The Italian Job: cycling in Tuscany

Tuscany is home to the white  roads made famous by the Strade Bianche race.

My long weekend of riding there included three days covering a total of 290km, and took in some of the terrain made famous by the race. These unmade white gravel roads have formed the route for the relatively new spring classic of the same name, won this year by Team Cannondale’s Moreno Moser and twice by Cancellara since its appearance on the UCI calendar in 2007. Adding its own gritty classics flavour with tough terrain and challenging surfaces this Italian ‘Roubaix’ covers 188 km and finishes in the spectacular and historic piazza del campo in Siena.

At the opposite bookend of the season the same roads host the classic ‘L’Eroica’ ride that has been running in October since 1997.  Starting and finishing in the commune of Gaiole in Chianti, this amateur race is a festival that celebrates traditional bicycles, and retro enthusiasts take to the roads on their vintage bikes and in vintage dress to enjoy a celebratory day out in the Tuscan countryside.

Author, Jo McRae, samples Tuscany’s strade bianche

Our own base camp for the three-night stay was the spectacular four star Hotel Relais Vignale in Radda in Chianti. It was a bit of a drive from the airport in Pisa, the rooms and views were well worth the wait and the glorious sunshine that greeted us was very welcome after what had been fairly miserable and cold conditions for April back home. Luxurious is the only way to describe the ‘rooms’ which consisted of bedroom, lounge, bathroom (with Jacuzzi bath) and balcony. Frankly, all together this ‘room’ was bigger than my flat at home and building up my bike as I looked over Tuscan vineyards in beautiful sunshine was really no chore. As our small group gathered from airport transfers, we enjoyed a glass or two of Chianti over dinner and the scene was set for a few spectacular days of cycling.

Tuscany is described as rolling, but from a cycling perspective I would call this a conservative description. These hills are not UK ‘rolling’ but include plenty of 6-10km climbs with decent enough gradients. Our first day of riding went straight up hill from the hotel and didn’t start going down for quite some time. That morning we took in a 7.5km climb from Mercatale Valdarno to Monti di Vielle on smooth tarmac with spectacular views. These rhythmical Tuscan climbs have a great European flavour without being as epic as the Alps or Pyrenees, and for me to be comfortable they definitely needed the compact gearing I had taken on this trip with me.

After a light lunch stop in Pianella we began to head back to Radda via our first taste of the Strade Bianche roads. On such a bright day the white gravel really reflected back at us as we steadily munched our way along its surface. It took a while to adjust to the uncertain feel beneath the tyres with concealed sloping edges that occasionally sent you slipping to the gutter if you strayed too close to the edge. The tight cambered corners have ridges embedded into their surface too, from the weight of heavy farm vehicles, which force you to ride wide rather than loose speed and rhythm on the bumpy inside line. Without being ‘off-road’ these routes are certainly more lively and interesting than your more mainstream riding experience, giving you an insight into the fitness, skill and grit needed to be a good classics rider. Forcing you to relax your body, and use your arms for natural suspension, you learn to apply power with a smooth pedalling action and absorb and assimilate any changes in the surface without overreacting or disrupting your tempo.

Tuscany isn’t short of beautiful places to ride

Heading back towards Gaiole our last stretch of Strade for the day was a fairly gnarly descent with constantly changing surfaces and some notable pot holes which certainly kept the brain and body busy and persuaded me several times not to use my brakes if I wanted to avoid skidding.  The adrenalin rush of having to trust in your skills and let go was a real treat, and after a quick stop in Gaiole to admire the Eroica shop the tarmac led our happy legs back to the hotel to end a very satisfying and engaging first days riding. A trip out of Radda to nearby Castellina in Chianti for a true Italian Pizzeria experience made for more entertainment that evening, and the kind of bonding you only get over bike riding.

The main riding day on Saturday was to take in a 140km loop including 60km on the Strada and many longer sections including one of 12km.  The weather on this second day was more overcast and as we set off the grey cloud cover added to the slightly pensive mood brought about by our increased awareness of what we were letting ourselves in for. The skies brightened as we started on our first section of white road which afforded spectacular views across the very green hills around Siena. Vineyards, Cyprus trees and hill top villas were regular features of the surrounding countryside and provided a welcome distraction from the relentless pounding of the gravel.

The sheer time spent on the Strade this second day meant that you had to kind of make friends with it, relaxing your hands on the tops of the bars as much as possible and carefully picking a smooth line through the rough stuff. Our lunch stop was less than half way round and a steady but determined mind set was needed to set off positively on the most challenging middle section of our day.

Not only was the gravel surface tiring but as we pedalled into the afternoon we began to encounter some really significant hills on the unmade roads. Steep enough to force you to work hard even in your smallest gear; on many sections standing out of the saddle was not an option, making for some determined power climbing. One or two steep sections of descent were pretty challenging on a road bike too, and these punchy climbs interspersed with relentless ‘rolling’ tarmac made for some pretty tired legs at our last stop of the day back at Pianella.

If you need a break from riding, Tuscany has some beautiful places to stop

The final stretch of the day’s ride was about sheer determination. We knew the first part of the route from the previous day, but there was more Strade to get through and a final killer climb back up to the hotel in Radda. On such challenging terrain, it is fascinating what fatigue can do to your skill set. For the first time that day my back wheel slid away from me as I hit an edge, alerting me to the level of concentration I needed for these last few kilometres.

Riding at the back of the group with another rider, we inched our way home in relative silence, with just the reassuring crunch of the gravel and the occasional bit of encouragement shared. After what seemed like the longest ever 4km final climb back into Radda there was an immense sense of achievement of what we had achieved that day. Six plus hours in the saddle, 140km in total, and 60km of Strade. It certainly felt pretty heroic.

The final day’s riding was all on smooth roads, which came as a welcome relief to everyone. Without a lot left in the legs, we cruised at a casual pace into Siena to the piazza del campo, the venue for the finish of the Strade Bianche classic, and a focal point for Italian cool with fashion houses lining the narrow streets and stylish coffee shops surrounding the piazza. Sitting in the piazza as the sun began to burn through the morning cloud we had a few moments to absorb the historic gothic architecture and the truly spectacular arena created by the piazza – a fitting venue for the finish a classic race. This taste of culture was an added bonus to round off a great trip, which certainly surprised me in what it had to offer, on roads that I would not have had a chance to ride without the right support.

I would highly recommend Tuscany for its road riding, both tarmac and gravel, if you are looking for an Italian trip with a classics flavour and some spectacular scenery.

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The author travelled as a guest of cycling tour operator, RPM90.

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