I dragged my large black bag through the hustle and bustle of arrivals to the relative peace of the grassy area next to the taxi cabs. The cabbies chattered away, smoking, chattering, smoking. Unzipping the bag I was nervous, I hadn’t packed that well; a little bit of bubble wrap and a flimsy sheet of cardboard was all I had managed in the months I had had to prepare.
The bag contained my secret gadget, without it my mission here would be compromised. Bond had Little Nellie in You Only Live Twice, I had.. well it didn’t have a name so I resolved to call it La Toscana. The shiny titanium frame came out first, Possum and Fuel Pod were pre-attached to avoid faffing. The bars slotted into place and were tightened, already set up with Stem Cells, GPS, lights and moose. The derailuer went on without a hitch, at least I had the foresight to protect that! Then the wheels slotted in to place, quick releases cranked up before sliding in the seat post with Koala already filled and ready to go. Dropping my trousers I stashed them in the Koala, pulled on my SPDs, fired up the GPS and I was off. It was a slick operation.
I was in Italy to take part in the Tuscany Trail, a 560 km self supported ride through Tuscany. First I had to get there. Massa was 70 km riding from Pisa along the Mediterranean coastline. I had a day and a half so there was no rush yet I couldn’t get out of Pisa quick enough. I hadn’t come to play Frogger with city traffic, I wanted to see the sea, breathe fresh air and eat pizza. Concrete gave way to trees, the Apuane mountains rose to the north, they were hazy and colourless, I couldn’t make out any detail. I would be passing over these on the first day of the TT.
My first bivvy spot was discreetly hidden amongst sand dunes. There were some threatening clouds off the coast so I went for the classic set up of tarp stretched out between bike and a dismounted wheel. With everything now tested, and nothing obvious left behind I felt like the trip had now started.
Day two was an easy roll into Massa, smooth, interrupted only by mild panic as I realised my SP dynamo hub wasn’t charging my power pack. Without this I would have no GPS making the Tuscany Trail a problem. Pulling out my swiss army knife I began to attack the switch, I wasn’t certain which wire to pull, but just like like Macgyver diffusing a bomb I nailed it first time!
My now fully charged GPS took me straight to the starting point… unfortunately it turned out this wasn’t where everyone was meeting. I should have read my emails more carefully, it took another couple of hours of asking around to find where that was. A friendly Italian guy pointed me in the wrong direction. 10 minutes later he reappeared leaning out of his car window. He apologised he had sent me the wrong way before indicating that I should follow him, suddenly my easy pootle had turned into a stage of the Giro!
Ciao… ciao… ciao… I freewheeled past some guys unloading their bikes. The meeting point was a gymnasium, obviously it had one of those sports bars that you find in Italy. There were a few people already getting their bikes together. Alan was rolling the bum dice, 3 times he tried to fit his fatbike tyre, 3 times it went down. TT organiser Andrea looked chuffed with the custom TT stem caps we had designed, they looked good but weren’t compatible with my bike!!
One of the things that I find fascinating with bikepacking is the diversity of approach. Even though our route was set, the bikes people use, the amount they carry and the time they plan to complete it in, varies so much. Some bikes were lightly laden, did they have a rucksack, what was race strategy were they on!? Others were very laden, these guys were expedition proof.
That evening there was a communal meal in a local restaurant, but it wasn’t long before most of us wanted to get our heads down, it was to be an early start and a long day.
You don’t get much sleep in a mass sleepoverIt was a short ride back to the piazza, by 8.30 it was filled with an international bunch of bikepackers and we were off! The start felt a little manic as we rolled through the streets of Massa but it wasn’t long before we started to stretch out and ease into the mountains climbing at a steady pace.
That steady pace turned to a slog as the tarmac turned to rocky footpath. I removed my front dry bag and put it into a lightweight backpack, this at least made manhandling my bike over the rocky steps a little easier.
From the pass the route descended steeply, not ideal on a rigid XC bike, but it was thankfully soon over. I was now riding with Giacomo and it wasn’t long before we were climbing to the second highpoint from where I hoped it would be downhill to Florence. Unfortunately this was not the case, the route followed a high whale back of a ridge, constantly going up and down for what seemed like hours. The plateau beckoned below, tantalisingly close but the path continued to snake along maintaining height. By the time we descended darkness had set in. We had set our target as Florence, so began the long ride through Prato on onwards. The centre of Florence was lit up like a cake! Fortunately we had arrived in time for last orders at the pizza restaurant. As we refuelled Giacomo lamented that he had sent a key to his apartment in Florence to the finish line, having had that we would have been faced with a real moral dilemma, but as it was the search for a suitable bivvy began.
The sun rose behind a vail of misty cloud. We were awake early despite the fatigue of the previous day. Funny how that is easier when you have the fear of being discovered camping somewhere unknown. The small drops of rain were shook off our lightweight tarps, equipment packed away we set off up the road.
I was looking forward to today. From my relocation of the route profile I thought the hard work had been done.. the Alps conquered and it would be smooth rolling hills all the way to Capalbio. It wasn’t quite so, the hills out of Florence were short but steep. Up down, up down, up down. The morning proved to be a tough nut to crack. I was still tired from my efforts from the previous day, Giacomo had pushed me a little harder than my natural rhythm. Even the old trick of saying don’t wait for me if you are feeling strong failed to work. Sienna was coincidently halfway point, and with that the terrain did ease up. It was already clear we wouldn’t achieve our desired 200 km for the day, but at least we could claw back some distance. The countryside morphed into the Tuscany I was expecting, weaving gravel roads, green hillsides with proud little villas and castles crowning their tops.
Some of the trails we were now riding form part of the famous La Eroica which has now also made its way to the UK. The sun was making its tired way back to the horizon and the search for a convenient bivvy spot began once again. It is always more pleasant to set up your bivvy when it is light. So much easier to change into clean, dry clothes, and enjoy the simplicity of crusty bread, good cheese and a bottle of beer.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of day 3, but it was clear my original objective of completing the route in 4 days could be bettered. As we ate our breakfast fellow brits on tour Rickie(check out her report), Gaby and Lorena rode past us, they were going strong, making the most of the light and had caught us napping! We would ride with them on and off during the day, every small hilltop village would become a focal point where you would either pass, or get passed by other riders. Ice cream shops, bars, water fountains; they were all good excuses for 10 minutes out of the saddle. Dusty track gave way to tarmac as the Tuscan countryside flattened out towards the sea.
The island was the final obstacle, the sting in the tail. It started off serenely enough, gently rising tarmac through a residential part of Porto Santo Stefano. Phil has caught us up again but he was planning on finding a bivvy and waiting for the rest of his crew. Ha that wasn’t going to happen, the hill sides were steep and vegetated. He cracked open his remaining gels and committed to riding this thing out together. The sun set in a raging orange glow, and out of the sea rose a cool round moon. Casting its light over the still sea the gentle panorama stood in contrast to the rough path we were travelling. The loose stones scuttled under our wheels as we tried to push our tired legs from high point to high point. Giacomo rode the steep sections, we pushed. I was just glad to make the descents without crashing out into the bushes.
A UFO appeared, or so it seemed, floating above the hillside. We didn’t much care for greeting little space men and finally we were freewheeling heading down and off the island. The end was in sight. Just one more slight hill; we wouldn’t have even noticed it if we were fresh, but with 2 days of riding behind us it could have been a category 4. We rolled into the finish just after midnight having given up on the hope of sinking a cool beer, but Italy delivered again. The end point was a gymnasium, obviously it had one of those sports bars that you find in Italy.