Tim, Alex and Paddy mid way through the trip to Rome
Tim, Alex and Paddy head from Nice to Rome
Day 4 – Sestri Levante to Forte dei Marmi
Tim awoke at 6:20am to find that all of the lights in the hotel room were still on. Evidently, we had all fallen asleep whilst discussing the next day’s route. The light was promptly turned off and another 30 minutes of deep sleep were enjoyed before breakfast. The breakfast was fantastic, again with each of us filling our faces with everything available, watching the sun rise over the sea as we did.
The day’s journey saw us take off towards Forte dei Marmi, via the beautiful Cinque Terre and Portovenere. The ride was particularly difficult for the first several of hours due to the mountains, and we were actually quite grateful that we had encountered the difficulties the day before as it allowed our legs at least some rest. Unfortunately, the terrain from Montarosso to Portovenere was not possible to cycle (much of it being stepped pathways only) and even if it were, it would have taken much longer than we had anticipated due to the sheer size and gradient of the hills. We therefore had to take a ferry from Vernazza (one of the 5 towns of Cinque Terre) to Portovenere. We had a real struggle to carry our bikes onto the fully occupied ferry, but were greeted warmly by all on board, who showed interest in the charity cycle. We arrived in Portovenere just in time for Alex’s chain to snap. This was a further set back. Although Tim was able to work his magic on fixing the chain by removing the broken links, a new chain was required in order that Alex could use the lower gears. We therefore cycled over the hills into La Spezia in order to find a bike shop (our third of the journey). The ride, however, was one of the most enjoyable of the entire trip, passing beautiful and secluded coastal towns along the way. La Spezia also offered a lot of character and great architecture, as we made our way in and out after a quick chain replacement to Alex’s bike.
After La Spezia (now with less time than we had hoped), we made our way further along the coast to Forte dei Marmi. This was a much welcomed flat journey, with some beautiful mountains en route. Despite being short on time, the opportunity had to be taken on a water break to take a dip in the Italian ocean. Despite being a very short beach trip, it was much needed and thoroughly enjoyed! The next 30km was along a very straight, flat American-style road which offered little in the way of variation. We reached our destination just as the sun was setting (following a few wrong turns and some poor directions given by locals – who then hunted us down to apologise for inadvertently giving the wrong directions and to divert us back on to the correct roads!), and headed out to reload on carbs and gelato. Forte dei Marmi was a very unexpected town, being a holiday destination for many wealthy Italians – this was evident by the fact that it cost us EUR 18 to go 1 mile down the road in a taxi!
Approximate distance covered: 93km
Day 5 – Forte dei Marmi to Florence
Day 5 saw the start of a big 3 days of cycling. Not only were we going to be covering longer distances than we had in previous days (playing catch up) but we would also encounter some tough hills. The first part of our journey was enjoyable insofar as the roads continued to be flat and we were surrounded by fantastic landscapes. However, before long, the roads became extremely cracked and ridden with pot holes, which made for a very uncomfortable ride. We expected that this would be a short term problem but, in fact, the roads remained in this condition throughout the majority of the journey. There were also a good number of wagons that honked their horns at us to pull over so that they could pass on the narrow lanes – this didn’t help our esteem or our nerves.
We stopped for an early morning snack outside of Lucca, at a small roadside lodge. We took our time and refuelled in the 28 degrees heat. We then set off and rode through the small historical town of Lucca, where were fortunate enough to stop at a cycle shop owned by a former Tour de France competitor. We duly had our bikes checked over, air pumped into our tyres and a cheeky snapshot with the 1986 participant before heading on to Florence. This was where life became difficult. There were two large mountains standing between us and Florence, and the simplest and quickest way to get there would be to cut South between the two and then head East to Florence. This worked well in theory, but with a multitude of road options and a distinct lack of road signs, we had to depend upon the very few locals that we encountered on this quiet part of the trip. Typically, some of the directions were quite amazingly incorrect. At one point, Tim sought directions from one man at a shop whilst, just 3 feet away from him, Alex sought directions from another. Their directions would have taken us in polar opposite directions to one another. Nevertheless, we found ourselves back on the right track, with enough time to stop for a late afternoon snack…at McDonalds. This was probably the worst decision of the trip and, as any person who has ever eaten McDonalds will know, it is not conjusive to a good workout thereafter. Fortunately we survived the early evening lethargic stint of the journey and, despite it taking longer than expected, we arrived at our destination – yet again just as the sun dropped out of the sky. The evening was a very quick one, as we refuelled and hit the hay for as much sleep as we could get.
Approximate distance covered: 150km (due to large mountains!)
Day 6 – Florence to Siena
Day 6 started slowly, partly because we just could resist taking in some of what Florence had to offer, having seen nothing the night before. It would have been an insult to this great city had we just headed straight out, and so we took a 1 hour bus tour of Florence before donning the cycling gear and setting on our way to Siena.
Day 6 was, on reflection, the toughest day of the journey. We had done our research on Tuscany and the hills, but most of the accounts we had read were written by people covering short distances without 17kg of weight on the back of their bikes! Thus, when we actually got down to it, it was much more difficult than expected. Although the gradients were not particularly steep, the roads were several kilometres long for each incline, which in the heat and without a sea breeze was extremely difficult. There were a number of occasions when we became disheartened by the locals’ reactions to our remaining journey when we sought directions, and again some of the direction we were given were very poor. We stopped for a lunch time break at a vineyard, the most tempting part of the trip! We were able to avoid sampling any of the local Chianti wines but did indulge in a fantastic lunch of pasta and antipasti – without doubt the best meal of the journey. Thereafter, we hit the roads and despite a lull in performance for the early part of the afternoon, we got a second wind which saw us through to Siena just in time for sunset and absolutely knackered. Siena, though, brought us to life for a few hours with its vibrant city life as rock bands performed in multiple areas amongst the ancient city, people flocked to the square and we indulged in some more great Italian food before bed.
Siena to Orbetello (via Grosseto)
The cycling out of Siena was as hilly as the way in, and this continued throughout almost the entirely of the journey, with little reprieve in between. The saying that “it gets easier as you go along” had been cursed on the previous days, but began to hold some truth on day 7. Whether our muscles were numb or they were finally becoming used to the hills, the fatigue didn’t kick in so quickly and we were able to sustain our energy levels for longer than we had done on previous days.
The journey was, of course, very tough and again not without incident. We would have ended up on the Auto Strada (the motorway - not for the first time) but to be heavily beeped by drivers wishing not to witness or be involved in our demise…and Paddy managed to fall off his bike in front of a tour bus whilst still being clipped in. Only his pride was hurt, thankfully. The highlight of the day had to be enjoying a traditional Italian bruschetta at a small Italian restaurant atop a hill, the owners of which were an elderly couple with great humour and as much zest for life (and wine) as anyone in their early 20’s. After pushing through some quiet towns we eventually made our way towards the coast to Grosetto, and then down to Orbetello, a beautiful little town surrounded by the sea (almost an island, but not quite). We enjoyed a huge homemade lasagne for 4 (plus much more I might add) before Alex gave a Henry V style speech to motivate his comrades ahead of the 5:30am rise.
Approximate distance covered: 135km