So, after the Alps, it was time to head off to the madness and beauty of Tuscany and Italy. First stop was away from obvious Mountain biking territory, with a stop to the stunning medieval city of Florence. It’s a crazy, busy and overcrowded place, which had had such problems with traffic that now the entire city centre is almost totally traffic-free zone- only taxis, buses, bikes or delivery drivers can enter. In fact most of the city is a car-free zone, which brings it’s own challenges for cyclists. The bonus is that cycling is widely accepted as one of the most popular modes of transport, along with the scooter. Everywhere you see hundreds of old cycles (some of which appear to pre-date many of the medieval buildings in Florence)- all in various states of decay and rust. But these bikes are still being used, and just demonstrate how accepted cycling is as a mode of city transport.
It’s fair to say we looked a little out of place as we took our mountain bikes for a spin around the city. Clearly we were the only riders who considered bikes required 6 inches of suspension or operational brakes. There was no doubt however that some suspension was rather useful on the cobbled streets and alleyways!
Other than the cobbles though, there was also the issue of riding the streets themselves. Lets just say there is clearly an art to riding the streets of Florence, a skills that must take the locals years to perfect. I guess you would call it the skill of avoiding American tourist groups. The Florence roads are literally heaving with tourists and locals, who all wander around with no concerns for anything but themselves. It is perfectly accepted to ride through these streets, and no-one minds the cyclists, but it is up to you to weave through the throng of walkers without interfering with them. This is a most challenging task, as it must take years of practise to be able to anticipate which way the tourist will jump, and how close you can get to the guy taking a photo of a tower before he realises you are there.
Deborah and I certainly struggled with this weaving, and I was totally stunned when a 70 year old suited Italian gentleman on a bike that must have pre-dated himself by a good 20 years rode past us through a crowd of tourists. This I took as a challenge, as I knew in any normal circumstances I should have been able to absolutely paste him in a race. So I took off in pursuit, firstly to see if I could keep up, but mostly to try to beat him in a race to the end of the road. Of course, it was impossible. It was as if he had a sixth sense, as he weaved past pedestrians and overtook fat American tourists as if they didn’t exist. I, in contrast, seemed to get nowhere- every time I came up behind a group I would go left to go past, just as they all jumped into my path it look at some tacky tourist rubbish. Then, I failed to spot the approach of the worst roadblock of all. It should have been obvious from a fair way off, as a stick with a yellow scarf floated above the throng of people, but there I came face to face with a tour guide walking slowly, leading her tour group of 50 Japanese tourists all frantically photographing every window and door frame they saw. There was absolutely no way through, it was a total roadblock, and by this time my Italian challenger had disappeared into the distance. I instead was resigned to the fact that I had just been outclassed in riding abilities by a 70 year old Italian on the bike you would normally see the vicar riding around on in an English village. Gutted!
However once you got away from the most busy tourist thoroughfares, it was a total pleasure to get around on a bike. The roads were generally very quiet, and pretty soon we had found a quiet passage up to the Piazza De Michaelangelo, which overlooks Florence, offering amazing views of all the towns landmarks and the hills in the distance. We then explored a few other nearby buildings, and somehow managed to ride right into the middle of a rather splendid Italian funeral. There were all the Italian mobsters dressed up in their suits like the Godfather, and then through their throng rode Deborah and I on our mountain bikes. Weird, bizarre, and awesome at the same time.
The best thing about riding around old cities like Florence on a mountain bike, is you are not limited by where you can go. So, the flight of stairs and cobbled back street with the no -entry sign was all fair game, and we got lots of strange looks and smiles from tourists struggling up on the climb to the Plazza as we sped downhill past them on our way down.
After the business of Florence, it was a relief to get out of the city and hit the countryside of Tuscany. The area is totally stunning, with a patchwork of vineyards covering the rolling hills. As in most of Europe, there are footpaths and trails everywhere, and it is all open to the public, and mountain bikers. The trails are a mix of footpaths and firetracks, but even the firetracks can be great fun. However, finding your way about can be a bit of a headache! Most of the maps you can buy are very old, and getting your hands on a decent hiking and biking map is very difficult. And even if you can get your hands on the maps they are woefully out of date- one ‘mountain bike’ map we bought was based on an original map that was surveyed in 1960, and hadn’t been updated since. Major roads around towns that had been built 20 years ago weren’t mapped- so as you can imagine, the finer details of changes to footpaths and singletrack may have been missed! However we did manage to have one fantastic days riding, and one that was less interesting- and as it should happen the one we thought looked the best on the map was the less interesting ride!
So, if you happen to be going to Tuscany, make sure you get better maps or organise a guide to take you riding to get the best out of the area!