They'll be here for me any minute. They'll ring the bell and I'll be off. My bike is ready, clean and oiled. My bags are packed and sit by the door. One last look at my emails and a final glance at the screensaver photo: me and my father in Rome on bikes. Saint Peter's Square, August 1982. I am 13 and we are on a 1,400km adventure.
The bell rings. I download the photographs onto my smartphone, shut the laptop, take my bags and bike and leave.
The traffic on the motorway to Florence flows fast. The Giro d'Italia has just started and we follow the stage on the radio. It is a typically Italian mid-afternoon. When the race is over, we listen to a couple of rider interviews then look for a music station and sit in silence as the landscapes of the Apennines drift by.
I want to ride on roads I've never seen. The thought occurs to me that, because of the pandemic, I have hardly travelled. I haven't gone abroad at all this year, the first time since I was a child. I have to admit I'm not entirely sorry either. Geography has become more sensual, more human to me. I've only moved around Italy this year, making trips I had been putting off for far too long. Like the one I'm about to begin, starting tomorrow in Florence. Two companions and I will take dirt tracks and white roads to Rome along the Via Francigena, an ancient Christian pilgrimage route that starts in Canterbury. I am looking forward to it. The hyperconnectivity, the conference calls, the lockdown, the fear of contagion, the uncertainty of all these months have exhausted me.
In Florence we meet up with Matteo and Andrea, the Rolling Dreamers guides who will be riding with us. Over dinner, we laugh, joke and go over the details. Everything is perfectly organised. The Brunello di Montalcino is not out of the sports nutritionist's handbook, but we're not thinking about diet or distance – even if, in four stages, we will cover 406 kilometres, 60 percent of them off-road, with 8,500 metres of altitude gain.
We have been riding for a few hours now, and we are somewhere in the Chianti hills, each of us a little way from the other. Don't get me wrong: it's nice to pedal in company. But it's also nice to be on your own, immersed in your thoughts. The first kilometres, the first day of journeys like this, you get into the rhythm of things, and it resets the speed of your thinking.
On the asphalt roads out of Florence, there is practically no traffic. Then, from the first hills, there is always a gravel road option – fun, manageable, never too steep or rough. Over the years Matteo and Andrea have developed a detailed GPS route that they update with every trip. I ride a few metres ahead or behind them. I just head south, not even making the effort to look at the route guidance.
The scenery – vineyards, medieval villages, lines of cypress trees – is beautiful, although the sky is overcast and every so often it rains. Even so, the riding is always good. The white gravel roads are never excessively muddy; they are carefully constructed to drain well, leaving a smooth, comfortable surface. We make good progress from morning to early afternoon without stopping to eat. Breakfast in Florence, at the Caffè dell'Oro overlooking Ponte Vecchio, was so filling and satisfying that now we just want to ride.
On certain stretches, we pedal three abreast and chat in the silence of the countryside. Matteo and Andrea have been working as bike guides for five years and they talk enthusiastically about deciding to live for, and make their living from, cycling. On other roads, we ride in single file, building speed by taking turns at the front and sharing each other's slipstream, admiring the hills around us, as they become more barren and rounded.
Before dark we reach our first stop, Cascina Cabianca, where we enjoy an open-air aperitif. The landscape has changed and the hilltop city of Siena, with its Renaissance spires, stands directly in front of us. We are satisfyingly tired and our clothes are damp, but the temperature is just right; we stay in the garden of our restored farmhouse accommodation, deep in conversation until late. It's wonderful not to feel the need to change clothes after a day on the bike, not to have to separate exertion time from recovery time. After all, doesn't freedom ultimately rest on feeling at ease in your own shoes?
The second and third days race past: breakfast, preparation, riding until evening, dinner, sleep. Repetition has a magical, hypnotic quality, beneficial for mind and soul. Take thepreparation - on day one, packing the bags we take with us was stressful (the other luggage travels in the van and is waiting for us in our accommodation at the end of the ride). By day two, mysteriously, it is like a Zen exercise: everything seems to find its place in bike bags or jersey pockets.
Our needs are reduced to a minimum: keep warm but don't sweat, eat, drink, be independent, have an emergency repair kit within reach, and nothing else. In the middle of the Crete Senesi, those clay, moonlike landscapes south of Siena, on roads so white you feel you are floating in the sky – this type of cycling has something to do with exploration, adventure and the discovery of new viewpoints on established realities. I can't explain it, but I feel like I've been on the road for weeks: probably, when the heart is beating quietly on an endurance ride, your thoughts organise themselves into a new order.
We stop over in Proceno, one of the architectural jewels of the Tuscia Viterbese in Upper Lazio, once known as Etruria. We stay in Signora Cecilia's historic inn, where she takes good care of us. The castle has belonged to her family since 1646 and in the morning before leaving, she lets us walk around. The fortified tower is a thousand years old and now contains a museum.
We continue southwards. By Lake Bolsena, we enter the heart of Tuscia, where the roads are more tortuous and the terrain more rugged. Even so, it is warmer here, so we ride in t-shirts and shorts under the Lazio sun. Passing the city of Viterbo, we have to resist the temptation to stop for a dip in its open-air thermal baths. Even to a local like me, it seems astonishing to stumble across such well-kept villages, in such extraordinary settings, right in the heart of Italy.
It is the last day of our journey, 90 kilometres of hills and dales from Borgo di Sutri to Rome. As usual we are up early to prepare our bikes, and we set off full of enthusiasm about reaching our final destination. There are noticeably more pilgrims now and the landscape becomes more Mediterranean with every turn of the pedals. People's accents have changed, and the traffic is also heavier and more aggressive.
At Campagnano, we climb what is probably the hardest ascent of the whole trip. From here on in, it is a long procession on hills that get progressively gentler. Some stretches are in basalt, used by the Romans 2,000 years ago to surface the roads that fanned out from Rome towards every corner of the empire. On the outskirts of the Italian capital, we stop at a bar for a snack where we meet another cyclist on the way back from a lunchtime training session. He asks us about our journey and our muddy bikes which, loaded as they are, suggest that we have travelled far. When we go to pay, we discover that, without a word, he has coveredour coffees.
We join a cycle path, set back from the noisy road, which speeds us to the banks of the Tiber. The last three kilometres are amazing. To get an idea, watch the final scene of Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty): the historic bridges crossing the river follow one after the other like in a daydream up to Castel Sant'Angelo, where we go up the ramp from the riverside promenade to the road.
A few hundred metres more and we are in St.Peter's Square, where all journeys to Rome end. Hands are shaken, backs slapped and photos taken. Then I head off for a beer with some friends who have come down in a van to pick me up. But before leaving, I have one more thing to do. I go into the square and make for the colonnade on the right. I remember it vividly. Just to make sure, I take out my smartphone and flick through the photographs to locate the exact spot where, 40 years ago, I posed with my father. There I am, standing in front of the bicycle, still loaded with our luggage, and there is my father, leaning against a column.
He is in a very strange pose. I lean the Exploro bike in the same position, and adopt the same stance. Then I ask a passer-by to take the picture. My dad and I become one. I have finally arrived at my point of departure, where my passion for cycling and adventure was born. I rejoin the others. They ask where I have been. “Taking a picture,” I say.
Thank you to Andrea and Matteo, they can guide you along the Piligrim's road, cycling from Florence to Rome / rollingdreamers.com
Behind the bike: 3T Exploro RaceMax Race Force AXS 2x
By Peter Stuart
Once upon a time we had road bikes, mountain bikes and the occasional ’cross bike. Back then, the idea of an aerodynamic gravel bike like the 3T Exploro would have seemed quite the oddity. On a multi-day, multi-terrain ride like this – mixing the fast, the slow and the technical – we might wonder how we ever did without the likes of the 3T Exploro RaceMax.
The RaceMax can handle ultra-wide 61mm tyres on 650b rims, enough to offer reassurance on even the most testing singletrack. At the same time, it shares much of the geometry and design of an aerodynamic road bike, and during long days on tarmac and packed gravel that speed and excitement is really palpable.
Emilio’s bike was specced with 40mm tyres, which hit a perfect balance for our trip, where wider tyres could have added too much weight and resistance, while narrower ones could have pushed us out of our comfort zone when chalky track turned to technical trail.
The 3T Discus wheelset complements that well, with a light overall weight for steep climbs but a deep-section carbon profile that offers a lot more aerodynamic efficiency on tarmac or faster gravel descents.
The groupset was Sram’s wireless Force AXS 2x groupset which, with 46 and 33 tooth chainrings alongside a 10-36 tooth 12-speed cassette, offered enough range to cater for every incline and terrain imaginable.