I’d always fancied riding l’Eroica ever since I read about it a couple of years ago. Sunday was my chance. Here’s what happened.
A fantastic ride in Tuscany on old road bikes. Wine, cheese and ham at the food stops and a warm reception for all. A must for all lovers of old bikes. http://www.eroica-ciclismo.it/english/home.asp
For those who can cope with the self-indulgence, here’s more.
A while back I posted up about l’Eroica to see if anyone was interested. Quite a few were but without any definite commitment. Then Fraser said that he was keen and would sort out accommodation – it was on!
After far too little training or preparation I found myself at Pisa Airport on Friday, ready to meet Fraser – apart from e-mails we’d only spoken on the phone briefly the night before and I’m not sure how he took my suggestion to approach me and ask “are you Blue Zeus?”. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary as my bikebag, Retrobike t-shirt and diffident air made that unnecessary. I was a little perturbed by Fraser’s classic grimpeur’s build but we chatted reassuringly easily on the shuttle bus. I quickly established that Fraser had two dogs but what was this “training with 1st Cats” – surely they’d fight with the dogs?
Saturday, since renamed Day Zero Minus One, dawned chilly but we were up and early and rapidly confirmed that the bikes (Fraser’s gorgeous Gios, my gate like and patina’d Raleigh) had survived the flight intact. We thought we’d head over to Gaiole in Chianti to register, see what was going on and ride a bit of the course. A Tuscan lunch sounded very pleasant.
Driving into Gaiole was amazing, there was no doubt what was going on as the whole town was dominated y the event. We wandered down to the piazza and almost immediately met with the descendents of Alfredo Gios who had a sweet stand, including their re-issue of the Gios Super Record made famous by Roger De Vlaeminck (1,400 euros in case you’re interested, and well worth it). We carried on wandering round, not knowing where to look – oh, there’s Moser’s hour record breaking bike. And so it continued.
This was far too exciting, a short ride was needed to burn off some of the nervous energy. The l’Eroica course is permanently signposted so, after a pleasant 2km shallow descent we turned onto the route proper and the road tilted gently upwards, perhaps 15%. Always fancying myself as a rouleur, I popped it in the big ring and we soon picked up and dropped two French guys. Sadly my enthusiasm was misplaced as I overlooked how long these climbs are – after 5km or so we hit the bianchi strada and the climb up to the castle at Madonna del Brolio. Perhaps disappointingly the strada bianchi was actually beige rather than white like Cheryl Cole’s teeth but the spectacular Tuscan countryside more than compensated. After a further explore of the course we headed back to prepare and discuss ‘race tactics’. I was a little concerned that Fraser had looked so comfortable on the climbs, then, over a beer, I realised what ‘1st Cats’ meant – he trains with 1st Category and Elite road racers. Oh dear.
Further cause for concern came with looking at the event profile, given out at registration – the 5+km climb we’d done in the afternoon registered as flat. What the hell had I let myself in for? And finally, event rules stated that you had to have shifters on the ‘oblique loom tube’. What was an ‘oblique loom tube’? Did I have one? Too late to worry, time to prepare for the big day. I had planned to use a small but stout Carradice saddle pack to hold spares, food etc. but although it had fitted easily at home even with zipties it wouldn’t go on properly. Never mind, I could always carry less food and tools as surely I wouldn’t really need either. We decided that a 6.30 a.m. start would be best as there was no requirement for lights and we only needed to get back to Gaiole by 7 p.m. to claim our prize of some specially bottled wine – 205km in 12 and a half hours, even with stops, didn’t sound unreasonable.
Day Zero started at 5.30 a.m. with a breakfast of proscuitto, bread and tomatoes. Driving to Gaiole we came across swarms of cyclists, their lights making them look like fireflies with wheels – this was at least an hour in to the ride so many had opted for the earliest possible start. By the time we’d faffed around and signed on (like the pros!) we rolled out into the chill at 7.02 a.m. After the previous afternoon I was determined to keep my powder dry on the first climb although it was difficult to do so when hitting the bianchi strada near the castle, lit by oil lamps. At this point a cheery English chap danced past, whooping “come on, got to love these English hills”. I was impressed by his early morning vigour but two hairpins later caught him, passing with an equally cheery “all right?”. The frostiness of his glare kept me warm through the following sketchy descents with the washboard surface giving an indication of what was to follow.
Fraser and I regrouped and rode steadily together – the route profile indicated that the majority of the route to the first food stop at Radi after 47km was asfalta and there was no sense in going too soon. We headed up a long drag trailed by a group of about 20 and I egged Fraser on. Smoothly he moved away as I heard a crack – 20km in and I had a broken spoke in my rear wheel. Typically it was drive side. Less typically it had sheared at the nipple. I dismounted in dismay, then simply wound the spoke round it’s nearest partner, snowflake style, and remounted. All seemed ok and opening the rear brake quick release meant the rubbing was minimal. Then, a couple of km outside Radi, I punctured. Without the Carridice saddlebag I only had one spare and no puncture repair kit. Or, as it transpired, a pump that would get above 35psi. Quietly cursing, and stopping only to assist an elderly Italian in stretching a new tub onto a worn rim, I rode on to the first food stop out of the saddle. The first 47km, including the two pitstops, had taken just over two hours and it looked like I’d be back in Gaiole, sipping beer, by mid afternoon.
The foodstop was a hive of activity and it felt rude to refuse a glass of red wine while I pumped up my tyre, having borrowed a better pump from a friendly American chap. Then it started to rain. Heavily. The skys looked as dark as my black, black heart and the thought of hours of greasy bianchi strada was not appealing. But as quickly as the rain came it was gone and the temperature climbed into the early 20s. I was nicely warmed up by now and, with a dozen Italians in tow, was pounding across the Tuscan countryside like a Chainti-fuelled George Hincapie (in reality I was doing about 15kph, more biffeur than rouleur). However my back wheel was making me think that perhaps the 135km was the more prudent option so I dropped to the back of the grupetto before, suddenly, we were at the 135-205km split. The rest of the group went left, I went right and was suddenly on my own.
The road tilted up. And then it was tilted upward bianchi strada. A toothless old Italian guy joined me, climbing out of the saddle like he was Claudio Chiapucci’s grandad. Perhaps he was as he was happy to chat away despite me making it clear that I couldn’t understand a word (at one point, churlishly, I tried to pretend that I was Flemish). However I was more off put by my lose handlebars, with the brake levers pointing skywards. Fortunately there was an impromptu foodstop and a kindly chap on a tidy Brian Rouke loaned me a sturdy allen key (the minitool that I had offered almost no leverage and was useless, apart from successfully and inexorably wearing a hole in the pocket of my handsome woolen jersey). I also found a track pump and managed to stick 80psi in my back tyre. Suddenly things, like the bianchi strada, were looking up. And up. I’d not used toeclips properly in well over 20 years and although I’d pulled the straps tight enough to leave the toes on my right foot numb, I did manage to pull my foot out on the climb although had just enough momentum to keep going. Finally the uphill bianchi strada ceased at over 560m and we were in the beautiful hilltop town of Montalcino (I say we as I was riding with a German guy who lived in Switzerland. More importantly, he had a beautiful pantographed Gerber and had two previous finishes in the event). It was now midday, we were 84km in and I was pretty knackered. Nothing a glass, or two, of rustic red wouldn’t sort though.
The road descent from Montalcino would have been fantastic but single pivots with 25 year old cables and original brake blocks, plus a rear brake on quick release, didn’t inspire confidence. Soon enough though it was back to the bianchi strada and plenty of winching slowly upwards before gingerly descending over the very corrugated surface. It was at this point that I noticed that my front brake was loose and flapping around. Suddenly the decision to come out without a 10mm spanner, indeed any spanner, seemed foolhardy. Oh, and the pounding from the corrugated surface had loosened the bars again. And I was very weary. Apart from that I was having a great time. Until I managed to pull my foot out on a particularly loosely surfaced switchback and bash Little Edward on the top tube. My appeal to the gods was, I’m pleased to say, rejected.
The next few hours, when I saw very few people, are best glossed over although, in a particularly low moment, I did accept that I wasn’t going to reach the next control within the time allowed to finish. However I’d not taken into account meeting another German chap on a battered celeste Bianchi. Like me he was regretting taking the long route. Unlike me, he had a watch (I didn’t want unsightly tan lines) and we suddenly realised that, if we sped up only slightly, we’d make the next checkpoint by the 4 p.m. deadline. Inspired, we settled into a bit of classic through and off, if riding at 11kph can be thus described. Breathlessly, leglessly, we reached the control and got our cards stamped. At 15.59. Euphoria gave way to realisation – we had 65km to go and had to ride on. After sharing a few glasses – “to numb the pain” – we continued leglessly, as we had arrived, although I was having surprising difficulty in getting my feet into the toe clips. Unfortunately we were in a very hilly section of the course with approximately 20km of continuous bianchi strada. I explained to my German friend what ‘to grovel’ meant. He explained to me that it was a nice day for a walk and, with a wave, I continued without him.
Although the next cut off was at 6 p.m., 15km further on was a short cut that you had to take if you arrived after 6 p.m., a double whammy. Arriving at the control and having something to eat I realised that I had 15 minutes to ride 15km and was about to be denied at the last. Somehow I dragged myself to the final split by 6.09 p.m., only to find no-one was there. I was joined by a fellow Brit and a Belgian chap and we decided that we’d come all this way and were not about to quit. As dusk approached we headed onto another long bianchi strada section and I, shivering, was quickly dropped. It was now getting quite dark and I was tired and riding offroad without lights on an old road bike with barely functioning brakes. This gave a whole new slant on descending but I hadn’t walked yet and wasn’t about to. It steadily got darker. And darker. I could barely see anything. Thankfully I arrived at a road and saw some winking red lights way above me – it must be the Brit and the Belge. Summoning energy from somewhere I set off in pursuit and, by the hilltop town of Radda, caught them. They seemed as surprised as I did and we shared some wine gums and the applause from some people dining outside; why weren’t we doing that? We were just over 10km from the finish.
The descent into Gaiole was the stuff of my worst nightmares. Pitch black with only the red taillights to follow. Thankfully it only went on for 15 minutes but it felt longer. Much longer. And then we were rolling into the piazza to warm applause from the few people left; several old men clapped me on the back, muttering kind words (I don’t speak Italian but I like to think they were saying “well done, biffeur”). It was 8.20 p.m. Fraser, with his impressive ability, had been back for 3 and a half hours and was, like me, buzzing but there was precious little time for a reunion as I was wheeled onto the stage to be given my commemorative bottle of wine and ceramic tile plus a local cheese – you are supposed to finish by 7 p.m. but everyone gets the prize for completing, indeed it’s almost as if being out there for a while makes you more appreciated. All that was left was a bowl of pasta, more wine naturally, and then having large tray of meat pressed into our hands for the next days breakfast
Ok, to numbers. 3,480 people rode the event. Fraser reckoned that the chap at the finish checking off those who completed the long route got only to about 150. Over 205km, of which approximately 100km was bianchi strada, there was 4,900m of climbing. My elapsed time was 13 hours 20 minutes, probably a shade under 12 hours actual riding.
L’eroica is a ‘must do’ for anyone that loves old road bikes and the organisers of British sportives could learn a lot from the event – superbly organised, great laidback feel and all for 20 euros. I’ll definitely be back.