Chi­anti is well known for wine but its hills are now be­ing dis­cov­ered by cy­clists

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - El­lie Ross

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

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