The Heroic Ride

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

 L’Eroica, an Italian Event Celebrates Cycling With Vintage Bikes and Gear

By Emily Gindlesparger 

In pre-ride tradition, Peter Underwood and Patricia Killiard of Cambridge show off their vintage style in the plaza of Gaiole in Chianti. Photo courtesy of L'Eroica.

The most beautiful aid station in cycling sits on an Italian hillside, presiding over acres of rolling vineyards. You’ll find no gels here, no electrolytes, no synthesized sugar. You need real food for the journey ahead, so the table is laid with grapes, cheeses and salami; a heavy pot of stew hangs over an oak fire, and to quench your thirst there’s bottle after bottle of Chianti. The riders come in bedraggled, jarred by the rough gravel roads and flecked with white mud on their faces, their leather helmets, their wool jerseys, and their glass and leather goggles, found in someone’s attic tucked away since 1937.

Each year on the first Sunday in October, the population of Gaiole in Chianti, Italy is doubled by 3,000 bicycle riders who come from across the globe to take part in what may be the most unique organized ride in the world. At 5 am the riders’ old brakes squeal in the narrow streets, lit by kerosene torches and candles, as they begin the longest leg of L’Eroica, meaning “The Heroic,” an epic 205 kilometers through the Tuscan countryside with a peculiar set of rules: bicycles must be older than 1987, with steel frames and shifters on the down tube. Clipless pedals are not allowed. Though spandex shorts and modern helmets are permitted, it seems frowned upon not to at least dig through the family’s memorabilia for your father’s 1970s jersey, or his father’s leather cycling shoes. Some of the good old boys are squeezed into their own jerseys from back in the day; looking, as one spectator remarked, like wool sausages.

Four routes traverse the Chianti wine country, giving riders an option of 38, 75, 135, or 205 kilometers (roughly 23, 46, 84, and 127 miles, respectively) on a mixture of concrete, stone, pavement, and “bianchi stradi,” or the white gravel roads that give L’Eroica its character. It’s the bianchi stradi that brings everyone together: cycling culture was born on these roads. Organizer Giancarlo Brocci admired the “sforza” (strength) of the pioneers who rattled down these roads on early bikes, and in the late 1990s when talk began of paving these paths, Brocci created L’Eroica to honor their history and bring awareness to the need to preserve them. In a great video put together by Brooks, who sponsors the event, Brocci explains, “The myth about the pedal giants and street heroes was the reason for me to organize an event that protects the remaining white gravel roads.”

“This is the tradition, to race with an ancient bicycle on an ancient road,” says Francesco Moser, an Italian cycling legend who won a Grand Tour and World Championship Road Race title from his cycling career in the 1970s and 80s. “I would have been a racer made for these roads,” he adds, to which he receives a hearty “Bravo! Bravo!” and laughter from the men standing nearby.
In a nod to the legends, there is no cap on entrants over the age of 60, and they will continue to register for L’Eroica until Aug. 3. But for young heroes vying to test their mettle, the competition to get on the start list is fierce. Registration opened Feb. 23 at midnight, and promptly filled the 2,200 spots for Italians and 800 for non-Italians: registration closed by 4 pm that day, “an enthusiastic response that surprised and marveled even the organizers, who know well the love and authentic passion of worldwide cyclists for L’Eroica,” the organizers explained in a press release. Two more opportunities, on May 16 and Aug. 6, will open 100 spots at a higher registration fee (roughly $135 USD in May and $175 USD in August), which is donated to charity.

Today, tourism protects the bianchi stradi. Chianti and crostini protect the riders on a tour that mixes history, simple decadence and Italian-style activism. It’s a ride that will make heroes or nervous wrecks of the 3,000 riders who brave its bone-jarring, potholed roads in the name of an effort — as one Italian spectator described — to “relax and keep alive slowly, not fast.”

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