If you are a keen-eyed early riser, you will have noticed a particular breed of Italians on the streets, setting off at dawn and back home for Sunday lunch, before the night owls have risen from their slumber: meet the ciclista.
The local ciclista forgoes the more obvious glories of Florence for its provincial back roads, wooded lanes, undulating trails and winding mountain passes. You will see Tuscan cyclists kitted out on their club rides or solo excursions, proudly flaunting their toned physiques on their flashy Bianchis, Colnagos or Wiliers. Similarly, historic racers mount their vintage steel-framed steeds for events such as the Eroica, which takes place deep into the Sienese countryside.
However, cycling is not merely a pastime in Italy. For many, a bike is their principal method of transport. Mums and dads take children to school on them, old men scoot round to the bar, men and women regularly commute on a simple city bike; some do the shopping on them, whilst others fix plastic crates over the front wheel as makeshift baskets to carry tools or bric-a-brac.
Upon moving to Florence, I took my prized mountain bike and clipped in at the first opportunity to explore the beautiful local hills around Sesto Fiorentino, Careggi and Fiesole to the north of Florence. Monte Morello became my own private place where I could contemplate my new life and seemed to represent everything about my uphill struggle combating a new language and culture, along with its exhilarating highs and heart-in-the-mouth, full speed descents.
I started amassing a sizeable library of bike-related catalogues by just about every make you can imagine, as well as copies of specialist magazines La Bicicletta, Cicloturismo and Bicisport. I normally hate clothes shopping, but now my wardrobe is brimming with socks, shorts and sunglasses, jackets, jerseys and gilets, arm warmers, leg warmers, headbands and caps. I would take regular trips to the best bike shops in the area like Pro-Bike, Poccianti, Conti or superstores like Nencini Sport or Decathlon.
During my first spring I hitchhiked to watch the Giro d’Italia on the climb to Abetone, Pistoia. Last year’s event featured a tough, rain-soaked time-trial tappa from Radda to Greve in Chianti and another stage departing from Campi Bisenzio, while this year’s Giro pays homage to local hero Gino Bartali when stage 11 sets off from his hometown Ponte a Ema to the south-east of Florence. It is important to note that a number of pro riders still train around Tuscany and, if you’re lucky, you can spot ex-world champion Mark Cavendish or his Dimension Data teammate, Steve Cummings, out riding around Montalbano.
Just before my first summer, I splashed out on a new Italian carbon-framed road bike, a Wilier Triestina GTR Granturismo, which now leans next to my trusty old mountain bike in matching red and black livery. But no sooner had I bought the thing than I was already upgrading wheels for a lighter, pricier set of hoops and swapping saddles and seat posts. However, I am coming to realise that the best upgrades are to the rider himself rather than any other so-called “marginal gains”. So, late nights, poor diet and little practice have since been replaced with early rises, good food and challenging club rides with a local socio.
Since joining my team ASD Veloclub Florence By Bike, linked to the similarly named bike shop in via San Zanobi, I have participated in countless club rides, a good number of raduni and many big-participation amateur races like the Gallo Nero in Chianti or the Granfondo Firenze De Rosa, which climbs up to Fiesole before disappearing towards the Apennine mountain passes in the Mugello. The “races” feature refreshment stops and almost always end in a pasta party and prize giving before going home with your pacco gara goodie bag.
As a new rider, I have also had the fortune to meet some really interesting people, Italians as well as expats from England, Macedonia, Mexico, Sweden and the US of all ages and walks of life. I feel privileged to be part of the real Italy. The added bonus is to pick up and improve my Italian, of course. So, if you’re curious, join a club. I think it’s one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Siamo pronti, ragazzi? Andiamo!