My Tuscany Trail
The Tuscany Trail is a 543 km (9000m elevation) self-supported bike packing route from North to South of Tuscany.
Starting in Massa, it traverses across some of the region’s most scenic tourist hotspots such as Lucca, Florence and Siena, before finishing down on the coast in Capalbio.
The route is mostly off-road and varied to say the least — incorporating single track, the infamous strade bianche white gravel roads, vineyards and as it turned out, includes some serious climbing and technical descents.
Never having done a multi-day bike packing event before I was unsure of what to expect, but was looking forward to cycling around the Tuscan countryside with the sun on my back and tasting the delicacies the region has to offer.
My husband and I chose to take our Surly fat bikes — mine is the Instigator with 3" tyres. It carries my Alpkit luggage really well and gives me confidence on tricky descents (as I’m not a confident mtb’er). We knew they would be fairly heavy but as we weren’t going to be racing against the clock and taking our time, we weren’t overly worried about the extra weight. They actually roll really well. Our plan was just to get to Siena and then get a train back to Pisa, working out at about 50 km of riding a day.
Arriving in Massa
We flew to Pisa and on the first day cycled the 50 km along the coast (not without mechanical problems as Steven’s chain ring had been bent in transit), to Massa for event sign on. The only thing was we didn’t actually know where the sign-on was located…Eventually we followed other competitors and arrived at the sports stadium. No option of backing out now.
After a visit to the nearest bike shop for some new pedals… we then climbed 500m to our hotel (which I had booked for its pretty views rather than ease of getting there) only to find there was a wedding being held there and was currently blasting out 90s dance classics. It was still worth it for the views though and watching the drunken Italian wedding party was pretty amusing.
I think we realised after day one that is was going to be harder than we thought to cycle in the heat and with the additional weight of our luggage, let alone emerging mechanical issues.
Day 1 — depart from Massa
Descending into a cool and breezy Massa for the 8am start, we got to the piazza lined with orange trees, along with around 800 other cyclists from across the world (and the only other Scot that had been on our flight from Edinburgh). Funnily enough the majority seemed to have gravel bikes rather than mtb and we only saw one other fat bike…did they know something we didn’t? You could tell who was in race mode by the quantity of luggage on the bikes — some seemed to have nothing at all.
We departed Massa and made our way in groups, through rolling roads at a steady pace, encountered a single track section along the river and then started to climb. An hour or so later we were still climbing with no end in sight. At the start, we had all been given a handbook with the routes planned out into sections which gave you an idea of gradients.
We came to rely on the little book, but also realised that it was not to be taken at face value. While a 500m climb didn’t sound too bad, because of the terrain and steepness, it could take hours which was frustrating. Later on, with a loose cleat and worrisome headset, it dawned on us both that this event was going to much harder than we had anticipated.
Nevertheless, we descended a variety of not too tricky terrain and rolled along a river path to the pretty medieval town of Lucca for a tasty pasta lunch.
Pushing on past a viaduct, a nature reserve, a snake-inhabited cemetery and about 100 km later, we reached Fucecchio, found some good pizza to eat and what appeared to be a suitable bivvy site to sleep in under some olive trees. It was very picturesque and balmy well into the night, with fire-flies lighting up the sky. But it was also inhabited by pesky mosquitos which, with no tent as a barrier, took pleasure in having us for dinner (the cheap head-nets we had bought proving to be fairly useless).
Day 2 — Fucecchio to Florence
Next morning, a bit stiff and with red blotches appearing on our bodies, we break-fasted on Tuscan cheese and salami, and cycled over the next couple of hills into a little village, which had recently been visited by the Giro (evidenced by pink bunting still hanging above the streets). We found a small ‘bar’ where we had some great strong coffee and sandwiches.
We then proceeded to climb through vineyards, approaching Vinci, which was on top of a hill and therefore required carrying the loaded bikes up loads of steps. Home to the Museo Leonardo di Vinci, it also boasts walking paths steeper than you could imagine, which we soon realised we were required to cycle up. Climbing continued on road, and then in typical style, veered off road again, continuing up roads with ridiculous gradients (25%?) which meant that eventually, after going through all the gears at a snails pace (slow enough to see the little green lizards escaping from under your tyres) some walking was required.
Usually it was at these brutal moments you would bump into others reduced to walking and it was reassuring to know that others were finding it hard going too. On the first day, everyone had been riding together but now it was much more spread out, so it was nice to come across other cyclists and know you weren’t alone on the road.
More off-road climbing in the heat and technical descending, and eventually we emerged onto an enjoyable road hairpin descent into the next village and grabbed a much needed gelato and coke. It felt like it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. I expect it was nearing 30 degrees celcius.
More singletrack, and it was then a flat (if a little draggy) 10 km on a river path all the way into Florence and its swarming crowds of tourists in the town centre, taking selfies outside the Basilica. We decided to stay in a hotel just outside Florence (away from the madding crowds) in the Bagno Ripoli region which was en route rather than brave another night outside.
Day 3 — Bagno Ripoli to Tavenelle val di Pesa
Day 3 was approx 60 km but had over 1400m elevation. Due to its gravel and single track climbing, it proved to be the hardest day yet, with short steep gravel climbs past vineyards and rough rocky technical descents. I was glad to have the fat tyres otherwise I would have been walking most of them.
After an emotional wobble in the morning, and getting lost a few times in the woods, we managed to make it off the ‘mountain’ (via a mtb track which dumped you straight onto the main road) and back into civilisation in time for a lunch of Pappa Al Pomodoro — a Tuscan dish of bread mixed with tomato and herbs.
That afternoon with less enthusiasm, a little heartburn and more exhaustion than previous days, and myself suffering from swelling mosquito bites…we decided to book a B&B (Cris&Guili House) in Tavernelle di Pesa, a beautiful little village amidst the rolling Chianti hills. We had the best dinner of the trip in a one manned bistro and I had the best cheese selection I’ve ever tasted. The fact the B&B owner had a labrador puppy was also a selling point.
Day 4 — Tavernelle to Siena
On Day 4, we knew we were nearing our finishing point of Siena, and that there were a number of train stations nearby, which ultimately proved too tempting. After about 30 km we decided to skip San Gimignano, hop on the train at Poggibonsi and 20 minutes later we arrived into beautiful Siena in time for lunch and had celebratory Aperol Spritz.
We scouted out the official Strade Bianchi finish into the Piazza del Campo and booked a B&B, deciding to call an end to the relentedness of the route and try and relax for the last few days of our holiday.
The next day we easily got a local train from Siena to Pisa and checked back into the hotel where it all started (having had the foresight to have left our bike bags with a change of clothes in the hotel storage facility).
After four days, about 300 km, and over 3000m elevation, our Tuscany Trail experience was finito. We had got half way through the route and although this was bitter sweet, it was a relief not to get back on the bike and climb any more gravel roads in the Tuscan heat. Anyway, we admitted we could always return and do the second half of the route in the future…
A couple of days later, my body is less sore and the mosquito bites are less itchy. I have a mixture of good and bad memories of the trip, but overall feel a sense of achievement in having pushed myself through the experience and out the other side. I learnt alot about my riding and my ability to keep going when it gets tough or when I’m hungry, and feel proud of having been able to ride most of the route — even the technical descents that I’d normally avoid.
There is something satisfying about following a GPS and having the freedom to decide where to stop each day — not booking accommodation in advance makes a change from my usual approach to planning holidays and we never struggled to get anything online.
We got to see, smell and taste all the best that Tuscany had to offer, visiting well known tourist attractions as well as little gems off the beaten path, and that is the main thing I will take away from this trip.
Would I do it again? Hmm maybe. We could always do it backwards and do the sections we missed. I’d certainly recommend it to others.
If you want to be competitive, use a light mountain bike and pack light. Be prepared for long days with steep climbing and take a mosquito net.
My favourite things
- Tuscany Trail in 3 words: brutal and beautiful
- Favourite location: Siena
- Best meal: Formaggi misti, Cacciuco (all in Tavernelle val di Pesa)
- Drink of choice: Aperol Spritz
- Gelato flavour: Pistachio
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