In Search of Cycling's Roots
There was a time not so long ago in cycling’s past when the grimaces were dustier, the roads a bit rougher, and energy bars were cured meats on Tuscan bread. This is L’Eroica, where you step back in time for a day in the heart of Chianti’s iconic strade bianche - gravel roads named after their white color where champions of yesteryear made history and whose names still echo the walls of bars and osterie of the area as if they raced yesterday. At L’Eroica, the marvels of the past come alive.
In Italy, tradition rules above all else so it’s fitting that the spectacle that is L’Eroica where cyclists from around the world ride vintage bikes (they must be old enough to have down tube shifters) and dress in old wool jerseys to celebrate cycling’s past while riding, eating, and drinking their way through the countryside surrounding Gaiole in Chianti. Here, cycling’s heart beats loud and, being Italian, with unrivalled passion for the sport’s past and present.
Watch the video below for the full experience
I went to Tuscany with German helmet and accessories producer ABUS and as the crew and I readied ourselves to roll out behind a 1970’s era Carabinieri car, the air was full of excitement. Even though this particular crew was very international hailing from the US, UK and of course ABUS’ headquarters in Germany, we all somehow fit right in with the enormous group of affable Italian cyclists, fitting since the day is about camaraderie and the larger cycling family, rather than racing after all. Who better to make you feel like part of the family than a massive group of Italians giddy to start riding? The ceremonial pistol fired and we were off, just like Bartali, Coppi, and Gimondi so many years ago.
Out on the road, the cheerful chatter rose above the hum of the diesel engine and announcer’s megaphone. Riders instantly formed bonds with each other despite language barriers as they checked out each other’s kit, bike and remembered a favorite rider who once wore the jersey or raced a bike from a specific brand or epoch. Too often we get caught up in the latest and greatest technology - I did happen to be sporting ABUS’s top of the line special edition Eroica helmet, because “safety” and “may as well be slick” - but L’Eroica is about remembering when the old was new, when the old were young and most of all, bridging the past and the present.
Paradoxically, a day so focused on the past has a way of keeping people focused on the present. In no other event have I seen so many people collectively enjoying an experience for the spectacle that it is without any pretense of grandeur awaiting them at the finish line. Here, the reward is clearly right in front of your eyes, surrounding you in a day that flies by and stretches on forever at the same time. People struggle on 1950’s gearing against the steep gravel gradients and suddenly become very appreciative of modern brakes when they fly down the sinuous gravel strade bianche, but there is no notion of personal suffering or sacrifice, but rather a deepened appreciation for the exploits of past heroes and the beauty of riding in such an iconic location.
In other iconic cycling locations like the Pyrenees or Alps, the scene of vintage bikes and cars piloted by riders and drivers dressed as if it were anywhere between 1900 and 1985 would seem out of place, but somehow in Chianti, the ‘50’s era RAI state television pickup truck and TV camera kicking up dust onto the cypress lined roads appears to be a perfectly normal sight, so deep are the traditions here. Stone farmhouses play host to impromptu food stops where locals, dressed as if it were 1947 of course, make Tuscany’s famous ribollita (vegetable stew) cooked over an open wood fire and serve up Chianti straight from the family’s cantina to wash it all down. As dusty, smiling riders come in one after another, the scene seems completely normal. There is no hint that life here has ever been, is, or ever will be different than this. It’s a moment frozen in time.
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