It was my third week at the Galileo Galilee Institute Winter School in Florence. This week, the lectures were focused on the Cosmic Microwave Background, and Flavour Physics. Each day, I would leave the hotel and cycle up the short but steep road to the Institute, sit for several hours of lectures, eat lunch at the School, work in the office, then head back down for the evening and find dinner in a local restaurant.
Around the breaks in the school or in the afternoons or evenings, I would find myself out on bike rides around Tuscany. This week, my rides were mostly to the east of the city. Monday’s ride had a nice warm sun as I climbed up to Monte Oriolo, but on Tuesday the weather turned cold, and there was snow falling during the steep climb up Montebeni. Snow was falling, and the roads were wet. I then had to navigate a technical descent with frozen fingers on a very rough road with brake pads that wouldn’t grasp the wheel and wore through in mere minutes.
On Friday, the school finished, and I checked out of the hotel, moving my belongings down to another hotel closer to the train station. However, over the course of the day, something happened to my laptop, and it started crashing and overheating less than a minute after I had turned it on. The signs were not good, but there wasn’t anything that I could do until I returned to Cambridge.
Over the weekend, I had planned out some longer rides that took me further away from Florence. On Saturday, I took a short train ride to Pontassieve, where my goal was to climb the Passo Consuma. This climb had featured recently in the Giro d’Italia, the premier bike race in Italy. It climbed for 15 kilometres, firstly winding its way gently out of the valley through a number of small towns and farms. As I gained more and more elevation, the roadside started to be covered in snow. At first, there were just a few clumps, and then it became a consistent covering in some of the shaded areas, but in the last few kilometres, it was a consistent covering all over the ground. Fortunately, the road was clear as the road was well used. The top of the climb featured a small resort town, with a big look out to the mountains beyond. Here, the snow was at least a foot deep, but I didn’t mind as it had been a unique experience to be riding in a landscape I had never ridden before.
The descent down the other side to Stia was a fast one, quickly escaping the risk of black ice down into the valley. I stopped at a restaurant where nobody spoke English to get some lunch and get some salt into me. I probably ate a little too much and was fairly sluggish as I started the next climb. Here, the road was not as steep, as the pass back into the Pontassieve valley was lower than the Passo Consuma. Only the last few kilometres were any real challenge, but there was a long descent down the other side that took some time to complete before looping back to the start and taking the train back to Florence.
On Sunday, I took a train a little further afield, to the World Heritage City of Siena. Every March, the city hosts a professional bike race called the Strade Bianche, which translates poetically as the “White Road” classic. The main feature of the race is several long sectors of undulating gravel roads. Armed with several spare tubes, my goal was to complete an abbreviated circuit of the professional course, including seven of the ten sectors of gravel roads. I set out, looping around the walled fortress city before finding the route for the first time. The first hour was on fully tarmacked roads, before the first section of gravel at Vidritta. At only 2 km in length on a slight downhill, it was a good place to warm up for the day ahead, even if this sector was slightly muddy. I only had a few minutes respite before the second, much longer sector. This sector included the longest climb of the day, a steady gradient for around 3 km in a heavy forest. The road was still interesting and weaved hairpins up the climb.
I then took a shortcut off the main route from Radi to Monteroni d’Arbia. At the latter town, I found a supermarket to stock up on energy bars and bananas, as it was around lunch time. What followed was one of the hardest hours of cycling I have ever done. There would not be a single metre of flat road from here to the finish, still some 70 km. The back to back sectors of San Martino in Grania and Monte Sante Marie totalled 20 km of gravel roads which followed the ridge-line of the Tuscan hills. As such, they had several steep sections where I struggled to maintain traction, followed by hair-raising descents on the uneven surface. But I loved every minute of it as I had the roads almost completely to myself and the views were incredible.
The next hour was mostly on sealed roads, but still kept undulating as I worked my way back towards Siena. There were three more gravel sectors, but they were all no more than 2 km in length. However each of them were mostly uphill, meaning that there was not really any chance for a rest. I was counting down the kilometres, recognising some of the roads from watching the professionals race on television. With 10 km to go, I had completed all of the off road sections, and looped my way back around to Siena. The route tantalisingly passed by the railway station, but I kept going with my mind set on one thing, the final climb into Siena. The race organisers had found a brutal way up into the fortified town, which passes through one of the iconic town gates before joining the medieval streets at a soul-crushing 15% gradient. After 125 km of cycling, it was so difficult to push myself up it, but eventually I emerged at the top into the main Piazza. Relieved, I found some take-away food and rolled down the hill back to the train station and made my way back to Florence.
My last day in Florence was spent packing up my bike, before heading out to the train station and across to Pisa one last time. I flew into Heathrow and had plenty of time to spare to get my coach back to Cambridge, where I wouldn’t have to travel so much so frequently.