What's Cool In Road Cycling

Strade Bianche: Being Somewhat Eroically PEZ

Historic racing bikes, their skinny tires crashing over the hills of Tuscany, guided by wool clad romantics is dangerous entertainment. Naturally, PEZ was there – at this year’s Eroica, getting dusty, then muddy and a bit thoughtful.

Pez Note: This story first ran in 2010 but classic bikes and great rides never get old.

These guys came from Lugano – one gets bonus style points for racing in a fake mustache.

What The Hell Does The Eroica Have To Do With The 20th Century?
Fourteen years ago, less than 100 cyclists lead by Giancarlo Brocci traversed the rolling gravel roads in the heart of the Chianti region on bici d’epoca – defined as bikes before 1985 featuring downtube shifters, brake cables run over the handlebars and pedals with clips. Today this event, this movement, this Retro Group Ride (called L’Eroica) has swelled to 3,500 participants with over 700 coming from abroad.

Lots of nice bikes and a mini flea market frame the occasion.

One of the first assignments I was given as an art school student was “What the hell does Albrecht Durer have to do with the 20th century? (note: each student was given a different master)” This provocation forced us to investigate some of history’s most famous artists and judge their relevance to our own values. This Rhode Island art school strongly believed that young artists must know their precedents; must understand how their own endeavors are made possible by those that preceded them. To know your starting place in the order of things might be a better way of phrasing it. The guiding principal behind the Eroica is very similar. As their news journal states, “those that participate must know and love the history of the sport, admire the immortal champions that wrote it, their experiences, emotions, style, apparel, equipment and most of all, their spirit.”

“Ya don’t know ya past, ya don’t know ya fewcha,” as Bob Marley (?) noted.

As our sport confronts another doping scandal at the highest level (thanks Bert!), an event like the Eroica is certainly a relief. Though this “survival of the sport of cycling depends on returning to our roots” message is welcome and probably true, the realist in me believes that once the apple has been tasted there is no returning to the Garden.

I know some of these roads.

Plans Change
The plan was supposed to be that PEZ Literary Editor Reissner was to ride (and suffer) the Full 200km Course and I was to do what I do best: have fun, eat and drink, chat with the locals and follow my fancy. And maybe log a few kilometers over some of the easier parts. Why? Because I have lived in this part of Italy and know these crappy, dirt roads called Strade Bianche.

This is what the racing looks like.

Here’s an illustrative anecdote: the Friday before L’Eroica, I attended a Bachelor Party. I must have been sitting at the ‘Husbands with Kids’ end of the table because they were a bit too excited about the evening’s debauchery to be single. At one point, the bachelor was asked, “how many times do you sleep with your fiancйe a week?” After some coaxing, three to four times was the answer. “Well after the wedding, you get 20% of that and after childbirth it drops to 5%, if not less, are you still willing to go through with this?” the guys at my end of the table asked the tipsy bachelor. He answered with an uncertain nod.

Well. Since I already have this hindsight of what awaits the Eroica participant, I was quite pleased with the Reissner-Fox plan. Until he bailed out on me! Sh*t, now I would have to ride it.

Claudio Marinangeli, President of the Eroica Foundation, manages a very well run event.

The Start Of Things
Saturday, I arrived in Gaiole in Chianti (the Eroica’s starting and finishing village), signed in, got some lunch and wandered around. I like old bikes. And there were plenty of delicious ones to drool over. Based on my informal survey, Bianchi was the most visible brand (and the brilliantly unique celeste color doesn’t hurt either). Colnago was probably the next most prevalent. But the prettiest machine was a swoopy, chromey Hetchins. While a lot of Italian was overheard, there was plenty of French, German and English – and if bikes are involved, the Dutch will be there, too.

This Gaiole native rode the first edition, but told me, “I smoke too much and got too fat to keep riding it.”

I decided that a good way to work off the hangover was to spin the legs a bit. It did not take too long to latch onto a group of Americans out for a recon of the course. John with a beautiful lavender Colnago from the early 70’s and Steve with an 80’s Gios and a lanky guy on a big Raleigh had all ridden before and had some helpful tips, like, “don’t brake on the gravel descents” – which is funny because that is exactly when you need to.

John and Steve, thanks guys.

Early Sunday
The Eroica is actually 4 different routes, the big one is 205km, then there is a 135km course, a 75km and a 38km. The two longer courses let the riders set off at 5am, into the dark, cold morning. One of the highlights for them is a candlelit path up the first gravel climb. Even though I had to ride this, the 70 one seemed long enough to represent our fine publication. Yet, I did concede to drive to Madonna di Brolio to await, cheer and photograph the first arrivals at 5:30am. While waiting, a race official informed me, “we already got a broken collarbone, after just 30 minutes! And it looks like rain, too.” Great.

Night riders, attacking the first gravel climb.

After a few blurry photos, I drove back to Gaiole. Coffee and a brioche in a bar that was showing the end of the World Championships in Australia. The crowd of cyclists was quite hopeful of Pippo, despite Super Mario saying that he’d never won anything important. They all agreed that the Italians looked good (I kept it to myself that Gilbert was a sure thing). OK, we were both wrong. One of Bartali s domestiques was in the bar – I forgot to write down his name. He approached me in his Atala jersey and thick glasses and gave me two sincere kisses while saying, “you’re looking really good this year, the team got some nice results too” [he had obviously mistaken me for a professional cyclist – yes folks, the PEZ Kit is THAT good or it’s senility]. At the end of the ride, I met one of Coppi’s domestiques still riding his 50’s Bianchi. He reported that he finished the whole 38km ride but, “got some help, some pretty big pushes on the climbs though.”

VIPs Welcomed
I put my press pass to good use to get into the corralled VIP staging area for the start of the two shorter routes that were supposed to coincide with a live national TV broadcast at 8:30am. A bunch of old guys (ex pro’s) were schmoozing around. Local hero, Daniele Righi from the Lampre team was also mingling (confirming that he’ll stay in Fuscia for 2 more years). I noticed a guy staring at my fishnet sprayed Moser from the early 80’s. It took me a second to realize that World Champion, 3 time Paris-Roubaix winner, The Sheriff, Badass Hardman, Francesco Moser was the guy. So I said, “I bet you like my bike, huh?” Moser nodded. “Well if you like it so much, I’ll take your picture with it.” He laughed and signaled me to come over.

Francesco likes my bike, note: the Trentino native snacks on an apple before the ride (the region is famous for them).

Amazingly enough, we departed at exactly 8:30am – a testament to a well run event, don’t forget, this is Italy. The first 8km were downhill and it was cold, cold, cold. There was no chance to warm up, the shivering barely helped. I pretty much let go of the handlebars fearing otherwise that I’d bring down some legend (imagining this headline, “Moser Crashes, PEZ Reporter To Blame”). The first climb rectified this. A stocky guy next to me huffed, “I’m strong, but not fit this year.” I countered that I’ve never been strong, but I was feeling pretty good, the tan lines were still sharp. It was an early reminder to all that this part of Tuscany is never flat, you’re either going up or down (and the roads are rarely straight either).

Ganna jersey + Ganna bike = great style, just like Magni.

This climb hurt a bit.

There are two kinds of Strade Bianche. The rough kind that has lots of ruts and holes and large chunky rocks pooled up in patches. And the smooth kind that features a flat-ish surface where most of the gravel has been pushed to the sides and lots of dust gets churned up. The very first stretch in the Eroica featured the former and was a rude welcome. Two bike lengths ahead of me, a cyclist blew out his rear tire on the descent. He barely (luckily) managed to control the bike to a stop. I asked if everything was OK while a friend of his stopped and they got to work fixing the flat. I would witness this scene many more times in the day. And can gratefully report that your narrator never had to get the tire levers out of the saddle bag.

Clinchers and tubulars both suffered in large quantities.

The most striking thing about L’Eroica was the welcoming, chatty spirit that seemed to effect everyone. We were riding hard, but there was a charming, personal / communal purpose to this whole endeavor that I had never experienced before. The list of people that told me their stories, their inspirations were many. Hearty Dutchman Marc, riding a Gazelle with matching kit, and I formed a compatible team for awhile. He guided the “safer” trajectories in the descents, while I paced him up the climbs. Marc came with a bunch of compatriots (all riding the 200km course) together with a group of Italian friends. Marc explained that, “six years ago, my friend took such a good picture of a Eroica participant, that he promised to find that person and give them a copy of it. The next year, he found him and they became good friends.” Now this enlarged Italo-Dutch pack has been riding the Paris Roubaix sportif and Eroica ever since. They also insisted that these rides were only fun if it rained. They were soon granted their wish.

La Gazella, Marc.

Food & Rain
As we pulled into Radda in Chianti for our first control point and snack, the light hazy clouds darkened and thickened. The citizens of Radda put out a wonderful spread highlighting the gifts of their region with cakes, olive oil and honey soaked breads, jams, biscuits, pies and so on. One of the guys I had been riding with informed us that we were riding about 23km/h average (he had a computer) – not bad considering all the climbing. I pushed as many sweet things into me as I could, in as little time as possible, hoping to get in some more kilometers before the rains. But I didn’t get very far.

A wonderful delight for hungry cyclists.

While my 25 year old, hardened Modolo brake pads squealed terribly in the dry – warning everyone to make room for the flying Yank, in the wet they were pretty much useless (but at least they were silent). The sudden, torrential rains brought up the oil on the asphalt roads, making for some very wide, upright turns. I was using all of the road and the traffic wasn’t calming my nerves (note: the Eroica does not close the roads). I was soaked in seconds and then dropped my chain as an exclamation point to the whole situation. It was time to reassess things in a bar over a coffee and a soul warming grappa. Three French riders and a German also had the same idea.

These descents get pretty tricky when muddy.

We all decided to take a short cut that would save us about 15km. The strade bianche turned into a coffee with cream, soupy concoction. The German and I rode at the same pace, leaving the French guys behind. He explained that his metallic green Atala had, “belonged to my father, an ex racer. Not too long ago he got quite ill and I decided to restore his bike as a tribute. The next logical step was to race it, so L’Eroica seemed like destiny.” The road back to Gaiole was a nasty affair, we each took turns crashing through the obstacle course of ruts, pools and pits, both of us quite content to cut the ride short.

A Savory Conclusion
I changed into dry things and spent two hours watching the arrival of other riders. In addition to mud, all wore smiles when crossing the finish line. A few were banged up bad, but even they were pleased, maybe even more than the others. A day or two later, it struck me that the L’Eroica is kind of like finocchiona or fennel salami, a Tuscan specialty. It is said that if your host serves finocchiona, beware; its dominant flavor masks foul wine. However, this salami tastes so good that the concession is worth it. Likewise, the elegant bikes, the beautiful landscape and the welcoming community of cyclists make all the danger worth it – actually, I would proffer that the Eroica’s salami is inherently tied to its foul wine. Reissner promised that we’ll do it next year, so I might try the 135km… then again, the 38km also sounds pretty good.

I’d like to thank Giancarlo, Claudio, (press man) Livio and the rest of the Eroica staff for putting on a great event. L’Eroica website: www.eroica.it

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