I returned to Gaiole in Chianti earlier this month for my third Eroica jaunt. It was a wet one, but like the previous outings, it was delightful on so many levels. On the other hand, it is always a humbling experience. The strade bianche are not for the sensitive cyclist. To ride it on a century-old fixed gear rig takes things to an entirely different level. It’s hardly the same sport.
I said ‘Ciao, Luciano!’ to Luciano Berruti, the Eroica poster boy, as we overtook him on one of the hills. He was riding the same event, but I know that the 72-year old on a rusty, ancient rig wasn’t actually riding the same route as me riding an 80s Eddy Merckx equipped with a 5-speed transmission the size of a luncheon plate. To him, the distance and the gradients meant something completely different.
Today, we ride lightweight bikes equipped with a freewheeling 11-speed transmission. And, we continuously fuss about this stiffness, that stiffness, rotational weight, power output, aerodynamics, etc, etc. Also, outside of the velodromes, we have come to associate fixed gear bikes with a certain urban subculture. Outside of English-speaking countries, all single speed road bikes tend to be called fixies regardless of actually being equipped with a fixed gear or a single speed freewheel. ‘Fixie’ has a certain perception attached to it.
It’s an image that is so far apart from the hard men of decades past, racing through white roads in the Tuscan hills or through the Alps, the Pyrenees and other mountain ranges across Europe. No smooth tarmac. No shifters. No freewheeling. Just one gear.
The men and women who earn their living as bike couriers in San Francisco… I don’t know how they do it on fixed gear every day. Seeing them going up to Telegraph Hill made me doubt my own eyes. It’s even more difficult to imagine how they descend a 31.5% gradient without brakes on the way back…
Thierry Saint-Léger did Evian-Nice in June on a fixed gear bike, assisted but non-stop. He actually used 2 bikes with different gearing: one for climbing and another for descending, but both fixed. 57-year old. A hard man.
It’s humbling to see these hard men and women. They put things in perspective.