Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case is on a quest to ride and race the most fascinating and challenging cycling events around the world. Follow his journey on Instagram and Twitter: @chrisjustincase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note.
The light was flickering like an antique cinema projector, hazy shafts of sun casting down upon the dirt double track, through the thick canopy of a hollow, secluded canyon.
Light. Shadow. Light. Shadow. Flick, flick, flick.
This was my vision, out of focus in the noontime light, but there nonetheless: Coppi, climbing, crouched into a coil of potential energy, his long nose guiding him like an unstoppable ship.
This was what flashed before my eyes and through my mind while climbing Cypress Canyon — far from Gaiole in Chianti, or the Strade Bianche, the birthplace of the original L’Eroica — inside this perforated tunnel of trees near the Central Coast of California.
This was Eroica California. Part Italy. Part America. A Civil War reenactment for cycling, brought to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Find yourself a bike, and be sure it was made before 1987, complete with downtube shifters, toe clips, and external cable routing into the hoods. Find yourself a jersey, make sure it’s wool, and preferably plastered with an Italian surname. Get your black shorts, your bright white socks, and a “hairnet” helmet if you can. You’re ready for Eroica (the events outside of Gaiole, of which there are now four, one each in California, Japan, England, and Spain, all go by the title Eroica, and the original remains L’Eroica, or “The Heroic”).
The day before I had been handed a Crayola orange De Rosa, the bottom bracket recently returned to a state of function, the tubular glue still wafting through the air as I re-familiarized myself with the art of kicking into a set of toe clips. For period-correct footwear, there are a few options to choose from, assuming you don’t have 25-year-old shoes decaying in your closet. I chose a classic black pair from Vittoria’s Line 1976 — Italian-made leather which I wore with pleasure, both because of the yesteryear styling and the out-of-the-box comfort.
The bike harkened back to an era of racing that predates my birth; luckily, it fit like Ugo De Rosa made it himself to my specifications. And, authentic to the epoch, the tubulars were narrow (22mm), the gearing constrained (53-42 in front, a six-speed, 12-26 cassette in the rear, which offered a wider range than the original equipment would have), and the braking rather grim.
It was time to conjure the spirit of Coppi and Bartali, Géminiani, and Merckx.
We set off in the Champagne air of a Paso Robles morning, perched upon antique steel before the sun had had a chance to rise. If you squinted, you could take yourself back to another time, the darkness aiding in the imagining of a bygone bicycling script. Hunched, rocking bodies atop clicking-clacking machines. Old cables, friction shifters, cold fingers. The hypnotic silhouettes of symmetric, contouring combs of vines.
If you wanted to be in Italy, you were.
By sunrise, we had reached the first checkpoint — if you were heroic enough to take on the 127-mile route, this was the first of five checkpoints where you received a stamp confirming your arrival — amid the olive trees of Olea Farm. Breakfast would be nothing other than Belgian fries cooked in luscious olive oil, sprinkled with Himalayan salt. Ketchup and salsa for your pleasure. Big bowls of olive oil and spices lined long tables beside sliced baguettes.
A glorious day was upon us. Until it wasn’t. Pfft, pfft, pfft. Air, under pressure, evacuating through a tiny hole, intermittently interrupted by the revolutions of the wheel. Mile 40.
If, like me, you aren’t a part of the generation that rode “sew-ups” to train on, puncturing a tubular far from anywhere is a requirement for understanding the spirit of L’Eroica, a ride back through time when hard was harder and long was longer.
This is when my new friend and riding mate Chuck Teixeira became my impromptu guide to the essence of 1974. It isn’t that changing a tubular on the side of the road is difficult, but there is comfort in having someone who has done it hundreds of times beside you, if only to convince you that riding for another 90 miles isn’t suicidal.
No glue? Use that rear brake to heat up the rim, melt some fumes, and get one percent more adhesion through the magic of thermal dynamics. Or so he told me.
Given the ramshackle state of the spare tire that was affixed beneath my saddle, (something I didn’t realize until it was too late), I could only cling to the paradoxical premise that an old tire that was beat to hell but still kicking was a sturdy tire that had put up with a lot of shit and was ready for more.
It can be done, trust me, said Chuck’s poise. I was less alarmed at the insanity of riding glueless as I was incredulous at the adoption of clincher technology. So what if you died around the next bend, changing tubulars was efficient. Rip one off, slide one on. Just try not to turn that much.
This is when Chuck told me about the first time he rode tubulars. At the mid-point in this particular out-and-back century, he pulled into the parking lot to turn around and head home. It had been straight roads all day, until now. In front of the gathered crowd, he turned, both the tires slid off, and he crumpled to the ground. He rode gingerly back the 50 miles to the finish, bloody and embarrassed. But he always remembered to glue his tubulars to his rims after that.
We set off down the winding roads, my front tire cozily bonded, my shoddy rear spare, complete with cuts in the sidewall and tumors beneath the tread, merely lounging around a whirling hoop, ready and waiting to drift off.
The roads eventually led us to our next checkpoint, amid the forest on the lower slopes of Cypress Mountain. From here, we were headed over the Coast Range on a rustic back road, complete with 20 percent grades, and, ultimately, paradisiac views of the Pacific Ocean.
But paradise would have to wait a while. Tubular eruption number two. Mile 60.
Things just got a bit more difficult. I had no more tires. But I had Chuck, who insisted I take his spare.
“No way! I’ll figure something out. I can’t take that from you,” I said.
“Yes, come on, take it. It’s a long walk out and it’s good karma for me,” he said. Then he set off on his immaculate Teledyne Titan, all 16 pounds of early titanium technology and “Drillium” trimmings, up the climb, knowing I’d likely catch him by the top.
While I sat there in the sun, peeling another tubular off and tossing another on, the flies buzzing and the soil parched, absorbing the scenery and the circumstances, I could only think of one thing: bike racers from long ago. Eugène Christophe and the Pyrenean blacksmith shop, forging forks to ride on. The absurd number of miles and the frequency of mechanical misadventures that defined the early years of racing. All alone; figure it out; ride on.
I rode on. And 200 meters up the road, I was standing next to Chuck again.
This time, it was Chuck who had punctured. “I’m going to need that tire back, Chris.”
We laughed; it was not our day. We considered the options; it seemed my day was about to get a bit longer, a bit harder. The only way out of this jam was to walk or ride my way up the steepest climb of the day, with one good tire and a very small cluster of gears. I leaned my bike against the edge of a dilapidated bridge and took a photo of its knackered state.
“That’s it, make the most of it, Chris,” Chuck said as he drifted away into the distance.
This was a bike ride; I was riding this bike. And it was going to get me to at least the top of this climb, maybe farther. Then, I’d figure something out.
Riding on a flat tire on dirt isn’t too hard; you just have to mind the off-camber switchbacks that can peel the tire from the rim and into your brakes. And try not to hit every rock since this isn’t your bike. True to the spirit of the golden age of cycling, steep just became steeper.
Though I held out hope that I would eventually find a solution to carry on with two intact tires, I also reasoned there was a good chance I was nearing the end of my inaugural Eroica. I drilled it. I passed a lonely figure who grumbled at my rate of ascension. “I’m lighter since I have less air in my tires than you…” I yelled when I was already past him, trying to be gentlemanly about it all.
And then I saw it. The vaporous haze of Pacific Ocean views. A water station. People. Cars. Not a tubular in sight, and 13 sinuous miles of catastrophic tarmac between me and the town of Cambria.
Hero status would have to wait until next time.
The gathered support staff snapped photos of me. Maybe I looked as depleted as Octave Lapize as he crested the Tourmalet in 1910 and famously screamed “Murderers!” to the gathered officials. Or, I’d like to think, maybe I struck as handsome a figure as Anquetil after a fifth Tour victory.
In any case, I was offered a ride down the mountain. My riding time was through.
Jim was the proud owner of the most appropriate sag wagon there could be for this day: a 1969 Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 TI, adorned with a checkered flag racing stripe, lowered and stiffened for racing, with one roof-rack tray and red vinyl seats.
I saluted the fine folks gathered at the aid station as I bid them arrivederci, and was promptly swooshed down the hill toward the sea, by a piece of historic Italian machinery.