My friends and I aren’t your stereotypical girls. We do love shopping but mostly for bike kit, hanging out and chatting but about who’s racing where and riding what. We often meet up for coffees but only when its near the end of a ride. So who are these girls? Rickie Cotter is a 24 hour solo mountain bike racer and one of the top competitors in the world, Lorena Jones is a cycling fanatic who works for Total Women Cycling during the week, then out often for the whole weekend putting down 100’s miles. I am a professional road racer, and compete in the UK and Europe for Velosure Starley Primal. Rickie and myself met on on one of the biggest single stage races in the world last summer – The Transcontinental. This monster of a race starts in London, crosses the continent and finishes in Istanbul, totally self supported. A very tough challenge. I met Lorena whilst I was training for that event at the start of last summer half way up the Col Du Madeline – one of the giants in the French Alps. It’s always great to meet other girls who share your cycling passion so we just started chatting and got on straight away. May bank holiday was fast approaching. With a few days off work and everyone making plans my friends and I decided that it was a brilliant opportunity to fit in a weekend of bikepacking. We explored lots of different options, there was talk of heading over to Wales, Scotland or just something super local out near London. We all wanted a weekend of nothing but pedaling, top company and delicious food. As we planned and explored the opportunities we joked and decided on a weekend of excess with no rules. Huge amounts of riding, chowing down on what ever we fancied and not worrying to much about getting much sleep. As we chatted and the more excited everyone got our plans begun to escalate and one of the girls suggested the Tuscany Trail Race. A 600km off road mountain bike ultra. The race starts in the Apuane Alps, then weaves though all the gems which Tuscany has to offer – including hill top town San Gimignano and cities like Siena. It then finishes on the Argentario Peninsular. It was going to be bigger than what we had initially planned on and would take a lot more planning and prep, but it sparked the sense of adventure inside all of us. Within the next 24 hours everyone was signed up and flights to Florence were booked. Over the next few months there was a lot to think about and get ready. There is one set route so the organisers send you a GPX file to load onto a Garmin. As a lot of the trail is off road it was vital that we studied the route and made note of places to stock up on food, water and know where larger towns were in case of any mechanical issues or needed to find somewhere warm to shelter if the weather really came in. A lot of filing with bikes is always done in the lead up to a big event. You have to know your bike inside out so if something happens you can at least botch a repair to get you back moving, and well as making sure it’s still a comfy ride when loaded with bikepacking luggage. I have a dropper seat post which I swapped out as I opted to travel light and just carry one of Alpkit’s Koala seat packs and a small top tube bag. We planned to complete the race in 3 days, so I decided on one set of kit. I went for Primal’s Elita kit. I wear Primal a lot so I know that the kit works for me, it’s super light so drys fast, really durable and most importantly for that amount of saddle time the chamois is comfortable. We also needed to be as self sufficient as possible so I took a portable battery along with 2 sets of Exposure lights. I went for a prima-loft jacket and bivvy bag and decided against taking a sleeping bag as I have managed without one in the past so thought I would be alright without one now. Before we knew it, it was May bank holiday. On the Thursday evening the three of us: Rickie, Lorena and I met in London. Bike bags packed and ready to catch a flight to Florence early the following morning. We chatted away at 100 miles an hour as we all had loads of catching up to do, comparing what we had each packed and bike set ups. With a few pre race nerves we landed in Florence and caught a local train to the small town of Massa on the edge of the Alpi Apuane national park. As we pulled in to the station everything felt very real, Massa is a small town and there were 200 bikekpackers that had descended upon it ready to ride the following morning. We headed down the road and found the school gym which was the meeting point. It felt like arriving at base camp with everyone building up their bikes and packing the last bits of kit. Inside the hall was a stack of gym matts which you could help yourself to and set your self up a spot to camp for the night. After finding a spot to sleep for the night we all headed out to one of the local restaurants for last chance bit of carb loading and a chance to meet the other riders. We sat with a group of guys from Germany and talked cycling adventures. They had chosen to ride fat bikes and were telling us tails of winter riding through snow and ice. The next morning was an early start. Everyone rolled to the main square, grabbed an espresso and grouped together on the start line. We knew day one was going to be tough getting through the Alps. We had 2 mountain passes that we needed to get over ideally before dark. As we heading along the road out of town it quickly turned to gravel then into a rocky section of single track. As we neared the summit the track kicked up in steepness and became slippery and very rocky, it was unridable. We chucked our bikes over our shoulders and hiked to the top. Everyone was still close together at this point so you could see streams of riders running and hiking the snaking switchback to the top of the climb. The summit was a narrow ridge high up over the valley, as we looked around you could see the weather systems moving in and we were just up about to be enveloped by thick mist. Then it was time for some fun. A fast decent plummeting back down to sea level into a deep valley. The way down was really varied starting off rocky then turning into dense woodland full of roots and little river crossings. As we rode back onto the valley floor the scenery was stunning, really green and lush enclosed in by the steep sides of the mountains rising up at the sides of the roads and completely empty as we rode through it, it felt like a secret place that no one else knew existed. We then had to get up and over another peak to get out into the heart of Tuscany and through Florence which was our goal before the night. By this point Lorena was struggling, it was her first bickpacking trip and the first section had been full on. She didn’t feel up to tackling the second peak. So we had to make a call, we wanted to stay together and ride as a team but if we left it much longer we would be heading up the climb in the dark with storm clouds looming overhead. With this type of riding you have to make quick decisions and minimise stopping time to cover the distances, Lorena made the call she decided to catch the train to Florence and Rickie and I would meet her there. Rickie and I headed off back into the mountains. It was another big climb but this time all of it was ridable and as we summited, before descending, we road along the ridge line and passed through a couple of tiny villages. The route took us weaving along the narrow streets between the houses and down stacks and stacks of steps. The last village we passed through we knew was going to be our last chance to grab any supplies for the next 40km where we had been warned was entirely off road snaking through the woods. We bumped into a couple of other riders eating pizza and joined them for a quick slice and cup of coffee then continued into dusk. The trail finally started to point downwards, this time in the dark and with gravel, mud, rocks, a couple more river crossings. You name it, it was thrown in. I was just just behind Rickie and I saw her pulled into the side of the trail waiting for me and getting lights out ready. She looked slightly stunned when I asked her what had happened she said she had been cut up by a wild stag dashing across the trail. Lights now on, we started back on the downhill and all we could see was the spotlit area of trail in front of us which our lights were illuminating. Fueled on adrenaline we didn’t slow down and started to see a spread of twinkling lights from the town below. As we rode into town the first thing we did was go looking for dinner. It didn’t take much searching as soon as we spied two fully loaded bikes stacked up outside a pizzeria. So that’s where we headed. Outside the weather had developed into a full blown storm. We had no choice but to continue into the night. It didn’t take long for tiredness to set in and a primal desire to duck out of the rain, luckily we spotted a small B&B on the roadside. We had planned to bivvy for the whole trip but the chance to dry off was too appealing. As we road down the drive way it was apparent that this B&B was very grand and likely to be out of our budget. To our despair, it also turned out to be full. Despite knowing that we probably couldn’t foot the bill we still felt gutted. Rickie spotted a man in the B&B sitting in lycra eating a huge meal, surely he must be doing the race? We went over for a chat. We laughed about what had happened during the day and the man said he had a large room and we were welcome to stay. That’s one of the things that amazes me the most about this type of racing is that even though everyone has the competitive desire to win and your individual survival instincts are in full swing, everyone still looks out for each other and kindness and generosity shine through. So that’s what we did. Despite the fact that he had beat us to the only remaining room, he kindly took the single spare bed whilst Rickie and I shared the enormous four poster. We slept like kings that night but not for long as at 4am we were back on the road, tired, but somewhat rested. A couple of hours smashing along dusty trails and we span into Florence and reunited with Lorena. The terrain out of the city was less harsh. Rolling and mainly on the Tuscan white roads, so we were able to cover a larger distance. Our daily target was Siena, 150km from Florence, but we were there in several hours. We stopped for a celebratory ice cream, milkshake and sandwich then pressed on out the other side. We rode till it was dark and till we were tired enough to bivvy. We thought we had spotted some hay bails which would have made for a warm night sleep but, due to a lack of food and covering 400km in 36 hours we must have been delirious as when we turned round to look for them they didn’t exist. No hay bails in sight we headed into a field and put our heads down in the grass behind a shepherds hut. It was the worst night sleep I have had in a bivvy, which is saying something. Normally I have no problems, but I was suddenly starting to really regret not packing a sleeping bag as we lay in damp grass and the coldness from the ground passed into my body. I drifted in and out of a shivery sleep. Lorena also hadn’t brought a sleeping bag but has passed out with tiredness and Rickie was toasty in her new custom down bag that she had treated herself to after surviving the Transcontinental with a space blanket. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way! I was looking forward to 4am and getting moving and warm again. Dawn is one of my favorite times to cycle. It is a stunning part of the day and riding at sunrise always puts a smile on my face. Any miles that you put in before breakfast I always count as bonus ones. We started the day on the white roads going between little hill top towns. Then as we started to head back out towards the coast we spotted some big mountains on the horizon. On these big rides it’s really important to ride in the moment. If you start to think about what lies ahead or the distance you have done you automatically start pacing yourself and holding back. So that’s what we did, we forgot about the 450km that we had done and enjoyed the climbing again and the chance to do a rad, gravely fast descent. We surprised ourselves and got all the way out to the coast before deciding to bank a couple of hours sleep and heading onto the final section of the ride around the peninsular. Other riders that we had bumped into on the route had told us to expect 50km of technical single track on the peninsular. So we put our heads down for a few hours feeling pretty smug that we had a brilliant last day of riding ahead of us. We weren’t disappointed. We rode onto the peninsular at 4am and were on the trail as the sun rose out of the sea. The views were phenomenal and so was the riding. In our excitement we hadn’t thought much about food and so we were fueled on half a tuna sandwich each left over from dinner and a bag of M&M’s. By around 7am we were starting to flag. We decided to all ride non stop at our own paces until we found food and the first one there could start buying it. We found a small port town almost on the edge of the peninsular before rejoining the mainland where we stopped. The local bakery was blown away by the sight of three girls demolishing a feast in a matter of mouthfuls. Followed by watching us wonder across the road for a breakfast ice cream. With full stomachs we headed through the final section through shaded woodland and toward the finishing town of Capalbio. As we approached the finish I always find it bitter sweet. Excited to be coming into the finish but also slightly gutted that such an extraordinary few days of riding is coming to an end. With adventure bikepacking races there is no grand finish, no prizes, no glory. Everyone has a totally unique experience and that’s what you take away with you. For me when I get home unpack, sit down and take a deep breath the sense of achievement, colourfulness of the country, generosity of new friends and magnitude of what is possible on bike really sinks in. The Tuscany Trail is a truly unforgettable adventure that I am stoked to have shared with two great friends.