Riding L’Eroica

Tom Owen tackles the legendary L’Eroica and, while eating his way through 135km of strade bianche, learns a thing or two about heroism

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? Riding vintage bikes around Tuscany. The heat haze shimmering above the strade bianche, the wind in your moustache. Despite my best efforts, I can’t grow a moustache, but in my mind this is the image I have when I think of L’Eroica, the mass participation vintage sportive through the hills and vineyards of Tuscany.

For us Brits, part of the event’s appeal comes from the fact it happens in October, as the leaves are falling here in the UK. It’s started raining and doesn’t look like stopping, and we’re hopelessly slipping into winter. What better time to escape to a land lost in time?

L’Eroica, literally ‘heroic’ in Italian, is the physical expression of an antipathy towards modern life. It is an escape into fantasy, back to a time when men were men (as manifested by their luxurious moustaches and bulging thighs) and women rode bikes while wearing petticoats (in this alone, perhaps riding in the 21st Century is preferable).

The organisers insist it’s more than a costume party though, as if escapism isn’t enough of a reason to suffer for hours using archaic technology to battle the challenging roads of Tuscany. The vintage clothes and bikes are not the event, they are a set of rules and constraints that allow, or perhaps ‘force’ is a better word, the participants to experience cycling as it was lived by the great campionissimos of a bygone era.

“Vintage is an excuse for a set of values. It allows us to experience cycling like the champions of the past,” says Eroica founder, Giancarlo Brocci, as he explains an ethos that is part philosophy, part hyperbole and 100 per cent authentic Italian. “L’Eroica is not a costume event – we’re here to use this as a tool to measure ourselves. In the modern age we never feel thirst, we never feel hunger. To complete Eroica is to feel these sensations again.”

L’Eroica regulations state that riders must use bici eroiche (historical bikes), built in 1987 or earlier. Steel frames, downtube shifters, pedals with toe clips, 32-spoke wheels are the order of the day, and riders must wear clothing of the era. Any rider who arrives at the start line or is found on the course with a bicycle which doesn’t conform to the regulations is immediately disqualified from the event. Things are taken very seriously indeed. Not a heart rate monitor, power meter, GPS computer or anything else that can distract from the simple beauty of riding a bike in sight. The only concession to modernity is a helmet, though it’s not mandatory to wear one.

You don’t necessarily need to bring a bike – there are opportunities to rent Eroica-approved bikes in Gaiole itself, but you may have to pay a little bit of a premium, given the skyrocketing demand at this time of year. The other option is to come bikeless and simply purchase yourself something truly special at the extensive market that opens up alongside the festival and ride. Don’t forget you have to bring it back though.

Gaiole in Chianti, in the Siena province of Tuscany and within a couple of hours drive of both Florence and Pisa airports, has hosted the Eroica start since the first event in 1997, when just 92 brave souls took to the start. Speaking of the market, I imagine the Eroica is a bit like being let loose in a sweet shop for vintage bike enthusiasts – there are hundreds of stalls, all with their own selection of esoteric bikes, parts and clothing. All very old, some positively crumbling apart.

Some 5,500 riders took part in L’Eroica this year, not counting the few who simply show up without paying and ride with the previous year’s number pinned to their jerseys. Of these, almost everyone does so in appropriate dress, although it is possible to get away with not wearing ‘period’ footwear. Beyond the basics of a wool jersey and shorts, it’s up to the individual how far they push the fancy dress theme – I saw two riders in matching kit, hats and even facial hair doing the medium route. One of their bikes was from the 1930s.

The routes (there are four choices) take in miles of beautiful Tuscan strade bianche – the iconic white gravel roads that kick up dust without provocation and wait to unseat unwary riders. The roads also give name to the one-day pro race held in early March and won this year by Zdeněk Štybar. The first race was held only in 2007, some ten years after the inaugural L’Eroica, but it’s already become a key early-season fixture and a prelude to the Classics, with each edition conjuring iconic images of the splintered peloton racing through clouds of dust. There’s plenty of climbing, too, both in the race and L’Eroica itself. I’ve elected to ride the 135km route, the second longest, and it packs in nearly 12,000 feet of ascent. True heroes do the full 209km course, with 3,700m of elevation and an average time of 15 hours.

When it comes to the morning of the ride, I rise early and descend in pre-dawn near-darkness into Gaiole. Sweeping bends. A tight tree line. No cars. For minutes at a time it feels like I’m falling, not riding. Final espressos in a cafe before the departure. My stomach rumbles. Is it too early to open the packet of breadsticks in my jersey pocket, I wonder?

My steed for the day is a burnt orange Aquila, supplied with a Brooks England saddle. We may be in Italy, but some things are non-negotiable and if you look back at photos from the golden age of cycling, most of the old pros will be riding a Brooks. Fittingly, the Aquila absolutely flies. This is no unloved old hack, it is a purring and proud vintage thoroughbred. Although it does have squeaky brakes, I only hope I can do it justice.

For the first ten kilometres we climb on tarmac, winding up through the hills, past vineyards, castilos and monasteries. Every hill in Tuscany has a castle or a monastery at the top it seems. Or a winery that used to be one of the two. I’m told it’s because of a very long war between the city states of Siena and Florence. For 600 years, whenever the Florentines would come raiding, the peasants working the Tuscan soil would flee into the nearest keep or high-walled monastery to wait things out. It was important to have enough provisions for these impromptu mass sleepovers, so the cellars were built big, with plenty of room for enormous wine casks. These beautiful stone constructions intersperse the short but leg-numbingly steep climbs pushing over 15 per cent in gradient which endlessly punctuate the route.

At the summit of the first hill, the brightness of dawn gives way to prolonged and violent rain. Within minutes it soaks through the flimsy, modern, non-Eroica approved rain jacket I have on over my woolen jersey. Let me tell you, wet wool is the worst thing in the world to ride a bike in. Thank heavens for Lycra. It’s another 25km to the first feed zone, so we put our heads down and grind it out. It feels positively Flandrian, completely heroic. The strade quickly turns to a river of mud and filth, and the surface is a rutted, unforgiving washboard. I give up hope of ever feeling my fingers again. All images of Tuscan sunshine have vanished from my brain.

The food stop can’t come too soon. Although we left very early and haven’t been overtaken by many there are already plenty of harrowed faces, gazing out from under the sanctuary of the temporarily erected shelter. We throw our bikes anywhere we can – their singular vintage beauty forgotten, in the face of groaning trestle tables laden with cakes, bread, olive oil, salami, bananas and wine. A sportive food station this is not, but a veritable feast. There are no gels or bars. Those saccharine secretions are not Eroica-approved.

My eyes light on a metal urn with a white paper label, “Té”. Has a brew ever been so welcomingly received? I drink six cups of the sweet, hot tea, chucking a bit of the local vino into the last one. The Italian matriarch behind the table, no doubt a proud resident of Chianti for many years, looks aghast at my uncouth English ways. How dare I desecrate their centuries-old vintage, her eyes seem to say.

“It’s no different to gluhwein,” I mumble under my breath.

All too soon we set off again. The next 90km will not ride themselves, no matter how we might hope they will. Any roadie will tell you, there’s actually something joyful in battling the most extreme elements. The moment when rain so severe that you would have sworn it could only be a sign of the end of the world actually intensifies, there’s little else you can do but laugh. A long section of strade is followed by a glorious, tarmaced descent. The Aquila plunges into a nose dive, swooping down after its prey. The prey in this case is other riders, wobbling down with the brakes held tight.

The first control checkpoint, where riders can have their dockets stamped, is situated at Murlo. The medieval village sits at the top of a winding gravel track, near-on impossible to ride a bike up to. It’s the first point where I get off and push, but as another rider, an old hand at this type of glorious nonsense, told me, “There’s no shame in getting off and pushing at L’Eroica.”

The rain hasn’t abated. The road is, if anything, getting worse the longer we ride. Then finally, someone gets a puncture and the sun comes out. A double-edged sword. For a long time we try to flag down other riders who look like they have a spare tubular on their person. Nobody stops. And then along comes Mauro from Milan. He readily hands over his last tub, happy to take his chances between here and the next mechanic.

There is a stop for food and rest in Asciano. Steaming hot bowls of ribollita, a thick Italian soup, await us as we arrive wearily into the town. More vino. Lots more vino. And plenty of cheese. A look around at our fellow riders confirm we aren’t the only ones feeling the strain of the day’s exertions. In one corner a group of guys are sleeping in a patch of sunshine.

The reemergence of the sun isn’t without its problems. The slick mud that has coated our machines is turning rapidly into a grinding gravelly paste. As we get going again, the air is full of the sounds of tortured drivetrains. The Aquila is a classy beast, not used to this kind of rough treatment.

Straight out of Asciano is the biggest climb of the day. It goes up and drops down twice before the final ascent to the summit. Gruelingly steep, perilously narrow, agonisingly slow. We do a lot more pushing.

Another final food zone. This one has the atmosphere of a military hospital. Our route has joined back up with those doing the 209km. They look shell-shocked. Caked in mud, ashen faced. Along with the bread soaked in olive oil, cured meats and jam tarts that have become familiar, this rest stop also offers small glasses of local spirit. It’s sweet like sherry and fiery like grappa. I have two. It’s rocket fuel, and we fuel up fast, but before we leave we wash the mud off our bikes.

In the closing kilometres I get separated from my group. There’s nothing left to do but turn the pedals and churn this one out. Struggling solo uphill, I’m overtaken by a group of guys riding in a wolfpack. A barrage of Italian flies at me as they whoosh past.

“No comprendo. Inglese,” I manage to shout back.

“Your back wheel is rubbing on the frame,” comes the reply.

That explains why this last hour has been so tough. After setting the wheel straight I get going again. Things start to feel a little easier. I begin dropping my companions. The descent into Gaiole is glorious. Sweeping bend after sweeping bend. Apex after apex. I shoot out of the corners. I leave the Aquila’s squeaky brakes alone, and, despite its antiquated technology, the bike is a joy to ride.

Then, like an Italian argument, it’s all over in a flash. At the finish line there are hundreds of people waiting, applauding, cheering. We take our medals and rush to find friends who completed other distances. Beers. Wine. Pasta and steak. A true hero’s welcome after a heroic day in the saddle.

RoadCyclingUK rode L’Eroica as guests of Brooks England, one of the event’s principal sponsors

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