Luciano's quads are the size of my waist. They are large enough to cast their own shadow...whereas mine are definitely not. I continue to pedal furiously behind the spandex clad Italian, fighting to keep the train car attached and not be the weak link in our mini-peleton. In cycling, the group always moves faster together, and if you fall off the back, well — your ride is done.
The group is moving quickly through the streets of Montecatini Terme, about 15km from where we started this excursion as three cyclists, but have now grown to a group of six — as seems commonplace on the streets of Tuscany. I take note of every instance where I would have been roadkill in North America for having cut into the opposing lane of traffic to beat a slow moving line of cars at a light, or for riding more or less in the middle of the road with a stack of cars behind me. These would all be offenses punishable by mad-honking, aggressive near-grazing, and wildly flippant middle fingers where I am from, but here — it is fair game. Bicycles kind of own the road (save for the occasional angry old man).
Cycling in Tuscany carries a long tradition, and has been home to some of history’s greatest cyclists like the late Franco Ballerini, and more recently, the Italian “bambino prodigio” Vincenzo Nibali. Even without the names, cycling is just part of the daily culture here in Tuscany.
It’s totally normal to see many groups of people riding during the daily pisolino (rest), and on weekends in ostensibly large groups. Nowhere is this history more engrained than in the calves of the 60-plus year-old men that pass me like I am standing still on the legendary climbs in the San Baronto area. These senior citizens have ridden a lifetimes worth of miles in these hills, and it shows — both in their calves, and their faces.
The ride has taken a turn for the steep as we begin the ascent up Montecatini Alto. Until this point, we had ridden a tight pace line along the main roads followed by a Pacman-esque dodge through traffic, but it's in this first section of climbing out of the main town of Montecatini where I'm really starting to feel out of my depth.
I quickly realize that I will not be able to keep pace with the locals on this ride. I don’t know if it’s the old-school "big gears" on my borrowed Colnago, or the shoes and bike that are both too small, or the fact that I probably drank too much wine last night, or that I’m just plain out of shape compared to this lot — but I ease off the gas in hopes of having enough left to survive this mountainous assault. Thankfully I have my fellow Canadian friend Paul to keep me company at the back as I turn myself inside out trying to keep pace.
We continue the ascent up the mountain. Thankfully Luciano and crew have generously stopped for water at what appears to be somebody’s house and waited for us, otherwise lord only knows where he would be by now at the speed he was riding. To be honest, I don’t remember how steep the climb was. Maybe it wasn’t even that steep, but I know I was working to excess. For a moment after the rest stop, I fool myself into thinking I might be able to beat Luciano to the summit. Refreshed from the quick break I surge pass Luciano along a slightly inclined road lined by a canopy of leafy trees gone yellow with the season. I’m soaring at a whopping seventeen kilometres an hour, but more importantly, I’m ahead of Luciano’s quads!
There is no better feeling than the feeling of peak fitness; however, that is not the burning sensation that is quickly making my legs feel like wooden blocks being held to a fire. My delusions of grandeur are quickly checked by reality as I round a corner and am faced with yet another steep pitch. Luciano blows by me like it’s his job — acknowledging my naivety with a quick backward glance and boastful smirk.
In reality, crushing me is not his job. I know this because we picked him up at a plastics factory where he emerged in blue coveralls and told us to wait while he got changed. If he had just worn the coveralls I wouldn’t have been as intimidated by his massive legs. I wonder if pasta here is different than back in Canada? Does it somehow go straight to your quadricep muscles instead of your ass like it does back home? Nobody could confirm this theory for me, but I’m sure the locals would find it holds something other than water.
Speaking of legs, or gambe in Italiano, mine are on fire right about now. I’ve been shelled by Luciano, and my friend Paul has caught up to me — I guess I’m not even faster than him at this point, but he deserves more credit than I’m giving him, he does have two kids, a wife, and a full time job. No offence, but these things are generally not conducive to being a fast cyclist. I, on the other hand, am completely single and free of responsibility; soul searching my way through the nether regions of Italy. I’m out of excuses.
Upon my arrival in Tuscany, Paul had taken me riding with his friend Manu, who I had dished a thorough plate of Canadian whoop ass to — despite my questionable fitness. His cursing at me from behind in Italian had given me false hope that the ten years of cycling I had left in the rearview about the same number of years ago, might return for this trip, and that I might prove to be something other than a wash-up who once had potential — I was wrong.
We approach the long awaited summit of this particular climb and my hairless little Canadian legs are about done; any remains of that initial confidence that Manu had given me — smashed.
Incidentally, the only reason my legs are hairless has little to do with my supposed cycling superiority, or genetics, and everything to do with an attractive, but merciless woman named Silvia. After a few rides in Tuscany it was declared by Paul that I couldn’t ride with the group if I didn’t adhere to a hairless leg policy. It had been a long time since I shaved my legs, but no worries, that wasn’t the plan anyway. I met Silvia as she instructed me to strip off my trousers and without haste began to tear my leg fur out by the follicles until none remained. "It’s okay," she told me. All the men are doing it — including Luciano.
At this point in the ride we cruise past another small mountainside village consisting of a cafe, store, and an assortment residences all tucked away along the narrow road. Luciano’s hairless, massive, shadow-casting quads, and the rest of the group thankfully turn around and head back to work. Paul and I soft pedal our way across the remaining hills through the mountainside town of Avaglio. My legs, tired as they are, slowly return to some kind of normal feeling.
Roads in Italy are special. It’s like they were designed to cycle on. I mean, it totally sucks to walk anywhere (no sidewalks in many places), but bikes seem to work here. The roads are narrow, they’re twisty, they’re steep, they’re perfectly cambered — so many features that make this place like an adventure playground for perfect road cycling.
The name of the descent out of the hills around Montecatini escapes me, but I do know that it is one of the most spectacular scenes I have ever witnessed on a bike. Flowing through the seemingly endless, perfectly cambered switchbacks, and watching the rising vista of distinctly Tuscan tree groves, as the little town below appeared closer and closer over the view of my handlebars, constantly floats somewhere in the back of my mind. It’s the closest thing to flying like a bird that I have ever felt.
Exhausted, we ride back through Montecatini Terme, then Monsumanno, past the best cappuccino shop on the face of the earth, and along the fields as the sun goes down over the small town of Larciano. I proceed to gorge myself over a delicious rustic supper consummately prepared by Paul’s zia Loura. I yell at everyone with my hands, drink too much wine, and eventually lay my head down in the bed above the converted barn amidst the olive groves — totally satisfied with life after a perfect day of cycling in the most perfect place to cycle in the world — Tuscany.
Unfortunately I awake at three a.m. in a cold sweat with visions of hairless monster legs and steep graded climbs through backroads barely wide enough for a donkey cart; a nightmare likely brought on by excessive wine consumption, hairy torn wax strips, and a body generally exhausted from living Italian life to its fullest.
Chris Stenberg is a Canadian travel photographer, filmmaker and researcher. When he’s not wielding a camera or raising a family you can find him running, biking and boarding in the mountains or eating an apple under a tree in an orchard.