Friday, August 28, 2009

L'Eroica on a Fixed Gear

The following article was written by Eric Von Munz and appeared in COG magazine.

What began as a bet combined with a dare twelve years ago now attracts over three thousand of the world’s vintage bike enthusiasts. They descend upon Italy’s tiny Gaiole in Chianti for a two hundred and five kilometer ride through the Tuscan hills. Cog was lucky to be invited, and I was crazy enough to attempt the ride on a track bike. L’Eroica is a throwback to the sport’s days of old: steel frames with balloon tires, sprung saddles and waxed moustaches, with spare tires wrapped around woolen shoulders. L’Eroica is not a race, but an event of personal accomplishment. The course is anything but flat, and half of the roads consist of crushed gravel. This is the Tour of Tuscany. An adventure through millennia old countryside, lined with vineyards and olive groves. L’Eroica means heroic, and I was just about to find out why.

Undaunted, we took a few short rides around Gaiole, and then a longer one to Siena to better understand the landscape. I was feeling more confident, the climbs and descents felt easier, and the ride was a blast. Back in Gaiole’s piazza, more riders were arriving. Our two track bikes attracted a lot of attention-most had never seen anything like them. Passers-by would stop, check out the bikes, and then see the two of us sucking down giant bottles of Moretti. You could see it in their eyes: no brakes? Pazzo! (Crazy!)

Saturday was when everything came together. The city’s gymnasium filled up with vendors, collectors and registration. Other vendors set up tents around the grounds. It was unbelievable. Droves of people were arriving, searching for their name among the rest for their rider number and packet. Registration included a fresh Vittoria tube! Numbers in hand, I too joined the crowd to gawk at the show. Not only was it an outdoor second hand market strictly for bike freaks, it was a vintage bike show! Signs politely stated “MTB no gratzi” A complete chrome 1959 Masi Olympic Pista dropped my jaw. Gaiole in Chianti was completely overrun by cyclists at this point. Pete and I decided a quick 12k ride to Radda would be cool. The ride to Radda was a switchback uphill struggle, followed by a hairy switchback downhill slide, mixed up with narrow roads and Italian drivers. Over espresso and water in Radda we agreed that it was the hardest 12k we ever attempted. Now we just had to go back! The beer tasted especially great after that one.

L’Eroica begins at 5:30 on Sunday morning, and after the ride to Radda I’m looking at the climb/descent kilometer breakdown a little harder. No turning back now. Peter gives me his rear wheel with a tooth lighter ratio and a brand-new Panaracer RiBMo tire. Other riders stop us and ask about the track bikes, the S&S couplers. They ask if we are riding and I own up to doing the 205. They wish me luck, shake their heads and ride off.

Sunday morning’s chilly air came quickly. Papa had set up breakfast, with coffee in a thermos for us. I grabbed a handful of hard candies from the table and bagged them for later. Marc from Condor provided the timeless mussette that held my rider number and tools, with a mini around my waist for everything else. I left the lock in the room, gathered up Bucky and we headed for the piazza in the dark.

Like an alleycat, riders had a passport to be stamped at rest points along the course as proof of completion. Cued up with everyone else for that first stamp in the darkness I was shivering with anticipation, regretting not bringing a light. Then: bump! Follow the lights down the road! L’Eroica has begun!

The initial ride in the morning darkness was flawless, riding with a pack of people speaking a language I don’t know. Everyone was giddy and excited, and soon we turned onto the first stretch of strada, the crushed gravel side roads that this ride showcases. The white rock was easy to follow in the dark, but hid some surprises. The beginning stretch of gravel caused the first flat casualties, and repairs took friends with lights to accomplish. They were to be the first of many along this route. Dawn crept in along with hunter’s shotgun blasts, and the first station was reached. Some stops offered a grand spread of food, others were just stamps with a chance for water. This was a food stop, and close to fifty kilometers in. I felt great, and when I checked in there wasn’t too many numbers ahead of me. This wasn’t so bad!

The next thirty kilometers changed my mind, after the first fifteen-degree uphill on asphalt found me walking it. At the summit I’d mount back up and ride until the incline was too tough, hop off and walk to do it all over again. I reached the conclusion that destroying my legs on the uphill would be stupid, because controlling my bike downhill mattered a bit more to me. Whatever placement I had in the initial grouping was chucked like an empty Gu packet. Under the shadow of a castle in Montalcino I decided that I was not giving up, and I was going to enjoy this. I then turned around and was given a spectacular view that stretched for miles. Descending from Montalcino atop smooth asphalt was simply hair-raising. It was down. It was fast. Points were scary, because I was in no position to stop. Just grit down and go. At the 100k point I knew I was in it for keeps.

The groups of riders were more than friendly, as this was not a race. Classic steel ten-speeds rolled along with carbon. Riders would chat with me as I rode or walked, depending on my progress. Bombing a steep strada, I had to avoid the road bikes descending gingerly, and skid to control my speed. Everyone behind would erupt with laughter, while gravel spit out from my locked up wheel. As the kilometers ticked off so did my endurance. Every five kilometers along the route they have a specific L’Eroica sign noting where you are on the course, and the next closest city. The distance between them started to feel even longer, and I reached the point where my legs felt like nothing at all. With twenty more to go, the sun had completely set. It was dark, I had no lights, and I was approaching Radda. For kilometers, I had been looking for anything open-but it was Sunday evening in Italy. Vending machines? Nope. My mental carrot-on-a-stick was the thought of a giant beer in Gaiole’s piazza. We did this ride yesterday! That hill sucked! Just past Radda, in an even tinier city (La Villa) I spotted an open bar, and as I pulled in two German tourists exited. They took one look at me, covered in a white dust, and at my bike, and asked if I was a messenger in German. I answered in English, and laughing they asked if I was going to have wine now, after riding. Exhausted, I said no. Beer. I left them and had the finest beer ever consumed while considering the ride up that monster of a hill.

Numb, back on the bike and closing in on the hill separating Radda from Gaiole, I spot the L’Eroica direction sign leading onto strada away from the main road. Back again on the blue-tinted dark strada, I’m pedaling closer. It has been over fourteen hours at this point. Blindly following the strada in the dark, I notice a group of buildings ahead that look familiar, but at the distance I can’t be sure. Closing in, the house that we are staying in comes into focus, and I realize that I’m home. I can’t help but let out a whoop as I pass by, the final kilometer a steep descent skidded down into Gaiole’s piazza. My final stamp is stamped and they point me to the gym. My body is crushed. Legs still numb, I walk into the gym for the final, final point. They look at my passport, and hand me a tote bag with L’Eroica wine and olive oil, a candy from the region, and a small plaque commemorating the event. It’s all I can do to not start sobbing in joy. Composing myself, I strode back into the piazza and bought the hugest oilcan of Dutch lager ever made.

Photos: by Peter DiAntoni

You can also find a story of riding L'Eroica on a 3 speed Pashley Guv'nor here. Stories, including cycling trip stories, for the Italian Cycling Journal welcome; contact veronaman@gmail

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