“Before we get going, I need to explain my rules”.
Ten of us, positioned atop rented bikes, are about to begin a cycling tour of Tuscany. We have congregated on a smooth, paved terrace, which overlooks the ancient port of Piombino. Our guide, dressed in a red zip-up jersey with a matching helmet, introduces himself as Gaetano. I feel like I’m back at school, adjusting my rucksack, whilst listening to his instructions: “cycle in single file; watch out for tourists and small dogs; brake with both hands; and please, enjoy your ride”.
As we pedal away from the water, which rocks up and down to the early arrival of a ferry, Gaetano picks up the pace. He’s followed by a couple coordinated in Lycra, who have assumed an early pole position; then there’s a family of five, trailed by two talkative friends. I silently, and nervously, remain at the rear. A shiny, black car with darkened windows passes us, beeping. Twisting my head, and squinting against the sun, I notice a pink ribbon tied to its grille.
We follow the city’s raised, protective walls which, Gaetano turns to inform us, were designed by Leonardo da Vinci. I notice a street artist has added their touch, with a mural of multi-coloured patterns overlaying the ochre fortification. As our cycle chain turns a bend, I see the Estruscan coastline stretched out ahead, gilded in light. Shore-side, white-sand beaches meet the open sea, across which is Corsica. I feel completely free.
It’s not long before we meet a small roundabout: cars wait, passengers observing us in amusement. A driver winds down his window: “Bravo!” he applauds, as we collectively circle, a tight carousel of bikes. As we file after our guide, entering the historic city through its open ramparts, I relax into the ride, laughing at the local enthusiasm for cyclists.
We weave in and out of narrow, uneven streets, shaded by small tavernas announcing fresh seafood on blackboards. It seems that Gaetano’s warning about small dogs was necessary, as many are taking morning walks “I have a cat bigger than this”, he gestures to one, as it yaps to the sound of nearby church bells.
Gaetano waves at us to turn left, “This is a shortcut to a piazza where we can take coffee”. I’m looking forward to a cappuccino.
We wind downhill; it’s steep, and we are cycling close, too close, to one another.
Gaetano shouts suddenly, ‘Brake!’.
We skid and slide and partially collide, halting ahead of a crowded square. I spot the black car from earlier: it’s surrounded by smartly dressed families, who cheer and clap, as they spill out of an old church. Emerging from its steps is an elegant bride and groom, united. A photographer is taking pictures of them: he looks up, sees us, stops.
‘About turn’ our guide commands.
We speedily manoeuvre our bikes around, pushing off, uphill, disappearing from view.
I think Gaetano needs to add ‘no crashing weddings’ to his list of rules.