It is 16.00 when we park our rented Fiat 500 in front of the hotel. We are tired, but content. Early this morning we left Apeldoorn with all kinds of expectations. Now we are going to experience whether they come true. When we enter the Alexander Bike Hotel the receptionist gets up, walks around the front desk and over to us. She shakes our hand: ‘Are you the Dutch journalists?’
We nod and look at each other in amazement. Journalists? We are even more surprised about the fact that apparently our arrival has been announced. She kindly tells us in English that Sandro will be here within a few seconds. She asks us to hand her our suitcases and places them on the luggage carrier to transport them to our room.
Sandro is the reason we are in the hotel lobby of the Alexander Bike Hotel on this wonderful Italian late summer day. Sandro Marrai is the bike manager of this hotel. Sandro has contacted Reinhout on LinkedIn. Reinhout is the founder of www.cycle55.cc and team captain of Cima Coppi business cycling Apeldoorn. Because of this he has built up a large network of cyclists.
Sandro invited Reinhout to experience the Alexander Bike Hotel and then write about it. In addition to Americans, Germans, Austrians, Swiss and English, Sandro would like to welcome more Dutch cyclists as guests. After the first disbelief about such a nice offer, Reinhout asked Bas Schepers, a storyteller from www.rode-draad.com, to write the story. And so here we are, ready for the Italian adventure. Sandro appears and walks over to us. It is impossible to ignore his big smile, expressive face and waving arms. We shake hands.
‘So guys, did you have a good trip?’
Before we have time to reply, Sandro tells us that he is so happy that we are here. He is honoured to let us experience this unique family business in the next 4 days. Naturally we feel the same way about this. Cycling, Italian landscapes, espresso, 27 degrees and friendly people. Who wouldn’t go for that? Sandro lets us check in and freshen up first to enjoy a dinner together later.
Before dinner we enjoy our espresso and shake hands with the various guides at the outdoor cafe. These guides are fanatical cyclists who know the surrounding area very well. Every day they supervise groups of cyclists who have booked a package at this hotel. Now they have finished their ride for today. They also have been informed about the ‘Dutch guys’ and welcome us with big smiles.
A small man arrives at the terrace. His big glasses, wavy grey hair and striking face stand out. This must be Roberto. No doubt about it. The man walks up to us, nods at Sandro and gives us a firm handshake.
‘I’m Roberto and I would like to welcome you to our hotel.’ He speaks Italian with Sandro and tells us that he is still busy at present, but that he would like to get to know us after dinner tonight.
As Roberto is walking away, Sandro invites us to come along. The next three days we will be making trips so of course we need some bikes. The hotel has an agreement with Bianchi for guests to have various models at their disposal. When we walk down the stairs we see two bicycles. One has the characteristic Celeste colour that Bianchi is famous for and on the other one we recognize the colours of the successful Lotto Jumbo cycling team.
When we get closer to the bikes we notice that our names have already been put on them. The bikes have also been tailored as well as possible, but some adjustments have to be made. The fitting and measuring starts. Sandro immediately notes that the Dutch are selective when it comes to making adjustments.
The hotel mechanic arrives. The saddles are adjusted, the seat post goes up on Bas’ bike and the pedals that we have brought with us are mounted. After three days of cycling we must admit that these are good bikes. We have no aches and pains when putting in the necessary effort on the uphill slopes and in the descent the bike handles very well. There is only one thing for the next time: we will bring our own saddles.
Our bikes have been stowed away. They are ready for tomorrow. Sandro claims that the food at the hotel is ‘awesome’. We would like to put that to the test. The three of us walk over to the restaurant. A friendly young man welcomes us and guides us to our table. This table will be exclusively ours for the next 4 days. The young man (later we understand that he is Roberto’s son-in-law) explains to us that there is a buffet for the starters and that we can choose from a three-course menu. He asks us what we would like to drink, presents the menu and leaves us to think about what we want to eat. We glance over our shoulder. The buffet looks good already and we cannot wait.
A few minutes later we are present at the buffet. The choice of salads, vegetable dishes, fish and antipasti is overwhelming. We walk back to our table, our plates full of treats. There is a silence while we enjoy the great food. Sandro asks us if he has said too much and looks at us with a smile. As a secondary employment condition, Sandro is allowed the same three meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that are reserved for the guests. We must admit: he did not say too much. After the dessert we look at each other with contentment. This Italian kitchen will certainly please us in the days ahead!
Roberto joins later wanting to know our first impression of his hotel. In our best English we make clear to him that we are overwhelmed and very anxious about tomorrow. We will ride the bikes for the first time and explore the Italian landscape in this area. We ask Roberto about the history of his hotel. He inherited the hotel from his father and presently runs it together with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. He started to focus on cyclists about 10 years ago. According to him, the surrounding area, food and passion for cycling in Italy are perfect ingredients for a hotel like this. Offering all-inclusive packages, accompanied by experienced guides, cyclists are gradually introduced to this beautiful environment.
Do you want a training camp? No problem. There is even the possibility to train for a week with a professional cyclist. Do you want to cycle recreational? That is possible too. Every day an experienced cyclist takes you to the most beautiful places, while enjoying a good espresso on the way in an old city and you can even have lunch on a short cruise along the coast.
We are curious about the secret of Roberto and his family. Without arrogance he tells us that what makes him most proud is a welcoming family environment. He does all he can to convey this to his guests and chooses his staff accordingly. There are many hotels that offer cycling holidays, but this hotel distinguishes itself by the personal attention that he and his family offer you.
We must admit that we have sensed this attention to detail. Employees are aware of our arrival, do not insist, but are keen to listen to our wishes. Small things, like the possibility to wash our cycling clothes, fit this feeling. An hour later we fall into a deep sleep with our heads full of impressions.
Day two of our trip has started. We grab a croissant and yoghurt from the buffet and walk to our table. We order our espressos and full of excitement start drinking the black gold: what will today bring us? Which route do we take? What climbs do we take on? How fast can our guides cycle?
Sandro and Giuseppe are our guides today. We have the luxury to have private guides. The cycling group that we will join tomorrow are resting today. The smile of Giuseppe, his good English and passion for cycling ensure that, in addition to Sandro, we have a new bike friend. We saw it right away, Giuseppe is such an Italian spring. 60 kilos, no fat and muscles like steel cables. We should not delude ourselves…
Sandro and Giuseppe work as guides at the Alexander Bike Hotel in Gabicce Mare. A small seaside town in the Italian Marche region. Every day they take cyclists through the beautiful surroundings, tell them all there is to know about the history of the landscape and show them the most beautiful castles. Today they take us on a 90 km journey.
The espresso is finished, the shoes are put on and we have taken our bikes. We leave Gabicce Mare and start the first climb. Giuseppe is cycling next to us and tells us about all the castles in the area. His good English is apparent. This is due to him having been spokesman for a number of pro continental teams.
While cycling along the border of the Marche and the Emilia Romagna region, we come across many beautiful castles. Many historical battles were fought from these walls and some remain still intact today. We listen to Giuseppe, but do not respond much. Sandro cycles about 20 meters ahead of us. We pinch ourselves. It is really true! We work in this Italian landscape on the corporate story of the Alexander Bike Hotel!
Sandro and Giuseppe are relaxed, but sharp. They show us beautiful places, warn us about potholes in the road and passing cars. Two hours later we enter the beautiful place Urbino. Sandro told us that we come across a strip of real ‘Roubaix boulders’. Like puppy dogs we are going for it. Of course, this is our specialty. We wind through the cars. Then Sandro calls us to order. ‘Stay behind me! I do not want you back in small pieces.’ We realize that he is right and we calm down.
After an espresso in Urbino, beautiful climbs lead us back to Gabicce Mare. The way Giuseppe climbs up hurts our eyes. Giuseppe does not talk much now, but regularly joins us to ask if everything is going well. We keep Sandro and Giuseppe sheltered from the wind on the flat stretches. At least we can do something back…
Back at the hotel, we thank Sandro and Giuseppe for their expert guidance. They are happy to remind us of our sheltering duties on the flat stretches along the route. Later while enjoying some refreshments, we ask ourselves the question: what makes the Alexander Bike Hotel special?
The food is top notch, the facilities are superb and the weather is great. But the personal touch of Sandro and Giuseppe make it special!
Lunch at the beach
When we have showered, Sandro takes us to the beach to have lunch. The hotel cook has taken his kitchen to the beach. When we walk in the direction of the sea we notice a wonderful smell. Fresh fish on the barbecue? Two minutes later we are sitting at the table with other hotel guests enjoying the sunshine and the breeze, accompanied by the music that ‘Elvis’ plays for us.
‘Elvis’ is the hotel barman who also sings well and plays guitar. Elvis Presley’s songs are Ernest’s specialty, as he is really called. Also today, the classics of the ‘king of rock and roll’ reverberate across the beach.
The food is simple, but delicious. Fish, salad, fresh bread and a glass of white wine. This lunch on the beach is perfect for any cyclist after a good workout in the morning.
Before dinner that evening Sandro informs us that we will ride with a group of Americans tomorrow whom he will accompany as a guide. We already knew that an American cycling club is staying at the hotel for two weeks. Every day they cycle with guides through the beautiful landscape in different groups. Each group being compiled on the basis of average speed. Their enthusiasm is noticeable throughout the hotel.
While digesting our appetizer, a small man abruptly appears at our table.
‘Are you riding with us tomorrow?’
Without waiting for an answer, he introduces himself as Doug and starts talking. He informs us that two ‘Dutch guys’ are riding with them tomorrow. He is under the impression that we are those dutchies. We confirm his suspicion and get into a conversation about cycling, Schiphol, and San Marino. San Marino is the smallest republic on earth, has the oldest working constitution and is the most prosperous country in the world. Tomorrow we will cycle there.
Our main course arrives. Doug wishes us ‘bon appetit’ and says he is looking forward to cycling with us tomorrow. We thank him and look at our plates. A delicious fish dish is waiting for us. Like the day before, we fall asleep tired and satisfied after dinner. Tomorrow we have an early start in the company of the Americans for the ride to San Marino.
As we said before, San Marino is the smallest republic in the world with 32,000 inhabitants. At breakfast Sandro tells us that we are going to enjoy a beautiful view of the capital, which is also called San Marino. Around 8 o’clock we walk to our bikes and make our preparations for the trip. Water bottles are filled, bananas are handed out by Roberto, tires are inflated and the Americans ask Sandro all kinds of things. What distance are we going to cover? What altitude will we reach on the trip and how many kilometres is it to the first coffee stop in San Marino?
The Americans are crazy about numbers and want to know everything. They also have various questions for us. How fast do we cycle, how much do we cycle, where do we cycle and what bike brands do we ride in the Netherlands? It strikes us that almost all Americans we travel with wear a mirror on their helmet. Just like a rear-view mirror on a car. We must admit that it amuses us at first. We do not see ourselves cycling with a mirror. But given the accidents that still take place everywhere and the vulnerability as a cyclist in traffic it is really not a bad idea.
It is half past nine and off we go. Twelve Americans, Sandro and us. Led by Sandro we leave Gabicce Mare. By now we know Sandro’s arm gestures when a roundabout is coming up, when we go straight or turn left. Our group sets off quickly and soon we cycle with a strong pace towards San Marino. This group is not called ‘espresso’ for nothing, we ride a fast average. A special thing among cyclists is that only few words are needed to understand each other. Soon we are fully participating in the group and doing our work at the front of this small pack.
Riding through this beautiful landscape with beautiful climbs, San Marino is getting closer and closer. We realize that we will soon be in another country. When we enter the capital of this republic, the old centre immediately stands out. We have to climb a lot and we are obliged to walk the last part to the viewpoint. There are many tourists so cycling is too dangerous. We park our bikes at a restaurant and take a seat on the terrace. We are quiet for a moment, taking in this magnificent view. The weather is clear, revealing a fantastic panorama of the landscape down to Rimini.
Sandro informs us that we are at an altitude of 750 meters and that this is one of his favourite places to take cyclists from all over the world. After our gaze in the valley, he no longer needs to convince us. The waiter attends to our group and soon the order is completed. Fifteen cokes and fifteen espresso’s are ordered. Each person orders two drinks. It is obvious: the caffeine needs to be refilled. Again, in San Marino you are in the right place, just like in Italy. The espresso is also excellent at this restaurant. Only for this reason would one contemplate emigration.
We enjoy the conversations of our American friends. Of course, the data from the bike computers are shared again and they are talking about their altitude meters, average speeds and how many kilometres we still need according to them. They also ask how we have experienced the day so far and whether we are happy to cycle together. This interest brings back that family feeling which we experience on a daily basis.
Back at the hotel our bike computer shows we did a ride of almost one hundred kilometres. A tough trip. More than satisfied we walk to our room and freshen up. We have lunch with our American friends and half an hour later we are lounging at the edge of the pool. It is warm, but the shade is a good place to recover from the ride.
Meanwhile evening has set and all cyclists who cycled today gather in the bar of the hotel. With a beer, wine or coke, many nationalities mingle together. The official language is English, and all German, American, Italian, Austrian and Dutch cyclists share their stories of this day.
To all these different nationalities another one is added this evening. We meet Sandrine from Switzerland. She has just arrived and was warmly welcomed by Roberto. He introduces her to us and soon we tell her of our experiences over the past three days. She has booked an all-inclusive package for one week. She is used to going alone on a cycling holiday and notices that she feels remarkably at home in the Alexander hotel. She will be joining the ‘espresso’ group tomorrow. What will be our last ride, will be her first trip in the Gabicce Mare area.
At dinner Sandro informed us that Fabrizzio would be the designated guide for our final journey. Sandro learned his cycling skills from him and despite his age of 58, Fabrizzio is one of the better cyclists in the pack of tourguides. We are very curious.
At half past nine the next morning, we cycle away from Gabicce Mare. We are quickly aware of Fabrizzio’s cycling experience. In a smooth way he tells us which direction to ride, the beautiful climbs we are on, which details we have to pay attention to for the corresponding road surface while descending. He urges us to drink well and at regular intervals. During the ride he holds up his bottle every fifteen minutes as a reminder of this advice.
Today’s journey takes us along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. This is known for its beautiful climbs and they remind us of the Ardennes. Spicy climbs, but not too long. Every ascent ends in a beautiful little village that can be put on a postcard.
Even now we cycle fast and we are surprised about the climbing capacities of the Americans. However, someone really stands out today. Sandrine. On the climbs she is often first up and also in the descents she leaves many of us behind. During the first coffee break she receives many compliments and admiring glances from everyone in the group.
After another delicious espresso at the terrace Fabrizzio tells us that we will cycle along the Adriatic coast to the finish of today: Gabicce Monte. In that place we will enjoy a delicious lunch in a well-known pizza restaurant.
This lunch is not a gift, the group has to work hard for it. The road to it is full of climbs. Tired, but more than satisfied, we finally settle on the terrace of the restaurant. Roberto is waiting for us. He knows the owner of the restaurant well and as a real conductor he makes sure that everyone quickly enjoys a delicious pizza and a refreshing drink. Probably due to the environment, even the simple pizzas taste delicious.
Back in the hotel, our bikes are stored away and we thank everyone for today’s fantastic ride. Exhausted we land on our beds and take some rest. We realize that we have one more delicious menu to go before leaving for Milan early in the morning. Our flight departs at 12.30 hours.
In the evening we say goodbye to everyone at dinner and make plans to keep in contact with each other in the following weeks. Impressed by all the experiences of the last four days, we fall asleep. The alarm clock is set to wake us from Gabicce Mare’s dream at 05.00 hours.
It is still dark and quiet in the hotel when we walk downstairs. The night guard is looking out for us. Every night he watches over the guests. He greets us with a big smile and takes our bags.
‘Do you want an espresso before you leave?’
Seconds later we are sitting in the bar of the hotel drinking the black gold of Italy and he is telling us … about the hotel, his friendship with Roberto and his passion for cycling. He carries our suitcases to the rental car and waves as we depart. With happy memories, new friendships, and wonderful stories, we land a around five o’clock at Schiphol Amsterdam, tired but satisfied.