So, here we go again, another lame Edwards tale that will follow the usual format. I’d echo Micheal Gove with his “yadda, yadda, yadda” from Newsnight (I can’t believe I’ve just repped Gove) but I know that more is expected, desired even. They say never change a winning formula but when your formula ain’t winning you sure as hell make changes. So, if you’re after the usual hackneyed recounting of lack of physical and mechanical preparation, unfortunate bowel evacuation, shoehorned popular culture and your modest scribe bravely saving the day via scarcely creditable heroics then you will be disappointed. But somehow I doubt it.
I’ve ridden l’eroica twice before, taking on the full 205km L’Erocia in 2010 and then the more modest 135km L’Erocia in 2012 to take full advantage of a beer in the sunny square in Gaoile in Chianti while the dust was still fresh on my legs. Despite being enjoyable, neither visit was completely satisfying due to some elementary errors – finishing downhill on the Strade Bianche in the dark with no lights or brakes in 2010, turning up with 42×23 in 2012. Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” and I wasn’t for arguing with Bertie Boy (well, I have some quibbles with the E = mc² lark – no, not the risible Big Audio Dynamite clunker – although I’d obviously agree that with mass being equivalent to or converted to energy, at relativistic speeds particles become harder to accelerate because as you inject more energy their mass appears to increase if only because it explains, succinctly, the additional challenge faced by a big boned rider). But, crucially, would it be third time lucky or once, twice, three times a lady?
It’s pretty obvious that the physical preparation wasn’t going to all it should be. And it wasn’t. But my mechanical skills were much improved and with a week before departure I had a fully working bike (ok, ok, I hadn’t actually confirmed that it worked by riding it). I was particularly impressed by my ingenuity in getting the Super Record rear mech to work with the 28t Shimano freewheel – at first the upper cage and the freewheel interfered with each other but with the use of half a cable end cap I fabricated a solution that was as effective as it was inelegant. Naturally I left packing the bike away until 5 hours before we had to leave for the airport. Which considering that we had to leave the house at 3.30 a.m. was someway short of the exacting standards of preparation that I pride myself on.
By mid afternoon we were gently bowling along the Tuscan roads, accompanied by the second worst radio I have ever experienced (the worst? On the long interstate drive from Indianapolis to New York in 2006 I longed for something as cutting edge as Nickelback). Locating the hotel, 7km from advertised, it made sense to get the bike back together for a spin the next day. All went smoothly until I tried to inflate the tyres to some sort of pressure using an ineffective minipump – I was bent double, puce of face and making a series of short hand motions that I hoped resembled a maniac trying to ineffectively stab a rabbit. The foul mutterings when I removed the pump and succeeded in unscrewing the valve core did little to endear me further to the hotel proprietor.
After a relaxing evening enjoying a pizza in Gaoile – and why was I so elated when the pizza man recognised us from the previous year? I like to think the recognition was because of my manly ability to fill a pair of shorts but suspect that it was more due to the 17in height difference between The Little Boss and I – it was time for a gentle workout to event central. Never the speediest descender, my drop into Gaoile was priestly although at least I had the excuse of wanting to nurse my 60 psi tyres without pinching. Oh, and a rotating bar – imagine my surprise when I braked from the hoods into the first hairpin. Tyres harder than Charles Bronson, I climbed the steep Strade Bianche towards Vertine and decided that stopping off for a glass of local red made all the sense in the world. Plugging into the iPod and hearing a rant that ‘Predator’ is an allegory for the gay male struggle to accept a differing sexual identity than is appropriate in a dominant hetero-normative cultural system was rather strange too; if you want gay male subtext, surely you look no further than ‘Commando’?
Anyway, bike and body were working. But the hotel proprietor was a doom monger – did I detect a glint of delight when he reported the apocalyptic forecast for the Sunday? And, tangentially, what was it with the hotel? It had beautiful Tuscan vistas from the terrace and an outdoor pool. But why did I keep thinking of the Overlook Hotel? It was run by a couple who were rarely around but were capable of emerging when you arrived home. And, were they a couple, brother/sister, son/mother, lovers, all of the above? Bizarrely for a hotel in the middle of nowhere, they served no food bar a breakfast consisting of thimbles of fruit juice, stale but sweet finger rolls and processed slices of ham. In Italy. Still, all work and no play makes Ed a dull boy so, ignoring the owner’s dark tidings, I had another spin into Gaoile to register and enjoy the flea market without the crowds.
I have to confess that I did check the weather forecast though and it looked awful – Sunday was forecast for thunderstorms, lightening and, if my calculations were accurate (I’m a trained maths teacher, so probably not), up to 42mm of rain in 24 hours. Still, it was still 36 hours to the off and forecasts are usually wrong.
Saturday dawned with the sky heavily pregnant and by all accounts about to give birth to Rosemary’s Baby. Still, I had to meet Fraser and Johnny so I headed into Gaoile. Within minutes the slapping of the windscreen wipers was drowning out the awful cover of ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ on the radio. Parking up, the rain lessened to a mild drizzle as I walked to meet Fraser (Jonny would arrive later, a clear portent of what was to come). Within minutes of greeting each other the rain started to really lash down and I started to regret my decision to turn up in only a cycling jacket, even if it was beautifully cut. Luckily we met a friend of Fraser’s and decided to retire to a café for coffee (note: I don’t drink coffee so was forced to have a beer). The rain continued in it’s intensity so lunch made sense (parpadelle with wild boar sauce in case you are interested. Oh, and another beer). We hid in the café for two hours but eventually we had to front up and step outside. The rain was bouncing off the pavements and straight up my shorts but at least the latter were wet enough that no one noticed when my bladder full of beer need emptying on the fly (note: this is poetic licence. Or perhaps not).
The flea market was looking increasingly bedraggled as water poured off the awnings (and mostly down my neck). Johnny arrived after quite a journey, glasses steaming up with excitement. After a quick chat I slunk back to the hotel to ‘rest’. Upon meeting the gleeful owner “o my, the weather tomorrow will be even worse”, I pledged to avoid one of the many hotel rules and have a supermarket purchased beer in my room (bereft of opener I used the time honoured approach involving the heel of my hand and the marble top in the en suite bathroom to flip off the serrated bottle cap. I’m sure this would have horrified mein host although frankly he should have been more concerned about my washing soiled shorts in the bidet and then drying the soggy lycra by windmilling them in a pristine white towel). Lying on the hotel bed, beer in hand, the rhythmic drumming of the rain was almost soothing. Almost soothing if you didn’t have to start riding in the dark and face 12 to 14 hours across steep greasy, chalky roads wearing a heavy woolen jersey that, saturated with water, would be hanging off the rear wheel. Despite lack of riding I had planned on tackling the 205km again but was seriously considering not riding at all if the rain didn’t abate. And it didn’t as we got soaked popping out for more wild boar pasta and then soggily loading the bike into the back of the Lancia. Sod this, 135km it would be, and possibly less if the forecast continued to be reliable.
Arriving at the start via an altercation with a incomprehensible Italian policewoman (I am not proud to confess that I muttered obscenities in Tagalog as I drove off), there were scores of riders milling around, staring goggle eyed at the the Holy Trinity of Gimondi, Moser, Edwards (in his World Champions jersey from 1973, Felice Gimondi could learn a lot from me about humility). Miraculously given the throngs, Fraser, Johnny and I got together at the appointed time and prepared for the off. Except Johnny had left his brevet card in the car so he popped back to get it. On return, the strings on his thinmusette broke. Clearly he was a kindred spirit in terms of preparedness.
The initial climb to the castle at Brolio is great – smooth tarmac that gently lifts up, steep enough to get the legs and breathing going and warm up nicely but no so steep that it causes real concern. Did I also mention that there was no rain falling and the ground was barely damp. It wasn’t clear where all the water had gone but it looked like it could turn out well. Descending the dirt road from Brolio, I saw a gaggle of cyclists stopped by the side of the road, Johnny and Fraser among their number (I’d obviously been dropped on the gentle climb although stopping for an ‘excitement wee’ may have been a contributory factor). Cameras and phones out, they were capturing the most spectacular dawn imaginable – the light was still leaving most of the countryside in dimness but a shaft of bright sunshine was illuminating the Tuscan countryside like a scene shot by Danny Boyle. While others soaked in this breathtaking sight I continued on – I had no time for enjoyment as there was suffering to be had.
Stopping for another wee, Fraser caught up to advice that Johnny had rear wheel punctured 200m back up the road so we turned around and found him, wheel off and wrestling with some vulcanising solution; yep, he’d left all his spare tubes in the hotel room. Fraser and I offered encouragement (well, I thought it was encouraging) but Johnny was having a devil of a job with fingers increasingly raw and patches that weren’t sticking ripped up and hurled to the road like 2D olives. After 30 minutes Johnny suggested we head on and he’d see us at the first foodstop. We wouldn’t see him again for 14 hours (I’ll leave the telling of that tale to him).
The first foodstop was reached with little drama as the initial 45km involves nothing particularly steep or overly challenging. Fraser had arrived 10 minutes before me and we languidly ate and drank in the sun before figuring we’d best head off and Johnny would catch up. Both taking the pragmatic approach, we pledged to do the 135km route. Straight into a dirt road climb, my bars rotated and I was dropped.
Sorting myself out, I remounted and ‘enjoyed’ the following steep 30km with some awful dirt road descents (or great if you enjoy steep, slippery, cambered, washboarded, gravel strewn and with deep drainage channels cutting across at sharp angles). I was particularly pleased that I didn’t dab on any of the ups or downs – ok, I’ll admit to a cowardly leg waggle out of the toeclip at one point) – and the poor weather of the day before had actually helped the riding by keeping the dust down and making the sandy parts muddy and rideable rather than wheels wallowing. Arriving in Asciano, the weather was beautiful, warm but not hot, barely a breath of wind and only fluffy white clods in the azure sky. Fraser again had got there 10 minutes or so before me so we enjoyed some delicious Tuscan bean soup and a spot of red wine.
I recalled the section after Asciano from previous years as ‘quite difficult’. Clearly I had blocked out the true nature as it was absolutely horrendous, a series of steep dirt road ‘steps’ followed by rattling descents into a tight corner and another ascent. I didn’t count the number of climbs – 8? 10? – but many, most even, were off and pushing. Gritting in and winching up without a foot down made me feel proud – I may have been slow and shit but I was no dabber!
Arriving in the square at Castelnuovo, I met Fraser who had been there for, yep, about 10 minutes. Feeling weary I had more Tuscan bean soup, then a bit more, plus fistfuls of delicious dried meat, a banana, a handful of dried apricots and a couple of glasses of red wine. Grappa was also available but, after a sip, I decided that it must have analgesic qualities and rubbed it into my knees. Although it was tempting to snooze in the sun – and one rider was doing just that – we had a classic ride to complete.
Again, I was quickly dropped – on a road downhill this time, just for variety – but I saved myself for the dirt road climb back up to Brolio, my last danger of dabbing. By now I was very weary, and thirsty (I’d lost my bidon many hours earlier, keeping up my proud record of losing a bidon a ride over the last five events) but, completely committing by cinching up my toestraps so tightly that I lost the feeling in the three small toes of my left foot for 5 days, I ground up to Brolio.
And made it to find Fraser waiting. A quick roll down the road to Gaoile – Fraser got there 10 minutes before me – and the beer in the square never tasted so sweet. But where was Johnny? He wasn’t answering his phone and had left no messages. We chatted further, had another beer, then headed for the post race pasta.
Two hours after finishing there was no sight nor sound of Johnny so I decided to bugger off back to the hotel for a wash and change – perhaps we’d meet for a pizza later? Back in Gaoile a further two hours later, we met up with Fraser but there was still no sight of Johnny. It was dark by this point and I didn’t remember him having lights. Still, the pizza was tasty and the beer was cold so all was well with the world. Then Fraser’s phone buzzed – it was Johnny, he was nearby, laden with 4 new and unused tubes (he’d got the puncture repair kit working, made it to the first foodstop and bought their stock of innertubes only to ultimately have no need to them). The pizza man was about to knock off for the evening but we got him to make one last pizza for the prodigal rider. Johnny was weary but elated and we sat around drinking beer and eating pizza until Vinia pointed out that Johnny had dozed off into his Sicilian with extra spices (unsurprising given a 14 hour ride over 205km with 3,700m of climbing compared to 9 hours and 135km with just shy of 3,000m of ascent for Fraser and I).
And that was pretty much that for l’Eroica 2013. Apart from our enormous luck with the weather was underlined the next day when Vinia and I went sightseeing in Florence and got absolutely drenched. But was it third time lucky or three times a lady? Jury still out I reckon but that Lionel Ritchie is one sage dude.
I’m far too modest to say whether this tale has been a disappointment to my avid fans, even if I’ll concede that I have much to be modest about. But, with pop cultural references that The Beloved would have rejected for ‘Hello’ by The Beloved (incidentally, Mick Jagger always tells me not to drop names. Sound advice Mick) how did I ever really think that I could compete with “Zippy, Bungle, Jeffrey Archer”?
[Photos bar the first courtesy of Fraser Kennedy]