L’Eroica: the Most Classic of Rides

L’Eroica: the Most Classic of Rides

L’Eroica: Over the course of the 2012 season Team Sixcycle-RK&O has participated in races and rides from Italy to California. However earlier this month Team Sixcycle-RK&O’s Ben Fackler participated in perhaps the most epic ride of the year: the 16th edition of L’Eroica. His report from this most classic of rides, covering 125 miles – much of it dirt – and over 12,000 feet of climbing, is included below.

L’Eroica Garmin Ride File via the Sixcycle Training Platform

The Sixcycle Training Platform ia a web-based and mobile training center. The platform facilitates the design and implementation of training plans, the assignment and tracking of workouts, the administration and reporting of performance testing, the development of training zones, the evaluation of HR and power files, and the management of client correspondence, among other functions. Click through to visit the Sixcycle Training Platform and review the Garmin File from the 2012 L’Eroica.

http://training.sixcycle.com/ride_detail/MzEzMg==/

L’Eroica Ride Report from Team Sixcycle-RK&O’s Ben Fackler

October 7, 2012 saw the 16th running of L’Eroica, an event dedicated to the preservation of the vintage cycling tradition and the Strada Bianche of Tuscany. I don’t recall where I first heard about this race, but the appeal was immediate, almost visceral. Steel bikes, steep hills, tough gearing, rough roads, hearty Tuscan fare, Chianti wine…I had to do it. The occasion of my 40th birthday offered the perfect opportunity.

L’Eroica literally means the “heroic.” The name is not an attempt to elevate the race above the mere epic rides of today. Rather, l’Eroica seeks to honor and foster an appreciation for historic cycling. One thing you learn grinding up yet another steep, gravel climb in caged pedals on a heavy, high-geared vintage bike is a healthy respect for those who rode and excelled on similar machines and roads in the past. Not that today’s riders suffer less or have it easy. But riding a vintage bike is simply more demanding, and somehow more pure, than the high tech bikes of today.

The Strada Bianche are Italy’s version of the pavé of Northern Europe: white gravel roads, or sterrati, that crisscross the Tuscan countryside. The roads are often hundreds if not thousands of years old. The parcours included stretches of the Via Francigena, an ancient road that ran through France to Rome and a major pilgrimage route from at least the 8th Century A.D. Road conditions range from relatively smooth to potholed and washboarded, from dense hard-packed gravel to sand and loose scree. Multiple stretches have patches of old paving stones appearing seemingly at random, ready to swallow or slice a tire. Like their sister roads in Northern France and Flanders, the Strada Bianche are under threat from both neglect and development, but this race, and the recently spun-off spring pro cycling classic that follows a similar route, have helped galvanize support for their preservation.

The rules of l’Eroica reflect the ethos of the race. Participants in all but the shortest route must have a pre-1987 steel road bike, with down tube shifters, toe clip pedals and brake cables outside the handlebar tape. After scouring around eBay, craiglist and other sources, I purchased a restored early 80’s Zullo Criterium built with period Campagnolo and Cinelli parts. It struck the right balance between cost and race-worthy condition. When I started my search, I did not appreciate fully the differences between vintage and modern bikes. The Zullo’s square frame geometry, classic saddle shape, narrow rounded bars, brake levers mounted halfway down the bend, short saddle-to-bar drop and toe clip pedals add up to a dramatically different fit and feel than those of today’s road bikes, even when you get the “right” size. Gearing is also significantly more limited, with high gear ratios and slower cadence the norm. To match the bike, I found a vintage Empire State Games jersey online, fittingly made for the New York City squad.

L’Eroica has a grand fondo format with 4 course options: 38, 75, 135 or 205 kilometers. Each route included control stops stocked with food and drink. I opted for the 205 km, or 125 mile, route. Participants in the 135 km and the 205 km routes started anytime between 5 and 7am, and had to finish before 8pm. Those starting before 6:30am were required to have lights on their bikes. Having forgotten my lights at home, I drank a couple espressi at a local bar until start time, signed in and headed out into the darkness.

With my original ride companion, my irrepressible wife Boriana, not able to participate in the race, I was solo, and decided to hit the course in a very spirited fashion (a big surprise to my teammates, I’m sure). I honestly was not fully aware of what I had gotten myself into. The route included over 12,000 feet of climbing, with steep unpaved grades the norm. Over half of the 205 km course was on Strada Bianche, which is twice the distance of sterrati featured in the pro race. To complicate matters, I had picked up an oh-so-pro stomach bug in New York a few days before the flight, and as a result nutrition was a challenge. But I was in Italy, first light was turning the sky a sleepy pale blue to the east and for the first handful of kilometers I was sailing downhill on smooth vintage steel.

The beauty of the parcours is hard to capture in words. The terrain is extremely varied, and never flat, from the pine-covered mountains of the Chianti Classico heartland, through the rolling, almost treeless countryside of Val d’Arbia, to the southern Tuscan hilltowns of the Val d’Orcia. The route went along cyprus-lined roads dotted with vineyards and olive orchards and through fortified medieval towns. Rare was the straight road. Most wove through the undulating landscape, following its curves and features. It was a real pleasure to ride them on a bike, but even more so on vintage machines surrounded by other like-minded cyclists. I still remember hitting the first Strada Bianca section, a relatively short and smooth climb through pine and cypress forest to the historic Castello di Brolio. Lit torches dotted the narrow hardpack path, punctuating the near pitch-blackness of the forest at first light. The magic of this moment was quickly shaken away on the ensuing fast gravel descent, as the unnerving feeling of tires surfing across patches of loose sand and the rattle of washboarded surfaces alerted me to the dangers ahead.

The passion for cycling, and for L’Eroica in particular, was evident throughout the weekend. A large fair dedicated to all things vintage cycling, with local food and wine on offer, poured out into the streets of the start/finish town of Gaiole in Chianti the day before the race. Riders and fans of all ages and nationalities were in attendance, with bikes as young as 30, and as old as 100, years old and period dress and facial hair on proud display. The excitement for the event was not limited to participants. On a steep paved climb early in the ride, I opted to test out the traps and do my best dance out of the saddle. A couple of grey-haired Italians were leaning on walking sticks towards the top of the climb, observing the stream of riders slowing climbing past them. “Bellissimo,” one said as I past, which made me feel good (although by the end of the race, I was hardly looking or feeling bellissimo anymore.) As we rode through cobbled lanes of old towns along the route, locals and tourists raised their glasses and cheered from cafes, fueled by sangiovese or tifosi passion, I am not certain which. And late in the race, after I missed a turn, a mini Fiat packed with a large Italian family chased me down, honking, swerving and waving frantically to guide me back on course.

Don’t be fooled by the grand fondo format. The 205km course is tough. I lost count of the number of flats and shattered wheels I saw along the route. My water bottles, shifters and drivetrain clogged with dust. The handlebars slipped down repeatedly from the pounding of washboarded descents, notwithstanding how tightened they were. The control stops thankfully were staffed with local mechanics and medics to help mend machines and men. On a particularly challenging section of Strada Bianca after Asciano, we were confronted with a series of sharp, 20% plus grade hills covered in thick sand. Many walked. I was determined to grind up these hills, fighting to find the least sand-strewn patch of road to keep traction and inch forward. On the fourth hill, I fell. The front wheel lifted when I steered to avoid loose gravel, landed in sand and slid out, depositing me unceremoniously on the soft loamy road. I struggled briefly to loosen the toe straps and separate from the bike, but was back on my way again a few cusses later.

I took my sweet time at the last two control stops, making sure to kick up my legs and eat plenty of peppery local olive oil, salumi and Chianti-soaked bread. I had to skip the grappa and raw eggs on offer thanks to a tortured stomach. The fit of the vintage bike, which I had ridden only a handful of times prior to race day, had found muscles my modern bikes had neglected. Others were hurting, too. I saw a rider with whom I had raced up the climb to Montalcino laying in a ditch on the side of the road. I called out. He was wincing but waved me on, his legs outstretched, hamstrings locked. These challenges are part of the beauty of the race, and of the sport.

When I rolled across the finish line in Gaiole some 10.5 hours after start, I was drained but elated. The town was abuzz with riders and spectators. I rode up to the final control, stopped for an official photo and collected the 205 km finishers’ gift of a bottle of Chianti, Tuscan pottery and panforte. I grabbed a generous bowl of farro and collapsed on the steps of the piazza, soaking in the sights. What a ride. L’Eroica embodies a passion for cycling, its history and traditions, and the pure physical effort involved, in a way that only seems possible in such a setting. All in all it was the most demanding ride I have done. Will I do it again? Absolutely, and not the least because of the plates of Tuscan crostini, steaming pasta al cinghiale and wood-fired game that I consumed guilt-free with a few too many glasses of Chianti Classico that evening, nursing some sore legs and a content mind.

L’Eroica Ride Pictures

For more great pictures of L’Eroica, check out http://www.cyclingtips.com.au/2012/10/leroica/

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

L'Eroica Pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Ben Fackler

Ben is a husband to a lovely wife and, as of 2013, a father of a beautiful young daughter. After spending the first part of his professional life chained to a desk, he switched jobs, bought a bike and started racing less than a year later. Bike riding and racing remain passions to this day.