L’Eroica has the power to catch you by surprise when you least expect it. Instances filled with never-ending streams of riders, dramatic views and untold feelings that last forever. That’s how I enjoyed my first Eroica in 2017. The ride was exhausting, 75 kilometers of pain, pushing me to my limits. But once I glimpsed the finish line, joy and emotion suddenly burst from inside and I forgot all the suffering, bringing extraordinary feelings that are hard to describe, even by this modest journalist. But those feelings are why I returned to Tuscany to celebrate the 23rd edition.
The first icon of L’Eroica, Luciano Berruti, wore a handlebar mustache, tweed cap and oversized goggles, and he rode the bicycle of 1907 Tour de France winner Lucien Petit-Breton. Luciano died in the saddle in 2017, but his son Jacek Berruti continues the family’s love for vintage cycling. “L’Eroica is the drumroll that starts to beat within us long before the event,” he says. “The intensity of the drumroll increases day after day, and then it’s time to get ready: grease the gears, air your clothes, polish your leather shoes. And on starting I find myself struggling, eating dust and hearing the rumble of dirt roads beneath my wheels. If, at that moment, someone asked me to define happiness, I would reply: L’Eroica.”
Founded in 1997 by Giancarlo Brocci, one of Luciano Berruti’s friends, L’Eroica is a vintage bike “race” that takes place under the Tuscan sun on the region’s unique white roads with a start and finish in Gaiole in Chianti, near Siena. There are no official winners. It’s a feast, a celebration, a party dedicated to cycling. Its slogan—”the beauty of fatigue, the thrill of conquest”—was coined by Brocci. He’s right. Fatigue and conquest go hand in hand, up and down the endless hills of Chianti and the Val d’Orcia, surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees, along with the rattle of wheels plowing over the gravel of the Renaissance-era strade bianche, the white roads, preserved thanks to L’Eroica itself.
Reflecting Jacek’s actions, I begin preparing my 1985 Francesco Moser bike well in advance of the 2019 Eroica. The year of manufacture is important. The rules speak clearly. To participate, the bike must be built prior to 1987, pedals must have toe clips and straps, and brake cables must pass over the handlebar. Wool shorts and jersey likely complete your outfit. This revival event carries a much deeper message, reaffirming an authentic cycling culture based on a healthy suffering that made the great Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali such heroes. It’s a cycling culture that maximizes your body’s limits, succeeds in spreading respect and leads to bonding with fellow cyclists.
On Eroica eve, I spend the day photographing and meeting friends old and new. Happiness is mounting. Gaiole’s streets are in party mode. But you can feel that everyone’s minds are already on the Sunday ride. Some will wake up at 3 a.m. to ride L’Eroica’s long route of 209 kilometers—including my friend Paolo Rinaldi, whose friends know him as a Bartalis alias. You can choose from four other routes: the one over 135 kilometers; the new 106-kilometer challenge, dedicated to the late Felice Gimondi; the still-challenging 81-kilometer that I will ride; and the 46-kilometer stroll.
On race day, Sunday, October 6, I start at 8 a.m. The air is cold, you have to dress warmly to avoid freezing on the descent before the first hill, the one topped by the Castle of Brolio. Along the way, candles are still alight on the roadside, reminding us that, like my friend Paolo, some riders passed this way before sunrise. The undemanding climb is as beautiful as the descent, where I see a sweep of vineyards unfold. A few kilometers later at Leccione, I pass the famous tree under which Lucy Harmon in the Bernardo Bertolucci film “Stealing Beauty” lost her virginity.
After Pianella, we climb to Vagliagli, where I crashed two years ago. This time I descend with caution toward Radda in Chianti, one of the most beautiful villages in the region, where I eat and drink (water only). After the scenic road to Panzano, another climb awaits me, the damned Volpaia. I had to walk this one before, but this time is different. I climb slowly on my 42×25, enjoying the people who applaud and encourage us and giving me the strength to get to the top. The worst is over. It’s straight on to Gaiole, but the final 20 kilometers seem endless. I feel the joy rising as I use all my strength until the finish to feel and love the same happiness as Luciano Berruti experienced on his 20 years of riding L’Eroica before he died.
The following day I talk on the phone with my friend Paolo about his ride on the long route. He says, “I can’t find words to describe it. I thought I wouldn’t manage to finish, but after I crossed the line at 9 p.m., I could have cycled another 100K. The most fascinating aspect came after the 4:30 a.m. start. Reaching the hills approaching Radi, the sun started to rise, creating second after second of picture-postcard moments. I then realized that we all are part of this beautiful scenery and that the satisfaction comes from living this moment that can’t be stopped in time or replicated.”
Indeed, it doesn’t matter how many kilometers you choose to undertake. Whatever the choice, it won’t fail to be a challenge. Every route will be L’Eroica. And it will definitely equate with happiness.