TUSCANY, Italy — I’ve been bicycling most of my life, but it took coming to Tuscany to learn to be a cyclist.
I was in very good hands.
Seven cyclists had joined the trip organized by Fresh Trails Adventures of Caribou. Some of us were marking milestone birthdays or wedding anniversaries while others were celebrating the simple fact of being fit and able enough to tackle the Tuscan terrain. A terrain that is rather hilly, I might add.
Each of our riding days took us through different villages in the region. The thing is, villages in Tuscany tend to be located on the tops of hills — really high hills. So, my first lesson in becoming a Tuscan-worthy road cyclist was learning to climb those hills. That’s where Fresh Trails founder Mark Rossignol came in.
Part coach and part cheerleader, he decided on day two of our riding that it was time for me to shift out of the easiest climbing gears while ascending. It’s worth noting he decided this about halfway up to the village of Castelina in Chianti at 1,804 feet.
Dozens of switchbacks took us up and over the 10 kilometer climb offering unparalled views of olive orchards, grape vineyards and pine groves.
“Shift up, shift up,” Rossignol instructed as we turned into another step in the climb. “Push it, push it — don’t let up until you reach that sign up there,” he’d add, pointing to a road marker several hundred yards ahead.
Now, I’m the first to admit to having a long history of walking my bike up hills I’ve felt are too difficult, but thanks to Rossignol’s encouragment, I found myself sprinting up inclines that heretofore I would not have even attempted.
But the lessons were not done.
“Now we’ll get you standing on those pedals,” he called. “Shift down and stand up — NOW.”
Wobbly at first, but after a few false starts I was able to stand and pound up the steeper parts of the hills.
While nowhere near ready for the Tour de France, at least my cycling through Tuscany was not turning into a walk through Tuscany.
Up in Castelina we stopped at a vineyard for a bit of wine tasting and what had to be the most bizarre bathroom break I have ever encountered. The town’s public restroom was coin-operated, which was not all that odd. What was odd — to me, at least — was its configuration.
For 25 cents an individual gained entrance to what can best be described as a pod. Elevator doors slid open and, once one was inside, slid back shut.
To exit, a button was pushed to open the doors again and, once they shut again, a series of automatic floor and wall jets washed down the entire interior in time for the next patron.
All of this would have been enough of an experience, but when the six of us needing to avail ourselves of the facilities arrived, we realized we had no change with us.
Enter Delores, a Chicago resident also touring Tuscany.
Before we knew it, this kind woman whipped out her change purse and counted out enough euros in change for all of us to have a turn in the podlike bathroom.
That mission accomplished — thanks to Delores — it was off to the hilltop town of Radda and lunch at Piazza Dante Alighieri, where Carolyn Chambers and her husband, Fabrizio Ferrucci, serve up food so fresh it literally bursts with flavors, texture and colors.
That’s one of the best parts about working so hard cycling —- calories burned need to be replenished and a simple salad of fresh mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes and olives more than does the trick.
The double shot of espresso wasn’t bad either.
In Radda we took time to explore the winding streets and narrow alleys where medieval architecture meets head-on with 21st century lifestyle and commerce.
From there it was back to our base in Siena, and on the way it was a real lesson in what goes up, must come down. Sweeping descents down 8 kilometers of switchbacks flew by and more than made up for the challenging ascents.
But the ups were not done as Siena was at the top of another 8 kilometer climb. Halfway up, I was more than a little thankful for the caffeine and energy supplied by the espresso back in Radda.
For the final mile or so we negotiated the busy streets of Siena, often inches from city buses and traffic. But Italians love cycling and at intersections or rotaries often yield to the two-wheeled, nonmotorized vehicles sharing the road.
Siena itself is a remarkably preserved medieval town divided into 17 districts, or contrade.
Every summer 10 of those contrade are selected through a lottery to participate in one of two runnings of the Palio delle Contrade — a 3 kilometer bareback horse race around the town’s center, the Piazza del Campo.
Dating back to the sometimes bloody games of medieval knights and nobility, this race attracts more than 50,000 spectators and, the year Rossignol and his wife, Trisha, attended, landed the couple in a photograph in Sports Illustrated.
The town is also the resting place of Catherine of Siena, the Catholic saint credited with convincing Pope Gregory XI to return the papal residence to Italy from France.
History, culture, food and wine —- it’s all here in Tuscany.
Sure, there are driving and bus tours that take you among all four — and don’t think that at some points pedaling up those hills the notion of motorized transportation was not more than a little attractive — but the feeling of accomplishment that comes with the successful completion of a 75 kilometer cycling ride is hard to beat.
And neither is the large dish of chocolate gelato at the ride’s end.