"So what's the best ride you've ever done?"
If you'd asked me that prior to October 5th, 2014 I would have hesitated. Was it some California "epic?" That time I got second place in a Cat 4 road race? Those glorious few moments between my father pushing me and my face hitting the street when I pedaled a bicycle without training wheels for the first time and suddenly knew what it meant to fly?
"I dunno," I'd have eventually replied before growing bored with you.
Now, though, I can answer that question in a single word*
*[Or technically two words if you consider the letter "L" followed by an apostrophe to be a word.]
Yes, when you consider factors such as surroundings, terrain, weather, companionship, and sheer pounds of salami consumed per miles pedaled, it's no contest. L'Eroica takes the cannoli.
Here's how it all went down.
On the Friday before the ride I landed in Pisa, upon which I immediately hopped in a cab and ordered the driver to take me to the city's eponymous tower:
It was crooked, all right.
You've probably heard the saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Well, there's also a lesser-known saying, which is "When in Pisa, make sure you get a picture of yourself pretending to hold the tower up:"
Though frankly I think it's a lot more fun to take pictures of people pretending to hold the tower up, but without including the tower in the shot to provide context:
This way they look like they're practicing tai chi, attempting to watch a solar eclipse without blinding themselves, or simply losing their minds.
Next, a small handful of journalists and I were loaded onto a van by a member of the Brooks
"secret service," blindfolded, and driven to a beautiful estate in Gaiole in Chianti:
Where we were herded into a basement and made to appreciate wine:
Unfortunately, cyclists are a notoriously uncultured bunch. Come on, who wears shorts a cycling jersey to a formal dinner? Would it have killed you to put on a shirt?
You can't take bike people anywhere.
I mean, sure, I was wearing a jersey too, but at least it was of the tuxedo variety
The next morning, we headed into the town to choose our bicycles:
Ambling along the main street like gunslingers in a frontier town, we eyeballed the competition:
As well as the dizzying array of vintage bicycles on display:
Though not every bike at L'Eroica was, strictly speaking, kosher:
Riding Spinergys at L'Eroica is like eating bacon at a Passover Seder.
We then followed some shifty-looking men into a dark storefront full of bicycles I can only assume were stolen from last year's L'Eroica and allowed to pick our rides. This is the one I chose:
With its Swiss frame, Japanese components, and fine English saddle
, there was virtually nothing Italian about this bicycle. However, I had considerable experience with this particular vintage of Shimano 105 components having once owned a similarly-equipped bicycle, so I knew them to be solid and reliable. In particular, I knew that the brakes were some of the finest single-pivot calipers available:
Though their stopping power was somewhat mitigated by the L'Eroica-mandated non-aero brake levers, complete with crumbling gum hoods.
The bike even had six (6) cogs in the rear, which is positively decadent by L'Eroica standards:
Once we'd all chosen our bicycles, we set out on a brief "shakedown" ride straight up a mountain::
Which afforded us a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside:
Apart from an occasional and disconcerting groaning sound from my front wheel's worn hub bearings, I was convinced that my bicycle would more or less hold together for the main event, and that if anything was going to undermine my ride it would be my own legs.
After the test ride, we fanned out and browsed the massive vintage marketplace which had taken over the entire town:
One could very easily arrive in Gaiole in Chianti without a single piece of equipment and purchase everything one needs for the ride at the market. There were jerseys:
Stacks of rims as tall as a man:
And of course parts ranging in age from old:
So old, in fact, that they date back to the time before colour was invented:
In those days, everything was sepia.
This isn't to say there weren't "weight weenies" back then. For example, the sub-10 kilo lantern was a hot item in those days, and the most fastidious riders weighed each component on scales accurate to within an Imperial pound:
The point is that the vintage market at L'Eroica is the best place in the world to find that old rod shifter you've been looking for:
And it was so overwhelming that I collapsed face-first into a pile of old leather shoes:
Even more astonishing than the marketplace were the participants, which included long-distance touring tall bikers:
Old Testament prophets quaffing wine:
Old-timey clothing enthusiasts of every stripe (just as long as that stripe was made out of tweed):
And of course dogs equipped with cutting-edge turn of the (last) century sports eyewear:
Finally, the day of the big ride was upon us, and the Brooks squad assembled for a team photo:
(I'm the white guy in the wool jersey and cycling cap.)
It should be noted that I am smiling despite the fact that my knee is in gravel, my shorts are too tight, and I am suffering from the sort of abdominal bloat that accompanies long-distance air travel followed by excessive salami consumption.
What I'm saying is my "baggage" was still going around the "carousel," if you know what I mean.
"Would you take the goddamn picture already so I can stand up again?," I heroically did not shout at the photographer:
Once we'd been photographed for posterity, we joined the massive line at the start:
And finally, we were off!
I should add that I mounted a video camera to my bicycle's seatpost, so I was able to capture all of the action that took place behind me:
For example, here are some riders dealing with a mechanical:
Though upon closer inspection it looks like they may have been...somewhat overcome by the spirit of the event:
Before too long there was the sound of dozens of riders who had not used a downtube shifter in 20 years throwing their chains right off their cranksets as we geared down for the first section of strada bianchi
The climbs were steep, but there is something about the sound of gravel crunching beneath your tires that propels you upward:
Equally inspirational are the riders:
It's like rolling through a lavishly illustrated volume on the history of cycling:
Though you do have to watch out for the police:
For our part, the Brooks squad rolled along like a well-oiled machine:
Granted, our bikes weren't especially well-oiled--at one point an antique Huret derailleur committed suicide--but this only enhanced the heady atmosphere of the event.
Soon we made our first food stop at a café where I filled my already-distended abdomen with coffee, cake, and Coca Cola:
And then we regrouped and took off again:
Flying down a mountain road:
Until we were halted by our first--and only--puncture of the day:
Naturally we'd been wearing tubular tires bandolier-style across our chests as a sort of retro-style affectation, but it turns out they also come in really handy as spares when you puncture a tubular tire:
On we rode against a backdrop of wine grapes and sartorial elegance:
So forbidding was the terrain at times that even the World Champion himself was forced to walk:
Though fortunately there was always another World Champion right up the road:
There were also plenty of insouciant neckerchiefs:
And of course no shortage of voluminous peasant shirts:
It should be said though that the actual pedaling of vintage bicycles on gravel roads past stunning scenery is just a part of what makes L'Eroica so seductive, and the imbibing of liquids and consumption of foodstuffs warrants its own separate account:
See, your typical charity ride rest stop involves some sorry card tables piled with flatulence-inducing energy bars and gels.
At L'Eroica though you roll into a storybook village on top of a mountain:
Where you are plied with wine:
Stuffed with food:
And served with smiles:
This hazy photo may look like it was put through some sort of Instagram filter:
But I can assure you it's merely oil from my greasy fingers, because I was downing salami slices like they were incriminating documents and my face was a paper shredder:
This particular food stop was outside of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini:
Which is a veritable Temple of Meats:
Filled with deliciousness:
And presided over by an Italian Meat Celebrity named Dario Cecchini:
Who was naturally on hand to feed and entertain the riders:
And if you somehow missed that stop of course there were plenty more:
Where you could load up on food:
Plop down beside the strada bianchi
And fortify yourself with bread soup:
A single serving of this stuff will sustain you for about 20 miles.
Finally, full in both belly and spirit, we arrived back in Gaiole in Chianti, where there was nothing left to do but drink beer and watch the rest of the show roll in:
Certainly every ride can't be a giant costume party in an exotic location, but the very existence of L'Eroica puts cycling in perspective, and it serves to remind us all that equipment isn't everything and that no matter where we live and what we ride, sometimes we need less Strava and more mangia.