A gravel trip with my girlfriends by Adrienne

It's the story of a group of friends who, in the depths of winter, started dreaming of doing the Tuscany Trail, to see Tuscany and dream of Italy. It is one of the cycling events with the highest number of participants in Europe (over 1,000). Initially aimed at mountain bikers, it is now open to gravel riders. There are no rankings, times or deadlines: You can ride at full speed without stopping, or set off with panniers and tourist guides, sleeping in a basic bivouac or a 5-star hotel. In short, the aim is to cover 500 kilometres crossing Tuscany from north to south, and to enjoy it. All in all, a great programme.

Of course, the context brought its share of uncertainties, administrative headaches and PCR tests, but we did find ourselves on the Gare de Lyon platform at 6am, dismantling and packing our bikes, ready for a full day's train journey.

The gang includes Sophie, a photographer and experienced long-distance cyclist, used to travelling by bike and bike-packing challenges, and Anaïs, who has been exploring the world of long-distance cycling and bivouacs at breakneck speed, and knows Tuscany like the back of her hand. Then there's Camille, equally at home on mountain bike trails and long roads. And I complete the foursome, with a little experience of long distance but much less of gravel riding. In this case, it's my first trip with my GRVL900 Ti, Triban's titanium model. I'm just as confident as I am eager. I only changed the chainring, opting for a 38T rather than a 40T, to get a better feel for the hilly but rugged terrain of the region.

Anaïs and I already knew the region pretty well, although we hadn't been back for (too) long. It's an eye-opener for the other two. But whether it's our memories or our fantasies, we've all been dreaming for weeks about the rolling Tuscan countryside, the bright sunshine, the cypress trees, the cafés, the renaissance villages, the gastronomy, the Strade Bianche and so on. Suffice to say, we were all looking forward to it. And we weren't disappointed. Quite the opposite...



The starting point is a small seaside town in northern Tuscany, sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains bursting with marble. At the end of a long day on the train, we collect our race numbers and greet the organisers. This year's event has once again attracted more than 1,200 participants, but due to health restrictions, the start is now unrestricted and, more importantly, spread over two days. We learn that the majority have already set off. No matter, we enjoy a warm and friendly evening in Massa and leave the next day.

The alarm goes off, very early. That's it, time to go. Time for a final shower for a while, and to pack our panniers, and we're on our way.

In the early hours of the morning, we glide along a canal through marshes glowing in the rising sun. My body is throbbing with anticipation and numb from sleep, so I need to take the time to wake up and settle into my routine before we start climbing mountains in earnest. We wind our way across the plain, cross our first ford and get our legs moving. The mountain looms before us. Then we plunge straight towards it, and straight towards the sun. First there's a wall, a dry slope that makes your legs tingle, then a real ascent, patient and quiet, starting on tarmac switchbacks and continuing on a forest track. It's still early, but we can feel that it's going to get hot.

First coffee, first pastries up there, watching a strange parade of cyclists: Lightweight, aerodynamic road bikes rub shoulders with mountain bikes, gravel bikes and laden touring bikes. We let Silvia go, having just shared a stretch of the journey with her. She's a young Italian who took up cycling last year during the lockdown and is now embarking on the Tuscany Trail. 


The following section of the route is as enjoyable as the Nutella croissants we've just eaten. We wind our way through olive groves and white stone villages, sometimes with a view of the deep blue sea stretching out before us and shimmering brilliantly, sometimes with a view of the small mountains on the other side of the valley, with their lush Mediterranean vegetation and majestic sun-kissed pines.

Then, leaving this high plateau, we descend towards the fortified town of Lucca. At a crossroads, a granny in her little Fiat passes us and blows us kisses as we go, so we catch them and set off in search of a trattoria. In fact, it takes us less time to find one than to decide between all the different pizzas and focaccias (*yes, I know, we say pizze and focaccie), because they all look so delicious. It's still early, but we're already hungry and the heat is threatening, so we get moving.

The next part is a little more monotonous, but has the merit of being flat and easy to ride. We ride for miles on wide tracks amidst short grass. The sun races towards its zenith and becomes overwhelming. The dust rises from the track. It robs us of energy. There are no major difficulties, but the sun forces us to take a power nap in the shade of one of the few trees we can find.

At last we reach the cool, shady woods. Their freshness offers a welcome respite to our sluggish bodies, but the paths can be very muddy. Riding is playful, the skids splash and make us wobble, leaving orange coloured souvenirs of this first day on our shorts for the rest of the journey.

Back on the road: It's a chance to rest your legs, clean off the mud that has crept under the forks and into the discs and let ourselves be carried all the way to Castelfranco di Sotto. At the entrance to the town, and for the first time, a feature marks our presence in Tuscany. Each alleyway is punctuated by colourful flags bearing animal emblems, claiming its place in a particular neighbourhood of the town. Here too, as in Siena, people proudly display the symbol of their contrada.

We stop at the terrace of a shady café full of cyclists watching from a distance the muddy pile of bikes on the other side of the square. And then I make an astonishing discovery: the Shakereto coffee. It's just coffee and crushed ice, with a little sugar, but it's exactly what my body was craving. It's heavenly. 


Invigorated, we set off again. The sky is overcast and the air is becoming more breathable, so much so that we don't mind the slight headwind and the puncture we get under a motorway bridge, probably the only really ugly spot on the trail. We keep moving forward without thinking until we see hills in the distance.

And then, finally, we climb and definitively enter Tuscany. Of course, this morning we were already within its administrative boundaries. But as we reach the tipping point, we discover immense green hills stretching out before us, roads lined with cypress trees and fields of olive trees. The road meanders between majestic villas that can pump out electro music at full blast without disturbing the neighbours.

The tarmac road gives way to the Strade Bianche. The gravel crackles under our tyres, the poppies greet us and the cypresses trace noble paths to ruins or isolated homes. They display their elegant and proud silhouette on the crest of the hills. The light fades and sets this sublime landscape ablaze.

And then, at the top of one of the hills, just as our water reserves were running low from the many kilometres we'd ridden without coming across a village, we found a group of cyclists bustling around a table set up in the middle of nowhere. A neighbour and her two daughters are offering lemon water to Tuscany Trail participants. So we stay there for a few moments, watching the playful waltz of a few clouds that stretch out and occasionally let a ray of sunlight strike a ruin lost in the wheat fields with its orange light, before setting off on a rolling descent, laughing with such happiness.

Evening is already upon us and we're starting to look for something to eat. The scarcity of villages in the surrounding area, compounded by contextual restrictions, makes this harder than it seems. After a few fairly steep climbs - mitigated by the beauty of the scenery - and asking a few locals for help, we end up in a village bar that provides food for beer and spritz drinkers. We couldn't think of anything better, so without being asked, we accept the beers in exchange for a meal.

Night has fallen and it's high time to start looking for a place to bivouac. We quickly find a spot next to the church. As we drifted off to sleep, gazing up at the stars from my sleeping bag, I burst out laughing. A church has bells, and they've just rung eleven times. Perhaps they stopped during the night, or we were just too tired: In any case, I didn't hear them again until the next morning.  



Day two. Open your eyes, catch a glimpse of the bright red sun rising in an olive grove. We pack our bags in this enchanted atmosphere and head for the café, where we raid the pastry counter to share them. One is with cream, another with chocolate, others with fruit, and so on. We never really know what to expect when we bite into them, because we don't speak perfect Italian, but it's always good. After a hearty breakfast, we're ready to hit the road again, for a two-day ride through the heart of the Tuscan valleys.

The road begins with a descent on immaculate tarmac, punctuated by cypress trees that give a glimpse of the hills towards which we are heading. A bright red hot-air balloon floats in the distance, drawing closer to us. In the air and on the ground, we greet each other.

The rhythm of the tough uphills, then the sweeping descents, then the steep climbs, etc., is set in motion. We go past a village where, it seems, quite a few participants have slept in hotels and are now setting off, and a slightly sloping plateau provides us with the excitement of a clear horizon.

But it's already time to tackle one of the first major difficulties of the trail, the climb to Volterra. It takes us by road and, for once, amongst the cars. The heat is already intense and crushing us to the tarmac, but as always: as long as you find your rhythm, you'll be fine. A final incline takes us through a pedestrianised, touristy street and it's time for coffee and breakfast, or lunch, as the case may be. We know that this break is just an interlude: A winding descent through olive groves gives us an exhilarating burst of speed before we start the second 'pass' in a row, this time gravel, i.e. without cars, but with sections that have higher gradients. Without really understanding why or how, I feel surprisingly fit and I pump the pedals all the way to the top, before slowing down to take in the beauty of the scenery before us.

After these two big chunks, we get into a rhythm that lasts until the next evening, alternating between the Strade Bianche among the hills, a few wooded stretches, and climbs up to villages perched high up, bursts of laughter and refreshing breaks, sometimes with a shakereto coffee, sometimes a beer, sometimes an ice cream, sometimes pizzas, sometimes platters of local produce, and so on.


I'm struck by how harmonious our group is. Of course, we're used to riding together, and we had a feeling it would work out. But on the whole, we find a pace that suits everyone, and most of the time the four of us ride together. Which makes it easier to talk nonsense, and far more enjoyable to share the beauty of what we see.

What's also great is that we get to meet up with other participants in a friendly, cross-cultural way. We don't ride at exactly the same pace and we don't take exactly the same breaks but, on the whole, we always end up catching up with each other again and again. So we recognise each other, say hello and have a chat.

Visits to San Gimignano and Monteriggioni (where Camille managed the feat of getting there without setting foot on the ground, with some sections approaching 20%!) on the second day, or to San Quirico d'Orcia and Pienza on the third, remain moments of refined beauty and nuanced delicacy - even if the stops are brief each time.

Between these cultural treats, the physical exertion is sporadic and sometimes intense and, overall, the heat is stifling between 1pm and 4pm. My friends seem to be taking it a bit better, even if it's hard on everyone. At these times, I stop singing Italian songs or French pop at the top of my lungs, which I normally do, and no doubt they also benefit from this rest... But as soon as we can, we stop at a fountain to soak our jerseys and caps, and to remove the white dust that has accumulated on our skin and bikes.

Outside these hours, almost every moment is an aesthetic and sporting delight. Sometimes there are steep climbs, the bike rears up and the tyres spin, but I follow Sophie's advice: you have to hug the bike to lower your centre of gravity. It makes you look like a beetle in a hurry, but it works pretty well. Maybe the oval chainring helps too. In any case, as long as you give up on elegance and fluidity, it works quite well and doesn't strain your legs too much.

Sometimes there are those long tracks that unfurl and pull us along, the gravel crunching, our bikes whizzing along, our legs kicking up, the fresh breeze sweeping across the wheat and our faces and the wild flowers bursting with a thousand colours. The further south we go, the more the colours turn yellow, the more the wheat is already packed, the closer we get to the heart of summer. It's gorgeous. 


In the middle of these two enchanted days, as a delectable interlude, we passed through Siena. Our eagerness to discover the heart of the city has taken the edge off the big-city frenzy to which we were no longer accustomed: With my heart racing, I probed every street in search of buried memories, until I finally came across a square I recognised, a landmark that reorganised the geography of the city in my memory. So we sped through the high brick streets that occasionally lead to sumptuous palaces, before being hurled without warning into the Piazza Del Campo.

The Piazzo del Campo, shaped like a seashell, surrounds us with its distinctive clamour. The brick colours of the sublime palaces match the setting sun against the high tower of the Palazzo Publico. The square is dotted with people sitting on the ground, sharing a drink or a chat. Time seems to stand still. So to celebrate the midway point of our journey, we settle down on a terrace tucked away in an alleyway, and share pizzas and beers, before heading off into the night to find a bivouac on the outskirts of town. We'll find a narrow plot that's just right for the night.

The bivouac on the third day is clearly more prestigious. Leaving the stream that the track runs alongside, frightened of the mosquitoes, we find a vast overgrown field in the middle of the silent, deserted hills. In the distance, a property, indicated by an avenue of cypress trees, overlooks the landscape and is the only human presence in the vicinity. Still marvelling at the peaceful, golden hours we've just spent, we share an aperitif (wild boar sausage and fennel biscuits) before drifting off to sleep. And so the journey across the Tuscan hills comes to an end, in a quiet, sublime climax. 



The fourth and final day takes on a distinctly different tone. The grey weather, timidly threatening, saturates the dark green of the thicker vegetation. We stopped at the foot of our biggest climb, towards the town of Radicofani. I know myself and I know that my legs take a long time to get going in the morning, so I let my friends pull away and plug in some music to start the climb, which will be on a bumpy track. I set my pace at a slow but steady pace, and take it in my stride... and then already the last few hairpin bends before discovering a small medieval village perched on its mountain. Dark, harsh basalt has replaced delicate brick. Fortunately, a café terrace gives us a warm respite with plenty of pastries (even if, given the size of our order, we're asked to leave some for the others...).

We set off again, relieved to have overcome the biggest hurdle, and with light hearts. It's cooler than the last few days too, although I'm a little disappointed by the gloomy light. The landscape is changing: the terrain is more rugged and wooded. The ground goes from white to grey, the murky light catching electric blue reflections. Huge, bushy gorse bushes, saturated yellow, line the roads, accompanying a long descent that is just right for racing and manoeuvring. At the same time, the race threatens to be interrupted at every bend by the astonishment of each new panorama.

The road we now take winds through lush gorges to Pitigliano. The town, fortified and dark, is built into the mountainside, imposing and superb. We reach it along a path that climbs steeply, taking us past Etruscan buildings that are almost troglodyte, before joining the medieval streets and Baroque buildings. Every metre you gain in altitude takes you back through centuries of history, and you feel so small contemplating this city from an open balcony. 


A final climb takes us to the other side of the steep valley. From here on, the route is generally downhill, albeit with a few short, sharp climbs. So, inevitably, in the back of your mind, you can't help thinking that it's all over and that the hardest part is behind us. Sophie is hungry and not here to admire butterflies, she tells us, so she speeds up and we keep tight on her heels.

We get back into the swing of things on the downhill, wooded tracks for miles on end, and on a climb through rockfall-damaged tracks, then back onto the more rideable sections. We're all in our own little cocoon, trying to devour the 80 kilometres or so that separate us from the finish.

I know I'm doing something stupid and burning myself out, but I'm doing it anyway, because it feels good to ride, because the finish seems close and because we're going to see the sea. But before the final climb, having not come across a village for ages, I come to a standstill. Hunger takes on a life of its own. Then, with great relief, Sophie and Anaïs, who were struggling to pull me along, offer to stop. Time to open the panforte I'd bought in Siena (at Nannini's, for the connoisseurs), a typical dessert combining candied fruit, almonds and spices. Two friends, who we've been bumping into constantly for the last two days, arrive at this point, and we share it together on the side of the road. Replenished by this mix of energy and conviviality, we finally set off again towards Capalbio, where all the terraces are invaded by wavering cyclists. We're not sure whether it's time for a coffee or a beer, but in any case it's not long before we're off again.

At last. We arrive on the last stretch before the sea. The roads become busier as we approach the Orbetello peninsula. The smell of the sea is beginning to make itself felt, and the seagulls greet us in the distance with mocking laughter. We cross a pine forest as the light fades, and the large, twisted parasol pines plunge us into an almost magical atmosphere. We emerge from the woods and come face to face with a lagoon set ablaze by a sublime twilight. We barely have enough time to get our cameras out when an army of mosquitoes attacks us and rushes us towards the finish. A final road bordered by two lagoons on either side adds the finishing touch to this magnificent picture.

The timing is perfect, the finish stunning. It's time to celebrate the end of our trip, drink a beer and have three more bowls of pasta, before heading off for a shower and a good night's sleep in a real bed. Tomorrow we're going for a swim. But we're already swimming in happiness.

My bike

is called Pippão, and it's the GRVL900 Ti No. 77.A titanium gravel bike that's as comfortable as it is enjoyable in acceleration.