The documentary about Clem Shovel (France) and Joachim Rosenlund (Norway) competing the world’s biggest bikepacking race – the “Tuscany Trail” (Italy). An unsupported bike adventure race of 560km distance, 11.000m of elevation and 530 competing starters. Clem and Joachim both achieved a great 15th out of all riders – but somehow it seems it is far more about the experience than the actual result. We spoke to Clem when he arrived back home about his Tuscany Trail adventure.
What were your expectations of this event?
Knowing that the Tuscany Trail has an average finishing time of 37 hours, I wanted to try and ride it as fast as possible. As I wasn’t at all familiar with this race and with events of this nature in general, I had been expecting to complete it in a little more than one day and one night, based on past experiences. However, due to some bad weather conditions on the route, it took me three days. On the first day I rode 150 kilometres, on the second almost about 200 and on the third I managed to ride more than 220 kilometres. At the beginning it’s really hard, but then you get used to it. There’s no time to rest at all. I rode together with a friend of mine, which was really cool. So lots of fun, lots of hard work, but all in all a very pleasant experience.
Why do you like bikepacking in general?
The thing I like about bikepacking is the adventure. It’s about making do with what you have and living in the moment. It’s about the landscapes, about meeting people and riding together. The riders all have different bik es, there aren’t really any rules. Everyone has their own pace, and I like that. There is a lot of respect between the riders, and later on there is this taste of competition and adventure. It’s achievable and yet you are able to push your limits while savouring each moment, nature and its forces.
How would you describe the Tuscany Trail?
The Tuscany Trail is simply magical, you have it all there, but that’s also what makes it so difficult to choose the right bike. It’s beautiful and tough at the same time. We had such a good time riding through all these magnificent landscapes. You have all this time to see things around you, but that can also be hard in the sense that you don’t have much time to rest. So once the nice long downhill section is done, you’ve got to tackle the next climb, but well, at least you have some amazing views to look at. Kind of the main issue on this race was the weather, we had lots of rain, which caused very muddy and slippery riding conditions, but in the end, it was an incredible experience and I’m glad I did it.
Tell us more about your bike.
As for the packing, I used Apidura bike bags, one front and one rear to keep things balanced and to make for an easier ride uphill and downhill. I packed a bit too much, but I was glad to have the equipment with me. Unfortunately, due to the rain it all got completely soaked, which added about 5 extra kilos to my bike and with all that mud, riding was extremely difficult sometimes. Apart from that, the bike performed great. Of course there are situations, in which the bikes are really put to the test. I had some trouble with the shifting and a few flat tyres, but that wasn’t too bad.
What did you pack in your bags to take with you?
In the rear bag, I carried a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a bivy sack, an emergency blanket, and my rain jacket. In the frame bag, I had some food, bike tools, bike lube, and bidons holding 2 litres each. And in the front bag, I carried a light down jacket, dry and warm clothing, a jersey with long sleeves, socks and gloves. Apart from that, I also took some other equipment with me such as batteries for my GPS, front and rear lighting, a helmet light and a first-aid kit.
How did you feel riding in duo with Joachim?
Even though there is a ranking of the riders, the Tuscany Trail is more adventure than race. You can ride as you want to, you may ride together as a group, you may draft and these kinds of things. This time I rode together with Joachim, whom I didn’t know at all at the time, and who had actually come to film me riding for a bit during the race. That’s what makes the Tuscany Trail different from the Transcontinental Race, because at the TCR you are practically not allowed to ride together or to receive any form of support from other racers. The advantage of going solo is that you can cycle at your own pace, you may go as fast as you can or take your time. But it’s actually a give-and-take thing, because getting tips from other racers always helps. Joachim wasn’t familiar with any of this, so I showed him a few things. Joachim has been a great companion on this trip and he’s a bloody good rider. We pushed each other until the finish line and ended up with a pretty good result, which is great.
It was raining half of the time. How did you cope with it?
Yes, it has been raining a lot. In some cities we ended up cycling through water up to our knees. We really had lots and lots of rain from the first day on. When I got caught in a thunderstorm my GPS went dead, and I didn’t bring a mobile phone, which meant that I couldn’t be reached in case of emergency, that’s why I decided to ride together with Joachim.
When you have to ride in the rain, all you can do is continue riding, hoping that the sun comes out to warm you up and dry your stuff. The rain adds additional weight to your bike and riding becomes more difficult because your shoes are so wet and heavy. You’re soaked to the bone, and when you have to go downhill you’ll freeze. So all in all, not a very pleasant experience. But we got through it all right, and we had some very nice moments when the sun was shining too.
Did you have any problems?
There were quite a few problems. At the end of the first day, I got a split in the sidewall of my front tyre, which left me with multiple flats throughout the entire race. Then there was the mud and the rain, which made fixing cuts in a tubeless tyre a bit of a challenge. I’ve also had some trouble with the derailleurs, which had to be cleaned frequently and the chain had to be lubricated nearly twice a day. And my clothes were soaking wet, but luckily I was able to dry them at the end of the first day. Apart from these few issues, it has largely been an enjoyable experience.
Where did you sleep, what did you eat?
We spent the first night at a Bed & Breakfast, simply because we had ridden through 13 hours of driving rain and we were soaking wet. It had been a tough first day and the night spent at the B&B allowed us to dry our stuff, get some rest and take a hot shower, so we could start fresh the next day and continue on. The following day, after having covered 200 kilometres, we slept behind a lorry that was parked in front of a factory with a porch on the front; but what we didn’t know was that it was a refrigerated lorry, whose freezer went on every 15 minutes, making a deafening sound. But we were so tired that it didn’t bother us much. And in the night after that, we crossed the finish line at midnight, that’s why we spent our last night at the finish.
How many hours and kilometres did you ride per day?
On the first day, we covered more than 150 kilometres, from 8.30 in the morning to 9 in the evening. On the second day, we took off late at around 9.30 a.m. and we were on the road until midnight. The last day, we got up at 6 a.m. and made it to the finish line at midnight, so we had three pretty good days of cycling.
You completed the race in 62.5 hours. Are you happy with a result?
I’m very happy with the result given it was my first time, and given that Joachim had never done a long distance all-terrain race before. We did have a few teething troubles – Joachim had some technical issues and I had to deal with a few flats – but I’m really more than happy with the result and that the two of us made it to the finish line without worrying too much about it. We put in a fair bit of effort to complete the race in three days, but if I was to ride it again, I would increase my pace, because now I know the race route, and after the first 150 kilometres you can just keep going and that’s what we didn’t know then.
How would you describe the feeling of crossing the finish line at midnight, after having ridden so many kilometres?
Having ridden 560 kilometres through mixed terrain makes you feel happy, very tired, but most of all you feel the need to share your experiences with other people, about what you liked, what you didn’t like, you talk to the riders that have already crossed the finish line, waiting to cheer on the other riders as they enter the final stretch. You feel good, and there are lots of things going through your head. A nice hot shower, a good night of sleep and off to a new challenge. So all in all you’re happy, but also exhausted because it’s been a tough trip.
What did you like the most about the TT?
What I liked most about the Tuscany Trail are the long fast descents on gravel roads, through trails and river beds. In the climbs you have to give everything, because they can be very, very steep and sometimes very long, but when you made it to the top, going downhill is pure pleasure.
If you had had the chance to bring a camera and take photos, where would you have taken them and why?
If I had had the chance to bring a camera, I would have taken a picture on the peninsula we crossed on our last evening, us riding while the night is falling. The view of the sun setting over the sea, that’s truly magnificent.
How did you like riding in Florence, full of people and chaos, and then a few kilometres later in pure nature?
Despite them being beautiful places, it wasn’t really a pleasure to ride through Florence or Siena due to the masses of tourists. We had to pass through pedestrian areas and it was kind of awkward to have to slalom between people on our bulky bikes. Then again, these are amazing cities with beautiful architecture, but personally, I prefer riding in nature where I can see the scenic hills of Tuscany, the woodland, where I can go uphill and cross rivers. So I enjoyed spending time in nature more than in Florence, Siena or any other city we passed through.
What were you thinking about while riding?
While on the road, you go through your ups and downs. When it’s tough you tend to rant a bit about the event’s organisation or about yourself. There are times when you get fed up or annoyed, especially when it’s tough going or when you have to push your bike. But once you’re through it, you’re just incredibly happy, you’re having the time of your life riding downhill, but you stay focused. And when the weather’s good, you enjoy the scenery, thinking ‘this is why I’m here’.
Do you have any unfinished business this year? What are your near future plans?
After the Tuscany Trail, I will start my preparations for the French Divide coming up in August – 2200 kilometres across France through mixed terrain, so riding the Tuscany Trail has already been a good preparation for this. Then, as every year, I’m doing the Three Peaks Challenge in England. And apart from that, anything I can use as preparation for the French Divide. I was thinking maybe a 300 km tour through the Ardennes, which I’ve been planning to do for several years now. So, I will probably try this during a weekend and see how it goes.
Would you do the TT again next year?
I’d love to do the TT again, but next time I’d do it differently. During the first 150 kilometres I got scared that I couldn’t do it. I kept thinking that if it was going to be like this for the rest of the race, it would be impossible. There have been a number frightening situations, especially at night or in fog, when you’re not seeing where you’re going and you’re always close to crashing. Now I know that all you need to do is keep going, even if it’s hard, it’s not so much about the technique. What I would also love to do is the Highland Trail 550 through the Scottish Highlands, but I can’t do both, so we’ll see. I like discovering new things, and the Tuscany Trail really was a great experience and having someone to share it with makes it even better.
Whom would you like to thank?
I would especially and most sincerely like to thank Bombtrack for giving me the opportunity to live my passion. Thanks to Apidura, who provided me with great equipment, and to Met for providing the helmet for this adventure. I would also like to thank everyone I met during the trip as well as Joachim, who I’m happy to have shared this experience with and who really left an impression on me. Thanks to OSM films, Tina and Blaz, who are amazing people and who I’m very happy to have met. Thanks to my family and friends, to all the people who believed in me, who sent me text messages even though I couldn’t receive them, thanks to all of you, I’m happy to have you.
(translation by Stephanie Krage)
More information about that beautiful race: www.tuscanytrail.it