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Italy by bike? E-asy! The Tour de France begins in Emilia-Romagna next month – we road-test the first stage (with some electric assistance)

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The sun is dipping behind the Apennines and I still have 15 miles of tough cycling before reaching the Roman spa town of Bagno di Romagna. My legs are as flat as my bike’s battery but there’s a bar opposite the church where I can sink a couple of beers while man and machine take sustenance.

I am in Emilia-Romagna to ride the first two stages of this year’s Tour de France, which kicks off at the end of June. Most years, the world’s greatest cycling event starts in a country other than France. And this time, it’s Italy’s turn.

I set off on the 260-mile trip from Florence, the start of the first étape, and cycle through the rolling Tuscan countryside before going up, up and away into the mountains of Emilia-Romagna. My e-bike, a Pinarello Nytro racer, offers moderate assistance, but you still have to give it quite a bit of welly on the severe slopes.

Tired and much relieved, I’m at the Thermae Santa Agnese 90 minutes later. It is an ancient spa hotel and soon I sink my tired backside into the warm thermal pool.

Most years, the Tour de France cycling event starts in a country other than France. This time, it's Italy's turn. Mark Porter (not pictured) sets off on the first étape, a 260-mile trip from Florence through the rolling Tuscan countryside (stock image)

Most years, the Tour de France cycling event starts in a country other than France. This time, it’s Italy’s turn. Mark Porter (not pictured) sets off on the first étape, a 260-mile trip from Florence through the rolling Tuscan countryside (stock image)

Mark took his Pinarello Nytro racer e-bike on the ride through towns and villages

Mark took his Pinarello Nytro racer e-bike on the ride through towns and villages 

Bagno has been a spa town since Roman times and white-robed health tourists waft around the ceramic-tiled corridors like fluffy ghosts. Dinner is a hearty affair and, with the aid of the wine flight, wipes clean the slate of virtue which has been accrued during daylight hours. The first climb the following day is out of Mercato Saraceno up to Barbotto, about three miles and 1,700 feet of lung-busting ascent. Near the summit, a man on a normal bike breezes cheerily past me, not even out of breath.

No matter, I am making good time and stop at the top of another climb to admire the medieval village of San Leo, which crouches on a 2,000ft limestone escarpment, commanding views across the outlying mountains and plains towards Rimini and the Adriatic. I have arranged to meet a group of cyclists in nearby San Marino for a late lunch. Among them is Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour de France in the late 70s and early 80s, and the greatest cyclist of his generation.

The mountains and buildings of Emilia-Romagna are the setting for the first two stages of this year¿s Tour de France

The mountains and buildings of Emilia-Romagna are the setting for the first two stages of this year’s Tour de France

San Marino comes at the end of my fourth climb of the morning. My battery has just enough juice to make it to the top, where I fall off the bike in front of a crowd of tourists at the castle gates, having neglected to release my feet from the pedal cleats.

San Marino is an independent state completely surrounded by Italy. Founded around the same time as San Leo, it is the third smallest country in Europe after the Vatican and Monaco.

I take the following day off to visit Rimini and go cycling with the clubbable Monsieur Hinault. Later, we have dinner together with some French cyclists at the Lungomare Bike Hotel in Cesenatico, where we are all staying. The cycle party is here to promote the Italian launch of this year’s Tour. I am here to road test the route on my new Pinarello, but join in the fun and games of the cycle pros.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Hotel Lungomare organises tailor-made four-night/five-day cycling packages with Pinarello e-bikes and airport transfers from Bologna from £735pp (hlungomare.com). Luton-Bologna from £80 return (ryanair.com). Hotel Lungomare has room-only doubles from £75. More information: emiliaromagnaturismo.it.

I ask Mr Hinault what’s the key to being a champ. ‘A mix of physical and mental strength. Once you’ve established that you are actually any good, of course,’ he says. Bernard is a compact man, about my height but made of marble rather than sausage meat. ‘And don’t forget to lubricate the cogs daily with good red wine.’ Which is exactly what we are doing. He is the only one of the deadly earnest cycle party who is not sniffy about my electric racing bike. ‘Do whatever it takes, but just get out there on a bike and have fun.’

Cesenatico is next to Rimini and has a beautiful medieval port designed by Leonardo da Vinci. From here, I head up to Ravenna, where the poet Dante died in exile in 1321.

My journey ends the following evening in Bologna with dinner at the Caminetto d’Oro, in the heart of the city. This is a favourite of film director Martin Scorsese, and one can see why. Hams, wines and cheeses burst from a jumble of doorways in myriad alleys, while trattorias of obvious excellence beckon like sirens.

Long live the e-bike and the freedom it has heralded, even for an old fatty like me. And long live la bella Emilia-Romagna, far from the Tuscan crowds.

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