Every October in Tuscany, something extraordinary happens: people are taken back in time to the glory days of cycling – the days before doping, computers and high-tech components could put one ahead of the rest; The days when bicycles were made of steel and wool jerseys were the norm. In those days, cyclists were on the same playing field; the only “secret weapon” was having access to the best pasta al ragu to fuel the ride. (Most Italians argue that their mom makes the best).
The cycling event L’Eroica brings back this nostalgia. Founded by Giancarlo Brocci in 1997, the idea of L’Eroica is to celebrate and bring back the essence of cycling. The focus is camaraderie over competition. To bring back that essence, retro clothing and classic bikes are essential. Additionally, a good amount of fatigue and suffering is necessary and to top it off, lots of wine and delicious food!
I was beyond excited to participate in this annual bike ride as one of 13 friends this year. It was especially exciting that for this traditionally male-dominated event, 12 of us were female. (Yes, there was one sole male among us…it’s debatable whether this made him the envy or pity of onlookers). This year, women accounted for roughly 10 percent of the participants, which is the highest it’s ever been. Our group of “Backroads Velociraptors” defied this disproportionate representation of women with our 12 to 1 female to male ratio.
Women empowerment was not our motive for riding, but rather a bonus. We were there to ride old bikes, hang out with friends, drink wine, be part of the excitement of the event and enjoy beautiful Tuscany. Really, I think that’s why most people ride in L’Eroica. It isn’t about winning or proving anything. It’s about the pure enjoyment of all that comes with this unique cycling event.
To participate, bicycles must be built before 1987 with steel frames, straps on the pedals, gear shifters on the down tubes and brake cables outside and over the handlebars. Wool jerseys, cotton cycling caps, crocheted gloves and leather shoes are typical attire. Some diehards wear the old-school leather helmets, leather goggles and bike tires wrapped around their shoulders. The people watching in itself is a reason to go to this incredible event.
The ride starts and ends in the small town of Gaiole in Chianti, one of the main towns in the historic Chianti Classico region. This must be the busiest time for this otherwise quiet little town. People in retro garb fill up the main street through town. Live music fills the air while bike mechanics set up shop to fix flat tires, barbers shave willing men, and bistro tables outside of cafes fill with people taking in the scene.
The morning of the race, our team outfitted ourselves in matching wool jerseys with our pink race numbers pinned to our backs (special pink tags were made for female riders…I wonder how this would go over in the states). We fetched our trusty steeds from the meat cellar where a local butcher allowed us to store them. Then, one by one, headed out into the crowded street filled with other cyclists. We quickly found ourselves stuck in the center of all the commotion, propelled into the limelight amidst a storm of photographers capturing the women of L’Eroica. After way too many camera flashes and instructions to look this way or pose that way, we were finally on our bikes and riding past spectators cheering us on as we pedaled out of town.
The route goes up and down the picturesque Tuscan hills, past vineyards, cypress trees and castles and through little towns like Panzano and Radda in Chianti. Much of the ride goes along the “strade bianche”, the white gravel roads that wind up and down, adding another element of difficulty to the ride.
We rode up the gravel road past the beautiful Castello di Brolio where Baron Bettino Ricasoli invented the Chianti wine formula in 1872. It seems fitting that the oldest winery in Italy and the inventor of Chianti has sponsored this vintage cycling event. Included in our registration box of goodies was a bottle of Ricasoli Chianti with a special Eroica label. We were also treated with generous pours of wine during and after the ride.
It rained off and on throughout the day, turning some of the gravel roads to mud. At one point during the ride we were faced with a challenging steep and muddy uphill. All around me, cyclists were losing traction and energy to maintain momentum. Pretty soon most people were walking…except for the Velociraptors. I felt so proud when I looked ahead and saw my blue jersey’d comrades powering up the hill with determination. It gave me the push I needed to stick it through to the top. We endured the suffering and cheered each other on as everyone in our group conquered the hill. The team spirit was strong!
The struggle of the ride was balanced with delicious gastronomic stops with traditional Tuscan snacks and plenty of wine to go around. Our first “aid station” was a bread stop in the town of Radda: It consisted of Tuscan bread dipped in wine and sprinkled with sugar (a traditional snack for kids), bread smeared with Nutella (not just for kids), bread with jam and bread soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with salt (my favorite!). That, with a cup full of wine hit the spot at the 40k mark, which was about half way for us.
For a quick “pick-me-up” we all went to the bar (Italian coffee shop) and ordered caffe corretto, a shot of espresso with a shot of alcohol of your choice. I like the caffe corretto con amaretto myself. The amaretto gives it a little kick with almond flavor and without being too strong.
In the town Panzano, the famous butcher Dario Cecchini came out of his shop to offer samples of salami and bread smeared with lardo (pure pork fat cured with salt and herbs…seriously heavenly!). His jovial demeanor is like a magnet and soon all of us surrounded him and photographers raced over to snap more pictures.
For lunch, Tuscan Ribollita stew was served out of a caldron, accompanied by grapes, jam tarts and of course Chianti wine! Ribollita is a thick and hearty stew made of vegetables and rustic bread and drizzled with olive oil. It was just what we needed to warm back up and give us our last push to the end. I don’t think anyone was missing the electrolyte powder, energy bars or goo packets that are so integral in other bike races. (A traditional Ribollita recipe can be found here).
Our final stop before finishing the ride was in the beautiful walled town of Volterra for Apperol spritz (and a glass of Chianti Classico for me). We toasted to our amazing day of riding together and took advantage of having this ancient little town to ourselves before cruising down to the finish in Gaiole, where crowds of people were gathered.
I’ve never participated in an event quite like L’Eroica. I don’t remember our finishing time, but we were out riding, eating, drinking, suffering and laughing all day. We got a “stamp” in our “passports” along the way to prove we did the route. After crossing the finish line we were all presented with medals to go around our necks.
There was no awards ceremony for the fastest and strongest. Instead there was a big pasta dinner with (you guessed it) even more wine to go around. In the end, we all understood and appreciated the Eroica essence. We were in it together and it will forever live in our hearts.
I am so impressed by all the beautiful photos that were captured at this event. I was thrilled that these talented photographers graciously allowed me to use their photos for this post. There are so many more amazing photos that can be viewed on their websites. Check them out!
http://www.nicolaughiphoto.it/eroica-amazons Photos by Nicola Ughi
http://www.eroicagaiole.com/photo-gallery Photos by Paolo Martelli
https://www.lisboncycling.com/blog/ Photos by Artur Lourenco
http://ladradibiciclette.it/leroica-10-buoni-motivi-per-andarci/ Photos by Mariateresa Montaruli