Thursday, October 7, 2010

For Cyclists in Tuscany, Winning Isn’t the Point

L'Eroica has reached a level of fame that it has now been a feature story in the New York Times. Some may despair about the ever growing size of this event and the implications of that. For those that do there are venues that are smaller, see my "2010 Vintage Bike Rides in Italy" calendar. I will publish the 2011 dates as soon as I learn of them.

The New York Times article:

For Cyclists in Tuscany, Winning Isn’t the Point
Published: October 6, 2010

GAIOLE IN CHIANTI, Italy — On the first Sunday of October, almost 3,500 cyclists took to the hills of central Tuscany, riding vintage bicycles, wearing woolen knits and old-fashioned goggles and eating bread and prosciutto.

This may have looked like a film set for a re-enactment of Italy’s famed road race, the Giro d’Italia, circa 1930. But it was in fact the “Eroica,” Tuscany’s non-competitive race, in which riders take aging racing bikes over winding, unpaved Tuscan roads to honor the days when cycling was bigger than soccer in Italy.

You don’t need thighs of steel to join. Now in its 14th year, the race draws riders from around the world, ranging in age from 15 to 90, with the occasional world champion like Francesco Moser joining in. Riders can choose routes to match their abilities; the shortest is 24 miles long, the longest 127 miles.

The only requirements are a vintage bike, vintage clothing and, it would appear, a healthy appetite. Because there are no time trials, stopping for a sandwich and a glass of Chianti is perfectly acceptable.

The race is a throwback to when “doping meant red wine with eggs,” said Roland Wolbold, 65, a racing-bike mechanic who drove 620 miles from Stuttgart, Germany, to participate.

Some bikers even take personal precautionary measures in case of sudden hunger on the back roads of Tuscany. “There’s a lot of smuggling going on here,” said one young cyclist as he pedaled downhill and grabbed a panino wrapped in yellow butcher’s paper from a friend before speeding off. “We mostly smuggle mortadella sandwiches.”

The race has grown each year, with 3,480 participants this year, up from 82 in 1997, its first year, said Giancarlo Brocci, its founder.

Every Monday morning when he was a child, Mr. Brocci, now 56, used to read the cycling news of the Gazzetta dello Sport, a sports daily, to the illiterate elderly of Gaiole, kindling his passion for cycling. But L’Eroica — “heroic” in Italian — did not start off merely to pay homage to that period, but as a way to promote and protect the Tuscan heritage of white gravel roads, he said, where riding is breathtakingly beautiful.

“Being at L’Eroica has become fashionable for people all over the world,” Mr. Brocci said, adding that this year’s race attracted 748 foreign riders from 26 countries, including 47 from the United States and Canada.

Bob Sabatini, a 56-year-old wine distributor from South Carolina, was among them, racing on a Poletti bike, built in Modena, the city that his great-grandfather left for Ellis Island in 1902. “This tour is like apple pie to me,” he said, “It’s nostalgia, it’s a comfort zone that brings you back to the old days of cycling.”

There is no prize for winning. “What really counts here is the bike,” said Nathalie Labat, from Tarbes, France, on a 1912 Moro with wooden rims and a curved handlebar.

The bikes for L’Eroica must be steel-framed racing bikes built before 1987 or newer bicycles assembled with vintage accessories. The well-appointed biker is outfitted in a striped woolen jersey and old leather shoes, with a spare tubular tire around the waist.

In Italy, where cycling is also considered a national sport, aficionados still speak with awe of the 1940s and early ’50s when the rivalry between the cyclists Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali led newspaper headlines.

Back then, every Italian boy dreamed of being one of them, not David Beckham. Bicycles were the most common means of transportation, but cycling also represented the only sport that was part of people’s daily lives. Bars would hang boards with the latest bulletin from the Tour de France, and brides would dash out of wedding parties to greet the passing Giro cyclists.

“Italians are all about motorcycles and Vespas,” said Mario Armando, 46, a vintage bikes retailer and mechanic. “But in the past, Fiat made bikes as well, at the beginning of the 1900s.”

Giorgio Olmi, 80, riding a 1965 Peugeot bike on the 24-mile route, said he would cover twice that distance to go to work every day when he was 16. (At the time, he had started racing in amateur competitions, but he broke his bike in a race and could not afford a new one. “A bike would be worth two months of my salary,” he said.)

Racing on gravel roads in vintage bikes is not exactly comfortable. There’s a lot of bouncing, sliding and careful braking. And pushing a 30-pound bike uphill is a challenge to many.

At the top of the first steep hill, the heady odor of pressed grapes was not enough to soothe the evident pain of several riders. Some pushed heavily on the pedals; others pushed their bikes uphill while their wives — also cyclists — hooted that they had been waiting for them for half an hour.

“Cycling was never fun,” Mr. Wolbold said. “It is literally painfully beautiful.”

New York Times story with all photos here.

Stories for the Italian Cycling Journal about rides, granfondos, having a good time cycling in Italy, Italian cycling history, etc. are very welcome. Contact me at There are more than 1,500 stories in this blog. The search feature to the right works best for finding subjects in the blog and there is also a translate button at the bottom so you can translate each page. What I'm riding.

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