l’Eroica: Cycling through yesteryear

As far as mid-ride nutrition goes, you can do better than lashings of pig fat blended with rosemary and piled on top of crusty bread.

Equally, washing it down with swigs of Chianti isn’t going to do wonders for your Strava times. But then, if you’re concerned about the idea of finishing a ride with a slight hangover, you’re probably missing the point.

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Once every year the hills of Tuscany squeal and crunch with the sound of overworked brakes and uncooperative derailleurs, while every now and again the firecracker bang of a bursting tubular is met by a chorus of cheers. This is l’Eroica, the most famous (and exotic-sounding)
vintage bike ride in the world.

‘Vintage’ is very much the operative word. It means that whatever you ride in the event must be a road bike, have been made before 1987 and come equipped with down-tube
shifters, external brake cables, and pedals with toe-clips.

The odd exception can be made for other vintage bikes like postman bikes or, as spotted this year, ex-military bikes, but only as long as you do the short, 35km route. Anything else simply won’t do. The rules even say, “the management reserves the right to disqualify cyclists whose clothing or behaviour is in any way unsuitable or inappropriate.”

Apart from the odd glue or screw-jointed aluminium frames made by ALAN or Vitus, vintage inevitably means steel, and there can be no better showcase for the art of the steel framebuilder than the start line of the Eroica. There’s an impossible array of different shapes and sizes, all lovingly restored by their owners for the pleasure of riding them just once or twice a year, such as at the similarly old-fashioned Anjou Vélo Vintage or Retro Ronde rides in France and Belgium respectively.

Naturally, each bike is matched with a wool jersey and the effect is one that leaves you pining for a sepia-toned epoch where carbon was just something that went in pencils and an American named Armstrong was just a guy who played the trumpet. Everything apart from the wool shorts of course; they can stay consigned to the dusty history books where they best belong.

It’s a wonder that someone who has lavished so much time, attention (and money) on their ageing machine and outfit can be prepared to put them through their paces on the arduous white gravel roads that make up the Eroica. Each of the rides (205km, 135km, 75km and 35km)
contains a decent serving of strade bianche, both uphill and downhill, that can best be described as a hodgepodge of available road surfacing material ranging from coarse gravel to fine sand that, once rainwater is added, turns into a crunchy peanut-buttery gloop.

Uphill it’s a challenge; downhill it’s a white-knuckle ride.

Luckily, if you’d rather keep your own machine clean and safe, or if you don’t have one to call your own, you can rent one from the Eroica shop in Gaiole, where a few hundred machines are looked after by a bickering father and son duo whose witty retorts to each other are almost as quick as their work with a spanner and a set of Allen keys. You could even buy one at the retro bike market the day before, although if you’re after anything more substantial than a jersey and cap then you might want to let your bank manager know in advance.

In need of TLC
My rented bike for the day, a rather forgettable silver and blue ‘Koch’-branded frame with old Shimano parts, had clearly had considerably less time, attention and money lavished on it than most of the others around it.

It was hard not to be envious of the beautiful celeste steed handed to a fellow journalist a minute earlier but crucially, as I later found out, mine did not come with vintage tubulars to go with the vintage everything else.

This was something I was glad of when said journalist arrived at one of the feed stops with two of said tubulars wrapped around her shoulders and a new pair,
donated from a passing group of riders from Japan, mounted on her de-tensioning box rims.

Luckily, the feed stops were the sort of place where you’d be happy to spend some time waiting. Replace your electrolytes with bread soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, or, indeed, soaked in red wine.

Then, of course, there’s the soup, the cheese, the ham and the grapes, not forgetting the rosemary pig fat. Along with the pre-ride hog roast the night before, held for 500 people in a giant tent and catered for by townsfolk, this has to be the most tastily inefficient way of fuelling a bike ride you can imagine.

When I stopped feasting, my bog-standard Koch and I started to form a 75km long bond, despite its steadfast refusal to remain in the biggest sprocket and an
occasional crunching sound coming from the front hub.

By the end, the nervous caution of the opening miles had turned to unbridled joy as the steel swept through the sculptured rural tracks.

At the start I had sinfully coveted my neighbour’s bike. Seven hours later I was sad to say goodbye. The terrain, the bikes, the food, the weather and the company all make the Eroica one of the slowest rides you’ll ever do. But you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s more fun.

Eroica Britannia: Italian retro sportive comes to Derbyshire

Next summer, vintage enthusiasts will be able to swap the strade bianche for the Monsal Trail as a version of the Eroica comes to Great Britain. Based in Bakewell, Derbyshire on June 20-22, the Eroica Britannia will offer three rides of 30, 50 or 100 miles around the Peak District, taking in sights like the Chatsworth Estate and the Cromford Mills, the world’s first water-powered cotton mill. Like the Italian version, a three-day festival will take place in Bakewell around the event.

“The Peak District has so much to offer in terms of amazing riding with the added benefit of the magnificent Monsal Trail which riders will follow through tunnels and over viaducts,” explains Tim Hubbard from the organising team.

“In our route there are so many things happening in such a short space. We thought that would be an incredible pull, not just for UK riders, but for those overseas too.”

The British organising team have been in discussions with the Italian organisers of the Eroica for two years, securing backing and a small financial commitment from local authorities before unveiling the event the day before the Italian version on October 5.

The Italian team have been heavily involved with the British event, but Hubbard insists the event will have a different feel.

“It’s all about Britain, but with the history and nostalgia that Italy brings,” he explains. “One of our sponsors is Thornbridge Brewery, which will be producing an Eroica beer for us.

“In Italy, if you finish the long ride you get a panforte and a bottle of wine. At the end of the ride here you’ll get a cold l’Eroica beer and a Bakewell

Website: www.eroicabritannia.co.uk

This article originally appeared in the October 17 2013 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine

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l’Eroica comes to Britain