The Tuscan Grind - Kinesis Bikes
Senesi gravel

The Tuscan Grind


The Tuscan Grind


Martin Harrison | July 27th 2017

Seeking out gravel perfection in all the right places.


On his summer break from their busy events schedule, Martin Harrison from CX Sportive took his shiny new Kinesis Tripster ATR out to Tuscany, in search of the perfect gravel road. Here's his blog for Kinesis UK.



The hints that you're in Italy now begin before you've even left the airport. Where else would it be considered okay that every single toilet in the arrivals and baggage halls should be closed for cleaning at the same time? And where else would the sudden eruption of klaxons and flashing red lights be so completely ignored by every single airport official in sight? It was good to be back!

Bikes and Italy; these have been twin passions of mine for a lot of my life. And when ones passions include an entire country and mode of transport, the outcome is inevitable. Over the years, I have travelled the length of the Italian boot on my trusty old tourer, carrying my world in my panniers. But gravel/adventure bikes are where it's at for me these days, so this summer, armed with my shiny new Tripster ATR and a lightweight bikepacking ethos, I set out on a tour of Tuscany, with a stop off in the stunning Val d'Orcia to ride the famed strade bianche; surely the most beautiful gravel riding in the world!

Pisa is a great airport to arrive at with a bike as your sole mode of transport; (if not necessarily so with a full bladder). It's small enough to get a bike in and out of quickly and easily, there's a left luggage service if you need to leave a bike bag, and there are some shady trees right outside the arrival hall doors, that are perfect for building your bike up under. It was here that the Tripster gained it's first admirer; an old taxi driver named Stefano who had a penchant for pedal power and wanted to know everything about this titanium beast. They like their bikes, the Italians, and they like things to be beautiful, so the Tripster clearly ticked all the boxes.

The other reason why Pisa's airport is a good place to find yourself with a bike, is because it sits on the edge of some of the finest riding you'll find anywhere. Lucca and the Appuan Alps lie to the north, and a short hop across the Arno Valley to the south lie the rolling hills of central Tuscany, one of the worlds most admired landscapes. My plan for the next nine days was to revisit some old favourite places and to explore some new ones too. I'd be bikepacking my way around, winging it in terms of where I'd sleep each night, except for a couple of days pre booked inSan Quirico d'Orcia, exploring the famed white gravel roads of the region that form the backbone of L'Eroica and the Strade Bianche spring classic.


Tripster-on-haybales


South of the port town of Livorno, the coastal scenery opens up as the urbanisation recedes, and by the end of the day I started to find the first of the beachside pine groves that typify the Maremma region of south western Tuscany. In theory, this was as good a place as any to bivi for my first night, but as with anywhere, you have to be sensitive in Italy as to when and where you can get away with a sneaky bit of wild camping. And the big "No Ball Games, No BBQs, NO CAMPING" signs everywhere suggested I might be advised to look elsewhere. Give an Italian a uniform and transgress one of his rules, and he'll take great pleasure in issuing you with the fine.

bike on cliffs


Olive groves make great places to bivi, and that's what I found just a kilometre inland. Just to be completely clear, you're not supposed to camp in them either, but if they're open and you disappear discreetly into the back of them, they provide great privacy and good, clear ground between the trees to sleep on. You just have to follow the unwritten rules of wild camping (as anywhere); treat the land with respect, keep a low profile, hit the road early and leave no trace. This wasn't the best olive grove pitch I'd ever found, sandwiched between a road 100 metres one way and a railway 100 metres the other, and host to an enthusiastic flash mob of biting insects. Carrying only a bivi bag and a small tarp with no sort of mesh, I was completely exposed. I'm not normally bothered by bugs; apparently I taste as bad as I look, but tonight they weren't fussy. Up until the early part of the 20th Century, the Maremma was best known as a god forsaken swampland, rife with malaria. Mussolini put a stop to this, using only the force of his personality and a spade (plus an enormous labour programme), as disease ridden bogs didn't fit with his vision of a resurgent Italy. So the swamps were drained and reclaimed as liveable land and now the area is a chic and fashionable stretch of seaside real estate. But, while their malarial cousins might have been sent packing, as I can attest, the cleaner and greener mosquitoes of the modern Maremma still like to get stuck in!

Tripster & Wine Barrel


Day two brought more flat coastal miles, punctuated by just a couple of hills and some nice long stretches of dirt trail riding under the broad topped, shady pines of the beach forests. The air was fresh and clearer now than the previous day (the humidity out of Pisa as I set off had been like breathing through a gas mask made entirely out of armpits), but it was a scorchingly hot day, so every kilometre of relief from the relentless sun was a kilometre to be savoured. Eventually it came time to turn inland from the coast towards Grosseto, my first proper historic town of the trip, and a new destination for me. And a very handsome town it is too, if somewhat smaller than I expected, it provided a perfect dinner stop for a very welcome lasagne and a couple of cold beers. While I ate, the square started to set up for what looked like some sort of a town run. A start arch was inflated, an endlessly talkative man was given control of a PA system, and people in athletic gear started to gather in their numbers. I thought this would be fun to watch, so I stuck around, but after a while a while it became clear that the man with the microphone had an awful lot to say, and wasn't going to let anything happen until he'd got it all off his chest. I had limited daylight left and still needed to find a place to sleep, so I left the town to it and went on my way. 6km out of town, I found another olive grove, this time on a hill with a beautiful view and no road or rail noise to disturb me. Just another crack squadron of vicious, hungry insects.

Vineyards


As nice as it is to ride by the coast, my heart lies in the hills, so the 65km and 700m up to Montalcino marked the start of the ride proper in many ways. As I climbed inland the scenery began to change from the tourist tackiness of the beach into the Tuscany you’re more familiar from the magazines, and the towns and villages started to conform to that crumbling, peaceful Italian idyll. My early start saw me at the top of my first climb in time for cappuccino and croissants in Cinigiano. Watching a small Italian town wake up over coffee outside a little bar is a uniquely relaxing experience. Old men with time to kill and younger men easing themselves into their working day greet each other over shots of espresso. A walking bus of five small school children connected to their responsible adult by a length of orange string passed attentively by. This level of precaution impressed me in a town so devoid of traffic that I could probably have had a ten minute nap in the middle of the road with only about a 50/50 risk of getting run over.

The swooping descent into the next valley, before the big climb up to Montalcino gave me a moment to think about my bike. Everything had been easy and smooth sailing so far, eating up the miles in comfort to the point where I hadn't even had to think much about the riding at all. This first opportunity to pick up some speed and swing round some hairpins gave me a chance to really feel how poised and balanced the combination of the Tripster and the bikepacking set up was. I bought this bike to do a bit of everything, and it made the switch from mile muncher to agile descender effortlessly. I couldn't wait to get it onto the gravel.


Snaking gravel road


Over the next three days, I would have plenty of opportunity to do just that. I had reached my apartment for the next three nights on a small farm stay on the outskirts of San Quirico d'Orcia; one of the several exquisite hill towns of the transcendently beautiful Val d'Orcia. The town sits almost at the southernmost tip of the 200km Eroica route, in an area rich with the white roads that make that race unique and iconic. My first day ride would be a tour of towns; short, sharp hops between San Quirico, Pienza, Monticchiello and Montepulciano, seeking out the maximum amount of gravel on the way. Which as it turned out, was a lot. The first excursion off road came from simply following a track with an MTB sign on it, which lived up to the billing after an initial, flowing bit of quintessential gravel road turned into a steep, rocky and rutted drop into dry stream bed, with a hefty grind back out. Stripped of it's luggage, the Tripster handled this admirably, with just a little care required to pick my way through the more technical sections, and back on the top, the surface joined the more familiar gravel road once again, albeit one with roller-coaster ambitions as it dived and climbed several times before the final hike up towards Pienza.

One of my favourite towns in all of Italy, Pienza is small, exceptionally pretty and manageably touristy. It has enough buzz and atmosphere to give it plenty of life without feeling overcrowded, and the views from the walls in every direction are breathtaking. If you happen to be there in time for an early lunch, there's a panini place that will sell you an excellent warm porchetta and pecorino sandwich with a beer too. You can keep your Strava segments and heart monitors, this is what cycling is all about!

Another ‘dive and strive’ dust track switchback took me to tiny little Monticchiello, streets practically deserted to the afternoon siesta. Then on towards Montipulciano, and what I expected to be the tarmac road there turned out to be yet more of the gorgeous white stuff. Finding strade bianche out here was getting to be like shooting fish in a barrel!


gravel-climb-rear-on


Montepulciano is another beautiful town, well worth a stop to take in a gelato and the incredible views over the magnificent Chiesa di San Biagio (which I think translates as the Church of St Badger) which sits in splendour in the valley below the town. And after dropping down the steep cobbles out of town and sweeping around that magnificent church, I found the equally awe inspiring Via Delle Columbelle; a sinuous, flowing seven kilometre ribbon of white dirt wonderment. The Tripster was in it's element by now, seeming to instinctively know when to drift and when to bite, handling every bend and gradient with a responsive confidence. And the quality of the ride was more than matched by the scenery, which I can't even begin to describe without reaching for overwrought artistic cliches. The laziest cliche about the Val d'Orcia is that it's like being in a painting. And the problem from an originality standpoint, is that that's entirely true. The place is a work of art, there's no getting away from it.

Day two of my Odyssey d’Orcia would bring me head to head with one of the great white road climbs, but not before I had voted in a new leader for my the Best Track of the Trip award; ten kilometres of dust scattering magnificence, descending balletically towards Buonconvento (a town which subverted my long held belief that anything worth seeing in Italy will always be on top of a hill, by being both low lying and very pretty). From Buonconvento, my route turned towards the climb back up to Montalcino, (for the second time in three days), and the route I found up there turned out to be part of the Eroica route. In fact it was the pretty much the biggest climb on the 200km Eroica profile.


Lucca rooftops


The thing about these strade bianche is that they’re not just byways or farm tracks, they’re actual roads that people use to get around, so you will encounter people driving on them. And not just driving on them; driving like Italians on them, which is to say with an unexpected level of verve and panache. And some of these roads can be unexpectedly well used, as was the case with the Strada Castiglion del Bosco heading up to Montalcino. At one point, there was another vehicle going past every minute or two, which may not sound like a major problem, but it was kicking up a lot of dust, which in the peak of the afternoon’s heat was compounding my thirst. I had two bottles with me, both filled before I had left Buonconvento, but as I got onto the hairpins on the steepest section of the hill, these were depleting too fast to last me even half way to the top. I reached Castiglion del Bosco hoping it would be a little village with a water tap, but it turned out to be an extremely posh hotel and country club. So I did what I alway do in these circumstances; I went up to the doors to make the place look untidy and drip sweat on their porchway until they gave me what I wanted to go away. A horrified looking cleaner opened the door and I asked her if they had water, and then an extremely well bred young woman in an extremely well pressed staff uniform took over to ask me how she could help, in immaculate English with just the warmest fizz of an Italian accent. I explained my predicament and she took away my bottles and returned with them full of water which to my delight, was not only fresh, but ice cold. It was all that I could do not to hug her. Well that’s not strictly true; it was actually all that she could do to stop me from hugging her. That’s not true either. What really happened was that I smiled and thanked her for saving my life, which at least got a smile and a laugh in return. Don’t knock it. It was the closest I was going to get to a holiday romance.

At the top of the climb, just as the heat and the dust and the gradient were taking their toll, Montalcino appeared across the valley over my left shoulder, sitting imperiously high on the side of it’s hill. I still had to join the road and crest the summit before dropping down into the town, but the sight was enough to spur me on. As I accelerated, the impression was that Montalcino was racing me, the two of us speeding along our respective ridges to a mutual finish line somewhere up in the distance. When I crested that apex and shot down to meet it, I found that town had been messing with me and was just waiting exactly where I expected it to be. But it had brought along the good gelato place again, so everything was okay between us.


Siena graffiti


And then it was time to move on. The next morning, I loaded up my bike with it’s luggage again and bid farewell to the brilliant Val d’Orcia, but not without seeking out a little more white road goodness on my way north to Siena. And I found it too, and the more I found, the better it seemed to get. I worried that with all the bike packing gear loaded up again, I might have to take it a little more easy, but no such problem. Everything felt good and stable and solid, the bike felt as balanced and sure footed as ever and before long I was snaking my way through the dust cloud reverie of these wonderful roads as if totally unencumbered. As the day wound on, the scenery subtly changed and I entered the Crete Senesi; the slightly other-worldly landscape south of Siena where the hills fall and rise in fluid undulations and great clay mounds erupt from the hillsides like some kind of gigantic alien eggs. At the point where the dirt ran out and I would have to recommit to the tarmac to take me west into Siena, I stopped in the early evening sun to sit on a bench and eat the slightly stale sandwich that had been waiting out the day in my pack. Out of the blue, in a perfect finish to a near perfect day, the chap who lived in the house opposite my bench brought me out a mug of beer, sat down and, using what little shared language we two strangers had, we talked and drank and laughed for the next hour. Random acts of hospitality like that are more common than you might think when you travel solo in Italy. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back.

palazzo publico


Over the next few days, I rolled through Siena and spent a couple of hours sitting in the unmissable Piazza del Campo, and rode past one of the wild fires blighting the parched Italian countryside on route to a night in Volterra, the beautiful high hilltop town that I had managed to miss out on in two previous visits. San Gimignano (one of the most popular tourist towns in the region), came and went with just time for a quick lunch and another look at the amazing medieval towers that give the town it’s “Little Manhattan” nickname, and then onto Certaldo Alto, a hidden gem that flies under most tourists radar, but as pretty and peaceful a spot for another beer stop as you’ll find. San Miniato, a delightful little hill town that stretches in a line along a single narrow ridge, provided a glorious passage back into the Arno Valley towards Pisa. But with a day left before flying home, I crossed the valley to Lucca, to spend my last night in what I think is my favourite city in the entire country, in an apartment in an old Palazzo, accessed by a concealed door in the staircase wall. Lucca is a beguiling labyrinth of a town, the home of Puccini, an artists and musicians town where you can cycle on top of the city walls, oak trees grow out the top the tallest tower, the most famous square is an oval and you can walk endlessly until you lose yourself in the very best of ways. And after a trip that had unfolded as a distillation of all that is good about travelling by bike, I could think of no better place to end.

Lone Tuscan Drought Tree


Inspired to get into cx/gravel events? Check out the upcoming schedule of rides at CX Sportive

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