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16 Feb, 2017

Solo Ride Through Tuscany

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A spontaneous decision to start ticking things off my bucket list saw me fly northwards and spend a week guiding myself on a cycling trip through Tuscany late last year, and what an adventure it was. – BY TONI SUDDES

First things first, I need to clarify that I’m a seriously lazy cyclist. I hate climbing hills! I cycle once a week in the Cradle of Humankind, at most, and yet I always seem to find myself on the start line of the 947 Cycle Challenge, year after year, and every time without proper training – and every year my time just gets slower. I also wouldn’t know where to start fixing my bike. But I do love cycling – the time out in the countryside, introspecting while peddling, and the obligatory photography from the bike.

My Italian Job
I never actually planned to go to Tuscany. I was on the lookout for cycling itineraries that offered flat, picturesque and easy riding, so I spent hours reading and analysing each tour. In fact, I took so long to commit that by the time I was ready, Tuscany was the only tour available for my planned travel dates!

The description of the tour rated the ‘Gran Tour from Florence to Siena to Pisa’ at an intermediary competence level (3 out of 5) required to comfortably cycle the 200km route in seven days, and I in turn confidently classified myself as such. I imagined the Tuscan hills to be comparable to those in the Cradle, and the hills that I had cycled during an 850km journey from Johannesburg to Queenstown in 2013 to raise funds for education. (More on that at www.1965ride.co.za). How wrong I was.

Four weeks before I was due to leave, and having read more about the route, I started to panic. I went on a crash diet and even started peddling more a week. Robbie from Cycle Repair Centre also gave me a crash course in bike maintenance, showing me how to change, repair and refit a tyre as well as how to repair a broken chain. Just the basics, to help me in a bind.

The Journey Begins
I arrived in Florence armed with a few Italian greetings and no idea of what lay ahead. I spent the first day sightseeing and shopping for CO2 inflators and a few mandatory tools for the anticipated bike maintenance. I got lost walking around Florence, which was thoroughly enjoyable, and returned to my hotel room exhausted in the early evening to prepare for the first day of cycling. It was at this point that reality sank in, and I spent a sleepless night hyperventilating at the thought of finding my way out of Florence on the bike!

At 8am I met Alessandro in the hotel lobby, who delivered my bike and helmet. He was also my ‘luggage man’ – responsible for moving my luggage to each new destination on a daily basis, and my emergency contact… unfortunately, though, not for flat tyres. Or directions!

Getting out of Florence was easier than I had anticipated, in spite of reading directions from my 80-page booklet in a waterproof sleeve, positioned on top of the storage box hanging off the handlebars, while paying attention to traffic and road signs. When I reached Piazzale Michelangiolo outside Florence, I was rewarded with the most magnificent view, and felt extremely confident about the next part of the journey. And that’s when things fell apart…

Communication Gap
The next day the directions suddenly confused me, the weather changed, the hills were horrendous, and I thought the scenery was totally overrated. I got horribly lost and found every restaurant, bar and shop closed – siesta! I finally found a country restaurant open and through a combination of my broken Italian and the waiter’s broken English, realised that I had arrived in a town that wasn’t on the itinerary, so I had to backtrack.

Those directions took me to another town that wasn’t on the itinerary, resulting in me desperately knocking on a house door. Another set of Italian directions and I was on my way – up a 5km vertical climb which took me an hour to cycle and walk, in the sweltering heat, and after more hills I eventually arrived in Greve, where I was met by the most unwelcoming Italian hotel owner. I was close to tears, and the next morning I woke up wondering whether I was equipped for another day of getting lost and taking seven hours to cycle 40km, but I put on my big girl panties and set off. The first part of the day’s cycle started with an 8km downhill, which cheered me up considerably, and then the scenery became absolutely breathtaking.

I spent the next days cycling through spectacular scenery towards Pisa. I walked up the most horrendous hills and survived the unexpected 33-degree heat wave, but I met other cyclists along the way, and stopped for espressos, water and beer in tiny villages. I cycled through magnificent wine farms – and sometimes illegally picked handfuls of delicious grapes – and I stopped to take in the scenery and photographed everything in sight, which amounted to 2000 images in a week! I knocked many more times on private residence doors to ask for directions, and became really good at interpreting Italian directions. Then I spent my afternoons and evenings exploring the towns on foot, tasting wine and eating the most delicious food.

Foul Weather Ahead
The last night, upon my arrival in Volterra, the weather turned. It poured with rain throughout the night, but I woke up to an overcast but dry sky. Luggage man Alessandro offered to drive me to Pisa, but I decided I couldn’t end the journey in a luggage van, so I checked four weather apps and all suggested it would remain dry until 12 noon. If I left early, I’d easily get to Pisa – a 54km downhill route – before 12, so I took a chance and decided to race the rain.

Well, never trust a weather app! For five of the six-hour journey it poured with rain. It was relentless! I took shelter under trees and a bus shelter during the really hectic downpours, because I’d cycle for 2km and give up because I couldn’t see through the pelting rain. Realising it wasn’t going to ease up, and that I had to be in Pisa by 3pm to hand my bike back, I decided to put my head down and just cycle. I got lost, did a few U-turns, cursed and spoke nicely to myself. It stopped raining when I reached the Pontedera train station, where I decided I had to put the bike and myself on a train. That was another challenge, but I made it to Pisa at 3pm, where a very relieved Alessandro warmly welcomed me!

Time to Reflect
Would I do a solo, self-guided trip again? Absolutely! It gave me the freedom to cycle at my own pace and stop whenever and wherever I wanted to, and I felt totally safe on my own. I never felt lonely. I also came across many other women travelling or cycling on their own, and often we’d have a drink or meal together, chat and then continue with our own itineraries. It was a perfect experience!