Gravel riding under the Tuscan sun

Just over a week ago the 2021 Strade Bianche races provided more amazing cycling footage from Tuscany. Naturally, the white gravel roads again played centre stage. It is no secret that the crew here at Sierra love to get off-road. It was back in 2014 when Sierra first started guiding our cycling tour groups over the ‘strada bianca’. At first, some of our guests probably thought the concept of gravel cycling in Tuscany was a little crazy. But right from the start we were sure we had found a winning combination!

Sierra guests were riding gravel before it became COOL!

White gravel roads of Tuscany, strada bianca
Sierra Sports has always looked for some white gravel for our Giro d’Italia tours

Gravel cycling from the Giro to l’Eroica

You see, in Tuscany, the gravel roads provide cyclists with a huge amount of flexibility. Hard compacted gravel can lead you up to picnic lunches in remote hilltop villages. Cruising along ridgelines provide super vantage points that look out to medieval cities like Siena. Plus gravel detours offer up the chance to beat Giro d’Italia road closures. We fondly remember bush-bashing to within metres of an individual time trial start in Chianti wine region.

The Tuscan gravel can basically take you anywhere you need to go!

After a couple of Giro d’Italia tours rolled by we decided that we needed more Vitamin G. So with that came the birth of our l’Eroica vintage bike adventures. We have been able to even spot Italian pro-riders cycling this event incognito behind their own vintage bike and woolen clothing disguises. Enrico Gasparotti won the 2016 Amstel Gold Race and only a few months later was enjoying the l’Eroica cycling festival with a relaxed ride with friends. Never in his wildest of dreams did he imagine a photo with the Sierra peloton at the finish line. Or should that be the Sierra paparazzi!!. It all amounts to a very special day when you see a current pro-rider wearing l’Eroica finisher medal with so much pride!

Roger, Enrico & Jeff enjoying l’Eroica post-ride celebrations!

Tuscan gravel cycling goes vintage

Cycling the gravel roads also gives us adults the chance to dress-up for a day. It turns into a bit of a competition around who can go most vintage. Finding a retro jersey is easy at l’Eroica vintage market. To give you an idea, this vintage bike market is a bit like Pick-a-Part for second-hand car accessories. Sierra owner Paul back in his maiden l’Eroica trip stumbled across the ‘GSR Camping Citta Di Angera’ woolen classic. He fell in love at first sight. Note the green and gold colours!

Woolen cycling jerseys are all the rage at l’Eroica!

What happened next and what continues to happen every year is local Italians gravitate to the jersey. It just seems that most of central Italy love the Angera camp ground. We later found out that this camping is located on the shores of Lago Maggiore just north-west of Milan. If Paul could pull off an authentic Italian accent (rather than his Spanish one) then he could try to pass as the camp ground owner. On average there would be 5 riders every year that come up and tell Paul just how good ‘GSR Camping Citta Di Angera’ really is. As a result, we have made a note to check it out one day with the family!   

Prosecco in Chianti wine region

The best feature of the jersey though is by far the extra large and reinforced back pockets. As you can see in the above photo, a bottle of prosecco wine easily fits in! So the handover of a bottle or two of crisp Prosecco just on the entry to Gaiole in Chianti is now tradition. This way we make sure our gravel cycling in Tuscany experiences are celebrated in style! 

Don’t worry though, we make sure to also sample the local Chianti wines. There is plenty of time for a quality glass of red while telling tall tales. l’Eroica will do that too you! What a way to mix Tuscan gravel roads, vintage bikes and cycling culture. The gastronomy combined with friendly locals willing to share their small towns will create your best ever Italian travel experience. Feel free to follow this link if you would like to learn more about our Tuscany & l’Eroica cycling holidays. Viva la Toscana!

Salute from Tuscany!

Cycling with a 5 time Tour de France champion!

During 2014 the Sierra peloton received a special treat cycling an organised 150km stage with Miguel Indurain from Urzainki to Formigal through the Spanish Pyrenees. The ride took us from the heart of the Irati Forest all the way through to the finish at Formigal, one of Spain’s most recognised ski stations in the Pyrenees, and only 5km from the Spanish/French border.

‘Big Mig’ as he is affectionately known in English (‘Migalon’ en Spanish) stepped onto his first Tour de France podium in Paris on 28 July 1991. During the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ Stage 12 to set him up for his first yellow jersey. The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to the Champs Elysees and which started a 5 year winning streak through to 1995.

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

As our day surrounded by cycling royalty was heading to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Formigal. The final 16km climb at 4% average grade, while long, is not overly taxing unless of course you are riding with a past TDF champion! To add some interest we left the main road mid-climb to cycle the secondary road which follows the reservoir through to Sallent del Gallego. Spectacular scenery with multiple 3000m+ peaks surrounding us! After leaving the town centre one is met with a sudden transition of 4 kilometres around 8%. The final ramp on the backroad to the Formigal ski resort was 25% and required one last effort to our hotel for the night.

How the 1991 TDF was won!

On arrival to Formigal Miguel Indurain spoke to the local newspaper that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991. Translated into English it went something like this:

“My idea was not to attack in the mountains. When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”. 

The Sierra peloton continued to chatter away excitedly in the presence of an international sporting hero!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

Stage 12 of the 1991 TDF

Here is some further background on the defining stage that first brought Big Mig into Le Tour spotlight. On the bikes the professional peloton needed to clear five categorised climbs making it the epic 1991 Tour de France Queen Stage. The pro-cyclists rode 232km from Jaca (Spain) to Val Louron (France) through territory which makes cycling in the Pyrenees a real pleasure. The classic climbs included Portalet, Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Val Louron. In case you don’t know already, the mountain road linking the Aubisque and Soulor climbs is one of the most scenic routes world-wide and to put it bluntly is a ‘must do’ for any cycling enthusiast!

The balcony road from Col du Soulor to Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees

As a quick side note, the following day our cycling tour group replicated a good chunk of the Stage 12 route which included a 100km cycling challenge over the final 5km of Portalet from Formigal into France, the Category 1 climb of Aubisque, the easy side of Col du Soulor and the hors categorie ascent of the Tourmalet. With approximately 3000m elevation gain it was a big ride but after hearing the stories and exploits of Migalon over dinner the previous night it certainly helped push us all on to a day of great feats!

Col du Tourmalet

With the Tourmalet playing centre-stage Miguel Indurain made his attack on the descent and took on the 1991 Tour de France and made the race his own. Col du Tourmalet is as big as they come when it comes to professional cycling history. During 1991 the Tour de France took on the 19km climb from Luz Saint-Sauveur (7.4% average gradient).

The Tourmalet can you believe has around 85 Tour de France race route passings. This magic col has inspired us so much that we have even designed an exclusive Tourmalet cycling jersey as seen in the below selfie.

Tourmalet cycling jersey

From Luz Saint-Sauveur there is nothing overly glamorous during the initial 7km up to the ski village Bareges. A constant test and some long straight sections to contend with as you follow your way alongside the Le Bastan river. Not long after leaving Bareges you arrive at a large car park which flattens considerably and gives the legs a nice reprieve. It is always a good place to regroup or even have a support car positioned. From here the main road begins to transform into a real mountain col as its sinuous path up to the summit now begins. It is also from this point in Le Tour that the caravans start lining the side of the road as the magnificent switchbacks immediately begin after exiting the carpark.

If you are looking for a car-free section though and something special then after Bareges and just before the car park veer off to the right on the still asphalted road which is also known as the Laurent Fignon way (‘Voie Laurent Fignon’). The original D918 road is open for cyclists only and its narrow winding asphalted road still exhibit some faded TDF race markings and the views down to the valley below are simply unrivalled!

[Just in case you didn’t know, Laurent Fignon was a professional French cyclist who won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984. He was also the leader of the 1984 Giro d’Italia heading into the Stage 21 ITT in Verona. To follow a short story about Francisco Moser & Laurent Fignon and potential sabotage at the 1984 Giro please click here].

Coming back to Voie Laurent Fignon on the Tourmalet and it is only a short 2.4km stretch of road, which gains 200m of elevation and later joins back with the modern road. It is well worth the detour though especially considering it was first used all the way back for the inaugural TDF raid into the Pyrenees.

Looking from the Tourmalet summit towards Luz Saint-Sauveur

Now that we have rejoined the main drag it is the final two kilometres which are definitely the hardest on this western Tourmalet ascent. So keep that in mind as you start nearing the 2000m altitude mark. If you have kept something in reserve it is usually here, during the final kilometre, where you catch many recreational cyclists who are often now pedalling squares. The final big left, hard switchback is gruelling but an awesome piece of construction and the final 200m feel like an eternity. For most the highlight is greeting the giant structure (`Geant`) at the rock-cut summit which peaks at 2115m elevation.

Le Geant statue of Octave Lapize on Col du Tourmalet

Le Geant – Octave Lapize

The giant is dedicated to Octave Lapize the first cyclist to cross the Tourmalet during the TDF over a century ago (1910 to be exact)! Just a miserly 326km stage which took about 14 hours for Octave to complete and win back in the day. A highlight for everyone that reaches this magical destination is to mark the moment with a series of photos around the massive statue.

If time permits and you like cycling history also check out the bar at the top directly in front of Le Geant. Some old school TDF bikes are hanging from the walls and excellent black and white photos recalling just how difficult the race was during its early editions in the Pyrenees.

In a perfect world the statue would remain at the summit all year round but the conditions even during summer can be very harsh. So to keep it exposed to the winter elements would be a major mistake and as such between October and June every year it rests down in the Laurent Fignon centre near Bagneres-Bigorre.

To mark the opening of the cycling season the first weekend of June sees the return of Le Geant to its rightful place atop the Col du Tourmalet summit. Keep your eye out for the Montee du Geant free event where often one thousand recreational cyclists follow behind the giant statue as it travels the 30km from Gedre up to the summit. A true celebration of cycling perfect for cyclists of all abilities.

Time to Descend

After the compulsory photos at the summit you can cruise back down the western face of the Tourmalet and spend some time around Luz Saint Sauveur. From this side you have the Gavarnie National Park with the Col des Tentes and Col du Troumouse climbs which are two non-TDF gems. Nearby there are also many other classic cycling cols rising up from Argeles-Gazost and which are covered in detail in our Cycling the French Pyrenees blog post (to be released January 2021).

Otherwise, from the Tourmalet summit continue your ride east down to Sainte-Marie de Campan and the direction where Miguel Indurain made his historic downhill attack during the 1991 Tour de France. Take some speed off this eastern descent as there are not as many switchbacks and a couple of avalanche structures to pass through. The longer stretches can see you build up considerable speed and there are a few surprising corners to still carefully navigate. Once at the bottom in ‘Sainte-Marie’ the options again are endless with Col d’Aspin and Hourquette d’Ancizan immediately up for grabs. You are now also on the doorstep of Saint-Lary Soulan which in our opinion is one of the best bases for outdoor activities in the Pyrenees. 

Related Road Cycling Articles

To find out more about the Pyrenees and many of these above cols and cycling destinations stay tuned for our complete web-guide to Cycling in the French Pyrenees. There is even some more Miguel Indurain information as we feature the underrated Pont de Larrau climb in the French Pyrenees where Big Mig saw his 1996 Tour de France dreams disappear. Pont de Larrau was part of a tough stage through the Pyrenees and was planned to be a commemoration to Big Mig in many ways as the race also passed through his very own Spanish hometown on its way to the finish in Pamplona.

In addition, if you would like to ride the Spanish & French Pyrenees in the future please check out our detailed Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast cycling tour itinerary. We have designed a challenging but fun itinerary which zig-zags both sides of the Pyrenees showcasing the highlights and cultural differences between these two iconic cycling nations!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

European Holiday Cycling Tips

This article is a summary of a fun and interactive webinar hosted by Cycling-Inform where Paul D’Andrea from Sierra Sports & Tours also joined the panel of presenters. The focus of the webinar was to receive live questions and provide instantaneous responses!

  1.  Where are some of the best European regions for cycling?

The Dolomites in northern Italy are a favourite destination for cycling enthusiasts. Jagged limestone mountain peaks provide an inspirational backdrop for testing yourself on some of the most mythical Giro d’Italia climbs. The Sella Ronda loop is a real gem and includes a staggering 4 categorised climbs within only 60km; Pordoi, Sella, Gardena and Campolongo!

The French Alpes are home to 4 of the 5 highest mountain passes in Europe and often play out epic Tour de France stages on Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier & Col d’Izoard but for pure cycling enjoyment the Sierra guides cannot go past the Pyrenees in southern France. There are many quiet linking backroads to be found in the Pyrenees where cycling through valleys and dense forests is also possible. Check out Argeles-Gazost & St Lary Soulan for an excellent base!

Andalusia in southern Spain is the sleeping giant when it comes to quality road cycling. While the Costa del Sol is packed with beachgoers the inland mountains offer a peaceful setting and incredible mixed terrain rides. Sierra de Grazalema, Sierra Cazorla and Sierra Nevada are just a few places to enjoy quality road cycling. With 300 days of sunshine per year there is no better place in Europe to just get outside and ride!

For pure drama Oudenaarde in western Belgium is the place to be during the European Spring. Cobbled classics races follow one after another and for cycling superfans the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix professional races provide a once in a lifetime experience!

  1. How does one go about selecting a cycling tour?

There are a few things to consider here and it basically comes down to whether you want to travel alone or within a guided group, what time of the year do you plan to travel and where do your interests lie? If your plan is to cycle the big mountain passes then to be safe cross-out October to June. The majority of Europe´s high mountain passes will most likely be under metres of snow during these months!

Guided cycling tours also follow different styles some of which include: a) those which follow the professional races (Spring Classics, Giro, TDF or La Vuelta), b) those which explore iconic cycling destinations (Girona, Pyrenees or Tuscany) but away from the professional races and c) those which are out-and-out epic alps challenges (French Alps, Italian Alps or Swiss Alps). At Sierra Sports & Tours we find that our guests often begin by joining us on a tour such as the Giro d’Italia where the race atmosphere is a key focus. For future holidays some guests move across to the other tour types where their interests shift to wanting more time cycling and time to explore the European regions during the afternoons!

  1. What are the typical characteristics of a tour group?

Sierra Sports & Tours is based in Spain but its roots are from Melbourne, Australia. As such, 95% of our guests are from Australia and New Zealand. The typical age profile of a Sierra guest is between 45 to 65 years old. We have many couples joining our tours so the current male to female ratio is about 60-40%. Non-cyclists do join our tours and typically account for about 15% of our clientele.

Non-cyclists receive a discount and can join the group in the support van or visit the towns where we are based. If they would like us to prepare special excursions we have experience organising local cooking classes, guided hikes, leisure bike rides, etc.

For road cyclists who are keen to join but are unsure about the big mountains we also have a fleet of electric road bikes that we can make available when things get a little more challenging.

  1. Should I bring my own bike or hire a bike?

For many clients this generally comes down to what their pre- and post-tour travel plans look like. For guests who are travelling solely for the cycling tour we find many will bring their own bike. International airlines, such as, Emirates and Qatar provide a 32kg luggage allowance which is more than enough. For guests though with several other domestic European flights or train connections they might find it easier and cheaper to select a hire bike.

For clients attending the Spring Classics we find most select hire bikes as we have them fitted with 28mm wide tyres, double handlebar tape, etc so there is already some extra comfort built-in! For a tour ranging from 8-10 days the bike hire price is typically 300 Euro.

  1. What does a guided tour include and what is a typical tour price?

Tours to the public generally range between 7 to 11 days. We like to spend 2 to 3 night stays in each location to provide a relaxed setting and to have time to explore each township. All of the guided tours also have at least one support van on-hand carrying your day packs, food and drink, spare bikes, parts and wheels, tool kits, etc.

The Sierra guides all speak English but also have additional languages including Spanish, French and Italian.

All of the accommodation and breakfasts are included. We like to select hotels with local charm, which are family owned and are welcoming to cycling tourists. About half of the dinners with beer and wine are also included. We find it is also great for clients to have the chance to explore for themselves during the free evenings.

Most of the start and finish locations are international airports and all of these transfers are also included in the tour price. For each tour we also have a commemorative cycling jersey which amongst other cycling related gifts is presented during the tour briefing. And most importantly you receive our professionally guided cycling routes following breathtaking scenery on roads away from major traffic to maximise your enjoyment and safety!

The typical price for a 9 day / 8 night trip is around the 3000€ price range. There are also discounts for group bookings with a starting 5% discount for a minimum group of 4.

  1. Who designs the cycling tours?

Paul and his team of guides have over 10 years experience cycling through Europe. We have set off on 100’s of cycling adventures through Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Norway, Slovenia, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria & Germany. Every year Sierra Sports & Tours also conducts a number of private cycling tours so if you have a group of about 6 or more why not ask us to design your very own customised European cycling tour.

More tips!

  • Plan Ahead: If you like to plan ahead then be sure to look at the European early bird flight specials which always finish around late October / early November. Through our association with Pellegrino Travel Agency we often secure flights for our guests between $AUD 1300-1500.
  • Just ride! Many guests are initially unsure if they have what it takes to join a cycling tour. Being consistent is the main thing! Get in a longer ride on the weekend but keep up the spinning during the week (a few 45 minute indoor sessions with Cycling-Inform will put you in good stead). To get the most out of a tour you do not need to be fast. Cycling on the flats (25-28km/hr) keeps the group together and then you are free to ride the climbs at your own speed (always guided support at the front and back of the group). Remember – pace your climbs! Ride within yourself, be able to talk, then if you have some more to give finish the final 2-3km with a burst! Also consider getting away pre-tour for a long weekend ride in the mountains to start preparing for Europe.
  • Practise your descending skills! Many guests have the stamina and strength to cycle 1-2hours uphill but then some find it difficult when descending for 30-45 minutes continuously. Practising to be relaxed and in the drops helps a lot, knowing when to apply the brakes and which ones is critical, how to handle the bike in wet or dry conditions, picking your entry and exit lines, outside pedal down and pressure applied, …….. Practise will make perfect and a cycling clinic is a good place to start developing these skills.
  • And the final word on Travel Insurance – there is a saying that goes ¨If you can‘t afford travel insurance, you can‘t afford to travel overseas¨. We recommend that any travel insurance purchased should also cover tour cancellation in the event you become ill, injured or other last minute family or work related matters arise. If you are travelling with an expensive bike also make sure that you have a sufficient level of cover in the event of theft or damage.