Shafts of light flicker like an antique cinema projector as I pass obedient rows of cypress trees. A snaking, dusty double-track crinkles beneath my timeworn tires.
Hazy light, moody shadow—light, shadow—flick, flick, flick.
My weathered mind wanders and I flash on visions of the legendary Fausto Coppi; he climbs next to me, crouched in a coil of potential energy, his long nose guiding us forward like a formidable steam ship.
We are gliding together inside this perforated tunnel of trees, over the chiaroscuro hills of Gaiole in Chianti, Italy—the birthplace of L’Eroica, a passionate recreation of the golden age of cycling, born on the white gravel roads of Tuscany.
Everyone in the cycling world is talking about gravel: gravel roads, gravel bikes, gravel races. But in a small section of this cycling-crazed nation, gravel (or sterrati as Italians know it) is nothing new.
The strade bianche—white gravel roads—of Tuscany have been used for cycling, not to mention daily life, for centuries.
The gran fondo L’Eroica—”The Heroic”—began in 1997 in Gaiole in Chianti, a small village in the province of Siena. For that first event, creator Giancarlo Brocci gathered nearly 100 cyclists on vintage bikes, wearing period-correct clothing, and combined a challenging route with Tuscany’s sublime terrain.
Brocci believed that riding classic bikes on rustic roads evoked the heroic cycling duels of legendary Italian rivals Coppi and Gino Bartali, representing the golden age of cycling. More than just the challenge, Brocci hoped to provide a taste of adventure, the satisfaction of fatigue, a journey rendered in raw grandeur.
Ten years later, a professional cycling race evolved from L’Eroica, combining the spirit of that historic era with modern technology and the most elite physiology.
After only a dozen editions, the pro race of today—known as Strade Bianche—has quickly become one of the sport’s most thrilling and popular events, even though it is less than two decades old. (Meanwhile, other iconic races like the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix are well over 100 years old.)
At the start of L’Eroica I set off before the sun in the effervescent air of an autumn Tuscan morning, perched upon a borrowed piece of antique steel. In darkness, I can readily envision a time of bygone cycling: hunched, rocking bodies atop clicking-clacking machines; old cables, friction shifters, cold fingers; the hypnotic silhouettes of symmetric, contouring slopes of vines.
At mile 60, what feels like paradise soon becomes more like Mount Vesuvius. One of the decrepit tubular tires glued to the prehistoric rims of my temporary steed erupts after hitting a miniscule, albeit sharp, splinter of gravel.
While I sit in the sun peeling the deflated tubular off and tossing another on, the flies buzzing and the soil parched, I can only think of one thing: bike racers from long ago, the absurd number of miles they rode, and the frequency of mechanical misadventures that defined those early years of racing.
All alone; figure it out; ride on. For them and me.
And I ride on, until 200 meters up the road I’m standing roadside again. Pffff. Explosion number 2. This time, there will be no roadside repair. I consider my options, knowing the day is about to get a bit longer, a bit harder.
The only way home from this spot is to walk or ride up the steepest climb on the route. I’ve got one good tire and a very small cluster of gears. This is a bike ride, so I am riding this bike. And it’s going to get me at least to the top of this climb, maybe farther. Then, I’ll figure something out.
What’s the attraction to racing and riding on gravel roads? What’s the attraction to the Strade Bianche?
First, there’s no doubt that taking road bikes on anything other than paved surfaces adds an element of drama and uncertainty. The loose surface makes racing that much more difficult, since there is the added skill of handling a bike through dirt and mud as nearly 200 cyclists float across a bed of pebbles.
Then there’s the pageantry of returning to a simpler—some call it golden—age of cycling. Stripped down to its simplest form, the sport becomes man, machine, the elements—and nothing more. Watts still matter, but less so than on a silky smooth climb in the Alps. On gravel, positioning, cunning, and tenacity are more important.
Of course, the sight of colorful sponsor-clad cyclists streaming through the Chianti vineyards of the stark, painterly Tuscan landscape adds to the race’s sublime character. Strade Bianche is a race every rider wants to win: it’s challenging, gorgeous, and richly historic.
In the end, isn’t that what every bike ride should be?
Though I hold out hope that I will soon find a way to carry on with two intact tires, I also know there is a good chance I am nearing the end of my inaugural L’Eroica. So I drill it. I pass a lonely figure who grumbles at my rate of ascension despite the fact that my rear tire burps with every pedal stroke.
“I’m lighter since I have less air in my tires than you…” I yell when I am already past him, trying to be gentlemanly about it all.
And then I see it. In the smoky haze, the next aid station appears. People. Cars. And not a tubular tire in sight.
There are countless miles of sterrati between me and the finish line. Hero status will have to wait until another year.
But it isn’t as if the day ends badly. Giovanni offers me a ride back to town, the proud owner of the most appropriate sag wagon I could imagine: a 1969 Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 TI, adorned with a checkered flag racing stripe, one roof-rack tray, and red vinyl seats.
Arrivederci! I yell as I’m whisked back to the future along the majestic strade bianche of my dreams.