For the last six years I, along with many other cycling enthusiasts from around the world, have made the yearly pilgrimage to Gaiole in Chianti for L’Eroica vintage bike ride. Held on the first Sunday in October, L’Eroica is like a step back in time to before the modern age of tarmacked roads, hi vis jackets and hybrid bikes with fancy suspension.
The rule here is that only bikes made before 1987 that fit a specific set of criteria are allowed to compete. The event has been running since 1997 and has really exploded in popularity over the last few years, drawing in cyclists from across the globe. This year saw nearly 5000 cyclists register to take part and national coverage in some of Italy’s biggest newspapers, including Corriere della Sera and La Gazzetta dello Sport. Decked out in my vintage cycling finest, I headed down to Gaiole with my local cycling club and my trusty Bianchi ready for a bike ride like no other.
As soon as you arrive in Gaiole you know something special is going on. The day before the big ride, the little Tuscan town is taken over by stands full of vintages bike parts, clothes and memorabilia, as well as people offering repairs and tune-ups. For owners of these classic bikes, it’s an invaluable opportunity to source parts and access specialists you might otherwise struggle to find.
This being Italy, there are also, of course, a whole host of people selling a range of delicious local food. From pizza wagons and chefs cooking up a wide range of fresh meat dishes right in front of you, to the local restaurants that bulge out onto the terraces, anyone looking to fuel up before getting on their bike is spoiled for choice. One stand out was a pop-up restaurant, set up by local volunteers, that I’m told served hungry cycling fans with somewhere in the region of 1200 sausages and 600 t-bone steaks!
The atmosphere is incredible, with thousands of riders taking part and even more spectators, many of them dressed in vintage clothing, all packed into a little town that Forbes magazine once ranked number one on its list of Europe’s most idyllic places to live. One of the great things about L’Eroica is that it’s not a race so people take a lot of time to enjoy the scenery, food and comradery on offer. While the cycling is still hard work, it’s an event that firmly puts fun first and has a really friendly, inclusive feel to it.
On the day of the ride, participants can pick from one of four different courses, the shortest of which is 38km and the longest (the full run) a robust 209km! In between there are 75km and 135km courses which are great for people like me who are keen cyclists but not quite at the pro athlete level! The rides take place along some of the old gravel tracks which were the original roads linking the various towns of the Chianti region together. These roads follow very direct routes, resulting in some pretty steep hills in places, which means anyone choosing to complete the full run needs legs of steel and the stamina of an Olympian.
I stick to the 135km track, which I’ve ridden for the past six years now, and offers a good mix of challenging cycling and beautiful countryside while leaving plenty of time to stop off along the way at various points. There were around sixty of us from my local club this year, although we split up into smaller groups going round, making for a really fun ride where everyone felt comfortable cycling at their own level.
L’Eroica is intended to recall the classic bike races of the past, so even though it’s not a race each rider is issued with a card, which they carry in their pocket and can get stamped and signed at each of the designated stop-off point on the way around, recording the time they passed through. This is how they used to manage races back in the days before computers and electronic check-points!
There’s more to the check points than just getting your card stamped, however. Each stop has people serving a variety of foodstuffs, ranging from salami, small sandwiches, boiled eggs and sweet biscuits to classic Tuscan dishes. My favourite is the ribollita, a traditional Tuscan bread soup cooked in a cast iron pot on a tripod over an open fire. Of course, you have to be careful not to eat too much, or it’s not so easy getting up the hills afterwards! They also serve Vin Santo, the popular Tuscan dessert wine, but again, it’s best not to over-indulge unless you want to be wobbling all over the road to the next check point!
The countryside you pass through is as amazing and beautiful as you would expect. The various courses takes you from open, arable areas to more closed-in vineyards and olive groves and it’s a really wonderful way to experience the stunning Tuscan landscape. The colours of the vintage woollen shirts we all wear made an amazing contrast against the beautiful scenery offering loads of opportunities for keen photographers. It’s almost impossible not to stop every so often and soak it all in. Especially when you get to watch a whole range of weird and wonderful bikes going past, not least the brave soul who took on one of the tracks on a penny farthing!
All of the routes end where they begin, in Gaiole. There’s a real festival air around the central square where all of the courses finish. Every rider has to make their way through the middle of the square which is lined by spectators cheering and applauding as they cross the finish line and collect the congratulatory bottle of wine every participant gets for finishing. No matter which course you tackle or how long it takes you to get round, for that one moment every rider gets to feel like a champion.
The party atmosphere carries on until nightfall with plenty of wine and beer being drunk. By that point most riders, me included, are so tired it’s all you can manage to stumble off to bed. The next day is clear up day, where the village is returned to normal and it’s all over for another year. With L’Eroica growing in size and recognition each year, there’s no question that L’Eroica 2015 will be just as spectacular as this year’s event and I certainly intend to be back! Maybe next time I’ll even tackle the full run…or maybe not.
Tuscany has a long and proud association with cycling, not least for being the birthplace of the legendary Gino Bartali who won the Tour de France twice and the Giro d’Italia three times in the 30s and 40s. The region’s beautiful countryside and mix of challenging hilly terrain and flatter, more accessible routes makes Tuscany a favourite destination for cyclists of all abilities. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Tuscany provides the setting for this growing event.
We have a number of villas available in Gaiole in Chianti and the surrounding area, perfect for anyone intending to take part in L’Eroica either as a cyclist or spectator. We can also help you register for the event if you need some assistance. Alternatively, the L’Eroica course is open to cyclists all year round and is well signed, plus we can arrange guided tours on request.
To find out about other great events in Tuscany that you can get involved in, check out our sports and activities page. For more information about the luxury Tuscan villas we offer or how we can help you have the perfect Tuscan break, call us on +44 121 286 7782 or send us an email.