Several years ago I read about l’Eroica, an old bike event in Chianti in Italy that took riders over the old gravel roads of Tuscany and I was determined to join in the fun. I was unable to go last year although I had registered for personal reasons, including a move so recent my bikes had not yet arrived, but I was determined not to miss out this year. With registrations limited to 3000 and of those only 500 for foreigners below age 60, I made sure to sign up early and had all my travel plans for late September (registration, flight, car rental, hotel) finalized by March.
Les’ l’Eroica bike, a 1981 Peugeot PXN-10 – purchased for 188 Euros, and upgraded with new 28 mm Continental 4Season tires. Mr. Cheapoh would be proud.
I bought a l’Eroica bicycle in February. The rules require a pre-1987 frame, shifters on the downtube, pedals with cages and straps and non-aero brake levers, meaning the brake cables are not routed along the handlebars but are arced in a loop from the tops of the levers. This is from the translation of the Italian, which is not totally clear, but my 1981 Peugeot PXN-10 met all the requirements.
Sunday, October 2: We got up at 4:30AM and drove the car, bikes and stuff for the day in the back, to Gaiole for the start of l’Eroica. It was pitch dark but already the village was active as those starting the long routes (205 and 132 km) were getting ready to leave. We were directed to a parking place next to a warehouse and quickly got the bikes set up and headed to the start line. Everyone leaving this early was supposed to have lights. My riding partner Bernd had a good strong light mounted to his helmet and I had an LED light on the handlebars, as well as a highly-visible taillight under the seat. I was wearing arm warmers and long-fingered glove liners because it was quite cold but I knew in a short while we would be sweating. We pulled up to the control stand and had our cards stamped and at 6:10 we officially departed for the 132 km course of l’Eroica with some trepidation.
Leaving the town and following the trail of blinking taillights, I soon realized that I could barely see anything and began to wish I had brought my regular glasses. I can see well enough with non-prescription sunglasses during the day but nothing at all was visible. I was just grateful that the roads were so well-paved that potholes were not a concern. As it was I rode much more slowly than I had planned at this stage.
… Photo of the author leading his group? Check.
After some time passed (and I had no real idea how much), the course turned and we were suddenly on a steep gravel climb. I was to learn later that this took us up to the castle of the famous Brolio wine estate but it was enjoyable to climb in the darkness, our way lit by oil lanterns burning on both sides of the road all the way up. It was still cold but surrounded by other cyclists and the sound of whirring gears made the climb a unique experience.
The sun rose around 7:15 and it began to warm up. The gravel roads were not too bad, although there were some soft and sandy parts to watch out for, along with dust, but we made decent progress. The road constantly rose and fell and there was a startingly steep (but blessedly short) climb around the 20 km mark which must have been a 20 percent grade. My gearing was fine for this but the pedal/shoe combination was to give me some trouble for the rest of the day and I rode all the descents in the drops, getting as much braking power as the pathetic Weinmanns were up to.
Bernd was riding a bit ahead of me and I was riding for a while with a young Englishman on a very nice Mercian. The gravel was loose and as we came around a corner he lost traction and went down in a great cloud of dust. No damage to himself or the bike but it just showed how difficult the roads are. This was his fourth l’Eroica.
I caught up to Bernd soon after since he was standing by the side of the dusty ride, his tubular tire off and struggling to put on his spare tire. It was my first experience with tubulars and I found it quite instructive as he placed the glue tape on the rim, got most of the tire on, stripped off the top layer of tape to explose the glue and then rolled the last tire on. This sounds easier than it was as tubular tires do not want to go easily onto rims, but between the two of us we managed it. The dust was probably not ideal for the gluing surface either but it seemed to be okay.
We skirted around Siena (a bit disappointing as I hoped to see something of the famous town) and a few more climbs and descents brought us to Radi at Km 48 and 9:40. It was a bit startling to take 3 Ѕ hours to go 48 kms without having walked but the road conditions had not been ideal.
The food stop at Radi was great. There was salami and Chianti, as promised, but also things more suitable for a long ride including some of the excellent local cake, tortona. The Peugeot’s frame only allows for a single water bottle so I took care to stay hydrated and fill up wherever possible. There was warm tea here which hit the spot and soon we were off again. Bernd, who had been considering riding the 75 km route since he was worried that he did not have another tubular in case of a flat, was very cheerful now as he had managed to buy two tubulars for 30 Euros from a mechanic at the food stop.
There was a very serious climb at Murlo, around 55 km into the ride, and I surprised myself a bit by being able to gently ride all the way up through the very steep gravel incline, working my way around people who were having to walk. Many of the old bicycles had gearing suitable for racing on paved roads and while this may have worked for young racers (and I saw plenty of younger riders able to cope), it was hard going for a lot of the senior members of the group.
Going down the other side was quite terrifying as well as it was very steep and the gravel unstable but eventually we reached a flatter section of gravel road. The roads are fairly wide but not well-maintained and there are stretches of washboard surface. I tried to ride a smoother path in the middle but the roads were open to cars, which came by all too frequently, raising dust clouds and forcing me onto the washboard sections, which were really terrible. L’Eroica wants to be compared to the Tour of Flanders but having ridden in Flanders I would have to say the Strada Bianca, the White Roads of Tuscany, are much worse. Washboard is much harder than cobblestones as you are constantly slamming into another gravel ridge. At least the people at Peugeot in Romilly-sur-Seine knew how to put a strong bike together since nothing fell off in spite of all the jarring.
We bumped our way to the next food stop at Asciano at Km 84.4, with the time card stamped at 12:08. There were huge numbers of cyclists at this stop and we refilled our bottles and our stomachs with lots of good food. There were two ladies in period costume next to a cauldron over a wood fire, offering up bowls of ribollita, the famous Tuscan white bean stew. It was quite delicious, dribbled over with a bit of olive oil, but perhaps not the ideal food for a hot summery day involving strenuous effort. And the next stretch was indeed strenuous…
Leaving Asciano we immediately began another climb on gravel but this time it was so steep that I had to walk from about halfway up. Reaching the top I was stunned to see a whole series of similar climbs ahead. The next stretch was the most difficult of the entire day as it was very hot and we had a surprising amount of traffic go by (although at this point any single car was too much traffic!) It was very uncomfortable to walk in the cleated shoes and pretty scary to ride downhill each time over the top. Progress was very slow and the Peugeot and I were covered with a layer of white dust by the time we reached the next paved road at Torre e Castello after 11 kms of Gravel Hell. There was a fountain in the village but someone also had a hose running so cyclists could fill up on water. I really needed this. No sign of Bernd anywhere but I thought I would find him at the next food stop.
The next stretch of road was very good, a fast descent followed by a climb that brought us to Castelnuevo Berardenga at Km 101.5. It had taken me 2 hours and 7 minutes to ride/walk/ride/walk 17 kms, probably my slowest time ever on a bike. The signs directed me right into the heart of the town and it was a pleasure to ride through the cool dark streets.
The main square was packed with hundreds of cyclists, many of them relaxing on comfortable chairs. I had my card stamped by a trio of officials who were clearly celebrating the centenary of Italian unification as they wore wonderful fantasy uniforms and, in one case at least, fake moustaches. I was surprised not to see Bernd so after 15-20 minutes I left him a phone message then got back on the bike for the last stretch.
It started off very well and I made good time until I reached my seventh stretch of Strada Bianca at Km 118. At this point I was very tired and my left leg was hurting from walking in loose gravel and sliding with the cleats so I resigned myself to doing a bit more walking. I was now going back on the route we had ridden first thing in the morning and had a chance to see the castle of Brolio in the distance. Riding/walking/riding brought me to a steep climb next to it and then one finally scary gravel descent at Km 121 and I was on excellent pavement. It was mainly downhill but the last 11 km felt endless. But soon I was on the outskirts of Gaiole and riding across the finish line, receiving a specially-labelling bottle of Chianti and a Siennese speciality cookie thing.
Bernd was there waiting for me to come in. It turned out he had completely missed the last food stop and had had to struggle to Gaiole with minimal water. We walked together back through the town for one last time and put our bikes in the Passat and headed back to Castellina, proud of our efforts.
After getting cleaned up, we walked (unsteadily) back to the pedestrian street and enjoyed a fine dinner of green salad followed by pasta with porcini mushrooms with a glass of Chianti. Of course, on the way back to the hotel we had to stop for ice cream. Actually, we each had two servings of ice cream this time! I was ready to sleep by 9:30 but Bernd was worried he would wake up in the middle of the night as we had had so many early days on this trip. This was not to be an issue as we were both sound asleep within minutes.
My time was an astonishing 10 hours and 27 minutes, start to finish. Since a lot of time was spent either riding in pitch darkness, or up/down vertical loose gravel, or eating really good, or fixing flats I can live with this.
The next day we did a leisurely drive back to Milan. But we both agreed the trip had been a great success and are already considering doing l’Eroica again in 2012. For anyone considering riding it, it is a wonderful experience: stunning scenery, great people and a marvellous atmosphere, including the best food you will ever find at an organized ride. Yes, I really am willing to do it again but I plan to do it with shoes without cleats, and with much better brakes!
• L’Eroica’s website can be found at Eroica-Ciclismo.it
• Read Les’ full Eroica 2011 experience on his blog at www.tindonkey.com