Training for nothing in Sardinia

Grand Tours Project

Feb / 8 / 2017

In this story originally published by the Australian Magazine RIDE Cycling Review, Grand Tours Project shares how they discovered Sardinia, an underrated cycling paradise.

It was in November 2011. My good friends Dan and Janine are amongst the best mountain sports photographers in the world and they had just finished a long season of shooting in the Alps. I was working for the UCI at the time and was back from China where I had organised the first edition of the Tour of Beijing.

We all needed a serious break: all we wanted was to go south, ride bikes, eat well and relax before the European winter. We ended up spending a week in Tuscany, exploring the Strade Bianche, eating wild boar with mushrooms and drinking chianti. We called this our training for nothing camp: riding in a beautiful place just for the sake of it, one last time before going into cycling hibernation.

The opportunity came up this year to repeat the experience. I was at the Maratona dles Dolomites to guide a group for Grand Tours Project, the cycling tour company I manage. Marcello, our driver, chef, entertainer and troubleshooter, comes from Sardinia. After a big day in the mountains, we were relaxing at the bar, sipping on some Aperol Spritz when he invited us to discover his Mediterranean island.

I had never been there and was looking for a new destination to take guests for some late season riding. Somewhere off the beaten paths. One Spritz later and the decision was made: we would go to Sardinia for a training for nothing camp.

At the end of October, we spent 4 days with Marcello and his mate Simone on the west coast of Sardinia. We started in Tresnuraghes and finished in Alghero, the town that will host the start of the 100th edition of the Giro in 2017. And in these 4 short days I discovered an amazing place. Here’s everything you always wanted to know about riding in Sardinia. Not that you were afraid to ask; you just didn’t know that this place is indeed a cycling paradise.

The riding

I live in Switzerland. Here, most roads are as smooth as a baby bottom and I am often shocked by the bad quality of the asphalt when I go abroad. Not in Sardinia: even the small lanes in the countryside are well maintained, which makes for an outstanding experience.

However, I have to say that we were caught in a traffic jam on one occasion. As we were coming down a hill on the third day, we found the road blocked. By a herd of sheep. Nobody complained… and many pictures were taken.

Above: Traffic jam, Sardinian style

As a matter of fact, we barely saw any car outside of the towns. « We are a bit more than a million and a half, and one third is concentrated around Cagliari. The island is about 300 km long and 200 km wide, so we’ve got space. Here, it’s still possible to live in the great outdoors, feeling alone and at peace, and totally immersed in nature » says Simone.

Not only are the roads smooth and empty, but they are also gorgeous. In many different ways: with its cliffs and big views, the road that winds along the sea between Bosa and Alghero reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway around Big Sur in California. Repairing a puncture there under the gaze of a 3-meter wide griffon vulture circling above us was a highlight of our trip.

Sardinia Getaway day 3: riding up the west coast to Alghero

Une photo publiée par Grand Tours Project (@grandtoursproject) le

But there’s more. The descent into Alghero from the top of the steep climb of La Speranza is pure switchback porn. However, my favourite roads are inland: tiny lanes that cut through the countryside between beautifully preserved villages. Tinnura is one of them; when we crossed it, it was completely empty, save for the characters painted onto every wall space. All of Sardinian history and myth is represented, from local farmers and townspeople to a two story portrait of Garibaldi… An Instagram heaven.

The weather

At home, late October means wearing short fingered gloves at best. In Sardinia, the temperature was between 22 and 28°C and we rode in shorts most of the time. It is possible to ride all year round; winter may be a bit cold, but mostly inland. « With long days, a blast of colours and perfumes as well as marvellous light, spring is the best season » says Simone. « In summer, take a siesta between noon and 4pm ». That sounds like good advice.

The food

A good cycling tour is not just about the riding. Eating (not just fuelling) is also essential. On our first evening, we had dinner at Trattoria da Ricardo in Magomadas. There was no menu as the owner, Ricardo, cooks the fresh food he finds every day at the local market. Homemade bread, cheese, ravioli, tuna and swordfish accompanied by the house red wine: our experience of Sardinian cuisine started with a bang.

For our second dinner in Bosa, Marcello and Simone had prepared a surprise. Through winding cobbled streets, we were taken to the wine cellar of brothers Manuele and Luigi. They make Malvasia di Bosa, one of the Sardinian wines. While we were tasting it, dishes were brought in and we ended up having a full dinner in the cellar, with suckling pig as the main course. We slept well that night.

But the food experience in Sardinia is not limited to the meals. With Simone and Marcello, no pink energy drinks or tasteless cereal bars during rides. They wait for you on the roadside with a full buffet: shepherd’s bread with honey, fresh fruit, torrone (the local nougat), pecorino cheese and fregula, a dish halfway between couscous and pasta. After that, you’ll never look at your energy food the same way.

Above: The Sardinian energy food: natural and delicious

The people

In many holiday destinations, the hospitality tends to be standardised at best, fake at worst. In Sardinia, people are real. You can feel that Simone and Marcello are in love with their island; they will tell you everything about the history and the culture of the places you’ll visit with them. They will introduce you to their friends. Like Ricardo, who hosted us in his trattoria for our first dinner. Not only is he a fantastic chef, but he’s also an adventurer and a storyteller. Every year, he goes on a big cycling trip. His next goal: Beijing. Important detail: the guy is 70, but he easily looks 10 years younger. Cycling, healthy food and a simple life apparently make wonders.

Sardinians are passionate people. We spent our first two nights at Villa Asfodeli; we were hosted by Guglielmo, an architect by profession and his wife Maria Cristina. In 2007, they bought this ancient villa in the small village of Tresnuraghes near Bosa. They restored it carefully, turning it into a hotel without losing the character of the building. This is the story Guglielmo will tell you when you return from a big day out, as you eat the pasta he just cooked himself. Delicious food served any time of the day to hungry cyclists is not the only service provided by this bike friendly hotel: you can also get your kit washed every day and store your bike in a secure garage equipped with tools.

Above: Villa Asfodeli in Tresnuraghes: the perfect bike hotel

Great riding, beautiful sceneries, amazing food and authentic people: it did not take me long to understand that the organisers of the Giro have unearthed a hidden gem for the start of the race next year. I hope that this spotlight on Sardinia will inspire many cyclists to take a break from their busy life and discover this cycling heaven.

I for my part will be back. First in the spring to enjoy some early warm weather; then for the Giro, where we will ride on the race course, just hours before the pros. And of course for another training for nothing camp in autumn. But I also have another reason to go back. Marcello promised me that he’ll get me pecorino cheese from his friend the shepherd next time I am in Sardinia. I’m Swiss and I have a passion for cheese, so I have to go back for the pecorino…

Do you want to experience the Sardinian hospitality and ride on beautiful roads under the sun? Join us on for a Sardinia Getaway in April or October.

Above: Staring contest in Tinnura

Above: Bike path? No, just your usual country lane - empty and perfectly surfaced

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