On a sunny Saturday morning I found myself waiting at the Siena train station to board a bus to Gaiole in Chianti. The purpose? To support some friends who were riding L’Eroica, and maybe to write a piece for submission somewhere.

Benvenuti a Chianti!

When the 12:50 bus finally arrived, I had already met two other cycling aficionados. I can’t count myself as one, but they were generally very happy to educate me in the world of cycling. L’Eroica is a special ride, though; it is dedicated to vintage bikes, vintage wear and the course goes along much of le strade bianchi, the “white roads” of cycling yore. To qualify as a rider, your bicycle must meet the following requirements according to the rules of the race:

• road racing bicycle, built before 1987 (not cyclo cross or time trial bike);
• steel frame (the only aluminum frame bikes permitted are ALAN or VITUS with either screwed or glued joints);
• gear shift levers on the down tube of the frame (exceptionally, only pre-1980 bar-end gear shifts are allowed);
• pedals with toe clips and fitted straps (quick release pedals are not allowed, except Cinelli M71 pedals);
• the passage of brake cable outside the handlebars.

I had no idea bikes ever had shifters anywhere but on the handles. Shows how much I know.

There are 4 different lengths of the race: 38 km, 75 km, 135 km or 205 km. That’s equal to 23.6 mi, 46.6 mi, 83.8 mi and 127.4 mi, respectively. That’s a lot of cycling. And it’s not easy cycling, either. Chianti, famous for its tasty red wine, is also notable for its gorgeous rolling hills. Lots of them.

Upon my arrival in Gaiole, I was blown away by the excitement everyone shared about their bikes. Rather than a beautiful woman turning someone’s head, it was the bikes. Bianchi, Raleigh, Colnago frames, Brooks saddles and all sorts of other reputed brands and components were the objects of everyone’s attention and conversation.

Plus, tons of people were decked out in vintage costumes, too!

One of the vintage costumes
Riding in to the finish
A man who dressed as the Red Baron and came in to the finish with red, white and green smoke for Italia!

On the day of the race, I rode into town from our accommodation in Castellare, 7.2 km from Gaiole. Tons of tents were set up selling everything from vintage parts to water bottles to items made from bike parts (like purses and the like), and, of course, vintage bikes themselves. One of my favorite tents was for Borracce di poesia, a poetry project that combines the love of cycling with the love of words. Borracce are water bottles, and the poems that go in them–all written by author and project mastermind, Alessandro Ricci–are dedicated to “those who pedal” and are inspired by cycling. They are currently developing a prototype of a bicycle, as well as having AWESOME t-shirts. I couldn’t help but buy one.

A photo from an exhibit about past L’Eroica rides. That’s how they roll in Chianti.

Some other interesting folks I talked to were a group of four men who came from near Florence. They had authentic vintage wear from varying historical periods; two had firefighting uniforms with the firefighting bikes that were once used as the mode of transport; one had a British WWI outfit and bike, and the last had a vintage outfit from a branch of the Italian army, circa one of the world wars. (Don’t remember which.) They said they had come to L’Eroica for the past 6 years just to be a part of the scene, and also to give folks some good photo ops.

Left to right: World War British soldier costume, 2 firefighter costumes, an Italian army costume

The number of participants in L’Eroica–which translates to The Heroic–is capped at 3,000: 2,200 Italians and the rest are open to foreign participants.  Because there are so many riders, and four different routes, the start times are staggered. As the first folks started coming in from finishing up the 38 km route, I started watching them cross the finish line. For most of the day I did this. Many people came in with big smiles on their faces, or with arms across each others shoulders showing their solidarity, proud to have accomplished such a feat. Even the 38 km ride is challenging, especially on the heavier steel frames of vintage bikes. I know that the 7.2 km uphill that we rode to get to our hotel for the night were the hardest kilometers of riding I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do 38 km–or 205!