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Turning back the gears

A 75km ride over rough Tuscan terrain, with a 1960s bike, prewar goggles, a spare tyre wrapped around the chest… James Henderson signs up for L’Eroica, the challenging frontrunner in a fast-expanding line-up of retro cycle races

June 12 2013
James Henderson

Stumble into Gaiole in Chianti on the first weekend of October and you might think you have slipped unwittingly through a tear in time’s fabric, straight into the 1970s. Around you are 5,000 cyclists, wheeling classic and vintage racing bikes, all dressed up in woollen jerseys, cotton caps, tweeds – even a few handlebar moustaches. This is L’Eroica, the original and largest of a growing number of “retro” cycling events that have appeared in recent years.

The eccentricity of the event grabs me immediately when I come across it. But there is an equally immediate problem: the bicycles must be pre-1987 (the date when everything began to change in cycle building) and I don’t have a retro bike. Well, I do – it has been hanging by the wheels in my parents’ garage for 30 years – but it was always a knacker-cracker and it wouldn’t manage even five yards now.

It turns out that there is a small but burgeoning market for restored and reproduction bikes. There are quite a few custom frame builders around, and small manufacturers that make reproduction parts are springing up, which means you can build a whole retro bicycle if you want. My dilemma is solved by Tim Slack, the man behind Slack Cycling, who lends me a lovely 1960s reproduction bike in metallic claret, with a mix of old Campagnolo and repro parts. In a parallel life, Slack is a trendy shoe designer, and as a parting gesture he offers up some nifty retro-style bike shoes, too.

Luton Airport is full of unwieldy bicycle boxes and bumptious racers’ chat, but once in Gaiole my group finds that the setting of our rather delightful hotel, the Castello di Spaltenna, is sublime. Terraces of roses and rosemary give onto vineyards whose lines draw the eye to hilltop farms and woods in a hundred variegated greens. October isn’t swelteringly oppressive like the summer, but small sounds, such as a chopped piece of wood, carry across to us on the thin air.

To business. Well, eventually. Down in the medieval old town, along the Massellone river, is a market, with stalls lining alleys and tucked into corners, selling cycling-related items: lamps, handlebars, classic woollen jerseys, early plastic water bottles, ancient derailleurs, cogs and sprockets – any old bits of bike, really. A man with a penny-farthing passes, then two men in tweed pushing a tandem. Next it gets surreal: a woman in a yellow polka-dot dress walks by, crank shaft and chain ring in hand.

I find race registration. The rules are strict – among them that a bike must have brake cables that loop externally over drop handlebars and gear shifters on the lower stem to qualify. There’s no carbon fibre, nor cleats on your pedals, so it’s clips and straps (those springy metal cups into which your feet go). Some bikes reach back much further than the 1970s and would qualify as vintage (loosely, the terminology follows classic motor racing). There’s no doubt they are things of beauty to men – and, increasingly, women – of a certain age.

“Bike porn”, announces an English mum I meet in the hotel corridor. She is here with her husband, their son and his girlfriend (the last being the only one not in “kit”). And she’s right. There’s plenty of ogling, roving eyes covering a comely calliper here and a tasty-looking rear mech there. In the registration building, I find mechanics luxuriating over a flange on a 1970s competition wheel: “Ah, it’s one of only 500 ever made.” But they are not psyching one another out with flash kit; it’s the oldest and most loved or unique bicycles that get the attention.

I have been invited here by Brooks England, the British manufacturer of traditional-looking leather saddles, bags and other cycling accoutrements, which is a joint sponsor of the event. There is quite a team of us and we will be dressed in trad gear, too – retro woollen strips.

There are four courses, of between 38km and 205km. I opt for 75km, as most of the Brooks crew do. Although it doesn’t seem long for a cycling event, it’s an honest distance because the rough roads make it quite a challenge. Herein lies one of the serious points of L’Eroica, and one that gives the event a good proportion of its character. It was created to highlight the plight of Chianti’s strade bianche, the traditional white gravel roads that network the area and are always under threat of being paved over for ease of maintenance.

Next morning, the crowd of spectators and racers is out before dawn, milling around the town and funnelling through the main square towards the starting line. The atmosphere is upbeat, spurred by the excitable talk of prematch nerves. Riders wear cloth caps (no helmets necessary here) and prewar goggles; purists apparently have an original chamois leather in their shorts, though I’m not about to inquire. Some carry spare tyres in traditional style, wrapped around their chests in a figure of eight; another a string of onions. Two hunters cycle with shotguns over their shoulders. Finally, our group reaches the front of the queue and the 9.30am departure slot streams through the town like a dam released.

We begin with a delightful downhill run. However, one thing you’ll know from bucolic Tuscan holidays is that Chianti is hilly. The course is not intended to be brutal, but the designers certainly haven’t shirked the hills. These, too, are a key part of the race’s character; we climb to medieval castles, pass along ridges lined with cypress trees, flash through town squares, switchback up, switchback down. It is lovely countryside. We follow lonely streams, ride by vineyards and once we pass a winemaker; the rich smell of viticulture emanating from it is like slamming into a vat of wine.

Despite the inferences of heroism that you can feel trying to burst out of the name, L’Eroica is not an all-out, bull-headed race. It’s (slightly) more leisurely than that. Groups form and break and reform out on the course, so we have the chance to chat along the way. At one point Tim Slack passes and introduces me to a friend of his, Rachel Riley, a children’s clothes designer. We talk for a while, about life, the universe and, well, cycling.

And then, unexpectedly, up pops a friend of mine, with a low-key “Hi, James”, a phrase larded with understatement. What are the chances? He lives in Italy and I’ve not seen him for two years. We have a bit of retro talk – the bike’s from his boyhood, now restored, jersey ditto, though it’s a tight fit. Then his gear cable slips and he is left, one of quite a few people at the roadside, fixing his bike. I beetle after the Brooks group, whom I find refilling their bottles at a hilltop village standpipe.

If the event becomes a little like a drinks party on wheels, it’s ironic that all conversation stops at the first strada bianca. Even on this gentle gradient I can’t concentrate on anything but the ground ahead. With narrow road tyres on the shifting gravel and grit, sections of sand and occasional potholes, I really don’t want to lose concentration for a split second. Here’s where the heroic element of the name resides. Until the 1950s most cycle races were staged on roads like these, hell for leather on simple bikes with none of the technology nowadays taken for granted.

And they did it with only 10 gears, as I discover to my thighs’ cost at the next steep slope. But, as with all events, there are food and drink stations to fortify you en route. In keeping with the theme, the organisers have arranged for “vintage” food, without a gel, power bar or bright-blue liquid in sight. There are jam sandwiches, bread with olive oil and salt, bunches of grapes – and, in my case, quite a lot of Nutella.

By early afternoon, plenty of us are feeling it. People are lying around at the food station in a wood at (what I limply believe to be) the top of a hill. Here there is wine, stew and cake. In the background the tandem passes – rear man sitting upright, having a cigarette. Without the wind of movement, the air settles around my woollen jersey and I discover I smell like a wet Labrador.

Kilometres pass mercifully more quickly than miles, and by the time we descend into a delightful hillside hamlet and stop for a gelato, I know we are near the end. From here we scoot downhill on the dusty strada bianca, along an alley of trees, chasing past arches and vineyards, farms and olive groves and fruit trees. My spirits lift as the whole Massellone valley opens before us. I recognise the road down into Gaiole. It is incredibly steep; one of the penny-farthing men has a foot jammed onto his small back wheel to keep his speed under control. And then we meld into the stream of cyclists corralled into the finishing line.

After all the exertion, the light-hearted air returns. A man hangs a medal round my neck and thwacks a wedge of Parmesan into my hand (finishers of longer distances receive a bottle of wine). We in the Brooks crew find large bottles of Italian beer and join the crowds on the lawns around the town, drawn and dehydrated but exhilarated, to chat and chew the retro-cycling fat.