5479 riders from 33 different countries, L 'Eroica has grown rapidly year on year following a boom in the vintage lightweight world - (well, it was about time we all developed some taste!). We assembled in a dusty square, right in the heart of Tuscany. The idyllic backdrop of Gaiole-in-Chianti coupled with the bottle of Classico caged onto my NOS GB bars distracted me from the ride ahead. We were in a time warp; by far the youngest riders to be seen and surrounded by the finest bicycle pornography still in existence.
The prospect of a starting gun soon became obsolete with the emergence of the mild October sun from behind the rolling hills on the far side of the valley. I pedalled ahead with the make-shift peloton sporting my Road Rags, Shoreditch, flanked by a '47 Hetchins Super Special (bravely ridden on single speed by my father in a Road Rags, Hoxton) and a '67 Hetchins Mountain King (saddled by my 16 year old brother wearing a Road Rags, Smithfield).
In all honesty, I was green with envy having lost the coin toss for the freshly restored, Pearl White Mountain King. I found myself astride an lightly renovated ’57 Newton with a Cyclo Benelux 8 speed set up complete with suicide front changer, the bike in question W.J Newton’s own racer wouldn’t you know it. The mass of this “lightweight” alone by comparison to the two Hetchins was enough to tarnish my confidence as, whilst L’Eroica is not a race, family rivalry was inevitable.
Before we could even leave the sleepy starting village, the climbs were upon us. They began steady, we caressed around each bend of the Strada Bianchi praying for a summit. Our prayers were not heard. Describing the hills as eternal would be sure to earn you an understatement of the century award. We schlepped on into the clouds leaving most in our wake, much to my surprise given my torpid training regime back home.
Dotted like beacons across the Tuscan hills every 40km or so were pit stops. Stale bread soaked in red wine and sugar or olive oil and salt came as a welcome sight. In true Italian style, Classico was in abundance; bear with me here - after 2 hours uphill riding in the blistering heat (despite being October), it is worryingly thirst quenching.
Being a L’Eroica virgin, bottlenecks came as an unexpected spectacle. Soon before the final summit, I was to learn their reasoning. We go by two rested Colnagos yet only one rider, sat with his head in his hands, weeping. The sign of the cross ripples back through the crowd as we pass the ambulance. “Attaco di cuore” they say, shaking their heads. They cover the body with a blanket as we pass. These hills are dangerous my friends and they do not forgive and are not beaten easily.
As a sign of respect, the pack walks to the top of the hill. With Newton back between my thighs (steady on), I tuck myself in tight, hugging the crossbar and begin the 7km downhill descent back into Gaiole. It was here that my green face turned yellow as I knew now that it was not I who had lost the coin toss. To travel so far, so fast without pedalling once injects such a care-free rush that I challenge all riders alike not to return to a pure, juvenile state of glee should they ever get the chance to.
We coast back into town, met by press and a triangle of L’Eroica Parmigiano Reggiano upon completion. After a brisk pint, we dart to the food tent where what could have been caviar or spam was slapped on a plate before us, it made no difference, if it could be deemed edible, it was relished.
I say this with authority, after L’Eroica it is impossible to take any vintage lightweight collector, rider or racer seriously until you know they too have suffered at the bane of Tuscany. Do not be fooled by it’s beauty or the non-race classification, L’Eroica is as serious as it gets.