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Times gone by: L'Eroica review

19 Dec 2019

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Surged Media

You know a sportive is special when current professional riders are taking time out of their schedules to ride it.

I’m sitting on a white plastic chair at a long picnic table in a large gazebo, which has been built and fitted with cute lights made out of woollen jerseys. I’m in the midst of a ‘pasta party’ which is now in full swing. Aged nonnas are pilling ragu al cinghiale (Wild Boar ragu) and ribollita (Tuscan bread soup) onto my plastic plate while bottles of local Chianti are kept suitably topped up.

A military band is pumping out ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ as the local carabinieri police force are bellowing out the words, one hand to the heart, the other wrapped around a glass of red. Then the compere takes the mic and in Italian says it’s time to introduce this year’s special guests, all of which will be saddling up in around eight or so hours time.

‘Francesco Moser, Erik Zabel, Koen de Kort, Jonas Forhlingher, John Degenkolb,’ are all met with cheers, before the last name gets the biggest cheer of all, ‘Marianne Vos!’

Vos climbs onto the stage. Cue more cheers. The compere, in Italian, asks her why she has come to L’Eroica. ‘It’s a special event and I’ve always wanted to ride it,’ she replies frankly. Ever the professional, Vos is on the water instead of wine but allows herself a two-step shuffle to an Italian cover of the Moody Blues' ‘Nights in White Satin’ by the musical act that follows the presentation.

Before too long, Vos slips out of the tent for an early night, unlike myself, undeterred by the following day's early start and encouraged by the bottomless Chianti still on offer.

Pure bliss

L’Eroica has grown massively since it’s inception in 1997. There are now six distances to choose from, ranging from a frankly leisurely 46km to a terrifying 209km. With so many options, it means the start pen in the alluring town of Gaiole in Chianti is a fluid affair.

Those tackling the longest route are long gone by the time I arrive (nursing the inevitable heavy head from the night before). They have set off knowing full well that the event's testing terrain and the unconventional bikes the event requires could see them on the road for 12 hours or even more. All of those started in the dark. Some will finish in it, too.

The bon vivant I am, instead of taking my own bike, I have left my fate to the gods and gone with the option of renting a bike on the day.

It transpires I have lucked out, being handed a well-kept Giant Speeder Lite with fancy mod-cons such as indexed shifting and a seven-speed cassette. It’s practically cutting edge compared to the three working speeds of the guy behind me who is quickly trying to calculate the chances of riding 80km on a 53/14.

Beyond him is another rider whose face of panic is even starker. Mainly because when he turns his handlebars, his front wheel stays dead centre, as if their movement is mutually exclusive.

I guess malfunctioning bikes, unseated tubs and limited gearing are just all just part of the charm. Either way, it sets the stall out for what to expect throughout the day.

The opening 10km is sedate, rolling us south from Gaiole down a gentle incline into the Tuscan countryside. The wind of the road allows me to spin the legs through the cool air and become used to the lack of electronic shifting. It acts as the perfect preparation for the first section of gravel and probably the most stunning piece of road I have ever ridden, the gravel climb to Castello di Brolio.

I’ve tackled the gigantic wilderness of the Colle Fauniera, stood toe-to-toe with the Telegraphe/Galibier duo and conquered the brutality of the Arenberg. But nothing comes close to the feeling I get rolling up the finely packed white gravel to this small castle and vineyard.

It’s not the scenery, as such – despite the visual delight of high cypress trees forming a muted guard of honour through the unblemished, snaking white surface funnelling you towards sunlight and respite. It’s the occasion.

As I approach the climb, the road forks into three, with the ascent being the middle option of the trio. Passing by a red brick church, the mass of steel frames and woollen jerseys slip through the large stone pillars and the sweeping bends towards Brolio.

It’s at this point that your mind starts playing tricks on you, transporting you back in time. Everyone’s commitment to character is enough to fool you into believing it's the 1960s again. The pedal strokes are slower and smoother, the arched backs a telltale sign of rising gradient. The colourful jerseys form into a technicolour peloton, all trying to negotiate the best lines in half-speed.

Tealights on either side of the road emit a warm glow underneath the chins of those riding, casting a sepia-like filter over their skin. Before long, we're passed by a 1950s flatbed Fiat truck, driven by a Rai Sports reporter relaying fictitious time gaps to the break.

I feel like I've been transported back into a past peloton – an era before my time and even that of my parents. A time when the idea of ride sustenance meant rare steak and brandy, and a recovery ride was 160km through windswept Flemish farmland. If L’Eroica exists for any feeling, it’s for that.

After descending from Brolio, we head south on a 40km loop through trademark Tuscan countryside. Every time I look up from the handlebars, it’s as if my eyes are capturing the perfect image for a postcard.

The neverending Chianti vineyards, each guarded by their own stone home; the Cypress trees providing periodic shade from the low October sun... the visual delights help the climb of Pievesciata breeze by. A short stop at the first feed zone – which deals exclusively in cheese and Chianti – and before I know it, I have already looped back to Radda in Chianti and the final half of the day’s ride.

When the going gets tough...

The climb into Panzano in Chianti would be fine on your modern-day bicycle. The road is smooth and the gradient steady at 4% for the entire 3km climb. But 60km into my steel slog, the Giant beneath me and its limited gearing are beginning to take a toll. If I churned any harder, I think my knees would turn into butter. The effort is made all the harder by the fact you can see the summit in the distance but it never seems to get closer.

Eventually it does, though, and eventually I reach an unofficial feed zone. Such is the community spirit behind the occasion, a local butcher has set up shop on the roadside to feed hungry riders with a white paste of pig fat spread over sliced white ciabatta. It’s not to my taste but it certainly appears to be to John Degenkolb’s. I spy him knock back at least three, all washed back with the obligatory swig of Chianti.

I’m not sure that dripping sandwiches are the ideal fuel for a 25% gravel climb on a 10kg bike, and from the number of fellow riders around me that have resorted to walking, I'd say my suspicions have been confirmed. The climb of Volpaia is claiming plenty of scalps – the mixture of steepness, fatigue and the loose gravel surface have my back wheel spinning like Grandmaster Flash’s mixing table but I have the strength to survive the climb’s savagery – just. Needless to say, Degenkolb dances to the top with the grace of a Strictly Come Dancing professional.

It’s a climb so tough that it demands yet another stop, this time at one of L’Eroica’s official feed zones. Again, there is Chianti and cheese on offer, but fortunately also some leftover ribollita from the night before.

There is also a small wood-fire grill being tended to by an ageing woman. Her name is Rosaleen Van As and she’s from Laingsburg in South Africa's Western Cape and she lives on the route of the L’Eroica in South Africa.

She’s also known for being the 'Queen of the Roosterbrood' for her panini-like bread made from flour, yeast, salt and oil, and she’s travelled over to make them fresh for today’s lucky riders. Hot from the grill, she slices the bread in half, slathering salted butter on both sides which melts instantly.

I take a big bite. The salt of the butter dances off of my slightly dehydrated tongue before being wiped back up by the doughy bread, heavenly. I take two further helpings.

With belly full of bread, I embark onto the descent into the village of Volpaia. At first, it’s manageably steep with sufficient margin for error if you happen to shoot for the wrong line but after a while what’s left of a road surface disappears.

The ruts become deeper and the loose stones become bigger. The steepness is unrelenting and I soon realise that any attempt to feather the brakes due to the surface is just making life harder.

I let go, shift my weight as far back as possible and say a little prayer. The pop of tubular wheels bursting around me sounds like gunshots and seem ten a penny as I head ever closer to Volpaia. With every ‘bang, hisssss’ your heart sinks at the possibility that this time the tyre is yours.

Thankfully, I reach the quaint village with my tyres intact, allowing myself a little smile knowing the most testing gravel sectors are now behind me.

From Volpaia, the road continues upwards again for almost 10km but the knowledge that the end is in sight is enough to power the legs through the final gravel sector that overlooks the town of Gaiole. 

Carefully negotiating the final sector, I drop down back onto the narrow streets where I started from that morning and through the centre of town to a rapturous applause to those who have already finished... and straight for another glass of Chianti.

Thanks to Abus Helmets for hosting us at L'Eroica. For more information about the German helmet manufacturer, click here