On the white track
A weekend taking on the Strada Bianche with RPM90
Tuscany, it’s driving an open-topped sports car, preferably a red Alfa Spider, along a cypress lined road, it’s the perfect gear-shift round the corner under an ochre evening sky, it’s a beautiful girl by your side, head-scarf fluttering in the breeze, motoring towards a hilltop village where you stop for a couple of glasses of red wine to watch the sun set over rolling fields of vineyards and olive groves. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Something might happen later. Sometimes.
Sometimes Tuscany is clattering a road bike down a bumpy gravel road, under a steel bluegrey sky of wind and rain, scrabbling for traction on loose stone whilst trying not to puncture on the holes and ditches, getting covered in a cold thin layer of beige mud, grinding towards a hilltop village where you stop for a warming coffee. It’s a crunchy gear-shift with a grit laden chain. Somewhere in the distance a mechanic cries. You’ll need a good bath later.
I’m riding with RPM90 on one of their Tuscany Weekend breaks that happen in the Spring and Autumn, riding the Strada Bianche, the white gravel roads made infamous by the 190km one day classic race, stages in the Giro D’Italia and L’Eroica. The trip is based in Radda in Chianti, a hill-top town stuck between Florence and Siena which is just about as Tuscany as you can get, and as the name might suggest right in the heart of Chianti country for the double Latin whammy. The moment we arrive there’s the immediate chance to get stuck into the wine as the usual post flight chore of building the bike out of its box is taken care of by the RPM90 staff, thanks guys, so we’re free to use that annoying re-assembly time walking around the town, eating a light snack and sampling the local liquid, all better uses of filling time to supper. Dump your bag in your room before nipping out and you’ll find a welcome pack waiting on your bed; an RPM90 musette with an RPM90 casquette and t-shirt inside, a Lezyne patch kit, some Chapeau chamois cream and a sachet of Après recovery drink. Nice touch.
The first proper day of the weekend is an 85km ride to warm our legs up to the Tuscan hills and maybe sample a cheeky little Strada Bianche at the end. After a quick descent out of town there’s a steady climb that gives us a chance to see the landscape unfold to both sides as we ride up into views, it’s not a bad way to start the morning, all holidays should start something like this really, especially if they’re followed by the descent which is fast and swoopy with corners so perfect you’d think the engineer was a cyclist.
We chase a couple of scarily svelte Italian roadies up the next hill, all spindle and mahogany it’s obvious that they could drop us any time as they’re just spinning and chatting, but it’s the thrill of the chase and all that and both parties are aware of this, luckily for egos we turn left into the small town of Torre for a quick stop-and-go coffee before things get too heated and we get our legs handed to us on a piatto.
Next up for the day is an 8km climb that has some quite punchy bits in it according to RPM90 and ride leader Nick, which is guiding speak for “steep”, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a tough gradient as it is, with enough sharp pitches to be a decent challenge, thankfully there’s the odd flatter section to catch the breath as it twines through the trees, past a stall selling mushrooms picked from the woods we’ve been cycling up through. We pause at the top to regroup and it’s not a problem waiting as light splashes through the trees, the temperature is that perfect intermediate cool but warm and it’s that kind of thick quiet you never seem to get in the UK. I could sit here all day but there’s a descent and a lunch to do. We don’t exactly fall off the hill as the road has flat spots and short rises which taken at pace make the thighs throb convincingly but there’s always the excuse to slow down a bit and take in the view. There may have been stops to take “Bike on Holiday” photographs.
The roads here are a cyclist’s dream, you may have guessed that, the kind that car advertisers use to lie about the freedom and joy gifted by the miles of empty tarmac that you’ll get via their latest model, the roads that RPM90 choose are those ones, with peaceful smooth tarmac and vistas that are used to sell you olive oil based butter substitute spreads that evolve with each corner and rise. At the bottom the café to the left is closed, and the alternate café to the right is also shut, so Plan C is put in place and we cruise up the valley for 15kms or so and have lunch in the town there, Gaiole-in-Chianti, where L’Eroica started just a week ago it so happens. The sun is out, it’s an empty road, even for an obviously main one between towns, so it makes for chatting miles, workers are picking grapes in the fields, it’s a pleasantly undulating bit of tarmac, it’s the middle of Friday and everyone back at home will be thinking about their end-of-week lunchtime pint and how long it is till clocking off time. We’re thinking of a lunchtime beer outside with maybe a tricolore salad.
After the meal the group which is of a variable ability splits into two, with long and short options back to the hotel. I pick the longer version with Nick and Alun up the short sharp hill that’s just a little too harsh post prandial but worth it because it takes us towards the first bit of Strada Bianche of the weekend. It’s an easy little amuse-bouche for what’s to come; it’s well graded and swells up and down gradual gradients, but unfamiliarity breeds a little bit of approaching gingerly so no hero cards are played.
We could head straight back the couple of miles to the hotel where this dirt road hits tarmac but there’s still enough afternoon left and Nick suggests an extra loop to earn supper, it’s got some more challenging hills in it and some Strada Bianche that’s a lot more involving. Of course we agree and swoop down another perfect tarmac hill straight into a real nasty piece of work of a climb that never levels off when you thought or hoped it might and is steep enough to make easing back from the lung burn an impossibility. And that sharp right hand corner with the cypresses on the left casting strobing shadows on the sun silvered road, I’m sure we did that twice.
Once over the summit fully out of swear words with yet another picturesque view to the right of the rippled hills of Tuscany, I’m beginning to think this place only does fantastic views, we freewheel down to a sweeping left turn to take us towards more white road, a lot more interesting this time with a variety of puncture-happy obstacles to deal with; larger stones and rocks, gullies, corrugated dirt, thick gravel, sets of rocks and vertical sections, it’s something you’d be happy to point a fat tyred moutainbike down, not a pair of 25mms.
It demands attention and respect and unsurprisingly one of us gets a puncture, my saddle-bag gets scared and jettisons itself and all its contents onto the dirt, and there is a lot of holding on and gritted teeth. It’s highly inappropriate terrain for a road bike, and it’s brilliant. We hit tarmac, which all of a sudden seems impeccably smooth and there’s just a few magically curved corners to negotiate in the poetic Tuscan evening light before heading for home which is a long drag up, a long perfectly curling descent, and then another long drag up, timed perfectly so you hit empty rolling the last 100 metres through town.
Shower, head straight out for beer, pizza and wine. As first days go, 120 kilometres of over-exuberance will do nicely, I could have gone for a post-ride massage as part of the RPM90 experience, I should have done, but we had to rush out for a meal in the next town. Two of the three nights are spent in the restaurant of the rather opulent four star Relais Vignale hotel you’re staying in where you’ll get an exquisite and filling multi course Italian meal, certainly enough for a starving cyclist, don’t worry, but tonight we’re going into Castellina for pizza. It’s nothing like Pizza Hut.
Saturday is the Big Day, 130km and almost 2,000 metres of climbing, with the route taking a lot of the L’Eroica course and some long sections of Strada Bianche. The weather has come down and there’s a hush at the breakfast table that always precedes a day that everyone knows might be a bit hard, various bailing-out options are discussed and another plate of all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast is downed in preparation for the onslaught. And just one more coffee.
It’s going to be a day of constant clothing changes, luckily the RPM90 van follows our mini-peloton which can save us the burden of carrying stuff, and at random stops the doors are flung wide for water top-ups, food, the depositing and retrieval of kit as and when the weather changes its mood, and for pro-level changing of punctures. RPM90 James is doing the driving today and he’s worked as a soigneur and mechanic in the Tour of Britain (read all about it here) so he knows what he’s doing.
We do some undulating riding to warm the legs up on this boring grey damp morning, riding a tempo group down the blustery valley to Pianella before climbing up to the first bit of off-road for the day. It may seem counterintuitive but the best thing to do on approaching Strada Bianche is to actually speed up before you hit it, and then hit it hard so you hover over the top of the bumps, just like riding pavé, instead of getting bogged down with sluggishness. The first section we ride is smooth and slightly downhill so when I look down at my computer we’re doing 30mph. This promotes internal chuckling.
The following miles are a Morse code of tarmac and white road through similarly alternating drizzle and sunshine while the weather flits angry overhead. As we ride along a busy bit of road that cuts straight along a ridge towards Isole d'Arbia, the sky has bruised considerably and the wind is doing that gusting preceding rain thing which clatters down right on cue as we turn off right and hit a lengthy section of Strada Bianche, nicely topping up the thin layer of surface water. Within seconds our legs are covered in light biscuit coloured spray that slowly weeps it’s way up to knee level and the bikes are less than perfect in a couple of minutes. The white road is shiny with rain and looks like it might be dangerously greasy with the friction-free properties of damp chalk but thankfully there’s tons of grip, erm, apart from the loose gravelly bits.
Riding Strada Bianche is all about knowing when to let the bike do its own thing and when to grab it by the scruff of the bars and let it know who’s boss. Sometimes you’ve got to lay off the brakes into a corner and let the bike drift a bit before it finds it’s traction. Sometimes you’ve got to muscle the front end down and tell the bike that you want to be there, now. Sometimes it’s all about being light and floaty on the pedals, sometimes it’s about raw angry power. Well, that’s the theory, just try and make the bike smile. Mostly.
This section of Strada Bianche goes on a bit and is characterized by both the terrain and the weather, climbs are done in miserable mizzle, descents in sideways hail and the next climb in blinding sunshine. There’s a brief respite of tarmac through Radi before the white road resumes, slightly uphill and with the effort of riding sticky gravel and endless undulations really beginning to sting the legs now. It’s easy to forget that whilst this might be some sort of cycling grail these are just roads to the locals so as well as family cars bouncing down them we see old ladies on shopping bikes merrily scooting along and all sorts of other cyclists, just getting about. There’s one last hill that’s a proper wall which sees most walking, it would be an challenge on a proper off-road bike, and a real test of determination over grip and aching thighs on an ineptly tyred road bike.
We regroup somewhat shell-shocked and cruise somewhat relieved into Lupompesi for lunch. The Bosco della Spina Country Resort is really rather posh, the sort of place that politely requires a shirt at the very least so we feel a little awkward turning up in our disgusting damp clingy mucky state but they have been forewarned of our condition and have slipped bin-bags over the chairs. This is Italy, they understand cyclists, they understand food, they also understand cyclists and food, it’s not a problem. We leave empty plates and mud all over the place.
The day has changed completely during our break and it’s bright and sunny now, the road is a mirror of sun on wet and there’s the weird feeling of riding a totally shagged bike on smooth pristine roads. Dry chain, graunchy gears, creaky cables, rumbly bearings, our bikes have aged a good ten years in the last two hours. Light gritty mud dries on legs and crusts on lycra, socks are ruined. It’s perversely marvelous. We twist and wiggle skirting around the hill pedaling soft miles which helps to keep lunch down and we eventually turn directly into the fantastic view to confront more white road.
There is more Strada Bianche, there’s more tarmac, you could stop on any corner and spend an entire day taking photos, or just sitting and soaking all the pretty in. Well, until we spend a seemingly inordinate amount of time on a rolling road that despite its twists and turns has a permanent headwind and even with each of us taking a turn to drop our shoulder into the wind does a very good job of rinsing the legs of energy. So it’s a good thing that we fortuitously meet up with the RPM90 van that is refueling the slower group on their shorter route and we grab the opportunity to throw random food items into our mouths before pushing on again.
By now I’m deep into that “Just Keep Pedaling” mode where you don’t know where you are, where you are going, uncertain of how far there is to go and how many hills are in the way. I can only remember the Strada Bianche bits, because they’re still fun, and they seem to be the perfect way to see this stunning countryside, taking you deep into the silent places that the metalled roads just don’t. We coax our complaining bikes onwards, grinding up long steady drags and hanging on down rough descents trying to ignore the sandpaper sound of brakes on rims, I know I must be getting tired because I’m flopping down the hills like a catering bag of gnocchi. More than usual.
The final task of the day is the climb home, the eternal problem with staying in a hill-top town, we paw back up the road we rode down first thing this morning which seems like a long long time ago now. As with any group of three cyclists with one hill to go the unspoken battle commences and our legs creak in time with our distressed bikes in one final duel. It’s a slow, silent and friendly war of attrition all the way to the hotel where the final ramping up of the road to reach the top of the town is too much for all but the one more belligerent rider. It’s been a while since I’ve been broken that much by a ride but the mental and physical effort of surviving wet Strada Bianche and a seemingly perpetual conveyor-belt of rolling hills chipping away at legs is an exhausting combination, a hard 135 kilometres done. We stagger faint round the little local supermarket looking for any kind of familiar food that will see us through till suppertime, it’s an ugly sight involving biscuits and crisps. We maw these whilst the ever busy James cleans the crap off our bikes and makes them work again. What a fantastic day.
The last day is a simple nip down to Siena for coffees, I say nip I mean a 50 mile round trip, so not exactly just down the road, there’s worse places than a World Heritage Site to pedal for an espresso fix though. The day is sunny but with a fresh end-of-season air, still warm enough for a gilets off at the top of the first climb, which is a nice thing for this time of year. We meander along the contour of the range of hills that Radda sits on although the trend is generally down, through Castellina the picturesque village with the massive silo, probably the only non-pretty thing for 50 miles, and it’s friendly pedalling for legs that might be a bit worn from the previous two days. The descent into Siena is straight, steep fast and fun and we weave through the thick tourists in the narrow paved city streets to get to the famous town square of the Piazza del Campo where the even more famous Palio horse race is held, for one of those coffees that you’re paying for the view and people watching for.
The general theme for the return journey is up and again we split into two with quick and long routes home, there’s just three of us going long, one of whom is James who has been allowed out of the van and out on his bike for the day so it’s fun for a while to try and keep up with his excited legs. We retrace some of the Strada Bianche we’ve done before but legs are especially weary from being happily ripped apart for two days in succession and they decide instead to kick back and enjoy the view on this beautiful day in this beautiful place. Yes, that excuse. The last climb is ticked off in that particular kind of happy weariness that should always conclude a weekend away and the sprint for the Radda In Chianti sign for the final time is more of a slight raising in speed than anything else, before a buckling of the knees and a heavy sitting back down on the saddle.
We’re sat in the van on the way home, piloted back to the airport along twisty cypress lined roads, long shadows stretch from an ochre evening sky, a cyclist snoozes by your side, head lolling in the corners, to the left the low sun sets over rolling fields of vineyards and olive groves. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. It could be a romantic moment. It would be better on a bike.