In the weeks before the race, I spent a lot of time basking in the glory of telling my friends that I'd be riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. I did not, however, spend a lot of time actually visualizing myself riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. Ten minutes into the race, I found myself flying down a loose-gravel hill in predawn darkness with only dim candles lining the curving road, and it became apparent why this famous bicycle race is called L'Eroica, or "The Heroic" in English. L'Eroica began in the town of Gaiole in Chianti in 1997 when 92 riders banded together to prevent the traditional white gravel roads of Tuscany, the strade bianche, from being paved over. To uphold the true spirit of traditional strada bianca riding, cyclists use steel-frame bicycles built before 1987. The bikes must have gear shift levers on the down tube of the frame and pedals with toe clips or fitted straps. The race has increased in popularity each year, spreading enthusiasm for environmental sustainability and a pure love of cycling. This year, in the 18th edition of the race, over 5,000 cyclists participated.
The nature of L'Eroica is not that of a competitive race, but of a special shared experience. The race's website aptly describes the event as "a poem written with a bicycle." Throughout the ride, you'll find strangers stopping to help others with mechanical problems or flat tires, or just to chat about where everyone came from and how they ended up riding one of the most famous bike races in the land. By being one of the "heroes," you immediately become part of a community. Need mechanical, emotional or social support? Don't worry; the heroes will take care of you.
The race festivities start the night before in Gaiole in Chianti. Thousands of enthusiasts are dressed in wool biking kits and old-fashioned clothing. Rows upon rows of old racing goggles, leather cycling helmets, knit gloves and vintage bicycle parts for sale line the streets. We saw wooden wheel frames with wooden brake pads, a man who had cycled all over Europe on a six-foot-tall bicycle he had fashioned himself and beautiful vintage bikes everywhere we looked. Many of the area's winemakers united to run a tasting tent: five euros for unlimited tastings of the best riservas. The aromas of roasted pork, fresh pizzas and Tuscan stews wafted from food trucks. It was truly una festa! At 4:30 on Sunday morning, our Backroads squadra of seven creaked out of bed to jovial shouts of "buon pomodoro!"("good tomato!") from team member Simone Domenichini, who kept his spirits high throughout the day even though he was missing his lowest of 12 gears. Our local Gaiole hero Edoardo Bausani held true to his "Capitano" name by flying at the front of our group and introducing us to all the locals. Luis Elorreaga was my partner in crime, cheering me down the steep gravel hills and making me laugh when our tires slipped on the loose strade bianche.
I have to admit, our Backroads crew looked sharp! We had our own navy blue wool jerseys with Bordeaux red trim, "Backroads: Est. 1979--Gaiole in Chi.- Berkeley" emblazoned in white across the chest. Riders asked us all throughout the day, "Who are you guys?" We were proud to represent a different sort of riding heroes--Backroads Trip Leaders.
There were four official rest stops along our 84-mile route. Each one had a brass tap from which we could refill our water (if we didn't opt for the Chianti wine instead) and a full spread of Tuscan treats to refuel: pecorino cheeses, fruit crostate (tarts) and slices of salami. My favorite, much to my mother's horror, was the bruschetta with raw sausage spread on top. It beats the halftime orange slices of my childhood hands down! After the first gravel downhill in the blackness of morning, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. A little ball of nerves formed in my stomach and I narrowed my focus down to simply surviving. Then we arrived on a quiet gravel road on the outskirts of Siena just as the sun was coming up. We could see the mist rising between the layers of hills and the sun penciled a brilliant magenta outline around the clouds on the horizon. The serenity and sheer beauty of the moment silenced my nerves. All of us looked at each other and smiled. This is why we cycle. Do I want to keep riding a 12-speed steel frame bicycle? In short, NO! I've come to quite appreciate Backroads' 30-gear titanium bikes. But I will make an exception if I get to join the ranks of other heroes on the strade bianche of Tuscany again.
Photo credits - Vilette Čibej