Gaiole in Chinati, Toscana, Italia

L’eroica. This is really about the beauty of riding.

Initially started with 97 riders as a protest some ten years ago about the old dirt roads of the region being paved, it is now capped at 5000 riders of which only 1000 are non-Italians, and the majority having to be part of a ballot to gain selection.  I’d heard stories of people trying for 10 years to enter with no success in the ballot. I entered the ballot for the first time in February. This year was my lucky year.

So with the entry secure, my next “problem” was what bike would I ride, as the requirement is for a steel bike pre 1987 with shifters on the down tubes.

In the days leading up to the ride, there is a market that is every bike aficionado’s dream. If it belongs on a bike or off a bike, it’s at this market. After searching high and low and looking at all the options, I am now the proud owner of a 1982 Cinelli, complete with super record. When in Italy, you just have to go the Italian option and it rides like a dream.

Bike, check.

Registration, check.

Old school kit, check.

Time now to sample a few of the local salumi delicacies and rest up for the start.

I had entered in the 135km course, which included some 60km of strade bianche (white roads…. white dirt and gravel roads with some corrugation to be precise).

The previous evening I had become quite nervous about what to expect. Is my 6am start time too late or too early? Will I get a flat with the tubulars that I was running and was two spares going to be enough?  Was the gear ratio going to be ok for all the hills in chianti? Only time will tell.

Driving down to the start, it was pandemonium with people trying to pull a park anywhere and get underway. After finally finding one a few km’s away,  I rolled into town, had the first control stamped and signed, and was off into the darkness.

It was only a quick and cold 5km’s before we took our first turn to start the climbing. It was pitch black and quiet, with the only sound being a few gear changes now and then as the climb changed its intensity. I was surprised by the quiet.  Everyone was on machines that were at least 25 years old but there was still no noise.

We reached a tiny village and turn to take our first white road of the day.  Still going up hill, it was narrow, rough and windy with tall trees on either side silhouetted against the ink blue sky, and at every 5 meters or so on both sides of the road were candles lighting our way to the top.  It was truly magical. We then reached the top to find an imposing castle coming out of the darkness….. a quick glimpse and then the attention was back to the road for our first descent on the dirt. Hair raising to say the least.

The sky was turning and the mood was changing with the arrival of sunrise……a soft pink and orange glow turned into a beautiful golden light which bathed the landscape and Siena in the distance.  This was just spectacular.

We kept riding, hitting the outskirts of this medieval town and then beyond to Radi, our first control on the road and our first refreshment stop which was at the end of another climb. I coasted to a stop in a mass of riders trying to get through the two control points, before it was time to refresh. I started with the plum tart, a couple of slices of ciabatta with prosciutto crudo, some grapes, a banana and some more plum tart, before I am off again to the point where the longer 209k course and my course diverged. I had been rolling for a while with no one in front of me. Panic hits, oh fuck, have I missed the turn? I really don’t have the legs to do 209 today. Easing up a bit, I take a look to see if there is anyone behind that I could use my pigeon Italian to check directions.  No such luck. As I turn around, I’m passed by two guys who are flying and before I can utter scusi, they are gone.

“Oh well, I’ll keep rolling, surely I can’t have taken the wrong course this early. I’ll stop in a bit and check the course directions”  I say to myself.

Before I get to stop and check the map, there is the turn, well marked at the bottom of a fast descent, straight into our next section of dirt.

It’s pretty much all dirt until the next stop but the scenery, the landscape is magnificent. I think to myself ”how good is it to be able to do this….on your birthday?!”

My legs are starting to become tired.  I’d like to say that it’s due to a different set up on a new bike with a different gear ratio but in reality it is probably my non-existent training in the hills prior to this ride. Thankfully I had managed to change the original 23 on the back to a 28.  Starting up another one of the long climbs on the dirt, I see that some guys up ahead are walking. ” I am staying on” I say to myself, ”I will make it to the top”.  However it’s not to be as I hit a patch of soft sand and am off the bike, walking as well.

The next refreshment stops are also great with the addition of the traditional ribollita soup, chianti, panforte and vin santo. It’s all delicious and not a gel or energy bar in sight but it’s now time for more hills, more dirt, more corrugation and more breathtaking views. I see barren fields, crops of sunflowers, hunters with their guns and an open sky.

This is classic Tuscany.

I am on the homeward stretch.  I have three more kilometres of dirt, a long descent and then only 4 km’s to the finish.  The last section of dirt is the same as the first section and it is amazing how many twists and turns I see, now that it’s daylight.  The asphalt comes and it looks as though I have managed to avoid a puncture.  Fingers crossed my luck holds.  It’s now into the drops for a beautiful descent. I am on my own with a lone rider further up the road who keeps disappearing around the corners.

Nearly there and the finish line looms, with spectators, cameras and cow bells.  I am done. My card is signed for the final time and I am handed a beautiful bottle of Chianti Classico from Barone Ricasoli, with a great L’eroica label.

This is classic Chianti. What an experience.
Damian