The Blog

Vintage Tuscany

A short tale of Bikes, Riders & Wine

The L’Eroica is a one-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 from here to Spain, Great Britain, California, South Africa, the Netherlands and Japan. It is not a race, but more of a fondo. I had signed up to ride this event with my friend Jim, also from Canada.

My L’ Eroica day started at 3:00 AM with a wake up call and a gathering of all the stuff that I would bring on my cycling adventure though 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;
  • Ontario driver’s licence,
  • car key;
  • book to collect the necessary official stamps to prove completion of the 209 kilometers;
  • 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 Vintage cycling 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 perched in the aerie of Castello di Starda. Yes, put thoughts aside of enjoying any free WIFI.

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, which topped up at a castle that greeted us with two stretched rows of candles burning on either side of the road. The scene was magical. 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 leg movements.

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

Then … I got a flat on my rear wheel.

Then … I learned how to chain 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 painfully frustrating. Other riders passing me by laughed at seeing me in the “rowers” position holding one end of the tire with my feet and pulling the other with my arms.

Then … I limped up and into the first checkpoint through the archway of an old castle to get my Eroica passport stamped for the second time. But first a quick picture with my phone of the hosts dressed in medieval garb. But where is my phone that was 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, credit card and a 50€ bill?

So there I was with no money, no phone, and no spare tire. I was also without my friend Jim who thought that I was in front of him. Plus, I was a long way back to the town of Gaiole where our car was parked. The ordeal was made even worse as no Eroica official could speak much English.

So, now what?

Finishing seemed out of the question. All the futzing around with bike repairs and now dealing with lost items had greatly eaten into the fifteen hours that I had budgeted to complete the ride before darkness. I really didn’t want to roll into Gaiole at 9:30PM. So I just rode on. And on. And on. The sun came out and it got hot (25º), but the dramatic rolling hills of fields were just as advertised, and 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. In some sections the washboard was so intense that I felt my brains rattling.

Eventually, I got to understand the personality of my new 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 adapt my timing of when it would be necessary to pre-tighten the gear and alleviate slipping issues before they became climbing problems.

And time continued to roll 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 our tour of this famous Italian wine region.

That rest stop led right into the big mountain climb of the trek. I grinned and bared 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 up a segment. The less sexy Suntour cassette with a 28 ring had done its job. I had been reluctant to swap it in for the gold standard Campy 23 that my bike had come with, but amid the gruelling grind of many climbs, including one at a 15% incline, it had been a Godsend. In fact, I had gasped out many thanks to Michael Berry 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 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 rolled into Gaiole at around 7:46 pm. It was almost dark, but there was a glimmer of daylight remaining. Then came the medal ceremony and the event gift of a commemorative bottle of wine to toast our heroic feat. Salud to us!

Now I’m smiling and in recovery mode. But, that’s not where the really good news of this 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, all it cost me was the 50€ note … certainly the experience had been worth way more than that.

Side Note: My wife and I own a flat in Barcelona, Spain. To our delight, it was announced just before our arrival from Canada that the Eroica organization was partnering with a local to open up the first Eroica café outside of Gaiole in Chianti. It is located a few blocks from our address in the Eixample neighbourhood.

The grand opening celebration of this café was scheduled for the Saturday after our return to Barcelona from the event in Italy.

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 Eroica with not having some Bianchi representation in their café as this large Italian manufacturer with a long history in the sport of cycling is a big event sponsor.

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