L'Eroica Preview 2016
Brian Ignatin offers his tips and advice for riders making the journey to Gaiole, Italy for the vintage event, L'Eroica
For the past 20 years, Halloween has come early for cycling enthusiasts who gather in rural Italy on the first weekend in October. For cyclists, L’Eroica is the ultimate costume ball.
Founded in 1997, initially to celebrate cycling in the “Heroic Era” (L’Eroica means the heroic) and to bring attention to the ancient Strade Bianche (the white gravel roads of the region), it quickly grew to become the largest vintage bike ride in the world, and has spawned partnering Eroica events in the United States, South Africa, Japan, Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Uruguay.
As one might expect, the most popular Eroica festival remains the original, which starts and finishes in the town of Gaiole, in the heart of the Chianti Region of Tuscany.
L’Eroica in Gaiole traditionally offers routes of 46, 75, 135 and 209 Km. The region has seen fit to install permanent way marking signs, enshrining this as a special area for mixed-surface cyclists who are now able to ride these courses 365 days a year. New for 2016, to help celebrate their 20th edition, is a 115 Km “Chianti Classico” route, which travels more than 70 km of roads not used by the other routes; 40 km of the new course is over Strade Bianche.
The Italian strade bianche are quite a bit different from gravel roads found in the U.S. All photos: Brian Ignatin
Vintage bicycles are required, which in this case means the frame and components should have been produced before 1988, have exposed brake cables, friction gear shifting, preferably with levers mounted on the downtube, and toe clips & straps. This mostly means lugged steel frames, though the rules allow appropriate aluminum frames (think Alan, Vitus and Barra, but not Cannondale). Allowances are made for more modern handbuilt frames that adhere to the spirit of the rules. Participants are vigorously encouraged to wear period-correct clothing, which in most instances means wool will abound.
The casual observer might wonder about the qualities of this event that have made it so astonishingly appealing worldwide, on a level not seen since the mountain bike boom.
Some theories point to the hysteria surrounding contemporary road racing and the way the marketing hyperbole has gradually excoriated the soul from the sport, and the need for longtime fans to find something with greater meaning. But most likely it is a simple matter of enjoying the L’Eroica experience.
Vineyards abound in the land of Chianti.
Traveling on a vintage bike over the Strade Bianche past the vineyards, olive groves, and cypress trees, transports participants back to a different era. Life will appear simple, yet incredibly hard. You will understand why Italian bicycle racers like Bartali and Coppi were national heroes. You’ll recognize that cycling doesn’t need to be high tech: that at its heart, cycling is simple. You will also understand what L’Eroica founder Giancarlo Brocci meant, when he stated that "there is beauty in fatigue”.
While the rides are the focus, they are by no means the only activity; the festival begins well before the weekend.
Thursday September 29th will feature an afternoon of wellbeing at the Centro Termale San Giovanni a Rapolano Terme. There will also be a show about the feats of the great cycling champion, Giovanni Gerbi, written and performed by Gerbi’s nephew, actor Giorgio Boccassi.
A festival with vendors selling vintage wares is a large part of the L'Eroica experience.
Friday September 30th will see the opening of the display of vintage bicycles from the 1930s- 1960s, along with jerseys and other memorabilia. The vintage bike swap meet also officially begins on Friday, and grows by the hour, but if past history repeats itself, you might find a few vendors setting up prior to this. Don’t expect to find any bargains; the sellers know they are selling items in high demand this weekend, but that said, some bargains are bound to be found. You’ll be amazed how expensive a dirty used water bottle can be, so bring extras, just in case you need a spare!
Saturday October 1st is a busy day. On offer is a guided tour of the southern part of the L’Eroica route with an as yet unnamed special guest, several press conferences and presentations, a meeting with authors of historic cycling books, and the famous Eroica mustache and beard competition. New to the 2016 edition is a Concours d’Elegance, a judged competition of vintage bicycles.
Sunday October 2nd is the main event; the L’Eroica rides, though the marketplaces and many displays remain open.
Should one be traveling with companions that don’t cycle, or if you get burned out on all things 2 wheels, there are plenty of non-cycling related activities as well. There are Tuscan cooking classes, winery tours, a local products marketplace (wine, olive oil, cheese, etc.), special meals, live music, and bus tours of the routes, showcasing the countryside. The Eroica Caffè opens on Thursday, featuring coffee prepared by the skilled baristas of “La Marzocco”, and uniquely Tuscan cuisine. Good food, great wine and gelato are easy to find in Gaiole, and the neighboring towns.
The heroic era long predated energy bars and gels, so expect to see more traditional Italian fare at the rest stops.
Throughout the event, keep a look out for celebrities within the cycling world; it is not uncommon for famous cycling champions and bicycle builders to attend the event. Often they are in their booths of the marketplace representing their products, or attending the various presentations, but you might just find a few of them out on the road with you.
As you can see, there is a lot on offer; it is impossible to do and see everything. This is not a ride and go home event. Our advice is to do the best you can to take in as much as feasible. You are in Tuscany, live La Dolce Vita. All said, L’Eroica is unique, and it can be one of the best most rewarding cycling experiences you’ll ever have.
Only the modern helmets (which are allowed), and perhaps the high resolution of the photo date this photo from 2011, and not 1980.
Tips for First Time Riders at L’Eroica
Even if you’ve previously participated in Gran Fondos or Eroica events in other countries, L’Eroica in Gaiole is different, and very special.
We’ll assume you read our tips for Eroica in Paso Robles, so we know your bike will be in order, you will keep pedaling on the gravel, you will hold your line, and you will be prepared to dismount when the combination of steep grades and insufficient low gears get the better of you. However, to make the most of your L’Eroica in Gaiole experience, please keep the following in mind:
- Pick the right route: The courses are much harder than the distance and elevation statistics might indicate. It is easy to get in over your head, particularly if you don’t ride a lot of gravel roads, are not used to constant up and down climbing, or haven’t ridden your vintage bike sufficiently.
- Lights: You worked hard preparing your vintage bike and vintage clothes; did you remember to bring head and tail lights? If you are riding the 209 or 135 km routes, the start is held well before dawn, and while the candles will hauntingly illuminate the climb up to the Brolio Castle, there aren’t any on the other roads, some of which are technical descents. Also consider that many riders will have their longest day ever on a bike, and some will finish after sunset.
- Don’t forget your Passport: Not just the one that gets you through immigration, but the Brevetto Card that you need to get stamped at the controls/aid stations. This card is how you prove that you completed your chosen route, and to claim your finisher's prizes. Bring a small plastic bag to keep it in, to keep it dry.
- Learn some Italian: Don’t expect everyone to speak English. While you may be able to get by in hotels and restaurants, knowing some Italian phrases (even if not perfect) will come in handy. The normal pleasantries (Ciao, Buongiorno, Buona sera, Per favore, Grazie, Si, No) will serve you very well , but be prepared on course to alert other riders to your presence. As such, “sulla destra” (on your right), “sulla sinistra” (on your left), and “Per favore, smettere di camminare in mezzo alla strada!” (stop walking in the middle of the road) are necessities! Some lesser obscenities may be in order too, especially when the later request is ignored and people are walking in the only smooth track, but we are not going to suggest anything in particular.
- Bring your own Drink Mix & Gel: If you want energy products, you need to bring your own- the L’Eroica aid stations don’t have them. This is a historic event, gels and bars didn’t exist during the Eroica Era. Be prepared to subsist on bread, water, wine, salami, cheese, grapes and olive oil. Yes, we said wine; you are in Chianti Country after all- but be careful not to overdo it. If you see a cast iron kettle over an open flame, get in line; you will be rewarded with Ribollita, a famed local stew!
- Ride, don’t race: Take your time, take in the scenery atmosphere and the unique food at the aid stations. If you go too fast and don’t partake of the unique experience, you will miss the whole point of the ride!
Ribollita. Don't pass it by!