Off-road in Leonardo da Vinci’s Back­yard

Tak­ing on the steep, tech­ni­cal sin­gle­track not far from the re­gion’s vine­yards

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Tracey Green

Tak­ing on the steep, tech­ni­cal sin­gle­track not far from the re­gion’s vine­yards

While Italy loves its road rac­ing – think Mi­lan-san Remo, Giro d’italia and Il Lom­bar­dia – moun­tain bik­ing also holds its own there. There’s the gru­elling Iron Bike in Pied­mont, World Cup’s at Val di Sole (also the lo­ca­tion of last year’s world championships) and the Fi­nale Lig­ure stop on En­duro World Se­ries.

It’s the fat-tire rid­ing that brings me to Italy’s Tus­cany re­gion, flow­ing with rolling hill­sides, and rich with vine­yards and olive groves. A cou­ple sin­gle­tracks off the beaten path and I’ll be tack­ling a steep moun­tain­side’s tech­ni­cal fea­tures near Vinci, the town where, you guessed it, Leonardo da Vinci was born.

I first fly into Rome and take in this area’s his­tor­i­cal sights for a cou­ple days be­fore hop­ping on a high-speed train to Florence, roughly 300 km north. My rented villa is lo­cated one hour south in San Gimignano: a walled, me­dieval town known for its tower houses and hill­top set­ting above Tus­cany. The villa’s owner is in the midst of har­vest­ing for wine. I hike through the rows of vines and sam­ple the plump, sugar-filled grapes. Along with the white and red grapes they cul­ti­vate here, the olive groves also sus­pend heavy fruit from their branches. Soon the olives will be pressed into oil and served in lo­cal cafés and restau­rants. Even with the idyl­lic fea­tures that sur­round my new abode, the bike calls. I am ea­ger to hit the trails mapped out for a six-hour ex­cur­sion.

Along with two rid­ers from Cal­i­for­nia, I plan to team up with a lo­cal guide who can show me a sweet net­work of trails. Gian Domenico Ortino of Tus­cany

mtb Guide has promised a great trek past an­cient vil­lages, val­leys, stone farm­houses and sin­gle­track chal­lenges through Mon­tal­bano Park. Since I am driv­ing a rented Fiat and don’t mind brav­ing the nar­row roads of Italy’s coun­try­side, we de­cide to ren­dez-vous in Em­poli, about 30 km west of Florence. As I park near an un­der­pass, I watch a group of cy­clists breeze by, tack­ling the hilly ter­rain at a good pace. I follow Ortino’s ve­hi­cle, loaded with a mix of Can­non­dale and Spe­cial­ized 29ers as we make our way north to a camp­ing vil­lage called San Giusto. A col­lec­tion of bik­ers are suit­ing up, some with full gear to tackle the steep de­scents. Oth­ers are more lightly equipped. Our group sad­dles up, clips in and starts the climb up a road that leads us to the head of the trails. Af­ter a cou­ple of short, steep climbs, we hit a nice sec­tion of trail with ex­treme switch­backs. Some of us are off the bike and can’t quite make the sharp cor­ners. I’m man­ag­ing OK and, once used to the rented bike, find I’m ma­noeu­vring the turns quite well. We are on a 7-km stretch of tight rid­ing; our speed slow­ing to han­dle the turns. I learn that the lo­cals build most of these

“I can’t find a hor­ri­ble bot­tle of wine in this re­gion.”

trails and this sec­tion en­tirely.

Up next, we hit a speedy de­scent, which is wel­com­ing af­ter the slow switch­backs and steep climbs it took us to get here. I have to rely heav­ily on my front brake as I hit some 80-de­gree de­scents, let­ting my back tire follow on its own with­out lock­ing it up.

It is busy on the trails with run­ners as well as cy­clists. I note a so­cial friend­li­ness between the groups. There’s only English in our lit­tle cir­cle between me and my two Amer­i­can peers, but I hear rid­ing jar­gon through­out the trails. I seem to un­der­stand the ban­ter at cer­tain fea­tures. I guess we cy­clists have a lan­guage all our own.

We come to a clear­ing, pass a stone farm­house and even­tu­ally look upon the town of Vinci. We’re atop a land­scape that seems un­changed from da Vinci’s time.

We con­tinue to cut our way through the steep moun­tain­side. I keep my eyes look­ing for­ward most of the time to catch the tech­ni­cal fea­tures that come up fast. But, I take a mo­ment to look around and re­al­ize just how sharp the an­gles are that we’re rid­ing. Vine­yards and olive groves are ev­ery­where in the dis­tance. The canopy of trees shel­ters us from the sun. The weather is perfect. This is the same re­gion where Gino Bar­tali risked his life by smug­gling doc­u­ments in his bike in wartime Italy to save Jews.

The next day I re­turn to San Gimignano for lunch. I find the Leonardo da Vinci

mu­seum and stop at a café close by. I eat cap­rese salad with a house red; both tast­ing like noth­ing I’ve ever had back home. I can’t find a hor­ri­ble bot­tle of wine in this re­gion. A cou­ple from Saskatchewan I be­friend tell me that even the bot­tle they bought for roughly a dol­lar was good. On my drive back to the villa, I pass casas with vine­yards for front gar­dens. From Rome to Tus­cany, shops and kiosks sell just as many cy­cling jer­seys and bike mem­o­ra­bilia as mini Colos­se­ums and Lean­ing Tow­ers of Pisa. To visit the Tus­cany re­gion is to fall in love with the hill­sides and their culi­nary riches. But to cy­cle here is to get in­side a quin­tes­sen­tial and re­mark­able cul­ture that holds a true re­spect for cy­cling and its place in his­tory.

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