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Tales From the Tuscany Trail
By Dalany Watkins
Last November I decided to step out of my comfortable road-riding bubble and embrace the trend for gravel. I spent many hours researching which bike would be best suited to an off-road newbie, and in the end went for a Cannondale Slate—a model that looked enough like a road bike not to scare me off, but had some cool features, including the Lefty Oliver 30mm Fork, 650b wheels and 42c tires.
Next up, I needed a gravel adventure to set my sights on. Tuscany Trail offered an off-road adventure without the race element, which meant I could ride my bike all day and relax with an Aperol Spritz in the evening; the Italian dream—what’s not to like?! Knowing that ASSOS ambassador Juliet Elliott is a fan of gravel riding, I dropped her a line and within a few hours we were both signed up to take part in the largest bikepacking event in the world.
In the months leading up to the ride, I spent countless early mornings, lunchtimes, and weekends scoping out trails around my home in north Italy and around the ASSOS HQ in Stabio, Switzerland, to prepare myself. When June rolled around, I felt ready for what was to come. Here are some of my tips for those looking to delve into the world of bikepacking:
THE ART OF PACKING YOUR BAGS
Just like the bike you’re riding, the way you pack your bags is very personal. Your essentials will vary from your fellow riders but there are general rules you should follow to ensure the weight is distributed correctly on the frame. Our friends at Apidura know a thing or two about making your ride as smooth as possible. Here are some of their top tips:
- Spread the load. A pair of smaller packs, one mounted to the bars and one to the saddle, will always be a better option than one large pack. The balance will help maintain your bike’s handling and you’ll find it easier to organise your gear.
- Keep weight central and low. Heavier gear should be packed closer to the centre of the bike, either in the bottom of a Saddle Pack or in a Frame Pack.
- Think about the unpack. Keep the gear you need most frequently in a place that’s easy to access. There’s nothing worse than having to unpack your sleeping bag to find your gloves!
- Organise. Using smaller bags and pouches within your packs will help keep wet and dirty gear separated. Different colours and sizes will also help you to find items more quickly.
- Leave some room. Always have a little spare capacity in your setup so you can take advantage of food and water stops.
KEEP THE ENGINE FUELLED
Whilst you might be able to haul yourself around a weekend ride on the verge of the dreaded bonk knowing that you’ll soon be back home devouring the contents of the fridge, bikepacking is all about playing the long game.
I found unless I was eating little and often as well as ensuring I stopped for substantial meals, the fuel in the tank would run out. Whilst you might not feel hungry (and often I felt far from it), your body needs an incredible amount of calories to keep you going all day. I felt a direct impact from every mouthful of food and also learnt the importance of listening to my body and what it was craving. Carbs are your friend and will see you through to the end!
3x top nutrition tips: Bananas and rocky terrain do not mix. Bananas caught in zips can have messy repercussions. Peanut butter sachets and 35-degree sun should not be combined.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Things won’t always go to plan whilst you’re on the road. So before you go, take care of the elements that you can control.
If this is your first bikepacking trip, get the bags on your bike far in advance of the event and leave them on there to train. I filled my bags with old clothes at the start of spring to get used to the feel of the bike and how the weight affected my balance.
If you don’t know how to fix a puncture before you go, you won’t miraculously learn while on the road. Tubeless was a new concept to me so I studied the (many) solutions for fixing a tubeless flat before I left. However, I do have to admit that Juliet came to my rescue on the road!
If your navigational skills need some polishing, make yourself comfortable with the route ahead of time. It will cause you less stress in the long term.
NOT ABOUT THE NUMBERS
Yes, you have somewhere to get to, but remember it’s about the experience. We decided not to count down the kilometers to the end of the day but instead to split it into towns we wanted to stop in for snacks! Looking for a nearby town for the next coffee stop, then the lunch stop, then the ice-cream stop is a lot more fun and less mentally draining than simply ticking off the distance.
It’s not about achieving QOMs/KOMs—stop and chat with the locals. We asked multiple people if we could borrow hose pipes to spray our heads and cool down, and ultimately these are the memories you’ll look back on and remember!
The most important thing to remember in the back of your mind is that ultimately the climb/tricky trail/sketchy descent will end, and soon enough you will be off your bike, drinking a beer, and laughing about the pain!
540 off-road kilometers
9500m of climbing
Moving time 32.5 hours