Oil lamps marking the track flicker in the half-light before dawn. The gravel road winds up through the trees with barely a letup. My legs pump away at the pedals as my lungs struggle to keep up. Finally, the sky lightens and the brooding bulk of Castelo di Brolio hoves into view. I’m up.
To say Tuscany is beautiful is like saying Monica Bellucci is ‘not half bad’. From the terrace of a classic hilltop villa, or even the safety of a car, Tuscany’s rolling hills are a scene of wonder. Even in early October, every turn of the road brings another spectacular view.
On a bike it is a different matter. Those hills can be tough and although long grinding climbs can be rewarded by thrillingly sinuous descents, there is always the knowledge that what goes down, must always go up too.
It was Chris who first switched me on to l’Eroica.
After one of his regular one-handed Internet searches he said he’d found a mythical bike race in Italy over the old, gravel roads of Chianti using only ‘retro’ road bikes. I was sold. The cost of only 40 Euros to enter was too good to pass up, so we registered and worried about how to get there and where to stay later.
L’Eroica (The Hero) was dreamt up as a conservation project. It seems the rough, gravelly white roads of Chianti – the Strade Bianche – were gradually being tarmacced over. This was a bad thing. The people of Chianti like their traditions and to prove that the roads were perfectly adequate as they were, decided to hold an annual ride featuring pre-1987 road bikes: More specifically, bikes that have their gear shifters on the downtube. In its first year, l’Eroica attracted around 200 riders. This year 4,500 enthusiasts crammed the tiny streets of Gaoile – testament to the power of a great idea and an awful lot of Italian passion.
L’Eroica is now much more than a retro bike ride. It’s a pilgrimage for men of a certain age (and waistlines) looking to recapture a time when things were much simpler. The idea of pitting old road bikes with their skinny tyres and inappropriate gearing against the perils of the strade bianche is ridiculous, but it’s precisely the combination of nostalgia, passion and challenge that attracts riders from all over the world.
And Tuscany is a perfect place to be in early autumn. Last year the temperature touched 40 degrees but this time it’s a balmy 24. Chianti glows in the sunshine and the grape harvest is in full swing. Vineyards stretch away in every direction. There’s nothing better than leaving a cold, damp England for a pavement caffé in a charming Tuscan town and waving the world by with a glass of Brunello.
Back in Gaoile, the days before race-day are a riot of retro bike culture. The tented marketplace that springs up around the event plays host to a growing number of vintage bike merchants. From original woolen jerseys to the elusive component that will complete a bike project, it’s all here. And all around are the bikes: vintage Colnago, Gios, Casati and Bianchi litter the streets – the cycling equivalent of Ferarri, Maserati, Lambo and Lancia – gleaming in the sunshine. Riders parade their machines up and down Gaoile’s narrow streets and many take as much care over their own appearance too. Aside from the obligatory retro jerseys, tweed, plus fours, flat caps and moustaches abound.
It’s mainly men of course, but women are making inroads too. Elsewhere, the staccato singsong of Italian is being supplemented by glottal German, American twang and rounded English vowels as l’Eroica welcomes growing numbers of foreign entrants.
What everyone is here for is the ride of their life and there are four routes to choose from: 38km, 76km, 135km and 205km. The latter two are now permanent routes and are waymarked so you can do them anytime you like. Most first-timers opt for the 76km version, which sounds like a ride in the park for most club riders, until you factor in the heat and the hills of Tuscany and of course the perils of the strade.
But first, the rules: l’Eroica’s organisers are uncompromising on what constitutes ‘heroic’ bikes. Aside from the need for all frames to be pre-1987 and equipped with old-school shifters, only open pedals and toe straps are allowed, while brake cables must be visible.
The previous year we had pulled our ‘retro’ bikes from a variety of sheds, garages and other cobwebbed places in preparation for 76km of l’Eroica. This year we are back to tackle the much tougher 135km and have vowed to be better prepared.
As it was everything once again came down to the wire as our bikes lurched through the preparation process. My Peugeot had been given a full respray and acquired a new set of wheels. That’s right, a bike plucked from a widow’s garage and bought for a glass of wine had been pimped to the max at a cost of over £750. Last year, the tyres wouldn’t stay on the original steel wheels, which is alarming when you are careering down a rutted dirt track, hence the new hoops. Gearing had also been upgraded with a 12-28 cassette on the back allied to a modern 50-34 compact chainset on the front: Nerdy? You bet!
Sunday at 5.30am and we are on the road to Gaoile, joining the pilgrimage in the pre-dawn darkness. At the final turn towards the town we wait for a break in the long snake of riders making their way out onto the 205km route – their lights forming a glittering procession. For us the ride starts with a double espresso before wheeling to the start line as the sky begins to lighten. With our registration cards stamped we’re off, but not before Chris is DQ’d on the line and his number removed for having his brake cables covered by his handlebar tape. It seems the ‘heroic’ rules require cables to arc gracefully up and over the bars in homage to the bikes of yesteryear. Chris shrugs and rides anyway.
The route out of Gaoile winds downwards for two kilometres and then begins its inexorable rise to the Castelo di Brolio over 7km away. As I ride I get a sinking feeling – literally! My seatpost is gradually disappearing into my seat tube and my thighs are starting to flame. Fortunately, I’ve got the right spanner with me and the disaster of riding 135km across Tuscany like I’m on a BMX is averted.
But even with the saddle at the right height, my mechanical problems aren’t quite over. On the first stretch of bombed out bianche the headset starts to come loose. It’s all I can do to continually finger tighten the things as I go along.
The Bianche Strade is a wicked, unpredictable thing. In places it’s as good as a paved road, in others more like a dried up riverbed. Rutted, rocky and home to dangerous drifts of gravel that catch out unwary riders, the white roads are also very, very dusty. In places the surface has been so badly corrugated by farm vehicles that riding over it shakes the fillings from your teeth. It is the most unforgiving surface I have ever ridden a road bike over.
But we continue across hill after hill and towards the medieval town of Siena and the first feed stop at Radi. Despite the contours it’s blissful riding on quiet roads through sleepy hamlets and past achingly beautiful scenery.
As we ride a procession of 1930s/40s cars rattle past – it seems everyone is getting in on the retro act.
With hot sweet tea, pastries and ham and cheese inside us the next leg to the tiny village of Asciana is a breeze. Down here at the southern tip of Chianti the roads are flatter and the landscape more open. We whiz along thinking “It can’t be like this all the way, can it?”. We’re right, it can’t.
At lunch, and somewhere around 80km in, l’Eroica gets up and slaps us in the face. The road home is barred by a vicious stretch of strade that rears up from the feed zone in a series of brutal ramps. It’s a one-way ticket because once you’re on the trail you either ride out or push your bike to the next bit of tarmac over 10 miles away. There’s no shortcut and you can’t exactly call a taxi to come and get you from some unknown dirt track in Tuscany, so it’s time to be a hero and get pedaling. Easier said than done though when the gradient starts to hit 20% and total torture for an 18 stone ex-rugby prop like me.
My legs now have all the tensile strength of the spaghetti I had for last night’s supper. My hands are numb from gripping the handlebars as I bounce across the ruts and I’m covered in a thick film of dust and sweat. It’s not long before I’m pushing the bike up the inclines, which doesn’t feel much easier than riding. Most of the people around me are in the same boat but occasionally some grizzled hard man of the hills rumbles past, thighs bunching with the effort, eyes fixed on the horizon as he grinds his way up the seven ramps to the top at Monte Sante Marie.
It’s now an exercise in survival: of getting to the finish. There’s no other way because the sneaky l’Eroica crew have arranged it so you have no choice. The bastards will make heroes of us all. Finally, we break out of the backcountry and back to the tarmac. The final feed stop promises rest and recuperation. Home is only 32km away but in the shape I’m in it might as well be the moon. But on we go and thankfully it seems the worst is behind us. Only the final slog retracing our route back to the Castelo di Brolio stands between us and glory, but as we stand at the top looking back down the road we grunted up over 10 hours ago, we realise it’s nearly over.
Back down the dirt track and out onto the road – 6km of glorious tarmac stretches out downwards. In seconds I’m cruising the curves and busting through the turns as the effort of the day is lost in gravity’s embrace. At the bottom it’s a scant mile to the finish but with triumph in our hearts and the small of beer in our nostrils it’s a breeze. We roll into Gaoile and accept the good-natured applause of the onlookers.
As we sit and swap war stories over a cold Moretti we bask in the glow of a challenge accepted and completed. Sure, we had to walk a bit, but we made it, in one piece and without a puncture between us. One thing’s for sure; you really do need to be a Hero to finish either the 135km or 205km routes of l’Eroica. Even the 76km is tough enough and bike prep and practice is a must.
Will we be back? You betcha! For the rest of year, we will talk incessantly about getting back to Tuscany. It’s an amazing place even if you don’t want to ride bikes but add in the retro, feel-good vibe of l’Eroica and it’s just magical.
All you need is a mouldy old 1980s racer and you’re in!