Once Upon A Ride In Umbria

by Carmen Freeman-Rey

Puffy rolling hills clothed in olive trees are flushed in golden light. Shadow time projects the long black wings of falcons circle high above the parched earth. The only sounds are those of tires gently rolling along a dirt road leading to a house named after the birds flying overhead, ‘Podere il Falco”.

“Three decades ago, this 300-year old farmhouse was my home,” explains Hans Rey. “I had olive trees, a vineyard, a forest, and 70 acres covered with singletrack. At that time, although I was super busy traveling the world with my bike, I did wonder how much longer my career as a professional mountain biker would continue. So once upon a time, I dreamed about a life based in Italy, and I had a soft exit plan.” Hans fell in love with the Italian culture and the simple country life.

It is hard not to chuckle listening to Hans Rey speak about retiring, because now twentyfive years later, we know that his career didn’t have an exit, soft or otherwise. The man who blazed his way to championships, entertained the world with his daredevil antics, became broadly regarded as a pioneer of freeride, crisscrossed the world sharing his greatest adventures on a bike, and was the first to summit Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya back-to-back, has proven that he was just beginning.

That time at Villa il Falco is firmly entrenched in his heart; the memories haven’t faded, and Hans is happy to take us on a trip down memory lane and show us some of what drew him to this area then and what he still enjoys now.

“We didn’t have Google Earth, Strava, or Trailforks back then,” he explains. “So I would just ride my bike and explore my property and the whole area around Umbria and Tuscany. I wish I had an ebike then, it was really hard work to find and connect trails by trial and error, often with a dead-end outcome, overgrown trails or being chased by dogs or wild boar. I also had a trials moto, which was great fun for zipping about the estate, discovering new trails, and taking care of the land – checking fences or looking out for fallen trees.”

“Ciao, welcome,” greets Alessandra from the gates of Podere il Falco. She is the current chatelaine and has kindly invited us to revisit Hans’ former home. We stroll around the grounds, taking in the view while Hans reminisces before sitting on the terrace watching the sun go down, as he had done many times in the past.

“I thought it would be cool to make oil from my olive trees, and I had a vineyard,” Hans explains, pointing towards land sloping in the distance. “I made wine; it was pretty good. I thought that we could export both to America.”

Pointing out that it would have been hard to do with his travel schedule, Hans agreed.

“Yes, true, but it was a half in, half out kind of a plan, something to work towards for the future. Maybe do guided rides and run a bed and breakfast, that kind of thing. You know it was pretty amazing having all this single track on my property and this area is full of ancient trails and dirt roads that make it fun for mountain biking. At the time, in the late 90ties there were hardly any mountain bikers in the area.

Hans points to a mountain dominating the landscape, “That is Monte Cetona, it is a special place to me and home to a ‘magical tree’, I feel a spiritual connection to this one, very old, oak tree. I think tomorrow we should ride the trails there and see if we can find it.” Sounded like a plan to me.

The next day was seriously hot…. Tarmac melting hot, 110F hot and we were going to ride up a mountain to find an old tree. Yippee. It is a good thing that we began at 7, because by 9 the sun was searingly hot. The trails were fun, not too steep, quite flowy, rather technical in places, at one point the terrain opened up to a huge meadow with a spikey spine of granite rocks and a breath taking 280-degree view. A huge iron cross sits at the summit; we could all give thanks for not dying of dehydration or coming across an angry wild boar. Hans even found his tree. The whole area is riddled with reminders of long forgotten civilizations that once lived here, from Bronze Age caves, to Etruscan sites or Roman roads.

The following day Hans suggested a more ‘urban tour’, visiting some of the surrounding medieval hill towns. The ebikes were the perfect way not to overheat in the hot sun and to explore this countryside with its steep dirt roads or ‘strade bianca’ as the Italians call them. We set off early again, riding white roads and singletrails through stunning land. Fields are golden with newly baled hay and fat sunflowers, their faces turned up to the sun. On bikes we cover some distance and discover some classic Umbria; cypress trees lining the driveways winding up hills terminating at stone villas, mini castles or borgos. “I love countryside that is about agriculture”, says Hans. “The rows of vines and old olive trees, the classic architecture of ancient Umbria with farmhouses shuttered against the heat.”

We pedalled up into the hills and found some more sweet trails, happy for the shade provided by the forest. It is amazing how much access there is for riding on dirt. Eventually we come to a little hamlet seemingly out of nowhere, old cottages clustered together, dogs slumbered in shadows. It was almost a ghost town, only a few residents still lived in this remote borgo. Tables and chairs were set out under a huge ancient tree, “Time for lunch,” said Hans as he ordered a platter of typical cheese and salami with beakers of red wine to wash it down and espresso to chase it. It was delicious. “The food is one of the best things about Italy,” he says, “it’s so good, as is the wine and it’s not expensive. Often the ingredients are really simple and homegrown; pasta, olive oil, some chili or lemon juice and of course, sausage and cheese with good bread.” We continued after our simple feast, rolling down to the valley with panoramic views across the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside, which gave us time to digest before the riding became a bit more strenuous as we rode up a steeply graded lane to Panicale, an old, fortified town, walled in for protection. The streets are narrow and cobbled, with alleys and overhead bridges connecting one house to the next. At the heart is a piazza dominated by a fountain and surrounded by cafes and restaurants. Here Hans had fun playing around riding up stairs and along ancient walls, a little urban trials session.

For our final day Hans suggested that we ride a tour called ‘BigSmile’, a classic trail that he had only ridden once before, many years ago. We set off while still dark and reached the trailhead at sunrise. How spectacular it all looked. The singletrack flowed through the woods and trees, past huge granite slabs and over dried stream beds before opening up and affording us another incredible panorama of hills layered in the distance. In places there were A and B lines, an easier route or a more technical one for people like Hans to use their skills. You could ride for miles, and we didn’t see another soul. The pedal assist ebikes give one a total different experience and new possibilities and challenges. One can cover great distances and ride things that were previously unridable.The day’s riding was fun, but it was time to head back to our base. Pedalling along it was easy to understand why Hans loves it in Umbria so much and why he seriously considered having a future here. It was a very pleasant dream.

Our final journey saw us riding once again up a winding white road, the sun at our backs, thankfully less intense now as it lowered on the horizon. There up ahead we could see through rows of vines and olive trees, a house on the hill, a woman standing there waving a greeting, in her hands, glasses and a bottle of wine. “Hansi, ciao, welcome to Villa Rey Country House Hotel.” Hans’ sister and her husband, bought their own property in the area and opened a beautiful bike hotel and touring company. Coming to a stop at the end of the day and a trip down memory lane, Hans and his sister Silvia raised their glasses to say ‘salute’ to la Dolce Vita, the sweet life. Hans may not be living that particular dream, but his sister is.