Words and photos by Andy Cox (@doubletrackfanatic)
Unweighting the bike into another dusty corner, it drifts predictably across the middle gravel crest of the road and grips reassuringly into the ‘racing line’ that several thousand riders have scoured into it. The twists and turns of the dirt road descent beg to be attacked with as much commitment as I can muster, even after four days of the steep ups and downs of the Tuscany Trail.
From a modest start nine years ago, the event has now grown to have almost 3,000 starters this year. From a more rugged mountain bike-orientated route in its inception, the event has evolved along with the cycling industry into a gravel rider’s paradise. Of course, there’s some of the classic ‘strada bianchi’ white roads that the area is so famous for, and there’s also a broad range of trail surfaces, including farm tracks, forest roads, cobbles, and paved sections.
Cruising along a rolling section of trails, I’m passed yet again by an eminently fashionable, lycra-clad, carbon bike-riding group of people. Tiny bikepacking bags adorning their colour-matched rides, with Pas Normal and Rapha, Open Cycle, and 3T being some of the most common brands, at least among the quick people. Glimpsed only for an instant as they whizz by, low-profile tyres barely leaving a trace on the sun-baked trails. I’m overloaded and overbiked compared to much of the field, but this is just the start of another summer of riding around Europe for me, whereas for most people it’s a long weekend, the excess equipment and weight trimmed from their setup for a speedy traverse of this beautiful place.
The start was quite different from how I expected, with the 3,000 starters being spread over three days. So, no mass start, no race to get ahead of the slower riders before the first technical section, just a relaxed and casual question of “All set? Then let’s go! Well, maybe there’s time for another quick espresso…”
It’s an unusual thing for me to ride with a group of people, having travelled mostly on my own for more than five years now, finding my own routes across Europe, mostly on dirt roads. I was invited to the event by my longtime sponsor and friends, Bombtrack Bicycles, so we set out with the goal of finishing in five days, at a semi-party-pace.
It’s a visually stunning area, with a certain stark beauty to such steep but achingly pretty hills. Picture postcard hilltop towns and villages adorn the steep hills, meaning we had to climb to almost every place we visited. The terrain is unforgiving, and the route weaves a path through the area’s history, skirting most of the big settlements while taking in some of the highlights and fantastic trails.
The sheer diversity of the bikes and riders at the event was fascinating to see, with plenty of lightweight gravel bikes on show, but also rigid MTBs, fast full-suspension machines, and quite a few e-bikes. It’s possible to ride this route on most off-road-capable bikes, with all of them having advantages and disadvantages depending on the twists and turns of the tracks and trails.
The days slowly slip by, with frequent stops at roadside fountains, cafés, and restaurants, gawping at the views and sheltering from thunderstorms. With few gentle climbs, it’s mostly steep up and down, although they’re never that long, so it’s just a matter of grunting or grinding to get to the top.
Nearing the end of the day, getting close to Sienna, we were following the Via Francigano, a pilgrimage route through the area, and looking for a place to camp. Discussing the possibility of camping in the forest (my favourite) or camping somewhere past the next settlement so my friends could have a beer and food, we come across a free camping place. With signs offering a welcoming place to stop, and the possibility of coffee and tea in the morning, I stop and set up while the others go to the village for sustenance and beverages.
It’s a magical place, with a small vegetable garden and a gazebo with table and chairs, in a peaceful forest setting. Slowly, others see the sign as they pass and come in an ask if it’s okay to camp. Well, I guess so, as the sign says it’s fine. In the end, there are eight of us there the next morning when the owner arrives… with breakfast! She’s a wonderful and generous host to allow strangers to stay on her land but to also bring hot coffee, iced tea, cakes, and biscuits for our breakfast. Clearly, she wasn’t expecting so many cyclists to stay there, but she’s elated, posing for pictures and asking us questions about our route and where we’re from.
The astounding beauty of this place doesn’t stop, except for a while as we ride up a river valley, mostly in the forest, and I feel a bit let down; this is pretty but not achingly so, and I realise that I’ve been spoilt by so many amazing views, that a nice forest cruise is somehow disappointing. It doesn’t last though, as the final big climb takes up to the best place yet, high on a hilltop: the highest point of the route, Radicofani. We camp on a large grassy terrace with the consent of the village mayor, and it’s blessedly cool overnight for a change.
The last push to the coast is still a tough day, with innumerable ups and downs, rough and smooth trails, and frequent stops for coffee and ice cream. Descending to the coastal areas once again, we dive into a magical plantation forest with winding trails next to the sea and a cool breeze to mitigate the oppressive heat and humidity of the coastal fringe. The endpoint is in a little town where we’ve taken over the local park, with food, a bar, music, and an MC calling in the latest arrivals as they crossing the finish line.
Truly, this is a tour de force of the Tuscany region, with so many highlights and fantastic trails, you literally don’t know whether to stop at every one and spend two weeks riding the route or just soak it all in all you pass, saving those special moments to come back one day and tour it slowly, savouring the route as of it was a tasting tour of all the local visual delicacies of La Bella Toscana.
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