Monday 25 April 2016

Day 4, Urbino to Ancona - And the Sun Shone

For me, the last day of a tour is always one of mixed emotions. Satisfaction at the prospect of completing the ride. A chance to reflect on times enjoyed and times endured. The pleasure and pain of an experience shared with new friends. And with a great group like ours, a certain sadness about the imminent parting of ways. So I had a slightly heavy heart as we gathered together for our final Grand Depart.

The weather forecast was good and getting better. There were even rumours of sunshine to lift our spirits. And if yesterday’s word of the day was “epic” today's would be “stunning”. We were soon underway and after a minor Garmin moment (cycling readers will understand this term) we were back on track and heading sharply upwards. The climbing challenge was compounded by the gravelly road surface and with wheel spin, maintaining forward motion was an interesting experience. I eventually reached the top of the climb unscathed and puncture free and somewhat out of breath. Fortunately, smooth tarmac lay ahead.

The next ten miles or so were along an undulating road through a magnificent forest with semi mature pines on the higher slopes and mixed deciduous trees lower down.  The area was rich in wildlife and I was delighted to catch a glimpse of a Hoopoe which flew across the road in front of me and landed high in a pine tree where I could see its distinctive crest and long bill silhouetted against the sky. There were some stunning views through the trees as we gradually descended. These together with the gradual appearance of the sun made for exhilarating riding.







All too soon we were dropping down intro the Metauro valley at Fossombrone where Amanda and Martyn were waiting. I was paying close attention today so there was no chance of missing them. From Fossombrone we rode into much more open countryside with rolling hills each capped by a succession of ever more beautiful villages and small towns. I made a mental note to return and explore the area further if the chance arises. Although none of the hills we rode over was especially high the number of them in rapid succession was quite strength sapping.





Our final leg into Ancona was carefully chosen by Kim our tour leader to avoid the busy roads that approached the city. Although for some of the group this meant a few more hills it did mean that we could ride in without too much concern about the traffic. We all joined up at the edge of the city and rode in to Ancona together just as we had started four days ago in Livorno.









The approach to the hotel involved riding along the spectacular Viale Della Vittoria with the Monumento ai Caduti at its end. As we rode up the to the end the church bells started ringing and the large crowds were cheering. What a stunning way to end a stunning day. Well, if the truth is to be told the cheers were for a football match but we can always dream!















Miles ridden: 74; Total 259 miles

Climbing 6,541 feet; Total: 20,379 feet

Sunday 24 April 2016

Day 3, Arezzo to Urbino - A Good Day to be A Duck or a Fish

As I would discover, the word of the day would be “epic”. We awoke to grey skies and a mixed weather forecast. The key question was how far could we ride before the rain started? We all rolled out of Arezzo through the old town and were quickly into the valley of the River Arno. Gradually the hills came into view, shrouded by low cloud. Then it was onto the first main climb of the day. Five miles to the summit of the Vallico della Scheggia at 1,887 feet above sea level. Not a particularly steep climb, averaging about six percent, though a series of hairpins winding their way upwards through the oak forest. Exhilarating riding though.

I paused at the top to listen to a group of men who were engaged in a very lively Sunday morning discussion. Although I couldn't understand what they were saying it was pretty clear that they were putting the world to rights in that uniquely Italianate way with lots of hand and arm movements. And their views were being loudly and forcefully made. After my spot of eavesdropping it was time to set off for a rapid descent through some fast, sweeping hairpin bends where I was able to lean the bike hard over and maintain my speed. The smooth dry road surface meant that I was able to get into top gear and go full gas – especially towards the bottom of the hill when the road straightened and I could see further ahead. Epic riding indeed!





After a few lumpy miles, we arrived at Anghiari with a spectacular view down to the valley below and an amazingly straight road that we were going to ride on. The stretch downhill was closed to traffic with a small, but busy market in the square. Once on the valley bottom a tailwind meant that I was able to get on the drop bars, wind the gears up and enjoy a nice bit of time trialling until I arrived at the first of the day’s feed stops where Martyn and Amanda were ready and waiting with some of Amanda’s lovely, and by now near legendary boiled fruitcake. Just what the hungry cyclist needed.






All too soon it was time to set off for the day’s main event – the climb to Vallico di Bocca Trabaria at 3,500 feet above sea level. This was classic Tuscan climbing. The road wound upwards though an amazing series of hairpin bends. Looking up was a fairly daunting sight as I could see the road heading unrelentingly ever higher. Apart from the left hand hairpins, where riding into the centre of the road was the best strategy to reduce the gradient, the climb wasn't too steep at around an average of five to seven percent. But what it lacked in steepness it made up for in length – about ten miles from bottom to top. So it was a case of getting in a low gear and tapping out a steady rhythm with the occasional out of the saddle session to stretch my leg muscles and ease my back.






About an hour after starting I reached the top and stopped to record the moment and then decided to press on before I cooled down as it was pretty cold by now. Within 100 metres of starting the descent it started raining. And not just a shower, this was rain of biblical proportions. The sort of rain that Noah built a boat to escape from. Within minutes the road surface was covered in free flowing sheets of water and was testing my riding skills to the limit. Not being able to pedal for fear of going too fast and crashing meant that I started to cool down pretty quickly. I was really glad of my wind and waterproof Castelli Gabba foul weather jacket (other makes are available readers). After about 30 minutes of descending I finally reached the valley below and pretty soon the rain stopped. I was then back on dry road surfaces which meant I could up the pace again and start to warm up a bit.

In my haste, hunched over the handlebars, I completely missed Amanda and Martyn who were waiting with hot drinks and food. When I was about 15 miles from the end of the stage it finally dawned on me that I must have passed them! So after stopping to text them that I was alive and (almost) well, I pressed on. I passed through Urbana and then as I climbed out of the valley the rain started again. If I thought the rain coming down the Trabaria was heavy then this latest storm was the equivalent of a tropical monsoon. Visibility was down to just a few yards and the bottoms of my wheels were now completely immersed in the surface water. Fortunately, I was soon at Urbino and was able to quickly find the hotel.

The hotel manager, Guiseppe, was my saviour. We overcame our language difficulties and I learnt that the rest of the group were abandoning the ride for the day. The bikes were being loaded onto the support van and Guiseppe was organising a taxi to bring the gruppetto in. The formalities of showing my passport and registering my arrival were swept aside and within minutes I was in my room. And Guiseppe even had a wry smile at the puddle of muddy water that I had left on his highly polished marble floor. In my book Guiseppe was definitely 'Mio Salvatore'. In no time at all I was in and out of the shower, dry and tucked up in bed keeping warm until the van and my dry clothes arrived. Although I was the only rider to finish today I took no real satisfaction from this. Instead I was just pleased to see Chris my room mate, and the rest of the group, arrive safe and secure. And when we sat down for dinner, everyone had their own unique story to share.

So there we are – an epic route with epic climbing and epic weather.

Miles ridden: 69

Climbing: 5,112 feet

Saturday 23 April 2016

Day 2, Colle di Val d'Elsa to Arezzo - Hard Rain and Hard Hills

After a very efficient breakfast and checkout service we were soon rolling out of Colle di Val d'Elsa under grey skies heading for Arezzo about 50 miles away. For me the first highlight came after five miles when I stopped so that Matt could take a photo of me in front of the Bartali Winery. Gino Bartali was a legendary racer who won the Tour d France twice (in 1938 and 1948) as well as winning the Giro d'Italia three times. His feat of winning three consecutive mountain stages in the 1948 Tour de France has never been equalled. Today the winery is run by his descendants. Standing there and reflecting on his achievements was, for me quite a humbling experience.


 



Back on the road we headed into 'Chiantishire'. Large vineyards dominated the view over the increasingly rolling, hilly landscape. Gradually the road got steeper as the first main climb of the day arrived - five miles uphill to Castellini-in-Chianti. Not that steep, except for some of the bends, but reaching the top in by now heavy rain, was a welcome relief! Then it was an exhilarating descent to Radda in Chianti. This stretch of road will be used in a couple of weeks time for the individual time trial of the Giro d'Italia. The riders will be going the other way and, I am certain, will be riding much faster than us.



In addition to the forthcoming Giro the other cycling highlight was seeing several signs for L'Erocia which was started in 1997 by Giancarlo Brocci. He admired the traditional values of cycling so much that he wanted to reconnect others to the heritage that has inspired so much Italian history, literature, culture, and music. L’Eroica also became a Foundation for the protection and preservation of the last gravel roads in Tuscany. These romantic concepts led to the idea of L’Eroica, an event that initially saw 92 “hunters of feelings and emotions”, as its creator Giancarlo Brocci defined them. Today, L’Eroica continues to spread the authentic roots of an extraordinary sport with a great soul. It enables people to rediscover the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of the conquest: the heroic cycling of legends like Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. It’s a cycling philosophy that spreads respect and creates deep bonds between the competitors. Today, several similar events are held in other countries, including the L’Eroica Britannia in Derbyshire.


From now on it was a case of rain hard, ride hard with a couple of welcome stops to refuel courtesy of the ever-smiling Amanda and Martyn. We had one more lung bursting climb followed by what, for me, was one of the best ever descents. Long, with sweeping curves on a generally excellent road surface. How I wished it was dry - I could have easily touched 60mph - I could only manage 52mph. Well there's a good excuse to return and try again.

The last leg was a generally flat and fast ride in to Arezzo on a fairly busy main road. After negotiating Arezzo's version of gridlock we were soon at our hotel for the night, bags waiting in our rooms and with a hot shower beckoning.
















Our relatively early arrival meant there was time to have a look around Arezzo, a city which is as old as Alexandria in Egypt. For me, much of today was a celebration of cycling's heritage - Bartali, the Giro, and L'Eroica. So it was rather fitting that in a small local history museum I stumbled across a temporary exhibition with some vintage bikes ridden in the Giro.













Miles ridden: 52
Climbing: 3,500 feet

Friday 22 April 2016

Day 1, Livorno to Colle di Val d'Elsa – And We’re On Our Way

After a good night’s sleep and and an excellent breakfast it was time to be reunited with my bike. A few minor tweaks to the handlebars and a test ride to ensure my gears were working sweetly then it was time to pose for the group photo. Everybody seemed to be happy, perhaps with a touch of mild apprehension about what lies ahead. All too soon we were underway riding through the streets of Livorno amongst quite busy traffic. A minor altercation with a lady commuter cyclist reminded me to ride on the right. Although I didn't quite catch what she said there was no doubting her meaning!  The first 30 minutes or so were quite challenging as the roads were fairly busy. But fortunately we were soon well away from Livorno on quieter roads and in the open countryside.

Very quickly the countryside changed and we were amongst some gently rolling hills, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. Quite a few motorists gave us a friendly toot and a wave so clearly cyclists are appreciated much more here than back at home. Gradually the hills got higher and the got climbs longer as we rode through archetypal Tuscan scenery with lots of very attractive hilltop villages.








We soon reached Casciana Terme the history of which is linked to a romantic legend about the elderly Countess Matilde di Canossa. She used to have a bent old blackbird which, over time, started flying further and further away and returning more sprightly than before. The Countess discovered that the blackbird was diving into a pond of hot water which seemed to rejuvenate it. So too she started to bathe in the waters which soon cured the infirmities of old age and her gout.



Leaving Casciana Terme we approached Volterra which is positioned on a hilltop at 1,700 feet above sea level. The climb up to Volterra was quite long (5 miles plus) with some fairly steep stretches – especially on the hairpin bends, and there were a lot of these! The views over the surrounding countryside were stunning.

Volterra's history goes back some 3,000 years to Etruscan times. Its relative isolation on the hilltop has limited the development of the city which is why it still boasts a spectacular medieval feeling. The town is well known as the city of alabaster which has been used over the centuries to make pots, goblets and ornaments. The translucent nature of the mineral gives the artefacts a unique appearance.






A fast descent from brought us to a strange 'O' shaped metal sculpture where Amanda and Martyn were waiting with to refresh us. Their was no explanation about the sculpture - Google Maps refers to it as the "Mysterious O".











Then it was a fast blast, and a bit of an up and down roller coaster ride to Colle di Val d’Elsa and our hotel for the night. Colle di Val d'Elsa is a medieval town in three parts, known historically as 'Piano', 'Borgo', and 'Castello' and more recently as Colle alta and Colle bassa (High and Low Colle). Our hotel was rather unique as it was a converted Renaissance-era abbey, once owned by Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere who went on to become Pope Julius II.












Miles ridden: 64
Climbing: 5226 feet

Thursday 21 April 2016

Day 0 – Italy Beckons

So here we are on the eve of another tour this time to Italy and the delights of Tuscany. Over the next four days I will be riding from Livorno in the west on the Ligurian Sea to Ancona in the east on the Adriatic. All in all a distance of about 250 miles with 20,000 feet of climbing. (For non cyclist readers height climbed is an indicator of pain, sorry pleasure!

Tuscany is not an area that I know - I've passed through it a couple of times whilst heading south. I've also read about the spectacular old hill top towns and villages, some of which I hope to see and blog about as the tour progresses. Our tour avoids the main cities like Florence and Sienna, sticking instead to small and hopefully quiet minor roads. It's a region with a rich history so I hope to learn a bit more about it. We’ll be passing through the heart of Chianti country so I expect to enjoy a glass or three. And then there’s the Italian food. I love Italian food!

As a country with a long and rich cycling heritage I’ll be interested to see how we are regarded by the people we encounter en route. And riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road could bring some interesting challenges, especially as we ride out of potentially busy Livorno tomorrow morning. We're going to be riding along part of the route of this year's Giro d’Italia and I wonder if we'll get some shouts of “bravissimo” from the roadside. Well, I'm allowed to dream.

Everything has gone very smoothly so far. Kim, our tour leader and Amanda who's helping to support the ride, have brought me to the airport for our flight to Pisa. Checking in at Stansted was painless and I was even able to enjoy the luxury of the Executive Lounge thanks to Kim’s card! Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch. As I write this, at 30,000 feet on the flight, my bike is already in Italy. Martyn, Amanda's husband and a good friend who I ride with sometimes, has been driving the support vehicle through France and Switzerland to ensure our bikes are ready for the Grand Depart tomorrow morning. I got to know Martyn on last year’s Lejog. If I have half as much fun as I did then, I will be a very happy cyclist indeed!

Well, it's a now a few hours later. We’ve all arrived and checked in at our hotel for the night, the Hotel Gran Duca on the seafront in Livorno. In front of the hotel is a statue of Ferdinando I de'Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1549-1609). The statue was created by Bandini e Pietro Tacca in 1595, and is surrounded by pirates in chains.









As I write today's despatch from the front line I'm sitting on the terrace of my bedroom looking over the harbour. I've enjoyed a lovely dinner (seafood gnocchi) and a couple of glasses of wine. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?