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The Interview: Lauren Hefferon, Ciclismo Classico

Laurensardinia If you were to ask me how you could see Italy on two wheels, I would tell you to check out Ciclismo Classico before you did anything else. The company has made its name as the leader in biking tours of Italy. Yes, they dip into Spain and France, and they do some hiking trips as well. But it’s Italy and biking that they are best known for. That could be biking across Italy, a trip singled out as noteworthy by National Geographic Adventure. Biking along the Amalfi coast with a chef in tow, or exploring Sicily or Tuscany or Friuli from the vantage point of two wheels. I’ve know about Ciclismo for years but only met founder and director Lauren Hefferon a couple of month ago at the Adventure Travel Trade Association Summit meeting in Whistler BC. Hefferon is a fireball of energy, a passionate leader who gives fresh meaning to the term "enthusiasm." So I decided to speak with her at length about the origins of Ciclismo Classico.

Where are you right now?

Right now I am sitting in my home office Arlington, Massachusetts. It is 2:30 AM, and everyone else is sleeping. Over the years, life with kids has meant that the wee hours have become my time of "day", when I do my best work. I have just started a blog so this is keeping me going even later and longer. I grab sleep when I get it. When you are mom to kids and a business, sleep is a weekly cumulative experience ( a few quality hours here, a few good hours there) and that works fine for me. My home is across the street from my business. I like my two worlds close! I am about to embark on the busy holiday season which includes my favorite event, our annual Ciclismo Jingle Ride, a 20 mile costumed bike ride to downtown Boston and back. I lead the pack of 100 pedaling carolers dressed as Rudolph. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. When I am not planning bike tours, I love planning the next fun event for my business or family. In my kid’s school playground, I am known as the birthday party and outings diva. Cc11_2

Where have you just returned from?

Our family spends five weeks in Italy and Europe every summer. This summer we spent two weeks in one of my favorite places on earth, the island of Sardinia. It is a soulful place where the roads are silky smooth, there’s little traffic, and you find the most amazingly diverse beaches and sea landscapes I have ever seen. It is our Ciclismo destination of the year. We took our family on our Mediterranean Multi Sport with several other families. Since they speak Italian, my kids love their emerging role as tour guide and participant.

Cc2 Tell us about the origins of Ciclismo Classico.

Ever since I was in high school I have had a simple, but highly personal entrepreneurial drive to satisfy: I wanted my life and business to "revolve" around cycling. By nature I am a very holistic thinker and I like to bring my interests, things and favorite people together. I feel that it makes life easier and more satisfying. My company is clearly a lifestyle business. I feel honored to grow a business that allows me to express and share my core values a love of nature, health, lifelong learning, cultural sensitivity, community building and social responsibility– with others. When I started imagining the idea of my own bicycle touring company, I envisioned bringing together all of my passions: cycling, travel, art, teaching, meeting new people, creative expression, culture, nature, photography, writing and making a difference in the world. While attending Cornell, I led student bike tours and bike touring courses for Cornell’s Wilderness Reflections. In the summer of 1985, I attended National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming and I was hooked. I immediately embraced experiential learning and envisioned my life as a tour leader and professional adventurer. Since I cannot sit still or be inside for too long, I loved the idea of experiential teaching in an outdoor classroom. I also began leading bike tours for teenagers through Camp Interlocken, an experiential camp for kids (now known as Windsor Mountain) based in Southern, NH. After graduating from Cornell, I won a year Rotary Scholarship to study Art in Florence, Italy. I bicycled around Europe for three months prior to starting my scholarship. This included riding to my grandmother’s village in Le Marche where I was greeted by generations of Oraziettis and Fracassinis. I was in heaven and never wanted to come home. I took notes on my route and then designed my first tour for Camp Interlocken: Rome to Paris. A six week, fully loaded tour for teenagers. I led this tour for two summers and despite its enormous challenges, I knew this was the life for me. While living in Florence, I cycled over 200 miles a week and got to know every road in a 100 mile radius of Florence. I was also riding on weekends with large hordes of Italian cyclists in their fast paced, highly charged and competitive "radunnos". More than the speed of the ride, I just craved the local color and glimpse into the fun loving, beautiful Italian culture and stunning landscape that these rides revealed. Being revered by hundreds of Italian cyclists as La Pazza Americanina ( the crazy American girl) made me feel like part of one big family, a sense of belonging and community that I eventually wove into the Ciclismo experience!Cc6

After three years I returned to the USA and began working as a waitress, going to Art School but all the while envisioning starting my own bicycle tour business. In fact, the "Visual Identity system for a Bicycle Touring Company " was my senior thesis project at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. The bicycle tour industry was in its early development and at the time there was no one offering tours exclusively of Italy so I saw the opportunity and had the passion, experience and connections to fill a need and a boutique niche. In 1988, Ciclismo Classico was born with two 12 day itineraries in Tuscany. In that first year, we were the first bike tour company to offer cooking lessons, language lessons, bicycling clinics and dinners with the local people. The company took off and soon we were adding itineraries, guides and infrastructure.

Cc1 How did you get into biking?

I have always needed to play, move and be outside. I guess as a kid I fantasized about being a cowgirl, riding my horse from place to place. OK, alright so I just got a bike instead of horse. Growing up in Keene, NH, I biked everywhere and participated in many sports as a kid. I had to be active, liked team sports but as I "matured", I preferred individual sports such as running, cross country skiing and bicycling over team sports. I enjoyed the introspection that cycling offered. When I tore cartilage in my knee (downhill skiing in high school) I realized that I had better pick a more knee-friendly sport to sustain my exercise needs. From that point I began to immerse myself in the wonderful world of cycling. Cycling not only opened up a new world of fitness but as I began to explore the roads of Southern, NH I realized that cycling would open many other doors. It would my means of traveling, seeing the world and meeting local people. I started planning bigger and longer trips. When I graduated from high school, I rode from Maine to Nova Scotia. When it came time to pick colleges, I chose Cornell not only because it was a great school but I fell in love with the roads and scenery of the Finger Lakes Region. While in college I totally immersed myself into all things cycling and my reputation as the crazy biking gal emerged. Bringing together my love of healthy food, cycling and art, I wrote and illustrated a bicycle touring cookbook, "Cycle Food: A Guide to Satisfying Your Inner Tube." At Cornell I studied anthropology, a wonderful "holistic" major that brings many disciplines together via the human element. I guess I was living the life of a pedaling anthropologist, learning and exploring cultures from all angles, one pedal stroke at a time. I got to know the back roads and local culture of Upper New York state and applied this "immerse myself in the local culture through cycling" philosophy wherever I lived and traveled. Cycling is my window into wherever I am. Whether I am on the Minuteman bike path in Arlington or on a tiny road in Calabria, cycling offers me a unique perspective and just the right pace to dive into, explore and learn about the local landscape, people and places. It serves as my personal "meditation in motion", a linear, steady, rhythm that brings me in alignment with the present moment, who I am and where I want to go both physically and spiritually.

Cc3 How do you distinguish Ciclismo Classico in a field that seems to be getting more crowded very year?

For the past 20 years, we have always been about creating amazing itineraries, connecting with the local culture and making cycling tours fun for all ages and abilities. We are passionate about the bicycle as a means of learning and exploring a region and a culture and about making cycling accessible to everyone. We are committed to helping people become better cyclists and inspiring them to weave cycling into their lives as part of a healthier, "greener" lifestyle. Our tours are "itinerary driven," meaning that we first come up with the gorgeous, unique, perfectly flowing Ciclismo tour concept and then spend months developing and scouting all of the special Ciclismo amenities, highlights and special events that make up our unique and magical Ciclismo menu. One of our core values at Ciclismo is innovation. We love new ideas and thinking outside the box in terms of itinerary development and special tour features. We are proud that we have been the "first to market" with most of our Ciclismo destinations. We have been the originators of totally new areas and routes, such as our 15 Day Grand Tour of Italy, our Southern Italy Sea to Sea or our Giro Di Gelato, a first and one-of-a kind all you can eat ice cream tour that won Outside Magazine’s Tour of the Year. We love breaking new ground or developing new ways that we can best serve and transform our guests.

Cc5 What makes your guides special?

About 90% of our guides are native to the region that they lead the tours in. For example we have several of our guides who are from Piedmont and they lead the tours through this wonderful wine and gourmet region guaranteeing that each and every person has an up close, expert, intimate experience with the area. The same goes for our tours in Sicily, Sardinian and Ireland. Our guides grew up and have cycled a lifetime in these places. If our guides are not native from the area, they have lived in the area for many years and know there area, like a native. Our guides are often older and more mature than the bike average guide, have advanced degrees and have many unique talents such as sommelier or botany degrees. They are cycling coaches who teach cycling safety and skills and who aim to, in their own special way, enhance our guest’s overall cycling experience. We recruit and hire guides who are super fun, charismatic, very outgoing and who simply love sharing their passion all the time. On our guest evaluations, guides consistently get the highest scores

Cc8_2 You also venture to a few other countries, such as Austria and Spain. Any plans to expand further?

Our aim is to create the world’s best rides. I am currently very interested in South America and Norway. I would like to offer bike tours that venture to places where we can interact and give back to the local people. A kind of eco bike tourism. I was inspired by Lon Halderman’s bike tour to the highest road in Peru where the tour raised money and resources for an orphanage. As we expand I dream that each and every tour has a socially responsible impact. I also love mountain biking and would like to explore areas to do this more.

What are your favorite hotels in Italy?

Sul Gologone in Sardinia, Fattoria degli Usignoli in Tuscany, Kings Hotel in Palinuro. Frankly I tend to like hotels that have gorgeous settings, expansive grounds, and beautiful views. I also love hotels where the owners treat me like I am part of the family. That’s one of the most important criteria for Ciclismo.

Cc10 Let us in on a secret, what’s a little known part of Italy that you love (and do you do a trip there yet)?

Hands down, my favorite part of Italy is Sardinia. It is soulful, wild and gorgeous and combines my favorite kinds of rides: mountains and dramatic coastline. I am a cowgirl without a horse. The bike is my horse. Sardinia is my wild, wild west. It is the perfect, harmonious wide open space where in my saddle, my soul soars

Cc9 What do you like about travel?

I love the pure serendipity of travel. I love how it simplifies your life, stimulates your thinking and inspires personal growth. I love leaving all my stuff at home and living out of one bag. Travel embraces the present moment and inspires me to respond creatively to my surroundings allowing my curiosity to lead the way. I love taking new turns, following tiny roads until they end at the very top of tiny villages, meeting new people and learning about their lives. I love looking at a map and imagining what the road may look like and who I may meet, the fantasy of travel yet to come. Travel connects me to the bigger picture of life, to my place in the world. I crave new roads, views and beautiful landscapes, it is my fuel and my inspiration. People are in awe that we can travel so much with our kids but they are so much fun. I love way their eyes and bodies see and experience the world in a very playful and amazingly spontaneous way—dancing and singing down the streets of Greece, sandcastle contests in Sardinia, playing soccer with the local kids in Tuscany, pretending that we are deserted on tiny Mediterranean islands or getting totally soaked in an Italian fountain— now that’s my kind of travel!

How many bikes do you have and what do you especially like to ride?

I have a garage full of about 10 bikes. I have a bike or two for nearly every purpose and I love them all. I have bikes I commute with, bikes I take my kids on and all of the bike paraphernalia: a burley, two trailer bikes, a bob trailer. I have a couple of mountain bikes. I love collecting homeless "clunkers" and I just adopted a pair of 1970 Columbia three speeds from a woman who wanted to give them a good home. Last year I bought two tandems and we love riding them with our kids. I recently got a Bike Friday and hope to ride it more. I love this foldable bike company and all they do for cycling culture. Last year I got a custom made Serotta NOVE road bike and it fits me like a glove, we are best pals. I want to get a bike built for three so I can ride faster and longer with my youngest two children. By the time I arrived in Italy, I stopped driving and began to commute everywhere by bike. I joined the masses of people of all ages who would whiz around from market to market, around piazzas and down narrow streets, buying fruit, doing errands and simply getting to work by bike. I shared the roads with Italian cycle commuters of all ages and sizes who carried everything by bike: bags of fruit, tiny kids and those amazing handymen whose clunker bikes were loaded down with ladders, buckets and a few cans of paint. It was a charming and old world lifestyle and I loved it! I easily managed for over 15 years without a car and only started driving again recently to bring my three kids to all of their activities. This past year my 8 year old daughter and I rode a tandem 100 miles on the Mass Pike tour. We already talk about cycling around the world together or at least across Massachusetts. Cc4

Any new trips in the works for Ciclismo?

Yes. Many, We are thinking around the ideas of multi country. We also have a NEW tour that will fundraiser for The Dana Farber Cancer Center, called The PMC Italy. I always have lots of ideas brewing.

Where are you off to next?

Cross country skiing in Quebec for Christmas, Patagonia in February, Washington DC in April and Sardinia, Ireland and Paris in the summer of 08 and lots of local outings on all the weekends in between.

For more information, contact Ciclismo Classico.

And you can read Laurens’ blog here.

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