PezCycling News - What's Cool In Road Cycling : Top Rides: The Heroic ‘L’Eroica’

Top Rides: The Heroic ‘L’Eroica’
What's the perfect way to close the cycling season? How about joining several hundred other nutters on vintage bikes for a 205 km epic covering half the distance on dirt roads through some of the most picturesque wine covered hills anywhere… all to experience what our cycling fore-fathers did 100 years ago. It's called ‘L'Eroica’ and it's in Italy.

‘L’Eroica’ means ‘heroic’ in Italian… and no wonder… anyone that finishes this brute will have suffered, struggled, and finally conquered… a heroic effort indeed. This year ran the 11th edition of the cyclcosportif event, and also saw the innaugurl running of the pro version 2 days later (won by CSC’s Alexandr Kolobnev).

The corsa runs this way and that, oe’r hill and day in Chianti country near Siena. At least you’re never far from something good to drink.

For What Purpose?
It’s organized by the Association of the Cycling Park of the Chianti, and was started to “evoke a bygone era of pre-war cycle racing, of mud and dust and romance. There is no mechanical assistance and the feed stations are old fashion in keeping with what racers ate back then, grapes, salami and bread, and of course wine. The road are of unequalled beauty, as is the spirit of camaraderie, sacrifice and fatigue.” … the brochure says it all.

Look at that profile… 205 km with nary a flat section anywhere… the white bits are the fearsome “strade bianche” – 112kms in all.

PEZ-Fan Richard Heer rode this year’s event and submitted his impressions and photos from the day (October 7, 2007)… If this does not look like one of the coolest rides ever....

Richard picks up the story…
Here's the idea: how about getting together for a ride in Italy, say in Tuscany? Let's make it in the Chianti wine producing region… Starting to sound interesting?

”Una giornata di vera festa dalla bici”, a day of real celebration of the bike. It's incredibly beautiful fall scenery and weather.

But let's not make it any ordinary ride. How about we ride old bikes. Not just any old bikes, we're in Italy after all, cool old bikes like Binda, Coppi Gimondi and Moser rode. To make it really interesting let’s make 112 kilometers of the 205 kilometer course on "strade bianche" which translates to nice dirt/gravel roads like Coppi rode on. Va bene! Now if you can find an old wool jersey and maybe shorts too, benissimo, even better...

The basic idea is to recreate the magical atmosphere of il grande ciclismo, the great days of cycling. A ciclismo of authentic values, of sacrifice and suffering. However, being a recreation, not too much suffering - at least nothing some Chianti can't help.

Pez joins the paceline. Tires wrapped around the shoulders, 25-30 pound bikes, wool clothes, aluminum water bottles, downtube shifters and toe clips. Fantastico!

There are no rules about what kind of bike you can ride. It's a festa after all… In fact, there was a little bit of everything. From carbon fiber, to mountain bikes, cyclocross, even a tandem from 1942. But most of the riders had some type of vintage bike with downtube shifters, toe clip pedals and break levers with exposed cables. Remember those bikes - only ten speeds, on 25-30 pound bikes and if you were really cool you had aluminum rims. And wool, lots of wool.

The control cards. The one on the left has the stamps from the seven check points.

Keeping in the vintage spirit, each rider was given a control card that would get stamped at each check point. In this case a total of seven check points around the course. The start was "alla francese" meaning you can start when you like within a time frame, which was between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m. for riders of the 205km course. If you were feeling very heroic you could start at 5:00 a.m.! Just like in the days of ‘il grande ciclismo’ when the riders would start mammoth distance races at 5:00 in the morning, rolling out into the dark with lights.

Here the riders are lined up (this is actually quite orderly for Italy) to get their control cards stamped at the first of the seven control check points. There was even a surprise check point during the day to keep everyone honest.

So that your friends don't have the "it's too long and/or hard" excuse, the organizers have made four courses available to suit everyone's abilities: 34km, 75km,135km and the big 205km.

Two time Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni also rode (he's the one on the left…). Here he is at the big dinner the night before with his secret new super domestique signed to help him win next year’s Giro.

“Ecco un vero uomo di ferro”, here's a real iron man. Pierluigi Bonora on his Colnago that he used to race on in the 1980's. He also rode and finished all of the 1200km of the Paris-Brest-Paris brevet this last August.

Heavy bikes and heavy gears. The lower sign says 15% grade, although it doesn't look like it in the photo, believe it. This is the start of a brutal, dusty four kilometer climb on the gravel, at 15%…

How did Gino do it? Two time Tour de France and three time Giro d'Italia winner Gino Bartali lived just 40 or so kilometers north of where this event took place, so surely the great Gino trained and raced on these same roads. Many of the riders' bikes here had a 46 or 42 tooth small front chainring (if their bike was "new" enough to have two front chainrings!) and a 23 or 25 for the biggest gear on the back.

In this photo of a Legnano bike (just like Bartali and Coppi started their pro careers on) you can see there were only two gears on the back with a complicated system of two levers to change gears. The longer lever is to loosen the quick release allowing the wheel to move forward to provide enough chain slack to change onto the other gear using the second, shorter lever. As you can imagine, rider fatigue and mud made quick and reliable shifting very difficult. Gino, however, was a real expert with this system and continued to use it even after the first rear derailleurs started to be used.

These riders fixing the flat tire said "Le equipe du France c'est kaputt!" (the French team is broken down). France was the foreign country with the most riders.

Bellissimo! A typical scene during the event. A photo like this in black and white (without the helmet) could be from any time in the last hundred years.

The course had many very steep but short climbs of 15 to 18%. The skinny tires, gravel roads and the old 46 or 42 tooth smaller front chainring just don't make a very rideable combination for most riders. The Pros who raced on many of the same dusty strade bianche two days later in the Monte Paschi Eroica used a 39x26. "The pros have it easy these days" was said more than once...

It could be worse, at least it's just steep and dusty. It did rain a little on part of the course the night before making some of the course a little muddy, but thankfully the big day was dry, dusty and sunny.

Buon compliano Ornella, happy birthday! Ornella Mortagna celebrates her birthday dressed in wool and it looks like she likes it.

Forza! Here you can see just how steep it gets and, che sguardo, the look on his face says it all…

Si mangia bene in Toscana! One eats well in Tuscany - Even the rest stops get the vintage treatment. Panini, zuppa toscana e crostate di marmellata, sandwiches, an incredible Tuscan soup with vegetables and bread and the jam tarts. Buono, buono! There was also plenty of Chianti being passed around, which might not have seemed like such a good idea as the kilometers added up latter in the day.

Avete fame ragazzi, are you guys hungry? No power bars here signori - only fantastic, real Italian food.

Sono distruto, I'm destroyed, says Nicola Tessaro. Covered in dust after the 205 km and maybe more than one too many glasses of Chianti during the day, Nicola is glad to have survived le strade bianche.

One of the great things about this event is that a vintage ride could be organized anywhere, certainly a good topic for discussion with a bottle of Chianti. It's part scavenger hunt to find all the bikes, gear and clothes. It's part Halloween getting all dressed up. It's partly a big party. But the best part is that it's all about the bike. Especially in these days of riders being paid millions of dollars only to ignore every sense of ethics and responsibility while getting involved in scandal after scandal.

It's refreshing to rediscover the real values of a great sport that cycling has always been. I'll drink to that. A vintage event like this one really is the prefect way to close the cycling season. Un'altra bottiglia di Chianti per favore! (Another bottle of Chianti please…)

What distance did I ride?
I did the 205km route and personally I would say it was really very difficult. I did 23 "gare" (races and gran fondos) in Italy this year, including a gran fondo that they say is one of the hardest in the world, and this ranks right up there. Why? Because it's not like a race on a mountain bike (no suspension on our bikes and our skinny little tires at high pressure) and not like a cyclocross race (most of us had a 42x24 gear and the 205km distance). Also the route is "sali scendi", up and down, all day long with seemingly only 500m of flat during the whole 205km…!

What bike did I ride?
Most everybody (including myself) had heavy old road bikes with downtube shifters, 10 speeds, toe clip pedals and really big gears (like an easiest gear of 46 or 42X24). A bike like that makes any "gara" hard enough. On top of all that, the 115km of "le strade bianche" make it really, really difficult…

What's it like riding le strade bianche?
It's terrible! There is no time to rest or relax your body or head. You have to have maximum concentration the whole time, especially on the big gravel descents with skinny tires. Not so obvious is that on the flat you have to concentrate the whole time on reading the road, avoiding rocks and ruts, all the while choking on the dust. Going uphill was incredible, it took soooo much concentration both physically and mentally. Physically, to keep that big gear turning over was not easy. But at the same time we had to concentrate completely on getting the power down without spinning the rear wheel in the gravel. Let me tell you, losing traction was deadly, both for momentum and motivation (as you can see in some of the pictures).

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About The Author Richard Heer has been “living in Italy for the last six years, trying to figure out the Italian language, culture and women… Also riding and racing (amateur) as much as time and the legs allow. I wrote about this event because it is pretty special – so different and fun. I hope to inspire others to try and organize the same type of event in their area and maybe rediscover the real values of a great sport that cycling has always been.” He can be reached at


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