Right, let’s get something straight from the off. I like cycling, enjoy company and love red wine. Put all three together in Tuscany sounded perfect with nothing that could possibly deflect from sheer, unrelenting enjoyment. No matter what follows, I just want to be clear about that before I get started, that’s all.
L’Eroica (“the heroic one”) is an annual event in Tuscany that celebrates the great, bygone era of cycling before doping, science and sideburns were so prevalent. Based in Gaiole in Chianti, l’Eroica started in 1997 as a way to celebrate cycling history but also to halt the paving over of the strade bianche, the white dirt roads that cross cross the region. 15 years on, l’Eroica is wildly popular with entry list closing almost as fast as it opens – there is even a professional event in the Spring and the Giro has used the strade bianche in recent years too (cue images of ghostly looking riders, covered from head to toe in ‘Tuscan toothpaste’). The concept is simple – ride one of a series of distances, on an old bike, in period clothing, stopping only to snack on cured meats, local cheeses and robust red wines from the region. Bike wise there are really only three rules – downtube shifters, exposed brake cables and pedals with toeclips and straps although many take it further with 1930s (and earlier) bikes and period clothing including Breton style heavy sweaters and goggles. I’d had a go in 2010 on a relatively modern Nuovo Record equipped Raleigh Panasonic and this years running allowed for an extended stay in the region to coincide with my 46th birthday – what was not to like? Staying up until midnight to ensure an entry, I was in. So were James and Melvin. Bring on la belle epoch!
I’ve mentioned before the need for suitable preparation being the key to success. I’ve typically left preparation to the last minute or omitted it entirely, somehow muddling through. This time was going to be different. However, following the 3 Peaks the previous weekend I found I was seriously unprepared (Ed the Unready?) - I had a bike but no suitable freewheel, chainset, pedals or wheels. Oh, and the brakes were very poorly adjusted with the winning combination of rubbing badly and being pulled to the bars with little braking influence. The white bartape was pristine though.
Cross with myself at such organisational incompetence and with only three evenings to get something together, I dragged the Mercian into the kitchen and worked some ‘Edwards magic’. After a couple of hours with spanners, spares and a non alcoholic beer, I stepped back and surveyed my work – a 6 speed freewheel with a 28t top sprocket had been found and fitted to some trusty Mavic G40 on Nuovo Record wheels, I’d found some old MTB pedals and fitted shiny Christophe toeclips and Binda toestraps and the Nuovo Record chainset was looking mighty fine. Even better, the white bartape was free of smudged finger prints. Pledging to fit some wide amberwalls the following morning before a test ride to work, I slept soundly.
Obviously I failed to test the bike out the following morning but I did so on the way to work the day before leaving for Tuscany – it spun easily up to speed and felt tight and fast. Even the shoes and cleats seemed fine. This was excellent, all I had to do was ride home, pack the bike bag and I was ready. Saddling up to ride home, something didn’t seem right. I got off and had a look – nothing obvious. For the life of me I don’t know why I did what I did next but I grasped the spokes in the rear wheel. It was like grabbing a handful of spaghetti to throw in the pot, ironic given that I planned to ride the bike in Italy but not really appropriate; somehow the rear wheel had unbuilt itself while parked in the bike rack at work. Wheel flexing like mad, I crawled home to a dilemma – I had to pack the bike that evening and while I had an appropriate freewheel it was an unusable wheel with no method of removal. Delving deep into the shed, I found some newer 9 speed Campag wheels that I’d ridden offroad and had a 12-27t cassette fitted. They weren’t period but they were Mercian built and needs as needs must when the devil vomits in your kettle. Gently persuading the frame to accept the wider hub, I selected a Campag 9 speed chain to ensure little slippage and spun the cranks. All seemed well but the radius of the Simplex Retrofriction shifters wasn’t great enough to move the rear mech the full way across the hub so I was left with a 24t as the top functional sprocket. There was a solution but it was beyond me at this stage and I took the bike apart to pack. Another pitfall that had previously gone unnoticed suddenly emerged – the Nuovo Record chainset had a small ring of 44t! Swearing like Wiggins and with torch in mouth to allow flailing with both arms, I re-entered the shed and managed to locate some period Stronglight cranks with a more sensible 53/42 set up. No time to test, pop them in the bike bag and hope for the best.
Despite setting off from different airports and at least one delayed flight, Mel, James and I arrived in Pisa within 30 minutes of each other. After standing in the wrong queue for 45 minutes (behind a strident American who insisted that she had been promised a Fiat 500 and was simply not driving around Italy in anything else), finally we had the hire cars and set off in a slow, diesel powered convoy. Arriving in Siena – another overlooked aspect of preparation meant that by the time that I looked for accommodation there was nothing in Gaiole over the l’Eroica weekend so we were 17 miles away – James and Mel set about reassembling their bikes with enthusiasm while I headed to the nearby supermarket for supplies i.e. beer and wine. Standing in the aisle deciding on whether to go for the 1 euro 19 cent wine or blow the budget on the 2 euro bottle, I suddenly started to feel a bit odd, cold clammy skin and an uncomfortable sensation in my gut. Realising that I needed the loo – and NOW! - I dropped the wire basket to the floor and bolted. I went from one end of the supermarket to the other with an increasingly unsteady gait. This was no good, something was about to happen, imminently. Weighing up my options, I spied a steep, wooded bank outside the supermarket. Desperate times, desperate measures. Whimpering I left the store and clambered uncertainly under the cover of the trees. Squatting and shaking like a rabid dog, I did what I needed to do. Copiously. Finally, I was at peace and at rest. It was only at this point that I made eye contact with the Italian chap casually chatting on his phone at the supermarket entrance. He held my gaze levelly. I brazenly returned it and stood, slowly, deliberately, daring him to break eye contact first. After an uncomfortably long time, I lost my nerve and cast my eyes downward – was it my imagination or did he do that thing where you click your tongue with your teeth? Whatever, at the very least it appeared that I’d got the usual bowel related terrors out of the way early doors. By the time I got back to the campsite, Mel and James had too shiny and very white bikes assembled. I changed my clothes, we ate, we drank, we talked the talk of men in Italy about to embark on a lengthy ride on old bikes.
Rising early, the air had a little chill but with the promise of later warmth to come. Quickly rebuilding my bike, it looked like the chainset and wheels would work. After wrapping James’ bars in some faux leather tape, we headed to Gaiole to register and visit the vast fleamarket – it may have been barely 11 a.m. but the place was buzzing, retro heaven. It was difficult to know where to look – a Legnano in that distinctive green here, a celeste Bianchi or 10 there, a splendid lime green Colnago and then, the peach, a perfect but clearly ridden Molteni Merckx. Senses overloaded, I wandered slack jawed. I’ve never had illusions but, simply, the Mercian was shit by comparison with what was on display. Trying to reassure myself that the legs of a British yeoman would trump pretty steel every time, we registered. I chose the shortest queue. James strategically went for the one manned by the pretty Italian girl. I was served swiftly, in time to hear James accept his entry pack with a “ciao bella” - the way he said it sounded charming and elicted a smile but I’m sure if I had tried the same it would have come over as predatory. Watch and learn Edwards, watch and learn.
Back at the campsite we decided a short shakedown ride to Siena was in order to test out bikes and kit. Clothing wise, I’d opted for a woolen Wiels jersey, Retrobike bibs and socks and Adidas Merckx shoes. Mel was rocking white jean shorts, a Retrobike jersey and some brown side laced disco pumps sans clips or straps. James opted for a wool/acrylic Koga Miyate jersey to match his bike, plain bibs and some natty punched leather Gianni Motta shoes (keen film buffs may wish to attach greater significance here as this description has greater relevance later than it would seem at first glance, like the screwdriver lingered on just a fraction too long in a horror film that you know will be piercing a nubile blonde skull in a low rent slasher flick). The shakedown ride went well for me, particularly as I avoided being sideswiped by a bus, but James was experiencing a slipping saddle and Mel loosening cranks. Stiill, we were as ready as could be expected.
I’ve never particularly enjoyed getting up at 6 a.m. but it was pretty much essential if we were to start around 7ish with the first of the light. Driving to Gaiole, there were swarms of fireflies coming towards us. But fireflies on bikes, hundreds if not thousands of them. Goodness only knows what time they started as many were well into the ride. Abandoning the cars on a grassy verge, we pedalled gently towards sign on and then the first gentle two mile downhill in the cool early morning air. I was, obviously, immediately dropped. I met James on the climb to Brolio (more seatpost issues) but Mel AKA The Flying Dutchman was gone. The hill is a good leg loosener – gentle enough not to be too big a strain while being long enough to engage bottom gear and straining thighs. It was still gloomy as we left the asphalt for the final climb to the castle – oil lamps flickered and lit our way as our tyres engaged the first strade bianche of the day. Out of breath, I reached the top and took in the Tuscan vista as the dawn broke properly – no photo would capture it (good job as I had left my camera behind), this one was for the memory bank. James appeared and, despite the morning coolness, had managed to completely ‘wet out’ his jersey – he was sweating like he’d been on a turbo trainer for an hour, and one that he’s absent mindedly placed in a sauna at that. Still, Mel was waiting so we all headed off together down the first descent – sketchy gravel, loose sand and the occasional rock sticking through it certainly woke me up and the sharp hairpins were, what’s the word, engaging. I caught the guys again on the quiet road section and we briefly rode together before settling into a pace that suited us most – me quicker up hill, slower down, James the opposite and Mel just quicker full stop, feet at 10 to 2 and hammering along. James had a couple more seatpost related stops (worrying the threads on the binder bolt didn’t seem particularly strong so wariness was needed in cranking down on the allen key. Which he didn’t have with him anyway). I forged on but, stopping to urinate, James got past without me seeing him. As we closed in on the first food stop at Radi after 48km I was resigned to pulling in and seeing the chaps fed, watered and ready to go. Rounding a corner however, I came across them roadside – James had punctured in almost exactly the same point as I had in 2010. Innertube replaced, we were at Radi within 5 minutes where it was chaos. Fighting my way through, I grabbed cheese and raw pate on dry bread but, most importantly, some wine. My route card records that it was 9.39 a.m.
Sitting on the wall taking in our refreshment, James tightened his shoe laces. Suddenly, we became aware of a telephoto lens peeking out from behind a tree – it clearly isn’t only Kate Middleton who attracts unwanted photographers on the continent. Gradually the camera welder became emboldened and crept from behind his hiding place, all the while snapping away at James’ coquettishly turned ankles without speaking. I was both slightly weirded out and a bit huffy – what was wrong with my feet? Might as well ride again, I guessed.
So far, it had been a relentless series of ups and down without any flat at all. The next ‘ristoro’ was at 82 k.m. but this was prefaced by some flat/very gently downhill strade bianche - big ring, drift slightly round the corners, pass loads of others in a cloud of creamy dust. This really was flat track bullying of the highest order, exhilarating stuff, but all too soon it was over as the 135km/205km split was reached. When we’d originally signed up we talked big about the 205km (I did it in 2010 and although it was a very long, hot day out, I hadn’t remembered it as particularly bad) but James and I had already set out stall out the night before – 83 hilly miles, much of it offroad but promising a mid afternoon finish in the town square in Gaiole sounded fine. Mel was persuaded by the rigour of our arguments although I could sense wavering. The cutoff at the split was 11 a.m. and we were there at 10.45 a.m. Would Mel go on? “Not this time” so we stuck together although James seemed to have disappeared. It transpired later that on a particularly washboard section his seatpost, all 400mm of it, finally quit teasing and sunk all the way into the frame; he was saved by a friendly Brit with a long allen key and a healthy disregard for binder bolt thread strength.
Regrouping at Asciano, the food stop was carnage but we were well over half way through so time to celebrate with a little wine. Tasty stuff. So I had a second. And realised my folly as I remembered what was to come immediately – a series of steep, offroad climbs up to Monte Sante Marie. I will gloss over what followed but it wasn’t pretty or dignified with riders dead man walking up the centre of the hills oblivious to the gradual progress of those still on their bike. My lowest gear of 42x24 was also causing me a bit of grief as I struggled up at 10 rpm, trying not to pull my feet out of my toeclips or lurch into some soft sandy stuff. At one point I met James who declared the last 20 minutes as the least fun he’d ever had on a bike. I could see what he meant, it was grim stuff, although for me it wasn’t even in the Top 10. On we ground, our inexorable ascent only slowed by the five abreast walkers and the occasional steep plummets that only meant more climbing. It may have been my imagination, but the strade bianche was seeming to get more washboard like and my tender loins were getting buffeted in a way that wasn’t altogether pleasant. Thankfully it was back to the road and a long but gentle climb (well, it would have been gentle if I’d been fresh!) took us to the last rest stop at Castelnuovo Berardenga.
Not as picturesque as in previous years when the food was served in the walled town square, we were subjected to eating beside an ugly concrete building. As I fed fistfulls of lightly cooked meat into my gaping craw, I didn’t really care – I was justifying my entry fee in food and wine alone although my eating habits clearly disgusted the chap in period clothing behind the counter although that might have been because, light headed by climbing and wine, I was peering with fascination into my bibshorts. I think the word I was searching for was 'buffed'. Whatever, a nip of wine and then just a mere 35km to go, mostly on road. How hard could this be?
Answer, surprisingly hard. The road continued to undulate and then we retraced our steps back up to Brolio but this time the steep, soft dirt climb. Again, progress was agonising but finally the castle was reached and the swooping descent back to the main ride and gentle pootle to the finish. Where I somehow got lost – there were only several thousand cyclists to follow – meaning that I ended up spectator side of the waist high barrier. Successfully lifting my bike over, I was less elegant in my plastic soled shoes and an Italian lovely gave me her hand to help me over. I would have normally tried to take advantage of such casual familiarity but was so weary that I simply smiled/grimaced a thank you and headed for the finishing funnel.
It took a good half an hour to get my ‘passport’ stamped – some British guy in a Rapha shirt, clutching a pint, was loudly arguing in English about who should get the l’Eroica wine and then when the elderly Italian gentleman replied stating “I can’t understand you”. I know that David Cameron holidays in Tuscany and while the attitude seemed apposite, I was less convinced by the glasses – but then James, Mel and I were together, beer in hand and full of tales of derring do. I really had forgotten about how relentless the parcours is on this ride (I have no idea how I got round in 2010) but, wearily gazing at my sweat streaked legs and getting increasingly full of beer and cheer, I extolled the beauty and rarity of the orange and blue Holdsworth Professional. Cue about half a dozen passing by within 20 minutes, including a husband and wife matching pair. Serendipity can be a bugger at times. Still, I may know little about bikes and ride them with less competence that that, but my swagger returned as a British guy asked if he could take my photo – sod feet, this was where it was at and I swear I heard him mutter something about ‘knows how to fill a pair of shorts’.
And I guess that it is it really – more beer and wine followed to a soundtrack of Apache Indian, only ceasing when my wife called out that it was late and she was trying to sleep (did I mention that Vinia had come on this trip? I’m sure that I must have done).
There were only two slight disappointments really. gmac was staying on the same campsite , in fact the next but one static, but due to a variety of issues we only saw him as we were leaving but he was enthused and looking very chipper after his 205km the previous days (his neighbour also took on the 205km, starting at 3.30 a.m. and finishing in the dark. Hat, as the French say). The second was that this bought to the end a six week period of stellar cycling experiences – Stelvio, 3 Peaks, l’Eroica. The hangover, real and metaphorical, was significant.
At the start, I muttered about enjoying wine, cycling and company. L’Eroica combines all three. Highly recommended. But fit something larger at the back than a 24 for goodness sake.
Last edited by ededwards on Mon Oct 15, 2012 4:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.