The Vacation Within the Vacation – Florence, Italy

How do you start a “vacation within a vacation”? Stumbling around the room of your B&B in the dark at 5AM trying to bolt your bike together while trying not to wake your wife or get grease on any of the furnishings in the room, that’s how. I know this because that is exactly what I was doing my first morning in Italy while in a complete, jetlagged daze.  My wife and I had just arrived the night before around 8PM, checked in, found our friend’s apartment (luckily only a ten minute walk) where we had a late dinner and wine (of course!) after 14 hrs cooped up in various planes.  And now after 4 hours of fitful sleep I was fiddling around in the dark playing bike mechanic. Nothing like hitting the ground running the first morning of a relaxing vacation.

I never said that trying to fit a daily bike ride into what is decidedly NOT a cycling vacation is easy, but it can be done.  Of course the first thing you need (if you don’t want to rent wherever you go) is a bike you can travel with without paying exorbitant airline fees.  A few years ago I picked up a Ritchey Breakaway Cross for just these sorts of trips.  To date I’ve never paid a “bike” fee while flying with this bike, and I’ve always had fun bolting it together that first morning of the trip – or so I tell myself.  It’s worth it to me once I get out on the road and start riding, especially this time when the ride coincided with a gorgeous sunrise on the Arno Rover as I hit the slippery Italian pavement following a gpx track downloaded beforehand.

Consider yourself warned about following routes downloaded off the internet: you’d be surprised at how many of them go the wrong way up narrow one-way streets.  Or maybe since this is Italy they just do things differently?  Almost becoming a Fiat’s hood ornament seems very Italian.

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I’ve had a little bit of a checkered past with this bike as this is my third frame.  The first 2 cracked at the head tube after a couple of seasons (I also race cross in the fall with it) but Ritchey has always replaced it promptly.  To be fair, at 6’3″ 220 lbs and riding a 60cm frame I’m probably at the upper limit of this design – especially for a bike I ride quite frequently.  Regardless, their customer service has always been excellent.

The build on the beast is straightforward: SRAM Rival with a few Force components mainly.  A compact 50-34 crankset up front with a 32 for the large cog out back allows me to ride road or dirt when combined with some meatier tires, and that 32 tooth cog got quite the workout in Italy!  It turns out that the Old World tends to be much steeper than the New World I’m accustomed to riding.  Or maybe we’re just fatter in the New World?

Since I knew I’d be riding some dirt roads on this trip I chose to lever some Clement XPLOR USH 35’s tires onto HED Belgium 32 spokers laced to Ultegra hubs. The wheels are bulletproof and last well when packed up and subjected to baggage handling gorillas, just as you’d expect from a product named “Belgium”.  The tires roll well on pavement yet grip on dirt trails, especially when you possess mad skills like I do (just seeing if anyone is reading this sentence and cares to debate my cloke of internet invincibility – we’re all heroes on the internet right?).

One thing that is not up for debate is the beauty of Florence and the surrounding area. From one side of the valley to the other, the scenery is astounding.  As a bike geek, the fact that Florence has hosted the Giro d’Italia and the World Championships adds to the allure of the place.  For an Italian city, Florence also seemed to be the home of many cycling enthusiasts whom I encountered out on the roads, something I (of course) find appealing.  It’s gorgeous, and each ride that I managed to squeeze in reinforced that fact as I examined the area from different angles.

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As my introduction to cycling in Italy it was the perfect city.  The traffic in the city, while slightly crazy, did not approach the madness of a place like Rome (more on that in the next post).  Once out of the city and onto the narrow back roads leading up into the hills the wisdom of a vacation within a vacation and lugging a bike around Europe crystallized in the light of the rising Tuscan sun.  It burned (along with my legs) on the 30% climbs on the way to the town of Fisole…

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On the other side of the valley on my way to Impruneta, the cats of the Church of San Michele a Monteripaldi paused for a moment in silent agreement before scampering away.  Coming across a church built in the 1100’s out here in the quiet countryside made me feel somewhat young again.

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A few miles of the famed Strada Bianche “White Roads” of Tuscany showed their appeal as they rolled through the olive groves, the silence of the morning punctuated by the grinding of their stones beneath my tires as pheasant, deer and hare scurried away into the undergrowth upon my approach.  A pleasant “buongiorno” from an elderly man out for his morning walk cemented my street cred with the locals.  Tourists don’t spend their mornings riding their bikes up incredibly steep roads, right?  Well most of them don’t, but maybe they should.

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For a moment the fog of jetlag within my brain lifted and revealed the truth: there’s never enough time to do the things we truly enjoy in life and seeing the world on a bike is nothing short of perfect.  The pace is not too fast, yet not too slow.  While the “vacation” portion of our visit to Florence can only be described in superlatives (great food, great culture, great wine, great company), the “vacation within” was much too short indeed.  Some day, somehow, some way I need to return to Tuscany and venture off into those distant hills for a few days on my bike.  The riding I was able to squeeze in while visiting this area only hinted at the possibilities for exploration.

Just as I said on numerous occasions after having a delicious glass of wine while in Italy: I want more.  More time in Tuscany, more time to travel, more time to discover all the beautiful places in the world.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets” – Arthur Miller

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Up next: Riding the Appian Way from Rome

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