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The Story Which Must Be Told

by on September 19, 2013

On Thursday, September 12, while Clint P and I were in Tuscany, Italy on vacation a simple bike ride was planned.  Clint had discovered the previous day that mountain bikes were available for use by those staying at Borgo di Vagli.  Immediately Clint could not be contained.  We tested out the bikes, found them to be adequate and planned a coffee run into the nearby town of Mercatale.

It was a crisp, cool morning, perfect for what we expected to be an easy ride into town and a much more challenging return.  Our spouses armed with cameras were ready to send us off on the adventure.  We had no maps, just an elevation profile and a text description of the trail.  We launched down the trail and came to an abrupt stop within the first 30 meters.  The trail was a steep downhill and very narrow and neither of us had sufficient control to make it safe to ride this initial section of the route.  Our spouses had urged us to take the road rather than the trail, and within those first 30 meters, we agreed that the women had a good idea.

We turned around, made our way back to the 2k long gravel road and chose the alternative route.

You would think this would be easy.  Shifting was through handlebar grip shifters.  On the first uphill of many, as I stood on the pedals I twisted the right grip shifter and immediately found myself shifted into a sufficiently large gear that climbing the hill was impossible.  I got off and walked to the top.  The gravel on the road was loose, and we found ourselves attempting to maintain control on the downhills and finding the right torque on the uphills.  Have I said that this was my first ride ever on a mountain bike?

Soon enough those first 2 kilometers of gravel were behind us and we had paved road and all downhill to the town where coffee and pastries were calling our names.  We kept the speed down under 35 mph.  Not only were these bikes new to us, but both had semi-inflated tires.  We had not been able to locate a tire pump before setting off on our journey.

In Mercatale Clint ordered a chocolate filled pastry along with his cappuccino and I simply had an espresso.  We ate/sipped outside under clear blue skies.  Before returning to our villa, we located a small gas station with an air hose and gauge and topped off each of the tires.  They had been under-inflated by 50%.  We started back the way we came, stopping for a photo with the hill and the castle in the background.  It then occurred to me that taking the trail back might not only be more interesting than the highway, but also since we were more confident on the bike, much more enjoyable.  We backtracked into Mercatale, found the terminus of the route, and began to make our way up toward Borgo di Vagli.

I say up, because that is indeed what it was.  It started as pavement, then turned to gravel.  Over the next mile and a half we climbed about 800 feet with an average grade of 10% … a Category 3 climb, although it felt much more like an HC classification ride.  We stopped as needed to take in the scenery, to get our breathing back in control, and to make sure we were on the right route.  Near the very peak of our climb back “home” the fun really started.

We encountered a rather large meadow on the side of a mountain.  The terrain was steep and it looked like the trail crossed the meadow.  We followed the “trail” (the gravel had been left behind quite some time ago) and saw an abandoned stone building that must have been at least 200 years old.  We continued to descend down the steep hillside of the meadow, convinced we had found the trail at the bottom.  Before we got to the bottom of the meadow, Clint started to lose control of his bike, the rear wheel not biting well in the grass and loose rocky soil and in an instant was suddenly flying over his handlebars landing in a heap with the bike on top of him.  I asked if he was ok as I carefully moved past him on the downhill.  As he was saying he was ok, I repeated his performance.  I landed in some raspberry bushes full of sharp thorns.  Clint helped me up, we dusted ourselves off, and other than some bruising and scratches, we both seemed to be ok.  The bikes were fine.

Continuing downhill, we discovered that the meadow did not end with a trail.  We pushed our bikes back up the 20-30% grade to another flat spot that was the promising start to the trail and found it was also impassable.  It was then I decided I was not going to push the heavy bike around while I searched out the trail head.  I laid the bike down, as did Clint, and I took off up very steep terrain to find the trail.  Meanwhile, Clint returned to his bike, and pushed it up to the old cabin.  He returned to push my bike uphill … and couldn’t find the bike.  Meanwhile, I struck out on finding the trail.  I texted Sherry telling her we were lost and would be delayed.  Worse case scenario would be to return to Mercatalie and head back via the road.  I called out to Clint, found him, and he asked me if I had moved my bike.  I hadn’t.  Back down the hill we went and sure enough, the bike was gone.

We walked back up hill, re-orienting ourselves, and went back to where the bike should be.  It was still gone.  This is an example of trying to repeat something often enough until you get the result you want.  I then rewound the tape in my head, remembered that after our crash we had walked the bike up and to the left onto another flat spot on the side of the mountain.  As I’m retracing my steps to that new spot, Clint sees a metallic glint that turns out to be the bike.  I grab it, and we make our way to the old building where we hope Clint’s bike remains.  As the bike is being pushed up the hill, I hear the unmistakable sound of an air leak in a tire.  I quickly find the spot that is leaking, but we have no repair tools for the impending flat.  Arriving at Clint’s bike, his rear tire is completely flat, and we still don’t know where the trail is.

Going back to our text directions, I read the directions as if we had left on the trail from Borgo di Vagli and discover that the instructions say that when you get to a meadow, stay left and do not be lured into the meadow.  Reversing that, we made our way to the place where we had entered the meadow, and there in front of us plain as day was the trail we should have taken.  We had not seen it previously.

It was now a matter of riding the remaining 3/4 mile to our villa over narrow trails and some steep hills.  We crossed a couple of small streams.  Clint rode the flat and I rode a softening front tire.  When the trail narrowed even further, we hopped off the bikes and walked uphill the last couple of hundred meters, breaking into the lawn where our adventure had started quite some time ago.

The Garmin I carried in my pocket recorded the entire trip.  We completed 8.6 miles in what seemed like an all morning adventure.

I have a new respect for mountain bikers.  We frequently were on the edge of being out of control on the descents.  I may comfortably ride inches from other riders while traveling at speeds above 20 mph, but going down steep hills on loose soil with ineffective braking is a whole different kind of riding.


Our Route!

Elevation Profile: The green shaded area is the Cat 3 climb out of Mercatale.

Elevation Profile: The green shaded area is the Cat 3 climb out of Mercatale.



Chilling before the ride back

Chilling before the ride back

We have to climb above that castle

We have to climb above that castle

Clint climbs the lonely road

Clint climbs the lonely road before it gets really steep.

A fun time was had by all!






From → Cycling

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