The Italy Divide – Part 1: Rome to Bologna

What is the Italy Divide? Checkout my post from last April 2018 with all the info Dot Watching the Italy Divide

The Bike for the Italy Divide

I updated my Curve Cycling Belgie Spirit with a few modifications to accommodate going off road. Bigger tyres, more gears, and some MTB SPD pedals & shoes (for all the walking I’d end up doing). I also added some proper lights – Exposure Diablo and Strada for negotiating trails at night. The rest of the bike was as per my normal Transcontinental road bikepacking setup. Aero bars, with eTap blip shifters, Apidura bags, dynamo lights.

Pushing the Belgie Spirit to its limits – 35 tyres and some MTB terrain was just about manageable.


Starting the Italy Divide didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. The ride over from the airport to Rome I discovered the brand new chain was slipping on the front little (32T) ring, meaning I had to use the big (48T) ring up each of the climbs I came across. Thankfully there were not many, and glad to have a 32T on the back, so I resolved to sorting it in the morning and went sightseeing once I checked into my hotel. Overnight my stomach turned itself inside out and was not in a happy place. Sleep was fleeting with a fever and spent a lot of the night on the toilet.


Waking up and beginning the hunt for a bike shop I discovered that it was a public holiday in Italy and everywhere was closed. Not great! I tried to enjoy a pizza with some fellow racers, but I really struggled to eat it but managed half and kept half for later.

After dropping my bag with the race team van I proceeded to take a nap in the park. My plan was to ride the ‘flat bit’ to Florence in the big ring (48t x 11/32) and get the bike sorted there. In hindsight this plan might have been a bit ridiculous, but more on that later.

The Start

We rode in a neutralised peloton through Rome, stopping outside the Colosseum for a minutes silence in respect for Mike Hall. The continued on through the streets before being released by Giacomo, the race director, just past the Vatican City.


We rode as a peloton for a little further until the race split with the inevitable gaps created by the traffic lights that most of us were respecting. I wasn’t really intent on ‘racing’, and I had no intention of fighting that tasty start out, least of all because I was short of gears and needed to save legs.

After a few interesting wrong turns and some scrambling down some embankments  started to leave the hustle of Rome behind and head into the now very cool night and thin down into a small group of 6, including Jacapo Porreca a fellow TCR No. 4 vet, who worked for PedelEd at TCR No. 5, following my struggle up the last climb to Meteora.

Only having the big ring meant I wasn’t able to spin up a lot of the small rolling hills and would find myself drifting back often. Before long the string would break and I’d be on my own. I much preferred it that way, as was uncomfortable with all the drafting going on. Early on in the evening came some short sharp climbs. The first few I managed to power up, but the third was ridiculously steep. First time in a long time I’ve had to step off and walk, but with the distance ahead, it was wise.

No sooner as I had started walking, another group came up the hill. They weren’t speaking English, but I understood they were commenting on me having to walk at such an early stage… I feigned needing to go for a pee to save face, but not sure that worked. I didn’t really care what anyone thought, it was my own race and I’d ride it this way.

Most of the route until this point had been roads or bike paths. Paved. The gravel sections soon started. They needed a bit of concentration especially in the dark, but for the most part were fairly straightforward. Some of the descents needed a little more, and at one point I lost the front wheel and went down on my left side. Slow speed bail, but I still took bit of a bump and bruised a shin. The left shifter was bent but straightened out easily enough, as did the saddle, and I was on the way again.

It was about 4 hours in and yet another steep climb, this one looking much longer. I decided I ought to give the little ring another chance. Half expecting it to slip and leave me walking anyway I was delighted to find the chain cleanly engage and allow me to spin along. A miracle! Seems the chain just needed a bit of a stretch to work with the chainrings properly. Result!


Just before light started breaking, about 5 am I found a small bar just opened. I dived in and had some coke, crisps, chocolate and double espresso. I’d no issues with fatigue but figured it’d be good to stay ahead of the game.

Sunrise came just as I climbed up to yet another hilltop town. First proper sight of Tuscany in the early dawn light and it was stunning. It’s things like this that really help with ‘waking up’, and a renewed sense of purpose and motivation always seems to come from sunrise.

The day slowly heated up and I was eating up a lot of Strada Bianchi, rolling white gravel roads snaking through the Tuscan countryside. Always up or down, but with the views I really didn’t mind.


I had a solid morning, using up the food and water I had stocked up on at the cafe. Around midday I found a small town and located a bar where I had a restock of water, a quick bite of lunch and an ice cream. I’d hardly seen any other riders since my dawn espresso, so it was nice to catch a glimpse of a few here. I could see a number had settled in for lunch at a pizzeria, so was a little pleased to be quick, efficient and get out ahead.

The afternoon was warming up and with a little bit of flatter ground I found myself making some good time, despite a couple of mechanicals needing me to stop every now and then to tighten some bolts, but made it to Siena in the late afternoon and an early evening snack. I looked at the map and figured with about 70 km to Florence I’d be safe in booking a hotel there without any worries about getting there before too late. Little did I know what was lying in wait for me…

I eased my way out of the town, now busy with tourists and followed the route down onto some Roman roads. To call them roads was a bit of a stretch. Maybe at one time in the distant past of the Roman empire these were neatly and evenly laid slabs of rock, but time had not been kind. They were bumpy as hell, uneven and slowed my progress quite a bit. Next thing I knew, I was following a trail down a steep muddy path and through a stream, and into a field. The progress was slow, dirty and uncomfortable. From the field it got a little easier surface, but with a bit of a gradient to slow me down.

Just as it was getting dark, the route tracked off into a farmyard. From the farm there was a steep path heading up a field on the side of the first real mountain. Progress had been slow so I endeavoured to keep moving, but it had been a long lumpy hot day and I wasn’t able to go very fast. The climb seemed to go on forever, before the trail turned into an unrideable section with large rocks and boulders sticking out of the water runoff gouged trail. I would try to ride for a few meters up the steep path then bump into a rock losing momentum and falling over. My gears, tyres and handlebars were letting me down – not enough grip or control. I’d be surprised if many on an MTB would have ridden this.

I’d made it to the top, but the going was not good. There was a lot of mud and large puddles to navigate. I was making progress, right until I rode over a narrow turf at the edge of a puddle and got stuck in the mud. I stopped dead in my tracks and toppled over into a large deep muddy puddle. I was on my side, the bike on top of me. I was stuck for a minute or two flailing around in the mud. The sun had gone and the dusk light had left and I was soaked, covered in mud on top of a mountain. With the altitude it was also getting a little chilly. After picking myself up, I made my way through the forest with a wild boar ferreting around in the undergrowth around me. It freaked me out at first – when I saw it running along the trail in front of me I wondered whether it was a bear for a minute.

It was quite late now, so after cleaning the bike up a bit and shaking off the worst of the mud, I made my way to a clearing to find some mobile signal and a new hotel that was much closer, finding one in a town at the foot of the hill I was on. I rolled on down carefully, with brakes full of mud I’d need to fix them in the morning.

The Belgie post mud bath. The mud got into everything.

I checked into my hotel, put the bike in a shed round the side and went about washing as much mud out of my kit as I could. The hotel room was small, functional, but there was a good shower to allow me to clean the mud off myself and my kit. The bathroom was quite a state when I was done, but made an effort to clean up as much as possible. There was no food available, and would be none at breakfast, but I had some snacks to keep me going.

My mountain spa treatment complete

Day 2

I woke at dawn and headed out. The morning was cool, crisp and fresh with the promise to be a stunning day. I eased out of the small town and the road started going up yet again. This led me to a wonderful view overlooking a valley with the low sun burning through the morning mist. Tuscany is a beautiful place, especially with sunrises and sunsets.

Another incredible Tuscan sunrise

I really needed some food and coffee to get me going and found an ideal bakery/cafe just before Florence after about an hour on the bike. I fueled up and headed down into Florence which was just starting to bustle in the morning rush hour. It was a little busy for my liking, but a beautiful place.

Florence 😍

The route quickly ramped up as it moved to the first truly technical part of the race. I always knew this day would be lumpy but I hadn’t really taken into account what the terrain would be like. The trails were super technical and resulted in several falls while trying to keep momentum going up hill.

A concerned e-MTB’er rode with me for a bit, trying to convince me to take a different route around as this would be far to technical for my Belgie. I persevered and he gave up. It was slow and hard going, but strangely enjoyable. The day had warmed up nicely, and from the top the views in the late morning were stunning.

Realising this was not a gravel race. This was MTB country

I managed to run out of water, but using my app, spotted water was available at a monastery. It was at the top of a long climb, but it was a welcome sight after a super steep trail. It was fairly plain sailing after this heading down to a small town where I’d planned to get some lunch where I devoured two large bowls of pasta finished off with some gelato. I’d not made as much distance as I would normally expect for the time I had been moving, but it was to be expected with the terrain.

After lunch, the terrain only got worse. The heat, full stomach and steep gradients with loose surface mean a lot more walking. When the trail leveled out, it was super rocky and required hike-a-bike. Packed bikes don’t lend well to this, but everyone would be in the same situation.  Descents were sketchy as hell. As long as I didn’t stop I was able to ‘send it’ down most of the trails, many with some big drops but had to bail out of a few and hike down them. With all the rocks and debris in the trail I was amazed I managed to avoid getting a flat or broken spoke, or simply trashing the bike. I found getting all my weight back over the rear wheel and using the rear brake you have incredibly good control over speed allowing the wheels to flow over the roughest of terrain.


I’d spent the best part of 4 hours after lunch only travelling 40km. Tedious pace! It wasn’t until late afternoon and I’d put the worst of the trails behind me and onto a sealed road did I get a flat. Most likely a large thorn caused a slow puncture, I was keen to fix and push onto Bologna. The heat, slow progress and walking was wearing me down, with my new MTB shoes giving me a nasty blister on my ankle.

The early evening sun and hazy sky heading down towards Bologna was spectacular, and was relieved to be heading back down to civilization. Unfortunately, just before Bologna was a ridiculous climb up a narrow path. It was getting dark, I was exhausted and simply couldn’t ride it. A long slow painful walk was required, and when I got to the top the first thing I did when I found signal was to book a hotel. I probably rushed it, but booked the first and cheapest hotel I could find.

I descended down into Bologna and found a McDonalds before retreating to my hotel for some sleep. Unfortunately, the hotel was above a cinema, so wasn’t going to be able to get an early night.

Taking an early night!

The longest 100 miles I’ve ever ridden…


Day 1 –

  • Distance: 379 km
  • Elevation: 7,378 m
  • Ride Time: 23h 13m

Day 2 –

  • Distance: 161.2 km
  • Elevation: 3,586 m
  • Ride Time: 13h 20m. Slow!

4 thoughts on “The Italy Divide – Part 1: Rome to Bologna

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