L’Eroica. A day to never forget.

Michiel Van Ooteghem

Nov / 18 / 2022

We started our ride in the ambiance-packed village of Gaiole at daybreak. Hundreds of cyclists in woolen jerseys, with caps and leather helmets on their heads and a steel vintage bike underneath their bottoms.

A gentle climb takes us to the first coffee stop, where we regroup and share our first impressions of this epic day. Shortly after we venture on the first of many climbs on the white gravel roads of Chianti, Tuscany. It’s tough, but everyone has fresh legs and gets on there without hesitation. Everyone, except this one French gentlemen that seems to have waited to long to fiddle with the levers on his frame to change gears. His cry of frustration, ‘Ahhh, merde!’, is still resonating in my brain and instantly makes me chuckle.

A long descent and beautiful hilly terrain takes us to the ancient city of Sienna. The city centre is normally out of bounds for cyclists, but today is an exception. We proudly roll onto the Piazza del Campo and stop for some well deserved pastries and juice. After a premature victory lap on the Campo, we continue our journey and from this point onwards we feel more gravel underneath our tires than tarmac.

It only takes us little more than an hour to get to the next rest stop and it flew by in a instant. All I can remember is the endless Tuscan rolling hills and the city of Sienna, always present in the distance with its medieval skyline.

The second refreshment stop fills our bellies like it used to fill the bellies of legends in the days of yore.

The food exceeds everyone’s expectations: we feast on white bean stew, bread soaked in olive oil, eggs sunny side up and so much more. And to top it all off, a small cup of Chianti red.

We have now done a little over half of our 106 km’s and I start to feel the discomfort of the old bike, the hard saddle and the ancient original shoes I bought the day before at the market. But it’s all part of the experience and it’s not affecting our motivation at all.

On the contrary, it really makes us FEEL in every fibre of our being that we’re cycling. We encounter some very steep gravel climbs and Christian and I even have a little friendly competition on two of them, cheered on by our friends.

We zigzag through the countless other cyclists, some on foot, some grinding their heavy gears, and try to find the smoothest line through the white gravel. Near the top, I stop to take some pictures of the others going up a steep section, using every muscle in their body to get themselves and their bikes up the hill.

One of our guests is pushing his heavy bike up, like many others, but under loud cheering by myself and a friendly stranger, he gets rolling again and finishes the climb. This beautifully illustrates the wonderful ambiance of this race, which isn’t a race. People cheer each other on and complement one another on their bikes, gear and even beards and moustaches.

We keep on pushing through and it looks like nothing can stop us. But my thoughts of victory were premature, because the subtle ‘ticking’ I started hearing after 75km’s, turns into a serious mechanical problem on the old Bianchi bike. In another race, this would have been the end of the road, but not in L’Eroica. We stick together and thanks to Doug’s brilliant engineering insight we’re able to temporarily fix the problem, just when it got so bad I couldn’t go on anymore.

A little while later we cross the finish line and receive our medals. It takes me back to my childhood when we used to get a participation medal at the end of a soccer tournament. It’s an emotional moment.

Every aspect of this event: the old bike, the pedals, the gear and the mechanical difficulties make this ‘short’ 100km ride feel like one of the most challenging and memorable endeavours I’ve ever embarked upon. As L’Eroica says it so poetically: la belezza della fatica e il gusto dell’impresa.