Winter Riding

Both Leif and I are from much colder climates; Leif is from Sweden and I’m from Minnesota in the United States. We’re used to cold and snow and weather that doesn’t invite cycling for months out of the year. This doesn’t mean cycling doesn’t happen in those climates, it just changes significantly for those who chose to ride year round. Different bikes, different clothing, different terrain. Very different mind set.

Part of the attraction of Tuscany for Leif was the longer cycling season. And if you’re from the north it truly is a year round season: It’s only the clothing and often your speed that needs to change. When I came here I didn’t cycle but really really really enjoyed what is in my experience a pretty mild winter. Now that I ride I appreciate that warmer winter season even more.

We’re very lucky, we know this. We have many friends who have to stay inside during the winter and use a trainer because of work schedules and less daylight hours, or simply because they have a great dislike for being cold. Since we’re in the off season our schedule is super flexible and we can ride at the driest and warmest time of the day. One of the perks of our kind of work.

While I suppose this could be classified as “riding outside the season” this is the perfect time to see Tuscany in a whole new light. The cooler temperatures are a welcome respite from the melting heat of summer. Fall is the smell of wine fermenting as we ride by a farm, the chatter of workers picking olives in a grove and the swift change of colors as the vines and trees prepare for winter. Winter itself is another kind of ride. The air is scented with wood smoke from the many houses that still heat with wood. The trees may be bare but we can see the shape of the hills clearly and trace the change in soil and climate from one valley to the next. Coffee breaks take on a whole new meaning as they mean warmth inside and out. We may come home cold and wet, but we also feel incredibly alive.

For now we put on our long pants, long sleeved jerseys, warm socks and gloves and hat and head out just as much as before. When the temperatures really dip down, like into the single digits (Celsius) we’ll break out the long underwear and super warm accessories and ride a little more carefully on those wet and/or frosty roads. But we’ll still be outside riding and enjoying the warmer days with bright sunshine but also the those other days, bitterly cold wind in our faces as our toes and fingers go slowly numb…because this is the way we’ve always known winter to be.

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The colors are peaking right now.

The Olive Harvest

We were fortunate this year to be invited to help one day with the olive harvest at Residenza Cornino near Castelina in Chianti (see their website here. The site is in Swedish, so contact them if you need info in English) . This was my first olive raccolta (harvest). Leif trained in olive groves when he first moved to Tuscany, so he was my guide alongside Gino, the owner of the trees.

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This day started like most of our adventures do: We woke at the crack of dawn, rode our bikes to the train station, managed to find the bike carriage and took the train to the nearest station to our final destination, and rode our bikes the final leg of the trip in the crisp morning air of fall in Tuscany. When I say the views at the residence are panoramic and breathtaking you’ll know that the ride up the hill on a gravel road filled with switchbacks and double digit grades was tough but worth it.

 

Olive harvesting, like any farming, is labor intensive work. Large nets are laid under the trees to catch the olives as they fall, then the olives are moved downhill over the net and gathered into bins for transport to the olive press. The olives are picked using a variety of tools. Hands, the world’s oldest tools, are the gentlest way to harvest but this method is very slow. Gino told me that this, along with rakes, are a traditional Italian way to harvest because it’s quieter than machines and it’s possible to talk. Chiacchierare, or chatting, makes every task more pleasant! Rakes are faster than bare hands, but are still slow…the motion is kind of like combing the branches from top to bottom to remove the olives. The next step up is a stick with a motorized wheel on the end that beats the olives off the branches. It’s much faster but beats up the olives and the trees more than the other ways. It’s very physical work, this harvesting of olives. You’re either working above your head or lifting and dragging heavy nets up and down hills. Did I forget to mention that olives are planted on hillsides to maximize their exposure to the sun?

 

Every time I stopped to stretch my muscles my eyes wandered to the views. The absolutely spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside; undulating hills, vineyards subtly changing from green to yellow to gold, the shimmering silvery shades of olive green covering the spaces between fields of vines, all under a constantly changing sky. Cloudy, stormy and sunny skies changed our work from cool to sauna-like and back to cool again.

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We finished the day with a visit to the olive press, just a short distance away. This is a modern press, far different from the old stone presses everyone used until recently (when health regulations required changes that stone simply can’t comply with). The olives are cleaned in one machine, moved to the pressing machine, then the oil is separated from the water, seed and pulp in a third machine before being moved to the centrifuge where the last water is removed and the oil is put into containers.

Of course we finished the day with the great downhill ride back to the train station. There’s something about riding in the moonlight that’s magical. It was the perfect end to a fantastic day.