Inside the tour:
Inside the tour is an initiative we came up with during the first weeks of lockdown in Italy. On the 8th of March we had just got back from what we thought was going to be the first bike tour of the 2020 season, the Strade Bianche Bike Tour to then find ourselves in lockdown for the next 3 months.
The main mission of the “Inside the tour” initiative is to delve deeper into the C+ Bike tours, sharing our personal thoughts and experiences. Enjoy reading Gabriele Mirra’s, Co-Founder and CEO of ChronoPlus, personal experience during the Strade Bianche Bike Tour:
Sunday 1st March
It is Sunday, 1st March 2020, and it’s the time of year to officially kick off our bike tour season. It is becoming customary that the tour is linked to the Granfondo Strade Bianche, a wonderful professional and amateur cycling event organized by RCS around Siena, now in its fifth edition, it is the first cycling tour of the year for us here at Chronoplus. I wake up early, feeling as thrilled as I always do at the beginning of our bike tours, charged up and excited to be spending a week with friends from different countries around the world who can’t wait to ride all together in some of the most beautiful areas of Italy.
This year we have designed a semi point to point bike tour that we particularly love. We will cycle until Wednesday around our splendid Lucca; Thursday we will test our stamina with a long ride from Lucca to Siena of 130 km. From Friday we will have plenty of time to get into the “gravel” mood by pedalling around Siena along some of the most beautiful Sienese gravel roads now famous all over the world.
After exchanging ideas, feelings, expectations, and various information for weeks in preparation for this cycling tour, the moment of departure is finally here. As always, for this occasion we create a Whatsapp group open to tour participants which, as usual, turns out to be not only an effective instant communication channel but immediately becomes very interactive, participatory and fun small digital community. From the message thread it is clear that we have all become friends and we can’t wait to start pedalling together.
The first to arrive in Italy at Pisa international airport this afternoon will be Andreas and Bard from Oslo; tomorrow Jan and Nick will arrive from Belgium who, just like us, have been training hard throughout the winter to get a good placement in the Granfondo next Sunday. They will race to record the best time possible: Last year Nick was ranked 100th out of over 5000 participants. Not bad, but this year he wants to do better. Jan, as a former professional cyclist, wants to do better than his son.
From Tuesday Florenc and Giuseppe will join us, they are two other very strong cyclists.
Paladino and I will guide them and take care of them during this week. It will be a great challenge. Max will accompany us with our beautiful and comfortable C+ support car ready to assist us with everything we need during the bike tour.
Everything is ready, so I have enough time to calmly enjoy my hearty Sunday breakfast before I get going. There is only a little worry about the information concerning our compatriots from northern Italy affected by the Coronavirus which reached the Bel Paese from China.
I turn on my phone and receive a message from Bard, who, being a doctor, tells me that he has decided not to leave Oslo. He is not worried about the risk of contagion, as to date there have been no positive cases in Tuscany, however it’s a fact that once he returns to Norway he may be forced to a 15-day quarantine by local authorities. It is a risk that he cannot afford to take, given his profession. He is sorry, I understand his concern, I tell him not to worry and that we will make up for it soon.
Immediately afterwards, Andreas communicates his intention to confirm his arrival in Italy. He is determined. The Italian authorities have so far reassured us to stay calm and to not worry. We decide to confirm the Strade Bianche bike tour.
Our friend arrives in Pisa at 5 pm after making a stopover in Munich; Paladino and I welcome him and after an espresso we head towards Lucca. We leave him to settle in the hotel we have chosen for him in the heart of Lucca and we meet at 8:00 pm to go to dinner at the Orti where Samuele and his staff welcome us in a friendly way serving us an aperitif. They make us feel instantly at home.
After spending a harmonious evening together, enjoying the delicious food and a few glasses of good red wine we finish off the dinner with a tasting of Biadina -a famous Italian liqueur-. We are ready to accompany Andreas to the hotel strolling through the historical centre of Lucca which this evening seems to be particularly fascinating. There is a scattering of people around, a a light breeze and mist fills the air; the statues of piazza S. Salvatore, better known as piazza della “pupporona”, piazza Napoleone and piazza S. Michele seem to convey their thoughts to us. We are relaxed and in good company we say goodnight by scheduling the meeting time for tomorrow – first ride of the week. We can’t wait.
Monday 2nd March
This morning after receiving the news that Nick has decided not to come to Italy for fear of having to stay in quarantine, and that Giuseppe is bedridden by an influenza that will enforce him to skip this bike tour. We met up at 11:00 am in Corso Garibaldi 101 at our new C+ headquarters for the bike fitting and the briefing of the first ride of the Strade Bianche Bike Tour. We are positive and optimistic, this will be a great cycling adventure. The weather forecast is not particularly positive for these first days of the week, so we have to take advantage of the sunny hours until the early afternoon if we want to avoid riding in the rain. Paladino has designed a warm-up ride of about 40 km with a difference in altitude of 600m along some of the most incredible and hidden gravel roads in the Lucchesia area so that we can immediately enter the “white roads” mood. Taken in by the fun and passion, we decide to add a few km to the planned ride. A short distance from the centre of Lucca, we are already on the wonderful hills, enjoying nature, silence, the total absence of traffic, we decide to confront this route with a nice cheerful rhythm that will prepare us well for the days around Siena. Firstly we skirt the Spanish garden and the lemon garden of the Villa Reale, then Villa Pecci to head towards Pieve di San Pancrazio along a hidden path before reaching Villa Bernardini. From here the route becomes more demanding and torturous along Via Tramonte which guides us up to the Brancoleria path that tests our cycling skills through the wonderful forest that reaches up to Deccio di Brancoli. Both Jan and Andreas appreciate it very much and are excited about this start; we are having a great time.
After three hours of hard work, sweat and a well-deserved “light” lunch, enjoying Lucca’s tortelli in one of our favorite places in the Pieve di Brancoli, we decide that for today that is enough. We return to the base for a well-deserved relaxation, while Max takes care of the cycling clothing , bringing it to the local launderette so it will be clean and fresh once again for tomorrow morning to face an even more intense ride.
We meet-up at 7:30 pm for a cold beer all together before heading towards il Giglio where we will enjoy our well-deserved dinner.
Tuesday 3rd March
Paladino has planned a more intense day for us, our bike tour includes a ride of 75 km and 800m in altitude. We all agree to leave at 12:00 pm because this morning the weather is crazy, but the forecast says it should improve in the afternoon. We decide to have a full breakfast so we can skip lunch. Florenc has joined us and is raring to go. We are all ready, our Pinarello bikes have been prepared, cleaned and lubricated to perfection by Pietro, our head mechanic, but before leaving we cannot miss passing by Ciro’s for the best Neapolitan espresso in the city accompanied by a small puff pastry. It’s like being in the middle of Naples 😊
From via Vittorio Veneto we circle the walls that surround the wonderful town of Lucca. Exiting from Porta Santa Maria, the north gateway, we cross the Serchio river from the San Quirico bridge and head towards Sant’Alessio, a small village on the outskirts of Lucca, pedalling through the beautiful Lucca countryside that is beginning to bloom with flowers, following the small road that runs along the river. Soon we are alone with our bikes, no cars and immersed in the beautiful hills that surround the Pieve di S. Stefano and part of the Tenuta di Forci. Perhaps my favourite place of all to ride around Lucca during our cycling tours. We are all smiling and enjoying the ride.
After just 45 minutes the clouds are becoming particularly threatening on the horizon. We hurry to take the beautiful descent towards forests that lead us to the Freddana passing from Mutigliano. Here the rain begins to pour hard but it does not take us by surprise as we decide to stop in one of the small bars along the ride. March can be an unpredictable month of the year here in Italy, and after no more than 20 minutes, just enough time for a small snack, an energy bar and a hot tea, it’s spring once again; we are ready to get back on the saddle heading towards Montemagno.
After 15km, we leave Freddana, to climb towards Torre following the very old road which is now closed to traffic and has become one of the most beautiful and hidden gravel roads in the area. Not many locals know about this wonderful off the beaten track.
It’s inspiring to hear the “Wows” of our friends as the km go by and the windy bends become more insistent. Once we arrive in Torre Max is ready to support Florenc with a spare wheel after a puncture, before starting to climb again, immersed in the olive groves, towards Lopeglia where we leave the main road to take another gravel road up to Valdottavo.
It’s 3 o’clock, and time to return to Lucca. Once in Lucca, Andreas’s Garmin marks 780m in altitude. We can’t go back to the base until it reaches 800m so we decide to go up and down the walls of Lucca until we reach the desired goal laughing amongst ourselves. After all, cycling takes you back to childhood even at age 50.
Wednesday 4th March
The sun is shining brightly and Corso Garibaldi this morning is truly gorgeous. There is a strong and clear light, the sky is blue with a few clouds that are not threatening on the horizon for now, the Japanese magnolias that adorn the road are now all in bloom and give off a beautiful scent. This is the last day of the bike trip in Lucca and we have planned a long 90km ride heading towards the sea; no big climbs are foreseen today, not least of all because tomorrow we have a really busy day cycling to Siena. Paladino takes care of the last checks on the bikes, Max as usual has put everything we could possibly need in the C+ car, including sandwiches. After the usual coffee briefing, we are ready to start pedalling towards Versilia. The atmosphere of the group is jovial and more and more positive as we share moments together. This morning, however, some more worries begin to creep in following the news that the coronavirus situation in Lombardy and other areas of Italy is getting worse. This could also put in doubt the Granfondo Strade Bianche bike event. Above all we are still optimistic. In the meantime, the cycling distracts us from our thoughts and we start enjoying the day.
After passing through Porta Sant’Anna, we reunite with Max who is waiting for us with the C + Support Car in front of the Opera ice cream shop. Some of us are tempted to stop for ice cream but we have just left, so we keep on cycling. Soon we take the old Pisana road that connects Lucca to Pisa, and Jan begins to sprint; he is in good form this morning, he is in shape and wants to shake off the cold and humidity of the Belgium weather he has left behind him! We let him lead the group, until we reach Balbano. From here Paladino guides us along the road that runs from Nozzano Castello along the railway to the first 3km soft climb of the day which we face with a cheerful rhythm. We begin to descend downhill and after passing the second hairpin bend, a breathtaking view opens up over Lake Massaciuccoli and the entire Tuscan coast.
We stop to take some photos in this corner of paradise. We also take advantage of this moment to eat an energy bar. The views are outstanding.
On this bright morning you can clearly see Livorno, Viareggio, the entire Versilia and in the distance the faraway hills overlooking the Gulf of La Spezia. Spectacular. After taking a few photos, we continue to descend towards Massaciuccoli, and along the road that runs past the lake, we head towards Massarosa where the second ascent of the day awaits us: Mount Pitoro, a place very popular with local cyclists and one that we know very well .
It is not a difficult climb but if tackled incorrectly it can create problems; we start to climb at the right speed, I decide to pace myself, after all this is a cycling tour not a race. We enjoy the beautiful view that hairpin after hairpin bend opens onto the coast that can be clearly seen through the green leaves of the olive trees that flutter in the fresh morning breeze. After 20 minutes we are at the top ready to go down towards Stiava in the direction of Viareggio which is reached after covering another beautiful stretch of plain. Entering the town we cycle towards the port, here we can glimpse internationally owned luxury boats and yachts amongst the shipyards famous all over the world. After passing the port, we take the cycle path that runs parallel to the famous promenade, which is still proudly overlooked by the many beautiful Art Nouveau buildings from that era. We continue pedalling onto the pier where a small detour is a must. Once we reach the end, we seem to be facing towards the Tyrrhenian Sea as if our bikes represented the bow of a huge cruise ship. There is a slight wind and the flag of Italy flutters proudly while several surfers enjoy the waves crashing against the pillars of the bridge. From here, in addition to breathing in the pleasant sea air, you can enjoy two views, on one side the whole coast and on the other the unique beauty of the Apuan Alps, famous all over the world for the white Carrara marble.
It’s time to leave and we reach Piazza Mazzini in just a few minutes where we have planned to stop for a coffee break at Fappani, our favorite bar in Viareggio.
However, as it’s already time for lunch, we decide to have a quick snack instead before taking on the last 45km that await us to return to Lucca. We eagerly eat the omelette sandwiches that Max prepared for us this morning, and following a delicious rice cake and a good espresso, we are back on the saddle again, ready to continue today’s bike trip. It’s our intention to head in the direction of Camaiore and then on to Montemagno. Once in Camaiore, the dark and threatening clouds gather over Montemagno and suggest that we must change the program. We decide to return to Lucca via Monte Quiesa.
Once in Lucca our computers register 93.4km. We are satisfied, it was a beautiful day, our legs are fatigued at just the right point and we are all ready for a hot shower before abandoning ourselves into the expert hands of Giacomo, our masseur, who is waiting to give us a welcome post-ride massage. Tonight I have organized a different evening for our guests: we will have dinner with Massimo, at my favourite fish restaurant outside Lucca, together with some other Italian friends who are not cyclists but great wine experts. Dinner is a success, Massimo pampers us for three hours with the best of his Tuscan seafood cuisine accompanied with several bottles of white wine expertly chosen by my friend Nicola. It is late, we are replete but tired, it is time to return to Lucca and go to sleep. Tomorrow a 130km bike trip to Siena awaits us.
Thursday 5th March
After three days of our Strade Bianche Bike Tour the time has come to leave Lucca and head for Siena. Max, Paladino and myself calmly meet at 9:15 am this morning, there is no need to rush as we prepared and loaded everything in the C+ Car last night. Given the cycling level of the group, we estimate covering the distance to Siena without problems in no more than 6 hours of pedalling. We have all the time we need.
The only thing that remains to be loaded are our guests bags when they arrive at 9:45 am. Still a little sleepy, perhaps also because of last nights “demanding” dinner, but as punctual as a Swiss watch, here comes Andreas, Jan and Florenc who joins us for today’s planned briefing. While Max takes care of handling the luggage at the hotel. Paladino and I invest some more time in telling the group the detailed program of today’s long bike trip. We focus mainly on the technical-cycling information of the route; as usual we do not want to reveal too many details about what awaits us from the landscape and historical-cultural point of view. We like the day’s journey, as it should be, to become, km after km, a progressive discovery along this special path. Today is a perfect example, to reach Siena, we will cycle along one of the most beautiful and interesting stretches of the Via Francigena, formerly known and used by pilgrims to reach Rome from different parts of western Europe.
It’s 10:30 am, everything is in order, let’s go. We leave Lucca through Porta San Pietro, the gateway that faces south, just a few meters from our offices. The weather is a little grey but for now the forecasts do not mention rain. We head at a fast pace towards Capannori and Altopascio pedalling along secondary and hidden roads, we skirt the Cerbaie and Padule Reserve and we bypass Fucecchio, a place famous for cycling in Tuscany and often the scene of stages of the Giro d’Italia, before reaching the town of San Miniato which stands proudly at the top of the hill.
So far we have travelled about 40km across the plain. Now we begin to climb up the road that leads us to the centre of the city famous in Italy for its prized white truffle.
This fun 15-minute climb takes us to the heart of the ancient village; walking along the cobbled streets of the historic centre, we head towards the beautiful Piazza della Repubblica where it is mandatory to stop for a few minutes to photograph the wonderful facade of the Seminary palace of 1600. After a series of inevitable selfies, we leave the square behind us to head south.
For the next 6 km the road is a succession of short, gentle and fun ascents and descents that create a plateau amongst the vineyards that offers us breathtaking views of the Val d’Elsa Fiorentina directly in front of us.
We pass through many villages in the beautiful Tuscan countryside before reaching Castelfiorentino where we decide that it is time for the first coffee break. We enjoy the buns with jam, banana and dried fruit that Max prepared this morning. The others don’t miss the opportunity to drink another coffee, I prefer a coca-cola that gives me some caffeine and sugar. Unfortunately I have just received by email the communication that RCS has officially decided to cancel and postpone the Granfondo Strade Bianche to a future date. I share the news with the group, we are disappointed but absolutely determined not to let it spoil our bike tour. I begin to think about how to adapt the program in the absence of the Granfondo. We have two contingency plans to choose from, but we’ll start talking about this once we reach Siena. After 20 minutes we leave for San Gimignano. The Via Francigena is now flat again for a few km before Gambassi Terme, then it becomes steep and puts us to the test with stretches that reach climbs of up to 15% without ever falling below 7/8%. While we sweat happily, Max is laughing in the car and tries to give us stamina by raising the volume of the music that clearly reaches our ears.
We reach the crossroads outside Gambassi and, once we turn left, we find ourselves pedalling along another wonderful plateau 500 meters above sea level from where you can easily recognize the Apuan Alps in the north, the Apennines and Mount Amiata towards the south. We continue for a few km and soon enough the road enters the middle of a lush and pleasant wooded area between Poggio Pitte and Larniano which drastically restricts the view of the horizon. We leave the wooded area and begin to descend along the stretch of the Via Francigena which begins to enter the beautiful Valdelsa Senese.
We have fun, we are alone surrounded by uncontaminated nature, the ups and downs are exciting and lead us to the next knoll that opens the doors to San Gimignano.
Some of us stop for a few photos, and then it’s all downhill along the descent to the foot of the hill on which this world renowned medieval wonder awaits us. It is time for the lunch break, we stop as arranged at Mrs. Sabatini’s who is waiting to delight us with the first pici dish of our cycling tour. Before having lunch we take a ride around the medieval village, while Max parks the C+ car outside the walls. We have already covered 80km and now we are hungry, we devour the pici as soon as it hits the table, delicious. We decide to not drink wine but only water and a few glasses of beer, but we can’t just close lunch with a plate of pici. We order a nice slice of homemade jam tart for everyone, which sets us up nicely for the next 50 km that separate us from Siena.
We get back on the bike and, fortunately, the first 5 km stretch towards Siena along via del Mattone is completely downhill. After 10 minutes we leave the main road and, at the Poggio Alloro farm, we take the first gravel road of the day. We cycle it for about ten km between stone farmhouses, farms and cypresses, up to Poggibonsi which we leave on our left to reach Colle Val D’Elsa following the beautiful cycle path that runs along the Elsa river.
After passing the very crowded urban center of Colle Val D’Elsa, it starts to rain. But we don’t let that put us off. Once we cross the river, we dive down towards Ponelle in the most beautiful and suggestive stretch of gravel road of the day. The Via Francigena passes through the middle of the most spectacular Val d’Elsa between perfectly manicured fields of red clay and wonderful cypresses. The light rain makes everything even more unique, magical and fascinating than usual. After 5 km we leave the gravel road to enter Via Cassia, which quickly leads us to another medieval jewel of this area: Monteriggioni. The rain continues to fall, we make a very short stop to admire the beauty of the central square before continuing onto Siena. The landscape is fantastic, the fatigue begins to set in after 120 km in the rain which is now more and more intense as we pedal through the middle of the Sienese countryside.
But we are near the end of today’s bike trip, we are almost in Siena, just over 10 km away. We quickly pass Fornacelle, San Martino and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of Siena. From here you can see in the distance Porta Camollia from which we pass to cross the heart of Siena skirting Piazza del Campo before reaching our hotel. It was a very nice experience for everyone, we are all happy but tired. We need a hot shower before a hearty Sienese dinner.
Friday 6th March
The staff at Palazzo Ravizza pamper us more than usual this morning. They are always kind, but today, despite there being a very low presence of guests due to the Coronavirus whose impact is beginning to be felt with lots of cancellations in the last few days, we are treated like kings. We leave the group plenty of time to enjoy their full breakfast while we prepare the Pinarello bikes. The departure is scheduled for 11:00 am. We will take advantage of the hottest hours of the day. The sun is shining but partially hiding behind the clouds, the weather conditions are ideal for our first 85km bike trip around Siena, which is famous for its white gravel roads.
We start from the Palazzo in perfect time, take via S. Marco and leave the wonderful historical centre behind us, passing through Porta S. Marco which is like a window opening on the to the wonderful hills that surround the city. In a few minutes we are out of Siena and after less than ten km, following the peaceful Strada di Fogliano passing Tuscan villas and farmhouses, we head towards Mugnano. Along this quiet road, we stop various times to take photos of the wonderful views.
Everyone wants to seize the moment as if we had arrived at the most beautiful destination of the day. In fact, the light is very inviting. But they don’t know that the best beauty is yet to come. I smile to myself. Today will be an escalation of spectacular landscapes to admire and unique places to cycle. As we proceed at a slow pace we meet a guy on a horse who is travelling on the same road as us and is preparing for the next Palio of Siena. We chat as we all head the same way until our paths separate. After a double bend, we begin to climb towards the lush hill in the direction of Ville di Corsano passing in front of the beautiful church of San Giacomo. Now we have entered the “real” Sienese Tuscany. Compared to Lucca, this part of the region is more open and airy, and the view is less crowded. From these highlands, you can admire rolling hills dotted with rows of cypresses reaching up to the horizon as far as the eye can see. It is really worth stopping for some photos. The light is clear, the colours are bright and we can fully appreciate the crystalline beauty of this area. After about ten km of continuous and demanding ups and downs, alternating asphalted stretches and stretches of gravel roads, we reach Ville di Corsano where we stop in one of the small bars of the village for the first espresso of the day.
We have a quick chat with the locals who are enjoying the sun and playing cards, before jumping back on the saddle; we pass the small inhabited centre, we turn left towards Corsano. Now we are going through some of the segments of the Granfondo Strade Bianche course and the professional races that are held here every year. The first asphalted stretch although short, alternates between fun steep ups and downs through Poggio al Grillo and Poggio Bosco Tondo up to the junction for Radi; this is one of the ideal places where we stop to watch the professionals go by because it is at the end of one of the uphill sections. We keep to the right to take the wonderful white road that continues towards Murlo through a dozen km of unspoiled nature before connecting with the provincial road that leads to Buonconvento. Today it is very pleasant to ride along these gravel roads under the beautiful sunshine. On joining the SP34 it occurs to me that this is one of the stretches where I had the most fun during last years Strade Bianche Bike Tour. I remember finding myself pedaling right here with a group of a hundred participants cycling at a fast pace. Even today’s pace is not bad, as Paladino and Florenc begin in the same stretch with a sprint dragging others who do not want to be left behind, including myself. After 5 km we encounter the Eroica sign. We stop for a few minutes to catch our breath, I take the opportunity to eat an energy bar that Max promptly offers me before tackling the 15 km of gravel roads that the Granfondo Strade Bianche and Eroica share up to Buonconvento , a small town with three thousand inhabitants. The welcome sign reminds us that we are in one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, but we do not stop, as we will be back tomorrow.
We continue towards Siena along the flat asphalted stretch that crosses the Ombrone valley, we pass the inhabited centre of Ponte d’Arbia and continuing north, we arrive in Monteroni d’Arbia by passing Lucignano. It’s time for lunch. We have in mind a nice little place where we usually stop for lunch on the occasion of our cycling tours in this area. Once reached, we discover with great disappointment that it is closed for holidays. Paladino decides to stop to talk to a local gentleman to ask him for advise on where to eat.
We find that locals advice is better than Trip Advisor. We decide to follow his advice, while Max parks the C+ car, we choose a table in a fairly anonymous bar-restaurant where we would have never stopped to eat without the “locals review”. Lunch is a riot of flavours and typically local homemade dishes by the chef who has been managing this place for 40 years; it will undoubtedly be the best lunch of the week. It is nice to be taken by surprise even if we know this area very well. At this point the bar-restaurant Il Gusto becomes our favourite place to stop in the area for a very simple but delicious and genuine lunch.
After about 45 minutes, we are back on the saddle to immerse ourselves in the heart of the “Crete” , an incredible place in this part of Italy. If I have to imagine one place on our planet that could resemble Mars, the Crete Senesi certainly comes to mind. Here the vegetation is not luxuriant, and the clay and reddish soil really takes me back to documentaries about Mars. We are 370 metres above sea level and 25 km from Siena which can be seen in the distance on our left as we begin to descend to Taverne D’arbia, a small hamlet in the municipality of Siena. Here we meet a group of 20 Danish cyclists who tell us that they are lost. They have to go back to Siena but they don’t know how to do so without avoiding the busy main road. We invite them to join us, we accompany them pedalling together along the last 10 km of hidden country roads before reaching Porta Romana. Upon our arrival, they thank us by offering us a beer that we gladly accept and drink together in a small bar not far from both our hotel and theirs. After 15 minutes, we bid them farewell by making an appointment for the 2021 edition of the Granfondo Strade Bianche. Now we need a hot shower and some rest before meeting at 8:30 pm for dinner. Tonight we have booked a table at the Quattro Venti, which again does not disappoint us. After enjoying the first course, we begin to discuss the plan for Sunday. At the end of the dinner we all agree to replace the Granfondo with a long bike trip from Siena to Lucca passing through Volterra. They won’t regret it!
Saturday 7th March
The original cycling tour program for today included a quiet ‘sgambatella’ of about 30 km with the main objective of following the professional races. Since the Strade Bianche 2020 cycling event was cancelled yesterday evening we designed a very nice alternative program, a ring of about 60 km. Paladino and I know this area very well, so it was not particularly difficult for us to adapt a new itinerary. We have decided not to overdo it, both because the weather for today is expected to be unstable and we do not want to go too far, as tomorrow we have a long bike trip back to Lucca. We would also like to give our guests some free time to visit the wonderful centre of Siena. While Max reaches Porta Romana following the only road permitted for cars to leave the city from our hotel, we start from Pian dei Mantellini, it is 10:45 am, we cross the Piazza del Campo by bike which this morning is almost deserted. I have never seen this place so empty in my life except in the middle of the night. This morning, pedalling through the narrow streets of the centre, we begin to become aware, perhaps for the first time during this bike tour, of the real impact that this pandemic will have on our lives. The streets are basically empty. Once in Porta Romana, we reunite with Max and after a few hundred metres we take the stretch of via Francigena that brings us to San Quirico d’Orcia following a southerly direction towards Rome. I had forgotten how beautiful the Strada di Certosa was, bordered by the red brick walls from which the large pine forest flourishes.
Today I notice many details that I had missed during past cycling tours. After the pine forest, the road crosses a beautiful olive grove that unfolds onto the slope of the hill on our right. We are pedalling over a plateau about 400 meters above sea level from where we can admire the beauty of the hills which stretch for km south of Siena towards the Val d’Orcia. As we proceed, wonderful memories come flooding back related to our Francigena bike tour from Lucca to Rome that we organized last year in May with Steve, Brian and Greg. I share them with Paladino who shares his own with me. We still have the active Whatsapp group, I take a couple of photos on a particular point of this path and I share them with our American friends. They will reply later, amused and happy to see us cycle again in the places where we cycled carefree together a few months ago. In the meantime, almost without realizing it, we are already travelling on the road that runs alongside the Arbia stream to the urban centre of Isola d’Arbia.
I am leading the group, we cycle for a few more km to the gates of Ponte a Tressa; just after the level crossing, I take the right turn, we leave the provincial road to enter the heart of the Sienese hilly countryside along the truly breathtaking white roads around Borgo di Cuna.
The light is incredible today, and facing this uphill peak, short but with a 15% gradient, it seems like I can touch the sky and the clouds in front of me at the top of the climb.
Other memories of our Via Francigena Bike Tour come back to me. In the same place we experienced truly exhilarating moments with Greg who was determined at all costs, to mount the GoPro on his helmet right in front of the iron crucifix now on our right. What a laugh. We pass Cuna, entering Cassia to head south towards Buonconvento at a rapid pace, also because now the sky is really threatening. By the time we get to the gates of Buonconvento it starts to rain heavily. Even if we have been cycling for less than two hours, it is the right time to stop for lunch and protect us from the rain. It gives us time to dry ourselves, change into the spare clothes that Max brought us, eat a plate of Pici pasta with cheese and pepper and drink an inevitable glass of red wine, and the sun is back again.
We recover the bikes that Giulio has kindly put in his private garage, and we are ready to start our bike trip from Buonconvento northwards towards Siena. Just outside the town, we turn right and continue to follow the Francigena north, we begin to climb the hill along the gravel road bordered by these wonderful rows of cypress trees that accompany us for several km. Max delights us with his latest playlist of pop music. This is the last climb of the day, once at the top, the Francigena turns from gravel road to a cobbled road that runs through the wonderful Sienese countryside to Borgo Vecchio. We do not meet anyone for miles, a flock of birds flies proudly ahead of us .
We have cycled fifty km so far. We are just over 10 km from Siena. It is 2:30 pm, we take the asphalt road and in twenty minutes we are back at Porta Romana where, amongst a small group of people, I recognize an ex-colleague of mine whom I haven’t seen for 5 years and who is in Siena for a long weekend with family and some friends.
I make myself recognizable removing my helmet and sunglasses, we enthusiastically greet each other happily surprised by our chance meeting. The world really is a small place. We return to the hotel where we all stop together to drink a beer that Andreas offers us welcomingly. Francesca, in charge of the reception, prepares us some Tuscan focaccia topped with drizzle of delicious olive oil. Very tasty. After our snack, we have the whole afternoon ahead of us to relax and enjoy Siena and its wonders before dinner tonight.
Sunday 8th March
The last day of this exciting bike tour has arrived. Today we will close in style with the last long bike trip from Siena to Lucca. We have been fortunate because for now the virus situation has not yet reached Tuscany, the worst hit regions seem to be those in the north. Lombardy has been in lockdown since this morning, luckily things in Tuscany still seem to be under control. We meet for breakfast at 8:00 am, aiming to leave the hotel at 9:30 am but something is wrong as it is 9:00 am and Andreas hasn’t shown up yet. I decide to call him. He replies saying that he’s sorry, but he has had a problem: his flight from Pisa has been cancelled. He has had to find another one.
He will have to leave from Rome tomorrow morning, and he thinks that perhaps it is better to give up pedalling today and reach the capital by train from Siena. I tell him not to worry. I think about it for a moment and then make a suggestion to him. Why not enjoy the bike trip with us and then once in Lucca while he has a nice hot shower, we will organize a private transfer for him to take him to Florence. From there at 8:00 pm he could take the train that would take him to Rome for dinner. He ponders about it and then agrees it is a good idea. We decide to postpone our departure of today’s bike trip by one hour so he can enjoy his breakfast.
We are outside Siena, we begin to pedal, aware of the 140 km that awaits us, at an “endurance” pace towards Sovicille which we cross after having skirted a wonderful row of Maritime pines on our left. After a few km, after passing the Etruscan necropolis of Malignano, recorded for the first time in the 18th century, the road becomes a gentle uphill slope that crosses the beautiful Mediterranean scrub up to Poggio alla Pigna before starting to decend towards Molino D’Elsa . Just after passing the small block of flats, we leave the SP541 turning left towards Casole d’Elsa, we are in Paradise!
The road is now a continuous climb of 4/5% and allows us to enjoy the breathtaking view over the entire Val d’Elsa which opens up on our right and left as the altitude increases. Casole d’Elsa is on the top of the hill right in front of us, at 400 metres above sea level. We continue happily and enthusiastically, and once we have passed the beautiful village on our right, we follow the road which now runs on the slopes of the beautiful plain opening over the entire Elsa valley.
We do not encounter any cars for many km up to Montemiccioli, we can admire the Mediterranean scrub two metres away from us becoming greener and more luxuriant, rich in holm oaks, strawberry plants, hawthorns, myrtles, heather and junipers. Wonderful and lush growth in this period.
Max, in addition to supporting us as always by constantly providing us with all the food and drinks we need as the hours go by, is taking spectacular photos. After the plateau and the province of Siena behind us, we enter the province of Pisa and begin to face the last long constant climb of the day up to Volterra at 600 metres above sea level.
We have travelled so far just under 70 km from Siena, we decide to make a quick pit stop in the historic center of Volterra and we eat a sandwich in Piazza dei Priori while I explain to our friends that the Palazzo dei Priori illuminated by the warm sun of this beautiful day is the oldest municipal building in Tuscany. Time to have a coffee and put our wind-jackets on, and we’re back on the saddle, cycling towards Lucca. We enjoy the fun descent for about ten km before tackling the last 60, completely on the plain towards Lucca led by the majestic Monte Serra which we use as our compass. Once in Buti, Florenc proposes we tackle Monte Serra, we laugh and reject his proposal. After an intense week we are tired and satisfied with the kilometres we have cycled, but above all we must hurry to get to Lucca as Andreas must be in Florence by 8 pm. We cycle on and in twenty minutes we are in S. Andrea di Compito. We turn right and pedal the last 6 km through the countryside near Lucca. We start feeling like we’re back home. We reach Corso Garibaldi entering from Porta S. Pietro. It’s 5:30 pm. What an extraordinary ride. We say our goodbyes to Andreas and Florenc, wishing them both a safe trip home. The Strade Bianche 2020 bike tour is over, everything went well in spite of unforeseen circumstances and we are very happy. It was a beautiful experience. Even if the granfondo was cancelled, we managed not to let it affect our amazing bike tour, we rode in some of the most beautiful areas of Tuscany, created new beautiful memories, a stronger bond between true friends and enjoyed the excellent Tuscan food and wine.