Abetone Bike Park | Tuscan Raiders

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Abetone Bike Park | Tuscan Raiders

STOP ONE: CUTIGLIANO/DOGANACCIA

Our ascent from airport to destination could probably be described as ‘brisk’, certainly more so than it could potentially have been with anyone less motivated to show off his local turf than Rolando. During the hair–raising–at–times ride up into the hills, Rolando, who splits his time between living in Florence and Abetone (but his soul is definitely settled in the mountains), did manage to casually drop into conversation the fact of his title as current Masters Skiing World Champion and aspiring downhill mountain bike racer. He’d be joining us for all rides and showing us where to water afterwards. We were clearly in for a great trip.

Although the trip bore the title of Abetone, we were in fact to sample three riding locations all based around a central focal point – one of the area’s most imposing peaks and a towering divide between our base in Tuscany and the neighbouring region of Emiglia–Romagna, Monte Cimone. The first of our stops in fact came en–route and was intended as a sort of whistle–stop visit, but haste is a word little heeded in Italy…

And so it was that we unpacked in a quiet, sunny layby in the small town of Cutigliano, a place that holds a special place in Rolando’s heart as his mother’s birthplace, and made our way up the old cablecar to Doganaccia, a thousand metres higher and the start point for several long, not too demanding downhill tracks. Although Doganaccia had somehow completely missed my radar previous to the trip, it had in fact been a base for Kiwis Wyn ‘TV’ Masters and Brook ‘Bulldog’ MacDonald several years ago, before they hit the big time. Our afternoon of arrival was a shock to the system as we were thrown straight into long runs on the back of an Italian lunch (six courses to get us warmed up for what was to come later in the day).

The trails on the hillside behind Cutigliano are likely to strike a chord with any UK visitor on a downhill bike, or similarly on anything down to a 160mm travel enduro machine. Never too far on the steep or extreme scale, always changing in direction and terrain. They traverse and weave their way down through the endless forest, cooled by the thick canopy and no doubt brought up the loam–scale thanks to the protection of the trees.

On one particular section that bursts out of the trees and into the long grass below the wires of the gondola we sessioned a perfectly bermed turn for roughly the amount of time it takes one’s entire skin to be masticated by mosquitos (I can vouch for this). Having invested so much of his recent time and energy into his own bike park at home in Wales, it was good to be reminded of Rowan’s skills here as he hit the corner over and over, getting lower and lower until his knuckles were churning the dirt to the point of bleeding. By this point it was getting dark and we nipped down the mountain, re–packed the van and headed for our first overnight stop: Hotel San Rocco in Sestola.

STOP TWO: SESTOLA

Just over an hour by car from Cutigliano, and the far side of Monte Cimone, is Sestola, a ski resort that sits facing inland and balcony–like over the lower slopes of the mountain, with the rolling hills of Emigliana–Romagna displayed in all their golden glory below. The view is endless. Now I won’t go into detail too much as this is a mountain bike magazine, but the dinner we ate here in Sestola was simply ridiculous: 10 courses of local produce turned into stupendously delicious foodstuffs. We ate in style and also permeated it… or perhaps not: we were straight off the mountain in our stinking kit and on the back of a long day of travel and bike riding, but with that great buzz that a bike trip to a surprising destination brings. Sparkling red wine – a speciality of these parts – may have also had something to do with the satisfied feeling.

The group rose severely early and spring chicken–like, bouncing with energy and lurching with abundant enthusiasm, the previous night’s consumption doing absolutely nothing to negatively affect working output. One or two of the group may have struggled to get going in the morning having missed the opportunity to take on sugar and caffeine supplies at breakfast, Rolando’s inexorable liveliness sweeping the group out the door and to the base of a relatively busy chairlift from the centre of town. The ride through the narrow streets was enough to wake the weariest of us though, and with characteristically pleasant weather things were looking good.

Sestola’s mountain bike trails, which are grouped under the heading of Cimone Bike Park, are a world away from the leafy singletracks in Cutigliano, but not in a bad sense. Wide and machine–built, the crafters of said trails appear to have grasped the concept of gradient in a way that certain Alpine resorts have not. Although fast and featuring jumps, berms and intermittent steep sections, with the main course reminiscent of Morzine’s Pleney to some degree, the steep mountainside has been used in a way that makes the ride a whole lot more enjoyable and far less prone to the corrugating effect of braking that affects the famous French resort’s main track. There are several routes down the hill, with two main downhill tracks (previously used to host downhill races) and other offshoots providing plenty of entertainment. The scores of riders hammering out runs all day proving the hill’s got enough to satisfy all riders.

At this early point in our trip we were already starting to reconsider our decision (upon my recommendation… ahem) to bring reasonably lightweight bikes, as a downhill sled would have been preferable here and not a burden the previous day. We joined the masses and hammered out fun runs resulting in a few pinch flats and the odd dinged rim and bent steerer tube, the high speeds proving a touch too much for a bike of 160mm or less. Not that we were complaining – Sestola’s riding is super fun and adds a degree of depth to what would prove to otherwise be mainly natural, technical trail elsewhere in the area.>>

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