L’Eroica 2012 Remix
The 16th edition of l’Eroica was as brilliant as ever. For those who have been there, I know that this is an understatement and just a bit too obvious to mention, but it’s worth saying anyway, no?
Friends from London had to cancel 3 days before the event, so I got tempted to reconsider my own plans. I had expected to ride the 75 km route with the boys, just as we did last year, whilst the Brunette and the Little Brunette being on the 38 km route. Feeling a bit smug after having done the Geneva to Monte Carlo ride recently, I thought that I might attempt the Full Monty, the 205 km route. It is about 45 km more than the maximum distance that I have done in a day, on bicycle-friendly tarmac, and incorporates more than 111 km of strade bianche, but I thought, ‘It’s just one day. It should be doable.’ So, I left at home the Timothy Everest tweed breeches that I had planned to wear on the 75 km route as I did last year and instead took along the Rapha Classic bib shorts.
I have a terribly selective memory, so I remember all the positive bits from last year but conveniently forgot that the 75 km seemed like 750 km at the time. Therefore, I turned up at the registration hall on Saturday to pick up my number and gingerly told the man that I am doing the 205 km. By this time, I would normally be worried about actually completing it and whether I ought to be on either the 135 km or the 75 km instead, but surprisingly, no such thoughts entered my mind. Instead, I was worried about having decent meals this year since last year’s meals put a damper on the trip. Priorities, eh?
However, I was feeling optimistic generally. We found a lovely little hotel in a tiny, idyllic village 8.5 km southwest of Gaiole town centre. Last year’s hotel in Radda had a superb location, but the accommodation itself made the basic hotels used on the Geneva to Monte Carlo ride seem like Villa d’Este. Later that evening, we found that the trattoria, just 2 doors down from the hotel, serve excellent food. They were completely overwhelmed by the number of Eroica riders, their families and a handful of random tourists in the area. Their kitchen looked like someone dropped a couple of grenades because of the backlog, but the food was wonderful. Furthermore, their wine prices were not double but only a hair above retail. We ended up lunching once and dining twice at the trattoria.
Optimism still intact, I got up at 4 am on Sunday to discover that in the small hours it is very difficult to find the right part of the bib shorts to put one’s foot through. My foot kept going through the parts for an arm. This, you must understand, is not whilst being seated because I already had plenty of arse butter applied on my nether region and therefore couldn’t sit down before I slipped the shorts on. I finally managed to get dressed, ate the salami sandwich that the hotel had prepared for me the night before, took a dose of magnesium powder (another effective tip from Barney Ingram at Rapha Racing), slipped the empty A4 size l’Eroica registration envelope under my jersey as windproofing for my core, donned a Little Package cycling cap as I do on every ride, switched on the front and rear lights, and cycled to the Gaiole start line.
I knew that there are more than 5400 participants this year, but I was still surprised to see so many people in the queue for 205 km at 5 am. Anyone got coffee? No? Bugger. I checked in, got my initial stamp on my brevet card, and set off at 05:30. Pitch dark.
The first climb to Castello di Brolio was lit all the way up with oil lamps placed every couple of metres at the edge of the path. Lovely theatrical touch. It is all the more thoughtful as we were completely missing out on the scenery; the climb and the castle are really rather pretty when not in complete darkness. Several hours later, the Brunette and the Little Brunette, on the 38 km route, went up the same climb, and the Little Brunette managed to make it all the way up without dismounting. I was impressed particularly because I had finished building her cream-coloured Peugeot only a week before, and she got to ride it for the first time only the day before, in Chianti. Furthermore, the screw securing the right friction shifter had become a bit loose, so she had to hold up the shifter whilst climbing in order to keep the chain engaged with the largest rear sprocket. Not bad. At the top of the hill, she got an Italian mountain biker on the same route to identify and fix the shifter problem.
We found a mint condition vintage wool Cicli Patelli Bologna club jersey for her at the market on Saturday: proper old school stuff with chest pockets, as well as rear pockets, and chain-stitched embroidery on front and back. I am told that it attracted quite a few compliments, including a very enthusiastic one from someone who has been riding with the old Bolognese shop for a long time and had worn an identical jersey ages ago.
Speaking of what we saw at the market, Bianchi, who just signed a 3-year l’Eroica sponsorship deal starting next year, had a stall showcasing a dilapidated vintage lugged steel number that looked like they just fished it out of a skip (they probably need to learn a thing or two about bike maintenance) and some of the ugliest carbon bikes available on the market today. Enormous logos with a heavy-handed typeface reminiscent of a sign for a massive going-out-of-business sale… and most of all, I fail to understand how they completely ruined their famous ‘celeste green’ by tinkering with the shade, changing it to something that could have been selected from a catalogue of 1970s chromatic atrocities. Anyway, I digress.
It is difficult to say for how long we were cycling before dawn, but the sun still had not quite come out when we were spinning by Siena. By the time we got near our first feed stop at Radi, we had proper daylight. Even during this first period in the darkness, there were plenty of people at the side of the roads dealing with punctures, not a fun thing to deal with in the dark, particularly since most of the roads are not lit. I had 2 punctures this year. Following the first puncture, somewhere between Radi and Poggio di Montalcino, I lost my makeshift seat pack containing another spare inner tube, puncture repair kit, tyre levers, tools, front light, arm warmers and knee warmers. A real nuisance… When the second puncture happened right after the checkpoint at Lucignano d’Asso, Dutchman George from Zwolle, on a stunning ivory-coloured RIH, gave me a spare inner tube and waited until I was done using his tyre levers. It’s his third year riding l’Eroica. Perhaps it is just my imagination, but it seems that returning riders are generally more relaxed whilst the first-timers can be a bit anxious about completing the ride as fast as possible.
In contrast to the leisurely 14 hours that I took, the first-timer American staying at the adjacent unit at our hotel completed it in 11 hours. I was certainly tired after the ride, but the American looked really knackered when I saw him Sunday evening at dinner. ‘Destroyed’ is probably an apt description. There is no harm in setting performance goals and trying to achieve them, but at the same time, I think it is vital to remember that this is not a race.
Many purists and romantics use tubulars on the ride. I cannot imagine changing tubular tyres on a long ride with elevated risks for punctures. I saw many carrying half a dozen extra tubs on them — they knew what they were in for and came prepared. Last year, I had a 28 mm width knobby clincher tyre in the rear and a 35 mm in the front. Period-correct (French-made Michelins), but not exactly road-racing tyres. However, they were a dream when riding the gravel descents. I hardly used the brakes whilst others on light 23s were descending like old grannies. Of course, big, heavy tyres do not really help when climbing, but it is always choosing the right balance, as well as working with physical constraints posed by one’s frame set. The maximum tyre width that can fit on the frame set I used this year is 25 mm. The mistake I made is to just take a pair of 25s that I had lying around in my cellar without giving the treads due consideration. The mostly slick 25s did not have sufficient grip on the gravel. The descents got a bit tricky sometimes, particularly on washboard surface frequently found on any given stretch of strada biancha, and the sharp ascents on the monstrous Monte Santa Maria, a real bitch (the climb, not the Virgin), had my rear wheel just slipping all over the place whilst going up gradients approaching 20%. I ended up walking up a fair portion of MSM.
There were reports of a man who crashed and broke his leg and of another man who broke his hip. I do not know the cause of their respective crashes but am guessing that it happened on a gravel descent. Fitting the right tyres for the job is an important preventative measure to ensure one’s safety and enjoyment; I will need to give this a bit more thought next year. Amongst the bad news this year, the most tragic is the death of a 56 year old Bruno Marzi from Trieste dying of a heart attack halfway through the 75 km route.
111.2 km of strade bianche is long by any definition. It’s longer than the whole route I did last year. Although I started the day rather optimistically, having forgot the challenging bits of last year, it did not take too long until I was reminded of why this ride is uniquely challenging. The washboard surface on gravel descents is a real bone shaker. When approaching at any decent speed, it is impossible to see straight because one’s head and everything in it are shaking so violently. Actually, it makes the deteriorated cobbles of Flanders seem smooth as freshly laid tarmac. Usually, once one completes a climb, one is ‘rewarded’ with a freewheeling descent. Not here. After a bloody climb, there is punishment waiting on the descent. After the umpteenth descent, one ends up completing climbs with very mixed feelings… My palms are still a tad sore as I type this.
The feed stops are stocked with the sort of food that one cannot even imagine on other rides. Great bread, salami, prosciutto, fruits, red wine et al. None of the usual processed junk. However, all the goodness can be a bit too much sometimes: I don’t think I can even look at another slice of salami or prosciutto for at least another month. At the feed stop hosted by the Agriturismo Pieve a Salti, ribollita was being served. It was right around the time when the Brunette and the Little Brunette had completed the 38 km route whilst I had another 85 km to go. The ribollita was soooo good. I was tempted to ask for 2 more servings, along with plenty of red wine, and just pass out on the grass. I did not even ask for a second serving but did lie down. However, I knew that getting too comfortable would finish me off, so I got back in the saddle after a few minutes.
What was really lovely to see on the 205 km route is the number of men old enough to be my father, including one on a frog green Hetchins. His bright red Rapha jersey complemented his Hetchins rather nicely. I hope that I will be able to do the Full Monty when I am their age. Older women were also making their presence felt, especially the one that is probably about 10 years older than me, on a rickety old bike with suicide shifters, who kept overtaking me after I had caught up with her at feed stops. Hats off to all of them.
When I arrived back in Gaiole at about 19:30 and was about to join the queue to be photographed and collect my final stamp on the brevet card and the prize goodies, Luciano Berruti walked straight up to me and congratulated me. He shook my hand and gave me a hug. I was in a bit of a daze after entering a lit town following the last 2.4 km stretch of strada biancha in complete darkness, so I did not grasp the situation at first although I did notice that everyone’s eyeballs were on us. Whilst I was still wondering why he picked me to congratulate, he patted my left cheek a couple of times, said ‘ciao!’ and disappeared into the night.
The next day, we surmised that it was probably a case of mistaken identity. Luciano probably thought that I was a member of the l’Eroica Japan delegation, who participated this year and are said to be launching a Japanese edition next year. Whatever the case, I got a greeting from the Eroica Dude himself to end the ride on an even higher note. Hysterical.
The commemorative 2010 Chianti Classico is not a shining example from Ricasoli, who actually do produce some marvelous Chiantis, but that is hardly the point, is it?
L’Eroica: categorically unfashionable, incredibly stylish, ageless and timeless. The best party in the world. All thanks to founder Giancarlo Brocci. Bravo.