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Eroica California

Brian Ignatin

Friday 15 April 2016

In Defense of Eroica California

Vintage bike collector and rider Brian Ignatin gives a defense of Eroica California, under criticism for being too exclusive based on seemingly arbitrary equipment restrictions.

In Defense of Eroica California
Photo: Dave LaMay

In a recent article in Red Kite Prayer, Padraig (otherwise known as Patrick Brady) was quite clear in articulating why he elected not to go to Eroica California this year. The comments to his article are split between those supporting the ride as it is versus others agreeing with his suggestion that the rules be updated to be more inclusive. Regardless of your view, these are just opinions, and no one is good or bad because of them.

However, when considering the arguments made and opinions expressed, I believe it is important for people to understand where Eroica California came from, and what it stands for. To vintage bike enthusiasts and collectors, this may be preaching to the choir, but in most other circles, the rationale is not so obvious.  

We have to admit, the Eroica rules are somewhat arbitrary, but most rules, at least to some extent, are. All lines are drawn somewhere; it is generally up to legislators and lawyers to argue and interpret their merits and meanings.

For the sake of simplicity, L’Eroica (Italy) started in 1997 as a small ride to honor and preserve the historic Strade Bianche (the white gravel roads) of Tuscany, which were disappearing to modernization, and to pay homage to the heritage of cycling in the area. In 2007 a professional race now named Strada Bianche was born; this race is the son of L’Eroica. Yes, a Gran Fondo gave birth to a professional race, whereas usually it is the other way around!

By utilizing ancient roads, L’Eroica (which means “heroic”) hearkened back to a different era when life was simple, yet incredibly hard, when the world was frequently at war, and Italian bicycle racers were national heroes. First Bottecchia, Binda, and Giardengo, then later Bartali, and Coppi, were household names. Their epic battles were covered by newspapers, later radio, and eventually film, well before the advent of television. L’Eroica set out to honor the simplicity of cycling, and as Giancarlo Brocci, the founder of L’Eroica said, “to tell us that there is beauty in fatigue”.

For the first few years of L’Eroica, riding vintage bikes and wearing vintage clothing was encouraged, but not required. The ride grew steadily, well before gravel events became popular in the US. Eventually the organizers decided to restrict the event to only vintage (and vintage inspired) bicycles. It was at this point that the ride exploded in popularity, and began selling out, forcing the organizers to allocate spots to assure a wide range of participant demographics. Further, the theme and format of the event was exported to other countries, and these foreign events bear the Eroica name and trademark.  

But how does one define a vintage bicycle? Where does one draw the line?      

The L’Eroica organizers determined that 1987 was the stopping point, stating that this is when bicycles started to fundamentally change via the widespread adoption of clipless pedals, indexed shifting and aero brake levers.

But another thing that is never stated, but is abundantly clear, is that 1987 marks when the bicycling industry changed drastically. It was the year when high end European cycling component brands were largely being overthrown by Asian and American ones. L’Eroica is Italian; Campagnolo is Italian, and the Shimano coup began in earnest in 1987, as did the proliferation of the mountain bike. The French component companies were well on their deathbeds by this time, but 1986 is when Campagnolo began to change its classic look and feel with the introduction of C-Record components. Nuovo and Super Record components were discontinued in 1987.  

Yes, Look clipless pedals hit the peloton in 1986, and were predated by other pedals including Cinelli’s M-71 (1971), often referred to as the “death pedal”. Yes, aero levers were available from Dia Compe and Shimano in the early 80s, and some form of index shifting (though not as we know it today, or even in 1987) had come and gone from several manufacturers in decades prior to 1987. Alan and Vitus aluminum frames are explicitly permitted, but a 1983 Cannondale would be frowned upon; I am not sure where Eroica would stand on an Alan Carbonio, which I believe debuted in 1986 or 1987.

Classic Rendezvous is a very popular vintage bike website and forum (CR-List). The group was founded by Dale Brown, a former racer, race organizer, official, and owner of Cycles de Oro in Greensboro, North Carolina. Cycles de Oro is a modern bike shop with an effective museum of Dale’s collection. In establishing the CR-List, Dale too had to establish a timeline; he chose 1983 as the stopping point, thereby avoiding a few of the problems the L’Eroica cutoff date.  

As defensible as this date is, it isn’t completely clean either. Campagnolo was producing Nuovo and Super Record components into 1987, thus a 1986 Colnago is somewhat indistinguishable from a 1982 one, but technically doesn’t qualify for the forum. However, this is where reason and a common understanding come into play: the list members understand that concept is stronger than a line drawn in the sand.  To further acknowledge the craft, discussion is allowed, and web space is dedicated to KOF- “Keepers of the Flame”, honoring modern frame builders who utilize steel in their handmade bicycles.

And KOF is where L’Eroica sometimes put themselves at odds with their own rules. L’Eroica rules don’t state that one must ride a pre-1987 bike (or vintage clothing), but that participants should utilize equipment that at least resembles them. They are trying to preserve a look and feel, and to show respect to the roots and golden age of the sport.  

This means that most steel road frames are acceptable, as long as they have downtube shift levers, pedals with clips and straps, and exposed brake cable housing.  Modern wool or retro looking clothing is acceptable; no one is inspecting for date codes. The L’Eroica organizers understand that bicycles, components, accessories, and clothing wear out, and original replacements can be hard to find, as they were discontinued long ago. Reproductions and vintage inspired items are openly welcomed, if they preserve the spirit of the rules.

Yet, the success of the Eroica series has led to a major contradiction of the rules. Bianchi bicycles came on board as a major sponsor of the series. What Italian brand is older and more storied than Bianchi?  It is a natural fit!  However, in concert with their sponsorship, Bianchi decided to reissue, to the best of their ability, a bicycle that met the Eroica guidelines. But 100% compliance is practically impossible for a production run (as opposed to a one off). Getting suppliers to provide high quality 126 mm rear hubs that accept freewheels in modest quantities is nearly impossible, as that standard has been largely abandoned at the high end of the market, thus the Bianchi has current 130 mm rear hubs with a 10 speed cassette. In concert with the Eroica organizers, the bike was approved for use in the events. I believe this Bianchi violates the letter of the law, and to some extent the spirit, but is deemed acceptable due to the larger support Bianchi provides. Some would call this “selling out”.  

Please note that another historic Italian marque, Wilier, has also introduced a vintage inspired project, though to my knowledge it hasn’t been officially blessed by the Eroica organizers. At Interbike in 2015, I saw other famous brands testing the water in consideration of following suit. My problem with these projects is not with the concepts in and of themselves, my issue is that if these machines are accepted as conforming to Eroica rules, they widen the gray area. Where are the new lines drawn? What is acceptable and what isn’t? Should other similar constructions also be accepted?  

This is where Padraig makes a valid point. Many have argued it is like bringing a modern car to a vintage car rally. Padraig understands this; we discussed this very point the week before Eroica California. His point was that they explicitly allow some reproductions in the vintage rally, but not others, and it is hard to find fault with that, within this context. But in the greater world, we are really talking about integrated shifters/ brake levers and clipless pedals, which are explicitly forbidden (with rare exception), and are not offered on the Bianchi Eroica model, thus the argument really is about the number of cogs on the rear wheel. Unless the rules are updated, I fail to see how anything with more than 7 cogs is compliant. And if they make this change, then it calls into question their other equipment rules.  

Eroica is a truly special tribute to vintage bicycles; it is a costume ball for bike geeks (said in the most loving terms!). It isn’t a “Steel is Real Ride” that professes to be the place for KOF builders to showcase their modern steel bikes with current hardware; this is what NAHBS and similar shows are for. Eroica doesn’t present itself as a gravel grinder; cyclocross, gravel, and mountain bikes are prohibited; to allow them would cheapen the original concept of riding these ancient roads in a manner similar to those that did it in the heroic era.    

Eroica events, though inspired by the battles amongst the various Campionissimi, are not necessarily about performance. I don’t think too many people state that yesterday’s bikes are superior to today’s; they each have their positive attributes. Eroica is about reliving glory days, when wine was consumed instead of Gatorade, salami & cheese instead of Powerbars, and when you had to have a certain set of skills to operate a bike efficiently and with grace. It is about the journey while enduring suffering. If you are focused on winning, you will have lost before you even started.

Eroica are simply events for vintage and vintage-inspired bicycle enthusiasts. If one actually reads them, one will recognize that the rules are flexible enough: a truly vintage bike isn’t strictly required. Modern steel bikes can be adapted. If riding gravel is your thing, but steel frames, toe clips/straps, friction shifting, old fashioned brake levers or knit jerseys are not, Eroica isn’t for you. There are plenty of other events out there for you.  

And Padraig came to realize this, but he has valid points regarding receiving mixed messaging about the event, and his suggesting loosening the rules to further increase participation, and feeling that he and his steel bike aren’t cool enough.  

Yes, certain messages are mixed; Eroica do want more people to come to the emerging events and to embrace the concept. Messaging is difficult to do, as the rules are not steadfast. But the flip side of this is that the events are doing very well in terms of participation despite their rules; some of them sell out and California saw approximately a 50% increase in its 2nd edition.

To be honest, the Eroica events currently vary in the enforcement of their rules. While the original L’Eroica event in Gaiole is very strict (each bike is given a look over before they allow participants to depart) the Eroica California event has been fairly loose in its first 2 editions.  They look the other way at certain things, and haven’t really inspected bikes yet. They even invited Andy Hampsten to ride the 2016 event on his 1988 Giro d’Italia winning bike, which we must admit is in complete violation of the letter of their rules. But are they hypocrites? In considering the spirit of the event, can one think of a more heroic rider, exploit, and bike in the last 40 years, particularly by an American racer? I for one was happy to see Andy on board the machine he rode to his most storied success.  

However, as the event builds its popularity and infrastructure one can expect this to change. It has nothing to do with X is cool enough, but Y isn’t.  There is an honor code of sorts; if you ignore the rules you may not be called out for it, but the punishment will be that you will have cheated yourself, and you will know it, even if you don’t have any remorse. If you respect the event for what it is, if you are a true bike enthusiast, if you follow their rules, you will have a spectacular time and a unique experience.

As for available gear ratios, Eroica allows one to modify this to modern standards, but this too is somewhat at odds with the intent of the ride. Eroica founder Giancarlo Brocci stated it best, "Using a vintage bike these days shows us how difficult cycling was, remember the gears they had and the roads they cycled on! The message is fundamental. The heroic stories we hear are heroic precisely because the exertions of those cyclists were extraordinary. The appeal of today's L'Eroica and the difference between it and other events, which may be more or less attractive is that I have always insisted on L'Eroica having a tough element, there has to be a challenge to overcome."  I suppose the nontraditional gear ratios are permitted, because they want people to honor the past, while not causing undue suffering and driving them away.  

However we also must recognize that the then-available racing bike gearing may have been suitable (or was all that was available or deemed acceptable) for use by professionals, at the top of their game, racing for their livelihoods, in their era. But Eroica participants are mostly older, and were never pros, even if they did race at some point in their lives. Eroica is not a race, thus the suffering will never be the same, but that doesn’t mean the overall effort is any less regardless of the gearing chosen; the majority of Eroica participants will spend far more hours in the saddle on a given course than any pro in his day would, thus experiencing the “beauty of fatigue” that the organizers strive to achieve.

Regardless of the era, professional racers utilized the best equipment available at the time. What is state of the art now will likely be largely considered junk in the future. This is called progress, regardless if we believe that things have advanced or not.  

Eroica is an affront to progress; Eroica is what it is, and is better for it. The rules, while arbitrary, are reasonably clear, defensible from a historical standpoint, and are flexible enough so as not to restrict the events exclusively to serious bike collectors. They accomplish the goals of the founders, and the events are succeeding with them.  If they were to update the rules to allow more modern and course specific machines, the events would be watered down to the point that they would be no longer special or unique. If they are not special, then no one will care about them, and they will go away.

The fact that there are passionate debates with salient points on both sides of what Padraig stated points to the health of both Eroica-style events as well as more open gravel grinders and mixed surface rides. We are fortunate to be in a period where these rides are popular. Everyone can find something that suits them, and Eroica is not to everyone’s taste. I for one am happy I get to dress like Eddy Merckx or Fiorenzo Magni for “Halloween” a few times each year, and ride the bikes I am passionate about, but also happy that I can don my modern kit and use my recently designed bikes on other rides, and not feel out of place under the circumstances.