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Abetone on two wheels

Abetone woods

If you’ve ever been to Lucca or Modena and wondered why there’s a Via del Brennero in both these towns, it’s because it links them together and continues north all the way to the Brenner Pass in the Alps on the Italian Austrian border, hence the name of the road. The Alpine section dates back to Roman times and has witnessed all the difficult events in Italian history, mostly invading armies and migrating refugees though it's been more open for armies than it has been for refugees, or even Italians during Covid.

But the part from Lucca to Modena, now the Strada statale 12, was constructed much later, between 1766 and 1781, with the difficult part being the Abetone mountain separating Tuscany from Emilia Romagna.

view of Tuscany near Abetone

Italy’s complicated history was the reason why the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold ll ordered its construction, because as King of Hungary, Archduke of Austria and Grand Duke of Tuscany he wanted access to all of his territories without going through any Papal possessions.

Leopold was also the brother of Marie Antoinette, not that it helped her much. The road's engineer and designer of the various bridges along the route was Leonardo Ximenes, a mathematician and astronomer from Sicily who was also active in draining swamps and building canals around Tuscany at that time, in particular near Castiglione della Pescaia.

But just as with the Brenner Pass over the the centuries, once you build one of these roads over difficult terrain you facilitate the enemy’s advance and only a few years after construction, in 1796 Napoleon’s army took full advantage and waltzed into Tuscany on the new road over Abetone.

the top of Abetone

So there’s a fair amount of history on this road and when you get to Abetone at 4,500 feet you’ll see two small stone pyramids, one with the Este coat of arms for Modena and one with the Habsburg-Lorraine coat of arms. You’ll also see what looks very much like an out of season ski resort because this is where Tuscans come to ski in the winter.

pyramid at the top of Abetone

Nobody uses this road anymore to get from Lucca to Modena because the autostrada is much quicker so cyclists love it and it’s a nice wide road with a reasonably gentle gradient. It follows the Lima river from Bagni di Lucca as it’s in fact the next valley east from the Garfagnana. It’s real Tuscan back country and with the road having plenty of sweeping curves it has also been a favorite over the years for Ferrari drivers and Ducati motorbike enthusiasts. Being based in Modena, Ferrari traditionally used this road for many of their publicity shots.

the sign at the top of Abetone

The cycling history of this road is also impressive. The legend of Fausto Coppi was born here in 1940 on a stage of the Giro d’Italia from Florence to Modena and it has seen numerous classic Giro stages over the years, but none since 2015 so it's due again.

Lucca is home to several professional bike racing teams and for them the 100 mile round trip from Lucca to Abetone and back is merely a training ride but for the rest of us it's enough to start at La Lima where the official Abetone climb begins.

La Lima Tuscany

From there it’s 10.8 miles with 3,000 feet of climbing. The maximum gradient is 10% but the average is a gentle 5.4%. The climb starts very gradually and the first third is not very steep at all. Because the starting altitude is already 1,500 feet it's a much cooler ride than any of the summer climbs that start in Lucca at sea level. On the way up you'll pass some carefully tended hillside gardens and a museum as you cross the old Gothic Line and then the final part is through some very attractive forests (top photo).

This doesn’t have to be hard work anymore for non-cyclists given the advent of electric bikes. I’ve never actually ridden one but I’ve seen plenty of them whiz by me so they obviously have good power and battery capacity these days. Therefore my suggestion would be to rent one and enjoy this ride and all the others in the mountains around Lucca without having to train for months beforehand. The proximity of so many great bike rides to Lucca is why this town has always been a favorite home base for many professional riders.

My friend Paladino at Chrono Bikes in Corso Garibaldi in Lucca not only rents electric bikes (and normal bikes) but most days in the summer month he will also take you out on a ride. Seven years ago he showed me all the great bike routes around Lucca and in a few more years I'm sure I’ll be renting electric bikes from him myself.

The profile of the climb for each of the 17 kilometers starting in La Lima is shown below, with the yellow sections being the steepest and blue being the next steepest. The gradients are shown along the X axis just above the kilometer markers.


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