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Once you get outside Benevento you hit some beautiful country right away. There was no way I could have predicted the amazing show that was waiting, but that's the serendipity of bike tours.

It was going to be a major turning point in the tour, and after this night I would spend a lot more time talking to people, sharing stories and experiences, being social. But as I left Benevento, I didn't know yet what was about to happen.

I rode my bike out of the city early in the evening. A traffic cop told me the way, and soon I was cruising along a winding, hilly country road in the failing light.

I didn't have plans for where to stay that night, but here's the great thing about touring southern Italy by bicycle. Your tent almost anywhere in the countryside.

In fact, when I met an old man walking along the side of the road and asked if he knew anywhere to camp, he smiled and gestured magnanimously across the forests and meadows around us.

"You are welcome to camp anywhere you want in my country," he said.

This was just my second night of stealth camping on the tour of via Appia, but I've always had great luck when I leave things up to chance.

The land was deep green, with beautiful oak forests and grassy meadows. At one point I passed a sign leading to the Ponte Rotto, where I would one day fulfill my dream of camping out in ancient Roman ruins. But not this night.

I rode my bike down into a broad valley as the last glow of the sunset disappeared. The world was pitch black. The only light came from my flickering Cat's Eye bike light and the silver points of stars up above.

I came to a farm at the top of a gentle hill covered with olive trees and grapevines. Nobody seemed to be home when I went to ask permission, so I found a level spot near a bunch of olive trees and set up my tent.

I was ready to crash when I saw a dim light gently bobbing near the spot where I had wheeled my bicycle off the road. It looked like someone walking with their cell phone, so I shouted a friendly "Buona sera!"

No answer, but the light kept coming closer, taking its time.

I didn't want to startle anyone in the dark, so I turned on my flashlight, pointed it at my own face, and called out another greeting down the hill.

No reply, and this began to feel creepy.

"Listen," I said in my best possible Italian, "I'm just passing through here on my bike and I stopped because it is dangerous to ride in the dark. I wanted to camp here for the night and leave early in the morning, but I don't want to cause any problems. I'll go now if you want me to."

The mysterious light stopped, but continued to bob gently in the air, flickering on and off. I pointed my light at it, and saw nothing but the low branches of a young oak tree.

A ghost? This wasn't the only time I've ran into ghosts in Italy (that's another story) but something felt completely normal and natural about this. I walked down to the light and found a large insect on a tree branch. Its abdomen was glowing, and the branch bobbed up and down in the wind.

I laughed out loud as I walked back to my tent, and suddenly a flash of light in the sky caught my eye. A shooting star! A few minutes later I saw another one. The next hour or so was a treat of meteors, stars, and glowing insects.

What happened next is hard to describe, but I'll try. Laying there in an olive grove in Italy, I felt like I was coming home. I had found a part of myself, something I had lost over the years.

Italy is famous for her natural and artistic beauty, but I've been guilty of neglecting the first of these. When I tour in Italy I tend to obsess on paintings and history, cold sculptures and crumbling chunks of marble. But those things get there romance and their magic from the natural world that shaped them and the people who made them.

The whole point of a bike tour in Italy is to breathe life and relevance into the textbook Italy we all think we know.

It took a natural light show in the olive groves of Benevento to show me the error of my ways.

Come to think of it, this is one of the most important reasons to go on a bike tour. It will get you out of your routing, your regular mindset, and show you what you've been missing out on.

I don't spend as much time in cars as most people do, but even so I'm fixed in my ways, just like we all are.

And there's nothing like a bike tour to take you out of yourself and show you the world in a new way.

Not everybody likes to read, and a lot of you probably won't travel with me--whether it's a schedule conflict or my smelly feet. So here's another option for you.

It's true I want to lead a kick-ass, life-changing bike tour next spring so I can charge money for the same service in the future. It's true that I'm going to publish a guide-book with some of the best-kept secrets about bike touring in southern Italy.

But not everybody likes to read, and a lot of you probably won't travel with me--whether it's a schedule conflict or my smelly feet.

So here's another option for you. I've put up the full route on a squidoo lens. You'll get a basic outline of where I go, along with a few brief notes about some of the cool things to see and do while you're biking the Appian Way. You can dig up the maps yourself, get some relevant books from Amazon, or even shoot me an email if you've got a legitimate question.

Here's the link:

http://www.squidoo.com/bikeappia

Italy bike tour appia Aurunci bridge archBy the way, if you're not already familiar with Squidoo, you should check out my lens just to see what it's all about. Pretty soon you'll be posting your own pictures and stories of your bike rides and bike touring adventures. You might even make some money. (I've already got $1.40 in pending earnings. That's almost enough to buy a cappuccino when I get to  Rome!)

If you're reading this, some part of you wants to be stronger, faster, to travel, to be free. Don't limit yourself. There's more than one way to ride to Brindisi, and if that's not where you want to be, you have as many challenges and adventures awaiting you as there are stars in the sky and dreams in your heart.

Today is the exact midpoint of 2009. It's also Hermann Hesse's birthday, and he's got a connection to bike travel. Or any travel, actually.

I was really influenced by two of his books, Siddhartha and Goldmund and Narcissus. They were both about wandering vagabond-type characters whose travel became a big part of their destiny--and that of all humanity.

I think his books taught me the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. It seems that the term "bike touring" is more dominant, but really when you tour the world by bicycle--or even just your home town--you're embodying the spirit of a traveler.

A tourist goes site-seeing, but a bike traveler has a spontaneous conversation with the places you visit. You may have  a schedule, but it's a loose one by necessity. Your plans are tempered by the weather, the terrain, and even by what you ate for dinner.

Bike touring engages you. Wherever you stop for food, drink, or rest you're going to get the attention of the locals simply because you're traveling in a way that's still unusual. People who wouldn't talk to you if you were driving will invite you in for coffee drinks because you're on a bike. You get to know the adventures that go along with heat and cold, hunger and fatigue, being lost and finally arriving at your destination.

Your adventures may not be as long or intense as the ones that Siddhartha and Goldmund experienced, but when you travel by bike you're living in the real world, not just being passively entertained.

It's the middle of the year, the beginning of summer, and a few days from our celebration of independence. Celebrate your own independence, while the sun shines and the open road rolls out before you. Ride on, and enjoy the adventures that await you.

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Getting ready for a long Saturday bike ride. And it gets me wondering why I do this. There are actually a lot of important, pressing things I could take care of tomorrow. Instead I'm leaving checks uncashed, bills unpaid, dishes unwashed and groceries unbought so I can zip around the outskirts of LA without any important destination in mind.

But I already know what's going to happen. I'll find a new street that I've never been down before. Maybe find a new park or garden, or a great hill to test my will or my courage, depending on whether I start at the bottom or the top.

I'll get food and coffee at places I've never been before, and strike up a good conversation with the owner or the patrons.

BikeLA pix 005I always like to check out old historical routes and sites, so I'll eventually get to the San Gabriel Mission, but that's a tiny piece of the whole experience. I could drive there in half an hour or less, but that would leave the hills untested, food and coffee untasted, back streets undiscovered, conversations unstarted.

I guess that's why I do this, why my irrational wanderlust always wins out over the guilt about chores I've neglected. the bike is my only proof that there's still some adventure and excitement in the world. It's the biggest thing that lets me keep a sense of wonder about things.

Why do you ride?

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OK, this has bummed me out as much as it has a lot of you. After looking at the euro vs. dollar exchange rates, seeing how much touring Italy by bicycle is going to cost right now, and considering some interesting and exciting business prospects I have right now despite the general economic doom and gloom, I've decided to postpone this trip for at least a year.

If you still want to go, drop me a line and I can give you a lot of advice from personal experience touring southern Italy and Rome, especially. And there's more.

via Appia gravinaq fountain

If you're not from the United States, this is a great time to visit our country. Everything will be unusually cheap, and the people will be really nice to you. I'll be blatant. We need your tourist euros and other currency.

I shouldn't have to say this, but if you're in the USA and facing financial hardships, your bike can be a fun and healthy way to stay out of the mess. It's much cheaper to buy, power, and maintain a bike than a car, and it's a great way to cut corners, especially if it doubles as your workout.

Speaking of workouts, I'm going to be posting a lot more in the future about the benefits of bike exercise, and also a total body workout to keep your arms, shoulders, and core up to par with your legs and cardio, which are probably already rock solid if you're biking even moderately.

I also have a surprise this coming summer that should be a huge benefit to travelers anywhere in the world, whether or not you travel by bicycle. So keep in touch.

As I post this, oil is $100 a barrel. Gasoline is still half what it costs in Italy, probably because of some irrational taxation/subsidy patterns on both sides of the globe. We're living in interesting times, and that can seem like a curse but often be a blessing.

I'm just months away from my 40th birthday, and I had planned to bicycle around the Mediterranean sea as a present to myself. Now it looks like I'll have to put it off for a few years but it's not over yet. If I keep in shape I could probably still do it when I'm 50, and I don't give up.

Don't you give up either. Your bicycle can be cure for so many problems that plague the world today--global warming, pollution, peak oil, economic excess, poverty, even a lot of health problems and crisis.

I long for easier, happier days, such as, for example, the way things were ten years ago. But we cannot choose the times we live in. As Gandalf said, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

Enjoy these big hills that can only lead to easier times in the future. Ride swift and free, and remember it's all about the journey. In fact, you don't even know the final destination.

If you’re Canadian, British, Australian or from any English-speaking county other than the United States you can probably ignore this post.Italy bike tour Capua repairs

But if you’re from the USA, and you want to tour Italy by bicycle, you may be worried about how much (or how little) your dollars will buy when you exchange them for euros.

Good news. When it comes to bike touring, you’re in a separate category of travel. Here’s why.

Bike touring is inherently cheaper than most other kinds of travel. You spend more time in small towns where things are less expensive, and you have more options because of your mobility (think of the typical backpacker who has to rely on bus and train schedules).

I would add that bike tours tend to involve more camping, but the truth is you really might want to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. Good news here, too.

You see, in the late 1990s a lot of new tour operations opened up in Italy with the intention of serving middle class Americans made rich by the dotcom bubble. The dollar was strong, flights were cheap and convenient in the pre-9/11 era, and middle class tourists swarmed to Italy. (I was a tour manager in Rome, and it was possibly the best time ever to be an American living abroad.)

Now those hotels, restaurants, pensioni and other services are struggling for new and different clientele. When you show up there, you are a rare and welcome guest. You can’t expect the prices to be lower, but you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

Italians don’t treat you like a customer, but a guest. On recent bike tours in Italy I’ve been invited to dinner, taken on tours of small Italian villages, and offered lots of amenities for what was only a slightly pricey hotel room.

And this is part of the joy of bike riding on tour. You get all kinds of unexpected gifts and surprises from the locals.

Food also gives you a new level of class when you tour Italy by bicycle. You may not be able to eat in a Euro-grade restaurant on a dollar budget, but you can get fine bread and cheese from a deli, and then take it somewhere exotic with your bike.

Sit up on a wall or in the courtyard of a castle while you feast on wine, cold cuts, cheese and grilled eggplant doused in olive oil. Have a picnic in a green field dotted with wild flowers, as you lean against a crumbling aqueduct. I’ve done this, and I’ll do it again soon. No matter what the exchange rate happens to be.

If anything, this might be the best time for touring Italy by bicycle if you’re creative and adventurous. And you are, or you wouldn’t be thinking about this trip, would you?

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I just got back a few days ago from a class put out by the Adventure Cycling Association--on how to "lead" a bike tour.

The takeaways are pretty well in line with what I'm planning for the bike tour in Italy this coming spring:

You don't really lead as much as you provide support and guidance so everyone can find their way home at night and have a good meal waiting for them. I promise I'll do at least this for you if you want to tour Italy by bicycle.

The Adventure Cycling Association's philosophy really fits in well with my own concept of what a bike tour should be. You have a lot of fun and see some cool places, but that's almost window dressing compared to the experience and personal growth that happens on a good bicycle tour.

I got an incredibly positive evaluation from the course instructor, who said he's going to recommend me as a tour leader for Adventure Cycling. So if you want to bike through southern Italy with me, you know you're in good hands--verified by an independent third party.

We're going to push the limits when we bike the via Appia. You're going to learn and grow in all kinds of incredible ways. You'll learn a lot about Italy, but you'll learn even more about yourself. And did I mention--we're going to really have fun!

If you want to find out more about touring Italy by bicycle, click here or leave a comment.

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In this picture I'm with the beautiful Cristina Ottaviani in front of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. (Sorry guys, she's taken. And not by me).

This was at the end of a 2-week ride tracing via Appia, the Appian Way, ancient Rome's highway that crossed half the length of Italy from Rome to Brindisi.

I can't even tell you how much fun it was, the amazing food I ate, all the times I followed muddy trails through the forest to find old Roman ruins, the wonderful people I met, the food, the wildflowers sparkling on the meadows, lots of great food, all the things I learned about people and history and human nature, and all the amazing food, especially gelato.

Nothing beats Italy cycling tours. And did I mention the food?

Anyway, I'm not saying all this to make you jealous, but hopefully to inspire you to be part of a much bigger adventure.

One of my dreams was to bicycle around the entire Mediterranean on a bicycle before I turn 40. I've still got a couple years, but now I'm probably going to postpone the trip to take advantage of some new business opportunities, and wait for (hopefully) the current wave of violence in the Levant to blow over.

But in the meantime, I'm bicycling across Italy again in the spring of 2008. If you've ever thought about taking a bicycling tour of southern Italy, this is going to be a blast! I'll be posting more information as the date gets closer, or you can leave a comment and I'll email you if you just can't wait to hear more.

As far as the Mediterranean bike tour, we've got a few more years to plan, organize, get in shape, and above all dream.

I say "we" because if you're actually reading this blog you may have some interest in coming along. Either for the whole ride or any part of it that fits your dreams and your calendar. Leave a comment if you want to ride.

Any takers?