or have an accident then you really want to be repatriated to the UK for treatment, and for that you need medical or travel insurance. As with all insurance, you don’t want to need it - but it’s best to have it just in case.



And breakdown insurance?

The same thing applies. You hope you won’t need it, but if your bike does pack up or you have a crash in Italy, then having breakdown insurance could save your holiday. Again, you need to get a policy that includes provision to repatriate both you and the bike to the UK. If your bike can’t be fixed over there, you don’t wan to have to pay for shipping it back to Britain out of your own pocket.



What documents do I need to take?

You don’t need to have the original logbook (V5) document in Italy, but we’d recommend it - you’’ definitely need a copy. You also need your insurance certificate, your driving licence, your passport and EHIC (the E111 card, see above). You should also have copies of your travel and breakdown insurance policies: no point in having them if you can’t remember who to call if you need them… We recommend taking colour photocopies of your licence, V5 and insurance certificate. If the police want them, for some reason, they can keep one of the copies.



What about money? Will my credit cards work in Italy?

We’ve only ever had trouble paying with plastic once (in an unmanned Agip petrol station), though smaller restaurants, cafes and shops often require a minimum spend. Very occasionally, you’ll find a smaller cafe that doesn’t take credit cards, but they’re increasingly rare in Italy. Even so, we always carry cash as well, just to be on the safe side.



How much money will I need?

It’s isn’t eye-wateringly expensive, but it’s not a cheap destination like Spain. As a rough guide, we found our money went slightly further in Italy than it did in France, Germany or Britain when touring last year. Petrol prices are more or less the same as in the UK, but food and drink are usually slightly cheaper.

Prices to vary from region to region though - particularly accommodation prices which can fluctuate wildly. They also vary according to when you want to go and when you book. We found that seaside towns were more expensive than inland destinations - even those in the popular biking/holiday areas like the Dolomites.

Shopping around and pre-booking hotels is definitely the best way to get a good price. Beware post hotels with cheap rooms: they often have expensive restaurants… Walking to a town square eatery is usually better value.



I’ve never ridden on the right… should I be worried?

No - there’s nothing to worry about. Riding motorcycles in Europe is easy. Just take a little extra care when setting off, especially turning out of the first junction of the day. The other time to watch yourself is after filling up, especially if you had to cross the road to get to the petrol station: don’t pull out and ride on the left. Roundabouts are easy as you’re fed onto them in the correct lane and bigger ones have chevrons telling you which way to turn. Our top tip might sound stupid: just say “Ride on the right” to yourself before selecting first gear. Otherwise, it’s straight-forward - exactly like riding at home, except that you check over your left shoulder before pulling out to overtake.



What are the roads like?

Italian roads come in all conditions: from spectacular stretches of racetrack-smooth tarmac to cracked, rippled, rutted, pot-holed or gravel-strewn horrors. Sometimes, all in the space of one corner.

Road quality turned out to be the major challenge when planning our routes: we’ve aimed to avoid the worst-maintained roads and keep to the better ones. However, the reality is that most of the roads in Italy are of good British B-road quality. Plenty are considerably better… but others are a fair bit rougher. It’s important to keep an eye on the surface and adjust your riding accordingly, accepting that even the best route might involve a mile or two on rough road.

What we would flag up is that the rods to get extremely slippery if you’re unlucky enough to be caught in the rain. Great care needs to be taken in the wet, not just because there’s less grip but also because water can sit on the roads that lack camber, concealing potholes.



Are there toll roads?

Most Italian motorways have a toll. You can usually pay for these with a credit card - but if you’re travelling in a group, the lead rider can’t pay for everyone as each card can be used only once at each pay station. If you want the leader to pay, you need a manned booth… but there are very few of those on Italian motorways, though all pay booths take cash.



Watch your speed!

speed camera002.JPG

Generally we’ve seen fewer police patrols or checkpoints/speed traps in Italy than in France or Spain in the past few years. What we have seen instead is a steadily rising number of speed cameras; nearly to British levels in some areas, especially in the north, though they are mostly in towns or villages.

The police do still use speed guns. They can impose on-the-spot fines and also impound bikes if the offence is serious enough (or if you can’t pay the fine on the spot). While it’s illegal in Italy - as in most of Europe - to use a radar detector to warn you of speed cameras, it’s fine to use sat-navs that have camera locations marked.

One curious law: you’re not allowed to accelerate whilst overtaking. In the UK, advanced-riding instructors suggest it’s best to use speed to overtake quickly and safely, then return to your normal riding speed. In Italy, that’s deemed rude/aggressive and we’re told it’s actually illegal. You’ll see Italian riders going slowly by cars, then accelerating hard once they’re past.



What about traffic lights?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that traffic lights are optional in some cities, but there are rules. The standard red-amber-green rules apply but sometimes you’ll see a flashing amber light: that means slow down and proceed if it’s safe, observing the right-of-way at that junction.

Do I need a GB sticker?

Yes, if you don’t have a European-spec licence plate with the ‘GB’ in a blue panel on the side, then you must put a GB sticker on the bike, so it’s clearly visible from behind.



What about the local Italian drivers?

Ah. Well. Yes. About them… Unfortunately, after riding thousands of miles all over the EU, we have concluded that the Italians are the worst drivers in Europe. The majority are ill-disciplined, aggressive, recklessly fast and given to tailgating - apart from the 10 per cent who creep along at 15mph in ancient Fiat Pandas or three-wheeled Piaggio Apes.

Driving standards seems to be the worst in cities and around the Italian Lakes - and on Sicily and Sardinia (island driving always seems to be a bit special). But that’s why our routes avoid big cities and stick to quieter roads. And that’s the blessing: generally, when you’re outside the cities, the roads are usually really quiet. Basically, if you can avoid riding across Naples in rush hour you’ll be fine.



Do I need to take tools?

You shouldn’t needs loads of tools or spares if you’re riding a well-prepped modern bike. If you’re planning to tour on a classic bike, you’ll probably already know what you need…

If there’s space in a pannier or (better) under the seat, take a puncture repair kit, a multitool, half a dozen cable ties and some gaffer tape. But we wouldn’t leave clothes out just to squeeze this stuff in: Sod’s Law says the surest way to ensure you don’t need them it to pack them, after all…



What about security?

Definitely take a disc lock. If you can fit a chain somewhere so you can lock the back wheel to a lamppost (or something similar) with a disc lock on the front wheel, even better. If travelling in a group, not everyone needs a chain but it is best if you can chain the bikes together. But you main security is being canny about where you leave the bike. We would always aim to stay in places that have secure parking, ideally avoiding city centres.



What should I pack?

If you’re cunning about it, you can get away with packing far less than you think. We swear by lightweight baselayers that can be rinsed at the end of the day: they help regulate your temperature, keeping you cool when it’s hot and warm if it gets cool; and a rinse keeps them fresh. Wearing those on the bike means you can save a shirt to do a couple of evenings, not just one. Don’t pack huge walking boots - baseball boots or even flip-flops take up a fraction of the space.

If you’re staying in hotels, you should be able to take a minimal washkit as they’ll have all the soap and shampoo you need. You shouldn’t need a towel, unless you’re also packing your swimming trunks. Don’t forget your phone charger. Or a European plug adaptor - if you’ll need to charge lots of things, take one plug adaptor and a short four-gang extension lead (or consider fitting a USB socket to your bike if it doesn’t have one already). And don’t forget your sun glasses!

How do I prepare my bike for the trip?

Prepping-your-bike.JPG

As long as your bike is road-legal and mechanically sound, with a fresh set of tyres, all you need to do is add luggage and get going. If it’s not mechanically sound, fix it! And fit a fresh set of tyres.

We stress the importance of fitting new tyres because Italy is a long way away: setting out with a well-worn or even half-worn set of tyres is asking for trouble. Apart from the safety aspect of riding a tyre until it’s worn right down, replacing a tyre in the middle of your tour wastes time and money. It might not ruin your holiday, but it will at least one day of it.

Start the trip with a fresh set of sports touring tyres. If you have an adventure bike and want to look for unpaved roads in the Alps, you may need a dual sport tyre - but if the plan is to ride only on tarmac, we’d fit sports touring tyres to an adventure bike too.

Please note: This page contains the route files for The RiDE Guide To Italy which came free with RiDE magazine in July 2015. These website page are not regularly updated, so please check all critical information before you travel. All route files are in .gpx format. Garmin and BMW users can download the main file, which contains all the routes and our recommended hotels as separate waypoints. TomTom users can download the individual routes and use the Tyre software to convert them. For many routes we also have Google Map links. However, as Google Maps will not plot routes over seasonally closed high Alpine passes (such as Stelvio) when they’re shut, these may not work for every route all year round.