Pedaling on Pasta Power

Rick Price and Paola Malpezzi began organizing bicycle tours of Italy nearly forty years ago. Photograph by Joe Lieberman, ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours

From the second-floor win-dow of my room in the Castello Hotel the mountaintop village of San Leo presented a stunning panorama of tenth-century castles, rolling green hills, and cobblestoned medieval streets. In the golden light of morning, it took a sleepy minute to realize that all this was real and not a feast-induced vision brought on by the previous night’s celebration of fine vino, spinach- and ricotta-filled tortelli pasta, tender veal osso bucco, and two helpings of creamy tiramisu.

While such scenes may indeed have been the stuff of daydreams prior to this culinary biking tour through north Italy, they were now becoming almost commonplace. The “golden triangle” of elements one hopes for on such a adventure—fabulous locations, rejuvenating bike rides, and to-die-for meals—was perfectly fulfilled here. And to think that none of this would have happened had it not been for a UO student’s sleepless night back in 1972.

Rick Price ’72, MA ’79, PhD ’80, and his Italian-born wife Paola Malpezzi, MA ’76, PhD ’79, were spending another rainy February evening in their UO married student housing unit near Amazon Park. As anyone who’s experienced a winter in Lane County can testify, this is a time of year when dreams of far-away sunny places beckon like siren songs in the soggy night.

While Malpezzi slept peacefully beside him, Price was wide awake reminiscing about a bike trip they’d taken the previous summer across central Italy. How they’d like to go back. How they didn’t have the money. Then it hit him.

“If we enjoyed our cycling journey that much,” he wondered, “then why wouldn’t lots of other people?”

In the morning, he shared his brainchild with Malpezzi, who was equally enthusiastic, and they began considering a practical course of action.

Bicycling magazine was not yet a national publication, but in the back of Harper’s Monthly, Saturday Review,and Atlantic Monthly—all magazines I read at my mother’s house in Newport,” Price recalls, “there was a single page of classified ads that were small in size but big on dreams: Rent a villa in Provence! Charter a sailboat in the Caribbean!”

The couple envisioned their own ad: “Bicycle Across Italy! Take two weeks to explore enchanting back roads that convey you from the Adriatic Coast to Pisa, near the Tyrrhenian Sea. Savor Florence and revel in central Tuscany.”

Daughters Maria Elena and Monica now run the business, taking two-wheeled adventurers around the continent and beyond. Photograph by Joe Lieberman, ExperiencePlus! Bicycle ToursBut this was the pre-Internet world, and even small ads cost a lot. “The only option we had,” Price says, “was local networking.” They promoted their plan in Eugene and at bicycle-friendly campuses in northern California—and they were “blown away” by the response.

“We sold not just one, but four different tours to Italy that summer,” he says. “And we’ve never looked back since.”

In their scholastic lives as well, Price and Malpezzi continued developing. “I completed my PhD in cultural geography at the UO,” he says, “and Paola got hers in Romance languages. After graduation, however, reality punctured one of Price’s goals. “We smacked into the old two-academics career problem,” he recalled. “Paola found a job in 1983, and I didn’t.

“It was then I made the choice not to go into academe. I turned instead to what I enjoyed most—designing, selling, and leading bicycle tours, first in Italy, then in Greece, Costa Rica, France, and on from there. All along, I have considered myself as professional as any academic, practicing applied cultural geography.”

They took the name Italian Specialty Tours, Inc. in 1985 and by 1989 they were getting nearly 100 customers filling five tours per year. It was enough business that he could quit a job he’d eventually found running the study-abroad program at Colorado State University.

Price and Malpezzi renamed their company ExperiencePlus! in 1992. Over the next five years, they enjoyed growth on the order of 30 to 50 percent annually. “By 1996, we were taking 600 people per year, and by 1999 it was over a thousand,” Price says. “During July 2004 alone, we took 270 people to see Lance Armstrong go for his record fifth Tour de France win. Business was great.”

Despite all the traveling, the couple managed to raise two daughters who have since taken over the business and expanded it into several more European nations. Maria Elena manages the overall operations from their current base in Fort Collins, Colorado. Monica ’01, who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the UO and was honored as one of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s “Oregon Six,” has taken a more hands-on approach as director of international operations, conducting tours with her cycling-guide husband, Michele Boglioni.

“My favorite thing about organizing and leading tours,” she says, “is the intense satisfaction we get from facilitating great experiences for our travelers. Accompanying cyclists throughout the world and sharing their adventures is why we do what we do.” Some of those adventures have included learning how to properly tie short grape vines on wind-struck Dalmatian islands in Croatia, discussing the meaning of life with farmers hand-picking olives during harvests in Provence, and making homemade pasta in Italy.

Malpezzi, currently chair of Colorado State University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, is especially passionate about the food aspect of travel. “Food helps connect to whatever country and region we’re pedaling through. For instance, you see tiny artichokes in the field in Sardinia and eat them that evening, or visit a Parmesan cheese co-op and then lavish grated cheese on handmade pasta that night.” She began collecting and writing regional recipes for the family business’s website, “to try and let people vicariously travel back to the memory of a trip or into the future on a tour they are anticipating.”

Monica echoes her mom’s sentiments, stating, “Bicycle tours travel on their stomachs. In Italy, we focused on the Emilia Romagna region, famed for its amazing assortment of high-quality cheese, prosciutto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and stuffed pastas. In France, we do the same for wine-growing regions. And while folks may think they can come on a bike tour to lose weight, that’s hard to do with all the food we indulge in! The real gratification is how much you enjoy the food and drink after a day on the road. Relatively guilt-free eating and drinking, and a heightened awareness of the culinary delights of a region just makes bike touring so much better!”

Despite their many triumphs, the road this family has taken has not been without its detours, speed bumps, and potholes. “At the start of both Gulf Wars [1991 and 2003] when the U.S. invaded Iraq, all bookings stopped,” Price says. “Our tours went nowhere near there, but clearly many people don’t like to fly or travel abroad on the verge of war. And of course, September 11, 2001, we had to cancel everything and issue rain checks for 110 customers who couldn’t get to Europe.”

Still, the rewards have been far greater than Price or Malpezzi even imagined. “It’s been fantastic, being able to maintain an international lifestyle and reexperiencing the excitement of going to Italy every year,” he says. “It never gets boring. Yet, at the same time, we’ve enjoyed a relaxed and steady existence in small town, USA, raising two trilingual daughters who feel that they are equally American, Italian, and citizens of the world.”

By Joe Lieberman

Late addition: National Geographic Traveler Magazine showcases an ExperiencePlus! tour in its annual collection of “50 Tours of a Lifetime.” The May-June 2011 issue also lists Maria Elena Price and Monica Price as top ten tour guides.