L’Eroica is a ride for vintage bikes which happens annually, in early October, in the Tuscan hills of north central Italy. It is centred on the Chianti area just south of Siena. This event has a limited enrollment and a variety of options for courses and distances but all ride the “strada bianchi”, the white gravel roads of the region for part or most of their routes. Begun as a promotional event to raise awareness of the contributions of the gravel road network to the economy and the beauty of the Chianti region, L’Eroica has morphed into something a great deal more than just being an attempt at road conservation.
The newly revised L’Eroica website explains more and provides a spot for pre-registration as well. You can follow the link here for further information. The event has become an irresistible challenge and magnet for those of us who are both very fit and love old steel bicycles and that is how all of the above connects to Bertins.
Back in 2012, Kevin Y. from the UK contacted me about a Bertin he had purchased. He was interested in identifying the model, which we did, and sharing the bike with other readers interested in vintage Bertins. It was his longer range intention to ride L’Eroica with the bike as it fit the entry criteria for period bicycles.
Kevin shared detailed photographs of the bike with me and I posted a little of the history and the photos in a Feature Bike post here in August of 2012. The distance between acquiring the Bertin and L’Eroica 2013 makes for interesting reading and Kevin shares his engaging account as follows:
L’Eroica – The ‘Heroic’
“It is 7.00pm, October 6th 2013, the dusk has turned into night as we approach Gaiole in Chianti, cars are lighting up the tarmac as they stream down the road towards us, their bike carriers loaded with vintage steel bikes, heading home. We are in the final few kilometres of the ride, 190+ already gone.”
“Bill and I turn the corner onto the main street and see the barriers directing us to the finish where four options are presented: 35, 75, 135, 200km – we proudly take the 200 lane and are met with applause from the crowds jamming the finish area. I’m overcome and well up with tears, this has been the hardest and most rewarding ride of my life – 200km, 4300m of climbing, dirt roads, – the heroic ride, L’Eroica.”
This cycling adventure began when I first discovered a reference to L’Eroica on a forum. Intrigued, I searched and was immediately hooked on the idea that I would ride that route. In essence this ride commemorates the days when bikes were steel, races were held on the ‘Strada Bianchi’ – the white roads, or dirt roads of Italy, men were men and tyres were tubular.
Our ride would be 200km, on mostly white roads, on road bikes older than 1987. Four routes are possible 35, 75, 135 and 205 kilometres. All these routes pass through Chianti, a county within the region of Tuscany, Italy and quite possibly the most beautiful place on this Earth.
More about this extraordinary story can be found on this link: http://www.eroicafan.it/en/
The rules of the ride are quite particular. Road bikes only with road tyres. Your bike should be older than 1987 and fitted with period controls – brake cables exiting the top of the levers, down-tube mounted gear shifters, toe-clips, no knobbly tyres and finally; no aluminium unless it is from Italian maker Alan and of the period.
Most of you readers would have a bike like this in your garage but at that time I did not. I had an English steel bike, 1982 but I had re-built it with some modern kit, Campagnolo Carbon levers, 10 speed drive chain, dual pivot brakes and so on. What I needed was a new, old bike that I could restore and ride for this event, and so I began my search.
Several decent bikes came and went on eBay but I was too mean to bid the rightful amounts when a Bertin came up on my search for ‘Columbus’ tubing. A further internet search brought me to the site you are looking at right now and I realised that any maker that has a following of this kind is worthy and I was struck by the high regard that Bertin bikes are held in.
I acquired the bike, a C 210 in Columbus Aelle with Shimano Golden Arrow kit and Mavic tubular rims. I trained on the tubulars for nearly a year, clocking up 2-3000 kilometres but after two blow outs in a single week I retreated from the idea of running them and put on a set of period clinchers
It was the fall of 2011 when I started to plan. I first though that 2012 would be the year but I reached the summer that year under-prepared for a long ride of this difficulty. I persuaded my good friend Bill Thomson to join me, he is retired and quickly gets into the spirit of adventure and we trained for 2013. We trained all through the winter and spring riding several Audax 100s, a couple of 160s and two 200s – all kilometres. We targeted the 100 mile Ride London Olympic route in August 2013 and made it round in good time and in good shape. We were ready.
The first stretch of strada bianchi (white roads) came at 20km. In the dark, on road tyres, this is a daunting prospect for nervous riders as the previous day a storm had lashed the Tuscan countryside as 2.5cm of rain fell in one day. The first few kilometres seemed to be fine, Bill remarked that the bikes handled better than expected on the rough terrain and we started to make good time. The threat of rain still hung over us but as the dawn broke we saw blue sky between the clouds and by 07.30 the sun breached the hillside to the east and cast long shadows across the landscape. There was a palpable joy among the riders as the sun warmed away our expectations of a long, wet day on the mud.
At 48km the first ‘Ristorio” was reached, we took on water, ate delicious Italian pastries and set off. There were stops every 40 – 50km or so for the first 120km and every 20km thereafter. I deduced this change in the frequency of stops was an effort to keep us alive as fatigue set in and we risked bad decisions about eating and drinking.
Montalcino was the high point on the map and arrived at 80km. It was reached by a category 2 climb through the forest on dirt roads. On the way, we passed the incongruous golf course owned by Salvatore Ferragamo, the over manicured greens and fairways jarred with the rustic landscape as we began our climb. The road was rough and coursed by rain gullies and drifts of sand and gravel. Hairpin after hairpin, we climbed steepening ascents to a soundtrack of tyres on gravel, heavy heartbeats in my ears and the regular and the laboured breathing of cyclists.
I passed a fellow traveller dressed as a forest ranger of the 1900’s in woollen clothing, on a 1900s period bicycle with wooden rims. He was pushing a single speed drivetrain one stroke at a time, we shouted ‘Bravo’, he faintly acknowledged and put his head down. As we turned the bend, the sound of shouts and cat-calls came up from the stream of cyclists on the lower slopes.
Within minutes, a truck passed with two other forest rangers and their bikes catching a ride to the top. I did not see our guy until the rest at 90km. He made it to the top and took his reward on the 6 km sweeping descent from Montalcino. He was my hero.
Mostly it was strada bianchi to the finish. Long stretches of up and down where the rain had played havoc with the surfaces made some parts unrideable. We walked long stretches of ascents and gingerly picked our way through the ruts on the descents.
I travelled behind a particularly cautious rider and, in frustration, took risks and passed only to find myself running out of grip on a corner and rattling off the road. Mr. Cautious arrived a few seconds later and gently swung around the bend with the look that only smugness can produce. Served me right.
We were into the final 40km and fatigue slowed us down and eroded our morale. I nearly crashed into the back of Bill, misjudged the approach to a bend and cursed the road surface. The road surface did not respond so I gave up.
At Pianella, we did not make the cut off time of 18.00 hours for the full course on the last stretch of strada bianchi and diverted the final 15km onto the alternative tarred surface and headed towards Gaiole. Darkness fell as we followed the contours northwards and the final climb towards the T junction on the edge of town. Thirteen hours earlier, we had passed this way in the dark heading south.
My Bertin was invisible throughout the ride, faultless, predictable in the dirt and gravel, mechanically reliable and decently comfortable. There were 5,000 vintage bikes on the roads that day and I would have happily ridden any of them but I rode my Bertin, and it delivered me safely home.
It now perches proudly on my bike stand as I write this, cleaned, serviced, the bar tape removed and new Tektro brake levers fitted. This is now my daughter’s bike. She is coming over later to choose the new bar tape colour, tyres and decide the placement of the new levers.