Sunday 28 April 2013

My latest book review at


Just in time for the Giro d'Italia in May comes my review of the only English-language biography of Italian cycling star Gino Bartali.  The review is here.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Retro-Rides Everywhere: What Hath l'Eroica Wrought?

Cycling appears to be booming, with a surge in commuting and just-for-fun riding and for those more sportingly-inclined an equal growth in events, whether gran fondos or stage events for amateurs.  But one unusual trend has been the growth of the retro-ride in Europe, which sees old steel bicycles with toe-clip-and-strap equipped pedals and downtube friction shifters, returning to fabled roads to recreate some of the magic of the past.  The granddaddy of these is clearly l'Eroica, begun in 1997 with only 100 participants and now limited to 3000.  It has spawned imitators not only in Italy but throughout Western and Central Europe.  Some of these events are developing their own histories and some will start only this year.  Distances seem to vary between 25 and 150 kms but none of the events are timed.

The general rule is that bicycles should be pre-1987 steel framed with non-aero brake levers, downtube shifters and no clipless pedals but the classic clipped version instead.  There are variations on this as to date of manufacture but component requirements seem pretty standard.  Since none of the events can be considered races emphasis is put instead on authentic bicycles, the more obscure the better.  Historic clothing is particularly welcome.  There is a very strong social element as everyone admires and comments on each other's bikes and the competitive atmosphere in a typical amateur race is completely lacking.  Also lacking pretty much is the presence of women:  old bicycles seem to be A Guy Thing.

They can also be A Fairly Cheap Thing.  Rideable pre-1987 steel bicycles can still be bought reasonably although those equipped with Campagnolo Super Record parts have definitely gone up in value.  Unfortunately the economics of collecting means it is more profitable to strip a frame of its parts and sell them separately rather than as a complete bicycle.  I learned from restoring my Raleigh Team Professional that the frame is probably the least of your costs if you want to be period-accurate.  Nonetheless there are lots of good bikes out there still to be had.  My 2011 l'Eroica bicycle was a 1981 Peugeot PXN-10 with Simplex components that I bought for under 250 Euros from its original owner.  I merely replaced the old tires with 28mm Continentals for the gravel of Chianti.  If you are happy to ride a less-celebrated frame brand than a Cinelli, Colnago or Masi you would be hard-pressed to spend more than 1500 Euros.  Compare that to a new carbon frame with no storied character.  Although the brakes on the new bike will be infinitely better.

Here are the retro-rides I plan to attend in 2013:

1.  April 7: the second Klassikerausfahrt of the year here in Düsseldorf.  The ride is always on the first Sunday of the month.  Distances are a relaxed 60 kms or so and the rules are pretty well non-existent.  The next ride after this one is on May 5.

2.  May 25/26: The Retro Ronde in Belgium, featuring a criterium, a beauty contest (sort of) and a selection of routes (40, 70 and 100 kms) on the famous roads of Flanders.

3.  June 2: Retropedal is the third installment of a cycling event put on by the RV Opel 1888 Rüsselheim e.V. club in (surprise) Rüsselheim, not far from Mainz and the home of the Opel car company.  Bicycles here need to be pre-1983 but there is also an event for pre-1953 bicycles so the variety should be quite interesting.  Ride distances range from 45-154 kms for the more modern bicycles, while the elderly bikes (including high-wheelers) can enjoy a guided tour of 25 kms.  Registration is (gasp!) 10 Euros in advance, 11 Euros on the day.

4.  June 15/16: The Rommerskirchen-Düsseldorf Classic/Deutsche Rennradbörse is a two-day affair, with the first day featuring a retro-ride from Rommerskirchen across the Rhine to Düsseldorf and back and Day 2 is the racing bicycle jumble sale.  Last year's edition of the ride was the first and was a success in spite of miserable weather.

Rommerskirchen depart, June 2012

 5.  June 16: Tour d'Historique is the first running of a retro ride in the Netherlands and will start in Haarlem and feature rides of 35 and 80 kms.


6.  June 22/23: Anjou Velo Vintage will mark its 3rd edition as it establishes itself as the French retro ride.  There will be a week-long "vintage village" but the real event begins on the 23rd with an 86 km ride, the Retro 1903, retracing a segment of the final stage of the 1903 Tour de France. It will go from Angers to Saumur.  On Sunday there will be an 86 km loop around Saumur, as well as shorter rides of 37 and 46 kms.  The event is organized by the region of Maine-et-Loire, which has obviously learned something from those people in Chianti.

 7.  August 25: HALLZig-Historica is a new event that will have riders able to choose from four routes ranging from 48 to 153 kms in Saxony, with the start in Leipzig.

8.  October 5/6: l'Eroica.  The famous ride over the white roads of Tuscany.  I will be doing the 135 km route for the second time after my painful first effort in 2011.  This is the weekend when the retro riders take over Chianti.

Of course, there are also the Ones That Got Away.  I have registered for the rides above but could not for the following ones due to scheduling conflicts.

In Velo Veritas will go through the wine region around Vienna, Austria on June 16.

The Tour de Trois will feature a 125 km circuit starting in France, rolling into Switzerland and then Germany before finishing back in France.  It will be on June 30 and also feature a jumble sale.

The fifth Badenweiler Retro-Velo-Classica will serve up a hill time trial as well as an 80 km road circuit in one of the most beautiful cycling regions in Germany, close to Freiburg, over the August 2-4 weekend.  Time is actually taken during this event and prizes given out.  The chief sponsor and moving force appears to be the owner of a local hotel in Badenweiler.

There are at least 10 retro rides in Italy.  A list of the events, with URLs, can be found at the excellent Italian Cycling Journal blog here.  The list dates from 2010 so some of the rides may not exist or there will be additional ones.  There is a good Italian website about vintage events here.  I am doing l'Eroica this year but would like to try some of these other historic rides in Italy in 2014.

Of course, the closest thing to the l'Eroica weekend in North America would be Cirque du Cyclisme, which takes place in Virginia on May 17-19 this year and offers a number of group rides, although the emphasis is probably on the display bicycles and market.