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TR: 2016 L'Eroica in Gaiole - Myths and Realities

davidofdavidof Posts: 3,020
History has to start somewhere.

I’m not really into cyclosportifs, those pretend bike races that attract middle aged blokes kitted out with the latest deep wheeled carbon fibre race bike costing more than a small car their bodies bulging out of unsightly lycra. The Eroica isn’t like that; although it has built up a lot of its own mythology and once again attracts an unfair share of middle aged and up riders. I guess they are the ones with the sheds to store all this vintage bike gear?

The Eroica started in 1997, so 20 years ago, when a group of friends organized the first ride to preserve the gravel roads of the Chianti region. A couple of decades is not a huge history. It is no monument although the pro race that has emerged from the amateur event has become quite an important fixture in its own right. Well you could say the same of any of the great cycling monuments. Liege-Bastoigne-Liege could easily be Leeds-Bolton-Leeds. History has to start somewhere.


I’d first heard about the Eroica four or five years ago but had never been organized enough to get an entry in (it is not as crazy as l’Etape or the Marmotte but places are snapped up in a few days) and organize all the vintage paraphernalia that goes with the event. The articles you read will tell you of the strict rules of riding a pre-1987 bike and indeed many are much older than that with people completing the “long” course of some 210 km on fixed wheeled bikes from the dawn of cycling.

Finally in 2016 I’d noted the registration date and, being away on business and not near a computer, got my 11 year old son organized to enter me. He emailed a few hours after opening, I was signed up for the 20th edition due to take place in Gaiole, Italy in October. I had already found a bike, a handbuilt jobbie that I’d picked up in a garage sale for 25 euros. It was an S.Maye, a local Grenoble frame builder who may, or may not, have been a pro rider back in the day. Grenoble is actually full of his bikes, nowadays ridden by students at the local university, the outdated steeds an antidote to bike theft that is rampant in the town.

I was not happy. The S.Maye had a triple chainset, more a touring steed than an out-and-out racer. I then heard of a thoroughbred for sale in Lyon via the Tontonvelo website. It was equipped with Campagnolo wheels and an almost modern Shimano Arabesque groupset. It had a 52x42 front ratio with a 13x21 cogset on the back. Mine for 120 euros. I bought the bike home and thanks to Ribble Cycles got a more mountain friendly set of Stronglight cogs to give 50x38 up front (nearly compact ratios) and stuck a 14x28 block on the back. One of the tires had a fault (typical on cheap Schwalbe Luganos) so I changed both for Veloflex 25mm (which in reality were 24mm). The headset had been fitted with the wrong size ball bearings and was loose so I sorted that (ball bearings a a devil to find in France!) and swapped the stem and seatpin (again the wrong size). The bike is fairly light and the gears were certainly okay on the 800-1000 meter local climbs, at least on tarmac. There is a whole industry surrounding supplying old, new old stock (nos) and new retro bike parts but sourcing serviceable components can be a bit of a ‘mare. For example the front cones, Campag Tipo 9x26, were worn. Because of the Eroica premium these sell for 20 to 30 euros each on Ebay. However I found a new part from Wheels Manufacturing for 6 euros did the job. Bike owners 1, price gougers 0!

My original aim was to do the 135km route. I started a new job this year and had much less time for training. This either being commutes into work (20km) or lunch rides (30km, 6 to 800m of climbing). By September I had 2000km under my belt for the year with only 2 longish rides. A 80km tour at the end of August and 115km to the Croix de Fer road pass in May. Was it enough? I stepped up the pace a bit in September but really only my short, lunchtime blasts. I comforted myself that Chris Boardman used to train for the Tour de France on a diet of 10 mile time-trials. I also rode the gravel roads through the fields and vineyards near my house. However with a week to go I was still concerned and tackled an off road blast up the valley on white trails similar to Chianti’s Strade Bianchi followed by a 1000m climb out of the valley, 600m off road, over the summit of a local mountain. The track exists to service a telecommunications tower. Returning home with 80km covered in 3.5 hours I was reasonably confident.

I drove from home 650km in total. Getting up at 5am via Modane and Turin (someone from work had lent my his card for the Frejus tunnel) I arrived in Panzano, where I’d booked a B&B via, just before midday. The B&B was closed to 2pm so I headed on to Gaiole to pick up my race pack. I’d sent my medical certificate by email so didn’t need to present it. There was no queue but there was no serious queue on Saturday morning either. The pack has a stamp card and road book plus a race number for jersey and bike along with safety clips. It must be fun making up 7000 of the packs! You can then get a good bag from another building with wine, a calendar, some coffee and other stuff plus a musette which some people used on race day.

The Market
I had a pizza in town then looked around the market. This is really fantastic. You can rent or buy a bike for the event in all kinds of sizes and budgets. From brand new replica Bianchis to 1920s fixies and more recent bikes from the 60s to 70s. I saw a nice Italian “Moser” bike in 53cm for 400 euros, which seemed very reasonable. Prices are much more reasonable and realistic than those practised on eBay. There was also clothing, cycling shoes both new and old as well as reproduction strappy race helmets. You really could just risk turning up with nothing and buy or rent it all on the Friday before the event. It is certainly a good place to get any missing bits and bobs.

After checking in to my B&B I wanted to ride a bit of the course. I took a trail from Panzano to Radda then on the official route that descends into Gaiole from the north. I carried on up to Castle Brolio then south to the “cross roads” before retracing my steps on the long, gravel climb to Vagliagli. Here I carried on towards Radda but it was starting to get dark at 18h00, much earlier than I was used to in France so I took what I hoped was a short cut but I mistook the left turn. The steep road swung steadily, but imperceptibly, south. Panzano was to the north. Cresting the summit I realized my error as I saw the sun on my right, dangerously close to the horizon. As soon as I could I took a road north but finally had to admit defeat as it was now dark and dangerous to continue without lights. Alessandra, a young Italian lady from the vineyard at Fonterutoli called a taxi from Sienna which took me the remaining 15km, an expensive lesson. Still I’d covered 80km with 1850 meters of climbing and felt ok. The roads were alright, if a little dry and dusty in places.

The next day I met with Jerome, Sebastian and Graeme who had travelled down from Switzerland. Jerome and Sebastian were staying in a villa in Gaiole but at the top of a 20% dirt road. We were unable to ride up on bikes! After lunch we did a light ride over to Castle Brolio to take some photos then back to the Eroica cafe for a bit of wine tasting. Returning home we’d found some American ladies from Backroads Cycle Tours had checked into the house opposite; we had a chit-chat. They were tackling the 75km route as they wanted to soak up the atmosphere after a long season running tours. They’d hired bikes. 3 were quite good but one looked like something you could buy in a junk shop for 20 euros. The girls think that the hire companies put the word out to the locals to pick up every period bike they can find as Eroica bikes are not available to hire the rest of the year.

Ride or Die

Rain started on Saturday night at 7pm. After a plate of pasta at the excellent la Cantine in Greve I got an early night but the rain grew heavier and heavier. Waking up at 4.30am I could still hear it outside although it began to slacken as I drove over to Gaiole at 5am. We’d set a RDV at 5.30 with the aim of leaving at 6am. In the end, getting ready in the dark early in the morning takes much longer than expected and after doing a big tour of Gaiole to reach the start line we finally got away at 6.15am, the rain had stopped and it was fairly warm, although I still had a raincoat; which I would keep for the first 60km as the morning fog patches were distinctly damp and chilly. We kept an even tempo, climbing the iconic candle lit road of Castle Brolio the first lights of dawn could be seen in the sky. The rain had damped down the dust making the riding on the dirt trails a lot easier than the day before. The feed station at Radi just before 50 km was welcome; I had a glass of wine, something I repeated at all the other feeds! Some of the salty raw ham, cake and hot tea. There was also a water point to fill our empty bottles. The volunteers who man this feed start at 5h30 with the first riders rolling in at 7h00. They feed upwards of 2000 hungry riders over 3 hours. A bit more riding then a steep up hill to the pretty village of Murlo (the first wall of the day) for the checkpoint. It was just after 9am and around quarter distance.

Just before the split with the medium route Sebastian got a puncture. We were waiting at the cross-roads for half an hour before he appeared. Changing his tubular had been complicated for some reason. We saw one guy who had stripped a chainset bolt and another, Irish, who had tacoed his front wheel. They were both in for a long walk. Most of the roadside casualties were for punctures but due to the length of the route you don’t have time to stop and help people without risking getting stuck on the road. As they say in the army, you ride or you die.

Sebastian opted for the “medium” 135km route at this point. This would give him time to take photographs and soak up the event. After some hesitation we pressed on with the long route. It was 10h30; we’d lost a lot of time with the puncture and were now amongst the back markers on the road. It was not going to be easy.

We started the climb to the high point at Montalcino. We were in for around 15km of dirt roads with sections at 15%. After the climb the road ran over a series of hills or Poggio. It was long and tiring. We were starting to overtake other riders, quite a few were walking now. This climb featured in the 2010 Giro.

For me the next feed station couldn’t come soon enough, I was tired and hungry. It was midday and we’d covered around 95km. We were behind schedule. After the stop, with an obligatory glass of Brunello for me, we pressed on, picking up the pace as the track traversed over a rolling ridgeline. Jerome told me this is where it started raining in 2015 and they rode most of the way back under torrential rain with slick mud on the climbs and descents. The cycling wasn’t bad, some steep but very short climbs then a short tarmac section before a long climb to Pieve a Salti. We were passing more people and the feed station was crowded although by the time we left it was empty of both food and cyclists. The Hotel is an Agritourism center with sun loungers and even a swimming pool although we didn’t try it.

The road continued over the top of a series of hills, at every climb more walking cyclists, some blocking the racing line but we felt we were steadily improving our position. Despite a lack of water we missed a refill (100 meters up a hill) to press on. The wind had picked up and we were working well as a pair covering the next 20km to Asciano each taking short pulls at the front. Occasionally we were joined by another rider but they didn’t seem able to hang on to our pace. We saw a lot of very very tired cyclists on the road. People were struggling to maintain any kind of speed or rhythm, even on slight descents. The hills, dirt roads, bikes and headwind were taking a steady toll. Still most of the people we passed would eventually finish the course although some would be diverted directly to Gaiole having missed the time cut off.


At Asciano, a pleasant medieval town, you do a kind of double back on your route. Jerome was having fun trying to fill his bottle from a fountain but the jet was being blown around in the wind. I pointed out a tap which was much easier, especially as the fountain wasn’t supposed to be drinking water. We had a coke each as the next section was the feared Monte Sante Marie. An off road series of ramps of around 15%. People were walking from the very start and you had to maintain some momentum to clear them as the “walkers” sometimes blocked the best line. Luckily each ramp has a small, flattish section where you can draw breath before the next “wall”. A longer rolling trail is terminated by a final climb which is both steep and long and you need to have something in reserve to clear this. After about 15km there is about 10km on road with some fast descents to finally reach the last feed at Castelnuovo at the foot of a castle. Here we’d finally caught up with some faster riders and we took turns as the road headed north into the wind. The final big climb, which I’d tackled on Friday, led to Vagliagli and a “secret checkpoint”. It was now 6.30 with 20km more to cover but with nearly all the climbing cleared. As we rode through the bustling hilltop town of Radda it was time to turn lights on. Instead of heading directly to Gaiole you continue climbing, and climbing, and climbing to finally reach a gravel trail. Yes I had thought the climbing was over, finally it was. It was dark, after 7pm and we could see very little. There was no moon and we really just trusted that the right hand side of the road would offer a good line as we sped through the night. The road down to Gaiole is tarmac’d but steep with some drains across it. It needs a bit of care and respect especially as there were lots of people now in the road and in their cars. You turn to loop round to the finish from the south end and we were greeted by cheers and encouragement as we finally finished just before 8pm. By the time we got back to the villa my bike computer had registered 218km and 4200 vertical meters. A lot of it had been on dirt roads.

Some thoughts.

It is quite a long way to the second feed station. Make sure you have enough food at Radi to take you through. Afterwards the feeds come at regular intervals.

Taken on water whenever you can, which is principally at the feeds. I drank 6 or 7 bottles on the road and probably around the same at each feed. That’s quite a lot of water.

Don’t waste too much time. We could probably have saved 10 minutes at each feed. That would have been an hour overall. We were on the road for 14 hours, 3 of them stationary. Mechanicals, even punctures, can take up a lot time. We were around 45 minutes from the closure at each feed we stopped at and could easily have missed the cut if we’d had a more serious issue. The year before Jerome had broken a gear cable and lost a lot of time before finding a mechanic to fix it. Oh, make sure your bike is mechanically sound: tires, wheels, gears.

We overtook a lot of people on the descents. It is not easy to brake on old bikes. Dried out rubber shoes don’t help. Take advantage and gain time on the descents. Practise riding your bike off-road, fast. Even some MTB skills will help. I even picked up a short KOM on one descent!

There was no formal bike check. Anything more or less fitting the bill was accepted in 2016. You just needed downtube shifters, drops and non-aero brakes. Ditto for clothing. We saw riders in pukka period wool clothing and leather shoes but also people in “retro” looking tops, bib-shorts and trainers. A lot of people wore modern helmets, a lot of others just rode with a cap.

Ride with others and work together when necessary. Slipstreaming another rider can save 30% of your energy. The long route is quite long and tiring. The off road sections generally roll well but do take more energy. I’m really indebted to both Sebastian and Jerome without whom I wouldn’t have attempted, let alone finished, the long route.

There is a lot of concentration needed. The road surfaces are uneven and a second’s inattention can see you off your bike. Luckily none of us crashed and we were pleased to say we cleared all the climbs without putting a foot down.

I’ve heard people say the Eroica is harder than the Marmotte or l’Etape. I can’t say as I’ve not ridden the latter but I have ridden long tours in the Alps. All I can say is that I averaged 135bpm for the 11 hours I was in the saddle. That’s a steady pace for me. If I ride one of the local climbs I might be at 175bpm for an hour or more. I find an hour in the red harder than the Eroica. I won’t say I wasn’t tired, 14 hours on the road is a long day but the climbs are shorter than those big alpine cols.

I had a couple of gels after the last feed. It is still over 40 km to Gaiole with a long drag up one of the less well surfaced Strada Bianche. I largely drank water but also had some isostar at a couple of the feed stops. Then there was that coke! Do we need a TUE for coca cola?

So I was very pleased to complete the 210 km route at my first attempt. It is also the furthest I’ve ever ridden on a bike. A couple of years ago I did a 170km tour over two major alpine cols which was a similar level of effort I would say.

If you want to enjoy the atmosphere. Do a shorter route. Unless you are quick or leave at 5am (and lots of riders do leave at this time) you’ll probably both start and finish at Gaiole at night. There is not much happening in Gaiole on Sunday night, the main “party” is on the night before the event. The Backroads girls told us they ate some cold pasta at 8pm in the events tent. Pretty much everything else is shut in town and people are either sleeping or heading home.

Next year there is talk of a smaller entry, 6500, maybe 6000. It might be done on a lottery. L’Eroica has also started a “club” which will cost 100 euros per year but gives you a guaranteed entry at a reduced rate. Have we reached peak Eroica yet?

Accommodation: I found a B&B at 18km from Gaiole in the month before the event. However if you want to experience the whole Eroica thing you need to be in or around Gaiole and that means booking right when you know you've been accepted for the event, if not before.

Facts and Figures


Our Schedule

Start: 6h15
Murlo 9h30
Montalcino 11h51
Lucignano d’Asso: 13h25
Borgo Hotel Pieve a Salti: 14h00
Asciano: 15h40
Castelnuovo: 17h15
Vagliagli: 18h30
Finish: 19h45

The Video I put on Youtube had the following stats for (1650 views)

Over 50% of the viewers in the 35-54 age group, next group is 55-64 with 22% of the views. 89% men. 45% from Italy, 12% Germany, 9% USA.

Fortunately I have some other videos to compare and it doesn’t just represent the subscriber base to YouTube (middle aged, Italian men).

BASI Nordic Ski Instructor


  • Nice, if a bit long account. Reflects my experience at the last Eroica I did in 2011... it was already getting very big, certainly much bigger than the previous I did in 2005 and 2006. Now it is probably a bit too big and some of the magic is fading. The route is still grand and the depart in the dark is still a unique experience. I agree the 135 Km route is the most enjoyable and still very challenging (in excess of 7 hours)
    left the forum March 2023
  • davidofdavidof Posts: 3,020
    Yes, sorry it is a bit of a stream of consciousness but I thought some of the information might be useful for anyone thinking of the event in 2017. I know you posted some information that was helpful for me.

    I rode 25mm tires - seemed ok for the roads. Graeme the Canadian was on 28s and he could certainly fly down the hills with less worries. He left us at Radi and we didn't see him again until Radda where he was waiting for us having already finished and showered.
    BASI Nordic Ski Instructor
  • dabberdabber Posts: 1,917
    I enjoyed that, a good commentary. Having recently watched "Bikes, bread and wine - L'Eroica" on the Bike channel it was good to read a first hand experience.
    “You may think that; I couldn’t possibly comment!”

    Wilier Cento Uno SR/Wilier Mortirolo/Specialized Roubaix Comp/Kona Hei Hei/Calibre Bossnut
  • davidofdavidof Posts: 3,020
    Dabber wrote:
    I enjoyed that, a good commentary. Having recently watched "Bikes, bread and wine - L'Eroica" on the Bike channel it was good to read a first hand experience.

    I will have to catch up with that. I enjoyed the bit about the Maratona they did.
    BASI Nordic Ski Instructor
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