A photojournal by graphic designer Ben Stott
Now in my fifth year, I’m very fond of the L’Eroica. After all, what’s not to like?
Beautiful old road bikes awash with classic Italian styling, sharp shots of espresso in the freezing mist, pit stops of Prosciutto, Parmesan and Chianti and those breath-taking, awe-inspiring rolling Tuscan hills.
For the uninitiated L’Eroica is a very special kind of cycling sportive (or ‘Cicloturistica’ as it’s known in Italy). The ride is held annually in Italy with the majority of the cycling taking place on ‘Strada bianche’ – the old, white dusty gravel roads that criss cross the Chianti region of Tuscany. You’ll need a road bike built before 1987 to take part and there are strict rules on the period specifications.
The inclusion of a lottery for places and some miscommunication meant I didn’t make the trip with my usual cycling buddy Ian. Instead I staying with friends from San Francisco, Mark and Kristine who run cycling tours in the area and share a passion for L’Erocia.
Our base was Villa A Sesta, 15km from Gaoile where the race departs. And it was under heavy skies that I arrived on Friday night after a long drive from Florence. All eyes where on the weather forecast for the weekend as we enjoyed some fresh pasta and a couple of glasses of local Chianti.
The talk soon shifted to tales of previous L’Eroica feats and hushed nudges of “That’s Dario Pegoretti sitting on the table opposite”.
Optimistic plans for a Saturday ride and a visit to the bike jumble in Gaoile where agreed as we headed to our beds with the rain beginning to fall ever more heavily. The weather then went from bad to worse with deafening thunderstorms all night.
The situation had not improved by the morning. Keeping busy putting my bike together after its travels, I resigned myself to possibility of not getting in a good practice ride and began to think about race day. The forecast was for more storms and heavy rain, I shrugged off the vision of setting off into a pitch black, cold Tuscan morning in the pouring rain.
That afternoon, for a brief moment the rain switched from tipping-it-down to regular just raining. We immediately headed off into the hills surrounding the Villa. We had climbed for no more than 30 minutes before the roads where thick with fog and the heavy rain resumed. It was a visceral ride, dodging the rivers forming on the roads and peering into the mist.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent using hairdryers on jerseys, shorts and gloves.
Saturday evening involved laying out kit in every possible configuration whilst listening to the rain and thunder. A well needed sleep didn’t come easily, eventually drifting off around 2am. At 4.30 I woke to quiet. The rain had monetarily stopped and the morning was still.
Mark had already headed off to Gaoile to leave as early as was allowed on the 205 km course. By 5.45am I was dawdling over a double espresso, discussing the weather, arm warmers and rain jacket options in a Gaoile cafe, eventually getting my card stamped and rolling off around 6am on the 135 km route.
On the dark ride up to Brolio Castle and the first stretch of Strada Bianche, I found myself discussing cycling and spirituality with an Australian Italian Greek Orthodox priest, before catching a group of dapper Brits straight out of Shoreditch, decked out in beards, tattoos and vintage wool.
Silence fell as a beautiful sun rose over picture book rolling misty hills… apparently there is a god and he has a soft spot for L’Eroica.
The remaining 100km was amazing, the hilly countryside had drained well and the rain had the added benefit of dampening down the usually dusty roads. That didn’t stop me witnessing a few spills as over ambitious riders descended on the muddy gravel.
The L’Eroica approach to ‘proper’ cycling extends to the food stops. You won’t see gels or energy bars, Instead chequered table cloths covered in huge plates of Prosciutto, bread, chunks of Parmesan cheese, fruit and nougat sitting alongside bottles of Chianti.
However it’s not called ‘The Heroic’ for nothing. Riding an old 12 speed bike with toe clips up 2,650 km of steep gravel climbs is far from easy. But descending down a beautiful winding road section at 75 km/h on a 35 year old bike wearing just a wool jersey and a cap reminds you why you came.