FORT KENT, Maine — There comes a moment amid the vineyards, olive groves and pasta when the enormity of cycling through the Tuscan countryside hits.
“There was a point when all of the other cyclists were either way ahead or way behind me,” Christine Chasse said. “There was no traffic and all I could hear was my own breathing and the sounds of the Tuscan countryside [and] it was extraordinary.”
Chasse, a Fort Kent native now living in the Portland area, was among 11 cyclists who spent a week earlier this month in Tuscany exploring that hilly region on two wheels, logging close to 200-miles over four days of riding.
Not bad for someone who hadn’t been on a bicycle for about 16 years.
“I went on my first bike ride in like 16 years with my sister-in-law and brother in late July up in Eagle Lake,” Chasse said. “I finally bought my bike in early August and then Lori [Wilson] and I took long rides on the weekends to try to get in shape.”
Wilson, also originally from Aroostook County and now in the Portland area, was training for the same Tuscany trip — organized by Fresh Trails Adventures in Caribou — and said it did not take much convincing on the part of her friend.
“Christine thought it would be a great vacation to cycle through Europe,” Wilson said. “I was hoping she’d choose Tuscany [because] there is so much history, charm, unbelievable landscape, pasta and vino, who’d want to pass that by?”
Calling herself a “casual” road cyclist, Wilson said she had previously trained for a few sprint triathlons and this summer combined that with some distance rides with Chasse, some hill work and group rides.
“The hills [in Tuscany] were challenging, but doable,” Wilson said. “Tuscany is beautiful and I was able to ride the hills on a bike — it left me speechless.”
The group, which included fellow northern Mainers Sam and Lise Collins of Caribou and Fresh Trails’ Mark Rossignol, Trish Martin, Dave Chamberlain and Scott Walton along with Kathy and Dave Smith of Massachusetts, based their Tuscan adventure out of the Medieval city of Siena.
From there, they cycled to ancient hilltop villages with names that roll off the tongue like Monteriggioni, Radda and Montalcino; explored abbeys and churches like San Galgano, San Antimo and Castelo di Meleto; or took time to stop an smell the Chianti in Castellina and Radicondoli.
“One of my main objectives for the trip was to expose people to one of the most beautiful cycling regions in the world,” Rossignol said. “Also to a certain rhythm of life — ‘La vita vera Italiano’ — the true, Tuscan way.”
For Lise Collins, the trip did all that and more.
“It was everything we hoped for — the sites, great cycling [and I] made new friends,” she said. “The sightseeing always made the ride worth it.”
Make no mistake about it, cycling in Tuscany is challenging with long climbs and thrilling descents, but those on the trip were more than up for it.
“It can seem intimidating but once you look back and realize the ascent you have just conquered, it is a great feeling,” Collins said. “This is a beautiful region [with] a sense of history, great vineyards [and] amazing architecture.”
Exploring a region by bicycle, Chasse said, allows for a more personal experience.
“You interact with the people in a different way,” she said. “Plus, you’ll be active so you’ll feel great and you can eat all you want.”
Food was a big part of the trip and participants were introduced to regional favorites like cinghiale — wild boar — sausage, Pecorino cheeses and that Tuscan-specific pasta “pici,” which resembles fat spaghetti and is often served with a basic tomato and garlic sauce accompanied by the ever-present bread and olive oil.
Then there were the wines — rich, red Chianti’s from that region and the flavorful Brunellos produced from the vineyards surrounding Montalcino.
In fact, the group rode past farmers harvesting those vineyards as they swooped down dozens of switchbacks on an eight-kilometer descent to the Abbey of San Antimo, a Romanesque building from the 12th century that’s still active today.
“The switchbacks were deceiving,” Wilson said. “We would be riding up a very windy, hilly road and just when you’d think the hill was going to end you turn another corner and look at the next hill you had to climb [and] once at the top you look back down the hill and realize how far you came — what an accomplishment.”
What goes up, must come down and for Chasse, those created some of the bigger challenges.
“I was scared a few times because of the traffic and especially on the down hills with the switchbacks,” Chasse said, “But whenever I got scared I literally just willed myself to be safe and luckily it worked out.”
Italians, it turns out, have a high regard for cyclists and while vehicular driving in that country very much resembles a competitive sport, cyclists are treated with respect and caution by drivers.
All the participants cycle at home — Lise Collins alone put in close to 800 miles in preparing for the trip and her husband Sam is a regular on nightly group rides and is an avid cyclist — but logistics forced them to leave their own bicycles at home.
Instead, Fresh Trails arranged for high-end road bikes to be waiting in Siena, along with a support van for those needing a break from the hills and unseasonable Tuscan fall heat.
It was hard not to come under the magic spell that is Tuscany and Lise Collins said her afternoon at the 13th century Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano made a lasting impression.
“That afternoon at the open air church, the silence, the feel of the stone [and] the blueness of the sky will stay with me,” she said.
The Gothic abbey — now in ruins — was built to honor the 12th century Tuscan nobleman Galgano Guidotti who renounced a life of arrogance, lust and violence to become a hermit after seeing a vision of the Archangel Michael.
According to the story, Guidotti plunged his sword into a rock to symbolize his rejection of war.
Some believe this is where the original myths of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table originated.
Viewing Tuscany from a bicycle is at times challenging, exhilarating and just plain hard work, but what’s waiting around the next bend in the road or at the top of those switchbacks is always worth the effort.
“Perhaps the hidden message of all this can be summarized by the French phrase, ‘rien sans la peine,’ which essentially means that anything worthwhile is not without planning, preparation, effort and — sometimes — pain or discomfort,” Rossignol said. “To enjoy the downhill, one must suffer up the hill — there is a grand metaphor somewhere up there in Tuscany.”
BDN freelancer Julia Bayly was among the 11 Fresh Trails cyclists in Tuscany last month.