Riding L’Eroica with Brooks

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The white gravel crunches pleasantly underneath your steel frame as you roll over the beautiful Tuscan countryside where hilltops are dotted with ancient villas, vineyards, and small villages, like tiny fortresses built from stone against the blazing Italian sun. Passing and being passed alike by the colours and shapes of times gone by, you hardly need squint to imagine days when giants like Coppi and Bartali travelled these same roads. You challenge yourself up another epic climb, and find relief in the friendly hospitality of event volunteers, waiting for you and the other participants with much-needed refreshments. You made it to L’Eroica.

So began the description of L’Eroica that accompanied the invitation to attend as a guest of Brooks England, one of the main sponsors of the ride. Since prepping a story about this event for issue #11 (“Biking for Heroes” by Enrico Caracciolo), I’d been intrigued by this rolling costume ball in the Chianti region of Italy, and now I had a chance to go. Heck, it’s my birthright, after all.

L’Eroica, or “The Heroic,” is a celebration of the feats that were accomplished in long-ago races, when courses included the famed Strada Bianca white gravel-and-dirt roads and the bikes had to be tough enough to withstand them. Only “heroic” bicycles are allowed: steel-framed road racing bikes produced before 1987, with shift levers on the down tube, pedals with toe clips and several other period-correct specifications.

Here’s the bike I borrowed from the L’Eroica shop, located in the host town of Gaiole in Chianti: a ‘70s era Bianchi. I didn’t get a chance to ask for a specific year from the harried mechanics who were madly prepping bikes for the ride.

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And here are those harried mechanics. They changed tubular tires and reamed rusted seatposts like the wind.

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The event takes up the whole weekend, with press conferences, an open-air market, a group dinner and other extras happening on Saturday, and the rides on Sunday. We also checked out some new saddles and bags from Brooks (more on that later).

The market was like an Italian bike museum with the displays offered for sale. I was fortunate to spend some time there with Bregan from Brooks, who met up with his friend Dustin from Cicli Berlinetta in Berlin — both of them knew all kinds of interesting details about the bikes and parts, including the fact that a Campagnolo gruppo increased the local value of any bike by about 1,000 Euro.

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Ride participants can choose from 38km (“short”), 75km (“tourist”), 135km or 205km routes; the assembled group of Brooks dealers, staff and media were only tourists for this trip, but that was fine — the route offered a nice mix of sight-seeing and heroism on the hills, with enough time to enjoy the well-stocked rest stops.

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We had matching vintage-style wool kit from DeMarchi and John Boultbee, Brooks’s clothing brand, with “1866” emblazoned on the front and British flags on the sleeves. It was cool to be part of a “team” — we could easily spot one another out on the road amidst the 5,500 other participants.

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One stop featured my new favorite mid-ride snacks: a wonderful trio of bread dipped in wine and sprinkled with sugar, more bread dipped in olive oil, and to finish, bread with Nutella. The later stop offered more hearty fare for the brutal climbs ahead: prosciutto and salami, walnuts, figs, and a local bean soup, plus the local specialty Chianti wine.

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The ride was beautiful, and difficult, and wonderful. I had been worried about the tubular tires on my borrowed bike, and sure enough, I got two flats — and wasn’t prepared with spares. But I got a chance to meet and talk to some fellow riders who were prepared, and who generously helped me out. Alessandro and Ettore were two such people. I’d spotted their friend Fabio riding an adaptive tricycle similar to one I’d seen with Ride2Recovery at Interbike, and started to ask some questions. Alessandro graciously stepped in to interpret, then we continued chatting.

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The end was a big celebration. Everyone had smiles on their faces. The crowds kept cheering on into the evening as the truly heroic 205km riders came in.

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One big announcement from the weekend was that there will hopefully be a British version occurring in 2014, L’Eroica Brittania. Check www.eroicabritannia.co.uk for more info.

And definitely make plans to go to either, or both, if you can.

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