The vintage Bianchi bicycle beneath me is surprisingly comfortable and perfectly matched to the task at hand – riding the L’Eroica granfondo, an event held each year in this beautiful region of Italy to celebrate the iconic bicycles of yore and the men who rode them to glory.
I turn to my right and resume conversation with the rider next to me, a man who, 18 years earlier, was the first of the riders contesting the 1999 Tour de France to cross the line at the summit of l’Alpe d’Huez. Riding side-by-side with Giuseppe Guerini, winner of the most iconic of all Tour stages, and third overall on two occasions at the Giro d’Italia, provides one of many surreal moments in this most wonderful event.
Earlier, I rolled out of Gaiole in Chianti with L’Eroica’s most accomplished visitor, multiple Grand Tour winner, Felice Gimondi, majestic in the world road race champion’s jersey he won in 1973, and stood quietly in the autumn sunshine with the new darling of Italian cycling, Moreno Moser, the winner of this year’s Strade Bianche, the UCI race inspired by this magnificent event. Earlier, his uncle, Francesco, another of the greats of Italian cycling, and now 62, passed me at astonishing speed on a particularly lethal example of the unmade roads that are the event’s signature.
It speaks volumes about L’Eroica that Italy’s greatest cyclists choose to come here. It is a non-competitive, mass participation event, and to that end what might be called in this country a ‘sportive’, but there is nothing as vulgar as a timing chip here, no sticky sweet energy gels handed out beneath impromptu shelters. Rather, there are beautiful hilltop villages given over to welcoming riders with glasses of red wine, freshly baked bread and thickly cut salami. Brevet cards are stamped or, should they have fallen on to the white roads, dossards or even arms in their stead. Men with clipboards and high visibility jackets are gloriously absent. We are in Italy.
This is not to suggest that L’Eroica is entirely without rules. Only “heroic” bicycles are allowed on the three longer routes: essentially, steel-framed road bikes made before 1987 and equipped with downtube shifters. Certain exceptions are made, notably for the early aluminium offerings of Alan and Vitus. Clipless pedals are barred. I buy black leather cycling shoes from one of the many stalls in Gaiole on the eve of the ride, soles as slim as postage stamps, as late replacements for the carbon, cleated numbers with which I have arrived.
Modern, polystyrene helmets appear to be tolerated, but not encouraged: a self-governing regulation, if the minute numbers who wear them is a guide (caps and leather hairnet designs are described in the regulations, and almost universally adopted). I ride without any headgear, perhaps foolishly. The remainder of my attire is provided by Bianchi: a wing-collared Santini jersey in the blue and white synonymous with Fausto Coppi, the greatest of all Italian cyclists, and woollen shorts. Lycra is better concealed.
Numbers are limited to 5,000, and a lottery for pre-registration ensures the balance of nationalities slightly favours the hosts, but this is no bad thing and barely notable when on the course, in the village, or even at the hotel, where Spaniards, Germans, Americans, and even Japanese (L’Eroica Japan was held for the first time in May) testify to the event’s international appeal. The British contingent is among the largest, and the UK will get its first taste of the magic next year when the inaugural L’Eroica Britannia is held on the weekend of June 20 to 22.
The original L’Eroica is more than a ride: it is an event, one I had been warned would entice me back year after year. It’s unlikely that riders travelling from the UK will arrive on the day of the ride, but to do so would be to miss much. The village of Gaiole, with its narrow streets, small cafes, and collection of stalls selling all kinds of cycling memorabilia is postcard beautiful; still more so by night. The pre-event dinner, a simple affair in a marquee, is a wonderful celebration (“Tomorrow, we ride!”). Four-time Milan-San Remo winner, Erik Zabel, resplendent in a merino wool German national champion’s jersey, is among the honoured guests. Speaking from the podium, he spots Guerini at our table and invites his former Telekom team-mate to join him. Both men receive a rapturous reception.
The eve of the ride had been marked by some of the heaviest rain in which I’d ever ridden (not to be discouraged, I headed out with other journalists for 50km on Bianchi’s Infinito CV in conditions that drenched us before leaving the hotel car park), but miraculously, the day of L’Eroica brings brilliant blue skies and we ride in temperatures approaching 30 degrees. The magic of L’Eroica, it seems, extends even to the weather.
There are four routes from which to choose, varying from 38km to 205km, but each includes sections of strade bianche and vertiginous climbs. Tuscany is many things – verdant, achingly beautiful, and studded with clay villas whose soft orange hue has coined the shade ‘sienna’ – but it is not flat. The 75km route selected by your correspondent contains 2,000m of ascent. The tarmac climbs are fluid and rewarding; their unmade brethren, brutal. Descents on either surface are unnerving, given the limited braking offered by vintage machinery. Double digit gradients, up and down, are the norm. Our ride resumes after the first break (‘feed station’ barely does justice to the surroundings, or to the fare) with a sharp descent of about two kilometres that unfolds at a gradient of 15 per cent.
The final descent, one that leads us back into Gaiole, is long and demanding, and in my case, interspersed with a discussion with Guerini about the previous week’s world road race championships, held just 60km down the road in Florence. We conclude our adventure with a handshake as we ride towards the traguardo. The privilege is entirely mine, of course, but he is far too modest to insinuate anything of the kind. Riding the machine on which he won his first race as a teenager, Guerini seems as enraptured as any of the participants by the event; an Italian riding with the joy of the bike in his heart at this joyfully Italian event.
The late afternoon sun beams on Gaiole in Chianti, and on the riders who have completed the granfondo, their friends, families and supporters. Finishers queue patiently at the traguardo for the final stamp to complete their brevet card (“Arrivo”) and leave clutching a regional delicacy, soon to find themselves on the other side of the barrier and back among mortals, their day of heroism finished, for another year at least. It is one I shall not forget.