Ride the strada biancha of Chianti on pre-1987 bikes, wearing woollen jerseys, and fuelled by decadent Italian food and wine. The L’Eroica is a time capsule of the golden era of cycling and Jered and Ashley Gruber were there to capture the scenery, atmosphere and difficulty of this deceptively gruelling 205km ride where everything old is new for a day.
L’Eroica – A Special Day Where Old Is New
I feel like a Philistine writing this right now. I’m the worst person in the world to write about L’Eroica. I was born in 1983, I didn’t start riding bikes until 2001, and I’m a lover of all things modern. I love living in the year 2012 with my new MacBook Pro, my iPhone, GPS, Garmin, and WiFi. If it’s new, I want it, and I will love it indiscriminately. I have the same feeling about bikes. I love light, ultrastiff frames paired with humorously light wheels, my effort measured with an SRM, and shifting with 22 gear selections. In the past, when I’ve seen pictures and read about L’Eroica, I’ve only been able to manage disbelief. What kind of nonsense is this where downtube shifting is the top end allowable limit? Wooden rims? Wool shorts? Bikes that weigh as much in kilos as new bikes weigh in pounds? Right, and let’s bring back the Model T and polio while we’re at it. In short, I had no interest in old bikes or this nostalgic nonsense…and this is where the obvious happens, I had a change in heart.
I started to get a little nervous about being adamantly against old bikes and L’Eroica when no less than five different people said: riding L’Eroica was the single best day I’ve ever had on a bike. Again, this didn’t happen once, twice, or even three times – but five! This, coming from honest people who I respect and consider to be friends and who enjoy modern technology as much as I do.
We had the chance to shoot L’Eroica this year, because we were down in Chianti playing, I mean, working with inGamba Tours. The young cycling tour company headed by Joao Correia and Brad Sauber offers trips in a number of different locations but Chianti is their undisputed home. The region is the heart of their operation, and L’Eroica is the cycling heart of Chianti. Thus, it wasn’t too surprising when I walked into inGamba’s service course last week in Lecchi to find at least a dozen vintage bikes ready for eager strade bianche loving denizens. I’ve seen old bikes here and there but never have I seen so many in one place at one time. That honor would only last a few more days.
L’Eroica was first run in 1997 as a protest of sorts against the inexorable tide of progress represented in this case by the paving of the regions innumerable dirt roads. Dirt is a relative term for the road surfaces here – some are in pristine, hard-packed, almost pavement-like condition (especially the further south you go), while the northern roads are rough, strewn with large rocks, prone to tire sucking sands, and are altogether violent, unforgiving stretches of ‘road’. So, strade bianche seems more accurate – white roads – with so many characters in attendance on each stretch of road, the only thing they all have in common is their sun-blasted whiteness. Needless to say, the many, many people on ancient, dry rotted 20mm tubulars met their demise in duels against sharp-pointed rocks across the region on Sunday. Victims of the road. Then again, there was also the tack incident near Siena, which put paid to a few hundred tires. Talk about a kick to the balls – if there were a list of things that cyclists are defenseless against, tacks in the road would be high on the list.
Think back to 1997 – Jan Ullrich is the Tour de France champion, Campagnolo is king, doping isn’t a dinner table topic. Has it really been sixteen years? I bet you didn’t even think twice about that old bike you used to ride back in the 80s when Ullrich was storming to victory at Arcalis. Despite the consensus vision toward the horizon and monster gains in everything in our sport as we approached the millennium, L’Eroica continued to grow, slowly at first, but growth was theirs nonetheless. Sometime in the early 2000s, however, the once quiet event started to gain steam. There was a distinct, I won’t call it retaliation, but a desire to return to when things were simple, when bikes were heavy and recalcitrant, and roads were unpaved. And so the event grew and grew, and in 2012, L’Eroica boasted 5479 cyclists, of which, 1450 were non-Italian, hailing from 33 countries. Keep in mind, the number would be far higher, but the organization has said that they wish to stand firm on the 5500ish limit. As with everything Italian, the limit is best described with an ‘ish‘, because nothing is really all that finite in Italy.
Before Sunday, the thought of taking part in L’Eroica hadn’t crossed my mind. We were set up for a good day of shooting – Ashley would go with the inGamba support van, and I’d be on a four-wheeler. Plans changed when I came down with the worst sickness I’ve endured in at least a decade. Ashley got the spot on the four-wheeler with a brilliant Lecchi-based carpenter, Massimiliano. Ashley got a special tour of the beautiful, rolling, sometimes pleasant, sometimes cruel hills of the Chianti area with a man who knows the roads of Chianti better than I can spell my own name. While Ashley got the five star trip, I ended up on my own in our broken down, little red wagon that can – so that I could get home quickly when I hit the inevitable zero energy level that sickness makes so plainly apparent. While I smiled at the scene before me, I didn’t make too many friends on the strade bianche – there’s something about a car on dry dirt driving at an even considerate speed that brings out the cazzo and raised fists from oddly dressed bike riders. I apologize. I tried to be polite.
The first group goes off at five in the morning from Gaiole in Chianti. This is where the typical L’Eroica article will mention that Gaiole was rated by Forbes Magazine in 2008 as one of the most idyllic places to live in Europe. Have you ever noticed how a fact ends up in one article and then thanks to Google, the fact ends up in every other piece thereafter? And so it is here. It is true – Gaiole is a lovely town, but I wouldn’t say it’s any better or worse than the rest of the Chianti towns. How did they end up with Gaiole over any of the other great Chianti towns like Radda or even the village of Lecchi? I’ll take Lecchi, thank you very much. Rest assured, I’ll write more about the magic of Lecchi at some point soon.
I digress. The flahutes of the world set out at five from Gaiole, all of them with at least 135 kilometers in store, and a good chunk with 205 kilometers of the region’s finest – from that, well over 100 kilometers is white road. I’ve heard that 135 kilometers of the long course are white road, but I haven’t seen it written. Either way – wow. I’ve done some serious dirt road rides, but 135 kilometers of dirt?! I’ll give L’Eroica a thumbs up there. This could be good, I thought. And so it was.
If this were a midsummer affair, we’d have light at this time of day, but L’Eroica is an October classic, and the sun doesn’t crest the hills until well after six, leaving an hour and a half or so in the darkness. The riders start with lights, as they head downhill from Gaiole to the right turn up to Madonna a Brolio – a nice warm-up climb to start the day with a fantastic switchbacked dirt section that takes you just off to the side of the massive walls of the ancient castle – the whole way lit with candles, burning orange in the dark. If L’Eroica were only this part and this part only, I’d sign up. It’s beautiful, special, eerie. It’s a gorgeous spectacle to behold.
I heard panting, as riders passed by in 42x21s or worse. I heard some muttering as well, but the sounds I heard more than any other were laughter, happy chatting, excitement.
As the sun rose and sparingly lit the dark gray clouds that swarmed over Chianti on Sunday, the riders’ bikes and garb began to appear, as did their faces and their smiles. They passed in all manner of get ups – from mid 80s brightness, to the wool clad perfection of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, all the way back to turn of the century single speed 20kg bikes with riders wearing ties and knickers. Some were helmet-less, some with hairnets, some with modern helmets, some wore modern Oakleys, some wore nearly first edition Oakleys, while others wore Ray-Bans or goggles, some wore wool shorts, others wore top of the line modern lycra shorts, others wore the baggy woollen pants that must have been the plague of early cyclists. I think I can say without exaggeration that every piece of cycling kit and bike conceivable were represented on the roads of Chianti on Sunday.
L’Eroica is a hard, hard day in the saddle, but it’s like nothing else. Again, I can’t speak from experience, but I can speak from watching, and I can speak from talking to so many that have taken part – it’s a blast. I felt like I was missing out on the best inside joke ever. I felt like I was at the doorway looking in, but I couldn’t play the game with them. I wanted to call all of my closest friends to make sure that they could make it here for next year, because L’Eroica is all about sharing the day with your friends, suffering together, joking together, helping each other with the inevitable mechanical, laughing at just how outrageous it all is, but embracing that which we’ve left far behind, and for one day, recalling how far our beautiful sport has come, but at the same time, how it hasn’t changed in the slightest.
I don’t quite know when it happened, but at some point during the day, I realized that I wanted more than anything to take part in L’Eroica. I started plotting – what kind of old bike would I want? What kit would I wear? Despite my growing sickness exhaustion, I smiled at the thought of finding the bike and kit – half the battle – that would allow me to become a member of this raucous, fantastic display of let’s forget the world we live in for one ride and celebrate the olden days.
I can’t wait for next year.