The 19th celebration of steel that is L’Eroica took place in Gaiole in Chianti on Sunday October 4 2015. Sixty six countries were represented in the field of 6,000 riders, and among them was Felice Grimondi – one of the very few to have won all three major tours and a true hero.
I’d dipped my toe in the retro waters of L’Eroica Britannia at its inaugural edition a couple of years ago and it was then I decided I’d go to the home of the event and see where it all originated.
L’Eroica is just as much about clothes and food as it is about bikes. It’s a festival for retro fashionistas and foodies alike. The majority of us were in 60s, 70s or 80s garb with our steel framed 531s or Columbuses, but there was a significant number in finest tweeds, plus fours, handmade brogues and stylish summer dresses from various periods on traditional ‘sit-up and beg’ steeds.
The whole point of L’Eroica is for one to make a bit of an effort and it doesn’t matter too much if you get your periods mixed up – everyone looks good and everyone has tried hard to get their look right. Without doubt it‘s the best two-wheeled fancy dress party imaginable.
As you walk around the maze of stalls selling almost every component ever made for the bicycle and every garment ever worn, your senses turn to food as the aromas wafting around become irresistible. Finest prosciuttos, cheeses and salamis sit next to enormous pans of ragu and pasta with vino rosso being the absolutely obligatory accompaniment.
Wonderfully crafted cakes and tarts are too tempting and it is simply the law to finish it all off with a perfect espresso.
To me and my little group of friends this was definitely about the party atmosphere and sheer enjoyment of being with like minds. There is though, of course, the small matter of a ride to be done. There are four options – 46kms, 75kms, 135kms and 209kms. All take you on the strade bianche which remind us that our ancestors and the champions of the past were true heroes.
Tarmac this isn’t! We’re doing it for fun and it is hard work on old bicycles with limited gearing, but we are only doing it for a day. Those guys who rode full tours on these roads on heavy bikes and in uncomfortable clothing really do deserve the maximum respect. This is not lost on the organisers and we are constantly reminded of the debt we owe to the true heroes of our sport.
That said, those who choose the 135 and 205 km routes today are certainly no slouches – not at all. We were having dinner at 8pm and out of the window we could still see long course competitors passing in the dark with 15 or 20kms still to ride. To start and finish a ride in the dark over the conditions prevalent here demands respect and made us feel just a tad inadequate and ashamed we’d taken the easy option.
The region had been suffering some really wet weather when we arrived so we were hoping for a change. The Saturday brightened up and we had a few hours of afternoon and evening sunshine, but rain was forecast for Sunday morning. Luck prevailed and the various start groups from 5am to 10 am did manage to get away in the dry.
Nobody enjoys starting in the rain so this was great news for everyone. Just after 10, however, the heavens opened. It was at this point that we decided we’d settle for the short route. Period clothing doesn’t lend itself too well to wet weather and it was a shame that riders were either getting soaked through or needing to hide their classy gear under a waterproof.
After far too long sheltering under trees we continued and were rewarded with a few breaks in the weather. One beautiful moment was on a climb up a strada bianchi to the castle at Brolio. The dark tree-lined route was lit with candles which had been put there for the early starters who’d be going up here in complete darkness – except for their, compulsory for long course entrants, bike lights. This was magical.
Rain was dripping from the trees and splashing into puddles of water and wax. The smell of damp autumn wood mixed with the faintest whiff of paraffin and the glisten of the flames was wonderful and will stay with me for a long time.
You simply have to get on with it when it’s wet and, to be honest, it was a lot of fun riding through the white mud and laughing at each other’s splattered appearances. Nobody moaned and we ended up with sunshine for the majority of the afternoon – allowing everybody to dry out.
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The feed stations are something else on L’Eroica. Just as in the town of Gaiole we could feast on lovely cheeses, prosciutto sandwiches and wonderful home-made tarts and puddings. Plenty of rosso was being downed too as it definitely compensated for any discomfort being suffered from the weather or from chaffing clothing.
When finished there’s a big pasta party in a marquee back in Gaiole where more yummy ragu is washed down with yes, yet more vino rosso.
There is a version for the professionals of today which Fabian Cancellara has won twice. I’m not entirely sure they stop for the prosciutto and vino though.
Thank you Gaiole in Chianti. Thank you L’Eroica.