The moon drifted in and out of the clouds while lights strung in the trees twinkled brightly. Laughter mixed with the gentle hum of conversation.
On a hilltop overlooking the Adriatic Sea, hotelier Stefan Giuliodori welcomed guests from around the world to an outdoor dinner at his Italian country home.
Friendships had come easy during the shared experience of bicycling for a week in Italy, and it showed as we dined, danced and sang. Twenty-two of us from a mostly Nebraska contingent, along with cyclists and their families from Israel, Iceland and Australia, celebrated all that Italy had to offer.
“I felt like I was part of a much bigger biking community,” says Julie Bohlen of Papillion. “We were so bonded, we became friends no matter where we were from.”
Our stay at Hotel Dory in northern Italy was full of superlatives -- the scenery, the cycling, the food, the accommodations, the people.
“It far surpassed my expectations,” Bohlen says.
Cycling has a long history in Europe, and in 2000, a group of hotels scattered across Italy -- but situated in the nation's best areas for cycling -- spotted an opportunity. A consortium, Italy Bike Hotels, was born.
The group sets standards for such things as cycling routes, expertise of guides, food and mechanical service. Even laundry service is included. About 60 three- and four-star hotels belong to the consortium, each effectively functioning as all-inclusive for the cycling enthusiast.
"The concept of a hotel dedicated to cyclists seemed hard to imagine, but they are truly, truly dedicated to cyclists," says Lin Leahy of the Omaha area.
In our case, Hotel Dory came recommended and did not disappoint.
Each morning we rode a circular route above or through the seaside resort town of Riccione. Riders were divided into five groups based on skill level, with about 10 to 15 people in each group.
"The variety of beautiful routes was a surprise," says Linda Hayek of Omaha, who organized our group. "Something for everyone -- racing types, food lovers, wine tasters ... Anyone would enjoy it."
The setup had an unexpected benefit. Because we returned each evening to the hotel for dinner -- unlimited wine included -- it became a gathering point that enriched our time together. There was no haggling over where to eat or scattering into small groups.
“Some of my favorite experiences were coming back to the hotel to share dinner with the party and catch up on what everyone had done during the day,” says Scott Redd of Omaha.
Each day, we pedaled the hills past olive groves, deeply furrowed farm fields and through 16th-century villages. Cappuccino stops were a highlight, bringing a break from the riding and an opportunity to explore a village market or castle, or take in a vista.
My friends and I opted for the most leisurely of the skill levels and appreciated our guide's kindness and patience. At each scenic stop, Silvano Sbrollini would motion for the gaggle of riders following him to pull off the road. We would happily comply because every twist in the road had presented another postcard image.
“It was great to jump on the bike and get ‘lost’ in the ride,” says Lisa Ring Koenig. “Just taking in the scenery, not having to worry about the route.”
Snapping photos might seem like a given while cycling in Italy. After all, isn’t that what bike touring is all about?
No, not in Italy.
Italian cyclists are intense. Even on vacation, they are there to pedal and climb, climb and pedal.
Resting? Drinking in the scenery? That’s for the amateur.
That doesn’t mean American cyclists should be scared off. It simply means that the typical American cyclist, even one who has done the Bike Ride Across Nebraska or RAGBRAI, will be humbled.
“It is doubtful you will be as good as you think,” says Kris Rongone of the Omaha metro, who opted for a tougher skill level.
Italian cycling is about riding harder and with fewer breaks than Americans are accustomed to. But the end-goal -- a good meal and wine -- washes away any fatigue.
“I got every bit of the biking challenge that I went for,” says Hayek, who opted for a tougher skill level.
Particpating in the trip were: Lin and Jerry Leahy, George and Cynthia Parks, Cindy Cronn, Linda Hayek, Tod Smith, Scott Redd, Michelle Burbach, Dan Hamann, Kris Rongone, Julie Rongone, Julie Bohlen, Steve Jones, Gayle Schnackel, Bill Nelson and Lisa Hacker Nelson, Paul and Jinette Lichter, Chris Koenig and Lisa Ring Koenig,