Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tuscan Loop - Volterra

Al Gravola (Aviator47 on ModernVespa) was incredibly helpful and made a significant contribution to the planning for the Tuscan Loop.  Al and his wife used to live in the Pacific Northwest, but retired in the Greek Islands.  Avid scooterists, Al and his wife organize scooter tours of Tuscany and Provence as a hobby.  I had found Noleggio Moto Toscana on my own, but had no clue if they were a reputable rental outlet.  I know based on reviews on Trip Advisor for instance that Bici & Baci in Rome which looks like a great place to rent Vespas in Rome, has some serious reputation issues.

When I checked out the shop on Google street view, it looked a little sketchy to me.

I reached out to Al for advice.  He came through in a big way.  First off he confirmed that Noleggio Moto Toscana was the preferred scooter rental supplier for the Tuscan tours they organize.  He also introduced me to Roberto.

Al also very kindly suggested a moto tour looping route: the Tuscan Loop.
The first major stop on that Tuscan Loop is...
The starting point, Pontedera, is the opposite of Volterra and is not at all a tourist town. It's pretty much like every mid-sized town in America, with recently built residential and commercial properties, and thoroughfares that are paved with asphalt and reasonably wide. From a tourist's perspective it's not much to look at.

Roland, yours truly, and Sonja, in that order, with Roland leading the way and Sonja riding sweep, made our way out from Pontedera and south in the direction of Volterra, following the route that Al suggested.

Along the way we encountered roundabouts (in Montreal we call them traffic circles, and they are the exception in Canada rather than the rule).  Along our route there were too many roundabouts to count. I now consider myself semi-expert in the ways of roundabouts.

I have to say I'm a fan, but the Garmin GPS we used on our road trip in the rented car was not nearly as good at roundabouts as I am. "Enter roundabout and take the third exit." Sounds simple when you hear it, no? Counting to no more than three, maybe four, is a skill I pretty much mastered in grade two. Maybe grade three, tops. Brittany, our Garmin gal, must have gone to a different school.

From time to time she had to resort to "re-calculating". Sometimes she did this mere meters from the roundabout. Sometimes, even more irritatingly, she had to re-count within fifty meters of a fork in the road, where manifestly there were only two choices. At least in a roundabout I could just keep going round and round in the circle until I figured out the right exit all by my lonesome. Brittany in a similar fix, just stubbornly stuck to her original inaccurate guess, gleefully sending us off in the wrong direction. She figured she could always take her time recalculating later. After all, if we were on vacation and more laid back than usual, why shouldn't she be relaxed about the trip too?

Roland had no such issues. Following Roland was as reliable as the day is long. He had a TomTom. But I'm convinced it's Roland, not the GPS. Roland is just a damn fine navigator of Italian roundabouts. And that's that.

As the town yielded to the countryside, the straight roads yielded to twists and turns. I now firmly believe that Italian civil engineers are incapable of going from A to B, or Volterra to San Gimignano, in anything resembling a straight line. In any dimension.

We travelled left, we went right, up we went and down we went. Sometimes very nearly in circles. We traced corkscrews, figure twos, sometimes figure nines. Taking into account differences in elevation, I am reasonably sure we also traced figure eights.

None of this happened slowly. The prevailing speed limit was fifty kilometers an hour. By my estimation we pretty much always went faster than the government intended. Positioned on the road between the two Vespas, I felt like a learner.

And I was.

I had never ridden 'twisties' like this before. Well perhaps once and very briefly last summer in New Hampshire while riding through a notch behind a couple of motorcycles. But in all honesty, that was, as they say these days, a fail. And this day in Tuscany I was struggling as well.

I'm not entirely to blame. I countersteer pretty well. I understand the principle, and the practice. But my Vespa, like Sonja's Vespa, suffers from a significant disability. Left turns are a huge psychological challenge. It's all the fault of the cursed Vespa side stand. On a good left hand sweeper, that @#%?% side-stand does its level best to scrape a furrow in the asphalt. If it sounds terrible, and trust me it does, it feels even worse, and the mental image it conjurs of the bike vaulting off the side stand into a high side spill, is psychological torture.

I knew I was riding what is quite possibly, outside of the moto grand prix circuit, the most stable motorbike ever built. I knew the MP3 can out-lean most motorbikes. I had seen the videos on YouTube of MP3s in the Los Angeles canyons heeled way over with showers of sparks trailing from the centre stand. But Pavlov and his susceptible hound had had their way with me. Curses.

On the right-hand sweepers I was countersteering with brio and leaning just right, following Roland's impeccable line with assurance. On the lefties (how ironic for a southpaw), the Vespa side-stand-o-phobia got the better of me. Looking in my left mirror, I could see Sonja's side stand and the narrow sliver of daylight between the stand and the asphalt dwindling away. Her sidestand was psychicly grafting itself onto my MP3 and it was taking a lot of conscious effort to shake the feeling as it sapped my confidence in left-handers. I guess they call them sinistras in Italy for a reason. Yikes.

Some of my left sweeps went wayward, taking me into the left hand lane like a rookie. I had discussed my sidestand issues with Sonja back at the shop in Pontedera. She candidly offered that she hated her sidestand for it, and admitted to cringing when the bad scrapes rattled the bike. But Sonja is a seasoned rider with years of experience earned since before her time in Canada. I am not.

Still, I did my best to earn my keep. At one point, after a decent section of tight S turns, Sonja hit the intercom and remarked that my line in that series was near perfect. Coming from Sonja, it meant the world to me. Roland offered similar words of encouragement. He said that the MP3 looked amazing leaning deeply into the turns. With fellow riders as gracious as Sonja and Roland, any moto tour would be memorable, with or without the unending moutainous twisties.

This tour was nevertheless heaven on two wheels.

A sharp right turn at a T in the road followed by a series of climbing twisties brought us to the ancient walled city of Volterra.

Remarkably, Italians allow motor vehicles right into the heart of these patrimonial treasures. Riding through the massive midieval city gate, and cruising sedately through the narrow passages, I felt like we were crusading knights on trusted steeds. The visor on my helmet raised, I surveyed the town with what I imagined to be a knight's noble gaze from the saddle of my MP3.

Roland found the dedicated motorcycle parking and we parked as the rules suggested we should. Roland is characteristically Teutonic in his appreciation of, and respect for, society's rules. They exist for a reason, and they deserve to be heeded. If only he knew what a passionate scofflaw my inner Vespisti is. He might blush.

We strolled Volterra's by-ways, finally settling on a tiny little restaurant. The intriguing feature of the place was the glass floor revealing the structure of foundations from a long ago and otherwise forgotten past. We settled into an outdoor table, and I followed Sonja and Roland's cue, opting for bruschetta and a soft drink. In my case, an order of cheese bruschetta and a fizzy lemonade.
Copyright Sonja Mager
Copyright Sonja Mager
I was not disappointed. The bruschetta was broiled to perfection, the ample cheese melted over the four crusty slices of bread, with crisp lacy edges all around. My mouth waters as I write this on the plane to Paris for our connecting flight to Montreal.

We indulged in a relaxed friendly chat, comparing notes on Tuscany, the value of fresh locally sourced ingredients, temporarily forsaken diets, the unsuspected wonders of Vespas as touring vehicles, and the beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

We slowly made our way back to our bikes, saddled up once more, and followed Roland out of Volterra. Roland pulled over so we could record the view of the Tuscan valley spreading out below Volterra.
 
I crossed the road to snap a properly framed shot of our little group. I lay back on the grassy embankment, taking up as little space as I could. A large transport van loomed into view, passing me with what seemed to be inches to spare beyond my toes. There is enough room on these two-lane provincial stradales for two vehicles to pass abreast. Just.
Copyright Sonja Mager
Copyright Sonja Mager
Copyright Sonja Mager
We had settled on San Gimignano as the next stop on the journey along the Tuscan Loop.

16 comments:

  1. "I now firmly believe that Italian civil engineers are incapable of going from A to B, or Volterra to San Gimignano, in anything resembling a straight line."

    What about the Via Emilia SS9, Milan through Bologna to Rimini? Hang on, maybe that was that Roman engineers?!

    "What have the Romans ever done for us?" etc.

    I'm stuck over here at the moment in dull grey England, totally jealous of your wonderful biking trip over there in Tuscany! I was meant to be riding the Via Emilia by now but there's been a temporary change of plan for maybe a month or two.

    Take it easy and enjoy your motor-biking, David. The weather looks fantastic!

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    1. "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

      Walter, to my total shock and grief I had to learn that "Life of Brian" is not a well-known movie in North America. While living in Canada the only people I met who had seen it were European immigrants. It took all the fun out of quoting the movie...

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    2. Walter, we're back in Montreal and I'd gladly trade for the grey UK. My recipe for a grey miserable day in London is to take a walk to the British Museum, then walk until the weather has you chilled and miserable, then in late afternoon, pop into a venerable Edwardian hotel for high tea, get a wing chair near a roaring fire, and wash down copious amounts of shortbread and scones with a liter or two of nice hot tea. Ahhhhh.... totally soothing for the soul.

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    3. Roland, I'm terrible at identifying movie quotes but I am familiar with Life of Brian. Totally hilarious. I particularly remember the scene where the centurion corrects the guy's latin grammar when he catches him writing anti-Roman graffiti. What a great movie.

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  2. David, this is a fantastic post as I re-live that day again by reading it! It was really a wonderful trip, and it was so much fun riding with you!
    As for my riding skills, I must have had a good day, because usually Sonja has some comments on my curves, but this day she was quite happy with my accomplishments. My Achilles heel is turning into very tight right corners where I usually look like a first time rider...
    The GPS is actually not a TomTom (Sonja's is), but a Garmin Navigon on an iPhone. It does have problems counting exits in roundabouts, too, but it always gives you a little sketch in what direction to leave the roundabout, so you don't have to count but just follow that direction. This works fine in 95% of the cases, the other ones are just plain guessing (plus when we were young we learned to follow these strange signs on the road indicating the cities they lead to).

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    1. Thanks for clearing up the GPS information. I should look into Navigon.

      Are you right-handed Roland? Could it be that left-hand turns are harder for left-handed riders and right-hand turns harder for right-handed riders?

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    2. David, yes I am right handed, but I believe I would have the same problem in tight left curves in left-lane traffic. I am what we call in Germany - politically incorrectly - a 'motion dyslexic', so I have problems balancing the bike in very slow speed. Add to this a hairpin bend with oncoming traffic, and you have a definition of disaster. Sonja thinks I have problems with counter steering, but I am not sure that this is it. I rather do not dare taking tight corners fast, but I am not capable of doing them slowly.

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  3. It looks like you had a fantastic trip.

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    1. Bill, you are so right. But it pales in comparison to the 2014 Cannonball you're currently doing. Hyder Alaska to New Orleans with the arrival coinciding with Amerivespa. Wow!

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  4. Of course, the bruschetta was the low-calorie version (it didn't look like it in the picture!)

    This is looking like a great trip though I must admit to watching the other videos you posted to YouTube in advance of your blog posts...

    I had similar issues with my brake pedal scraping the ground on right turns. Another motoblogger, ChrisL, suggested that I shift off of my seat into the corner so the bike is more upright in the turn. Works like a charm. No more scraping.

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  5. Richard, it was low cal!!!!?. Not even close!

    Interesting technique, but I don't understand. I though that the track in the turn at speed was determined by the lean of the bike, which is determined by counter steer and that body lean or weight shifting is only useful in lowering the centre of gravity and counteracting the centrifugal force that is trying to stand the bike vertical and return it to a straight course. Based on that understanding, reducing the lean angle (which I thought could only be done by reducing counter steer) would cause the bike to go wide in the turn.

    Maybe I've got it wrong. There are endless debates on this (body position vs counter steer) and a small library of YouTube videos.

    My personal favorite is this one.

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    1. For a given radius turn, the faster you ar going, the more lean angle you need. You are absolutely correct that the amount of lean is to balance out the centrifugal force trying to lift the bike back up. The higher the speed in the turn, the more centrifugal force to the more you need to lean into the turn to counteract it. By shifting your weight off of the seat into the turn, you are changing the CG of the bike+rider from the centerline of the bike towards the center of the turn. Everything else being the same, the bike needs to lean less for the same speed through the turn. Of course this is relatively easy on a bike with the footpegs under you where you can readily transfer your weight from the seat to the footpegs but may be much more difficult on a scooter or with forward controls.

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    2. Thanks Richard, that makes sense, I get it.

      Now with a hack you should be able to make some killer speed in the lefties, but the law of averages will... well, average you out, since the righties will be pokey... is that approximately right?

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    3. With the hack, you end up shifting your weight off of the seat a lot. With right turns, with all of your weight on the right peg, you can still go pretty quickly around turns. As you probably know, if the sidecar wheel lifts, you can slow down and it'll settle right back down. When turning to the left, you need to shift your weight to the rear and left to prevent the rear wheel of the bike lifting up and whatever you do, no braking on hard left turns unless you want to get launched off of the bike. The roll center would be a line from the front wheel to the sidecar wheel.

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  6. What a wonderful day for friends to ride the country together. Beautiful scenery too, and the weather looks perfect.

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    1. Brandy you're right we were blessed with perfect weather. This was our second trip to Italy in May. The weather is great, not too much heat, and not quite so thronged with tourists.

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The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.