Strade Bianche has come and gone, epic landscapes, hard racing and of course dirt and gravel. Cancellara made it three in another amazing display of talent.
Following from this event, I spoke with Damian Hancock from A’qto Cycling about his experience riding many of the same roads while riding L’Eroica.
Words – Mike Boudrie and Damian Hancock Images - Damian Hancock
L’Eroica was established in 1997 by Giancarlo Brocci with the aim of honouring cycling’s history and reconnecting people to the heritage that has inspired so much in Italy.
The event also established a foundation to protect and preserve the last gravel roads in Tuscany.
Today the L’Eroica franchise has grown to several countries, but the original will always be in the heart of Italy. This ‘original’ event has strict maximum numbers, with 1,300 entries reserved for Italians…
Of course the main attraction, aside from the Italian white gravel roads, is the requirement to ride the event on vintage bikes. The rulebook goes for several pages on this. Basically your bike must be a ‘vintage road racing bike or so-called BICI EROICHE’. This mean’s pre 1987 or new build vintage style frame built with vintage parts. You can check the full rules here
Riders are also strongly encouraged to dress to match the era of their bike. It’s a spectacle that many fall for and return year after year.
Someone that has ‘fallen’ in such a way is A’qto’s Damian Hancock. I spoke to him about what makes this event so special.
THE BUILD UP
The L’Eroica festival is run for a few days before the ride. There’s an energy that builds through the small town as people arrive from all over the world. It’s fantastic staying right in the heart of the town if you can, so you can join in the festivities and hang around after the ride. It‘s a huge part of the enjoyment.
Before the event all the riders are finalising their preparation, getting things fixed or making last minute purchases… for me, that was a new set of singles glued on.
On the morning of the ride, the piazza fills and there is buzz, animated chatter in various languages, laughter and the excitement of what is about to unfold.
The welcome from a huge crowd of people when you finish the ride is truly unique. Whatever distance you complete, bike you ride, vintage attire you wear or nationality you are, your effort is celebrated. It’s a great feeling.
The roads are a mix of tarmac, gravel and dirt, the bitumen is perfect and well the gravel roads of Chianti are something else. The Strade Bianche really are special to ride. I recommend that everyone puts them on their ride bucket list.
The first section of dirt is 10km in. It starts at the top of a hill and is usually ridden in darkness… This makes for a hair raising experience as you complete the 9km descent.
Following the vintage ethos means that the lights I’ve used are weak, it’s tough to clearly see the condition of the road in front but other riders whisk by with no fear.
The adrenalin is high…. you then climb up to another hilltop and see Siena in the distance, basking in the first rays of the day’s sunshine… it’s something I will never forget.
To say that there are sections of the dirt that are corrugated and others that are deeply eroded is an understatement. You just need to hold on and keep the pedals turning and the speed up to get through it….particularly when it pelts down, like it did last year.
My first tilt at riding L’Eroica was a couple of years ago and happened to fall on my birthday. I didn’t have the pre ’87 steel machine that I needed for the ride… there was only one thing to do, buy myself a pre birthday present.
It took many circuits around the market over two days to see everything that was on offer and then work out what was the best option..
The result, a beautiful 1982 piece of magic from Cinelli, complete with Campy Record groupset and wheels. It was all fitted for me the day before the ride by the most experienced vintage bike mechanic I have ever spoken to. The experience of buying the bike at L’Eroica was just awesome.
Aside from the ride itself, there’s the biggest antique bicycle market that you will ever see. It’s a place you can lose yourself for hours, even days.
It’s the most joyous, open-armed welcome from a small town in Italy. From the shop owners to the residents, to the vendors who come from all over Italy and Europe to set up at the market. We love having a glass of Chianti in the piazza in the days leading up and just watching the people and the bikes come and go.
MEMORIES OF L’EROICA
There’s so many memories. The first rays of sunrise lighting up Siena, the dramatic landscape, the river of colourful woollen jerseys flowing along small cobbled streets are just some.
The best food-stops on any ride, ever and the women who serve you ribollita soup, the most amazing plum tarts and other Italian food delights.
I was passing an elder Italian gent in his 70’s, completely decked out in original, old school Bianchi gear on a beautiful steel Bianchi, looking very much like the stylish Coppi…. this was only 15k from the finish, having already ridden 120k. He was hunched over the handlebars, looking fatigued… I can speak the tiniest amount of Italian… as I rolled alongside I said to him "Tutto bene?", ‘all good?’ He just rolled his head to the side, looked at me for a moment and then delivered a long, drawn out 'si….' and that was it.
It made me realise the reward of riding L’Eroica, at whatever age or pace is really felt and experienced within. There are no expectations from anyone; it’s all about the joy of being part of it.
We’ve met a few people over the years, they all have a genuine zest for life, a passion for cycling… and an appreciation for being on a bike.
It’s a collection of people from around the world, sharing the same passion and joy of being there. It’s tough to get in to so you feel privileged that you’re there.
I love the hospitality of the Italians. The experience extends beyond the bike to the food and wine…the bar and restaurant owners who open up their hearts, their kitchens and their home made brews of limoncello and other digestives!
WHY DO YOU LOVE L’EROICA
For a start it’s in Italy…
The bikes… I just love the old bikes… for me they represent freedom and endless possibilities for adventure and new experiences. While we have all the innovation we do with carbon, the old steel bikes are just crafted so beautifully.
I also think there is an indulgence of riding in the same style kit, with the same steel bikes as the champions of the golden age, like Bartali, Coppi and Anquetil.
It’s a hard ride, but you can not help but notice the beauty of the landscape. You ride at your own pace with people enjoying the spirit of the event. There’s the sensational food and drink, including a little glass or two of Chianti along the way!
It’s not about my time or performance, it’s about the absolute simple pleasure of riding a bike in spectacular surroundings.
It’s a complete celebration of all the beautiful things about cycling. Challenging riding, spectacular landscapes, hills and gravel, freedom, fatigue, interesting people and conversations, awesome old bikes and old school gear.