Lucca: The perfect Italian cycling town


Photo courtesy www.chronoplus.com

This article originally appeared in Cycle California! Magazine in January 2018

 

By Dan Shryock

“This is the best two kilometers in all of Lucca,” Paladino Meschi says as we make a sharp right turn and head up a grade. It’s steep in spots and even while taking it slow, Paladino starts to pull away from me.

Did Paladino’s “best two kilometers” actually mean the steepest 2K? I wonder as I push to stay with him. Rising out of the saddle I glance to my left. There’s an expansive view of a Tuscan hillside spotted with villas, towers, farmhouses and those iconic Italian cypress trees. My mind immediately clears all thoughts of tired legs and steep grades.

“How hard can this be?” I say to myself, feeling my grin more than my quads.

Paladino, owner of Chronò Bikes in Lucca, stops a little farther up the road and points to the west. Below and in the distance is the city of Lucca, located 10 miles from Pisa in northwest Tuscany. I take some photos to document the moment.

This is not my first trip to Lucca. I first rode here in May 2016, but business brought me back to Italy in October and that meant a detour here for another two days in the countryside.

For many visitors, Lucca is famous for its historic city center, a medieval enclave surrounded since 1650 by a 40-foot-high wall originally built to help fend off attacks. It is the birthplace of famed professional cyclist Mario Cipollini and home for present-day pros who live and train here in the off-season. Lucca is a community that relies on bikes to get around as much as they do cars and it’s a must-go destination for cyclists ready to travel for one-of-a-kind experiences.

The first ride for most people visiting Lucca is along the Passeggiata, the 4.2-kilometer paved loop on top of the wall. Yes, on top of the wall. The Passeggiata, popular for jogs, rides and casual strolls, is much like a linear park-wide enough to accommodate a road surface, trees, and benches. In some spots, medieval stone fortifications remain.

Craig Mannino, 47, a competitive amateur cyclist and Orange Country transplant, moved to Lucca with his wife and daughter in July 2016. After a year living and riding here, he still feels the thrill.

“I’m still snapping photos,” he confesses one morning over coffee and pastries. “I do a lot of the same routes, but I still see different things every day. And, the roads are almost like a spider web and that’s perfect for cycling. You can stay close to the center (of town) and ride all day without hitting the same road twice.”

And the reaction of friends who come from the United States to ride?

“It’s pretty much a smile the whole time. ‘Oh my god,’ they say. ‘Oh my god.’ Big smiles, for sure. I warn everybody that when you get back home you will need a month to get over it and get back to normal.”

Paladino sees those smiles every day when riders return on their rented Pinarellos. At 50, he has been riding bikes here since he was a boy and he has witnessed the growth of cycle tourism. He opened his shop in 1993 with three metal bikes. His inventory will total 45 in 2018.

“Lucca is famous for the bike,” Paladino says. “Lucca is famous for Mario Cipollini. We have good weather. The experience on the bike is important to us.”

The first of my two rides on this visit is a southern loop of nearly 30 miles. With Chronò employee Cristiana Vinardi and business partner Gabriele Mirra alongside, Paladino leads us south onto narrow country roads below the challenging 3,000-foot Monte Serra. We bypass the steep climb only to stop a few meters down the road at Borgo Delle Camelie — village of the camellias — and its medieval tower. The tower door is locked but Paladino hurries to a nearby house where he knows the residents have a key. Once inside the tower, we climb a narrow metal staircase to the top where we can see for miles in opposite directions.

The ride continues up gentle grades, passing by farmhouses and vistas seemingly plucked from travel magazines. We descend a modest yet classic set of Italian switchbacks and stop in front of an old church for fresh spring water. The original church, la Chiesa di Sant’Andrea di Gattaiola, dates to the eighth century.

At one point before returning to town, Paladino suddenly stops, lays down his bike and rushes into nearby trees. He returns with cachi — an autumn persimmon — which he tears open and passes half to me. “Eat the inside,” he instructs as I discover a rich, sweet flavor made even more intense after time on the bike.

Day Two arrives. Paladino and I head north as a twosome on a series of narrow roads barely wide enough for one American-size car. Paladino knows every bend in every road as we weave our way counterclockwise in a zig-zag pattern through vineyards, olive trees, and villages.

Heading back to the city, we meet a friend of Paladino’s on the final stretch of a 100-kilometer ride of his own. We stop by another hillside church for one last panorama, a final Tuscan landscape. As we near an ancient gateway arch through the wall, we ride across cobblestones likely placed in the roadway hundreds of years ago.

Throughout my time in Lucca, I appreciate how my cycling experience is enhanced by having Paladino, Cristina, and Gabriele as my guides. There would be no cachi, no tower views and no quiet back-country climbs without them showing me the way.

Once again, Lucca provides the perfect Italian getaway. I may not get back to normal.

 

Etc.

Bike Rentals. There are several rental shops inside and outside Lucca’s walls. Chronò Bikes is one of the few that make available high-end road bikes. www.ChronoBikes.com

Cycle Tours. Paladino Meschi and Gabriele Mirra have just launched ChronòPlus to provide guided top-level cycling tours. ChronòPlus arranges guides for local rides as well as racing, climbing and event tours beyond Lucca. www.chronoplus.com

Tour Lucca. There’s plenty of history, culture, and architecture to discover. Wanda Martinelli offers a variety of personal tours at Lucca Tours. www.luccatours.com

Savor a Cooking Class: Executive chef Giuseppe Mazzocchi leads you step by step through an Italian meal starting with a walk to shop for fresh ingredients. You prepare, cook and enjoy your own. www.extravirginlucca.com

Have Some Wine? Enjoy a glass of wine at Enoteca Vanni. The Roman wine cellar dates to 200 A.D. and holds more than 4,500 bottles. www.enotecavanni.it 

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