Cycling the Via Appia and Via Francigena. Clambering over boulders and parts of the trail where you can barely hike, let alone cycle. Following the Strade Bianche on the l’Eroica trail. I cycled Italy Divide, an unsupported bikepacking race through Italy, and it’s one big adventure.
The Last Supper
A few months ago I saw a message about Italy Divide, an unsupported bikepacking race through Italy. Starting in Naples, the race would lead via Rome, Siena, Florence and Bologna to Lake Garda. Furthermore, not much information was available, except that most of the route would be off-road. I immediately registered. The result? I am in Naples right now, ready for a 1200 kilometer race and absolutely clueless about what to expect.
The evening before the race we eat pizza with all the participants, overlooking the Gulf of Naples. I am in Naples for a couple of days now and my bike is ready for the race. Tonight I will meet all the participants. The Last Supper, it is called. The latest hints and warnings are shared with a pizza Margherita and a beer. Strong stories emerge from nowhere, just like horror stories about the course. I will experience it tomorrow. I have no idea what to expect.
Dag 1: Leaving Naples. 142 kilometers
At 10 o’clock it’s time to hand in my bags, pick up the race number and my tracker. It’s Neapolitan chaos. There is a long line and the street is blocked by bicycles and riders who are eager to start. Eventually I get my race number and then it’s official: I will cycle Italy Divide.
All I have to do now is wait until the race start at two o’clock. We cycle up and down the boulevard and decide to have pizza once more. A great opportunity to meet other cyclists. For some it is their first race, others are experienced bikepackers.
After a briefing I can not hear a word of – I really hope nothing important is told – we cycle out of Naples in a group of two hundred participants. People cheer, take photos. As soon as the race is open, the first group races away at full speed. I calmly leave the city boarders. It turns out that barely out of Napels someone had a serious accident.
The first kilometers lead us through industrial areas and on bad roads. Barely out of Naples my front tire explodes and my rear tire is also slowly deflating. A dent in my rim and a crack in the tire. What to do now? The tires are tubeless, but the front tire looks like it won’t work without an inner tube. I try to repair everything as good as possible, and soon I get help. Competition or not, it is great to see everyone helps each other out! Fortunately, the rest of the race I have not a single puncture and the bike runs smoothly. Just a case of bad luck, it seems. As soon as the bike is fixed, I cycle further, now on quiet and fairly flat roads. I find dinner at a local supermarket, cycle a bit along the coastline and finally camp in an olive grove near Formia. Day one is over.
Day 2: Clambering on the Via Francigena. 97 kilometers
I get on my bike before sunrise. First thing I look for an espresso and some breakfast. Then I cycle along the Via Appia Antica with a few other cyclists. Although it is an individual race, groups quickly form and during the race you encounter the same cyclists again and again. The large stones of the historic road shine in the morning sun, and it feels mighty to cycle on this historic road. It needs a bit of climbing to get over the Monte Montallo when we reach the first part of the Via Francigena. It is a hiking route and not an easy one either. Fortunately it is possible to cycle most of it, with some occasional clambering over boulders.
Then comes the piece that, according to the organization, is “the only part of the route that you may have to hike.” The trail goes steeply uphill, over boulders and narrow paths and between thorn bushes and nettles. Suddenly I am happy that I brought a light cyclocross bike. This trail is difficult to do on foot, let alone by bike. Carefully I go up, constantly lifting my bike over boulders. An hour later we gained perhaps a kilometer.
The route follows the Via Francigena all day long. A while on a narrow path between the fields, but most of it consists of climbing. I try to cycle as much as possible, but I also need to hike quite a bit. Slowly we are heading towards Sezze and Sermoneta. We are on the road for twelve hours now and we have cycled ninety kilometers. The finish suddenly seems far away.
Then it starts to rain and the weather app predicts a possible thunderstorm. We decide to go to the Abbazia di Valvisciolo. I can have a meeting with the prior and tell him in my best Italian that we are cycling the pilgrim route. The prior decides that there is a place to sleep for us and we can join a “light meal” for the pilgrims: antipasti, salad, lasagna with artichokes, roasts with potatoes and vegetables, fries artichokes, and a dessert. We toast with our wine. What an experience!
Day 3: Via Rome’s Via Appia Antica. 147 kilometers
The alarm clock rings at four in the morning. That way we can hopefully cycle a bit before it gets really hot. We pack our bags, together with the breakfast we were given yesterday, and want to leave the abbey through the gate. It’s locked. What to do now? A two meter high gate is between us and the race. Climbing over it isn’t possible, and no-one in the monastery seems to wake up for an early prayer. Eventually we find a way out through a mountain of weeds and over two gates.
We soon discover that cycling still is not possible. Again. As soon as we see the first sign of the Via Francigena we have to get off the bike. A glance at the altitude profile tells us that we have to climb some five hundred meters. A glance at the path tells us that these are many, many steps. Fortunately, coffee is waiting in Cori, since the local bar is open early. “We saw a lot of cyclists yesterday.” we are told. Are we already so far behind?
While we cycle over the rolling hills the sun rises slowly. The views are amazing. I can enjoy it for a while before I encounter a few mean climbs. After this the route meanders through the forest. Wide paths with beautiful off-road descents and parts over grass fields. At the top of a hill we see sheep grazing lazily. Great for a photo, I think. Until two shepherd dogs furiously run towards us. The few hundred meters that follow are probably the fastest of the day. I really want to leave this place.
Later that day we enjoy the most beautiful views, in Velletri and on the Lago di Giulianello. And of course from Nemi, with a view over the Lago di Nemi. We continue our way on the Via Francigena. A kind of single trail with many rocks, but with hikers and cyclists in two directions. A great track for my cyclocross bike, but it seems crazy to me that riders have cycled here at night. Suddenly I need to brake. Two men sit next to a canyon and pull a rope. I glance down and see a bicycle and a few meters below a cyclist dangling from the thorn bushes. We try to pull him up with the rope and with my pocket knife we cut the branches loose. He gets out, thankfully.
We continue towards Rome, over centuries of history. We cycle on the old Via Appia. Over stones where legionaries have marched. It is epic! We make a tour around the Colosseum, discover a trail on the Forum Romanum and in the meantime we attract a lot of attention. We cycle out of the city via the Saint Peter cathedral. With a small group we keep cycling as long as possible, on gravel paths and remote roads, until we find a restaurant where we attack the pasta. Around ten we find a place to sleep at an old stable in Monterosi. It was the longest day so far, but we have not gained many kilometers.
Day 4: In the footsteps of the Etruscans. 137 kilometers
At five we hit the road again. A beautiful single trail through the woods, along the remains of the Etruscans. It is dark, winding, we climb over tree trunks to cross rivers and climb over fallen trees. Along the route you see niches carved into the rocks, everywhere there are small traces of the Etruscans.
It takes a long time, too long, before we find a town where we can have breakfast. Then there finally is a village on top of the hill. A road goes up, but the route leads us via all the stairs that you might find in the village. The routemaker clearly wanted too many altimeters, I think. But then, the cappuccino and the coffee bun never tasted so good.
The landscape is slowly changing. The dark forests give way to a wide landscape with rolling climbs and descents. After Rome we arrive in Viterbo, where today is a small market around the cathedral. I cycle alone today and enjoy the views over fields full of poppies, church towers in the distance and crackling gravel under my tires. It is busy on the normally so remote roads. Around Easter dozens of pilgrims walk the Via Francigena towards Rome.
I cycle from town to town. My legs feel heavy. With the food breaks included, I am at least fifteen hours on the bike every day. At the end of this day I find a bed in a pilgrim hostel in Radicofani. I am now halfway between Rome and Florence. I drag myself to a restaurant for a pilgrim menu, hearty food with a good carafe of red wine, and then I fall asleep like a log.
Day 5: Along the Strade Bianche and l’Eroica. 132 kilometers
I can sleep in! Until seven o’clock, it seems so good. I have breakfast with a large cappuccino and croissants from a bakery and for a moment I am out of race focus. But since bad weather is predicted, I quickly get on my bike. In every village I check if the weather is good enough to continue. Of course it starts pouring rain when I’m on an open spot and there is no shelter. The thunder rolls over the hills and a flash illuminates the sky.
I pass Bagno Vignoni, where warm steam rises from the ground. I see a sign that there are thermal springs, luxury hotels with saunas and it is tempting to stay here. Still, I keep on cycling. Today is the day of the Strade Bianche. I cycle a part of l’Eroica, on the white roads of Tuscany. In the afternoon the sun breaks through and what a view! Fresh green and yellow meadows over rolling hills, olive groves and vineyards.
When I arrive at a fountain and try to clean my bike – after all the rain on the gravel paths everything on my bike creaks and squeaks – I meet the other cyclists with whom I cycled the previous days. We decide to continue cycling together and seek shelter from the rain in a restaurant. It is not officially open yet, but the owner is preparing some food. Together we cycle the last kilometers to Siena. Here we order a bottle of wine and enjoy the aperitivo, before we cycle round the Piazza del Campo. We have booked a mobile home just outside of Siena and are ready to sleep.
Day 6: Chianti and olive trees. 88 kilometers
From Siena we immediately go into the forest. Zigzagging on muddy paths with views of olive groves. Sometimes you can see for miles. We wanted to have breakfast in one of the villages along the way, but everything turnes out to be closed. It takes hours before we reach Radda in Chianti. But then there are cappuccinos and sandwiches.
After this we tour through the Chianti region. What a beautiful place to be. On unpaved roads we constantly go uphill and downhill with villages that seem to want to compete in beauty. Like the medieval gem Volpaia. A little later it turnes out there is no supermarket open in Greve in Chianti. So have lunch with gnocchi and a glass of chianti wine, since Florence is not that far away anyway.
Appearances are deceiving, and the GPS route is too. We cycle towards Impruneta and the distance is indeed not that long, but the route goes uphill through the forest. On stone plateaus and paths where your wheels sink into the mud until the axles, between the traces of wild boar. I try to cycle as much as possible, but this is not always possible. We are moving forward slowly. The descents on the other hand go like a rocket.
Hours later than we had hoped we arrive in Florence. Online I find a cheap hostel and we decide first to have something to eat on the terrace at Rifrullo, my regular aperitivo address in Florence. We’re not really in bikepacking mode and just look forward to a good night sleep.
Day 7: Off the route to Bologna. 113 kilometers
In the morning, motivation is far to find for most of us. Injuries are showing, the hope to be able to finish on Saturday before the finishers party is gone. Most of us take the train. I decide to cycle one more day, to Bologna. Not quite on the official track – yesterday we heard stories from a couple who gained only 15 kilometers in one day because there is so much hiking ahead. And those who got to the finish line sent pictures of the snow that is still lying on the mountain slopes. One thing is certain, I just can’t manage to cycle and finish the rest of the route in terms of time. Fortunately, someone knows an easier route to Bologna, after which I can take the train. The easy route still appears to contain two mountain passes, so it is still not an easy day.
It’s a wrap
In Bologna I look for a hostel again and on Saturday I take the train to Mori station. Cycling Italy Divide in one week, it just wasn’t possible this year. I didn’t make the distances that I scheduled for every day, since there were so many hiking parts in the course. So I immediately fell behind schedule. I had made an assessment of the trail and the climate in advance, but I didn’t have the real winter clothing for the last day. Finishing in time is just not possible for me this year. But there is a week full of adventures behind me in which I met great people and I cycled a beautiful – but very tough – route.
Italy Divide was extreme. For seven days I cycled through beautiful landscapes, on the Via Appia and Via Francigena. But I also hiked kilometers and kilometers over boulders, parts of the route where you could barely hike, let alone cycle. In the forest I splattered through the mud and lifted my bike over fallen trees. My legs are bright and blue and are covered with scratches. I was chased by an aggressive dog and spent the night as a pilgrim in an abbey. It was an experience never to forget, that’s for sure! And it is an extremely tough bikepacking race, that too. In Bologna it was over after more than 870 km off-road. I didn’t had the clothes for the last part of the race, where the snow was too high and it was too cold. I didn’t made it all the way to the finish line, but I enjoyed it a lot, suffered a lot and learned a lot.
Whether I would cycle Italy Divide again next year? The thought of the hiking parts tends towards a no. But I also know what I can change to be better prepared at the start line next year. It is surely possible to finish in time next year. So who knows. But first I enjoy the sweet memories of Italy Divide 2019.