What's Cool In Road Cycling

E is for Heroic: The Strangely Beautiful L’Eroica

Travel: The roads beneath your wheels are unpaved, hard packed white earth – “strade bianche’, the ride rolls before sun up, and you’re surrounded by cycling ghosts from the last century – it’s L’Eroica. In early October, Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours led a group of guests into the cold, and into an historic time-warp.

L’Eroica is a ride unlike any other. Running for the past 12 years as a cyclosportif in the Tuscan hills around Siena, it gave birth to a pro event that now runs in the Spring, and rivals Paris-Roubaix as a hard-man race. But the original still goes in early October, and attracts hundreds of cycling hard cores who want to experience the suffering that comes from 38km, 75km, 135km, or 205km loops over an endlessly hilly mix of pavement and hard packed white dirt roads – the famed ‘strade binache’ that give this ride a character unto itself.

The brutally cold winter of 1944 in the Belgian Ardennes gave soldiers a reference point for tolerance of the cold for the rest of their lives. “At least it’s not as cold as Bastogne in ‘44”. Comforting and disturbing at the same time. October 5th, 2008 gave me a new reference point for my intolerance of cold. “What’s the temperature this morning?” “It’s cold, but not Eroica cold”.

Tuscany at 6am, in the pitch black and shivering uncontrollably feels the same as Prospect Park in Brooklyn in March half a dozen years ago. It wasn’t fun then, but surely this will be different, I kept telling myself. As 10 of us-groggy, yet strangely chatty-packed into our van and rolled out of our hotel in the dark, 35 degree morning, the words from a guest last year popped into my head. “I have my doubts, but spirits are high…..”

The small village of Gaiole in Chianti, unchanged for hundreds of years and representative in so many ways of the Italy time has forgotten, had been transformed into what can only be described as a movie set for the start and finish of the event. Suddenly hundreds of cyclists in wool jerseys stitched with the names of local clubs and bike manufacturers, tires crossed over their shoulders, were rolling across the cobbled streets.

Some rode thinly tubed, traditional steel bikes, others on more vintage machines harkening back to the 20’s and 30’s, the nasal clearing scent of embrocation in the air mixed with the hum of chatter as small groups of riders assembled haphazardly in the street. A marching band was heard in the distance, somewhere near the official start line and classic cars with running boards and huge head lamps, spectators in wool hats and pants filled the streets. This certainly was not the Tuscany I was familiar with, and certainly couldn’t match the early morning registration at Prospect Park. The other oddity was how crisp and ruthlessly cold the morning was. It was Eroica cold.

Any event in Italy that includes more that three people will always have multiple opinions, a lot of agitated conversation and more gesticulations than a group of overly enthusiastic circus clowns. And while retrieving registration packets I half expected someone to bring in the elephants. After 45 minutes of negotiating Italian “event organization inefficiency” and a wooly mass of humanity that ranged from the elegant and eloquent to the fat and frumpy – Italians don’t believe in queuing, they use the rugby scrum approach – we emerged relatively unscathed with our packets, ably helped when our former pro and Velo Classic Tours guide Olivia Gollan was recognized. With numbers pinned on, bottles filled and jerseys stuffed with food, we were ready for our “ride through history”.

That’s Pete with one of the ‘ubiquitous’ moustached riders.

15 kilometers of gently descending road is typically a great way to start a ride, but not in sub 40 temperatures. Annually riding 140 km each on the Flanders and Roubaix courses had me well prepared for the ‘strade bianche’, so my main concern was fundamental – getting and staying warm. After a slow and shivery 25 minutes, the road rose sharply, and I headed onto the first gravel section as the numbness in my body began to subside. A couple of things quickly became the theme for the day: first, not all of these vintage bikes were suitable for riding to the grocery store, let alone tackling the Eroica; second, not all of these riders were fit enough to even ride to the grocery store; and third, a carbon fiber Seven V.II frame is the most comfortable way to get the task at hand accomplished, which mainly consisted of getting over and off the gravel as quickly as possible.

Although many riders choose anciently authentic bikes, modern carbon is a much more comfortable way t spend many hours on the strade bianche.

While the flat cobbled sections of Flanders- the Kerkgate or Haeghoek for instance- and the Arenberg forest of Roubaix are straight, the strade bianche of the Eroica are two things the Northern Classics cobbles are not- twisty and hilly. Very hilly. Now, before you jump on me and bring up the short and steep cobbled climbs of Flanders, the Eroica will never match the brutality of the Koppenberg or the mystique of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. But loose gravel on pitted, lumpy and rutted roads that snake sharply up, then zig zag across, and finally steeply down (15%!) for up to 15 kilometers at a time demands an intense level of physical effort and mental concentration that , well, lets just say many of these riders were not prepared for.

I was now too warm and sweating profusely, but there was still a chill in the air and the sky threatened rain. I rejoined my group of four a third of the way into the 135 km loop after my “I’m so cold I need to stop” break, while our other group was on the 75 km course. A shorter ride, but they were worse for wear after getting the brunt of the rain showers that passed. As much as I’ve ridden in Tuscany (I’m not bragging, it’s part of the job!) and as well as I know the roads and terrain, the fact is the Chianti region of Tuscany continues to be very hilly. The effort required to negotiate the strade bianche is then matched by the effort to get up and over the continuously undulating roads that connect the gravel sections. More comforting was the scenery. Painfully beautiful, and I never tire of the iconic elements that define it- tall and thin Cyprus trees rising above slanted vineyards, the token castle on a hill, with patchworks and shades of green, orange, brown and red layered across the horizon in stunning orchestration, it’s almost a shame to pass so quickly while descending, yet offers a visual distraction while ascending.

Call me what you will-a purist I’m not, I am a sucker for modern conveniences- but I opted out of the rest stop. The ribollita soup, prosciutti crudo and parma, pecorino cheese and sips of Chianti were tempting, but I’d save that for tonight’s dinner. With 100 km and 8 cumulatively destructive sections of gravel in my legs, Chianti wasn’t going to help. Dust covered and weary, my friend John and I rolled into Radda in Chianti and the 6 km climb that heads towards the Badia a Coltibuono- a 9th century Benedictine abbey that is home to the wonderful aromas from Paolo Stucchi’s kitchen and his cookbook famous mother Lorenza de Medici, and some of the best Chianti I’ve ever had-and our final section of strada biancha.

As we wisely paced each other up the climb – a tactic we overlooked on a few of the strade bianche as I discovered just how well our Classics trip would suit him- two local “scalatori”, in smart black and yellow wool jerseys with G.S. GIPPO stitched in cursive across their backs, latched on our wheels. I heard them coax their Campagnolo index shifters down a gear and their silver, lugged steel Cinelli bikes stayed glued to our wheels. Quite easily I may add. As we began our descent, they quickly rolled through and increased the pace. Soon we were riding single file and I found myself at the front, about to enter the last section, at an unreasonably fast pace. A few spectators and fatigued riders quickly moved out of our way as we slammed onto the gravel. A stunned photographer lifted his camera for a snapshot, and I was bemused. The other photographers on the course, when seeing me approach, politely lowered their camera, waiting instead for the ubiquitous shot of the wool clad old man with a handlebar moustache, gallantly willing his 40-pound bike across the gravel at a painfully slow pace.

My speed was uncomfortably fast, and one of the Gippo guys, as we brushed shoulders, calmly asked in conversation tone what distance I had done. “Cento trenta cinque” I managed to blurt out, between a curse and a grunt as I tossed across the ruts and through the potholes. “E tu”? I yelled. (I desperately wanted to add Brutй in there, but as much as he was killing me, this was not funny!) “Due cento”. 200. “Holy shit” I blurted. “Tu sei pazzo!” He was indeed crazy. And really strong as he skillfully negotiated the remaining stones like he was on smooth blacktop.

We celebrated our ride with a gourmet dinner at Villa Bordoni, deep in the woods of Chianti. We enjoyed thinly sliced beef carpaccio with green beans and a balsamic reduction, followed by ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta on red onion marmalade. The carnivorws enjoyed classic Bistecca Fiorentina with truffled mashed potatoes, and of course we drank quite a bit of Chianti; Poggio Scalette to be exact, one of my favorites. Pain does equal pleasure in our small cycling world, and it all wrapped up so numbingly nice with some cantucci and beautifully sweet vin santo. While the cold comes and goes, the sun rises and sets, and the wind and rain disappear, one thing is for sure, no matter where you may be riding, from Tuscany to Brooklyn, there is a little bit of Eroica in everyone.

Velo Classic Tours is the only luxury operator taking riders to l’Eroica. In addition, it will feature as one of their rides during their May Tuscany and Il Giro d’Italia itinerary May 17-24th. For more info, log onto www.VeloClassic.com or call Peter Easton at 212-779-9599.

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