L'Eroica 2014: O sole mio


Senior Retro Guru
This year’s Eroica was a solo mission for me - the various people I asked were unable to go, and the Mrs was understandably not keen to drag our five-month-old boy all the way down to Italy.

That meant I was entirely responsible for myself - a frightening thought. Normally, my approach to preparation for a big ride involves disappearing into the shed the night before the ride and swearing for several hours as I discover a series of unanticipated and unsolvable problems, followed by a stressful journey to wherever it is I’m going. A series of near catastrophes (including a horrible journey to last year’s Eroica, some incredibly frustrating punctures, and seeing my mate Phil also almost having to drop out because of three broken spokes) forced me to finally grow up and rethink my preparations.

I also decided to camp at the Gaiole site, and to carry all the kit on my bike, converting my scruffy but much loved Colnago Super into some sort of touring bike (a bit like towing a caravan behind a Ferrari, I suppose).

The preparations were so meticulous that my friends and family became concerned about my mental stability. Tyres were thoroughly researched (I went for Continental 4 Season), and inner tubes were filled with sealant. A sleeping bag, tent, and rack were scabbed from various people. I also went obsessively into my gearing choices (see my post on this). I fitted a Campagnolo Gran Sport crankset, giving me a 35 small chainring (and a 45 big - so my big ring was smaller than the 46 Coppi used to use as his small chainring. But then I wasn’t planning to ride round with a pocket full of bennies like Il Campionissimo. So there). Worrying about broken spokes, I bought a set of spares that I wrapped in an old inner tube and stuffed down my bike’s down tube. I even made myself a jersey in my club’s colours. Training wasn’t going too badly either: two weeks before the event, I felt sufficiently in form to start harbouring furtive ambitions of finishing in under twelve hours. Gasp!

The reward for all this maniacal effort? A bloody throat infection, one week before leaving. For pity’s sake. The Mrs dismissed this as man flu, but a trip to the doctor confirmed it. She prescribed me a five-day course of medication (and not antibiotics): hooray, if it worked, I’d be well just in time! She did advise me not to take part in any activities that involve intense effort or heavy sweating. Bring it on! The cycling devil was not finished scattering turds in my path yet, though. Added to the sore throat was a heavy dose of St Shiteus Dance, even despite me foregoing the risks of Moules and Frites (Russian Moulette?) at my club’s annual dinner. Really, what did I do to deserve this?

Having booked up, I wasn’t going to let all this crap ruin the trip for me, so I loaded up with all the Immodium, Motilium, Ibuprofen and whatever else I could find in the medicine chest, and set off.

The Eroica trip was prefaced by a ride round the route of the Gran Fondo Michele Bartoli (see my other post). This actually went rather well, until a rather foolish decision to fill up on crisps at the end of the ride. This idiotic display of gluttony tipped my delicate digestive system back over the edge, and meant that the day after the Bartoli ride - also the day of my ride over to Gaiole - was not going to be the Tuscan culinary extravaganza I’d been planning. I was also very late leaving for Gaiole (due to cancelled trains), raising the worry that I’d miss out on a spot in the free camping field.
Dosing up on various medications helped me up the hill from Siena to Gaiole, even if it did turn my wee an interesting colour. Glad I didn’t have to do a doping test. Actually, the ride, even with a laden touring bike, was quite pleasant. Lots of the cyclists who passed me on the way up wished me a cheery ‘bongiourno’ and some of the motorists carrying bikes up gave me encouraging waves. Someone even shouted ‘Bravo!’. Or was it ‘Arsehole’? Hard to tell. I just stayed in bottom gear and tried not to break into a sweat over the 27km ride.

Arriving at Gaiole, I was mightily relieved to find the campsite still only half full, and bagged a good shady spot before going off to find a friendly Belgian chap, Chris, who’d offered to lock my stuff in his camper van for security on the day of the ride.

I had to forego the food stands in Gaiole - uncooked ham and heavy ribollita were the last things on my mind at this point. I was pushing my bike around, and got what seemed to be some wide-eyed admiring looks - odd, since you’d think most Italians would have seen a Colnago Super before. With hindsight, I suppose they could have been looks of horror at my sagging Ron Hill tracky bottoms (a sensible choice for the travelling man, I’ll have you know).
After a wander round the market and a last fiddle with my bike, I got a very early night, aiming to go for the 5:00 start.

Getting up at 4:30 the next morning, I have to admit to feeling a lot of trepidation at this year’s event. The profile has become much higher, with coverage in the mainstream press and so on. So much so that I was worried the ride would be full of braying, crimson faced toffs and smirking hipsters riding overpriced bikes bought for the occasion and unlikely to be used again after. Later in the course, I came across a few groups of idiots who’d bought up all the official Eroica gear from the merchandise shop but clearly hadn’t a clue about the challenges even the shorter courses present. I suppose everyone's entitled to take part, but is it really necessary to block the entire road at the feeding station while whining about needing a mechanic? Or for that matter to use the ladies' bogs when you're clearly packing meat and two veg in your overpriced woolly shorts? However, these posers were few and far between, and ‘proper’ cyclists of all nationalities are still very much in the majority. Cramming into the square in Gaiole for the start, I found myself completely surrounded by Italians. Someone even broke into some verses of Nessun Dorma on the ride out of town: somehow, L’Eroica has managed to keep much of its Italian character.

The ride down from Castle Brolio was a bit scary. While I had good enough lights, the shadow they threw created a strange optical illusion that made it look like the strada bianca we were descending ended just in front of the guy in front of me. This was a strangely stubborn illusion - I kept thinking the gravel would stop any second and I would have the luxury of descending on lovely, smooth asphalt for a bit.

I made fairly good time through the first parts of the ride. My guts were behaving themselves and on the hill up to Radi - the first feed - the sun rose over the hills in a spectacular orange and pink display that also brought some desperately needed warmth after a freezing first couple of hours in the saddle.

I admit I rode very very economically, deliberately pacing myself with some of the older participants in order to avoid blowing up (in any sense of the term).

This got a bit disheartening on the long climb up to Montalcino when a Belgian guy who was clearly no stranger to a large portion of frites and mayonnaise stormed past me on the climb. It may seem petty, but reeling Monsieur Fries back in a few hundred meters later did my ego a bit of good. I decided to celebrate with some grub, and again came to regret my food choice: I had thought that panforte would be a good choice, with its high sugar content. However, the stuff is truly evil as cycling food: my first bite formed itself into a horrible, sticky, unchewable blob in my mouth, with little pieces of hazelnut occasionally detaching themselves and lodging in my throat. I eventually managed to force it down while wobbling about in distress. The panforte went in the bin at the next stop.

I stopped to help a couple of German guys who were struggling with a flat. Turned out that while they had come with a spare tubular, the spare was brand new and had no glue residue on it, and the rim looked a bit dry too. I hope they somehow managed to fix this.

The next section of the ride passed mostly without much happening, except when on a deserted stretch of road I heard a loud bang from beneath me, like a champagne cork being popped. Argh! My tyre! How could this be happening? But no - both tyres seemed to stay hard, and there was nobody else around. Weird. A few hundred meters later, I reached down for my bidon and found the lid had been popped open - it had been filled with fizzy water at the last feed, with champagne-like effects…

I arrived at the next feed, at the foot of Monte Sante Marie, nipped into the bushes for a wee, and was confronted on the way back by a woman with a two-foot tall, live owl perched on her handlebars. This shock of this prompted a return visit to the bushes, before wandering around looking for my bike. Just before I set off for one of the day’s most daunting climbs, I got a text message from Phil (he of the broken spokes), wishing me all the best for the ride. Impeccably good timing - better than a dose of La Bomba as a morale boost! Thanks, Phil.

Onwards to the climb (or rather series of climbs) that is the Monte Sante Marie. This part really is a shocker - a bit like doing the Cote de le Redoute from Liege Bastogne Liege several times in a row. I would say the climb up to Montalcino is just slightly worse though. I think it’s longer (it certainly feels that way), the surface is more treacherous, and the seemingly endless series of false summits is psychologically crushing. At least with Monte Sante Marie, you can see the summit ahead and have something to aim at. On the other hand, the Monte Sante Marie gets more crowded with people stepping/falling off. I tried yelling ‘Look out’ in a few European languages, but had to resort to ‘Get out the bloody way!’ when faced with some particularly dozy people (they did say sorry and give me a friendly push, to their credit). Actually, having some experience of the Flemish cobbles helped here: rather than pacing myself on the wheel of the person in front, I learned to keep some distance and give some room to avoid anyone who stepped off, which is the best tactic for climbs like the Koppenberg and Paterberg.

At the top of the hill, I stopped for a photo of the sign. There was a group of English blokes under the sign, one of whom looked vaguely familiar. His thick Yorkshire accent rang a bell too. It was only after when looking at the photos that I thought, ‘Bloody hell, that wasn’t Barry Hoban was it?’ Could it be? I almost hope not in a way - I’d feel a bit stupid having passed up a chance to meet one of British cycling’s living legends.

The next part of the ride to the last feed also passed pretty smoothly, I was feeling pretty good, not struggling too much. The feed station at Castelnuovo Berardenga was one of the most atmospheric - a pretty town square crowded with all kinds of lovely bikes to drool over.

This blissful descent from Castelnuovo to the last crossing was followed by the real sting in the tail of the ride - the last, long, bumpy and undulating section of strada bianca. At this point, my sore throat started to return and I felt something like a fringale, feeling a bit empty and wanting to get to the end. The last section is quite exhausting, requiring quite a lot of concentration and rapid gear changes at the end of a long day. I even got overtaken by two blokes on very old (pre-war) Peugeot bikes with Torpedo brakes on a descent. I did manage to catch them up at the next climb though.

This last long section cost me a lot of time, and I eventually got in with a not-very-impressive time of just over 13 hours. And without the excuse of any real mechanical problems either. So much for under 12 hours. After a long, rather lonely day in the saddle, I socialised with a couple of blokes - Nick and Ross - from Newcastle (I spotted this when they tried to order Prosecco in Italian with a Geordie accent), and a few other people who I met in a drunken/exhausted haze in the Jolly Café in Gaiole.

I left quite early on the Monday morning, after a natter with a friendly bloke called David who was riding a very lovely original Holdsworth. I headed into Siena and found a restaurant in the middle of some allotments where the food is prepared using fresh produce from the garden, so that made for a very pleasant finish to the journey.

For anyone who’s still reading this wittering, I thought it would be nice to add some thoughts on practical side of things. For a lot of people, there seems to be a dilemma between doing the 135km and enjoying the ride at a steady pace, and doing the 205km to get the proper experience. I’d say that a combination of setting out really early (I was at the start at 4:45) and cheating a bit with the gears (my lowest gear was 35-2:cool: gives the best of both worlds. I was able to ride at a reasonably gentle pace, never really getting into real trouble, get back while it was still full daylight, and with a couple of hours to spare for eventual mechanical problems. I felt knackered at the end, but not as much as last year. An added bonus is that the atmosphere is great at the 5:00 start, with loads of cheerful Italians shouting at each other and farting loudly to help them digest their breakfast. Lovely.

Some other practicalities: I didn’t find camping at all bad. The field did not get full (despite what I feared) and the showers are in a proper block used by the local sports teams. They were warm and did not get overly busy at any point. I did get stuck trying to wrestle my way out of my sticky, scratchy wool jersey after the ride, until some huge hulking Russian bloke grabbed me, lifted me up and literally shook me out of my jersey, booming ‘there you go!’ That awakened a few traumatic memories of the school changing rooms after PE, but that’s business for my psychoanalyst I suppose.

I found riding my bike as a touring bike up from Siena not at all bad (though I wouldn’t want to inflict a proper length tour on my poor old ‘Nag). I used a luggage rack that clamps onto the seat post, and after using a rubber shim to clamp it nice and tight, it did an OK job.

It’s also perhaps not a bad idea to stay in Siena, particularly if you can get someone (most likely an unusually supportive spouse) to drive you up to Gaiole for the start.

Regarding my preparations, I suppose there is a case to be made that riding round with a steadily deflating tyre, at least one broken derailleur, a ‘heroic’ 42-25 ratio, and a wobbly wheel is all part of the experience - over preparation and smart-arse gearing choices somehow miss the point. It’s certainly true that having to do a bit of in the field mechanics adds some extra heroic spice - like that picture of Louison Bobet desperately using his teeth to pull his tubular from his wheel. As does grinding up the hills in a massive gear. However, I’ve very much been there and done that (well, not the bit with the teeth). I was ultimately grateful for having put a bit more time into my preparations this time (and my wife is now speaking to me after putting up with my OCD like behaviour for several weeks before the event).

For me, the Eroica has well and truly got under my skin. Above all, the landscape and the challenge of the course is beguiling and addictive, from the hair raising descents in the dark, to the blissful sunrise, and the strangely addictive loneliness of riding a deserted, dusty stretch of road. There is always something to draw you back, as well. Maybe next year, I’ll go back and try to beat my time, or try to convince a crew of friends and family to go along in a camper van, or maybe I’ll take the 1950s bike I’m working on. Hope to see some of you there.


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Old Ned

Old School Grand Master
Nice report John. Not sure about Barry Hoban but the guy in the white jersey with red and blue bands looks suspiciously like Brian Rourke - in which case it certainly wasn't a Yorkshire accent!


Senior Retro Guru
Thanks Ned, could well be Rourke now you mention it - he was riding a very nice red Rourke bike if I recall correctly.


Senior Retro Guru

I love that too :cool:

as a froggie, I may ask : is this typical "english sense of humor" style :?: :LOL: I confess I love it ;)

keeps me thinking about " I ought do do that one " :idea:


Senior Retro Guru
Great write-up. Every time I read a report like yours it makes me even more determined to go. I might make it in 2015 but more likely 2016 when family commitments are reduced.

As for gearing it's not heroic to walk up the hills because of appropriate gearing choices. When I was 20-something anything was possible on 42/21 but I'll be 50+ by the time I make it to L'Eroica so sensible gears are the order of the day. After all when the likes of Bobet were racing on those roads (if he ever did) they weren't in their 50s!

Hope to see you there some year soon,


Retro Guru
I enjoyed your write-up, John. Thanks for taking the trouble. I was there last year, and am now sorry I didn't enter this year. Hope to be back in '15.


Senior Retro Guru

Thanks for the write up John. I enjoy reading these and seeing the photos. I'm planning to ride this in 2016 - just got my heroic bike last week and am trying to get it into shape for a proper test ride :D


Senior Retro Guru

Thanks for the comments everyone! Glad it's sparked some interest in people going next year.

@bduc61: I'm an Englishman living in Belgium. I was always told that the Flemish have a similar sense of humour to the English, whereas the Francophones don't share the same fascination with toilet humour.

I can only say that I doubt this based on my experience. For example, the slower of the two groups at my local cycling club is nicknamed Team Prostate due to the more frequent toilet stops for the older members...