Tales of the autumn roads

Layla Kerley and Bruno Compagnet often go on adventures riding their not-quite-electric bikes. Pedal strokes bring them in contact with landscapes (often sublime), people (sometimes rough) and time (always ambivalent), in search of another rhythm, just before entering the frenzy of winter.

It had been just a few days that we were living in a grey and depressing haze. The industrial wastelands, the shopping centers, and the factories had suddenly taken on a sinister look that was barely brightened by illuminated signs when night came. A twilight world where the massive presence of farmed pheasants looking for an uncertain future, lost in the ploughed fields between two urban areas, plunged me into a state of mind and thoughts that I preferred to keep to myself.  

The four-lane autovia was well congested and I really had to concentrate on driving to survive in the heavy traffic of a weekend departure. For a few kilometers already we really needed a good coffee, but the rest areas and gas station parking lots were full of people who felt the same way. The crowd and the queues in front of the cash registers made us choose a coffee machine in a surprisingly quiet gas station. 

We took the road again while listening to a great podcast, and we laugh, forgetting the monotony of the highway and the aggressiveness of SUVs. Then, at the end of a long tunnel, the sky became an intense kind of blue, and the sun shone on a landscape of wooded hills and scattered farms. Morale soared and Layla decided to take care of the soundtrack. We passed Florence and the traffic flowed more smoothly. 

“You go out at the next one, there are still about thirty kilometers…” 

Gaiole in Chianti, country of the Eroica bike race… and approximate distances, according to Layla, who for the moment discovers with pleasure the charm of this small village which hosts each year one of the most beautiful and important cycling events in the world. 

I have just finished to mount the wheels of the bikes and I have dirty hands but this detail does not bother me, the weather is nice and we just want to ride. We shall eat well this evening, we have the afternoon before us and I have only one idea, to show Tuscany to Layla… 

The first strokes on the pedals, the metallic clack of the bearings of the back wheel, the chainring noises and the wind on our faces, this particular feeling of lightness, speed and freedom. We go towards Sienna, taking small roads and even the strada bianca: the 25 kilometers of distance would quickly turn into more, much more even. But for the moment we do not care, the road undulates in the middle of the vineyards and the fields of olive trees. Layla tells me that she has the impression to pedal in a painting of Vincent Van Gogh and I am enthusiastic in front of such a variety of colors. The curves of the road and those of the landscape intertwine in a harmonious dance of cultures and nature. We press on the pedals without thinking too much, our minds getting lost in the landscape. And we end up getting lost for good, too… We arrive at Sienna rather late, and we climb up to its historical center by walking, bicycles in hand, in the middle of an unmasked and noisy crowd. 

We settle down for a moment in the heart of this incredible city. Layla tells me about the Palacio of the Madonna di Provenzano, an equestrian madness which dates from the Middle Ages, where horses, launched at full gallop around the piazza El campo, echo on the walls of bricks and stones of my imagination… We finish our drinks, the hands of the big clock remind me that we must return to Gaiole before night falls. The way back is a time trial, the landscape has not changed, it has even become more vast. We are focused on signs and distances, we swallow the kilometers to try and escape the decline of the light. We take a maximum of speed in the descents and try to keep the momentum as long as possible on the climbs that inevitably follow in this country full of hollows and bumps. It works rather well and the kilometers pass more quickly now that the tiredness and the speed lead the dance and give the rhythm.  

We arrive at night. Gaiole is quite animated on this Saturday evening, people are already drinking aperitif. We change quickly and go down for a few glasses of Chianti and a dish of tagliatelle with truffles. 

More miles, Less trouble 

We wake up at the edge of a small river, under a forest of acacias with golden leaves. I stretch my old body and get out of the truck to relieve myself while listening to the birds. The water running close creates a pleasant background sound. Then I think about coffee. 

I press my body weight alternately on each pedal, trying to ignore the distress signals my legs and cardio are sending… I also think about Layla, who is having fun behind me in the dust of this murderous climb and that I’ve forced for many years now to ride trash bikes. But I like the rough side of riding and the simplicity, the stripping down, the idea of being able to do all the maintenance myself on those bikes. They are simple and robust, reliable and cost almost nothing… And it’s also a great way to travel, to stay in shape, to discover a region in complete autonomy, and with a relatively low carbon footprint.  

We like this kind of adventures because whatever happens you will have to come back by your own means, nobody will come to look for you. Beyond the physical aspect there is a form of commitment when you go beyond a certain distance and you can only count on yourself to close the loop. That’s probably why we already feel like we’ve been gone for a month when we haven’t even been riding through the Chianti countryside for a week. It’s also very good for the head to disconnect and to get this feeling of isolation, too rare in our modern times. 

We immersed ourselves in the colors of autumn with the desire to eat up the landscape and the kilometers, because there is no better way, in my opinion, to discover and understand a land than by travelling through it without a motor. You feel it in your body, before understanding it in your head. You are in direct contact with the environment. The wind, the temperature changes, the scents too. We stop more easily. It is a real immersion, and we are never so happy to savor a good dish or to drink a good wine that when we are really hungry, after having lost ourselves and having felt the discomfort of the saddle for a long time. 

A little bit of hell in the middle of paradise 

8:30 am, 4°C cold, I hear Layla moaning behind me. She has put on gloves, a hat, a hood over and gore-tex. That is not enough. The wet cold of the morning pierces us, we have to pedal at full speed to try to warm up. But the speed makes us feel even colder, this long loop is starting bleakly. Finally the first rise and the first rays of sun, piercing the sylvan canopy to form columns of ephemeral lights, as fleeting as our passage. The slope becomes still, a little more accentuated, we leave the road on our left. Here we are, the first strokes of pedals on a magnificent strada bianca lined with cypresses that make us definitely forget the cold, and some moments later we discover a panorama of vineyards and castles illuminated by a pure autumn sun. The mists still linger at the bottom of the valley below a horizon of hills, villages and small roads that are but an invitation to ride. 

We avoided the morning bustle of the medieval city with its 17 districts by taking small roads, sometimes following parts of the Via Francigena. The vineyards, olive groves and castles have given way to vast expanses of ploughed land, pierced by islands where imposing villas are built, sometimes surrounded by majestic umbrella pines which in spring watch over an ocean of wheat dotted with poppies swaying in the slightest breeze. The white dirt roads that lead to these robust farms are marked on both sides by cypress trees that emphasize the curve of the hill, and are protected by imposing gates where the name of the domain can be read. In the middle of autumn, the ground is reduced to a brown flesh of furrows that seem to get lost in the infinite and make you fall into another world. It is the country of the Crete senesi, a harsh and austere world, where the mind and body will follow and confront rocky tracks leading to who knows where. Sometimes, grey and cracked slopes of earth spring up between the fields: reserves of stagnant water surrounded by bushes, water is rare in these cereal lands. An austere atmosphere, where the sound of a farm machine raising a cloud of dust breaks the silence that whistles in our ears. It is for me the heart of Tuscany, less glamorous than the opulent Chianti or the Val d’Orcia, but this emptiness and this space mark my spirit, when in fatigue and sweat you end up finding happiness. This discovery at the slow pace of our bikes is an experience and above all a question of time and will. 

I finish my glass of red wine and a nice slice of porchetta. Layla opted for a beer and a panino with mozzarella. We eat local, we were so happy to find an open bar on our way.  

Percourso medio 

We are not even halfway through, but already feeling to have travelled well and far. The sun beats strongly in the middle of the afternoon and the cold of the morning seems very far. We are put in a form of active meditation, we do not speak any more, we advance. And it works, the kilometers pass by, the tiredness rises, there are only about fifty kilometers left. It is now that the interior voyage begins. As we advance in the dust to the monotonous and almost unreal beauty of this landscape, we find again the strength to face an umpteenth coast. I encourage Layla and stubbornly refuse to get off the bike to walk. It would be like giving up, or giving in to a stronger opponent.  

With two months to go before my hip surgery, each climb is a small victory won in the anger of dozens of passing bikers. The noise, the dust and the inconvenience they cause at the end of the climb to Santa Maria give us the energy to finish, standing on our pedals. It is in front of the sign that marks the end of the famous climb that I missed the photo of the trip. Layla, exhausted and raging against a group of big motorcycles, with her arm outstretched and her finger in the air.  I was stunned, and looked at the side of the road for rocks because I thought it was going to turn really bad, but they just turned their heads and went on their way. It got quiet again and we continued on as well. 

Further on, the presence of pens, the characteristic smell of dried manure, and a herd here and there remind us of the Sardinian shepherds who fled the misery of their islands in search of a better land for them and their animals. Layla laughs in front of the pictures of guard dogs on a fence, it is true that they do not look so bad. I puncture a tire and repair while watching the sun go down on this bewitching countryside marked by the history which bathes in the soft sunset light. 

The last thirty kilometers will be the longest, the hardest, of course. The landscape and the motivation disappear in the darkness of the falling night. Finally, the last pedal strokes, Gaiole, the parking lot, our truck, and the feeling that we would not have gone much further. We walk uneasily to the Giorgia restaurant and devour a dish of tagliatelle al tartufe with a bottle of Chianti. This is the end. 


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