The Tuscany Trail is the world’s largest bike packing event held every year in Tuscany. Hundreds of cyclists from more than 30 countries around the world join every edition and it was touch and go as to whether it would happen this year – thankfully it did - up yours Corona Virus !
Covering 310miles or 505km of hard gravel riding, here’s my blog post.
Shivering uncomfortably, I managed to get the car key out my bag and climb into the driver’s seat. My phone is out of battery and I need it to find the apartment I have booked for the finish. The rain is beating down and I am glad to be out of it now.
I am struggling to remove my shoes and socks, the dial on my shoe needs lifting up to release my feet, I just can’t quite get my shaking hands to complete this simple task. I finally get the engine started of the hire car and crank up the heater. As I warm up a little I have to fight the urge to fall asleep. My bike sits against the hedge beside the car with its lights still flashing away. I am conscious I need to act and find my accommodation soon so with shoes and socks eventually removed I find my trainers. I now need to figure out how to get my bike in the car so I can drive to the apartment which is only half a mile away. The minute I step out of the car in my already soaking kit I am shaking again and shivering uncontrollably. Front wheel clumsily removed; I jam my bike on top of our bike travel bags in the back of the car. Back in the driver’s seat I rely on the heater to calm my shaking hands. It seems like an age before my phone now plugged into the car blinks back to life. I message my wife letting her know I am finished and am safe, then I locate details of apartments host and make contact and we arrange to meet at the apartment in 20mins. I set about driving the half mile very slowly not really trusting my skills by this stage. It was a relief to be in the apartment and after a hot shower sleep took over.
It all started a few days before we had arrived at the finish, found our hotel. Once checked in we quickly built our bikes. The flight times meant we had some time to spare before the start and due to restrictions, there was no bag transfer to the finish this year. With the lack of a transfer it made sense to leave our stuff at the finish. With two days before the start we headed out around the island to test our equipment out and check there were no problems from the flight. It was great to ride the island at a leisurely pace taking in the sea views. Last year it had almost destroyed me hitting these climbs after 310miles.
On the Thursday we went to catch the train to Massa where the event starts. Just as the train rolled in the heavens opened and a deluge of rain soaked us as we looked for the bike carriage. It was right at the back of the train. I quickly jumped on my bike and sped towards the rear just making it on as the doors closed. Matt was left on the platform and the train pulled out. This was a real pain as I had to wait for him in Pisa where we were due to change train, while he caught up on the next train that was 2 hours behind. We met in Pisa and finished our rail journey up the coast to Massa. It was pouring with rain when we arrived, so it was on with the waterproofs for the ride to our apartment. We had a little trouble with the directions however the rain was not too cold and we eventually found the place.
We dropped our bags and headed off to find the local bike shop. Matt needed to use a shock pump and I had picked up a small puncture that had taken a lot of sealant to heal up due to the amount of standing water on the roads. We made it to the bike shop and took care of our needs. On the way back to we grabbed food to cook in the apartment and some breakfast. Neither of us could manage to eat much and we nervously prepared our kit for the morning.
Up just before 6am we grabbed showers and donned our kit. I left an old t-shirt I left behind not wanting to carry any excess weight! We struggled to eat breakfast and I was glad I brought some yoghurt drinks that slipped down a little easier.
This year I had a musette bag that I clipped to the back of my jersey for carrying food in. I stowed a focaccia sandwich and two bananas in there and we headed off to registration.
There was no mass start this year due to global Covid-19 restrictions. Thankfully, registration was open from 8am to 11pm and riders were free to start anytime after registration – we chose to start as soon as possible. After a little delay in registration opening and a few impatient people (not us!) who rushed to the front we were ready to go. We cycled the few miles to the start and psyched ourselves up for the get go checking again that GPS was set up and the track loaded and zoomed in to the right scale. I wished Matt luck and started my Garmin. Matt had decided not to follow me as he did not want to get caught up following my pace. I pushed hard on the pedals to give him some space and settled into my ride. The opening 15km was on tarmac as we cleared the town and headed off to find the trail. I knew the route well from the previous year and made a quick get away. After 10km I passed a pair of riders who had been keener than us at the start and I settled into a strong steady rhythm. 310miles requires a solid pace that was sustainable.
After an hour or so I hit the first larger climb. This year it felt easier, the gearing on my bike made sense and I was not labouring like before. With a fluid cadence I passed two riders on the climb who had started ahead of me. Over the climb the terrain rolled on, up and down for a long period with the odd steeper ramp that went on a bit. I was made sure to keep on top of my feeding and had plenty of water for the time being – knowing I could refill easily on route.
Lucca was the first large town at just after 33 miles 10% into the route. I was there in under 3 hours and felt good. I stopped and filled two bottles grabbing a quick espresso at the same time and pushed on. After Lucca the track follows the 3km 19th century aqueduct - a real sight to behold. Leaving the outskirts, the track moved onto some wider gravel roads which were mostly flat and full of large puddles from the heavy rains. This made this section more challenging and slower than it had been last year.
At 63miles I stopped again clocking in at 5h 05m - I was happy with my pace and it was not too hilly between here and Florence at 90miles. Bottles filled I pushed on happy eating Torq bars and dried bananas at this stage. This section largely followed the river with the odd diversion away from the water to take in a steep climb before dropping back down. I made great time to Florence and felt that I needed to sit down and eat properly. The centre of Florence was much quieter than the previous year and I slipped easily through the town centre - I even caught some of the sights as less people made it easier to look around. I wanted to stop and eat on the edge of the city and that proved difficult so I had to double back down a side street to find a suitable café who kindly allowed my to carry my bike through to their garden. 3 focaccia sandwiches, fruit juices and a large bottle of water later I was re-stocked with supplies. Bottles quickly filled with sachets of Torq energy added I set about demolishing two of the focaccia’s. The third I stowed in my musette and headed out.
After Florence came a series of steeper climbs and some technical off-road sections. Not long into the first of them I spotted a dropped water bottle and some fresh tyre tracks. This was the first sign of any other riders I had seen for some hours - my feed stop had clearly seen someone skip ahead of me. While Tuscany Trail is not a race my experience from the previous year told me the front was hotly contested. This motivated me to keep hard at the pedals and I rode a solid hour watching the tracks get fresher in front of me. Then suddenly I rounded a corner to see two riders up ahead stopped half way up a climb. I pulled up and greeted them … enquiring if they had lost a water bottle they confirmed they had. I wished them luck and pulled away feeling good about my ride having tracked them down, returned their bottle, and pushing harder to create a gap. I was happy on my own and wanted to get clear. The riders quickly followed and remained in sight at a slowly growing distance. As the climbs became bigger and the tracks more technical, I put some distance between me and them and I could no longer see them when I looked over my shoulder.
The miles ticked over slowly on this tougher section and I settled to a solid effort level. My next focus was to hit Siena at just over 170miles. I wanted to clear Siena by 12pm but this was slipping away as the constant climbs were hurting my tiring body.
I hit the rough technical descent that had left my poorly chosen 38mm gravel tyres in tatters last year. I was full of confidence running Effetto rim invaders on my Schwalbe Thunder Burt tyres and I was able to hit these technical sections with good speed. I then rounded a corner to see the way blocked by fallen trees and it was hard to see how I could pass. There was no option but to shoulder my bike, climb over the fallen trees and clamber back to the path… only to find the path blocked by a larger volume of trees and undergrowth. I couldn’t go left as a sheer 30ft drop would not allow me space. Left with no choice I went to the right. The undergrowth and fallen tree debris clawed at my legs leaving some uncomfortable scratches. However I remained focused and it took me around 10mins to be underway again. I thought to myself if I had reached that in the dark that could have been a very different and disorientating experience. It proved just that for Matt who arrived there in the dark and took nearly an hour to pass through the fallen trees.
The next town was small and offered only a quick water refill. It was getting darker as the event date shift from June to September meant I would be in for a longer night.
Then my luck struck just as the heavens opened and were ready to soak me to the skin I pulled into a tiny hamlet with a restaurant. I recognised it as a friendly place I had stopped at last year. I parked my bike and went in. Looking fatigued they ushered me to a seat and I ordered a pasta dish of wild boar ragu. I ate slowly as I was tired and it becomes hard to eat at this stage. This kind of pasta is perfect and slips down easily. I paid up, thanked the waitress and went to leave but she called after me enquiring if I wanted to sleep there. I remembered riders from the previous year had camped in the dining room it’s so nice to feel so welcome. I politely declined the offer and headed off into the night, I was on a mission.
Progress was hard in the dark with lots of hard off-road sections steep climbs. I felt slower now as my body was fatigued and wanted to fall asleep. Fighting the need to sleep is tough. I pushed on and on watching the miles tick by slowly. I hauled myself up the steep climb into San Gimignano at 140miles around 11.30pm. I was desperately looking for some food to see me through the night. I had plenty of bars, gels and dried bananas if needed, but I was really looking for something more substantial. I found a restaurant that was just closing up and dashed in. They called out that they were closed and I begged them to sell me some focaccia sandwiches and some water and a can of coke. 3 focaccia sandwiches acquired I wolfed one down and stowed the other two in my musette.
I plugged my headphones in and put on an audio book of an adventure storey of Roman battles - a fitting tale in my current surroundings. This would accompany me until around 6am.
I rolled off down the hill past the place I had camped the previous year. It was around 3.30am that I had stopped there in 2019 and I was a few hours ahead of that pace. This was not as far as I had hoped to be and I was finding it tough. I took heart from being well stocked with food for the night and pushed on with only 30miles to Siena. Even though I had hoped to be there by 12:00, I finally rolled in at 3.15am.
Stopping in the centre of the Piazza Il Campo I sat down and ate one of the Focaccias from my musette. This focaccia was spinach and cream cheese and it made me feel a little sick, but I forced it down knowing I would need the calories to fuel me through the night. The Piazza was dotted with young revellers and a police car was slowly circling looking for any trouble. I hopped back on the bike and exited the vast square stopping to buy another Focaccia on my way. Late night revellers need feeding and I was glad to find somewhere open at this hour.
Leaving Siena put me on the Eroica gravel roads which are a series of rolling gravel climbs with the odd longer steeper ramp punctuated with a hilltop medieval town. Making steady progress to dawn was my next focus.
I was rewarded in the night by the local wildlife - dozens of deer crossed the path in front of me, disturbed by my noisy presence. A large wild boar was the most striking of animals and luckily he was more scared of me than I was of him as he clambered over a low wall and away into the bushes. Some very noisy Badgers were interesting and I saw 4 during the night. Sadly, there was a rather flat porcupine in the ditch at the side of one road.
Just as dawn was breaking I was treated to a deer stood silhouetted in the sunrise with a magnificent red backdrop. Looking at me it decided not to bolt off and I enjoyed the majesty of his position on the hill and it stuck in my mind as a real highlight. There were many local hunters in these dawn hours and the sound of shotguns being discharged echoed across the countryside.
The storms that threatened to soak me to the skin had luckily stayed at a distance the whole night and I was regularly treated to a crack of thunder and saw the lightening bolts flash across the sky. I think this definitely helped keep my tiring body going.
As the warmth of dawn crept into my bones I started to feel incredibly tired. Approaching the 200 mile mark I was ready to fall asleep on the bike and feared making a simple error that could see me crash. I pulled up on the side of the gravel road, dropped my bike down and sat there on the damp floor. Half of the focaccia I had picked up in Siena was the perfect breakfast. The food seemed to help bring me out of the slumber I was heading towards and I picked up my trusty steed, remounted and rolled on.
The next target was Radicofani, the highest point of the course and one of the toughest longest climbs to get to this hill fort town. There was a river crossing to negotiate en route. Due to the heavy rains and amount of standing water I was nervous about the river crossing because last year it had been knee level and the rocky riverbed made footing tricky. There was a route around it in the ride manual. Determined to complete the route track to the letter I opted for the crossing, which ran the risk of arriving at the crossing only got it not to be not passable which would result in some back tracking to get around. The river bank was sheltered by trees on the approach and it was hard to tell the rivers level. Focus was needed as there were lots of larger puddles and the ground was soft or sandy in places. These soft patches that grab at the front wheel are simple when you feel fresh, but by this stage my reactions were dulled by 26+ hours on the move. It was a huge relief to round the corner and see the river level lower than on 2019. I hopped off and slid down the riverbank pushing the bike across, with the cold water feeling so nice on my tired feet. Safely across the first of the 3 crossings and filled with renewed confidence I rode on. The second crossing was low and I was able to lift the front wheel and glide through with ease. Attempting the same move on the third I promptly sunk and had to unclip a foot to save myself from a fall into the water, this was a good reminder not to get over confident. The river track eventually took me back to the road and I began the long climb towards the highest point of the ride at Radicofani. As the road took a sharp turn right onto the gravel part of the climb I was trying to recall how long this section was. In 2019 I was running a 42x42 lower gear. This year I had a 36/26 up front and a 10/50 at the back. Dropping into the lower gears I found it hard to believe how I had even got up this steep relentless gravel climb at all in 2019. The climb took around 35minutes and was one of those where you think you have hit the top only for the track to bend around a corner and rise again steeply. Nearer the top I caught sight of the Fort town and there were no more illusions, just the obvious elevation still to go. With a tired body I started to feel an ache in my back. Good considering the amount of riding I had already completed. Radicofani eventually came and I was looking for a cafe to re-fuel. It was around 11am and nothing was set up for lunch but the cafe I chose made me up a huge sandwich of cheese and ham salad. The bread was frustratingly very crusty and that was hard to chew it rubbed the inside of my mouth. I often get small sores in my mouth on these longer rides and softer food is preferable. I used my water to dissolve the bread in my mouth helping it slip down a little better. Some of my favourite fruit juices washed it all down and I set about refilling my water bottles. By now I was running a 3rd water bottle not to drink from, my chain was taking a beating the wet tracks and fine grinding dust had got into the chain and all around the cranks. When I stood up on the pedals on the steeper climbs it sounded like the chain was about to snap. Soaking the chain with a little water would quieten down the noise for a half hour or so. My pedals were also dried out and it became very hard to clip in or out so giving them a squirt of water aided that process as well. It’s these small things that become a focus as I get deeper into a ride like this, by focusing on the little things I can ignore the size of the task ahead.
Leaving Radicofani I knew there was a very fast off-road descent to come and with my set up this year it would be much easier. However my legs, hands and back meant I had to shift position from time to time taking a risk of falling at high speed to relive the pain. My backside was also starting to get very sore, each time I returned to a seated position it took a few seconds to accept the pain and settle into a rhythm again. Off the descent and onto some smooth road sections I could see I had about 70 miles to go. From this point maths became a good distraction working out what time I could finish in based on my average speed and I tried to increase that average speed from this point to the finish. Finishing strong seems like a great plan but getting my fatigued body to accept that plan was an altogether different thing. The constant change in terrain and mileage countdown had me doing lots of calculations running through my head. Sometimes after a nice long descent I would be lifted by the calculations and during a particularly tough ascent it would motivate me not to stop and give in to the pain.
Selective memory, I am not sure if it was because last year I had two nights sleep under my belt by this point or if it was because I had just purged them from my memory. I was faced with a lot more climbs than I remembered, irritatingly they all came back to me as I toiled up them, so they must have been on last years route. I knew there would come a point where the route deviated as the finish was quite different from 2019.
Not being one to study to the route too carefully the final climbs on the newer finish section came as a nasty surprise. I have to hand it to the organisers - if there is a steep gravel climb to a hill fort town available we get to ride up it. By the time you are 20-25 miles from home with 30plus hours under your belt you become less complimentary about the course. Not that I would have them change the nature of it for anything - I just curse them for it! I find a motivation in that cursing much the same as I do telling the horse flies where to go when I am going uphill so slowly they can bother me. You know you are in the hurt zone when you start talking to yourself out loud. One of the things I often say to myself is don’t think you’re so special you are just riding a bike. Sometimes my mind drifts off to some of the people at home who I love. Or people I have lost in the last decade. I find strength in the memory of my Uncle and also my father who had passed away. I also think of Mike Hall and I push on using their strength to finish the job. As I approached the finish my knowledge of the area from last year started to torment me. Just as I feel I am on the approach to the flat run in, the track takes a 180 turn and sends me up another steep climb. Several of these twists and turns have me cursing the course again. Then finally I come over the highway on a small bridge and I know that’s the last of the hills. Onto the flat I check the distance remaining and the clock. I think I can just scrape under 34hours if I get a shift on. For the last 4-5 hours I have been eating every 10miles and I stuff down a dried banana - there would be nothing worse than to bonk at this late stage and my reserves are certainly scraping the bottom of the barrel. Then just to treat me the heavens open and I am soaked to the skin. I decide not to stop to put my jacket or waterproof over-shorts on. It’s only going to take 40-50mims from here and if I push hard enough I won’t feel the cold. It’s also getting darker as the cloud has blocked the last of the light out. Into the pine forest that takes me onto the island so I drop onto the tribars and wind up my pace, holding around 16-18mph with my Garmin jumping about as the heavy tree cover interferes with its signal. A right turn takes me to the waters edge and this narrower track is strewn with awkward wet routes and larger puddles. A few errors in handling make me cautious and I am forced to slow a little as a crash now would not be good. I am frustrated by the need to slow down and I am racing the clock for all I am worth. Pushing hard into the driving rain and against the wind it feels like an age to reach the island where I bank 90degrees to the right. I am back on tarmac and can take advantage of the tribars again. Setting as hard a pace as I can manage I pass a few very wet and bemused locals on bikes. I round the last corner with about 10mins to go - it’s slipping from my grasp. Quite why I care so much about getting under 34hours I am not sure. Perhaps it’s that obsession that has been driving me home through all the discomfort of the last 7hours or so. I push all that away and ride like my life depends on it. I am on the bridge that runs up the centre of the two lagoons that separate the paths on and off the island. The finish is ahead in the middle strip of land between the two lagoons. Coming off the bridge the track hangs a right turn. Giving it everything I have left I stamp hard on my pedals wiping the rain off my glasses so I can see the track on my computer. It takes the most awkward route possible on the very edge of the water with 4 or 5 dead turns. Being tired I forget to shift gears into one of these turns and heaving on the pedals to get the bike moving is torture to my clock watching mind. I make a mistake and miss the track and have to take a 180 turn to get around and on route again. These small mistakes are eating away at the clock. Then I round the last corner racing towards the end of the track. High winds mean the finish line banner had to be taken down. I just about recognise it tied up around a post and the track on my navigation computer shows I am at the end. With tired wet cold fingers I fumble at the button on my Garmin to stop the clock. 33hours 57minutes and 57seconds. I am relieved to have finished. My phone is out of battery and I am struggling to know what to do next standing there in the rain is not a good option. After circling around the small town I decide the hire car is the best place for me right now.
I came back to Italy this year much later than planned due to Covid-19 restrictions. I am in awe of the organizers for putting the event on in a well constructed and what felt like a safe way considering all that’s been happening in the world.
I came with a plan to not sleep and to finish in 32-35hours. As I sit here recalling my ride I am still a little numb not quite believing I have done it. I wanted to prove to myself that I have what it takes to tackle some bigger longer races and events. I am now motivated to progress and take on the next challenges.
But right now I need to solve a few issues. My feet hurt and are raw in places, I need to find some shoes that can be comfortable for multiple days. My backside has two welts under the sit bones - the skin is worn away. I have great shorts so I need to find a saddle that I can tolerate for longer hours. My hands have held up well and a few modifications to my bars and the addition of a suspension fork should help make them just right.
I would like to say a huge thank you to my Family and friends for their understanding and support. My business partner Matt for his encouragement and support - he is an inspiration and when his own ride went south with tyre and bike trouble he was still a great travel companion - I know I would have been a grumpy sod had I not been able to finish. I am sure he will go back next year and smash out the ride he is capable of.
To Duncan Crossley for building me my bike with the best steel frame for this type of ride. When last year aboard a gravel bike I felt like I had brought a knife to a gun fight - this year aboard my Crossley Metal rigid MTB I felt like Clint Eastwood in a Dirty Harry movie.
Until next time….