Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel - Tuscan Trails
Gravel Union On
17 July 2020
Perfect coffee in every village, gravel roads as far as your eye can see and a big dollop of la dolce vita – just a few of the reasons why you should consider heading to Tuscany to try the fantastic gravel riding there.
“Eccoci. Buon appetito” said the bar owner, setting our espressi and small slabs of freshly made torta con mirtilli (blueberry tart) on the table. We were in a tiny village in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny. A few honey colour houses set amongst olive groves, a dusty tarmac road and a bar facing an ancient stone-flagged square. A faded petrol pump sat out-front, unloved and gathering a dense blanket of cobwebs.
I’ve been lucky enough to live, work and take my holiday in Italy for more than twenty years and even after all that time, it never fails to amaze me how every single tiny village not only has a café, but that café will sell you the most fantastic coffee you’ve ever had. At a government-regulated price that will blow your mind. Less than €1 for coffee heaven? That will do nicely.
While I was sitting there pondering why a) I stupidly choose to live in the UK and b) why don’t all British villages have great cafes like this, I spotted a small familiar logo stuck on the front window of the café. A roughly lozenge shaped outline with a single star at the top. Just two words inscribed on it, powerful enough to metaphorically raise our heart rates.
Strada Bianche. White Roads. A big reason for the location of the café and the fact they hadn’t batted an eyelid at us turning up in full lycra and demanding coffee and cake. We were sat next to one of the sections of the Strada Bianche. To most non-Italian cycling fans, those words conjure up gravel racing. An annual early-March pilgrimage of the world’s top professional road cyclists to batter themselves on Tuscany’s finest gravel roads.
To an Italian cyclist (or local resident), the words are more commonly used to describe the road surface rather than the actual race. Made of finely crushed local limestone and used to link remote hilltop villages, these are roads in the loosest sense of the term. They can be perfect, smooth graded gravel, but they can be a mix of intermingled stone, gravel and chunks of re-purposed crushed masonry. Perhaps not ideal for a typical skinny-tyred road bike, but absolute heaven for a gravel riding aficionado.
The rural areas of many countries have a network of agricultural tracks linking up villages, allowing farmers to easily get their produce to market, so in that respect the strada bianche of Tuscany are not that unusual. What is unusual though is the sheer quantity of them. You can find them in almost every state of Italy, but Tuscany’s are the most famous, most prolific and without doubt the most visited by gravel cyclists.
The most famous ones are located in the hills around Gaoile in Chianti, home of the annual Eroica gravel race. The problem with going somewhere popular though is that it will be busy – not just gravel cycling fans, but vehicle traffic too. The scenery is stunning, the riding amazing and you’ll find la dolce vita (good life) by the forkful (or glassful), but if you want to find real gravel heaven, then you need to head away from the herds and go for the less well known strada bianche located further south in Tuscany.
Here feels like you’re witnessing proper Italy. The riding is just as good, the scenery equally as fantastico, but you’ll often have it yourself and you won’t end up caked up in dust from tourist vehicles. You may well still be caked in dust from your riding buddies, but that’s your choice! The problem with getting away from the tourist trail though is how to find the ‘good stuff’?
If you open up Google maps you’ll get a great birds eye view of the whole area and will be able to figure out how the different roads and strada bianche link the different villages and towns together. But you won’t be able to tell what the white roads are actually like to ride. Which bits get deep in dust or stay wet for the longest. Where to find the best espresso. Or most importantly, which piece of street furniture you have to clamber on to if you’re after the perfect sunset silhouette photograph of the archetypal skyline.
In the words of TV show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”, it’s time to phone a friend. In this case, Nick and Jo who’ve ridden the gravel roads of Tuscany so many times they’re practically local. When you travel anywhere, having a “local” show you around is the best way to get the good tips and insights. How to avoid faux pas like ordering the wrong type of coffee in the middle of the afternoon. Where to find the best gelati. But when your trip is gravel-based, you might also need that friend to give you a tow into a headwind or help you adjust a recalcitrant rear derailleur. Or even mentally massage your tired legs by saying there’s “just one more hill” before you can relax in the local bar and sup a cold beer*.
*they will lie of course. There are always more hills to get home than they claim.
With the world still suffering from the CV19 pandemic and a lot of gravel riders concerned about travelling in search of perfect gravel riding, heading to the strada bianche of Tuscany may seem like a far off dream. We just have to try and stay positive and have something positive to aim for in the future. The dream of riding in Tuscany again is the thing that’s keeping me going and is top of my wish list when things go back to something closer to normality.
Thanks to Nick and Jo from RPM90 for their amazing knowledge of the best routes, finest village cafes and never failing energy, even when I asked them to ride it “just one more time” for the 100th time.
For more inspiration on how amazing the gravel riding in Tuscany is, check out our short film here.