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Eroica California

Mike Varley

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Eroica California 2017: from the saddle

Mike Varley of Black Mountain Cycles gives HBG readers a view of the USA's largest vintage cycling event.

Eroica California 2017: from the saddle
All Photos: Mike Varley

I'm about to begin my third Eroica California, the Paso Robles-based event modeled after the original L'Eroica vintage bicycle ride and festival in Gaiole, Italy.

Final instructions for the route are shouted by Wes Hatakayama, the Eroica California organizer, prior to the start of the Coastal Route send off. It’s 7:30 a.m., 38 degrees, and Kiler Canyon is unrideable due to the mud, and the route will be rerouted. Kiler Canyon Rd. is a pleasant road that turns to an even more pleasant dirt road before it unceremoniously thrusts upward for its final, steep pitch. The pounding rain two days prior to the 3rd edition of Eroica California turned it into an impassible mess of mud. No one complained. 

And then we’re off. Unique sounds fill the air: scraping toe clips, derailleurs slightly misadjusted causing chains to complain. Then, all feet in clips, straps snugged, derailleurs trimmed, and then only the singing of tires on the road – and the exuberant voices of the riders about to have one of the best days on a bike. We’re off.

Like its Italian forebear, Eroica California takes in miles of gravel roads.    All photos: Mike Varley

The Eroica event is more than a bike ride. It’s a festival celebrating the bike. The day before the actual ride, tents with vendors selling everything from a Cinelli Unicanitor saddle (I passed on this one) to complete, ready to ride vintage race bikes are set up in the city park. In fact, one could potentially register for the ride, show up at the festival, and completely outfit themselves with a proper bike and gear for an authentic Eroica experience. The centerpiece of the festival is the Concours d’Elegance. Proud owners show off a wide range of classic bikes competing in several categories. Some of those bikes will be ridden the next day. For the person who whose desires run to chainrings without ramps and pins, steel lugged frames, and wool, the festival is pretty much a dream day.

Not only the bicycles are vintage at Eroica California

The dream gets better with the ride. Folks can choose to ride one of four different routes spreading out from the town of Paso Robles, California, in the heart of a healthy wine producing region (there are over 200 wineries in the area). The Short route traverses 40 miles of rolling hills east of Paso Robles. Opt for the Medium route and you’ll ride for 70 miles to the east and west of Paso. The Coastal route (the route I opted for) will take you on an 87 mile jaunt to the Pacific Ocean and back, over the Santa Lucia mountain range twice. For the super hard men and women, the Heroic route tacks on and additional 40 miles to the Coastal route for a total of 127 miles. Each of these routes features about 25% of the riding on dirt roads and total climbing from 2,200’ for the Short course to 9600’ for the Heroic route.

Eroica is not an event designed exclusively for racers from the lugged steel era. The draw of the event for many riders is simply the nostalgia of riding vintage bikes with friends who love the same.  In the past decade or so, bicycles have become very complex machines. Eroica is a chance to remember what you love about the bicycle. It’s about riding bikes, not competing on a technological scale about how aero your bike is and how many watts ceramic derailleur pulleys save. I doubt anyone at the ride knew for sure how much their bike weighed. 

Like last year, I rode Eroica with the Dinos, an informal group of cyclists who cut their teeth racing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mostly in the greater San Francisco area. We had Olympians and National Champions in our group. We had the only American winner of the Giro d’Italia riding with us. We had riders who were instrumental in helping to popularize the bike scene of the ‘70s. As the only American winner of  the Giro d’Italia, it would have been natural for Andy Hampsten to wear a pink race leader’s jersey. Instead, Andy wore an old Raleigh team jersey in honor of his former teammate, Steve Tilford, who tragically died in a vehicle crash the prior week. As we started heading up the dirt climb of Santa Rita Rd., Andy shouted out a tribute to Steve. There was a cheer of celebration and we were left to contemplate and turn pedals up the long climb. These guys are the heroes who inspired us to ride. It’s been my honor to ride with them on multiple occasions.

Many Raleigh jersies were worn in honor of the recently departed Steve Tilford, who was sponsored by Raleigh for many years.

It’s also been my honor to share the road at Eroica with men and women who love riding bikes for the sake of riding bikes. Cyclists who come from far and wide to enjoy some of the best riding California has to offer. I stood in line to get my registration packet with a rider from England who had ridden multiple editions of the Italian Eroica in Tuscany and also the Britannia version. All told, there are Eroica events in Uruguay, South Africa, Japan, Netherlands, Great Britain, United States, Spain, and, of course, Italy where it all started 21 years ago. 

A beautiful Brian Baylis at the Concours d'Elegance.

Any bike event is really only as good as the people not on bikes: the volunteers. And Eroica California is no exception. As spectacular as the riding is, as terrific as the camaraderie is, the whole event could not happen without the incredible volunteers. To the volunteers and the Eroica California organizers, I say thank you.  See you next year!


Mike Varley is the founder and proprietor of Black Mountain Cycles in Point Reyes, California. He makes his own brand of bikes, which are well worth investigating.