The right kind of epic

“Are we still going? Yes or No?”

We’d planned on watching the Strade Bianche from the seats of our bikes, but Covid-19 had just hit Europe, towns in Italy were entering lockdown and we were agonizing over the right course of action. Flying into Milan wasn’t looking good, our accommodation was up in the air and all this on the day before we flew—a great way for a bike adventure across Italy to begin.

The right kind of epic

“Are we still going? Yes or No?”

We’d planned on watching the Strade Bianche from the seats of our bikes, but Covid-19 had just hit Europe, towns in Italy were entering lockdown and we were agonizing over the right course of action. Flying into Milan wasn’t looking good, our accommodation was up in the air and all this on the day before we flew—a great way for a bike adventure across Italy to begin.

Copy of Day 1

As one of our friends had already withdrawn due to work restrictions, our team now consisted of three: Anneleen, Michaela and myself. We flew into Genoa, where Anneleen had arranged to meet us after she’d cycled the 220km from Nice. Michaela and I set to work building our two bikes in the toilet of our tiny room and we were good to roll in the morning.

We set off early from Genoa after first making sure we had enough coffee in the system. That’s my one thing on any trip: there must be enough coffee. The sky was heavy and dark, but I like to dream big, and the hope was that maybe we’d stay ahead of the weather. But the heavens opened before we’d even left the city’s suburbs and the rain proved relentless.

Winding up the mountainside with the rain beating down on us, Anneleen and Michaela pushed on ahead with a plan to regroup at the top. But all our best intentions were quickly washed away and with the first traffic light I was separated and alone. There would be no regrouping on this day. 

Copy of day 1.5
day 2.8

One long sleeve jersey and an old race cape were not proving effective against the torrential downpour. Gasping for breath to stave off the cold, my entire body was shivering. It was only day one, and I was already in a very dark place and really unsure whether I could continue. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I saw a man leaning on his car at the edge of the road, smoking a cigar. He flagged me down to stop. “Here, you must be freezing. Take my coat. I’m a cyclist too.”

Even in such a bedraggled condition I was too polite to accept—a decision I immediately regretted after riding on and leaving him behind. Rolling into Bobbio, after what felt like a lifetime, the next wave of panic set in. How the hell was I going to find them? I tried to take a glove off to use my phone but it was soaked through and stuck. And so was I, in a deserted Italian town, unable to message my friends and on the brink of tears.

Fortunately fate intervened in the shape of a little, old lady walking towards me carrying an umbrella. She didn’t speak any English but simply grabbed my arm and began leading me through the maze of streets. With my cleats skittering on the shiny cobbles and my whole body shaking uncontrollably, we finally arrived at a door. My rescuer turned out to be our landlady and she had been out in the rain searching for me.

Copy of post soak 2

Standing in the Airbnb, soaked to the skin, I was finally reunited, my two friends hugging me to warm me up. Delirious from cold, I managed to mumble a few words: ‘The rain tasted like kisses.’ With a pile of coats and long johns to nestle in - provided by the landlady and such a wonderful act of kindness - our kit sat in sodden piles with Anneleen’s Garmin worryingly unresponsive.

Rested and finally dry, the next morning saw us heading out from the rustic beauty of Bobbio and the first climb of the day. Parts of the Passo del Cerro had a covering of snow, but fueled as we were on Italian pastries and the obligatory coffee, our mood was serene. And after cresting the pass, a winding descent opened up into a sun-drenched valley, and we decided to put our heads down and go: a mini group-TT into Rubbiano before Anneleen headed off to find a Garmin dealership in Parma. The life of a semi pro - she always has training on the mind - her solo effort proved a success with her Garmin starting to work when she arrived and no purchase required.

day 3.9

Day three was our queen stage with 150km and 4000m on the menu. We started with a climb from Monte Cassio and back into snow again. Every up was followed by a spectacular down with our route surrounded on all sides by snow covered peaks. Switchbacks taken at speed added a rush of adrenaline as we pushed on without stopping to take pictures. It’s good to capture a moment and share it with the world, but there’s also a time to simply embrace the act of riding through an awe-inspiring landscape.

A cobbled climb was our gateway into Pontermoli where we basked in the sunshine with more coffee and torta di patate. The Monte Codolo and Monte Ciocco followed after one last stop to try and slow down the stronger climbers by filling them up with focaccia and cream cakes. We were racing to crest the Monte Santa Croce as the sun set over the Cinque Terre; our aim was to spot all five towns as we cycled along the Strada Provinciale in the perfect golden-hour glow.

Copy of day 3.3
Copy of day 4.3

Our next day’s destination was Massarella, a flat stage along the coast with just the one climb. After days of checking, we finally had confirmation that the Strade Bianche was cancelled, and even though we were expecting this decision, our hearts still sank. The disappointing news combined with the A to B nature of the day’s route didn’t offer us the most romantic of riding. But we nevertheless welcomed the run into Lucca and stopped to enjoy a bowl of classic Tuscan soup before embracing some off-road trails. Slick tires and gravel is always a fun combination. 

Day five saw our first taste of Tuscany and it tasted good. The morning was framed perfectly by the beautiful shutters of our farmhouse. The air felt crisp with the sun shining through breaks in the cloud and we were hopeful of staying ahead of the forecast rain in our run into Siena. Detouring to explore a hilltop castle, we sat on the fortified walls with the locals, drinking our coffee as we fell deeper and deeper in love with this beautiful region of Italy. I’d visited previously, but traveling by bike allows you to discover the hidden gems—a behind-the-scenes view which is one of the reasons we ride.

Arriving in Siena, we had time to relax and enjoy an authentic Italian gelato on the Piazza del Campo where the Strade Bianche traditionally starts and finishes. And even though the race was canceled, we’d decided that what more fitting tribute could there be than to ride the race route ourselves. The Strade Bianche Donna - the women’s edition of the race - which the three of us felt was appropriate. 

In the morning, with our bags stored and a lighter load, our confidence was buoyed by an easy gravel start. This should be no problem, we decided. It’s just like a fancy Kent. But how wrong could we possibly be? 

As we soon discovered, ahead lay an 11km gravel climb that we crawled up before descending quickly, all our momentum instantly lost with the off-camber, uneven surface. Yet throughout the exertion of riding the white roads, we were calmed by the soothing sound of gravel under our wheels, our efforts eased by the light falling across the valleys, saturating the landscape in color—indescribably beautiful views that were ours for that moment.

Copy of Day 5.4
Copy of Day 5.5
Copy of Strada B 1.5

But there was no sweet relief on this race. It was relentless, and on the final leg back into Siena, we were praying for a flat road, two thirds of our team unaware that Anneleen had routed us up a 13% gravel climb. It was the more picturesque road, she kindly explained, and where we expended the last of our reserves. 

Seated in our carriage, flooded by the soft golden light of the sunset, we sat huddled and exhausted with bags of snacks as the train pulled out the station bound for Genoa. Dropping Anneleen off at Pisa provided further complications with the closing train doors separating us from our connection. What was meant to be an easy-ish four hour journey turning into seven and an arrival back in Genoa after two in the morning. But to be honest, it really didn’t matter. We’d ridden the Strade Bianche and enjoyed a week like no other.

Our trip, by necessity, had been isolated - as if the landscape was ours and ours alone - and we’d been content to make decisions on the road. Because sometimes the unplanned is the best plan and, until the next adventure, I leave you my heart, Tuscany. You really were the right kind of epic.

Words and images by Saskia Martin  / Annaleen BosmaMichaela R-B

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