A week at a Tuscan villa is a cyclist’s dream vacation: scenic rolling hills, sunny Mediterranean weather, and—in May—the chance to visit the Giro d’Italia, one of the three European Grand Tours at the elite level of professional cycling. When the opportunity arose, I leapt at the chance.
Although the trip was ostensibly to join Inna and her kin for a family reunion, cycling was my main motivation and goal. Since this is my cycling blog, that’s the scope of this post; you can read about the non-cycling aspects in my overall trip blogpost on my main blog.
My rental Bianchi at our villa
While the countryside was amazing, my rental bike, the weather, and my schedule all fell short of my aspirations and expectations, so I came home disappointed. Here are the details that add up to my overall underwhelming experience.
After arriving at our attractive villa late Saturday night, on Monday I drove to the Chianti Bike shop in the nearby village of Falciani. The proprietor claimed to have not received the email I’d sent requesting a week-long rental, but he spoke enough English that we communicated, and he set me up with a serviceable Bianchi Infinito.
Although Google Maps routed me along the intriguingly-named Via Ho Chi Minh in Impruneta, I drove home safely and added the various accoutrements I’d brought from home to the bike, such as my saddle bag, GPS cyclo-computer, and so forth.
The weather was cold and cloudy, with isolated rain, but between showers I set out for a quick six-mile shakedown cruise: from our villa in the village of Mezzomonte (Italian for “Half a Mountain”) down to the bottom of our ridge, then up and down another hill before climbing back up to our villa from the opposite direction I’d descended.
Having Campagnolo shifters, which work differently than my Shimano ones, the bike took a bit of getting used to. But that was nothing compared to the non-compact gearing. Whereas I’m used to riding with a lowest gear of 34x28 (32 gear-inches), the rental only went down to 39x25 (41 gear-inches). In real terms, that means its easiest gear was 28 percent harder than what I’m used to. It’s as if you took my regular bike and removed the two easiest gears.
That wouldn’t be a problem on flat terrain, but Tuscany (much like Pittsburgh) is full of short, stupidly steep hills. After a screaming, swooping descent down off our high ridge toward the town of Grassina, I made a side turn onto the little hill I wanted to climb, up to a hilltop church. With no gears sufficient for the ascent, I had to stop along the way to let my legs recover; and I never stop on climbs (thanks to the miracle of modern gearing)!
After topping that climb, flying back down to the valley, and dragging myself back up the ridge to our villa, I’d climbed over 1,000 feet in less than six miles, and was really feeling the effort, especially in the right calf I’d injured last month. Between the stupid hills and the cold, wet weather, I was already wondering who in their right mind would call Tuscany a cycling paradise!
The weather remained cold and unsettled Tuesday, and I stayed at the villa because Inna had stayed home that day, rather than sightseeing.
Wednesday morning I woke to yet more rain. Still, having spent $200 to rent a bike, I set out between storms on what looked like a simple 20-mile route downloaded from Chianti Bike’s website.
Having driven it a couple times, the road from the villa to the nearest town of Impruneta was becoming familiar, but once there, the shape of the ride became decidedly pear-esque. At first, I missed a side turn and went off track; but after backtracking, I discovered that the official route took me the wrong way up a one-way street, before it later simply rejoined the main street I’d already wrong-turned onto! That’s dumb.
Crossing the Greve
Il Ferrone Detour
As I hit a short descent into the village of Ferrone, the rain promptly started to pour again, so I pulled off and stood forlornly underneath a strip-mall overhang for 15 minutes, waiting for it to pass.
Setting out again, things got even worse. I promptly missed another turn and had to double back. After crossing the river Greve, the side road immediately turned to gravel, which at first seemed interesting, in that I’d be experiencing the same gravel roads as the nearby “Strade Bianchi” professional bike race. But it wasn’t gravel so much as deep, wet, sucking mud.
I tried climbing the side hill next to a farm before realizing I was off course and doubling back. Then I plowed through what looked like a sodden logging road and forded a stream before realizing I was again off course and backtracking. On my third try, the correct “road” looked even less-used than my previous two mistakes. With me and the bike covered in mud, I angrily decided to abort the off-road bullshit, give up on the bike shop’s route, and just set off on my own. At least then I could stick to the pavement!
So I pulled over and tried to plan an ad hoc course that would hit the same major towns as the bike shop’s route. I decided to stick to the strada provinciali: the primary roads. They were busier, with more motor vehicles passing at higher speeds, but at least they were paved!
I followed SP3 back to Ferrone, then through Falciani—recognizing the Chianti Bike shop as I passed by. Then SP2 up to Tavarnuzze, which I also recognized from the previous evening’s grocery trip. Despite the wet conditions, I flew on these smooth primary roads, which were also much flatter, congenially following the river valley rather than billy-goating up and down over steep ridges.
By then I was feeling confident enough to consider rejoining the original bike route I’d downloaded, which cut across Tavarnuzze by taking a small street over a steep hill. But in a continuation of the day’s extemporaneous nature, I was turned away by a road closure!
Back on the provincial road out of Tavarnuzze, I endured a long (but thankfully not steep) climb up SP69 through Bagnolo back to Impruneta, which was all familiar from the previous afternoon’s drive. Then SP70 back to Mezzomonte and our villa. 22 miles, and thankfully less climbing than I’d feared (1,700 feet).
If you noticed that I haven’t talked about the Giro d’Italia yet, it wasn’t because I hadn’t thought about it. If I was going to do it, Thursday would have been the day I visited the Giro. Out of all 21 stages, Thursday’s stage 12 from Osimo to Imola was the closest to Florence.
However, Imola would have required an uncomfortable and indirect two-hour drive each way, across the Apennines, and hours of standing along the roadside, waiting. It would have been a full-day committment.
At the exact same time as the riders finished in Imola, online registration opened for a difficult-to-get-into meditation retreat that I was set on attending.
Plus, Thursday was my last chance to get a meaningful ride in. So after missing my chance to see the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia two months ago, I chose to forego my chance to see the Giro when it passed so close.
A wet panorama in San Polo In Chianti
Because I needed to be back by 3pm to register for the retreat, I could only manage another short morning ride. I fabricated my own route into the Chianti region and set off, again defying the continued cold, wet weather.
I followed my Monday route down off the ridge and into Grassina, where it immediately started to pour. Despite my misery, I picked up SP56 and headed south through Capanuccia, San Bartolomeo a Quarate, and down into San Polo In Chianti. Then SP119 west to Strada In Chianti, north through the town on SR222 before hitting SP69 into Impruneta from the southeast, and the now comfortable SP70 back to Mezzomonte and the villa.
At just 20 miles and 1,750 feet, in wet conditions, it was a disappointing end to my riding in Tuscany.
On Friday I loaded the bike into the car and brought it back to the shop, picking up a set of red handlebar-end plugs as my only cycling souvenir to bring home from Italy.
SP70 swoops through Impruneta
From a cycling standpoint, it was a disappointing trip. I’d anticipated long, sunny days spent exploring the countryside, admiring gorgeous views, quaint villages, and quiet roads. Instead, I missed the Giro and only managed 50 miles spread out over three very short rides, all of which were cold, wet, and miserable.
With better weather, I would obviously feel differently. The landscape is scenic and breathtaking. The roads are narrow and swooping, providing endless variety and revealing new photo opportunities every couple hundred meters. The drivers mostly didn’t cause me any problems, and certainly were less belligerent toward cyclists than in the US.
Those were all nice things that I appreciated. I have a feeling that Tuscany would be a wonderful place to ride on a nice day, with better equipment. But the absence of sun for my entire visit literally overshadowed my enjoyment of the region.
In the end, I was glad to go back home to Pittsburgh, where—despite its shitty roads and aggressive drivers—it’s sunny and warm at least some of the time.