Women of Tuscany’s L’Eroica Vintage Bike Race
It isn’t just cool that we’re a group of chicks on bikes, it’s phenomenal that we’re a team of women riding vintage bicycles in a historically male-dominated Tuscan race. We’re five Backroads Trip Leaders who have each led trips in Tuscany, and we’ve been planning to partake in the famed L’Eroica vintage bicycling race together for almost a year (to learn more about the race and relive my first L’Eroica experience, check out my blog post here.)
Laura is our L’Eroica queen. Her gray wool skirt flanks a beautifully golden steel-frame bicycle. She had met the mayor of Gaiole in Chianti at the California edition of the event and is now spending the weekend connecting us to the classic characters of the race. Her love for vintage cycling seeps through her pores as her long brown braids swing underneath a gray wool cap, her argyle socks reach up to her knees. She embodies the inclusiveness, grit and community spirit that’s the backbone of this historic race.
Molly also rode in the L’Eroica California. I haven’t seen her since she and I climbed Mount Etna on our Backroads titanium steeds the summer before, me chasing her from an ever-increasing distance. Molly’s an absolute machine, though she’d never admit to any form of superiority. She’s the type of person who humbly eases into the background, but leaves the world noticeably changed in her wake. She, too, is giddy about vintage cycling. She’s been sporting her Brooks saddle and beautiful leather riding shoes for years, waiting for a chance to get into this classic race at its origin.
Renee has been my best riding buddy in Tuscany for the past four years. She taught middle school in the San Francisco Bay Area before she led a Bike Across America trip in which she guided a group of youngsters from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A taste of the biking lifestyle wasn’t enough for her, and when she heard about Backroads active travel, her fate was sealed. Renee took me on my very first bike ride in those unforgiving Tuscan hills, back when I wondered if I’d even survive the six days of a trip. Now, we casually take off with our cycling panniers on weekend journeys to conquer the landscape.
Annie is our one true L’Eroica first-timer, but eclipses each of us in terms of Backroads knowledge and Tuscan experience. She studied Italian in school and was excited to lead trips in Italy straight out of college. She’s young like the rest of us, but has somehow squeezed in years of launching restaurants on the New York scene between Backroads stints. After leaving her work in restaurants, she reconnected with Backroads full-time. She’s the spearhead of our cycling team unification and is thrilled to finally return to her Tuscan stomping ground.
This is my second experience racing L’Eroica in Tuscany, and this time I feel like I belong. Those of us who didn’t already own a vintage bicycle have spent the weeks leading up to the race securing rental bikes from L’Eroica-approved shops. Each of us is atop a steel frame built no later than 1987, with our feet resting inside metal toe clips on flat pedals. We shift our limited gears by pushing or pulling a lever on the down tube. Our spare tubeless tires hang crisscrossed around our necks, pre-painted with a base layer of liquid sealant that will help the tires grip our rims in the event of a change.
We all sport our blue Backroads biking apparel, which apparently is quite recognizable. Fellow riders cheer for “le ragazze di Backroads,” (the Backroads girls) and middle-aged men scoff “guarda queste gambe!” (look at these legs!) in bewilderment as we pass them on a climb. The spirit of the event is not a race–and we certainly aren’t focused on speeding past anyone–but when the opportunity presents itself to demonstrate our feminine cyclist strength among a sea of men, we may just turn the burners on a time or two.
It rained the night before, but the weather the day of the race is absolutely perfect. We bask in the sun as we cruise over the rain-packed gravel. We fill up on the hearty Tuscan ribollita soup and re-energize by sharing goodwill over Chianti wine. The sheer joy of rolling across the Tuscan terrain on a bicycle while surrounded by unfathomable beauty and a spirit of togetherness in sport has us hooked. Le ragazze di Backroads will be back!
Photos courtesy Renee Johnson, Backroads Leader