A vintage bike rally in the Chianti region of Tuscany.

Okay, for those who know nothing of this event, it is a bike ride held once each year in October which begins in the village of Gaiole in Chianti. Its purpose is to celebrate the golden era of cycling which emphasizes mechanical simplicity over technology and the heroic struggle of its riders against the conditions. The route is a 205 km circuit of the Chianti region on local roads which include the Strada Biancha (the white gravel roads) found in this part of Tuscany. The route circles and crosses this very hilly region and features many challenging if not downright vicious climbs. It is attended by 5000 riders, 80% of whom are from Italy. The remaining 20% are from other nations, including the US.

This year I will be riding the 205 km distance and my stepson Justin will be riding the 135 km route. We will have the same start time and share the same route for the first 50 km or so. After that it will be each man to his own, along with the other 4998 riders. My ride is a 1974 Legnano Gran Premio while Justin has a 1983 Bianchi Nuovo Racer.

We arrived just after 5 am at the start line to find a long queue of riders waiting. Each rider had to sign in and get their start time stamped on the card. It took about a half an hour before we reached the front and started our ride. My friend Bob Owen, also from Utah was just ahead of us and waited so that we would start together. We had been chatting with fellow rider Terry from England in the starting queue and the four of us were underway at about 5:40 am as we joined the long stream of riders in the darkness.

The route was an easy cruise until we hit the first climb up to the Castello di Brolio. It was rough pavement with some dirt sections and seemed hard at the time. Little did I know that this would be one of the easier climbs we would do this day. Once over the top we now hit our first dirt road downhill. It was steep and sketchy with some very loose sections. You had to pick your line carefully which was hard because of the many other riders, often 3 abreast on this narrow road. Bob was just ahead and Justin was just behind me but you had to keep your eyes on the road ahead. I heard a crash behind me but could not look back, I hoped that Justin was not caught up in it. Farther down this dirt section gave way to some bad but welcome pavement and I pulled over to wait for Justin but he was not there! I waited several minutes calling his name. It was still dark and all I could see was headlights coming at me but finally he arrived. He told me that he had crashed in a loose section and went down hard. He was okay but the front brake was no longer working properly. There was little hope of fixing it in the dark so we went ahead hoping to find a street light to work under. A couple of kilometers up the road we found a Carabineri parked in his car so we used his headlights to do our repair. We would not see Bob again!

We continued onward as the morning light came on. There was no breaking dawn because of the low cloud layer and the valley mists but there was one scene that I will remember for a long time. Just before the descent into the outskirts of Siena we had a view of the old city. The Church towers rose tall above the city and the bells were ringing. What an amazing moment, with the view of the city, the morning mists, the sound of bells and us, on a bicycle ride in Italy! You just had to be there to appreciate it! If we saw nothing else of Italy this moment was worth it all. In the early light I could now see the effects of Justin’s wreck, his bloody elbow and the dirt scuffed jersey. As other riders came up and passed us by they would often give a thumbs up or other comment of encouragement. I even heard a couple of comments of coraggio (courage)! Italian cyclists have great admiration for bravery in the face of adversity.

The first rest stop (ristori) in the village of Radi came at kilometer 47 and was quite a crazy scene. This was a rest stop for all riders on the course and was super busy. After getting my card signed I had to elbow may way up to the food tables. At first it seemed that it was poorly organized but there was really no way to handle a crowd like this. You just had to go “Euro style” and shove your way through if you wanted some food! The fare at this stop included fruit, bread and some cheeses.

At kilometer 63 our courses diverged. Justins route took a left turn and I took a right. Up till this point the climbs hadn’t been too serious but I had a feeling that was about to end. We said Ciao and Arrividerci and each headed off to our own adventure.

From this point I don’t remember the next section specifically other than to say there was a lot of the Strada Bianca and there began to be some very difficult though short climbs. I was able to get over quite a few of them with some effort but eventually there came one where I just had to get off and walk.

My bike is a 2×5 speed with a bottom gear of 36 x 30 which really isn’t too bad but I still needed more. Some of the grades exceeded 20% and were gravel as well. My strategy was to save some energy by walking these steepest sections and hope to ride stronger later.

What I did find, to my surprise was that even though I got passed by many riders on the hills, I would soon catch them on the descents and the flats in the dirt road sections. My Legnano has lots of clearance for fat tires and I had put on some 32c Panaracers. These fatter tires gave me lots of control in the dirt and I would just cruise on by bikes with skinnier tires. The skinny tired bikes were also much more prone to flat tires and there were hundreds seen during the day. I however did my ride flat free!

According to the route guide the next ristori was in the old mountaintop village of Montalcino. I got a little nervous when I saw no sign of it as I went through the town and then started the descent to the valley below. I did not want to have to climb back up the grade if I had missed it somehow. About 5 km past the village there it was and a welcome sight at that! I downed some prosciuto, bread dipped in olive oil, a little cheese and some chianti. Presto!

Leaving the Montalcino stop we were immediately back on the Strada Bianca and once again the hills were challenging. I was happy to come across this sign at 100 kilometers since it meant that I was halfway done.

In this section were some of the toughest climbs and descents of the day. They were generally steep and short but there was always another one coming. I also had my biggest scare in this section! I came over the top of one climb on pavement and the sign ahead indicated the coming descent was a 16% grade. I thought “its paved, no problem” and let it run a little bit. I was probably doing 30 mph or so when I saw ahead that the pavement ended. I got on the brakes as hard as I could because I didn’t want to enter the steep gravel section going this fast. My Universal sidepull brakes were simply not up to the task and I hit the gravel going way too fast! I tried to pick the best line I could and hung on for dear life. If not for my fatter tires I would have done a Hoogerland for sure. I was blowing by riders who were descending much more wisely than I but finally the grade eased and I could relax a bit.

About 10 km later there was a brief stop in a village by the name of Lucignano di Asso which I don’t recall seeing on the map. It seems to have been kind of a secret control but it was not a ristori. I needed water anyway and found some at the town fountain. Then this guy pulled in after me at the fountain on a great old bike. It looked to be a 1940’s single-speed with the fattest tubular tires I have ever seen. It looked like a perfect bike for this course, very heroic indeed!

The next ristori at Pieve a Salti was also quite welcome. There was a better variety of food here and I was able to buy a Coke at the hotel bar. It is amazing how good a Coke can taste at times! I lingered a bit longer here than the other stops and gave my food a chance to settle. I think it was here that I ran into Terry again, the rider we had started with. He had crashed and was loitering a bit at this stop. I do not know how he got on after this ristori.

The weather was high clouds all day with temps in the 60’s & 70’s which was perfect for me. Riding this route in warmer weather would be very hard indeed, or even worse a little rain would have made this a nightmare!

The section of Strada Bianca coming into Asciano was once again tough but not quite as bad as what we had seen earlier. I was hoping that the hardest part of the ride was behind me. This ristori seemed busier than previous ones, perhaps because people were resting longer here. I checked in with the “funzionari della stazione controllo” and got my card stamped then headed for the food. I did not stay long here just a quick snack and then on my way.

Mentally, I talked myself into looking forward to the gravel sections, my reasoning was that the more Strada Bianca that I did now, the less there would be later. Based on that, I was going to love what came next, perhaps the longest gravel section of the day.

I was feeling pretty good here, my strategy of not pushing too hard earlier seemed to be paying some dividends now when I needed it. The course also seemed to be mellowing just a bit and I felt that I was going along good.

Arriving at the next ristori at Castelnuovo Barardenga felt like a milestone. I did not know for sure what lay ahead but I suspected that the worst was behind me. The offerings at this ristori were back to the basics, meat, cheese, bread and wine. I ate what appealed to me and then found a little store where I bought a Coke and a Red Bull to throw in my back pockets.  There was one more ristori on the course but you never know what they might have. This turned out to be the smartest thing I did all day!

After Castelnuovo there was a wondeful section of paved road to Pianella. It was fast and smooth and felt like a freeway compared to some of what I had ridden earlier today.

At Pianella there was a junction in the course, one for the 135 km riders which went straight back to Gaiole and the other for me and the 205 km route. I was warned by a rider earlier today of a tough climb at this point but it turned out to be not too bad. It was a bit long, perhaps 5 km but it was only a 6 or 8 percent grade and I climbed it nicely.

I had already drank my Coke but still had my Red Bull when I pulled into the last ristori just outside of Radda. This stop turned out to have absolutely nothing, no food or water, it was just a control point. I chugged my Red Bull and prepared for the last section. To my amazement there was still a lot of climbing left to do. I was hoping the last few miles would be an easy cruise back into Gaiole but this was not the case. Only in the last couple of clicks did it really start to go downhill. In fact the bottom dropped out as we plunged down into Gaiole. I was gripping hard on the brakes as were the other riders that I was with as we tried slow our freefall into town. In the last couple of hundred meters of the descent I heard another riders tire explode, perhaps from the heat of excessive braking or possibly the result of damage accumulated throughout the day. Finally, back in the lights of Gaiole we were guided into the finish queue to receive our accolades!

Just as at the start, there was a queue at the finish. A long line of riders waiting to get their cards signed, have their photo taken and pick up some schwag. Justin was their waiting for me having finished his ride some hours earlier.

I can say that L’Eroica is truly an “epic ride” and I am honored to have participated in it. It easily ranks among the hardest rides I have ever done, especially at this distance. I will also note that Italian cyclists are among the most skilled riders I have ever ridden with. Their passion for cycling and its traditions is beyond compare. Thanks to the organizers of this event and the other passionate cyclists who participated for making this a most memorable event!

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