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Vol. 1, Issue 25

Posted: Friday 19th June 2020

Author: Peter Underwood

Here is the 25th edition of Cambridge Lightweight News – who would have thought that an email to Mervyn Cook and Tony Beckett a few years ago would result in a long-running newsletter which is read across the world! The previous editions have elicited quite a bit of feedback, all done in a friendly, good-natured way. Long may this continue as it is part of the pleasure of owning and riding lightweights.

From the January 2006 edition Cambridge Lightweight News will become ‘Lightweight News’, assuming the role of the newsletter of the V-CC Lightweight Group: see News and Views 310. It is hoped that members of the group will contribute items to benefit all lightweight enthusiasts. The aims of the group will be to study and record for future generations properly-researched information about the period and to conserve and restore lightweights from the late 1920’s to the early 1960’s. At least one major weekend event will be organised every year. The group also has plans for an up-to-date website, which David Palk has in hand. I say ‘up-to-date’ because so many sites are set up and then left to stagnate, David wants to update it on a monthly basis at least.

The success of both the newsletter and the website will depend upon information being fed in by the readers and viewers so get your quills or keyboards out here and now. The website will be linked to other web pages with relevant information and we hope to uncover much readable and pictorial information. If you already receive Cambridge Lightweight News there will be no need for you to enroll for the new ‘Lightweight News’ as you are already on the mailing list.

Obviously Patricia and I both look forward to being involved with the group in some way, as I suspect will most readers of C L News. We both keep detailed specifications of all our lightweights, complete with images and we often send a copy via email as the result of some communication to someone about bikes or parts – they always seem to be well received. Let me know if you would like to see any of these as I feel it is a good thing to have access to this type of information. Maybe this is the sort of thing could be stored on a website, either our own with links to the L G or perhaps even the L G’s own site. At the last count, we have between us 2 x Bates; 3 x Ephgraves; 2 x Flying Scots; 1 x Frejus; 2 x Gillotts; 3 x Hetchins; 2 x Hobbs of Barbican; 1 x Macleans; 1 x Mal Rees; 2 x Paris Tour de France; 1 x Pennine Richmond; 1 x Rivetts (unrestored); 2 x R O Harrison; 1 x Rotrax; 1 x Stallard.

All of these are equipped with period components and are ready to ride. We also have a couple of machines which fit neither of us but which we loan out on our rides: a 21½” Southern track machine on fixed and a 22” Pat Hanlon road machine with 10 gears. In addition we have a 23” Higgins Ultralight frame (not correct forks though) in unrestored condition, plus a 22 ½” Viking which we cannot identify. We have several images of the last frame if you can help in any way.

Most of this edition is devoted to L’Eroica – the reason for this coverage is that several readers of C L N fancied doing this ride but were not sure what was involved. As a result we will be going into the logistics and travel options in detail. We were not sure about the arrangements and also imagined that accommodation in the Gaiole area would be at a premium as the event attracts hundreds of entrants.

In view of this we opted to go on a package organised by an Italian company called BluFreccia. They offered the package which dealt with entries, etc and had a hotel in Radda plus the offer of transport from the airport to the hotel. At the same time another group of three from East Anglia, Mick Madgett, Cally and Tim Gunn decided to go it alone. Here are details of both trips for you to consider should you decide to try the event in 2006.

Our package (Friday to Monday) included the Hotel Radda with a Radda address so we assumed that it was in the village which is just over 8km from Gaiole where L’Eroica is based. We hoped for a hotel in the village but found out when we got there that it was 2 – 3km outside. Having said that, it was very luxurious with fantastic views over the Chianti countryside, two swimming pools, health spa, etc. BluFreccia took us from the hotel to the event signing-on ceremony on the Saturday, invited us to a drinks and snacks reception, and arranged for us to eat at the Heroes Dinner in Gaiole. They then took us back to the hotel on the evening. The following morning, Sunday, the day of the ride, they picked us up at about 7am to take us to the start and made sure that everything went smoothly.

They later met up with us at the feeding station on the ride (with the wives of some of the riders) and again at the finish where they made sure that we found our way to the post-event meal after which they ferried us back to the hotel. We also had their mobile phone numbers in case of emergancy and when one member of the group decided to call it a day at about 40k into the ride they found him and transported him back. The ride back in the bus after the event was especially welcome as Gaiole to Radda is uphill virtually all the way and it would have been tiring to ride it after L’Eroica! One of the package options was to be taken to see the ride from their minibus – several of the wives opted for this.

For a stranger in the country the package had a lot to offer although not cheap. Since we are used to travelling in Italy and Patricia speaks the language we would have coped well enough on our own, especially if we had been able to get accommodation in Gaiole itself, which I feel would have been possible had we booked early enough. There definitely was accommodation in Radda, in both village rooms and hotels, whilst we were there.

Transport: we flew from Stansted (06.45 – Ryanair) to Pisa and the original Blufreccia quote for the transfer from airport to the hotel, with bikes of course, about 170kms, was 100 euros, possibly less if more were to share. This was just about OK as we could have made our own way back after the event. A couple of days before we were due to depart we were told that the cheapest quote they could get for the transfer was 200 euros payable to the driver. We quickly decided to arrange our own transport and got train times from the internet for the journey from Pisa to Poggibonsi (about 35km from Radda). We arrived at Pisa airport at 10am and had bought the tickets 5 euros 10 cents each for a journey of 160km! and were on the train by 10.30. This train was from the airport to Empoli (we did not realise the advantage of this until the journey back – see later) where we changed to catch the Siena train to Poggibonsi.

Some of the trains went Airport, Pisa, Empoli, an extra change at Pisa. The journey went like a dream and we were at Poggibonsi by about 12.30. The taxi rank at the station however was empty and after hanging around for about 30 minutes we decided to phone from a list of taxis we had with us. No one was available until nearly 4pm. However at about 2.30 a Mercedes taxi dropped off a passenger at the station and we were able to squeeze the bikes in for the scenic journey to Radda, cost was 45 Euros. We hadn’t pre-booked a taxi for this stage of the journey as we were not sure if we would catch this earlier train or not.

The three buccaneers meanwhile had decided to take a roof rack, dismantled of course, and then on arrival at Pisa Airport to de-bag the bikes, build them and the roof rack up, rent a car and fix the roof rack to it to carry the bikes on top. They had booked less expensive accommodation in a village beyond Radda, Castellina, so although they had further to travel from their rooms to the event they had the car to hand all the time. They were also able to eat wherever their fancy took them. They had left Blighty a day before us so were able to reconnoitre the area and were settled in when we first saw them on the Saturday morning at the bike display, jumble and signing-on which was held in the village gymnasium.

One thing we had worried about was putting our machines into the hands of airline baggage handlers. We already possessed two bike bags. Patricia’s frame was small so I built a small subframe from angled alloy section. This took the front and rear ends and kept the chainring just clear of the bottom of the bag. The axles securing this frame and subframe together also kept the ends apart. I took the gear changer off the outside of the rear end and fitted it to the inside of the opposite rear end. I then put a sheet of cardboard cut from a bike box either side of the frame for extra protection. (as well as a second piece outside the wheels which were alongside the frame).

My frame was much larger so I removed seat and seatpost and then trimmed a cardboard bike box to fit inside the bike bag which made it quite sturdy (and heavy!). I also made spacers for the front and rear ends. As my gear was on a brazed on hanger I fitted one of the gear protectors made for children’s cheap mountain bikes. This all seemed to work as the bikes arrived unscathed. We do have a problem though with two large bike bags as Patricia’s is too large for her to carry – this is no problem at airports, etc where there are trolleys.

For the return journey we taxied to Poggibonsi again. The journey back by train went very well until we got to Pisa, where we found that the platforms were a very long distance apart and entailed dropping into one subway, coming up again and then down into a second (and up again) which finally took one to the airport line. This was not easy with two rather overloaded bike bags plus our normal luggage. In retrospect we should have got one or even two taxis from the station to the airport as it is only about one mile. One could also do this on the outward journey if there was a train change at Pisa station.

To conclude on the logistics of L’Eroica: Radda and Gaioli are both rather awkward to get to by public transport. It is easy to get to within 30k or so but the last stage is the tricky one. I guess that one option would be to drive down from the UK and make a week or more holiday of it. The next favoured method would seem to entail hiring a car out there but we did not want to risk this and be turned down at the last minute because of my age. If one took a family to Tuscany planning to cycle, take account that it is very hilly: level just does not exist!

As for the ride itself, it was an experience not to be missed. On the Saturday morning we rode to Gaiole where the village gymnasium was taken over for a show of classic machines, mainly Italian of course – there must have been about a hundred plus a small jumble. We were able to take our Hetchins into the hall, they attracted a lot of attention and must have been photographed dozens of times. It is hard to believe that so many machines of the period were equipped with Corsa, Paris Roubaix and Margherita gears. Some of the machines in the hall were to be ridden the next day, included Bianchi, Bartali, Atala, Legnano, Masi, Gloria, Halcyon, Stucchi, Artar plus many more, even a very early BSA racer.

One exhibitor in the hall had for sale a quantity of restored NOS Vittoria Margherita gears for about 180 euros each. An Italian buyer showed me his, which he explained had all the necessary parts and pointed out that the long control lever had been re-plated. He said that some of the nuts and bolts were not the correct ones, being stainless. I told him to make sure he didn’t take his bike to Hampshire as the first thing they look for are stainless metric fixing bolts! At the close that evening the seller still had some in his box. He was Ermes Leonardi of Viale della Resistenza 39, 41100 Modena. Tel: 059 282079, email:

In the early afternoon we rode back to Radda, changed and were driven back to Gaiole by minibus for the rest of the day and evening by BluFreccia.

We had been pre-booked for the event by BluFreccia but the office was open for entries and at 3pm took bookings for the Heroes Dinner that evening in the village culture centre (gymnasium and culture centre – just like an English village!). Dinner was 10 euros and bookings for the meal closed at 400 diners. Before the dinner though we went to a small reception organised by BluFreccia and met all the riders they had in the event – and sampled some great Chianti Classico.

The dinner was a four course meal of simple peasant style food and as much Chianti Classico as you wanted to drink. It was all very relaxed but there was an air of excitement about the coming ride and lots of chatting about bikes. We left just after 10pm and got to bed for an early start on Sunday.

It’s 7am on Sunday and we are loaded up and ready to go, it is just getting light and we arrive in the village square at Gaiole ready to sign on at 8am for an 8.30 start. A one-way system through the signing-on area was in force as there were about 3-400 riders for the 8.30 start. Riders on early machines and correctly dressed were given priority in the queue so we managed to get through early and were in the second row for the start. Riders on the longer routes 200k and 130k had been starting since 5am. Our start was delayed a little because of television crews trying to interview all the really old riders (probably well into their eighties in some cases) and hear the tales of rides with Coppi and Bartali!

We got away to a glorious start and managed to position ourselves in the first group of about 40 riders. The first leg was about 11k and all downhill on a tarmac road (we were nearly in Siena at this point), here we did a sharp left and up a fairly steep climb before turning right onto the first of the 35 k of white roads. This was quite a shock as the gravel was 3-4 cm deep and it was quite a job even to keep a straight course. This section went up and down quite steeply so we had a baptism of fire as to what L’Eroica was about. Luckily for us this was the worst surface of all the Strada Bianca sections. However although we lost a few places, we gained some as well and we seemed to be reasonably placed all the way round. The route was so well signposted that we never had to check the route card.

The road alternated between tarmac and white road and also between tough uphill and steep downhill all the way as we made our way to the first feeding station – this was at 56k!! Luckily we had each taken a substantial hunk of gorgeous cake from the hotel at breakfast time which we eat when we felt the onset of ‘bonk’. Some riders were on mountain bikes and I saw several in the granny ring and largest sprocket, others were on modern machines but the event really belonged to the classic machines and as such we always had priority attention. Often Italian riders would ride alongside us and peer at the Hetchins and exclaim ‘Complimenti!’ or ‘Bellissima!’ I think Patricia got more practice with her Italian on this ride, as she happily chatted to the other riders all the way round, than she had on any other holiday.

The feeding station was the re-creation of a pre/early post-war set up. There was a large table groaning under the weight of loaves hacked into slices, piles of salami, huge cheeses cut into half with sharp knives for you to cut off as many hunks as you fancied, barrels of grapes, gorgeous olive oil to pour onto the bread and endless flasks of local Chianti wine. A local speciality was panevino (bread wine) which consisted of hunks of bread sprinkled with sugar and splashed with Chianti! Oh, and water. It was pointed out that one of the riders grabbing food was Rolf Sorenson who was in the Tour de France until recently – have you ever felt out of your class? We had noticed a very professional looking team bus at the start!

People told us us that it was only about 20k to the finish, they were right but boy was it tough. We eventually arrived back at Gaiole just after 2pm feeling very exhalted with the whole thing. We signed off and went to the after-ride meal which had several courses including pasta and, yes you’ve guessed, as much Chianti Classico as you wanted drink.

Gears, I had 42 x 24 and Patricia had 42 x 28 – we were both overgeared really and had to push a couple of short stretches (all of the downhill signs seemed to say 15% but on the corners Patricia swears that they were steeper than that). Thank God for Universal brakes. If you needed to honk going up a steep gravelly slope the rear wheel could spin and you were at a standstill right away, so the simplest thing was to push until conditions got better. Virtually everyone seemed to do it somewhere or other and we managed to hold our overall position as far as we could tell. Sometimes whilst pushing it was possible to overtake someone struggling up in a very low gear.

After the event we signed off, had a meal, listened to some local music in the square and chatted with several of the riders. We then loaded the bikes into the mini-bus and headed back to the Hotel Radda. On the way back our driver waved to lots of riders who were travelling towards us and still 9k from Gaiole. We slowly realised that they were riders who were on the same ride as us and this was a good two hours after we had finished!

We met Edward Albert and Bob Freitas at the ride, who told us that they would put some images on the ‘Wool Jersey’ website when they got back to the States. Edward also put up some from a private museum in Piemonte.
Gallery: Wool Jersey Gallery Album: NITRO BOBS BIKES or Another site, run by a photographic company, has hundreds of images from the ride.

This image, taken at the feeding station high in the hills, shows Gino Bartali’s domestique being interviewed for Italian television 56 km into the ride. He sums up the essence of L’Eroica. Also a rather grainy picture of the editor leading out up the mountains!!

Thanks for reading

Posted: Friday 19th June 2020

Author: Peter Underwood

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