This man's 1895 bike was one of the oldest at the...

L’Eroica vintage sportive: Riding into cycling history on the strade bianche

GAOILE, Italy (VN) — If asked to describe an iconic photo from the early days of cycling, we would all come up with different images, but there would be an underlying theme: There would be a black-and-white image of a cyclist on a bike that looked a little too large for him. He would be wearing […]

GAOILE, Italy (VN) — If asked to describe an iconic photo from the early days of cycling, we would all come up with different images, but there would be an underlying theme: There would be a black-and-white image of a cyclist on a bike that looked a little too large for him. He would be wearing a loose-fitting woolen jersey and shorts, with a cycling cap and goggles. His bike would be a basic machine, with few gears, and shifters on the frame. Finally there would be a certain look to the rider; if racing there would be suffering eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead; if posing he would have a proud, neutral look on his face. No carbon fiber, aero profiles or race radios would be seen, just the uncomplicated image of bike and rider.

Every year on the first weekend of October there is the opportunity for us all to have a small slice of this history. L’Eroica or “The Heroic” is the event, and Italy is the location.

“Gaiole in Chianti” is a small town in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Fifteen kilometers from Siena, this small town is famous not only for the wine produced in the region and being named by Forbes Magazine as the “Most idyllic place in Europe” to live, but also for L’Eroica.

L’Eroica is a unique bike event that celebrates the glorious days of the pioneers of cycling. It is a vintage sportive where riders have to ride bikes built pre-1989 following three strictly enforced rules: NO clipless pedals, NO internal cables and ONLY downtube shifters.

Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov on the strade bianche.

The event is the brainchild of Gaiole in Chianti native, Giancarlo Brocci. In 1997, with his passion for the history of cycling and his region, he started the event. Brocci explains “This is not a race, but a ride. It celebrates the pioneers of modern cycling and also my beautiful region. I wanted to save the historic Strade Bianche from being paved.”

The strade bianche or “white roads” are Chianti’s version of Flandrian cobbles. Made out of white gravel, they are a central feature of L’Eroica.

If you look back to the old photos of cycling, strade bianche is the surface that many of the races took place on.

“It is the strade bianche which gives L’Eroica is unique flair,” Brocci explains. “We include sections of it in all the four different length events to allow the riders to experience the hardships that riders such as Coppi and Bartali (a Chianti native) faced. There is definitely a technique needed to ride it. The extra dimension that the strade bianche adds to L’Eroica makes it much harder and more rewarding to finish.”

This surface is so tough that Brocci also organises a professional race which follows in the footsteps of the L’Eroica. In April every year, since 2006, the world’s top pros race the strade bianche. Additionally, the strade bianche was used during the 2010 Giro d’Italia, which saw Cadel Evans win the stage, while Vincent Nibali lost his pink jersey. That day the white roads did not glimmer in the Italian sun, but were turned to a silty mud by a heavy downpour.

This year’s vintage sportive saw a field-limited 4,090 riders from 28 different countries descend on Gaiole in Chianti for L’Eroica, with 61 riders making the trek from America to take part.

Riders chose one of four circuits from as long as 205 kilometers to as short as 38km. Each of the circuits has sections of strade bianche and numerous feed stations. The feed stations are a central part of the event, each offering local food, Italian ham, local grapes, regional stew and of course plenty of Chianti. There’s not an energy bar in sight.

These are social places where riders take the opportunity to look at each other’s bikes, making for a warm atmosphere with the backing soundtrack of musical Italian conversation.

Evan Hu, one of the 15 Canadian riders, was riding to celebrate his 50th birthday.

“I heard about the event while in Tuscany on a cycling holiday a couple of years ago,” Hu said. “It was supposed to be the event to do, so I decided to come here to celebrate my 50th birthday. What a birthday present — shame I could not be 50 every year.”

Like the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, riding fast on the strade bianche requires a certain technique. The gravel of the white roads makes grip an issue.

“We were put to shame by the local riders,” Hu said. (Hu was riding with fellow Canadian and friend Fred Wright). “We ended up leap frogging with a 75 year old Italian, him passing us on the climbs and descents, us re-passing him on the flat. He seemed to have a lot more confidence to let the bike choose its own path on the strade bianche descents. These guys really know how to ride, and I felt like a young fraud at 50!”

Ben Stott and Ian West were two British riders who were each doing L’Eroica for the sixth time. Having never had a mechanical issue perviously, 2011 saw them have an interesting time.

“We started early, planning on doing the 135km event. Unfortunately I snapped a spoke in my rear wheel after 15km and had to get a lift back to the start to get it fixed,” Stott explained. “When I gave my wheel to the Italian mechanic he clapped his hands on his head, cried “Mama Mia!” and then went to work at a speed which almost blurred his motion. A couple of minutes later I was ready to ride again with a wheel which was better than new. I was tempted to ask him to work his magic on the rest of my bike!”

West continued the story. “While Ben was getting his bike fixed I was riding back, getting interesting looks from the riders going out: they thought I had already finished. We then decided to ride the 75km event.”

This was not the end of their eventful day. Stott finished his story: “Not only did I end up getting my first puncture in six years, but also fell off while we were on a descent on the strade bianche. It does not make any difference; it was still a great day and as normal one of my favorite weekends of the year. You cannot compare this event to anything else in the world.”

When asked if he will be back next year Ben answered “YES! The first time I was here sealed the deal for me. The first section of strade bianche is lined with candles, because you get there when it is dark. I still remember being blown away by this. Then a couple of kilometers after that I was riding across a ridge, which over looked the amazing Tuscan country side. On my left, the sun was just coming up and on my right the moon was just setting, a stunning sight that keeps me coming back. Even after six years this event does not cease to make me happy, I’ll definitely be back!”

L’Eroica is a true celebration of cycling and its rich history. This well-organized event allows riders to both test themselves and enjoy Chianti at its best. With riders still coming in after dark, the central piazza was still buzzing with the party atmosphere of the event. Everyone left the idyllic town of Gaiole in Chianti and L’Eroica with fond memories of their day on the strade bianche, each one truly “Heroic.”

The Faces of L’Eroica: A Gallery by Philip Gale

2010 Giro d'Italia. Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov on the strade bianche.
2010 Giro d’Italia. Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov on the strade bianche. Photo: Graham Watson |
Strade biancha
The sun beats down on the strade as riders take on a tricky descent. Photo: Philip Gale
Bikes can wait
A row of bikes line the strade biancha as riders enjoy a feed stop. Photo: Philip Gale
Some of the delicious food on offer at the rest stops. Photo: Philip Gale
Rest easy
Riders were greeted by friendly smiles at the rest stops. Photo: Philip Gale
A thing of beauty
Stacks of sandwiches for the hungry masses. With regional ham on the Italian bread. Photo: Philip Gale
Pre-dawn start
Riders line up to leave before the sunrise. Photo: Philip Gale
Playing the part
A young lady in costume at the fair. Photo: Philip Gale
One of the older riders chatting to everyone while enjoying a glass of Chianti. Photo: Philip Gale
Maglia Nera
The black jersey was traditionally worn by the last placed rider at the Giro. Photo: Philip Gale
Not all Italian bike mechanics dress like this.
Even the mechanics got into the spirit, dressing in period clothes. They had many customers. Photo: Philip Gale
Thumbs up at the start
Another enthusiastic starter. He still had the same energy when I saw him 135km later. Photo: Philip Gale
International cast
Riders from 28 nations made the journey to L’Eroica. This one proudly showed his roots. Photo: Philip Gale
Spare tubie
A frequent sight at L’Eroica: a spare tubular across the shoulder just in case. Photo: Philip Gale
A French pair at the event Sunday. Photo: Philip Gale
Another face at the event
This one in full cycling wear on Saturday evening. Photo: Philip Gale
Pre-event fixes
Old bike parts are hard to come by, so riders made the most of the event’s mechanics. Photo: Philip Gale
Michael Ball, found at last?
One of the many custom jersey made by groups for the event. Photo: Philip Gale
Tired but in good spirits
Tired eyes after the ride, but still in full dress and great spirits. Photo: Philip Gale
Pre-ride nosh
A quick coffee and brioche before the start. Photo: Philip Gale
Oakley's latest?
This year being so dry, goggles were a good idea. Plus they complete the outfit. Photo: Philip Gale
Bread and cured sausage
Not quite a gel or bar, but a lot more tasty! Photo: Philip Gale
Moser goes retro
Cycling legend and all-around nice guy Francesco Moser rode the 75km event. Photo: Philip Gale
The face of L'Eroica
This man’s 1895 bike was one of the oldest at the event. Photo: Philip Gale
I'm not going to tell him is helmet is anachronistic.
At 81, Giorgio Olmi was the oldest rider at L’Eroica and was truly Heroic. Photo: Philip Gale
Attack at the gun
Two riders wait for the start. Photo: Philip Gale
Boots included?
Another period bike at the fair. Photo: Philip Gale
Retro market
There’s more than just a ride. A vintage bike fair also draws people from world wide. Photo: Philip Gale
Late afternoon at the fair
Crowds were still thick as the sun set on the fair. Photo: Philip Gale
Tag sale
A tag explaining the age of one of the bikes at the fair. Photo: Philip Gale
Autos, too
One of the vintage cars at the event. This Fiat 500 can carry only a couple bikes. Photo: Philip Gale
Sunrise at the start
Even after the sun rose, people were still lining up to start. Photo: Philip Gale
Candles in the wind
Candles line the road for the pre-dawn starters. Photo: Philip Gale
Castles and skies
Vineyards, castles and blue skies are some of the many rewards of L’Eroica. Photo: Philip Gale
All ages
Young or old, male or female. Anyone can be a hero at L’Eroica. Photo: Philip Gale
Tree lined strada
The final few meters of the first section of strade biancha, lined with poplar trees. Photo: Philip Gale
To the finishers the spoils.
All finishers earn a nice bottle of Chianti. Photo: Philip Gale

What would the UCI think? A look at the bikes of L’Eroica

L'Eroica Tech Gallery

If You Go … How to do L’Eroica

2011 L'Eroica vintage sportive gallery

Registration: Registration for the event is through the L’Eroica website. It opens at the start of February and closes at the start of September. Depending on when you enter there is a sliding scale of fees, starting at 30 Euros ($41) in February and increasing to 100 Euros ($138) on the weekend of the event for the final 100 places. Note the field is limited to 4,000 riders.
Requirements: A bike which fits the following rules:

  • 1. Downtube shifters
  • 2. No internal cables
  • 3. No clipless pedals

Pre-1989 for the bike is preferred. All bikes are checked and rules are hotly enforced, if you break them you can do the circuit but not partake in the event. If you leave before 6:30am (start is when you wish between 5am and 7am for the two longest distances) you have to have lights.
Training: With four different routes (203km, 203km, 135km and 38km) there is something for all levels. Expect to be out all day for the longest two distances (203 and 135 km). If doing the longer events prepare with riding. Remember the bikes are heavier and the terrain with the strade bianche is hard. (The 203km event has over 3,000 meters (9,942 feet) of climbing in it).
Travel: There are two major airports close, Florence is 50 kilometer (31 miles) away and Pisa is a two-hour drive. Each have international flights arriving at them. Other major airports: Milan (five-hour drive) and Rome (three-hour drive). It is recommended to travel with your bike as luggage; Italy is not renowned for its shipping services with some riders still waiting for their bikes on the day of the event.
Family – Giaole in Chianti has been named by Forbes magazine as “Europe’s most idyllic place to live.” There is plenty to do for the whole family with entertainment taking place all day long in the town. The Chianti region, famous for its wine, has many tours to keep everyone entertained. With Siena and Florence nearby there is much non-cycling related culture to absorb.
Lodgings: Tuscany and Chianti have a wide range of hotels to suit all budgets. There are also many self-catering apartments and bed & breakfasts in the area. The L’Eroica website has a list of them all, and links to the Chianti Tourism website.
Package: There are a couple of Bike Tour Companies which run packages to the event. They will sort out everything for you, leaving you to enjoy the event. One English speaking tour company is La Fuga Travel.
Strade Bianche: For those not wishing to do L’Eroica, the 203 kilometer circuit is opened and sign-posted to all who wish to ride it year round. You can either ride it in one day as the “Heroic” of the event, or take 3 to 5 days to ride the circuit at a more leisurely pace, as recommend by the tourist guide.
Further information: L’Eroica have staff dedicated to help you in whatever is your native language. More information can be found at:
Event website
Giaole in Chianti website
Tuscany tourism website
Package option
L’Eroica permanent route

Editor’s Note: UK journalist Phillip Gale started to race when he was 12 years old as a mountain biker. After nine seasons on fat tires Phil went over to the road. He spent the last six years suffering in the gutter as a full time Elite Amateur bike racer in Brittany, France. He started moving into journalism in January 2011 looking for something to do after bike racing and wanting to work in the field that he loves. He is now writing with the perspective of an ex-racer and also racing for the Italian Gran Fondo team, Piton ASD.