Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tuscany Trial 2017 Summary in English

I “stumbled” upon a website called “Bikepacking” a while back. While looking through this I saw a reference to a “race” called Tuscany Trial. This immediately attracted my interest and I followed through to their website. Here I discovered that it was an unsupported “ride/race” through Tuscany, which starts at the beginning of June. Everybody starts together. No support is provided or allowed and you can ride as long as you want to and sleep where you want to.  I mentioned this to Hennie de Clercq, a cycling friend of mine. We started talking and also got our wives interested and towards the end on 2016 we decided that we would make a tour of it. The idea was to combine the Tuscany Trail with a holiday in Italy.

Entries opened on 10 January 2017 at 00:00 hour and I managed to be the first one to enter. Hennie was 187 and entries closed at 593 towards the end of February.

The idea was that we will fly over to Italy a week or two before the race to “explore” the country, give ourselves 5-6 days to do the race and then spend three to four days to get back to the airport to fly out.

We left South Africa on 21 May, met up with Hennie and his wife on 28 May and drove down to Massa, where the race was due to start, to arrive on 1 June for registration. After registration and collection of our race packs and cycling jersey, which we bought to memorise the occasion, we went back to the hotel to relax. We also bumped into a South African husband and wife, who current are living in Perth, Australia.

The next morning we arrived at the start at 07:45 and found parking, which tends to be a big problem in Italy, around the corner. The woman we due to drive our van down to Sam Gimignano where we were due to meet up with them on day 3. We had to be at the start at Plaza Amanci, Massa at 08:00 for the race to start at 08:30. Start was a very low-key affair with no escort and everybody filling through the narrow streets.

The first 22.9 km was fairly flat and easy riding and took us 1:08 to complete. Then the climbing started. First at a reasonable incline, but after a while we went onto a cement path with gradients of 31%! Everybody was pushing their bikes. The incline was just too much and too long to ride. It took us 1:40 to cover the next 7.4 km. The scenery was breathtaking event though we were out of breath pushing our bikes up the hill. 

The next 12.6 km was rolling hills consisting of beautiful single tracks to gravel and tar roads, but everything was ride able and it was mostly in the woods. This was followed b 16 km down hills with lots of twisty turns on good tar roads, with the last 12 km flat.

At 68 km we reached a town and accepted the first available accommodation of a rather second rate hotel, which was not up to the standard of the price charged! We met up with the ex SA couple and had supper at a local restaurant and got to bed at about 23:00. Being summer in the northern hemisphere, it only goes dark at about 21:30! During supper we decided that we would look for accommodation before Florence as it should be cheaper and we felt that to go through the city during peak tourist time in the late afternoon, would not be a good idea.

We got going at 06:23 the next morning. The initial riding was flat, but at 6 km the road started heading up and the beginning of our troubles! I am a fair bit stronger that Hennie on the hills, but that is to be expected as he is 71 years old, so I normally ride my tempo and wait for him that the top of the hill. At 5 km up the hill, there was a gravel road towards the left.  I cycled past this and only realized after a further kilometer that I was on the wrong road and turned around. When I got to the gravel turnoff, I cycled down the tar road to look for Hennie. I waited a while on a corner, but he did not turn up. I went further down the road to look for him, but could not find him. He had quite a nasty fall the previous day when he stepped aside to let somebody though, lost his balance, and fell 3 meters down the hill. No serious damage, but he did hurt his side. I was getting worried that his side was bothering him so much that he decided to turn back. I had no cell phone data or connection, so there was no way for him to contact me. I went further down the hill to look for him, but could not find him. I went back up, but found no Hennie. I rode on to the saddle of the last hill, where there was cafe. I stopped there a sandwich and coffee and to see if Hennie turns up. After two hours, the SA Australians, who had a later start, also turned up. I enquired from them weather they saw Hennie, but the answer was no! They also had a bite and when they left, I decided to join them.

We had one last small climb, which ended at 26 km and then some very nice down hills, some of which was very rough and technical. I really enjoyed myself on these sections. The wife of the ex SA couple was on her first MTB race, so I spent quite a bit of time waiting for them to catch up with me. At 40 km we were on the flat and aiming for a town by the name of Signa, where we hoped to find accommodation for the night.  We were now cycling on purpose built gravel cycling paths along the backs of the river Arno, which flows through Florence. One even had the name of Via Fausto Coppi! The surface was of bright white gravel. It was so white that we tended to have problems with the glare of the son reflecting back to us.  We started looking for accommodation at about 16:30. The first hotel was full. So was the second, but the manager started phoning around to see if he could find place for us. After a while he found place at Euro 130.00 for the night. That is about R1,950 for two people.  We decided that beggars couldn’t be choosers, so we accepted it. We also realized that Italian MotoGP was scheduled for Mugello, about 60 km from Florence, the next day and that is why all the hotels were full. We booked in at 17:45. I immediately tried to phone Hennie on WhatsApp, but no reply. As I got out of the shower, my phone started ringing. It was Hennie. He was about 20 km past Florence! We later worked out that he passed me when I went off course at 12 km into the days riding, but we must have missed one another with seconds!

The SA couple decided to get going early. I felt that at R1,950 for the room, breakfast included, I needed to get value for my money and would only leave after breakfast, which was served form 07:30. I got going at 07:52 and started one of the best days of riding on this Tuscany Trail. The first 25 km to Florence is flat and continues next to the river. I took me 1:15 to cover this. In Florence we were taken through the center of town past the main tourist attractions, which did slow progress down.
Once through town the rolling hills started with a number of very steep climbs. Every now and then we would leave the tar roads and went off on obscure little gravel paths, which made for some very interesting and beautiful rides. The Tuscan countryside really is extraordinarily beautiful and it was a pleasure riding up and down these hills. My aim for the day was San Gimignano, where I would meet up with my wife and Hennie and his wife again. I did pass the ex SA couple along the way. They were planning to go through to Siena, a further 47 km past San Gimignano. I really had a good ride and rode into San Gimignano at just before 16:00 and one of the first people I saw as I cycled through the cycle gate, was my wife! One of those amasing co-incidences of life! Hennie, who had to sleep in the bush the previous evening, as he could not find any accommodation, arrived just before 13:00. We all had a lovely supper and got the bed fairly early. The hotel did not provide breakfast, so we bought some provisions for an early breakfast in our rooms with the hope of getting going at 06:00.

Our timing was good and we hit the road at 06:00. The first 5 km was all down hill and the only problem we had was to take it easy on the gravel corners! The view once again was something to behold! Once we finished the decent, the rolling hills started. During the next 80 km we would climb 1,500 meter, but also descent 1,500 meters, with the result that our progress was not too good.
After 47 km we reached Siena. The tourist traffic was so dense that we had to push our bikes! We stopped on the city square for a light lunch. During the previous evening we decided that we would sleep at Buonconvento, giving us only 84 km for the day. The next town was 21 km away and while we were riding, I forgot about the previous evening’s discussion and had the idea in my head that we would do 105 km for the day. Our riding was good, Hennie was feeling refreshed after his rest in San Gimignano and we were once again enjoying the Tusvany countryside. We cycled through Buonconvento at about 13:45 not even thinking about the fact that we really decided to sleep there. I think we both had it in our minds the next place, San Quirico was only 21 km away and that we should get there in good time. Hennie felt that I should ride at my pace if his pace is too slow. I felt that we should stay together and if I feel good, I will accelerate for the last 20 km, find a hotel, and wait for Hennie at the next town. With about 15 km to go, we caught up with two other guys, who we have bumped into a number of times during the previous days. We rode together for a while and when we got to the first incline, two of us went ahead leave Hennie and one of the other in our wake. When we got to the top, I felt good and decided to keep going. I managed to maintain a good pace and was riding away form the other three. Just before San Quirico I passed the ex SA couple again! As I rode into town, I waited for them and we rode together to the first restaurant here we stopped for some refreshments. Hennie and the two other guys arrived 30 minutes later. We managed to find a hotel and all checked in after another good days riding. The hotel agreed to open breakfast for us at 06:00. The ex SA couple felt that they were running into timing problems and decided to call it a day. They would start making their way back to Milan to catch their plane.

Hennie and myself got going at 06:24. The total distance for the day was scheduled for 89 km, but we would climb 1,660 meter, including the climb to Radicofani, which is at 785 meter above sea level and about 360 meter higher than San Quirico, but before we got there was a number hills and valleys to negotiate! We stopped for some light refreshments. While sitting there, a group of mountain bikers turned up. In this group were two South Africans, Gary Green and his wife, from Winterton. They were on tour from Siena to Rome, a distance of 300 km over six days. It is a small world. Gary has also done the Freedom Challenge from Pietermaritsburg to Wellington. We spent about an hour eating and chatting with various people.
From here it is a drastic descent on a tar road, but it was not long before we were take off onto a very good gravel road. Once down in the valley, the rolling hills started once again. This carried on until we reached the beautiful medieval town of Sorano at 75 km. This was such a beautiful little town that we felt we just had to spend some time here even though it was only about another 10 km to our destination for the day. We saw a little restaurant with four other bicycles parked outside and stopped there. We spent some time conversing in broken English, with a couple of Italian words in between. Two of the guys were Italian while the other two were Lavanians. So the six of us represented 3 nationalities! One of the Italians rode in their Eroica and I was quite pleased when I could show him a photo of me participating in the SA Eroica, which was held in the Montague district on 18 March. We spent 45 minute here and Hennie and myself agreed that moments like these make an adventure like the Tuscany Trail special. Our next port of call was Pitigliano, another magnificent medieval town. The entry into this town took us up an obscure walking trail and finally up some steps before we were led down one of the narrow old town streets to the main plaza. We caught up with another rider on our way her and we old stopped at the first café for a beer and a cold drink. This guy was a 61-year-old Frenchman, with very peculiar legs, who did Ironman 20 years ago! He had a booking at a hotel and we managed to get a room in the same hotel. So we reached the end of the second last day of this amasing trip!

The last days include a loop around a peninsula, which include a 500-meter climb. Hennie decided that he has had enough and the he was going to cut this loop out. The next morning we got going at 07:07. From Pitigliano, which is on a hill, it is downhill again before we have to climb out the other side. Once on the small plato were led down some gravel roads through some woods, making for some spectacular riding. Pitigliano is about 350 above sea level. We first went down to 200 meter before climbing to 380 and from there it was steady descent to Albina, which is at sea level and after 59 km. Hennie was going to take a direct rout from here to Ansedonia, cutting about 40 km and 800 meter of climbing. We stopped at a café, were there were some Belgium cyclist from Gent. Hennie plotted his route on his Garmin and after we had some refreshments, we went our different ways.

My route took me down a natural causeway linking Albinia with Porto San Stefano, where the hilly part of the peninsula begins.
The climb out of Porto San Stefano starts off as a tar road, which becomes a gravel road and then turns into a gravel footpath, climbing steadily up the hill. It was around 12:00 and the temperature was reaching the high thirties and I was running out of water. I managed to fill my water bottle from a water tank at one of the farms, but I was not sure of the cleanliness of this water, so I only used it to cool me down. I still had some clean water in my backpack. The climb up the hill and over the other side was very spectacular. Just before I went over the last hill, I came upon the most beautiful, exclusive beach resort with some very expensive houses! The path went over the last hill on the peninsula and into Porto Ercole, another beautiful little harbor town that reminded me of Hout Bay.
Porto Ercole was linked to the mainland with a natural causeway through a pine forest. Out the other side there was a 150-meter climb and then the run onto the finish at Capalbio. At 112 km I switch the display of my Garmin from navigating the route to check the distance. When I tried to go back to the navigation display, the unit seized! This happened before and the only way to resolve it is to witch if off and on again, but normally that results in loosing all the data for the days ride. I still had 6 km to go and the only way to get to the end was with the track on my Garmin, so I had no other option! Fortunately I managed to go through the procedure and get the track displayed. The last six km went off without a hitch and I was glad to see Hennie waiting for me at the finish.

From there he escorted me to the hotel where we were staying, only about 2 km from the finish, where I was welcomed by my wife.

Thus ended a wonderful and amasing experience. This “race” is something that someone from outside Italy should not “race” but ride at a reasonable pace to absorb the beautiful scenery, experience the wonderful camaraderie and friendship. Our aim was ride for 5-6 days and I did it in 5 days 7 hours and 46 minutes. An experience well worth the effort and investment!

Total riding time 49:02:17; total distance 564.94; total meters climbed 9,742.

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