Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Tuscany - September 2015

Hot sunshine welcomed three members of the senior team on arrival in Pisa, a most pleasing change from the miserable weather in the UK. A swift transfer brought us to the comfortable Hotel San Marco just to the north of the fortified town of Lucca. There followed an evening foray into the old city, enclosed by ramparts 4km in length... a lively spot, the locals all promenading for their Saturday night out, enjoying ice cream, plenty of retail therapy, and spilling out of noisy bars. We had been recommended a particular restaurant, famed for traditional Tuscan cuisine (which turned out to be huge steaks), so plenty of protein was consumed in preparation for our week's riding in the hills of Tuscany.


Our first day on the bikes took us north west towards the coastal plain, before heading eastwards into the Apaun Alps, attractive wooded hills scarred in places by huge marble quarries. Thankfully, the roads quietened after the initial 30km, and we headed steadily uphill at an average gradient of around 5%, bringing us, eventually, to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. Great cycling on beautifully surfaced roads for the most part, the team all enjoying big sweeping descents along the way, even the President! Our destination for the night was Bagni di Lucca, a small town spread out along a valley, and good food was enjoyed in the main part of the town (recommend the Circolo dei Forestieri for friendly service and fine food), about 1km from our accommodation, this time a little more rustic than Lucca, but adequate for our needs. The day's stats: 103km, 1562m of ascent. A good start!

Our second day took us to Florence, another long ride with two distinct hills to climb en route. 
The first ascent took up through wooded hills, affording some respite from the heat, and, once again, we enjoyed great road surfaces and empty roads, making descents a real joy. However, the middle section of the ride took us through a couple of busy towns, Monsummano Termi in particular, reminding us that we were to face the outskirts of Florence later in the day. There were a few diversions on the way, not least the massive statue of Pinocchio in the town of Collodi, home of the creator.
But then another hill to climb after a quick café stop, this time steeper at the start and now very hot. Different landscapes now, rolling countryside, with huge views all around, the mountains we passed through the day before to the northwest, and the classic undulating terrain of Tuscany to the south, the land now covered in olive trees, vines bearing the grapes of a future Chiant Classico, and fields of maize and sunflowers. Very pretty indeed. 
And then we entered the suburbs of Florence, 20km of urban riding, requiring some nerve and lots of concentration...the impatience of some motorists leading to some very close pass-bys, and we were all very conscious of being 'doored' at any moment. Thankfully, the Garmin did its job admirably, our arrival at the Hotel de la Ville very close to the centre easier than expected. Although this is a comfortable hotel, the reception from the two women manning the desk on our arrival was distinctly unhelpful (revenge will follow through Trip Advisor!) but we were soon enjoying the sights of this bustling city, an excellent restaurant providing fine seafood and most excellent wine. All is well with the world! Stats for the day: 98.4km and 1296m of ascent.


Of course, after two days of cycling, we didn't really deserve a rest, but we took a day out anyway. A good walk around the town, taking in the some   of the iconic sights, the Duomo, the Uffizi Galłery, the Ponte Vecchio, Palazza Pitti and the Palazza Vecchio. In order to ensure good cycling performance on the days to follow we had a long lunch, a rather splendid affair on the terrace of the Hotel Savoy overlooking the tourist hordes invading the impressive Plaza de la Reublica. A local Pinot Grigio and a fine Chiant Classico Riserva fitted the bill nicely!









The following day all three of us were keen to get back on the bikes and out into the Tuscan countryside once again. The Garmin did its job well and we were soon out of the manic streets of rush hour Florence, across the Arno river and into the first of many hills that were to tax us all the way to San Gimignano. 
The route first took us directly south, and we entered Chianti country proper, rolling hills filled with olive groves and vines, grand houses on hill tops, stands of cypress trees and sweeping roads with great surfaces to take us safely through the region. After some fairly busy tracts of road, mainly tourist traffic now, we had a a quick coffee stop and then took much quieter roads through the very attractive hilltop towns of Radda in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti. Great riding, cool and windy on the higher elevations but very hot as we swept down into the valley bottoms. Turning west, we passed through Colle di Val d'Elsa and on to Castel San Gimignano, our legs now tiring with new hills to climb at every turn. Then a final 12km northwards to the famous hill town of San Gimignano and a few descents to enjoy with the inevitable climb back up at the end. Exhausting work, so we were greatly relieved to reach our accommodation for the next two nights, the well-appointed and family run Hotel da Graziano, just to the south of the town centre. 
The day's stats...103.8km and a merit worthy 1762m of ascent. 
Needless to say, a few beers were enjoyed before venturing up to the towers and fortifications of San Gimignano, still busy with tourists but very atmospheric as the last vestiges of the sun disappeared over the horizon. A good meal from a restaurant with great views south, reminding us of the challenges ahead the next day!


Our fourth day on the bike followed a circuit from our base in San Gimignano, taking us south once again to Castel San Gimignano and along about 20km of a fairly busy road with uneven surfaces in places, demanding a lot of effort and concentration. We then reached the castellated fortress town of Volterra, after a sustained climb in hot sun, and took a break within the walls of the town. Then on to better roads, northbound now, with a sweeping and fast descent of about 10km, massive views unfolding all around us. Mercifully, the road had a great surface for rolling along, and vehicular traffic virtually disappeared. But what goes down must eventually go up, so a a climb of 460m over about 10km required us to switch our brains off again and grind away up the steady slope, now in hot sunshine. Marvellous views awaited us at the crest of the hill and another series of bumps brought us back to San Gimignano once more. Time to chill! Today's stats: 61.9km and 1,304 vertical metres. 


And then, suddenly, it's our final day of cycling! Taking a long hill out of San Gimignano we enjoyed quiet roads, good surfaces and massive landscapes for the first 25km or so, with a long series of sweeping descents to bring us into a valley set below some craggy cliffs. It was a right turn here, as decreed in the road book provided to us by Europe Active, that then led us into a little adventure. Basically, the tarmac ended. Facing us was a gravel track, heavily rutted in places, with gradients approaching 15 degrees on some sections. This is MTB country but impossible on a road bike. So, after braving the increasingly treacherous surface for a few hundred metres we were all forced to dismount and walk uphill in very hot sunshine for over a kilometre. Emerging at the top we found ourselves in Toiano, a tiny hamlet on top of the cliffs and the initial descent on a very poor surface, steep in places, along a narrow ridge, focused the mind somewhat. 
But we were soon on to a decent surface again, albeit on a very narrow lane, and a long undulating route took us across a series of interconnecting ridges, with stunning views in all directions. At 60km we took a brief lunch stop just north of Pomadera before cranking out the last 20km into Lucca once again. Stats for the day: 80.8km, of 985m of ascent and 1253m of descent.
The normal rehydration routine was then put into action, followed by a good dinner in the old town. A great way to finish off another good week of cycling adventures. Stats for the whole week: 455.5km (about 280 miles), ascent 6,909m.
And some final words of thanks. First, to Alberto, the Club Treasurer, who provided remote accounting services for us. We all missed your 'herumphing' dear boy! 
And, finally, to Jan, who took on the task of organising this 'più accettabile' trip. Well done chaps! 

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