There is truly something magical about Tuscany.
As I almost always avoid checking baggage when flying (unnecessary risk exposure), I was relieved to see the bike bag on the carousel as soon as it started running after our arrival in Florence. Emerging from customs and immigration, I immediately spotted my name, held up by the driver, hired to take me to my hotel in Radda, about 10km from Gaiole, the start and finish of L’Eroica. The driver spoke excellent English, educated English. I did not ask him what he should have been doing instead of ferrying tourists from the airport to their hotels. He accommodated my desire to speak Italian, speaking slowly, enunciating, paraphrasing when necessary, and suggesting the words that I couldn’t think of when I was speaking: The perfect welcome to Italy. It was Thursday morning and I had a couple of full days to cycle before Sunday’s event.
We were proceeding along a respectable SR (strada regionale) in the direction of Radda, when all of a sudden he turned off onto a small, winding SP (strada provinciale). “This is where you want to ride tomorrow”. He said. In the afternoon, I reassembled the bicycle, but did not ride because it was raining and I was tired. The next morning, I rode into Gaiole to make sure that I knew the route, as I would be riding it in the dark to get an early start on Sunday. I discovered that my large chain wheel had been bent slightly in transit, but the bike was rideable if I was careful about adjusting the derailleur to deal with the wobble. Gaiole was already being set up for L’Eroica with tents and stalls for vendors of bikes and equipment, and clothing. There was a carnival atmosphere already awaiting the 20,000 people expected for the event. I rode back to Radda via Vertine, testing my lowest gear on the steep climb and sampling the unpaved road. In the afternoon, I did the route recommended by my driver. At supper in the hotel restaurant, the maître d’hôtel and the waiter quizzed me about my heroic intentions. What distance would I ride? How old was my bicycle, and so on. The bike, by the way, is a Mariposa, custom made for me in 1983. It has a relatively long wheelbase, and with the flexibility of steel, is very comfortable to ride. The photograph below shows the bike on the road from Vertine with Radda in the distance.
The next day, I rode into Siena, a distance of just over 30 kilometres. It is easy to get from Radda to the outskirts of Siena, but confusing to find your way into the centre. I ended up near the railway station, across a valley from the old walled city. An old man was trudging up the hill in my direction, carrying a bag of groceries. I called him over, and asked directions. Before answering any questions, he admired the bike, asked about its origins, reminisced about riding and then began very detailed instructions for getting into town. He made me repeat them twice before wishing me well and sending me on my way. I figured out that with the bike in hand, the best people to ask for directions were old men.
I entered Siena by the Camollia gate. The year before, I had been cycling with a group and had visited Siena. I knew that there was a bike store just inside the gate. The store reminds me of the old Bicyclesport store on King Street, with high banks of old style display cases and old counters. As I had to buy a reflective vest for the early morning ride into Gaiole, I went inside. There were three old guys, almost my age, in earnest conversation with the proprietor. At the back of the store behind a counter was an old woman, sitting impassively, seemingly unaware of the customers. She was neatly turned out, wearing a silk kerchief. I surmise that she is the mother of the proprietor, perhaps unsafe to leave at home.
One of the three men was looking at bar end grips for his bike. The other two were offering advice. When the transaction was finished, they turned their attention to me, actually to the bicycle. Where was it made, the gear ratios, why was there no magnet for the cadence and velocity detectors? I made my purchase and the proprietor directed me to the best leather shop in Siena so that I could buy a purse for my wife. One of the men held the door open for me to go out. As I passed in front of him, he gently touched my shoulder and said softly “in bocca al lupo”, short for “buona fortuna nella bocca al lupo”: Good luck in the mouth of the wolf.
On Sunday morning, I set out for Gaiole to start as early as possible. At the desk of the hotel as I was about to leave, there was an Austrian, planning to ride the 209km distance. He was asking about parking in Gaiole. The clerk told him that it would be very crowded. I told him that I was riding in and knew the way. We decided to go together. We were on the road at 5:15. Thomas told me that he was forty. He looked very fit and I expected that he would make the distance. If you are over 65, as I am, the longest distance that you can register for is 135km, which turned out to be plenty.
When you get to Gaiole, you pass through a narrow gate where they inspect your bicycle and stamp your passbook. The man ahead of me at my wicket had cleats and was turned back. As the official ran his light over my bike, I asked if I was ok. “Perfetto” he said. Just inside the gate on the main street was a stand up bar full of cyclists gulping shots of coffee for the road. Thomas decided to go in. I had mariposas in my stomach and didn’t think that I could swallow anything. We wished each other luck and I set out, heading downhill out of Gaiole in a stream of cyclists riding faster than I preferred in the pitch dark. We swung to the left at the bottom of the hill. I hadn’t noticed any signs indicating the correct direction. I was sure hoping that my comrades knew where they were going. Soon we turned off the paved road and began climbing a gravel road through a forest. It was surreal. On the downhills, people passed me, descending in the dark on gravel, faster than I could comfortably go in the light on pavement.
At 7 o’clock, I took a picture of the sunrise. The Blackberry camera doesn’t do sky shots very well and the glorious red colour looks white in the picture. Rain was predicted for the day, but I had decided to go without rain gear, as I figured that the temperature would be high enough that my wool Mariposa jersey would keep me warm. After a while, as advertised, it began to rain. On the 135km route, the unpaved sections are neither gravel nor chalk and the surface rapidly turned to slippery mud.
At one point, we came down a narrow cart track (if you can really call it that) that had huge deep ruts eroding the descent, leaving only a narrow slippery crown that you had to balance on going down. A guy in front of me fell so I got off the bike and walked down. Later in the ride, the front derailleur of the bike would get clogged with mud and make it difficult to shift onto the smallest front chainwheel. One good choice of equipment that I made was my tires. I used Challenge 30mm “Strada Bianca” tires. At the ride, it seemed that most people were on 25mm road tires and I saw countless riders stopped with a wheel off and pump in hand. I must say that I dreaded having to change a tire, as I have a generator hub on the front wheel and need a wrench to get the wheel off.
At the first food stop, I saw a cyclist wearing a Marinoni jersey, so I introduced myself and asked if I could ride with him and his friend. He was riding a Marinoni and, in fact, turned out to be from Toronto. We stuck together for a while, but eventually separated because we rode at different rates. They went a little faster than I on the flats and, at least at first, I climbed faster than they did. At the beginning of the day I could ride up all but a few ascents sitting down, then I had to stand, and then after Asciano, which is followed by 3 very steep unpaved ascents, I started to get only partway up and then had to walk the bike up the last part of some hills.
Near the end of the ride, it was raining hard and I had my head down. I went down a descent and started to climb toward a chateau. Then there was a sign that said 25% grade. I figured that getting up that slope was going to be a long walk, so I took a pee, had a drink of water and ate an energy bar. At that point, I realized that nobody had passed me during the few minutes that I was stopped and figured out that I had taken a wrong turn. I turned back and eventually found the turn that I had missed and the stream of riders going by. The detour extended my ride by about 5k that I would have preferred not to do.
The food stops and passbook controls tended to be in church or castle courtyards, or in the piazza of an old village, with dozens of local people laying out all manner of sandwiches, fruit, stew and even wine. I decided not to have stew or wine, but ate lots and never got hungry along the way. In spots, people would clap as we went by and offer cut apple sections and water.
Finally, we rode into Gaiole, finishing between barriers holding back the applauding spectators, just like the end of a stage in a major bike race. We passed through the same gates through which we started, had our passbooks stamped, and received a little plaque with the distance ridden to hang around our necks. Gaiole was full of celebrating cyclists and their friends, and I really felt like having a beer, but I was feeling cold and knew I had another 10km or so to get back to my hotel. Radda, like most medieval villages, is at the top of a hill and there is a long ascent at a 7 or 8% grade to get up. I had to stop twice going up, I was so tired. Back at the hotel, I had Marcello, who was guiding an American group of cyclists staying at the hotel, take my picture. I had ridden a total of 160km in the day, in difficult conditions. I found it very hard, but had a real sense of accomplishment.
That evening in the hotel restaurant, the maître d’hôtel and the waiter enthusiastically asked about my day. An Italian couple at one of the tables, overhearing, entered the conversation. The husband told us that he had done the 75km a few years ago. An American woman at the next table mentioned that she had done 25km that day. At 135km, I was undisputedly the hero. I didn’t see Thomas again, but I am pretty sure that he made it, too. L’Eroica has turned into a huge tourist industry for one small town in Tuscany, offering adventure and excitement for all levels of riders and celebrating a wonderful aspect of Italian culture.
2015, October 11.
About L’Eroica: Started in 1997 in Italy, the Eroica is a celebration of the golden age of vintage cycling. Participants must use pre-1987 equipment with downtube shifters and external brake and gear cables. (Many of the bikes are 19th Century single speeds with wooden rims). There are now Eroica events worldwide, including England, California and Japan.