It was my first time in Italy, and I was struck by just how true the Italian countryside stayed to its idyllic stereotype. Rows of grapevines as far as the eye could see, the cloud covered peaks of the edge of the Alps could be seen on the horizon. Having no idea of our routes for the next few days, my not nearly road fit legs felt apprehensive at the thought of tackling them. I was so not ready for this.
Getting closer to our starting point, Tarvisio, the Italian stereotype blended into the even more picturesque setting of a Christmas card replete with multi-coloured Alpine chalets. Friuli Venezia Giulia is an autonomous region tucked into Italy's northeastern corner, and the architecture was just the most obvious evidence of the melting pot of cultures here on the borders of Italy, Austria and Slovenia.
With its natural beauty, it's no surprise that so many visitors are drawn to the region. For cyclists it must rank among Italy's best kept secrets, even if the region's most famous climb - the feared Monte Zoncolan in the Carnic Alps - is known only too well by the cyclists of the pro peloton.
Rated as one of Italy's most difficult ascents, with an average gradient of 12% over 10km, the Zoncolan has featured five times in the Giro d'Italia. It will return once again on stage 14 of this year's Giro, on Saturday 19th May.
Perhaps thankfully, our itinerary on this trip did not include an ascent of the famous Monte Zoncolan; but knowing it lies there, just 80km west of Tarvisio is a tantalising prospect for col collectors. That afternoon, with some of our group still to join us, we took a hike around the local glacial lakes.
Apparently during winter it's a popular spot for snow-shoeing but sadly no snow for us. Our guide tells us that each year the No Borders Festival puts a pontoon stage on one of the lakes and holds a free concert. I hadn't even got in the saddle yet and I'm already making a mental note to return.
The next morning the real fun started. The first order of the day was choosing my steed. As I was planning to travel on after this, I'd brought my own bike but faced with the logistics of unboxing, assembling, disassembling and reboxing my bike for two days of cycling, suddenly the hire bikes everyone else would be using seemed appealing. There was a choice between a regular hybrid and an electric mountain bike.
I'm a self-respecting man, not far from his (admittedly embarrassingly low) physical peak. I opted for the hybrid.
The route we took was the section of the Alpe-Adria Radweg, a 410km cycle route running north-south from the Austrian city of Salzburg all the way to Grado on the Adriatic coast. The portion from Tarvisio to Venzone, designated FVG1, is newly converted from an old railway track, and is tarmacced making for speedy - and scenic - progress by bike.
I say scenic... I'd love to tell you about the views from Venzone to Chiusaforte, but the light drizzle at our outset had quickly turned into torrential downpour, restricting visibility to the rivulets of rainwater trickling down the peaks of our caps. It was a bad time to realise I needed to reapply the waterproof coating to my jacket.
Soaked to the bone, a safe haven appeared just when it was most needed. At Chiusaforte, an old railway station has been converted into a delightful spot for cyclists and hikers alike, serving great food and, even more importantly on this particular day, a hearth on which to dry our shoes.
The rain showed signs of relenting and we decided to plough on rather than succumb to the lure of the support van. An excellent decision it turned out to be, too. The path from Chiusaforte to Venzone runs through the valley of the River Fella and is flanked by waterfalls of mountain snowmelt at regular intervals. It also takes you through a number of the old railway tunnels. The tunnels have automatic lights that follow you through the tunnel in futuristic fashion but they're not always terribly bright so the more squeamish may want to take a light of their own.
A mix-up by our support team after our rain break meant that my hybrid had been replaced by one of the electric beasts. No problem, I thought, the extra weight will make for some good training. But then everything changed. The cycleway was still in construction from Moggio to Venzone. We could continue either by road or by gravel track. The going so far had been beautiful, but it was straight as a die and the surface was pristine. It was time to get dirty; we took the track.
Suddenly I saw the real value in the serendipitous swapping of bikes. The fat tyres gobbled up the wonderful stretch of gravel track through a woodland. It was testing enough that you have to watch your line through the tighter corners but encouraging you to really attack the faster ones.
It was a real buzz on which to end the day, bolstered in no small part being flanked by fun runners inexplicably lighting flares as we rode through the city gates of Venzone, noted as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy (that they say so themselves makes it no less true).
That evening there was a chance to sample some of Friuli Venezia Giulia's local cuisine. Our guide explained that the region's food encompasses Central European, Mediterranean and Slavic influences. I don't know which demographic should take the credit for a particularly delicious beer soup we sampled; let's just say compliments to the chef, and definitely one to look out for if you visit.
Day two started off at gentle pace as we set off from the city of Udine through the vineyards to the Cividale de Friuli. It soon picked up though as our group shed some of the less ardent cyclists and made a push to Kobarid, just over the Slovenian border.
The route is gorgeous, zig-zagging up and down mountains with some fun hairpins passing through some beautiful little hamlets (or are hamlets quintessentially English?). The only people we saw were the odd shepherd or a few friends sat outside drinking schnapps and playing cards.
Eventually the mountains broke me and I gave the electric assistance a go. It really was a wonder, and it made me realise that between the perfect road surfaces, the absence of traffic and the stunning scenery, you could bring the most fairweather of cyclists to Friuli-Venezia-Giula and they'd have a ball. I'll definitely be back.
Many thanks to Paola Masera / Mailander for organising Sandeep's trip to Friuli Venezia Giulia.