Tuscany Trail: One Ride on Twenty Wheels
Franzi Wernsing and nine other Bombtrack Bicycle Co. riders take on the Tuscany Trail together, attempting to negotiate long days in the saddle and accommodate varied skill levels as a cohesive group. Read on for her story of learning to ride together as one…
Italy. It’s hot. Really hot. The noonday sun is merciless burning high up in the sky. It’s day two of riding the Tuscany Trail with the rest of the 10 Bombtrack Bicycle Co. team riders and my mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton balls.
“Are we waiting for something?” I glance into the group. We’ve already been standing around for a while with our fully loaded bikes in the middle of a typical Tuscan town plaza. Its beauty is enhanced by the surrounding historical buildings, elegant floral arrangements in the windows, and the small cafes in the parterre, offering freshly brewed espresso and traditional Italian food. But I have a hard time focusing on all the artistry because the neurons in my brain are holding up a wildly flashing warning sign. Everyone raises their head, glances at me, then lets their eyes wander around from one to another. “Not sure if we’re waiting for anything at all,” Matty answers, scanning around the group once more to make sure nobody has any objections.
“So, should we try to find a shady spot and a water fountain to wait out the midday sun before we continue?” I ask, and to my astonishment, folks immediately mount their bikes and meander across the plaza. To my rescue, Marko breaks out of the group and darts into the front, waving his arms left and right like a flight attendant signalling the fastest way to the emergency exits. “This way!” he shouts. And like a swarm of bees, we follow. Marko doesn’t disappoint and five minutes later I sit on a cool stone bench in the shade, letting icy cold water run down my painfully dry throat. The rest of the group is spread across the park, some fixing minor mechanicals on their bikes. Others are lying in the soft grass dozing and some, astonishingly, still have enough energy to venture deeper into the town’s narrow alleyways in search of ice cream.
Two hours later we’re back on the bikes and continuing together down the trail, which by now winds itself through a landscape drenched with golden afternoon sun. While we’re zooming down the road, stirring up clouds of dust with our tyres, the 10 of us form a seemingly fortuitous formation. In that moment, it’s as if everyone has fallen into their specific place within our group.
Earlier in the year when Manuel from Bombtrack Bicycle Co. suggested riding the Tuscany Trail with everyone involved in the brand together, I felt excited about getting to catch up with all the other riders while spending five days and nights under Tuscan skies. It’s a place I had always dreamed of exploring but one my partner Jona and I hadn’t managed to visit on our trip across Europe last year. In the weeks leading up to the trip, all of us had only exchanged sporadic emails to check on arrival dates, but nothing further was discussed apart from the fact that we only had five days to complete the roughly 500km long route from Massa to Capalbio Scalo before most had to return home to work. We also all agreed that we wanted to spend the nights under the vast skies in the rolling hills of Tuscany.
Arriving in Massa a day before rolling out, there’s a profound sense of joy about being reunited with everyone. We usually don’t get to see each other very often, and after a round a heartfelt hugs we dive right into inspecting each other’s setups and choices of gear for the upcoming trip. Considering that each one of us team riders comes from a different background in cycling, I’m stunned by the fact that most of us had packed pretty similarly. A few final things get shuffled around and reconsidered before it’s time to roll out our sleeping pads and try to manage some sleep, full of anticipation for our upcoming venture together.
We wake up with the sunrise the next morning and the cafe next to the startline is already open and brimming over with cyclists. Everyone’s trying to get their daily caffeine fix. To my surprise, the man standing behind the old-fashioned bar seems unaffected by the crowd that has besieged his little store. “What did everyone order again?” I ask Jona. It’s finally my turn but all the sudden I’ve forgotten what I was supposed to get. “Six espressi, one Americano, and I think Marc and Marko wanted doubles. Did Manuel order anything?” I recognize a spark of impatience flashing from the old man’s eyes as he observes our hectic order debate in German. Not wanting to overstrain his diligence any further, I decide to simply order 10 espressi. Despite messing up everyone’s coffee order, nobody complains as I turn up with the tray outside.
After finishing the coffees and before lining up for the start, we agree to meet for lunch in Lucca, 50km down the trail. I feel relieved about this agreement as I’m sure I won’t be able to keep up with the fast pace of some in our group. As the starting signal rings, roughly 800 cyclists are set in motion and it doesn’t take long and I’m sucked into the masses, losing sight of the other Bombtrack team riders. I roll with the crowd for the first 20km, talking to strangers and making new friends. Then the climbing starts and the steep gradient takes me by surprise. Having no spare air left in my lungs for further conversations, I push hard to reach the first highpoint of the route.
When I finally make it to the top, sweat is dripping down my chin and running down the back of my shirt. The stifling midday heat slowly creeps through the treetops. A quick look on my GPS tells me I have a few more of those climbs before reaching Lucca and that very likely I won’t make it there in time for lunch. I panic, certain to be the last and slowest member of the group to arrive. I imagine everyone being annoyed when I finally turn up. With that in mind, I try to push even harder up the climbs, when all the sudden I hear some cheering and clapping. I blink and can make out most of our group standing squeezed together in the shade of one trees. Lucca is still 13km away and we continue together, riding alongside one another and sharing stories from our mornings.
LUNCHTIME IN LUCCA
We’re beyond famished when we get to Lucca, but welcomed by a rather drowsy atmosphere in the streets. The restaurants and shops are mostly all closed and it seems we’re too late for lunch. While our stomachs growl and we begin to grow frustrated, Jonas and Marc silently separate themselves from the group and ride away. When they return a few minutes later, to everyone’s delight, they report that they’ve managed to find a small restaurant not far away that’s still serving food. Whilst we all happily spin the spaghetti from our forks into our mouths, we discuss the plan and the route for the remainder of the day.
We arrive at the decision that it might be better to ride as one big group for the rest of the day, with the faster riders waiting every few kilometres for the others to catch up. I’m skeptical at first, but pleasantly surprised that it ends up working really well. With Jona and Marko often being in the front, they make great use of their time spent waiting by scouting for the best ice cream parlours and espresso bars. What’s more, as the day comes to an end, to everyone’s gratification they’ve already organized beers and found a place to set up camp.
Whether it’s the amount of time it takes to make joint decisions or waiting for one another, riding together as a large group might appear daunting, but it can actually be quite rewarding. Over the next five days, it wasn’t only the distance to the finish that dwindled with each kilometer, but also the space between riders in our group as we pedaled along together.
Even though no one among us racked their brains over how to organize our group of 10 before the trip, it miraculously appeared to work itself out, despite a few early hiccups. Instead of announcing a leader after the first unsuccessful discussion in Lucca or deciding on cumbersome regulations on how to debate every choice as a group, we simply agree that everyone is responsible for clearly expressing their own needs to the group. That, and we acknowledge the need to compromise when necessary. For the rest, we developed what might be best described as a flock mentality. If there is no clear direction, whoever feels inclined simply puts themselves in charge. And surprisingly, it works.
Despite our accomplishment of working out the group dynamics, we haven’t really optimized the problem that everything just seems to take longer with 10 people involved. Toilet breaks, lunch stops, and grocery runs aren’t the usual quick pit stops. Instead, every time we stop it turns into a half an hour break, usually ending by hunting down one lost sheep in the supermarket aisles for an additional 10 minutes. And although we’re managing to cover a great amount of distance, by the end of each day we’re always a few kilometers short of our day’s target. During the first two days we didn’t need to worry too much about being behind schedule, but by day four we fear we won’t be able to reach the finish line in time. By the morning of day five, we settle for a bunch of shortcuts to help ensure we arrive Capalbio Scalo by nighttime.
TO THE FINISH
“We still have to ride across this island,” Fish explains as he traces the lines of the map’s elevation profile with his finger. “There’s still loads of climbing to do before the finish!” I let my eyes wander around the group, noticing that everyone is looking pretty frayed by now. Even though the riding had been incredibly beautiful, the heat and the seemingly endless climbing during the last four days have taken their toll on us. Now only 50 km from the finish line, Fish’s revelation feels like a slap in the face.
“I’m out,” Matty finally breaks the silence, “I don’t think I have it in me to ride all these kilometers still today. I’ll take the shortcut to the finish and drink beer instead.” Nobody contradicts or tries to convince him otherwise. Instead, everyone silently wrestles with their own decision to either cut short with Matty or attempt to follow the official route across the island to the finish.
Maybe Matty was the only one to reach a truly sensible decision. I carefully consider the decision, because I can feel the muscles in my legs burning even while resting there in a comfortable chair. But there’s also something in me that refuses to quit quite yet. With the day already escaping us, there’s not much time to contemplate. Jona jumps out of his chair. “Well, I’m going, and whoever wants to come with should follow me soon!” He’s right, and with his call to action, everyone shuffles and totters to their bikes.
To my surprise no one else opts out. Just as we’re about to leave, Matty sprints up behind us. ”Fine, if everyone else is going, I’m coming too! But if I die from exhaustion on that island you’ll have to explain this to my girlfriend Clare.” We all laugh in unison and I feel a sense of relief that we’re all together again. The riding on the island is tough but we make silly buffoonery out of it. The fact that we are all equally sapped helps too. We whimper, we howl, we laugh, and on top of the island we share the can of beer Gaelle had hidden in one of her bags as a surprise.
Needless to say Matty didn’t die from exhaustion, nor did anyone else, but it’s well after dark when we make it to the journey’s end. The other cyclists who arrived during the day welcome us with cheers and it feels great. Five days, 543km, and 9200m of climbing on twenty wheels. When I sign my name in the finisher’s book and pick up a my complimentary beer to salute the others, I can’t help but appreciate that it wasn’t my two legs alone that got me there in the end.