Saturday, October 4, 2008
The drive from Pisa had been relatively unexciting, slowly meandering our way through various villages and towns next to the river. But now we had entered the Chianti region and were rapidly winding our way up a steep hillside. The views were breathtaking; as far as you could see sharp hills rippled the landscape and there was no level ground in sight. Lush green forest covered the hilltops, interspersed with the well-ordered rows of vineyards and olive gardens. At this point Bryce and I had gone very quiet. This intimidating landscape was not boding well for our 205km cycle the following day. What had we let ourselves in for?
L’Eroica is an event to celebrate the true heroes of cycling. Set in the Tuscan countryside, largely on the famous white gravel roads, the race takes you back to the early days of cycling. Each rider can choose from four course lengths, 38, 75, 135, or 205km. For the latter two you can start any time after 5:00 am and you receive a special award (a bottle of Chianti) if you manage to finish by 7:30 pm. It’s a gruelling test of physical and mental strength but with a strong sense of camaraderie and teamwork to get you through to the end. Somehow Bryce had convinced me that I should do the 205km ride with him but now that we were driving through the Italian hills, that didn’t seem like such an enticing choice.
Bryce is a naturally talented cyclist. Whenever possible he chooses to use a bicycle over a car and is used to spending entire days on the saddle, whether it’s riding around the world on a tandem or riding 260km in a day just to visit a friend in Leeds. There was no question that he could survive this ride, but we were now both having doubts about what I would be able to handle.
Before starting work at Pashley I was a relative novice to cycling. Although I loved all things with wheels and regularly commuted on a bicycle, I had never done a ride over 50km, let alone competed in any sort of organised race.
Over the past few months, regular weekend and after-work rides had significantly improved my strength and I had increased my maximum cycle distance to 135km. However, the smooth undulating countryside of the Cotswolds seemed like a flat car park compared to the daunting landscape we were now observing.
After several more switchbacks and a few more sickening views of the landscape, we arrived into the small hillside town of Gaiole in Chianti. Competitors, visitors and cycling enthusiasts packed the small streets, racing caps and vintage wool jerseys dominating the crowd. This small town of 2300 people was hosting this booming event and with a staggering 3500 participants (1000 more than last year) the streets and shops were bursting at the seams.
We parked the car and made our way through the endless rows of vendors and merchants selling all sorts of vintage parts and accessories. We had already assembled our ‘vintage-look’ outfits so we continued on and squeezed our way into the registration building. After figuring out the mess of queues and admiring some of the truly vintage bikes on display, we got our stamp cards and race numbers and headed over to the campsite.
A quick setup of the tent and a bowl of pasta later we were about ready to call it a night. Bryce wasn’t too keen on starting before sunrise but several serious warnings from other veterans of the race convinced us that starting early would be wise. So we set our alarms for 5:00am and went to bed.
The GUV'NOR bikes await their big ride
Sunday October 5, 2008
The subzero temperatures and general noise on the campground meant that we were both wide awake at 4:30am and decided we might as well get up then. As we pulled on our vintage outfits, we realised our choices were not well suited for these conditions. After a bit of indecision over how many layers to wear, I finally felt I was ready to go - a pair a striped knee socks doubled with a thick pair of ski socks, a pair of black cycling shoes, three-quarter trousers, a fleece jumper under a chain-stitched Pashley jersey, a white linen scarf, a racing cap, vintage goggles, and mesh backed gloves. Our overconfidence beforehand had meant we didn’t expect to start before sunrise, so we had scrounged together some headlamps and rear lights the night before. However, we’d mainly be relying on the lights of those around us to guide us through the pitch black.
Cold weather and anxious stomachs meant we didn’t feel like eating much, so we stuffed a couple handfuls of bread in our mouths and followed them down with a good half-litre of Gatorade. Probably not the best breakfast choice but we just wanted to get underway. We did a somewhat incoherent final check of our equipment and then set off towards the start line.
5:15am we were at the start line. The town square where we were assembling was lit only with the bluish light of LED headlamps and the occasional spotlight or camera flash of a camera crew trying to capture the commotion at the start.
Some riders were already setting off as the start had officially opened at 5:00am. A steady flow of participants arriving and setting off continued as we joined the queue.
As we were herded into the gate, a man grabbed my time card and stamped it while another man jabbed a race sticker onto my bike. I pushed forward, ready to set off on my journey when an elderly man on the other side of the barrier grabbed ahold of my handlebar. After a careful glance at my bike he smiled at me and gave a confident nod of his head. “Avanti” he said and I was off into the dark.
The first section was a smooth downhill on tarmac. With next to no pedalling or braking required for 10km and with a temperature hovering around zero, we were praying for some hills to warm us up. The cold air rips any warmth from your body and leaves you with arms and legs shivering uncontrollably. Even in the dim light of my headlamp, I could see Bryce’s front wheel shimmying back and forth.
After suffering through the cold, we finally arrived at the start of the first “Strada Bianca” section and our first decent uphill push. These white gravel roads, which extend all over the Tuscan countryside, are not an ideal cycling route for bikes with race tyres, but the balloon tyres of our GUV'NOR bikes were perfect. The roads are steep and winding, with extensive washboarding, potholes, eroded groves and soft sand patches. Yet here I was with hundreds of race bikes around me shuddering up this hill in the dark. Above me, I could see the continuous line of headlamps snaking their way up the side of the hill.
After two hours of riding in the shivering dark, our blood was starting to flow a bit, but we were still very happy to see the glow of the sunrise on the horizon, hopefully providing some relief to our numb limbs. As we contently cycled on, the morning light began to reveal the beautiful landscape around us. A light fog rested in the valleys below us. The tops of the hills were painted with the warm yellow of the sun, and the sky shone with a pinky-orange glow. Along the road, Tuscan villas were interspersed between stretches of lush orchards overflowing with red grapes and ripe olives.
Bryce climbing some "Strada Bianca" in the morning sun
Before we knew it, we had arrived at our first checkpoint and food stand. We were in good spirits and I even admitted I was having fun. We seemed to be keeping pace with the majority of the pack, regaining on the downhills any ground we lost due to a limited gear range on the uphills. Our wider tyres and more forgiving frame meant that could go much faster on the gravel roads, and even get better grip on the soft uphills.
Bryce’s downhill philosophy of ‘using brakes is wasting energy’ meant that within the first stage everything that could be shaken of the bike, did fall off the bike. So, by the first checkpoint Bryce had lost a bottle top, a front light, a rear light, and broken the bottle holder. Otherwise, we were in good shape. Bryce still had numb feet but our legs were light and ready to continue.
We got our cards stamped and quickly stuffed our faces with a vast array of delicious cakes, fruit, breads, and pastries as we were now starting to feel the hole in our stomach from this morning’s lack of breakfast. The organizers were working vigorously to replenish the food as we eagerly keep pace at consuming it. These food stops quickly became one of the highlights of the trip, with their elaborate spreads of all sorts of wonderful fresh food.
David awaits his checkpoint stamp
After sufficiently filling ourselves, we hopped back on the bikes and spun off up the next hill. For the next 20km or so, the riding went quite well. Our tummies were content with the recent refuelling and although there were plenty of ups and downs, nothing seemed too unmanageable yet. However, we knew from the daunting spike in the altimetry chart that our biggest climb was yet to come. At 567 metres, Montalcino sits as the highest point in the 205km route, and requires a continuous climb from 220 metres to get there. It may not be the Alps but with significant sections at 15% grade, I still found myself walking for part of the climb.
Bryce rode on unphased, and only stopped after reaching each hillcrest in order to wait for me. I felt that I had plenty of energy but on these steep grades my lack of leg power was letting me down. However, there was plenty of encouragement and empathy from fellow riders who were also starting to feel the pain and before too long we had reached our rest stop in Montalcino. A pair of Australian riders on 1950 race bikes came in behind and were impressed that the Pashleys were keeping up. There was a lot of interest about our bikes and plenty of positive comments. Now that we had a bit of dust on our frames, the bikes looked right at home in the race.
Enjoying a rest stop at Montalcino
After passing the highest point in the route, we felt a sense of relief – perhaps we would make it through this. We headed out of Montalcino into a steep and fast downhill on tarmac. The bikes were faring much better than we ever expected and with 10km of downhill on tarmac and gravel, we were doing plenty of passing to the annoyance of those around us. Even when the downhill stretch ended and we were forced to climb back up 100m to a ridge top we were still keeping our rhythm smooth and fast.
For 5km the white road runs along the very top ridge of a set of hills, giving awesome views to either side. Ahead of you, you see a long white line of winding road topping the ridge peak. Along it, specks of riders crawl along the horizon. I took the opportunity to take some more video clips and photos and then caught Bryce up. At the end of the ridge another checkpoint, but this time just a water stop. We filled up and went on our way without pausing for a rest.
Bryce overtaking on a gravel section
The next section continued to be fast for us – lots of gravel downhill at 45km/h and more passing. We pulled into the next rest stop feeling very good. The Australians were still behind us and were now somewhat annoyed by this.
After enjoying some more snacks and a warm bowl of vegetable stew, we set off again quickly, not wanting to waste too much time at the stop. It was now 1:30 in the afternoon and warmer weather meant that I was now carrying a full fleece jumper, ski socks, and a few snacks under my saddle. This was getting a bit bulky so I decided to ditch the cold weather clothes at the side of road and continue on.
Now we were approaching the lowest part of the race at around 130m and were treated with a welcome bit of flatland. Running along a flat paved road for a while I was happy to tuck in behind Bryce and enjoy the only bit of the race that was similar to our training back in the UK.
Unfortunately this quickly ended and so began the final, painful third of the race. Now I was really starting to tire. The frequent food stops and positive attitude meant that I felt full of energy and was very content. However I was quickly losing power in my legs. If the hill got to a certain grade I just could not force up it and would have to walk.
Despite my sections of walking, we still arrived into the next food stop in positive spirits and were still keeping pace with many of the riders we had seen from the start. Again, we chose not to stop too long as we were now starting to feel the time pressure and set off to continue climbing the white roads.
David still in good spirits
Then, half way to the next checkpoint and about 150km into the race I felt like I hit a wall. My legs continued to weaken but now I also felt as if all my energy was leaking from my body. By the time we pulled into the final checkpoint at 163km, I was definitely at my lowest. I felt light-headed and dizzy. I could barely keep my eyes open and I felt that at any moment I would just pass out and fall off the bike. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I couldn’t focus on what I should be doing – should I be changing gears? Should I be going faster or slower? Am I going the right way? Am I pedalling well? Thoughts jumbled around my head. I was no longer having fun and worst of all I was having serious doubts about be able to finish the race. I knew that this was a dangerous situation to be in because physical ability is useless if you don’t believe you can do something. I grabbed plenty of sugary snacks from the rest stop to try to improve my state. Then I remembered that last night I had packed one of Bryce’s wife’s famous flapjacks under my saddle in case of emergency. As I was now at my ultimate limit, I decided it was as good a time as any to use this backup food.
I reluctantly got back on the bike and we slowly set off, but I knew I was on a dangerous edge. “Bryce” I said “you’ve got to keep an eye on me – you’ve got to keep me awake – talk to me about something.”
So for the next 10km Bryce talked to me about anything but what we were doing to try to keep my mind awake. We discussed his travel stories, new bike designs, world events, and what we were going to do tomorrow. I even forced myself to take some more videos of us as we were riding. This helped me remain positive and before long the flapjack had kicked in. Unfortunately, it was now getting late, we had lost some ground from my low point (the Australians had just passed us to their delight), and we still had a lot of hills ahead of us.
As the sun started to set, we started our final climb into the hills near Radda. The riders were starting to become very spread out. Individual riders were now a more common sight than groups or pairs and everyone was finding their own endurance pace. Bryce was now letting me lead so that I could set our pace. As it was getting dark, I had decided it’d be good to stick with some other riders. However, as we progressed I realized that they were fading quickly and weren’t going to make it back for 7:30. Somehow I mustered up some reserve energy I didn’t have, picked up the pace, and overtook. Not wanting to waste time stopping, we continued on without putting on our headlamps. I still had the rear lamp mounted under my saddle so I turned that on to give Bryce something to follow in the darkness but the faint moonlight was all I had to see in front of me. We passed through the town of Radda – only 10km remained. Outside the town loomed another set of unwelcome switchbacks. I was running on adrenaline now – we had to try for the 7:30 goal. We continued to pass other riders, first hearing their desperate gasps for air before seeing them in the darkness.
We continued as fast as we could – barely making the correct turnoffs in the blind darkness. Then, suddenly, we’re back onto a gravel road section with a steep downhill. We flew down the hill, hoping that we were somehow avoiding the sand traps and washboard sections that had claimed so many riders earlier in the day. Then, to my dismay another set of uphill switchbacks on the gravel road.
“I don’t have anything left for this Bryce!” I exclaimed.
“But imagine if this was the last climb before the finish, then wouldn’t you feel stupid if you walked it.”
“Okay. True enough.” And with that I jammed my legs down onto the pedals, using my whole body to force all the energy into the bike. Climbing, climbing, finally over the crest... and then another steep uphill.
“Okay maybe this is last one...” says Bryce from behind me.
I stay silent and just take the pain, pushing like crazy, trying to make the finish.
Now we’re truly over that last crest. Ahead of me a tarmac road tilts downwards into the darkness. I look down at my watch… 7:25. All or nothing now. I check to make sure Bryce is still behind me and I gun it down the hill. On either side I see the dim blurred shapes of hedges and trees and I try to keep myself between them. Like some sort of surreal video game, we fly through the darkness. We see Gaiole below us - then suddenly a small white sign: “L’Eroica” and a right arrow. I brake as hard as I can and I hear an exclamation from behind me as Bryce almost collides with my back wheel. We carve the right turn and zoom into town. Now we know where we are but we don’t know the right route through to the finish. Ahead we see some taillights of other riders and make a dash for them. We get closer and somebody frantically waves us in to the finish area. A handful of remaining spectators cheer us on in.
We pull into the square. I look down at my watch… 7:40. Around us, people are packing up tables and taking down banners. A couple men wave us over. We hurried over and they quickly stamp our cards. Riders continue to trickle in steadily as we stand in the square, momentarily in awe of what we have just done.
14.5 hours after we started, we have cycled 205km, climbing 4000m worth of hills through some of the toughest and most beautiful landscapes, in an experience I will never forget. L’Eroica: an amazing race that tests if both bike and rider are truly heroic.
Both Bryce and David completed the 205km L'Eroica on 3-speed Pashley GUV'NORs with 22.5" frames. Apart from the clipless pedals they fitted, Bryce's bike computer for logging their route, and a small bag strapped under their saddle, the bikes were stock models, right down to the brass bell.
Watch Bryce and David's YouTube Video: "Pashley at L'Eroica 2008"