The one to ride
If you only ride one cyclosportif in Italy, ride l’Eroica. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that this event should be near the top of every cyclist’s ride list. Why? What’s so special about this particular event; what indeed is heroic about the l’Eroica? Well, for one thing, there’s the people. They’re everyday riders like you and me, people willing to take on board the organisation’s concept, throw caution and sometime sense to the wind, undertake the challenge and embrace an Audax ride that is unique in Europe.
The event was conceived by Giancarlo Brocci some 10 years ago, firstly to save the ‘strade bianche’ that are unique to Tuscany and, secondly, to recreate the atmosphere and endeavour of a past era of cycling. Starting and finishing in the small town of Gaiole in Chianti, it offers a choice of four circuitous routes that include sections of unmade road formed from layers of compacted rock, gravel and grit, hence the name ‘white road’ or ‘strada bianca’.
Arriving in the small town square that was to host the start and finish line, we immediately found ourselves looking at poster after poster hanging from every shop, bar and building, each depicting a different cycle racing scene. Taken in the period of monochrome photography, they depicted an era when riders wore rough woollen shorts and jerseys and carried spare tubes round their shoulders. There were as many as thirty different pictures and, perhaps because we were here at the start, the combination of the event atmosphere and the images of men bent over very basic machines, their faces etched in pain and blackened with road dust made us realise that there was something much more meaningful, more emotive than usual about this whole event.
Display of old racing bikes
This perception was confirmed the moment we arrived at the gymnasium for signing on. Surrounding the building was a market covering the parking area and adjacent grass bank that included a vast array of vintage bicycles, parts and clothing; you name it, everything from the early 1900’s to the 1980’s. Inside the building, ready for the actual signing on, the walls of the hall were covered in original woollen trade jerseys while lined up beneath these were rows of genuine racing bikes from the eras of Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and earlier. Anyone who enjoyed their racing in the fifties and sixties would be in their element here. Anyone even contemplating riding on these relics, as many do, deserves to be called ‘heroic’.
Sunday saw an early 5.30 start. The hairpin bends on the descent from our accommodation, which were tackled in pitch darkness, soon woke us up, and we arrived in the town square at the start along with hundreds of other cyclists, most of whom seemed to be packed into the local cafes which had opened at 5 in the morning to make the most of this bumper trade. As usual RH had his usual pre-race nerves and disappeared to find the loo. I headed off, with RH joining me at the top of the first hill of the day at. Keen to make up for the delayed start, the pair of us set off down this first stretch of ‘strada bianca’ like men possessed.
Baptism of fire
Hitting gravel while going downhill at speed was a baptism of fire, so I decided to ease back and ride with a bit more caution. After the first few sections I grew in confidence and we were soon back together, roaring along a steady white ribbon of gravel road that lay in front of us with beautiful rolling Tuscan countryside spread out on either side. I have to say, that it’s amazing how quickly you can learn to ride these white roads and how lacklustre Tarmac then seems in comparison.
At one-fifth distance was the first check and feed, crowded with riders of all distance groups vying to get their Audax cards stamped and take on sustenance. Whilst we stood waiting in the queue amongst a group of noisy Italians, one of their number reappeared from a barn accompanied by, presumably, the farmer, holding what appeared to be a club hammer and cold chisel.
The defining moment
What happened next was perhaps the defining moment of the day for me. The cyclist, who possessed the physique of Chris Hoy, then proceeded to take these tools, wielding them with a technique of a blacksmith, and effect a repair on his cranks. The result turned out to be quite workmanlike and, to the applause of his companions, he set forth once more, although from judging from the probable output from those thighs it wouldn’t be surprising if this repair was necessary again that day.
From Radi, the route skirted around Sienna taking you from one vantage point to the next, somehow always showing you a better and more far-reaching view than the previous one. The kilometres just flew by. After the control below Castiglion del Bosco, the climb to Montalcino starts innocently enough with a gently sloping avenue of plane trees that meander into the distance. Don’t be fooled; this is soon replaced with twists and turns that wind upwards hidden underneath a forest of oaks.
The climb from Hell
On this 15% stretch, low gears are not enough. Somehow you have to remain seated or at least well over the back wheel otherwise traction is lost. The road would do justice to a motocross circuit, with rocks and stone littering the outside edges. The centre of the road has gulleys, formed by rainwater, that snake from one side to the other. At each bend the inside radius is so steep even 4×4’s avoid it and there’s little choice but to concentrate on keeping the rear wheel turning and the front from coming up! Your reward, once over the 500m-high summit, is a fast Tarmac descent followed by long stretches of ‘strada bianca’ winding through the vast open landscape.
This is overlooked by the beautiful medieval hilltop village of Lucignamo d’Asso which you reach for lunch. Oh what a lunch! A huge cauldron of hot cabbage soup, ribollita, was gently simmering over a wood fire accompanied by bread, cold meat and wine.
The section between the half way point and the next control was particularly tough with the off road sections including real short sharp climbs that have now been christened “walkers” in honour of all the cyclists doing just that.
Again the technique required was somehow to remain seated and yet force the pedals round keeping traction. This section seriously tested my resolve, as it did everyone who’s ridden the event. Yet the joy of this ride is the way constantly changing gradients and scenery keep you motivated. The next ‘strada bianca’ could not have been more different, merely following the undulations and contours around the hillsides rather than forging a route straight up then down as previously.
Backsted v Boonen
Here both RH and I seemed to really find our legs. He was Boonen stomping over the Pave, while I was Backsted, locked onto his wheel. There was only one racing line, a narrow track of compacted gravel that could only be found right on the very edge of the road. Other riders were caught and dropped; we were on fire, seemingly invincible and eating up the kilometres. When we finally exploded onto the Tarmac once again, it felt slow and lifeless by comparison. The illusion didn’t last long, for we were soon back into the small ring grinding up yet another climb.
Thankfully, however, this didn’t last for long. We crested the top, descended the other side and without warning were straight onto the rough stuff at forty miles an hour with a hairpin bend looming. RH had both wheels locked and I just shut my eyes. When I opened them, he had somehow made it, taken advantage, attacked and was off. All that was left were the long road climbs up to Radda in Chianti and beyond, then the last gently sloping downhill section of ‘strada bianca’ down to the finish.
Having ridden back up yet another hill to our accommodation, we showered and then returned to the town to find a restaurant. Even at this late hour people were still coming in, finishing in the dark. My dreams that night found me gliding across Tuscan cornfields, much like Maximus at the end of Gladiator, beneath me the huge legs of Magnus Backsted propelling me away from the demonic figure of a blacksmith wielding a monstrous club hammer and cold chisel.