Lucchese Days - Cycling in Lucca, Italy
Nestled between Pisa and Florence, Lucca is a gem hidden amidst the glare created by the Leaning Tower to the west and the treasure laden Renaissance City to the east. The gateway to the mountainous Serchio Valley, Lucca can be viewed, along with Bergamo in Lombardy to the North, as one of the first cities of Italian cycling. The beating pulse of one of the key cycling heartlands of not just Italy but Europe as a whole. Cycling is its lifeblood, from the throngs of city bikes that swarm endlessly through the winding, cobbled and predominantly car-free arterial streets, to the numerous professional teams that make Lucca their base for training and logistics. From the chained up and battered old 'Girardengo' to the pimped fixies deftly navigating the centuries old corners. Lucca is a city of animated yet lilting conversation, a place where the chink of coffee cups on saucers and the buzz of scurrying vespas meets the strains of Puccini escaping an open window. It is effortless Italian charm personified, mixed equally one part rusticness, one part romance.
My first memory of Lucca is of sitting on the steps of a church opposite a letting agency. Siesta was some fifteen minutes away from releasing the city and I had to wait for the agency to reopen in order to collect my holiday apartment's key. My ears pricked up at the sound of a well-tuned freewheel approaching. I instinctively turned to check out the machine as it sailed by from behind and across the junction to the front of me. A beautiful Cipollini, black and gold - piloted by a deeply bronzed, helmetless Cipollini himself, all sleeveless top and trademark five o'clock shadow. I'd been there for less than 10 minutes. That Lucca was a place where reality and legend nonchalantly co-exist was clearly evident.
But what of the actual riding around the local area? Well- it is simply sublime. The beauty of the region is in its sheer variety of terrain. If you want days consisting of thousands of metres of climbing on ascents measured in double digits, you've got it: The fabled sports doctor, Luigi Cecchini, used the area, specifically the climb of Monte Serra which overlooks Lucca, its radio masts high up in the azure sky an iconic sight, to test the potential of his proteges. The legendary Cecchini Test took place on the road out of Buti, and it's still used today by many pro teams and aspiring amateurs alike as a gauge of form or future prospects. If it's lightning fast flats and gently rolling terrain you fancy, you can hit the roads out past Massaciuccoli, out to the coast and back over foothills via Montemagno to fly back into Lucca down the simply-must-ride-before-you-die Camaiore road, one of the fastest and most fun straight false flat descents I have ever ridden. Catch onto the wheels of a local chaingang on this one and you'll know about it. Remember, the riders in 'Full Pro Kit' out here ain't the pretenders you may encounter back home on your local club run!! The scenery is stunning, each break in the trees as you climb around the foothills and mountains reveals ever more verdant vistas over hidden valleys and sweeping mountainsides that roll down towards wide plains and shimmering Mediterranean Sea, or inland up into the Serchio Valley as it winds its way towards the Appennines.
The great thing is it's all so easy. Fly into Pisa and take the 30 minute bus ride to Lucca from the airport, departing from just to the right as you exit the airport (buy your ticket inside the small arrivals hall). Enjoy an evening meal of locally sourced produce, a carafe of fortified grape juice (prosecco is highly recommended) and a stroll around the walls as the sun sets over the distant mountain citadels. Retire to bed and look forward to a typical Lucchese day on the bike, which usually goes a little something like this:
Tuesday: We prop our bikes against the wall at City Bar, 50m from Chrono Bikes on Corso Garibaldi, just near the southernmost portion of Lucca's ornate surrounding walls. Chrono bikes is the hub of cycling activity in Lucca. If you want to ride with locals and visitors alike, any day of the week, there is only one rule; Head to Chrono Bikes for about 10am. We have learned to not sit expectantly outside the shop as Englishman Sam rolls out the fleet of city-bikes-for-hire but rather sit and observe from the comfort of City Bar over an espresso and a dolce like seasoned locals. This is because the ride runs to Snr Paladino Meschi time. Pala owns the shop. Pala runs the rides. Pala also seemingly dictates time itself in Lucca and his watch does not adhere to the '8.30 at a godforsaken lay-by depart' that many English Club Cyclists may be used to. No, sit back and let things develop as they will. The Maestro Pala will decide when it's time to leave. Before long there is group of about 10 riders milling around outside the shop; Americans, Dutch, Italians and two World Tour pros; Tinkoff-Saxo's Jay McCarthy and BMC's Joe Rosskopf. There are old friends in the group and some new faces - faces that are destined to fall into the first category before the week's riding is out, no doubt.
We roll out through the arched gateway at Piazza Santa Maria, the universal hand-signal language of cyclists directing the relaxed line of riders safely through the traffic as we emerge onto the open road network. The first thing you notice riding on these roads is a more relaxed approach to road sharing between cars and bikes: The 'them & us' atmosphere of the UK does not seem to hang like a storm cloud above the rides over here. The second, equally as enjoyable, is that the road surfaces are worth an extra couple of Kph at least with no discernible extra effort! The pristine new surfaces laid especially for the recent-ish World Champs and this year's passing of the Giro D'Italia are merely an added bonus. We glide along in two lines and weave along the back roads towards the first climb of the day at Piazzano. I realise I have ridden this climb previously and relish the thought of doing so again, the 2km of meandering, middling gradient leads up to a finale of super tight little hairpins that seem to almost slingshot you into a sleepy hamlet. The group snakes up the terraces of these final turns in an aesthetically pleasing procession above and below me as the line is strung out but not shattered. The descent from the crest of the climb is equally fun, twisting and dappled under the tree cover. I concentrate on my lines, keeping them as smooth and relaxed as I can whilst sandwiched by the two pro riders until we hit the final straight run out.
"So, Joe- as a percentage, speed-wise, of race pace up at World Tour level, What was that? 30%? 40%?.." I enquire.
"Umm.. yeah. about that..maybe" Joe replies.
I don't know what made me think my deliberately low estimates might have been encouragingly rounded up. Go-Pro footage I viewed later on showed Joe spending most of the descent stretching his legs and back out- hardly a man on the edge! Talk of descents soon turns to AG2R’s Bardet and his downhill masterclass on stage 5 of this year's Criterium du Dauphine.
"What the cameras didn't show" Joe tells us "is that a couple of our guys bridged from the second group to the first on that descent also..Bardet wasn't the only guy letting rip..there would not have been much in it as far as who got down quicker, believe me! Our guys were treating it as Tour dress rehearsal. They have their sights set on this stage.."
The tale of the BMC 'live fire' exercise had all present licking their lips at the prospect of the actual battle itself from the summit of the Col d’Allos come mid-July.
We continue on, up the gentle drag of the Camaiore road, Jay McCarthy effortlessly spinning light gears at humming bird pace whilst Joe eases the watts out on the big ring; the difference in rider types between the two evident. We reach the peak after a good natured 50m sprint (McCarthy) and are treated to views out across the coastal shelf and to bidon re-fills from one of the numerous mountain spring taps that are dotted throughout the region. You will grow to love these thirst quenching oases and soon get to know where they are tucked away and relish being able to drain your current water supply without a thought to being caught parched miles from home. We fill and gulp, happy of the chance to stop and take in the majestic vista in the warm sun. Jay's leg is displaying the final throes of road rash, a legacy from the Dauphine also.
"I was descending pretty fast [I dread to think] and lost it on a corner. It wasn't too bad a place to crash though. Further on there was a huge crash in a tunnel- a pitch black tunnel with a corner in it! I managed to hold it up as I went past, it looked pretty bad.. I didn't know that hazard was coming up as I'd taken my earpiece out- the DS was babbling on in Italian and by that point in the race I needed 100% of my energy to be sent to the legs rather than spent on translating!"
Bidons filled we swooped off down the next descent, wide, smooth roads with easy lines and on towards the big test of the day, the Via Capezzano ascent towards Capriglia, a steep, sinuous ribbon which twists sharply upwards for about 6km through the charming olive groves which cloak the mountainside. Roadside markers detail the gradient percent for each separate kilometre stretch- be careful what you wish for if you decide to glance at them to glean information! We reach our highest point and pause to spend yet more time soaking in the views of the Mediterranean before the day's most fun descent yet - the smooth and beautifully rhythmical spiral down into the town of Pietrasanta and the delicious myriad of gelato flavours that Pala has promised awaits us....
Bike hire: Chrono Bikes, Corso Garibaldi. Top end Pinarellos equipped with Ultegra, all maintained to silky smooth running order. Daily and weekly rates available.
Get the True Local Knowledge: Guided rides into the hidden heartlands of the region with Tim Lindley of iGuideRide, stunning days out you will not forget and the opportunity to really start to get to know the roads and how to link the classic routes together.
Tales and anecdotes abound.
Don't be sniffy about taking dead-end roads: Some of the most beautiful climbs and hidden wonders lie at the end of them. And I guarantee the descent will be more than worth it too! The climbs to Brandeglio, Just beyond Bagni Di Lucca, and Fibbiala, just to the left of the start of the Piazzano climb, are true gems.
Ponte Della Maddelena- The Devil's Bridge: Beautiful route along the floor of the lushly verdant and sheer sided Serchio Valley to an imposing 11th century bridge. The bridge’s name comes from folklore of around the time of Saint Julian, the protector of travellers. Apparently, the devil was asked for help to construct the bridge by the villagers. By way of payment, The Prince of Darkness demanded the soul of whoever crossed the bridge first. Always the scallywag, Saint Julian arranged for a dog to cross the bridge first and thus pulled a right fast one. Take the obligatory pictures, enjoy lunch in Bagni Di Lucca a few km on and then wheel back down the valley without effort as you marvel at far you climbed without realising it.
Hire a City Bike: Cruise around the walls at 10Kph in your flip-flops with friends or loved ones as the afternoon eases itself into early evening. Wonder why you ever bother with all this going fast on tyres pumped up to 120psi. Do this whilst talking on your phone and eating gelato to achieve the authentic Lucchese look.
Food and Drink: Bar Shaker and Pan Di Strada, right opposite Chrono Bikes, for post ride Aperol Spritz or beer and much needed bread, meat and cheese combinations; Da Ciacco in Piazza Napoleone for the tagliere of the god's and people watching early evening; Restaurants Miranda or Rosollo for typical local produce with elegant twists; Amazing Pizza- absolutely everywhere, eat in or takeaway!
Drinks after Dinner: Cicli DiVino for extremely affordable local wine and retro cycling odds and spares strewn across the floor & vintage Colnago in the window; Bar Baccanale, cosy little bar in an off the beaten track piazza with a warm welcome, local wines and craft beers.