Contributor Lorena Jones was lucky enough to obtain a special invite from Brooks to ride L'Eroica - the vintage bike ride held in the Chianti area of Tuscany every October. Every rider must complete the ride upon a bicycle made before 1987, and it is traditional to dress in vintage kit, too. This year, it rained - but Lorena enjoyed every moment. Here she shares her experience...
I had been given so many accounts of L'Eroica before having the opportunity to attend myself. These tended to take the direction of 'it's my favourite cycling event', 'it's magical', 'it's the best event I have been to', 'you will love it'. Naturally, therefore, I was super excited about going to L'Eroica. And now, here I am following the event, and of the same opinion. L'Eroica has become my favourite cycling event and I too have been caught up in its magic.
I was fortunate to be one of a select few invited by Brooks, who have been sponsoring the event since 2004. The magic started as soon as we arrived. As we wound our way up the driveway and drew closer to the 1000 year old monastery which would be our accommodation for the weekend, we were completely taken back by the beauty of the building and surrounding area.
Anticipation and enthusiasm for the event ahead grew as the cyclists and organisers bonded over whisperings and anecdotes of previous years. Fortunately Saturday morning brought clear skies and winding our way through the crowds on the main street in the centre of Gaiole we were lead to a small and somewhat dusty shop front. My excitement rose as I peeked through the iron gates of this Aladdin’s cave to see a collection of wonderfully aged bikes; each with a Brooks saddle and no doubt their own story to tell.
In keeping with the theme of the event, the cycling kit also pays homage to those way back when, and trying it on my initial thoughts were along the lines of: ‘is it wrong that I want to include these into my everyday wardrobe’?! Provided by Santini and especially designed for Brooks, 1886 (the year Brooks was established) was proudly depicted on both the shorts and the wool jersey.
Setting off before sunrise and passing deer on our way down from the monastery, we were greeted by the hustle and bustle of people gathering their things together by the roadside as we entered the village. Joining others along the way we cycled towards the start of the ride - and obtained the first of five stamps that we needed to collect en route.
Even with the sister events taking place around the world, California, Japan, and L’Eroica Britania which starts in Bakewell, England, it is not difficult to see why people would travel so far to participate in the Original L’Eroica. Born from the romantic ideals of Giancarlo Brocci who admired the strength and values of cyclists during the bygone era, Brocci wanted to reconnect the people of today, both cyclists and non to the heritage that has beautifully shaped the Italian culture, literature and history. The event also served to celebrate and protect the stunning gravel roads that whirl their way through the Tuscan hills. Now with global appeal and limited to a whopping 5,500 places, as governed by the capacity of Gaiole, the first ever L’Eroica took place in 1997 with just 92 participants.
Flowing through the Strade Bianche in what was a glimpse of sunshine in all the rain I turned to my metaphorical big brother of Road Cycling UK and exclaimed ‘I love this event!’ ‘Did you just have a moment?’ was his response. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘Yes, I did’ ….. ‘I love that moment’ he stated as he rode by. And that for me was not only the perfect summary of the ride, but also the shared appreciation between two cyclists for a moment of happiness that can only been achieved atop of two wheels.
Huddled under the canopy of the first feed station we grazed on the selection of sweet and savoury delights. Not an energy bar in sight, the banquet of food before us was instead an array of meats, cheeses, traditional stews, and wine soaked bread with sugar on top, all local to this Tuscan region. A bit early for wine and a bit cold too, I opted for hot sweet tea on this occasion. One by one the rest of the group arrived, all with smiles on their faces and each brimming with excitement. So after a brief catch up and exchange of stories we set of, once again altogether.
From here the rain showed no sign of easing. We laughed, we joked but mainly we embraced it. I had been watching the weather in the run up to the event, willing it to change from grey to shine. As with most cycling events I dreaded the idea of covering the entire distance in rainfall and yet, looking back on L’Eroica, I can’t help but smile at the memory and honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
L’Eroica, which directly translates to ‘the heroic’, is not a costume event. Instead this ‘costume’, the vintage bikes and traditional dress provides a tool to rediscover the passion for doing something challenging and the basic needs of a human in times of fatigue. Yes, some sunshine may have made it a more pleasant ride, but somehow the torrential rain created an atmosphere like no other. Like those before us, we earned our stripes.
With the rain came Brown; brown bike, brown shoes, brown face, brown jersey. I remember looking down at myself at one point and giggling at just how ridiculous this felt. Those ‘white’ roads of the ‘Strade Bianche’; I hadn’t been so dirty since I was a child. I literally looked as though I had been dragged up from the trenches, and yet I couldn’t be happier. I felt like a true hero.
Marching on in the direction of the next stop it was quite obvious that others were in equally good spirits. Up and up we climbed and were directed into a tiny walled village at the top of the hill to receive the second stamp. Stopping briefly to chat to others and pose for a few photos with those who have come to visit the square in traditional dress, we wound our way back out of the village and down a swooping and speedy descent.
Again I smile; it didn’t seem to matter whether you were climbing a hill in the pouring rain or swooping down a descent overlooking beautiful landscape, this event seems to have an ability to evoke those pure and childlike feelings of delight like no other.
Like a fine wine, these bikes were elegant and had aged well. I soon learnt that the gears were... temperamental, and there is no quick way to change a puncture on a bike that pre dated 1987. Mechanicals or not, I couldn’t help but fall in love with my bike. With the tiny gears and caged pedals I had no idea how I was going to make it up those gravelled hills, and yet somehow this seemed to add to the magic of the experience.
It made me realise that these days we get so caught up in geometry and lightweight parts we run the risk of overlooking the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Needless to say, I didn’t want to part with my not so reliable, extremely muddy and equally fun steed upon my arrival to the finish line.
At last the sun started to shine as we made our way into the penultimate check point. Taking a plate of food and a cheeky cup of Chianti I joined my companions of team Brooks and sat on the step overlooking the village to warm up and dry off in the glorious sunshine.
So much more than a cycling event, this is an event that really is about the journey and the people you meet along the way. And having spoken to a number of participants, many of whom have returned time and time again, it seems not to matter which journey or distance you choose to ride, or even if you ride at all, not only are you pretty much guaranteed a wonderful experience but the friends you make throughout will be with you forever.
The last leg and the steepest climbs were ahead. Now tired, the change of weather couldn’t have come at a better time and it didn’t take long for the beautiful Strade Bianche to reveal itself from the river of mud that sat there before. Utterly gorgeous, we rode along the rolling Tuscan hills in good company having had a great day and feeling on top of the world.
As the sun fell over the horizon I made my way through the last few kilometres of the ride glowing with happiness having discovered ‘the beauty of fatigue and the taste of accomplishment’ that Giancarlo Brocci had spoken of in the days running up to the event. I didn’t want this day to end. Swooping into the last descent which led me into the village I was met with a sea of people who had come to join us in celebrating our achievements. Head to toe in the debris of the Strade Bianche, tired and yet exhilarated, I couldn’t be happier. I had fallen in love over and over, with Tuscany, with my old steel frame, and more so with L’Eroica. Now with a new found appreciation for the hero’s before us, I am counting the days until L’Eroica 2016.