Gravel. Even the word sounds uncomfortable. At odds to my road biking world. Gravel bikes are the fashion du jour, bikes with wider and wider tyres, cycling magazines brimming with inverted black and white photos, black tarmac lines replaced with stark white trails.
Not for me. I like smooth. I like a clean bike. I like being able to corner at speed. I like being economical with innertubes.
Yet here I was in Tuscany with a bike, a road bike, but still. The rolling Tuscan landscape is famed for its white gravel roads, the Strade Bianche, and the ride that started it all L’Eroica. Not that I originally had any such plans.
Trip booked 6 months earlier after watching the Strade Bianche road race, clearly I’d been more excited about gravel back then. I’d planned some routes but without deliberately aiming for the white roads, I’d assumed I might hit some here and there, and that would have been enough for me.
Fast forward 6 months. I was tired. Bang in the middle of hill climb training, I must have imagined the lumpy land would serve as something akin to hill climb base miles.
Day 1 and I steadfastly avoided the white gravel roads. The white roads were there to be photographed not ridden. I headed to the hills and twisted that way and this way, yet for all for the fun, my ride lacked adventure. The scenery was little better than my local rides in Essex. I knew I had to re-plan my remaining rides and seek the gravel.
Resting that night I began looking at the route of L’Eroica, amazingly, for the first time. The vintage ride is an annual event every October, requiring you to dress up like your grandpa used to, more wool than the farmyard. Bike, if you can call it that, must be steel and of a certain pre-1987 vintage, aka older than some of the riders.
The route can also be ridden anytime and is permanently signposted. A beast at 213km with almost 4,000 metres of climbing, taking most about 15hrs to complete. Remember this is gravel. You will ride slower. Especially the hills, slow up, cautious down. I was 20% slower on gravel than the tarmac.
By pure chance my accommodation was in the middle of the route. Splitting this beast into two was an inspired choice, afterall you want to enjoy it, no endure it! I have full respect for those who complete the full route on an ancient bike.
L’Eroica part 1 – Irresistible smiles
September. Cool mornings and hot but bearable days. Early morning mist drapes the hills, the land still tucked in and all a slumber. I was excited, I was nervous. Would I have the handling skills to stay on my bike? Would my road bike make it given the cycle industry designs gravel specific bikes I must truly need, right? Would my measly 25mm wide tyres cope? Was my tyre pressure high enough after my arms had been hand-pumped to death?
So many needless worries. My accommodation was 2km up a gravel hill. An instant introduction to dirt riding. Tentative, I set off. I was slow and apprehensive but I passed the first test. Good job considering the many miles of gravel ahead.
The first stretch of proper gravel was the hardest. A short detour from the smooth road up a 20% gravel track to Murlo. A small citadel village, 30 houses at most. Early and eerily quiet, I was afraid to let my freewheel click lest I woke the village, or its guard dogs.
Onwards. Pristine white roads, the first section coming as a big surprise when I hit gravel on a 30mph descent. Whoa! Bike moving differently beneath me as if alive with a will of its own, a slithering snake. The occasional cars blasting past, plumes of white smoke trailing in their wake, like riding through clouds but without the mountain climb.
A smile hit my face. It had been quite a while since I’d had this much fun on a bike. The scene was set.
A typical cypress tree lined gravel road. A long, 9 mile grind upwards, the steep gradient a battle for oxygen, for traction. Must stay seated. It was just as the Strava segment advertised. Almost an hour! Evil indeed.
The route is all up and down, interspersed with the odd flat run where you can put the hammer down. The route offers nowhere to hide from the sun, from the wind. It must be quite the route in a fierce headwind.
The scenery constantly changing. From scorched brown land parched by a long hot summer, to lush green vineyards, grapes organised in meticulous rows. Beautiful.
The day done. Bike, face, lungs dusty. A cold swimming pool awaited, taking the breath away in more ways than one.
L’Eroica part 2 – The price of fun
Giddy. Like a child. Gravel conquered, nervous energy replaced with excitement. What a transformation. From roadie to gravel warrior in a single day. Little did I know the best was still to come, so too the true test.
L’Eroica takes mini-detours through the many villages which must be food stops and packed with people for the sportive. Don’t skip these even if riding the route solo, it’s a joy to ride through these historic centres and a stark contrast to being alone on the gravel all day.
First up was Monte Saint Marie sector, a stretch of gravel so famous it has its own plaque. Not that I’d heard of it before riding it. 11.5km later I understood why this sector was so famed. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s damn hard.
Beautifully bleak, the white road in stark contrast to the brooding skies. Gravel deeper, climbs steeper, breaths shorter. Already tired legs well and truly softened up. The effort was beginning to show.
Chianti country called. Home to perhaps the world’s most famous grape juice and some of Italy’s most stunning views. Grapes and olives as far as the eye can see, white roads lined with rows of Cypress trees standing in a guard of honour. Stunning.
Done. A hard, hard day in the saddle. Fortunately the sunsets are enough to distract you from the pain.
A fantastic route. If you only have one day in Tuscany, ride the second part of this route. Chop the very southern bit off and head into Siena for a glorious day on the bike.
Feel the ride
Taste the chalky dust, hear the crunch of the gravel beneath the tyres, see the stunning scenery and feel your legs ache just watching this highlights reel.