L’Eroica Cycling Story

Vintage Tuscany

A short tale of Bikes, Riders & Wine

The L’Eroica is a two-day gathering of cycling enthusiasts from around the world to ride together in a gruelling feat of athleticism using only vintage bicycles that must be dated from 1987 or before. I signed up to do the original of these events in Italy, but over the years the movement has spread to Spain, Great Britain, California, South Africa, the Netherlands and Japan. It is not a race, but more of a big day of shopping for vintage cycling parts, attire and art; attached to a second day of Gran Fondo. I had committed my fifty-seven year old legs to ride this event with my friend Jim Everard, also from Toronto, Canada.

My L’ Eroica cycling day started at 3:00 AM with a wake up call and a gathering of all the stuff that I would bring on my adventure through the Tuscan countryside in and around Siena.

This included:

  • filled water bottle;
  • container of pills to ease my expected muscle pain;
  • two energy bars;
  • Spanish phone;
  • Canadian passport;
  • Credit Card;
  • Ontario driver’s licence,
  • car key;
  • book to collect the necessary official stamps to prove completion of the 209 kms;
  • spare pre-glued tubular tire;
  • hand pump;
  • small set of folding allen keys and screw drivers;
    and a,
  • 50€ note.

All but the spare tire, pump and water bottle would be slotted into the front and rear pockets of my new Bianchi Ursa woollen jersey that I’d bought the day before at the marketplace near the start line in Gaiole in Chianti. We tried to make our exit relatively quietly so as not to disturb our long-suffering and patient wives trying to sleep through our obscenely early departure.

Our two-bedroom unit was tucked inside the thick walls of a thousand year old fortified village nestled in the aerie of Castello di Starda that stood over 1800 meters above the village of Gaiole. Put thoughts aside of enjoying any reliable WIFI and get used to only one restaurant option. I would have loved to have seen the view of the sun rising over this fantastic Tuscan perch that had once been a thriving middle point for people seeking safer passage on route to Florence from the south. But alas, that was not be be. At least not at this early morn to the extreme.

But I digress. So, let’s try this again.

My L’Eroica day started at 3:00 AM with the sound of pouring rain. This was not unexpected according to the many forecasts that I had been charting during the week prior. While it wasn’t a surprise, though, it was still disappointing as the gravel roads that lay ahead wouldn’t be easier with a big soaking.

Once the car was packed up, Jim and I began the long and extremely hairpin pathway down, down, down through the forest to the event start deep in the valley somewhere in the dense fog below us.

After parking in a designated field a short ways out of town, we rolled into the pack of vintage ciclotourist passionistas who were chanting in mostly Italian with eagerness to hit the road. After the commensurate photo of ourselves (quite grainy due to the dim lighting), we got our first official stamp on our L’Eroica passports just before the horn sounded and we all headed forth into the rain and blackness. It was very eerie pedalling into the misty forest-lined road.

The initial long downhill soon became a long steep uphill that led toward Brolio Castle, the former home of the powerful Ricasoli family. As we neared the remains, two stretched rows of candles burning on either side of the road heralded success in completing our first major ascent. The flaming carpet of gravel lit with a mix of blue, red and green was trulymagical. I couldn’t see the other riders well, but almost everyone was dressed in period costume. Most of the men (and they were mostly men) had facial hair of various shapes and sizes. I was sporting a handlebar moustache, at least I had been, until the wax keeping it in place dissolved with rain and sweat.

It wasn’t too long afterward that my bike started to act up. Most significantly, my right gear lever on the down tube would not keep its grip. That meant the chain kept slipping into the lowest gear. The steeper the pitch the more pronounced this problem became. This scenario forced me to constantly tighten it with my screwdriver or hold it down with my finger. Neither were ideal scenarios, while in the midst of a nearly continuous pattern of long ups and downs.

Then … my chain started to jam.

Then … my seat got loose and rocked with my every leg movement.

Then … I got stung by a wasp on the upper thigh, which almost evened out the extreme irritation of the wound on my chest from a surprise encounter with a jellyfish, two days prior while swimming in the south of France.

Then … I got a flat on my rear wheel.

Then … I learned how to change a flat tubular tire on the road, including painfully plying the rubber off its glue moorings on the wheel and stretching the tire to finally fit it over the rim. This process was extremely frustrating. Other riders passing by laughed at seeing me in the “rowers” position holding one end of the tire with my feet and pulling on the other with my arms. Only now, did I fully appreciate the sage advice of pre-stretching the tire before trying to put it on the wheel.

Then … I limped up and into the first checkpoint through the archway of an old castle to get my L’Eroica passport stamped for the second time. But first a quick picture with my phone of the hosts dressed in medieval garb … but where are my phone and 50€ bill that were in the back pocket of my shirt? And where is my Eroica passport that was in the same bag as my Canadian passport, my driver’s license and credit card?

All were gone. Undoubtedly, they fell out during one of my many sessions that saw me bending over to remove a back wheel and release a stuck chain.

  1. So there I was with no money, no phone, and no spare tire. I was also without my friend Jim who had pushed on more quickly thinking that I was in front of him. Plus, it was a long way back to the town of Gaiole where our car was parked. The ordeal was made even worse as no L’Eroica official could speak much (read any) English.

So, now what? Finishing the course seemed out of the question. All the futzing around with bike repairs and now dealing with lost items had greatly eaten into the time that I had budgeted to complete the ride before darkness. I really didn’t want to crawl into Gaiole past the time cut of 9:30 PM.

The thought of just rolling up into a ball of self pity certainly occurred to me. More than once in fact.

The easy way forward was to hitch a ride back to the start line relying on my “Fritalian” and hand gestures to communicate passage as best I could. Then it struck me. Here I am in Tuscany. It’s now a beautiful day and I’m on a bike. I’m not hurt, nor in any obvious danger. I have no money or ID or a spare tire, but isn’t all that just insurance IN CASE something happens. Now seemed like the perfect time to assume nothing else bad would occur. And if it did, I’d just have to deal with it as best I could.

So I just rode on. And on. And on.

The sun came out and it got hot (25º), but the dramatic undulating countryside was exactly as advertised. The rolling shades of brown, yellow, red and green fields pierced by tall Cypress stands proved a strong distraction from the weariness of the many long and steep hills, and the often rutted riding surface of the famous white gravel roads (for which this event actually served as fundraiser to preserve). In some sections the washboard was so intense that I felt my brains rattling. In other parts, the majesty of the next fortified village far ahead was enough to pull me up the inevitable hill necessary to reach it.

Eventually, I got to understand the personality of my old Bianchi Rekord 848-12V from 1982. I had bought it off Kijiji earlier in the year from a guy who’d had it hanging in his garage for thirty years. I was immediately drawn to it because of  its classic Celeste green colouring. This enhanced relationship with the steel steed allowed me to better adaptmy timing of when it would be necessary to pre-tighten the gear and alleviate slipping issues before they became climbing problems. I also give some credit to my exhausted impatience that had finally morphed into resigned patience.

And like the hills surrounding me, time rolled on. And on.

At one point I took ten minutes to bask under the Tuscan sun. Then I took another ten to bask in the Tuscan shade. Both were necessary stops to re-energize. Slowly the kilometres clicked off. At every rest point I ate and drank loads of water. It was only at 150 kms that I accepted my first sip of Chianti wine. A few red drops spilled onto my new blue and white sweater, which seemed only appropriate to mark my tour of this famous wine region.

That rest stop led right into the big mountain climb of the trek. I slogged it all the way to the top and was one of the very few I saw that didn’t get off their bike and push a spell. I had been reluctant to swap out the iconic Campagnola gear set that had come with bike. It had a 23 tooth maximum ring on the rear cassette. Clearly, the less sexy Suntour cassette with the 28 rear ring had done its job (more teeth makes it easier to climb steep hills).  Amid the gruelling grind of many ascents, including one at a 15% incline, I recall gasping out many thanks to Michael Barry Jr at Mariposa Cycles back in Toronto for encouraging me to make the switch.

It was amazing how many photographers were on route to catch the display of determined and dusty grimaces. I finally arrived at the crest of the climb and guess who was there catching his breath? Jim.

The last 40 km we completed together and side by side we pedalled into Gaiole almost 15 hours later at 7:46pm. It was near dark, but there was a glimmer of daylight remaining. Then came the medal ceremony and the gift of a commemorative bottle of wine to honour our heroic feat.

It seemed funnily appropriate that the gallery photo of us at the finish shows me totally almost obscured by a lovely Italian woman in front of me. Jim is seen here to the right of “Francesca” chatting with the invisible me.

Now I’m smiling and in recovery mode. But, that’s not where the really good news of this L’Eroica adventure ends. First, I was given notice by the Polizia in Gaiole that someone had found all of my identification. Here is the email that I received.

Your passport has been found. It is in Carabinieri’s station in Gaiole in Chianti (open today 11:00-14:00).
Best regards
Police officer
Federica Azzuppardi

Then another message arrived that someone had turned in my phone and 50€ note!

Side Note:
My wife and I own a flat in Barcelona. To our delight, the Eroica organization recently partnered with a local Spaniard to open up the first Eroica café outside of Gaiole in Chianti. This new location is in Barcelona just a few blocks from our address in the Eixample neighbourhood of downtown. Its grand opening celebration was scheduled for the Saturday after our return to Barcelona from Tuscany.

This Italian themed café and pasta restaurant is quite large and features many vintage cycles – but no Bianchi’s! That gave me the idea to offer my bike to adorn one of their walls. I wasn’t planning on bringing it back to Canada anyway, and it would likely be safer hanging there versus stowed away in our apartment, which we rent out as an Airbnb. We had already experienced guests breaking open our locked cabinets and stealing from us.

So, I made the suggestion and the two owners jumped at the thought. In fact, they had received some criticism from L’Eroica for not having some Bianchi representation in their café. This large Italian manufacturer has a long history in the sport of cycling and is a big event sponsor.

Now my bike, which I affectionately refer to as: “Celeste,” graces a prominent display area in the bar. It makes me happy thinking that “she” will be there for others to enjoy as I did. My L’Eroica wooden number plate of #3443 hangs proudly on the crossbar.

Final note:
There are many distance options to challenge any rider who wants to experience L’Eroica (i.e 32 kms, 46 kms, 78 kms and 130 kms). If you want to enjoy the best of the whole experience, I suggest tackling a shorter distance than the 209 kms that we took on. A lesser trek makes the day less about the athleticism, but better enables you to embrace the vintage celebration that is at the event’s core. In fact, the shorter the loop the more likely people will be riding rare or unusual pedal contraptions from a much earlier generation than the 1980s-era bicycles that dominated my long course. They are also more apt to be in full vintage dress. On top of that, you could start in daylight, finish long before happy hour commences, and toast the marvel of just being there in Tuscany with a glass of Chianti at every food stop. Just writing this paragraph makes me thirsty to do it again – just differently. In the meantime, here’s to you L’Eroica. Salud …!

Chianti tasting note:
This is the authentic taste of Tuscany and the ultimate expression of Italian hospitality, whether shared between cycling friends or paired with a special L’Eroica gathering.

And, on that note:
The End


Post Script
Soon after my bike was hung, the Eroica café in Barcelona was visited by a special guest, famed Italian cyclist Felice Gimondi. Nicknamed “The Phoenix”, he is one of only six riders to have won the big three multi-stage classics: Le Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta. He is also the President of Bianchi’s mountain bike team. Given his association with this manufacturer, it was no surprise that he was overjoyed to sign the wooden number plate attached to Celeste.