CHIANTI: THE J OY OF CYCLING
Chianti is well known for wine but its hills are now being discovered by cyclists
BENEATH a dappled canopy, the forest is almost eerie in its stillness. Then I push down on my pedals and my surroundings burst into life. Like a headstrong stallion, my bike races away with me, down a rocky slope riddled with ruts and loose gravel as my clammy fingers clamp the handlebars in an attempt to control my metal steed. We dodge a pheasant and splash through a stream before the front wheel skids and the bike bucks me off.
“Tutto bene?” a voice shouts from below. Through a cloud of dust, I make out Paolo Cioni, a blur of black and red Lycra with calf muscles like watermelons. Brushing myself off, I extract a thorn from underneath a fingernail. “Tutto bene,” I reply as I push my sunglasses on to my nose and heave myself back on the bike.
I have come to Chianti to test what could be its bestkept secret: mountain-biking routes. Wedged between Florence and Siena, the region is famed for its vineyardcloaked hills, but it’s also an off-road cyclist’s playground. Through vines and olive groves to woodland and unpaved strade bianchi (white roads), the terrain is laced with trails for most abilities. The trouble is, most of us offroaders don’t know where to find them.
Seeking them out is now possible through the villa rental company To Tuscany. Although the trails have long been ridden by locals, they are unmarked. To Tuscany’s owner, Sean Caulfield, a keen cyclist, intends to spend the winter marking out beginner, intermediate and advanced routes using GPS with the help of local enthusiasts, including Paolo. From next month, the routes will feature on a dedicated cycling page on the To Tuscany website, through which clients can already arrange to hire bikes and approved guides. “The mountain-biking trails allow you to see Chianti from a different angle,” Caulfield tells me. “People like Paolo grew up riding them and are now queuing up to guide them.”
The rising hills on the two-hour drive east from Pisa airport made it immediately clear I would be in for some challenging riding. Happily my villa, La Stalla — a beautifully converted stone stable in the hamlet of Montebuoni — eases me in gently. From my bedroom window, row upon row of vines, heavy with purple fruit, stretch out, soaking up autumn’s last rays in a sky the colour of glowing coals.
I spend the evening prior to the ride fuelling up at Casanuova di Ama, a family-run wine and olive-oil farm, a 10-minute walk from the villa. Between laying out plates of prosciutto and pecorino, owner Daniella Bencini pours generous glasses of white Mattutino table wine, red Vespero made with the sangiovese grapes grown on the hills in front of us, and potent grappa. “In my family, the most important things to have on the table are good bread, good wine and extra virgin olive oil,” she says, drizzling her liquid gold over bruschetta.
The next morning, I freewheel down to Lecchi in Chianti to meet Paolo, who has agreed to guide me along one of the trails. To Tuscany will put guests who are keen to follow these routes in touch with local guides with a similar depth of knowledge. Within a few minutes of setting off on our four-hour ride, we reach a gate separating a vineyard from woodland. “To keep out the wild boar,” Paolo explains, lifting the latch and pushing open the barrier. “They like to suck the juice from the grapes but it destroys the harvest.” There are plans to reintroduce wolves to the area to keep their numbers in check.
We weave our way up through dense oak forest, reaching a gravelly strade bianchi, flanked by cypress trees, standing to attention as though guarding one of Tuscany’s most valuable treasures. We pedal past a handful of tourists at the Castello di Brolio, the birthplace of Chianti Classico and the centrepiece of frequent tussles between the Florentines and Sienese.
Then begins some punishing uphill climbing. Sweat stings my eyes and my lungs gasp for air as I grind through my gears behind Paolo. Just when my thighs can’t take another revolution, I look up to find the trail had led us to a medieval hamlet, Monti in Chianti.
We refill our water bottles at a fountain in the square before pressing on uphill, at my lowest moment, on foot. We pause for respite at Chianti Sculpture Park.
For the remainder of the ride, the only traffic we encounter is a few tractors ferrying batches of freshly picked grapes to the numerous Chianti wineries. After four hours’ cycling, I finally spot the cluster of stone villas and apartments — including a cellar dating back to the 1500s and a private chapel — that form the hamlet of Montebuoni, signalling the end of our 33km loop. It has been exhausting on the way up and terrifying on the way down, but I emerge exhilarated, if saddle-sore and bruised.
As I brush the Tuscan dust off my legs and wave goodbye to Paolo, a golden light dips below sunbaked slopes of unexplored trails. I can see a return visit on the horizon.
La Stalla at Montebuoni, top right, makes a perfect base for two-wheel exploring of picturesque Chianti, top left