Surely the ultimate accolade you can bestow any nice stretch of road is that you immediately want all of your cycling friends alongside you to share the experience and swoop and smile with you? Maybe it’s just me but I’m on one such length of tarmac. A small country road that starts nowhere in particular and goes nowhere in particular (some would say those are the best kinds of roads) but weaves and ducks and twists and bobs through the trees, with glimpses of the wooded hills we’re headed further into on the left, it ripples across the contours, through spattered collections of houses that could be considered abandoned but for the washing hanging up outside. It seemingly goes on forever on its way to nowhere, curving into the folds and swelling around the spurs of the hill, we have to brake for goats, not cars.
Eventually we drop into Fornovolasco for coffee, but it’s shut to sighs, both the coffee shop and the town by the feel of things, so we fall further down following the river and under the half tunnel of a road cantilever roofed by rock and to the civilisation of Gallicano and a grateful caffeine and cake fix. I write a mental list of whom I need to bring back here. That road. And here. I’m onto the second page by the second cake. Although saying that, I’d probably never find the road again. Luckily there are lots of others in the area to choose from as second, third, fourth best.
More impressively this insignificantly wonderful road isn’t even on the itinerary, it’s on a day-off mid-morning pootle with a friend. I came here with that same friend a few years ago for a week or so of road and mountainbike riding where we enthusiastically battered ourselves silly, and got battered. He loved the roads and trails around here so much that he wanted to share them. Not just me then. It was a holiday so good I was still picking bits of it out of my legs in the bath months later. And now we’re back in the area but in work mode as that friend is currently working for Saddle Skedaddle cycling holidays and has dragged me kicking and screaming back to ride the same hills for a week of road riding, no mountainbikes this time, which from experience and scars is probably a good idea.
Road dreams are vividly interrupted by an old roadie who turns up on an ancient Cannondale in the red and yellow colours of Saeco, the place is obviously his regular stop. His top and shorts are see-through old, mismatched and wrinkly, he has a triangular frame-fit bag and a peak on his helmet. Italians don’t abide by The Rules, they’ve been doing this long before those were invented.
Here, before I forget, is Tuscany, and to pinpoint more, the Garfagnana region in the north. You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s not the familiar Tuscany of rolling hills and winding cypress lined roads of the south of the region, stereotypical home of car and wine adverts and romantic pre-packaged pizzas. The Garfagnana is the secret corner, more mountainous and rougher round the edges, heavily wooded and significantly emptier.
The base for the week’s riding is a switchback or two up the hill from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, a small town nestled between the two mountain ranges of the Apennines and the Alpi Apuane. Standing outside the Agriturismo getting ready for a ride it’s immediately obvious that the place is completely ringed by hills, it’s as picturesque in the low sun on a misty morning as it is climby straight from the gravel driveway.
In the Saddle Skedaddle 8-day Garfagnana getaway there are 5 scheduled days of riding, with one day off in the middle and two days for transfer and travel to Pisa airport. Each days riding is about 100km, give or take, and each days profile is pointy and lumpy. An easy week it is not, Grade 4 on the Skedaddle hardness scale of 5, a quick tot up of the week’s climbing comes up with over 10,000 metres of elevation gain which averages out as a little bit less than a Croix de Fer a day. As if to prove a point day one of cycling starts with a stiff enough climb just a few kilometres into the ride. Ramping away from the main drag along the valley the road scrambles up through the trees, the fortress dominating the view to the left not your usual look up from the stem interest.
As is the way with cycling holidays the First Climb of Day One is the usual laying down of the pecking order, a chance to see who’s going to be off the front all week and who’s going to be casually bringing up the rear. This weeks Skedaddle group is over a dozen strong and of a variable ability so the stringing out across the Tuscany countryside and ride concertinaing and waiting will be generous, but groups of couples and same-tempo friends form, everyone knows the drill and there’s no frustrated sighing or apologising angst. The guides are the perfect mix of easy-going yet authoritative cat-herders and it makes for an agreeable week when this all just works. We regroup at the top and plug errant Di2 cables back in so gears work before descending twisty into Piazza al Serchio for the first of many coffee stops of the trip. It’s Italy, it’s cycling, it’s inevitable.
A long undulating drag follows where someone misses a turn and there’s a pause in a village square while he’s rescued, and time for a water top-up and refuel, quite handy as there’s a nasty nasty little climb upcoming which is probably a bit much for the first day if my legs want to be honest. It’s steep anyway and steepens up again for the frequent corners, the tarmac is rough and hard going whilst the permanent shade of the trees makes it damp and greasy, so any out of the saddle efforts are destined to become slippy. I’d descended this same road on my previous visit, and it’s equally as scary a decent as the climb is painful. The reward for this unexpected effort so early in the week is a lunchtime stop beside Lago di Vagli where the support van is unloaded of tables of food. The van would follow us everywhere as somewhere to store spare clothes, top up on water or ride snacks, and hide in if things get a bit much.
There’s a long and steady post prandial climb that takes us up and over to the perfectly curved descent following the Serchio river back into Castelnuovo where you’ll probably find out the hard way that Ben the guide knows exactly when to start his sprint for the town sign after sucking your wheel for the last few kilometres. He’s done this before. Frequently. There are ice-creams to celebrate just inside the walls of the town, and life, life is good. The Italians probably have a saying for this feeling.
The Garfagnana region is famous for its Carrara marble quarries, it’s the stone that Michelangelo’s David was hewn from, it’s also where the opening car chase in James Bond’s “Quantum of Solace” was filmed, choose your cultural reference point. There’s mention of the latter in the refuge nestled under the summit of the second days first climb on a faded bit of photocopied A4 stuck by the till. The proper café-sized stainless coffee machine is broken so the owner has to coax a dozen espressos out of a little plastic kitchen worktop machine and the gurgling complaints it makes suggest it really doesn’t like it.
Today is a simple ride, head west over a mountain to the Mediterranean, lunch on the beach, and back over a slightly different bit of mountain to get home. It’s an easy morning drag up the valley to warm the legs and the road gently steepens as muscles get used to the idea. We stop off for that coffee in the lee of the summit, feel our way through a tunnel or two and are ejected out the other side into an unexpected heaven.
The drop down towards the sea is one of the best descents you’ve never heard of; it starts by dipping in and out of cool dark tunnels, winding through deep tree cover before breaking out into the open and hairpinning to reveal dazzling coastal views over Massa. It cuts through narrow villages, leveling off briefly and even throwing in a small rise, making you think it’s all over before tipping downwards again. For a no name hill it knocks many of the famous ones that make it onto t-shirts into a dirty clothes basket for in-the-drops thrills, add it to that list of roads you need to show your friends.
Every corner is different as it threads its way towards the sea, it’s no hairpin-hairpin-hairpin alpine descent, its unpredictability is what makes it fun, some corners swoop, some tighten and pucker, wrinkled tarmac and gravel get thrown into the mix. It’s tempting to get over-excited by the descents around these parts because they are all so heart grippingly fun and completely involving, but a mistake could cost dear. Roadside protection can be minimal and because the roads are small and empty they’re only used by locals, locals who drive them like locals, Italian locals. And then there’s the marble trucks. It pays to give those some respect, you’re not going to win any battles against a lump of stone the size of a studio flat.
Sitting by the beach, facing the sea, snacking on lunch we keep our backs to the mountain we have to climb later, in full Fanta and suntan denial. But once we’re on it the Garfagnana throws up another secret surprise with the beautiful climb of the Passo del Cipollaio. At just over 13km long with an easy average gradient of less than 5% it’s in no way Epic and there’s no gritting of teeth and looking at the camera from under a furrowed brow in monochrome, but what it lacks in pain and suffering it makes up for in pleasant. In the overbearing heroic rhetoric of climbing it’s easy to forget that a pedaling up a hill can actually be a pleasurable experience in the right circumstances. On the initial stages of the Cipollaio you ride under the bar-code shadows of trees on fast tarmac to wind gently up further in between the barren rock walls of mountains that echo with the horns of those descending marble lorries.
We slip through a tunnel at the summit and descend all the way home, rejoining the road we headed out on in this lollipop route. I miss the break and make a futile attempt to bridge the gap to attest the sprint for the Castelnuovo sign but by the time I get there they’re already eating gelato. It would have looked great on the telly. After the rides there’s usually time for a quick splash in the pool for those that do that sort of thing and a recovery beer before supper. The Agriturismo that Skedaddle use understands cyclists and it’s reflected in the food each evening. It’s good local food, cooked in that way that Italians know best, done simply, done well. And in sufficient quantity to satisfy hungry legs.
Only two days in and the week has settled into a familiar rhythm now; clip in, climb, stop for coffee, descend, climb, lunch, climb, descend, ice-cream. Although to describe it in such simple terms is to do it a massive disservice. It doesn’t mention the deserted roads, the just hard enough climbs up through the Land of the Enchanted Forest – the literal translation of Garfagnana, the photo-stop villages and the smile inducing descents.
The penultimate day sees us head south towards the edge of the Garfagnana and there’s a subtle change of scenery as we nudge towards the more postcard Tuscany. The area is less wooded and the thick ceiling of chestnut trees is replaced with regimented lines of cypress, and the houses are posher. To reinforce the more stereotypical Italian feel of the day we drop into Lucca for lunch, one of the most romantic places you could ever hope to visit, and it’s the place most people head to spend more time in during the mid-week day off the bike. The walled city is a maze of cobbled and pedestrianised streets, and it’s easy to get lost in the tangled canyons of umber walls, in fact, that’s the point if you’re visiting. Walk or cycle along the wide boulevard that runs the full circumference along the top of the city walls, soak in the culture of churches, museums and piazzas, do some stylish shopping, or just relax by leap-frogging from coffee shop to coffee-shop. There are even some bike shops if you need to get a fix and a casquette.
Leaving Lucca we head towards the small town of Collodi, the home of Pinocchio, where you can imagine the subject and quality of the merchandise of the shops and roadside stalls, but we manage to nose out a coffee to see us up the last climb of the day. Stepping up the valley past the lumbering paper mills, all those trees aren’t just there for decoration, with the low sun on our backs making the tarmac a mirror, our shadows beating us up the hill.
The Queen Stage of the week saves itself for the last day, just to make sure that your legs are properly rinsed on the plane home. Heading into the high Apennines the day starts all too quickly with the ascent of the San Pellegrino in Alpe just a few minutes from the door. Two things you need to know about the San Pellegrino in Alpe, it’s nothing to do with the sparkling water, and it’s the hardest climb you never heard of. Featuring frequently in the Giro d’Italia it’s 18kms long and climbs 1300m, although the race isn’t scheduled to tackle the climb in 2015 it does go through Castelnuovo, so, maybe you should make plans. San Pellegrino starts off innocuous enough, a gentle steer to the right off the main road, and today it’s very a pretty beginning with a morning mist burning off the lower slopes.
It stays a pleasant climb for the majority, sliding through the trees, breaking the shade to turn through villages, but towards the top, when your legs are probably starting to feel it a bit the hill suddenly bites with a series of steep ramps. It bites hard and then chews a bit with the gradient knocking at 20% in places. Yup. It eases off in between for you to regain your constitution but only so it can punch you in the legs again, harder. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the final steep left turn into the village that gives the climb its name is the top and while it does level off briefly, giving you time to consider stopping and grabbing a coffee from the bar on the left there’s still another 2km to the summit. It makes sense to continue to the top and turn around to grab your restorative nectar, so we do. And some hard earned cake. It’s a better place to be than the not-so glamourous lay-by at the crest of the hill.
That’s not quite enough for the day though, the descent off the other side is almost worth the climb, effortless and fast, but it takes us towards Abetone, which is a ski-station, so a bit of a climb back up to it then. But there’s lunch waiting at the top before the last hurrah of the week and a helter-skelter descent to Bagni di Lucca, with nothing left to lose on last day legs it’s a powerful team-time trial all the way along the valley bottom into town where there’s a festival going on and all the town’s come out to play. Although as a celebration to mark the end of the week it’ll also do.
The Garfagnana is a wonderful beautiful cycling secret that you want to keep to yourself. Bring your friends.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.