Eyewitness: in praise of L’Eroica

It rained heroically, but we rode on regardless, like heroes.
There is something magical about Tuscany, which, allied to a vintage bicycle, woollen jersey and shorts, 5,500 accomplices, clay roads, short and savage climbs, and wonderful local cuisine, makes L’Eroica the best of all mass participation events, in my opinion at least.
L’Eroica is the granfondo that inspired a professional race, the Strade Bianche, but professionals past and present are no strangers to the former. Laurens ten Dam and Alex Stieda were both participants at this 19th edition of the celebration of heroic riding created by Giancarlo Brocci in 1997.
Brocci urges guests at the pre-event press conference to find room in their lives for suffering, and while his translator admits that something of the founder’s florid prose is lost in translation, surely there is too much enjoyment for real hardship, even in the sporting sense. Brocci is undeterred, riffing (in Italian) on the “beauty of fatigue and the taste of accomplishment”.
L’Eroica has expanded beyond recognition, from 92 participants the first time the event rolled out of Gaiole to 5,500 on Sunday. The organisers, who work closely with Gaiole’s mayor, have capped the event at 6,000 participants next year. The restriction to bicycles made before 1987 – to Bici Eroiche – was applied five years ago, not to turn L’Eroica into a “vintage” event, but to limit numbers. Bike connoisseurs are certainly the winners.

Brocci describes the vintage element as “an excuse” to embrace values beyond the modern age. “We are not a costume event,” he tells the journalists. “We are here to use these instruments as a tool to measure ourselves and challenge ourselves.”
Partner events are now held in Spain and Japan, in California and the Peak District (“L’Eroica Brittania”), with South Africa joining next year, and if wine regions are a common theme, there are few other similarities, other than the principles of a vintage event. Each is said to have its own character, but for any to match the magic of Tuscany must be a tall order.
L’Eroica is under new ownership, with the Bignoli family, owners of the Selle Royal group, among the investors, and Nicola Rosin, general manager at Selle Royal, serving also as president of L’Eroica’s new board. Critically, however, the founding organisers will continue to run the event in Gaiole.
There is no sense that things have changed since my last visit, two years ago, only the same magical atmosphere, and abundance of climbing and eating. The food stops satisfy even the gourmet in our party, and the riding meets everyone’s approval.
Andrea Meneghelli, brand director at Brooks England, another Bignoli property, is on L’Eroica’s board. I travel as guest of Brooks and dine with Meneghelli on the Friday. A huge man, as far removed from the build of a professional cyclist as might be imagined, he was among the very last home last year, after tackling the longest route, but prepares for his coming ordeal with optimism.
“Good natured” is the default setting in Italy, and as we queue in our hundreds for the roll out of the 75km route, spread out across the full breadth of Gaiole’s beautiful high street, there are only shouts of encouragement, and for the glorious day ahead to begin.
There is honour in this exercise, one that is as much a celebration of the mechanical beauty of a cycling age now gone as heroic riding, but for those who tackle the 135km and 200km courses, the suffering is genuine. Some are still returning as we leave the town, 12 hours after setting out on their ride.
Tiny Gaiole is now home to 19 refugees. The major invited them to join the town’s people in working as volunteers at L’Eroica. It’s that sort of gig. Perhaps this is why the professionals come: there is no pretence to racing here. They can forget their own, infinitely harder world for a day and experience only the camaraderie that comes with it.
My flimsy leather shoes (purchased in Gaiole on my first visit and kept in the hope of a return) are caked in Tuscan clay, as is my skin. It matters not. Recovering in the aptly-named Bar Jolly, swapping tales of my day on the strade blanche (if not in the Strade Bianche) there are few places I’d rather be, with the exception, perhaps, of a hot shower. If travelling to Tuscany and L’Eroica isn’t high on your list of things to do, you should really ask yourself why.
1 travelled to L’Eroica as a guest of Brooks England

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