L'Eroica is the orginal vintage cycling event, taking place in the sun-drenched hills of Tuscany. Every October, thousands of cyclists descend on the town bedecked in vintage cycling gear, astride lovingly restored bicycles. Aoife Glass joined them for a ride along the vinyards on the famous strade bianchi.
‘Hey, Bianchi! Go, go, go!’ A group of people from the local town were out watching and cheering as thousands of cyclists in vintage kit on vintage bicycles rode through, and this call was for me.
I was dressed top to toe in beautiful light blue vintage-style kit, courtesy of Bianchi. Woolen shorts, woolen jersey, cap, socks and shoes without cleats. I was also riding a gorgeous vintage Bianchi bicycle, resplendent in the trademark Bianchi green, with the original Bianchi logo emblazoned on the stem and seat tube.
‘Grazie!’ I called, and pedaled on, grinning from ear to ear.
I felt like a team racer from years ago, except considerably slower. But for L’Eroica that’s perfectly fine because it’s not about the speed, it’s about the journey.
And what a journey it is. L’Eroica, which translates as ‘The Heroic Ones’ was started in 1997, with 92 riders, partly to help preserve the historic white roads or strade bianchi of the Tuscany region of Italy. These rock and chalk paths wind their way through vineyards, past castles, up hills and through towns, and were once in danger of being tarmacked over.
The people of Gaiole in Chianti organised the first event, designed to preserve and celebrate the landscape and culture of the region, and the heroic cyclists and bicycles of old. Now the event which is sponsored by Italian bicycle company Bianchi, and British saddle company Brooks, attracts over 5,600 people who travel from as far afield as the UK, Belgium and the US to take part. It’s not hard to see why.
Tuscany is a landscape of rolling hills, giving you long steady climbs and thrilling descents. The temperature in October, when the event takes place, is balmy and warm, and the sun is bright in the sky.
Riders in L’Eroica are often found resting by the roadside, drinking in the views, or drinking Chianti at one of the many feed stations along the route. Eschewing the usual energy bars and hydration drinks, sustenance comes in the form of bread soaked in wine with sugar on top, dried fruit, bowls of stew, slices of salami, and, of course, a glass of wine.
Another reason for the leisurely pace of the ride is the bicycles themselves. Although many are lovingly renovated, breakdowns are common, necessitating the assistance of one of the many roadside mechanics operating out of vans packed full of vintage parts along the route.
The bikes themselves have far fewer gears than modern bikes; mine was a 5 speed, and I was amazed I made it up any hills at all by pedal power. Nearly everyone ends up walking at some point, which simply gives you more time to appreciate your surroundings.
People watching is another delightful element of L’Eroica. Such a variety of participants pass along the route, with all ages represented. Kids cycle with their parents alongside young couples on tandems, groups of friends in matching kit and hard-core vintage cyclists in full military kit on army bicycles.
L’Eroica also attracts a much bigger number of female participants than most cycling events. Of the 5,600 riders taking part in the 2014 event, I'd estimate over 20% were women on the 75km route, compared to an average of 15% in the UK.
Many people come along without their own bike, renting a vintage steed when they arrive in Gaiole. The town is also the place to purchase your cycling kit, with the stone-paved and flower-lined streets and squares taken over by a market packed full of vintage jerseys, caps, shoes, socks, and a cornucopia of bicycle parts.
The event attracts it’s fair share of cycling celebrities too, keen to drink in the relaxed ambience and welcoming atmosphere. Newly crowned Road Cycling World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot could be spotted cycling at speed, sporting her rainbow stripes on a classic woollen jersey. Rabo Liv team-mate, the legendary Marianne Vos joined her in the Tuscan sunshine, the perfect wind-down to the 2014 race season.
There are four circular routes available, with distances varying from a leisurely 35km to a whopping 220km – not for the faint hearted. I opted to do the 75km route, as I’d heard it gave an ample taste of the strade bianche, and it’s the route the majority of participants ride.
— PFP (@FERRANDPREVOT) October 5, 2014
In the flattish UK, on a modern bike, 75km is a distance I’d have little trouble with. But on roads that are rough with loose gravel, on continuous rolling hills with very little flat terrain, and on a bike with narrow handlebars, gear levers on the down tube rather than the bars, and brakes that are sketchy at best, this distance was a challenge.
It took time to adapt, but once I did, I grew to love my vintage Bianchi, while at the same time appreciating the years of innovation since then that have made bicycles so much more comfortable and efficient.
Several hours later, I flew down the last descent and all too soon arrived back in the idyllic Gaiole in Chianti, the town I had started from that morning. The sun was beginning to set, and the town was packed with happy cyclists, chatting, laughing and sharing stories. It felt like the true, friendly spirit of cycling was here. I just cannot recommend this event enough.
I was tired, happy, covered in white dust and with a new appreciation for those cyclists of old, racing for miles on their steel frames and toe-clip pedals. Having had a taste of what they experienced, they seem all the more heroic.
And as for me, what better way to celebrate my own heroic achievement than a big class of Chianti. Salute!
Find out more at the L'Eroica website. The event takes place on the first weekend in October every year. There is the UCI Men's Road Race Strade Bianche which takes place in March each year. Can't travel to Italy? Join in with L'Eroica Britannia.
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