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.