Thursday 7 November 2013

Yet More Heroics: L'Eroica 2013

Italy: land of sunshine, pasta, Fausto Coppi and home of the ultimate retro-ride.  L’Eroica, “the Heroic,” saw its 17th running on October 6, 2013 and of course I was there joining the lucky participants enjoying some fine weather, some great food and some truly terrible roads on heavy bicycles with inappropriate gearing and  lousy brakes.  What could be better?

L’Eroica Vintage began in 1997 when a band of 82 cyclists, dedicated to preserving the historic Strade Bianca, or white gravel roads, of Tuscany set off on a ride to commemorate the brave and hardy racers who challenged each other and the hilly terrain in those pre-asphalt days.  The region, hilly with vineyards and impressive villas, is home to Chianti Classico and a professional race sponsored by what must be the oldest bank in the universe.  This race might be considered the Italian equivalent of the Tour of Flanders in terms of difficulty and has been won by such luminaries as Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert.  But those guys have team cars following and closed roads and bikes with working brakes and clipless pedals.  L’Eroica Vintage (there is also a running event as well as a permanent route) eschews all that.  The rules require a pre-1987 steel bike, downtube shifters (if your bike has multiple gears at all!), non-aero cable routing and pedals with straps and toe clips.  And the number of enthusiasts dragging their ancient Olmos or Legnanos or Bianchis out of the basement has increased to the point where registration is limited to 5,000 riders and foreigners under 60 need to enter a lottery to participate.
Early morning start
My friend Tom and I made the long trek southwards in a very small car packed with our gear, a Batavus and a Peugeot jammed into the back.  After an afternoon riding around in Bavaria we crossed the Alps into Austria (meeting some surprisingly heavy traffic en route) before autostrading our way across the flat plain of Northern Italy where we actually saw the infamous Lamborghini police car.  As we entered Tuscany the scenery became much more attractive although the highway became bone-jarringly dreadful. A portent of things to come?  With some relief we turned off near Siena and followed the tiny, twisty (but well-paved) roads.  Then the GPS said “turn here!” and we then had a chance to see what driving a white road was all about as we bounced along 4 kms of rough gravel that became ever-rougher to get to our rural agriturismo inn.  It was somewhat more, uh, rustic that we had expected but they had their own wine and a simple and inexpensive restaurant so all was well with the world. 
The next morning was Friday and time to get warmed up!  We unpacked the retrocycles and headed back out on the horrible road, getting covered with dust when the occasional car drove by, until we reached the main road and blessed pavement.  Entering the village of Vagliagli we had a very steep little climb and soon found ourselves on more gravel.  The roads were really not so bad, albeit dusty, and they took us past many vineyards and isolated houses.  14 kms of riding (but it felt like more) brought us to Castellina in Chianti, one of the three Classico towns, where we adjourned for breakfast at a bar before enjoying a fast downhill before a genuinely brutal climb in soft gravel and dirt from Santa Maria a Grignano (where we admired a trailer load of purple grapes) to Panzano in Chianti and lunch in village which consisted of three restaurants full of English-speakers, a church and not much else.  But now we had a fantastic descent into Radda along a beautiful road with gentle switchbacks and then on to the main attraction: Gaiole in Chianti.

Gaiole is the nerve centre of l’Eroica, a town of 2,500 that is the start and finish of the various routes offered.  It was estimated this year that the registered participants plus family and friends totally around 15,000, so needless to say the little town was bursting at the seams.  I thought it would be easier than doing it on Saturday so received my number and start kit but Tom had not brought any identification so he had to leave empty-handed for one day anyway.  We took a quick look at the vendors’ stalls but decided to keep going and finish the warm-up ride.
At 59 kms Tom became so obsessed with the fact that a jockey wheel on my rear derailleur was missing teeth that engaged in discussion as we were we did not notice that we had passed our turn.  We had a pleasant uphill climb to San Sano, which appears to have more cats than any other place in Europe, before realizing our mistake.  We thought going on to Lecchi would help but that was wrong too but at least there was an opportunity to buy something to drink.  And unexpectedly meet someone who called me by name.  It is a small world when it comes to retro riding!

But not so small when you still have to get home and there is at least another climb.  We backtracked and soon enough were back at our inn, 74 km in our legs and a crazy 1558 meter of climbing on our dusty bikes.  We had ridden much of the 75 km official l’Eroica route; there is a shorter one of 38 kms and then the longer routes of 135 kms (which we had chosen for Sunday) and the Big Kahuna: 205 kms.  There was much wine consumed that evening in the company of the equally afflicted as we met cyclists from Germany, Britain and Sweden.

Registratrion madness

Saturday was a washout, truly.  We had torrential rain for 24 hours and this was a major disappointment.  Hanging around Gaiole, checking out the vendors and meeting retro enthusiasts from all over the world is a great experience, as I discovered in 2011.  However, the heavy rain and the extremely dense crowds (all 15,000 people wanted to get into the registration hall at the same time, it seemed) were enough that after getting Tom’s number and kit we beat a hasty retreat to the car and left after only an hour.  We did buy some produce from the Saturday market (sun-dried tomatoes and lots of local honey) but that was all.  Luckily the rain let up enough that we could make an excursion by car to Monteriggioni, a fortress village built in the 13th Century by the Sienese as a strategic point in their endless war with Florence.  We enjoyed a walk around the walls and some superb pizza before the rain returned.  During dinner at the inn the heavens truly opened up and we grimly considered what the morning would bring for the Big Ride, although we found some solace in more wine.
After a restless night, we were up at 4 am (!) and were happy to see stars, suggesting that the clouds had dispersed.  We drove down to Gaiole, joined by dozens of other cars, most with roof racks loaded with vintage bikes.  We made our way through the crowded street to the main parking lot (which Tom thought look threateningly muddy for an underpowered car) and put our bikes together.  Here I discovered that the bracket for my essential headlight was missing a fastener and my front brake cable had come loose.  Luckily there are helpful mechanics on-site and after navigating the chaos that is the l’Eroica start we had our cards stamped and rolled off into the cold morning darkness.  Not totally dark as we were surrounded by other cyclists with seriously bright lights, intimidating the automobile traffic.

At 5 kms we made a left hand turn and began the steady climb towards the Brolio castle which, at 508 m ASL, is actually the highest point in the ride.  Brolio is a particularly noted name in the Tuscan wine world and the castle dominates the very extensive vineyards from its impressive summit.  One of the highlights of my 2011 ride was the climb up to the castle on the gravel road lined with lit candles but, sadly, this tradition seems to have been abandoned.  Once at the top we began one of the more treacherous descents of the climb, not helped by the muddy road but we were encouraged by the rising sun.
We continued to follow the dirt and gravel road, the first of ten such stretches were to face during the day.  The weather had been forecast to be poor but the threat of rain had been shifted to the afternoon and we rode in the dawn light at a reasonable pace.  Surprisingly, the heavy rain the day before had not left pools of water but instead the gravel roads had drained well and there was little if any dust.  As it turned out we never did get the promised rain.

After the village of Pianella our route turned west and we skirted around Siena and Isola d’Arabia on excellent roads before joining another long stretch of gravel that brought us to the flyspeck village of Radi at 48 kms and our first food stop.  The food stops are justly celebrated as in addition to the usual sorts of things you would expect on an organized ride there is Tuscan pastry, Chianti wine and, just like the old days, raw eggs provided by a farmer with a basket.  The Radi stop was mobbed but we stayed long enough to replenish our water bottles and get some food in preparation for the next segment.  A real problem with old bikes (in addition to the poor brakes and stupid pedals) is that most only have provision for a single water bottle rather than two as on more modern bikes and in the Italian heat you want to stay hydrated.

After Radi we had some very difficult stretches where the road was often poor gravel, very steep or, worst of all, washed-out mud and very steep.  In previous years the numbers of riders had been limited to 3500 but with 5000 this year there was a marked difference as not a few cyclists were more enthusiastic than prudent.  There was plenty of dangerous riding as people tried to force their way onto the better stretches of road Roubaix-style and one of group was hit by one of these careless riders.  This certainly reduced the enjoyment as you had to concentrate on keeping your line rather than admiring the Tuscan scenery.
We headed east to Ponte d’Arbia and then further to the next food stop at Ascania at Km 85.  Instead of the stop being next to the main road outside of the town as it was in 2011 the stop was right in the middle of the town, requiring us to move through masses of people to get our cards stamped.  It was worth it of course because Ascanio is where you get the wonderful Tuscan white bean and bread soup, ribollito.  It is cooked in big cauldrons over wood fires and handed, with a shot of olive oil, to you by ladies in period costumes.  We sat on some stone steps and enjoyed the hearty fare but I warned Tom that the next stretch would be brutal.  When I told him that it would take me 2 hours to ride 18 kms he laughed in disbelief.

Climbing 120 m in 8 km does not sound so difficult but the road from Ascanio to Mont Sainte Marie is very loose large-stone gravel or soft earth and it is necessary to ride up and down three hills before the summit.  It is here that the downhill is far worse than the uphill sections but this year I had made an effort to outfit myself with shoes suitable for walking rather than the super-stiff cleated vintage shoes I had used before.  I was joined by many others who did not have the strength, gearing or bravery to attempt riding sections of this wretched road.  Although many stopped at the sign at the top of the hill I continued, knowing there was more to come.

At Torre a Castello (Km 98) we rejoined the asphalt road with indescribable joy.  There was a fire station at the intersection and a fountain where we could refill our bottles as we set out for the next food stop at Castelnuovo Beradenga (Km 103).  Even though we were riding on good asphalt there was more climbing and a headwind and the day was beginning to feel long.  But soon Castelnuovo’s sizeable presence was visible and we tore through the narrow streets and into the delightful main square.  1:50 from Ascanio so at least I beat the 2 hours!
Cards stamped, food enjoyed, a brief chat with a retired American from Colorado and we were on our way again.  The next segment offered some superb descending on excellent roads and we made up time that had been lost on the Strade Bianche.  Riding northwest we passed through San Piero and then rejoined our outbound route at Pianella at Km 114.  Only 21 kms left to go!
Riding back up to the Brolio castle I was struck by how much less pleasant the gravel road seems than it did early in the morning in the other direction.  It was hot and dusty as we passed the endless vineyards and progress was glacial but finally we rode into the castle driveway and then down to the main road.  It was a very fast ride back over the last 10 kms and soon we were in Gaiole, dusty and triumphant and riding up the finishing ramp to claim our bottles of special label Chianti.  The village was a madhouse and it took some effort to get through the crowds and back to our car.

Returning to our country inn we drove behind a row of tired cyclists, brave souls still doing the 205 km route, the real l’Eroica which is permanently signposted.  We had completed 135 kms with 2300 m of climbing and that was plenty for me.  My moving speed had been 16.4 km/h and I had been on the road for 10 hours and 9 minutes.  There had been great moments and some depressing ones when, frankly, I did not feel much like a lottery winner but the l’Eroica experience is something special.  So special that the idea is being franchised and 2014 will see l’Eroica events in England and Japan.  And so special that it has inspired many more retro-rides, including at least 13 in Italy itself.  Having done l’Eroica twice and in excellent weather both times (and with no flats!) I am satisfied but do not feel the need to do it again.  Open roads beckon elsewhere and the familiar sound of squealing brake pads and panic stops will continue to echo around the world.
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