Having cycled the first part of Hannibal’s trail over a year ago, in September 2013 I embarked on another journey facing territories that were completely unknown to me as I joined his route a little further on. I arrived in Gavi, Italy and was immediately overwhelmed by the heat of the summer sun that was gleaming across the courtyard of Villa Sparina.
During a few preparatory talks with the guys at Ride and Seek, I had come to learn that many a kilometre this year would be clipped on to an understated Lynskey Helix. Of course it didn’t take me long to pull from the case my cleats and helmet and get going on a little warm-up ride.
The best way to describe the roads, I would say, is ‘unique’. I would come to learn throughout the following eight days that to predict the surface that lay around the corner was as hard a feat as forecasting the lottery. I had ridden stage 1 of the Hannibal tour last year and that was predominantly in France – the rumour that the road surfaces in Italy are inferior is true. That evening in the hotel I prepared myself for a challenging week ahead.
The first full day of the tour came around all too quickly. It felt as if I had only closed my eyes for a matter of minutes when the echoes from my alarm ricocheted around my ears as I lay for a moment staring out of the window into the impressive morning sky.
Following a hearty breakfast we headed out in an excited stream on a ride that would see us climb over 2,500 metres in the Apennine foothills on our way towards the impressive Trebbia castle. A breathtaking charade of rolling vineyards provided appropriate views to surpass the time when my mind was not completely focused on the road ahead.
Living in a relatively flat region of the world, it seems that no matter what level my fitness is, my legs always surprise me in their inability to work on the first few climbs that I face. Of course, there was no exception to the rule on this occasion. As if accepting this, my heart rate took on a life of its own as I negotiated some of the infamous ‘muri’ (walls) for which this area is renowned.
The road less travelled that we were on was also fairly rough in parts so the titanium bike that I was provided with was a salvation. Battling up the hills, I began to focus on the beautiful twisted frame of the Lynskey Helix that knowingly pointed ahead and seemed to alleviate even the roughest terrain. In my research prior to the tour I had learned that the twisted tubes made the frame 15 per cent stiffer. Although initially this tube profile had been created by a manufacturing mistake, the US manufacturer soon saw the advantages and put it into production.
As I began to settle in to the ride, awakening the memory within the muscles that had been lying dormant for some time, my Garmin, uploaded with the turns and stops, beeped a refreshing ‘coffee’ call. The coffee beep always seemed to come at the most opportune time throughout the tour.
Being somewhat of a caffeine connoisseur I have grown rather fond of an espresso and as every rider knows, it really does complement a good ride out. I sat down with some faces I had met last year. Looking fitter and younger, the American, Bob, had returned to ride the entire 2488km again. With a backdrop akin to a nature documentary, we began to chat. To this day I remember the advice he had given last year about tackling those hard climbs and I have since called upon it many times. That said, they never seemed to get any easier.
One thing about a tough day in the saddle is your appreciation of the food at the end of the day. That night the feast highlighted the wild exuberance that the Italians display in their cooking. Towards the end of the meal I could fit no more in but felt compelled to continue. One of the fantastic things gained from riding across Italy is the opportunity to sample a different culinary masterpiece at every meal.
Following 96km of riding from Tabiano we encountered a group of Italians making the final climb from the centre of town up towards the balsamic vinegar producing town Cavazzone Agriturismo, where we will spend the night. Following a few friendly exchanges, the pace began to quicken and soon rival factions had been created. During the climb I shared my route map with one of the cyclists, who through broken English showed admiration of the task we had undertaken. Being somewhat a novice racer, the last few hundred metres at a sprint climb pace with a complete stranger were some of the most exciting I’d ever had on a bike.
That evening after an enlightening tour of the vinegar cellars, we sat for dinner – each course cooked or served with a different aged balsamic. Every dish was delectable but the highlight came in the form of dessert – panna cotta with balsamic vinegar.
As the riding continued, each day held new experiences. By day five, having made it to the San Gimignano, 56km south of Florence, we wheeled our bikes along the historic streets, taking in the beauty of the architecture that continues to draw people in their thousands. The town has always had a continuous flow of visitors, dating back to the earliest of pilgrims travelling to Rome on the Via Francigena. The town retains the feeling of the dominant social system that once existed, with 14 of the original tower-houses surviving.
The journey away from the town the next morning was made with a forecast of showers, but prepared for the elements we set off in good spirits. The ride saw a raging battle against a headwind as we began to group to overcome the worst of it. Fields of sunflowers bowed their heads as we meandered between the gusts and towards the shelter of the main ascent. Bear in mind this was the day that they were racing the UCI World Championships in Florence to give you a sense of how these showers developed.
The rain began to fall, but the joy of being surrounded by the picture postcard Tuscan countryside warmed everyone’s spirits. After a brief coffee stop in which we witnessed flocks of less hardcore tour operators herd their cyclists into the vans and pack up for day, we once again embraced nature. Perhaps they had access to a more accurate weather forecast.
Making it through to lunch time, we all met up and huddled beneath a generous shelter as we indulged in a fine Italian platter. A picnic for champions. The storm at this point was completely overhead and displaying its feathers with a heavy downpour and thunderous rumbles that appeared to move the ground. Our guides urged caution and recommended that we jump in the van and head to the next hotel, which the majority heeded.
Five of us though chose to embrace the elements and assured ourselves it was brightening up. Only a few kilometres down the road the break in the weather, on which we had made the post lunch decision, ceased and once again the water penetrated even the most resisting of clothing. As the rain continued to hurtle towards the earth we found ourselves creating ripples in water on roads that had quickly become flowing rivers. All of a sudden the storm appeared to be overhead and hunched over, as if to shelter myself, I felt the lightning studying my path.
Heading down into the Val d’Orcia, the road ahead appeared to have a fine stream running across it. Taking care not to lose traction I slowed, and thankfully so, as the road appeared to swallow me until the crank was drowning. With each revolution I was saving one foot, and dunking the other.
The last few kilometres were dismal, but riding in the pack and having made it through some truly epic conditions, we laughed, we joked and we continued. That night we stayed in a former Benedictine monastery from the 15th century, Sant’Anna in Camprena and the large stone walls providing suitable areas to dry out the sodden clothing. Just six kilometres from Pienza, it was the centre of many of the scenes in The English Patient. Having warmed up with a shower, the evening blessed us with a clear sky and a picturesque outlook across the horizon. The aperitif that night was perhaps the finest I had.
Carving through more spectacular scenery, the group arrived at the discombobulated streets of Perugia, just 164 km north of Rome. Perugia was one of the main Etruscan cities and is well known as an artistic and cultural centre of Italy. The contrast to some of the peaceful locations was quite surreal, yet welcome all the same.
With a series of challenges, achievements and memories under my belt, I took the penultimate day of riding in my stride as I pushed with everything I had up the final climb towards Narni. Having spent the previous few hours of the day enjoying a social ride I was spurred into a race to the top. If this had been the first day, based on results, I may not have chosen to mention it, but history was set as I stood up to the challenge. There were points when I felt like my lungs were about to burst through my chest, but as the summit appeared closer and closer the adrenaline of the race enticed my competitive spirit out of me.
As the alarm went off on the final day, I thought back to journey made over the past week. Looking out from the window, the sun rose over the buildings, warming the pavement as the town folk took their morning strolls. Ahead was a relatively gentle ride towards Rome, and each moment and view was one to treasure. Arriving to the east of Lake Bracciano, for nearly 10km we were able to appreciate the vastness of the Crater Lake, established thousands of years ago in a flurry of volcanic activity that shaped the region.
Having spent endless hours on the saddle, in the heat and in the wet, it seemed appropriate that at the end of the ride we all walked to the edge of the small pier, jumping in to cool off. Having now completed the start and the end of the trail, perhaps next year I’ll take the middle across the Alps.
Stage 3 History
After Hannibal’s epic crossing of the Alps in 218BC to invade Rome, which some historians call the most audacious move in ancient military history, he spent 16 years in enemy territory. He fought multiple major battles and was always victorious. To this day his tactics are taught in military campaigns, and more horrifically he holds, still to this day, the record for the most men killed in a single day’s battle, for at Cannae in 216BC it is believed 70,000 Romans were slaughtered.
Hannibal Expedition – Stage 3
Stage 3 of the Hannibal Expedition follows his path south through Italy to where he first encountered the Romans at Trebbia, where he traversed the swamps near Florence, where he tricked a Roman army at Trasimene all the way to the gates of Rome where he supposedly threw a single spear over the Servian walls in anger, as the Romans wouldn’t come out to fight him. These walls still stand to this day at Termini station and amazingly in the McDonalds within that train station!
Who was Hannibal? See Bicycling Australia July-August 2013 or visit www.rideandseek.com for more information.
STAGE 3 details
Gavi to Rome
Regions: Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio
Number of days: 11
Highest point: Passo delle Radici (1529m)
Elevation gained: 12,891m
Stage 3 Gavi to Rome is one of three stages in the Hannibal Expedition from Barcelona to Rome.
Stage 3 – A culinary journey
Our journey takes us through Piedmont and into Emilia Romagna. This region truly is a gastronomic treasure trove, with local delicacies including parmigiano reggiano – arguably the cheese of which Italians are most proud, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto de parma. As stage 3 continues we next find ourselves in picturesque Tuscany. Simplicity is the key to Tuscan cuisine, with dishes based on top quality ingredients including legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables and fresh fruit. The delicious Tuscan soup, ribolitta, will refuel you at the end of a long day with its ingredients of bread, cannellini beans and vegetables.
From Tuscany we then pass into Umbria, where the renowned Norcia black truffles are found. Other produce includes fresh ricotta, delicious pecorino cheese and high quality olive oils from the Trevi area. For main meals expect Strangozzi pasta and perhaps even suckling pig. Our journey is coming to an end as we enter the Lazio region and head in to Rome. There is a predominance of pork in dishes in Lazio including as an ingredient in pasta sauces or roasted (porchetta). Other typical dishes to look out for are carciofi alla giudea (lightly fried artichokes), fiori di zucca (stuffed zucchini flowers) and baccala (deep fried salted cod).