Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Tuscany Trail

(excuse the phone-photo quality)

In December last year, I got a message from Jost asking if I wanted to join him, John and a few other friends for mountain bike trip this year in June. I had only very briefly dabbled in MTBing but it seemed to good an offer to turn up. Tuscany Trail is an "unsupported bicycle adventure" crossing 580km and 11000m elevation with a mix of trails, gravel roads and some road stretches. It's not a race, and you can choose how many days you take to do it and how you do it; with a mountain bike, cross bike, fat bike, touring bike, or like one guy we saw, a city bike. There were also (unconfirmed) rumours of someone doing it with a single speed and fixie.
I decided (or my student budget decided for me) to do it with the MTB I bought for 100 euros at the flea market last year. I'm very grateful to the people who helped me order and install all the necessary new bike parts I needed to be able to do the trip with the 20 year-old heavy steel frame. Several times during the trip I swore to throw the bike away as soon as I finish, but despite my love-hate relationship with it, the bike did well overall and I definitely haven't lost motivation to ride it.
I did some preparation bikepacking trips with Jost leading up to Tuscany Trail but I knew it was going to be tough – averaging 140km a day offroad with quite a lot of elevation, a lot of luggage and not having the comfort of a bed or a shower at the end of each day would be physically and mentally draining.
Jost, Andi, Thomas and I arrived in Florence on Wednesday morning after getting the night train from Innsbruck. We sightseed and had breakfast, then Andi and Thomas rode all the way to the start and Jost and I got the train to Pisa, took a photo of the leaning tower and rode from there in the rain to the start at Massa where we met Anna and John. We somehow missed the initial briefing eating Nutella focaccia and drinking Birra Moretti. After a night with some other participants sleeping in a gym hall, we started the next morning in heavy rain. The first day had the two biggest climbs but with super steep gradients, slippery rocks and around 500 people making their way up the same mountain path, there was a lot of hike-a-bike going up. The descend was crazy muddy but fun, however after some time I noticed something wasn't quite right and after some analysis from my teammates (lucky because I have no clue) they determined that my rear freewheel was broken. Without getting into too much detail, I ended up having to roll down into the next town holding my feet up as not to break any more parts. Once we made it to a cafe in town, we found out that it was a public holiday in Italy so no bike shop would be open. I decided to get on a train back to Florence where my group would be heading through the next day anyway. The next train unfortunately only came in 3 hours, but made friends with some old men outside a cafe who couldn't speak a word of english but were very amused at my muddy self and bike, and bought me my train ticket. In Florence I stayed in a hostel room without a window and was lucky enough to be recommended a great bike shop who quickly fixed me up with a new rear wheel and brake pads the next morning. I joined the group at the cathedral and the rest of the day was rainy but filled with beautiful rolling hills. In the evening we stopped at the first restaurant we saw and the owner let us sleep under the restaurant verandah in return for liking his Facebook page.
The next morning, Thomas and Anna got a train to a bigger town to get his broken spoke fixed and Anna joined because of a worrying internal leg bruise she had. After some trails we met up with them in Siena where Anna sadly decided to drop out because of her hurting leg. The weather got better during the course of the day and it was a lot of fun riding the strada bianchi of parts of the L'Eroica. I was fading fast at the end of the day though, my legs feeling the elevation and the heavy bike and becoming increasingly frustrated at gears that wouldn't work properly. The last climb up to our goal for the day, Radicofani, a town on top of a big hill, was tough but Jost kept me company and the pici (Tuscan pasta) tasted especially delicious at the restaurant at the top. That night the owner again let us sleep under the cover at the front of the restaurant.
Spirits were high on the morning of day 4 despite very little sleep (I was really feeling the lack of sleep this whole trip) and we were passionately singing on the descent from the town. I loved cycling with the boys and listening to their singing and jokes and talking. I'm so grateful for their patience with me when I needed  bit longer up or down the trails. Cycling with such a relatively big group that have never cycled together was a bit challenging at times but all in all the vibe was great and everyone was super supportive. The last day was my favourite I'd say, it was so nice to have perfect weather for a change and such a thrill to finally see the ocean again. The last part were trails that went around a peninsula/ half-island and was so beautiful even with dead legs and a couple of falls (me) and mechanicals (Jost & John). We finished Tuscany Trail in the dark at 10:30pm, John riding the last kilometres on his rim and Anna (legend) waiting for us near the finish line, having convinced a pizzeria owner to stay open a bit longer so we could still eat after we arrived. After pizza & beer we signed our names at the official finish, had the shower I had been looking forward to for 3 days and passed out under some spectator's seats because the sports hall was too hot and snory with other exhausted finishers. The next morning we could finally have our cappucinos and brioches without having to rush, and Anna, John, Jost and I rode to the nearby beach for a picnic and a swim. Anna and John then went back to the start to pick up John's car and Jost and I got the train to Rome where we met Andi and Thomas in Rome who crazily cycled another 100km there after we finished.
It truly was an adventure, there's no other word to describe it. There are so many stories and things I'd like to write about the trip but I'm falling asleep at the keyboard. I think it was also the hard parts where I was boiling with frustration with myself and the mental challenge of doing it for a few days in a row that made it so good in hindsight. I'm already having Tuscany Trail withdrawals but it's things like this trip that makes me realise how great life is and how blessed (in the real, non-hashtag sense of the word) I am to be able to experience all this. I'm eager for more.