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Vol. 2, Issue 42 – November / December 2012 (Eroica Supplement)

Posted: Friday 16th November 2012

Author: Peter Underwood

Earlier this year Patricia and I decided to enter L’Eroica for the second time, the last being 2005. This was to be a ‘birthday trip’ and it turned out to be a good treat.

L’Eroica is based at the Tuscan village of Gaiole in Chianti and is a ride for classic bikes held over some of the Strada Bianca (white roads) in the area. Rides offered are 200K, 135K, 75K and 38K. We opted for the 75K which, although shorter, is held over some very tough terrain.

Luciano showing the way uphill on Strada Bianca. Single-speed 1930s machine See references to him
Luciano showing the way uphill on Strada Bianca. Single-speed 1930s machine See references to him

Rather than trust our bikes, 1957 Cinelli Corsa for me and a 1972 Flying Scot for Patricia, to baggage handlers we opted to rent a car and drive down through Holland, Germany, Austria and Italy, taking two days each way and making this part of the holiday. We also decided that if we went we should stay right at the heart of the action in Gaiole itself, which would not be easy as the event attracts some 5,000 riders and many bring family. Gaiole is a small village but we struck lucky when we came across an apartment in the Borgo development where a friend, Mick Madgett, would be staying at the same time.

On the drive down we wanted to break the back of the journey on the first day and decided to stop in the village of Vipiteno which is just over the Austrian border into Italy, just over 600 miles from the Hook of Holland. This area is where the border had been shifted back and forth during and after many conflicts over the centuries and as a result there is a strong German/Austrian influence in the culture and language used, sometimes a conversation would begin it Italian and drift into German half-way through. We arrived at the hotel having eaten a couple of hours before so didn’t feel up to a full evening dinner but the owners were quite happy to let us just have a dessert which was home-made and delicious as German/Italian food can be. As a nightcap we asked for a Grappa and the owner proudly bought us two glasses plus two bottles and left us to sample them. I don’t think Grappa will ever taste the same again as they were an absolute classic having been allowed to mature and mellow for many years.

The following day we drove the last 350 miles to our rented apartment, which was by far the best-equipped property we have ever stayed in ( It choose to pour with rain just as we arrived but luckily this was the last of the bad weather for the week.

The following morning, Monday, the sun was shining and we had a day lazing in the village to recover from two days in the car. We soon found our way around and, as is usual with Italian villages, marvelled at the shops, etc plus banks (2) dentist, hairdresser and two cantinas. In one survey Gaiole was listed as the best place in the world to live and we were beginning to see why; everyone was so unbelievably welcoming and by the next day we were being greeted as friends all over the place. Mick Madgett introduced us to several of the locals including Luciano, the “face of L’Eroica”. We met him every day of our stay there and he never failed to shake our hands with a great smile. (See image below)

Having lazed for a day, we felt we had to get out and ride on the Tuesday and opted to cover the first part of the 75K route and while there to check out the loop for the 38K route just in case we hit any problems or bad weather on the day of the official ride. The first Strada Bianca section was quite tough, coming just after a fairly steep stretch to Castello di Brolio but we carried on through and then hit a short downhill tarmac section to Pianella which was the start of a ‘pleasant’ steady white road climb of about three miles, arriving eventually at the sculpture park – we never did get to see the sculptures apart from those visible from the road. One tall slender piece was placed amongst the iconic poplars of the region and indeed complimented the natural features.

Sculpture Park at La Fornace 0n the 75 and 38K routes

It was here where we picked up the 38K route and plummeted downhill (15-20%) before hitting a very rough section of road and I found that the NOS Universal brake blocks were no use at all – the old problem of hardening with age I suspect. Patricia, being much lighter, managed to slow a bit but I careered on, just about keeping the bike on the road. Probably the scariest ride I have done for a long while, This is on the short ride for less efficient cyclists or those with cumbersome bikes. We did however survive as far as the next stretch of tarmac which took us back to Gaiole where we bought some superb aubergine, courgette and red pepper antipasti plus bread from the local Coop to make a delicious alfresco lunch. We spent the afternoon in the piazza chatting to cyclists, mainly at Bar Centrale, which became the unofficial rendezvous for participants.. Here we met Bob Freeman from Seattle.

Peter and Bob Freeman with their dark green Cinellis
Peter and Bob Freeman with their dark green Cinellis

While Bob and I were chatting, out of the corner of my eye I saw Luciano (see image at top of article) deep in conversation with Patricia while they were standing near our bikes across the Piazza . He had admired the Cinelli previously but this time they were inspecting her Flying Scot. Patricia explained that being born in Scotland or Scozia in Italian, this decided her to ride the Flying Scot, built by Rattray in Glasgow – not many miles from her home there. It turned out that Luciano’s daughter was living in Scotland, hence the interest. That evening we had a wonderful dinner at Il Celliere a Castagnoli with Mick – it was the only time we ate outside of Gaiole but it was something special so worth the effort. For past L’Eroicas Mick had stayed each year in rooms attached to the restaurant and tackled the ride into Gaiole each day and the long uphill at the end of the ride. Bonus points for that!

On the next day we rode down the tarmac road straight to Pianella and picked up the 75K route, past the sculpture park again and through the tough ‘Bianca’ sections to Radda where we were lucky to get a seat for lunch at La Bottega di Giovannino, possibly the most popular venue in the town. We were surrounded by local wines and Patricia remarked that the bottles on the shelves behind us were arranged in the order of vineyards past which we had cycled that morning. We had a fantastic lunch and a glass of really good Chianti Classico of course. As we left, families were waiting outside on the pavement to take our places. Not exactly by coincidence, because he knew we would be there, we met Mick outside and rode back to Gaiole with him. A nice treat as it was 9K of smooth downhill tarmac although Mick had brake blocks better suited for the terrain and was at bottom before us but, like the gentleman he is, he waited..

Patricia with her Flying Scot on a trip to reconnoitre the area prior to the big event

Back in Gaiole we met three of the six or so riders from Cambridge at the start of the bike jumble (which eventually came to resemble a tent city) and found that one, who shall remain nameless, had a bottom bracket so stiff that it was hard to turn the cranks by hand. One of the tents housed a mobile workshop owned by an Italian who had looked quite severe when we saw him the previous day. However, he offered to sort out the problem there and then and upon dismantling the bracket found that the cage holding the balls had collapsed. Being an Italian, he had a fantastic Campagnolo tool set and it made removing the cranks and shells quite easy compared with when done at home with layman’s tools.

It was also found that the inner ring of the triple (wimp!) was just touching the chainstay. The mechanic told the owner to look away while he put a dent in the chainstay using two hammers, one to hit the other held against the stay. I would have put a Sturmey washer behind the drive-side cup giving an extra 2mm but I suppose the hammer method improved the chainline on a bike never intended for a triple.

After this excitement we wandered back to Bar Centrale in the piazza assuming the day’s entertainment was over. However, we met Bob Freeman bemoaning the fact that his NOS Regina block had exploded, depositing the balls all over the road. Being in the trade Bob managed to recover enough balls to make the freewheel work after a fashion and made it back to the car. Luckily it was there as they were the other side of Siena when the freewheel gave up the ghost. We suggested Bob came back to our friendly mechanic and, once again, he really worked hard to get him back on the road, eventually rebuilding Bob’s sprockets onto another body to give him the ratios he wanted for Sunday.

Two of our friends rescued in about a couple of hours – that’s what I call service. Over the next few days he was working endlessly sorting out problems for people always with a smile and good spirits – obviously a man who enjoyed his work. Later in the week we saw Francesco Moser chatting to him so I guess they were friends and I learned that he had been a mechanic for a trade team in the Giro.

That evening we ate in our apartment as we couldn’t resist some of the ingredients around the village – we kept it simple but that is the essence of Italian cooking.

The following morning Thursday, having had a couple of days on the white roads, we decided not to push our luck bike-wise and elected to stay on the tarmac. We did the 10K climb from Gaiole to Radda and then took the long downhill to Lucarelli and arrived there at lunch time which we took at a bar/restaurant by the side of the road. As we needed to balance our diet a bit we just had some hand-made panini and suca di pesca before setting off for the long climb back to Radda and then the sweep town to Gaiole. All in all an easy day on the bike so we were soon back in Bar Centrale and chatting to old friends and newcomers. As soon as we appeared at the bar the staff knew my quirky tea requirements and had the cup ready as Patricia walked in to order.

By now our table was a focal point for an international gathering each day with Brits, Germans, Americans and Italians joining in from time to time, this stretched Patricia’s language skills as she dipped from one language to another. I managed to understand quite a lot but my replies were much more stilted to say the least. A few years ago we went to a classic ride at Oberammergau and met several collectors from Bavaria and Austria and we planned to meet them here. Each day we saw an increase in numbers as more and more cyclists arrived for the big day, also the jumble tent-city got larger so it took longer to go from A to B with all the distractions on the way as our walk home took us through most of them.

Patricia with Flying Scot and Italian jersey, a much appreciated present from Eric Sayliss Peter with 1957 Cinelli and 'classic' Brooks jersey from 2005 L'Eroica

Today, Friday was signing-on day for those in Gaiole early and we were dealt with very efficiently by about 10am once we were identified as ‘stranieri’ (literally strangers, but foreigners in this case). Luciano took us upstairs to show us proudly the exhibition of classic bikes from over the years. The rest of the day went by in a flash as wherever we went we met, and talked to, dozens of cyclists. Lunch was at La Cantinetta del Chianti, next to Bar Centrale so we didn’t have to go far! The selection of wines here is fantastic and we had a taster plate of cheeses with grapes and honey plus a beautiful salad – again as always in Italy, it is in the ingredients – simple yet delicious. The two different Chianti Classico wines went perfectly with the cheese.

By Saturday hoards of people had arrived for the event and even more tents and stalls added to the jumble scene. Extra car parking had been set up and the road through the town closed to cars. We set off to walk down to the village intending to meet friends from Cambridge who were planning to sign on at 9am. Also, at 11am there was a planned get-together of subscribers to Classic Rendezvous, the American forum for classic lightweight enthusiasts. However, the journey down involved walking through part of the jumble and as we had our bikes for an intended photo-call it was hard to get far without being questioned and complimented on our bikes – luckily Patricia was there with her grip of the Italian language. One Italian was introduced as someone who had built frames at Cinelli and then started his own business – I thought it was Botteccia but obviously it was a similar sounding name – Patricia was engaged with another group at the time. We also met an English couple on one of the stands and they said that they lived in France and had come to sell. It was 10.20 by the time we reached the signing-on area and we had missed the CB5-ers again.

We noticed Bob Johnson’s very smart Hetchins on the Brooks stand and he later told me he had agreed to do this in exchange for a special one-off green Brooks restoration to match the bike. Very smart it looked too but Bob doesn’t do run-of-the-mill bikes.

Patricia doesn’t often covet other peoples bikes but amongst the stalls we met Linda Martinez (USA) who had a gorgeous little red Cinelli – neither of us had ever seen one like this before but I managed to restrain Patricia from slipping something into Linda’s coffee and doing a runner with the bike.

Soon it was time to go to the fountain to meet up with the Classic Rendezvous riders and at first we thought the turnout was a bit low. We soon realised that there are two fountains, each a short distance apart and then we all got together for a chat and then everyone introduced themselves to the group and eventually for a group photograph taken by Michael Haddad which included Linda’s husband David as you can see. From David I learned that Masi were made in Italy but for a while, as they were selling so many in the States, they set up a production there resulting in much discussion as to which are the better, the American or the Italian ones. I forget now which it was that David was riding but it was very nice.

Some of the Classic Rendezvous gang at Gaiole with riders from Canada, Denmark, Germany, UK and USA

We had wondered whether to book for the ‘Heroes’ dinner that evening but having spent the whole day talking and socialising we decided to have a restful evening back at our apartment and get an early night ready for the dawn start the next day. Although our start was scheduled for 8.30 we opted to ride down at about 7.30 to start near to the front of the thousands entered for the 75K.

Next morning we were very close to the front of the masses lined up for the start which was counted down from the L’Eroica clock and we were off on the dot. Prior to that there was a melee of press, radio and TV crews but unlike 2005 they weren’t allowed to delay the start. RAI 3 later produced a piece on L’Eroica in an hour-long cycling programme and there were two close-up shots of Patricia and me, one taken at the start and the other on the day before. It must have been Patricia’s GS Sorrento club jersey catching their eye.

The start is deceptive with a few kilometres of downhill tarmac which turns very quickly into the steep tarmac climb to Brolio followed by the first of the steep and technical sections of the white roads. Riders on the 135 and 200K rides do this section in the dark and white the road through the castle grounds is illuminated by candlelight.

The start is deceptive with a few kilometres of downhill tarmac which turns very quickly into the steep tarmac climb to Brolio followed by the first of the steep and technical sections of the white roads. Riders on the 135 and 200K rides do this section in the dark and white the road through the castle grounds is illuminated by candlelight.

After the ‘white’ section at Brolio one eventually came to a short tarmac stretch before a long steady climb towards the sculpture park where we stopped for a sandwich we had packed. In 2005 we had bonk on this stretch so were prepared this time.

The organisers must have been aware of this problem as the first stop had been brought forward to Radda (see image above). However, there was a gruesome stretch of white roads to tackle first followed by a long climb on tarmac and right on through the first part of the town to the check point.

From here it was a few metres to the feeding stop where there seemed to be many hundreds of cyclists milling around. However, as you can see from the image above, the organisers were well prepared. The image only shows half of the operation as there were as many people at long tables just out of sight on the left. They were preparing food as fast as the hoards of hungry cyclists were devouring it. We did speak to a group of cyclists from Tokyo at the stop.

The ride continued with further stretches on tarmac and strada bianca of varying degrees of severity, some 15% or more, particularly after Panzano and on through Volpaia until the finishing descent to Gaiole to get the final stamp on the card and be presented with two packs of special L’Eroica wrapped parmesan cheeses. These were gratefully received as we had become rather addicted to the parmesan sold locally. We did have time to relax in the Piazza and managed to get a table where we sat with Dave Jarvis and Gary Higgitt and watched finishers pouring by after passing through the finishing area. Depending on the ride you did, and what you were wearing! you had the aforementioned cheeses, a bottle of special L’Eroica wine or a favourite Sienese cake – Panforte.

We were happy with the cheese but did covert the Panforte and regretted not buying some to bring home. We met three of my Cambridge riding companions at the finish – they had completed the 135K and we were joined at the by Harvey from the Cambridge polo scene who had completed the same distance and was waiting to see home another young polo player, Hayden, who had tackled the 200K on single-speed fixed wheel. We left before he finished but learned later that he had got round and deserved a medal as well as a bottle of wine and a cake.

This picture catches the spirit of L'Eroica although it seems to level out the climb quite a bit

Eventually the show was over and we headed back to the apartment to pack the bikes into the car and finish packing ready for an early start for home the next day, Monday. Later in the evening Mick popped his head round the door to tell us that he had successfully completed the 200K event which I find mind-boggling, especially the 5am start which entails many miles of riding on the gravelly, sometimes quite rutted white roads before dawn rises at about 7am.

We took the same route home as the outward one but in reverse of course. As we were catching an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland on Tuesday we divided the journey into two equal parts with a stop at Ulm in Germany. We had breakfast in Italy, lunch in Austria and dinner in Germany with a lovely drive through the Austrian Alps in glorious sunshine. At lunch we had a table with a terrific view into the mountains.

On the next day, Tuesday we set off towards Holland along the German autobahns and arrived at The Hook rather early so we drove into the nearby village of Gravenzande where we had tea in the village square and enjoyed the sight of cyclist of all ages riding in every direction, rather like Cambridge without the traffic.

We had a straightforward and early boarding on the ferry and spent some time having a light dinner – the cakes in Gravenzande were very big – and a stroll around the ship before bed and an early disembarking the next day arriving home in Cambridge at about 9am. We unloaded the bikes, took the car back to the hire company and the holiday was over but the buzz of our time in Italy carried on I have now cleaned the bikes and returned them to their correct builds, having made some alterations to the gearing for the Tuscan hills.

We used the Harwich to Hook of Holland ferry for the crossing as Harwich is a short drive from Cambridge. We use overnight crossings to get a good night’s sleep in their comfortable cabins. We were surprised to find the journey to Gaiole was almost the same mileage whether from channel ports or from Hook of Holland.

Images from Bob Freeman, Michael Haddad, Livio Lacovella and Angela Towey of Start Communications. Dale Brown of Classic Rendezvous labelled the group photograph.

The riders in the group photograph had the following machines:

Dave (Masi) Martinez, Fremont, California, USA; Rory (single speed) Masini, Connecticut, USA; Dirk (Peugeot) Feeken, Heidelberg, Germany; Mark Roberts, Seattle Washington, USA; Harry (Strawberry) Rosenthal, Texas, USA; Martin (Cinelli) Appel, Munich, Germany; Bob (Cinelli) Freeman, Seattle, Washington, USA; Michael Thomson, Toronto, Canada; Mark Beaver, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Patricia (Flying Scot) Killiard, Cambridge, England; Peter (Cinelli) Underwood, Cambridge, England; Don Murphy, Texas, USA, Michael (Masi) Haddad, Brooklyn, New York, USA

Postscript from Patricia

A few of my highlights of the trip. Standing next to the man everyone wanted to be photographed with who turned out to be Francesco Moser, being allowed to touch the Bianchi on which Fausto Coppi won the Tour and Giro in 1949 (it was suspiciously clean), Tuscan countryside and castles, meeting friendly cyclists from numerous countries and lots of absolutely charming Italians, and the incredibly efficient way that they organised the event. And surviving the gravel descents must count as a highlight. The jumble – you couldn’t really call it that because of the quality of the merchandise – was amazing. I spent several days coveting a fabulous small all-chrome and copper-plated Willier bike with Campag 50th anniversary group set (out of my price range, alas). Lots of complete bikes, Campag components in huge quantities, even Delta brakes by the dozen, and wool jerseys from practically every club in Italy. Everyone wanted to chat and admire our bikes rather than haggle. A “must do”, even if just once in a lifetime.

Thanks for reading

Posted: Friday 16th November 2012

Author: Peter Underwood

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