The Italy Divide is some nine hundred kilometres of cycling with twenty five thousand climbing metres, along gravel tracks and some mountain biking here and there. You will pass through Rome, Siena, Florence, Bologna and Mantova. Because a cycling adventure can’t start early enough, I take a day’s headstart on the official depart at the Colosseum in Rome by jumping on a train in Ghent for a twenty hour trip.
As a principle, I am trying to minimise the amount I fly, but this time the train is not the easiest alternative. Strikes in France mean the shortest route is not available to me, therefore I must first travel seven hours to Munich and there I am gifted a lunch break of three hours. I explore the station with my much-too-big bag and almost stay too long to listen to passers-by play beautiful pieces on the public piano.
On the sleeper-train to Rome I can count sheep. By train, travelling is wonderfully relaxed. You can watch beautiful landscapes glide by, you have time to listen to music or a podcast or to read something. I’m fortunate that the new Grinta! dropped in to the mailbox on time. I spend time worrying (“Did I forget something? What if something goes wrong?”), reading emails and chatting with friends on the phone.
A Bad Beginning
I arrive in Rome at nine in the morning. That gives me ten hours to puzzle my Exploro bike together and to do a quick test ride with Philip Malcolm. After just two kilometres, at 13.31 hrs to be precise, fate intervenes. Philip’s windvest falls into his gears and the mech hanger rips off. In quick-tempo we try to make a single speedout of the bike but the chain keeps dropping off the chainrings.
Then the host of the Warmshowers where Philip is staying intervenes and says that he can lend Philip his old titanium mountain bike and so we get to work, setting it up to Philip’s specifications. The frame is too small for a frame bag and two bidons so I give him my Camelbak. With the ‘new’ bike in tow, we set off to the briefing.
Minus point: There is, unfortunately, a lot of litter at the start. This is partly our fault because the organisation has failed to place a trash can or toilet at the start. This will hopefully be remedied in future editions.
Searching for The Zone
After the briefing, there is still an hour to get into the zone. After that we dive into the night. My condition does not allow me to strive for a top-time so, instead, my goal on this adventure is enjoyment of the beauty and the bike. The evening start is supposed to stimulate us into riding at night. It occurs to me that lots of riders are going badly-lit into the dark: Without high-visibility vests or with bad lights. I don’t like that- Better safe than sorry!
Therefore, I have decided already not to go so far outside of Rome on the first evening and find a suitable resting place. Until I stop I enjoy viewing the Italian chaos and the beautiful surroundings from the bike. The visit to Rome is short, but long enough to know that I want to come back with Marie and the girls, perhaps a cycling challenge for 2019?
At Five AM, I get ready to push on further on the route. I’m really looking forward to it. My Garmin, less so. It doesn’t want to load the track and I haven’t brought a backup along. Luckily, April Marshke passes by and I can ride alongside her whilst I try for twenty minutes to persuade my Garmin to work. Nothing seems to help and to make matters worse, I pick up a puncture ten kilometres further on. I don’t want to hold April up for such a problem, so I let her go. Lots of other riders pass me also.
I stop at a coffee-bar for breakfast. Meanwhile, I’m searching for a solution. Navigating by smartphone and the Garmin Connect app is never convenient. When I touch the screen, my route disappears- the Garmin thinks (incorrectly) that I want to edit it. The map will not rotate and the screen switches off every fifteen seconds and all of this whilst the next village is still a ways away.
There are, however, beautiful landscapes and a gorgeous river as a consolation prize. I ask for help on Facebook and get a lot of responses- Thank you everybody! I first follow the advice of Rudi, an Ultra-cyclist with lots of experience and the owner of Pervelo in Ghent. After my coffee, everything goes much smoother.
The 3T Exploro has already proved a perfect companion: How much pleasure this faithful steed has brought me! The route is also nice, the Strada Bianche roll along nicely, better and more comfortable than lots of paved roads I could name.The Italians have a way with bad asphalt, Enough to make me think that the road network in Belgium is not so bad after all. And then I hit an old roman road, it is as if nobody has maintained the road since the Romans. I come to a descent and end up thinking “Ok, so it can get worse than Carrefour de l’Arbre!” You could compare it to descending the Kwaremont after it had been neglected for two millennia. It’s fun, but I am happy for the Lauf. The perfect fork for this course.
Today I have less technical challenges but it still doesn’t flow as it should. Yesterday I forgot to eat enough and I only ate breakfast at ten or so this morning. The sun is shining- it is easily thirty celsius- and I come across precious few water sources or shops. I decide to flee the sun and a half hour later I am enjoying an ice cream and a nap beside a hedge. I have noticed that I have a headache and am no longer thinking so clearly.
I forget to fill up my bidons, and I’ve already failed to drink enough. I know what this decision means: I will not finish on time. Especially since I don’t want to ride at night. But it is what it is. At four pm I jump back in the saddle and, unfortunately, do not find any more water for the next two hours. At an isolated hotel, at the foot of a tough climb, I decide to stop to refuel and tomorrow we can go again.
Today I rode five hours less than planned and, therefore, did not get where I wanted to be. However, I have enjoyed being outdoors on the bike. Twenty four hours after the start, it is already clear to me that I won’t get to the finish on May the 1st. Monday, I will take a train to the finish. Until then, I’ll keep on enjoying a nice bike tour. There is no other option.
I have to return the Spot Tracker to the organisers and I must collect my bike bag. Also important is the fact that I have to be at work on May 3rd. No worries, however, first sleep and then tomorrow on to…
Apples for the Apple of Her Eye
At Casa Di Mama I sleep well, despite the creaking bed. For breakfast I start with yesterday’s dessert. Last night that dessert was a bridge too far after cake, antipasti, pasta and soup. Delicious cheese with confit, ricotta and honey: everything homemade. This remote B&B could not have crossed my path at a better time. Being pampered by a real Italian mama and washing off the gravel dust… This is what makes a man happy. One small drawback is the (too) late departure. Mama wants to make sure that I have eaten enough and that I have taken enough food and water with me. After a farewell photo, she stops me to hand over three apples for the journey.
And there I go… Starting the ten kilometre climb to Montepulciano. I notice that here every town, village or even a lone house is built on top of a hill. Consequently, you can ride all day through the “gently rolling” countryside and never spend any time on the valley floor. You have to take “gently rolling” with a pinch of salt, it never feels that way when you are going straight up. But I enjoy riding hard through vineyards and olive groves.
The wide-open landscape reminds me that I started in a race. I am in Tuscany for the third time and have never yet taken the time to look around me, now I can. The problem is that there is another photo waiting round every corner and on every hilltop and I don’t have so much time. I have to pass on most of the potential pictures.
I set out in the direction of Siena. What I notice is that every sign towards the city is cordially ignored so the distance by bike is almost doubles. That’s no joke in this Tuscan landscape, the sun is already burning hard and riding between one and three PM is nearly impossible. Just like last year in Tuscany Trail, I get a hunger-knock in a beautiful nature reserve to the south of Siena. I mix the last of my water with three gels as a last resort and dive off the route to find a pizza in Asciano. The pizza tastes so good!
Then I am on my way again, over the river. On the Monte Sante Marie the darkness draws in and I set up my camp. So I’m a little bit like Marie! I set off in the morning, once again, in the direction of Siena with only an apple and water for the first hour, as I could not find a store the night before. The landscape remains beautiful and I see Siena in the distance but the path still seems to be constantly turning away from it until I ride under a railway line and suddenly I am in the city. On the Piazza del Campo I think how here, in the Ghent of Italy, Tiesj Benoot rode himself into the history books.
I take a cappuccino, my new Italian lover, whilst I write this and I think that next time I come here (probably for L’Eroica in 2019 or 2020) I should really take my time to experience this beautiful city. With this thought, I start again towards the horizon, towards Florence. The cursed sun is doing its work but today there is at least a little cloud to give my red arms some respite. Water is still the most important thing on this trip. I don’t want to know how many liters I have already hunted down and taps seem scarcer than last year during the Tuscany Trail.
The route keeps on and around the course of L’ Eroica. Thus, a passage through Radda in Chianti is inevitable: The umpteenth picturesque village in Tuscany. Time to do something I have never done before on a cycling trip: Buy a souvenir for two wonderful girls and their mother, who ride along with me in my mind. In a restaurant I order a glass of Chianti with my Gorganzola and pear ravioli and take a tiramisu for dessert. I’ll probably regret this, but without a tiramisu a trip in Italy is simply not complete. The meal is too heavy and I will just make it to Florence today. However, for me, the race has long since gone by. So tomorrow, I will take a train from Florence to Lake Garda. This wonderful and enjoyable trip proves anything but a perfect Italy Divide, but is still the best holiday in years.