L’Eroica Sportif, 2nd October 2007

Jon Stephenson and Dave Kirby tackled the notorious L’Eroica this year. If you didn’t go to the Club Dinner (or even if you did) and would like to know more about the ride you can read Jon’s personal account. Just click “more” and you will see the whole story in Jon’s own words. It’s quite a long tale (Jon does go on a bit) but well worth the read.


Jon Stephenson

Aged 45 years

It seems quite some time ago that Dave Kirby mentioned to me, during one of our various discussions regarding cycling in “the good old days” about riding L’Eroica and I nonchalantly replied ‘that sounds a good idea Dave’. Like all good ideas though the execution of such is not so easy.

To explain, L’Eroica is the Italian version of the legendary “Paris Roubaix” held as a cycle sportif and as of October this year as a professional race. I then came up with the further complication to the whole thing by suggesting that we take our respective miem saab along on the “adventure”. And it was that the necessary flights, car hire, entry etc were booked! Just to add a further complication the “done thing” at the event is to ride a period (pre 1980) bike and wear period clothing. This provided further drama as Dave had no such bike but between us we managed at the last minute to complete the restoration of my 1959 Mercier road bike for Dave to use. So off we set and without any drama (except the size and transport of Dave’s bike bag) arrived in Sienna on the Friday lunch time.

We spent a pleasant day on Friday, until in trying the bike, Dave managed in the space of the first 100 metres to firstly get a puncture, secondly put a flat in the brand new rim and finally break a handle bar bolt. By good fortune we found a hardware shop on Saturday morning and with my wife translating, managed to purchase a 50mm long 8mm bolt. I have to add at this point that I had noticed not only Dave’s unusual style of dress.. Flat cap, plus twos but also his unusual diet. Choosing tripe and pig’s trotters for dinner on Friday.

So we spent Saturday morning in Sienna which far exceeded my expectations, and moved on to Gaiole to sign on for the event on Saturday afternoon.
Arriving in Gaiole, I soon began to appreciate the depth of cycling in Italy. It is not the same as in Northern Europe, which I compare, particularly in Belgium to dog racing without the glamour, but has an altogether different atmosphere.

The sports hall was taken over, as was the whole town, for the whole weekend by the event with every conceivable bike ridden by Coppi and Bartoli on display. Merckx ‘s 73 Giro winning bike held pride of place, but the sheer amount of photos of “the old days” made me again realise, what great cycling heritage Italy has. It has to be said that Coppi is still God in Italy with only Merckx coming any where near in terms of respect. I spent about an hour trying to work out how a Campag Paris Roubaix gear worked and still remain in awe of anybody who rides with one.

This is where the real action began and we left the sports hall with the intention to return to start at 5am on the Sunday. It has to be said that at this point I had formed the opinion that the ride would be a breeze and we would cruise around together…how wrong I was. Arriving at 5am in Gaiole with our WAGS, we pumped up tyres and got ready and went round to the start. WOW…the high street, approximately 250-300 riders ready to go, most in wool jerseys, wool shorts, on 50′s,60′s 70′s bikes, exposed brake cable, toe clips and chrome.

5am, brevet card stamped, off we go in the dark in a bunch of about 100 riders on flat about 20mph, great! After 12.4km we hit the first stretch of strada bianchi in the dark. Strada bianchi or white road is the most pot-holed, rough, uneven, horrible bloody road you have ever ridden on and L’Eroica has some 15 sections of it most uphill totalling about 100km.

This is where it went wrong. Dave immediately punctured and in pumping up the tyre, I broke off the valve of the new tube. Unfortunately by now we had lost the fast group and joined in on the continuous stream of riders with Dave intent on making up time (reminding me of rallying). Making up time in the dark on loose gravel down hill is not easy. On we continued through Sienna and now in daylight and onto tarmac, Dave set about beasting every Italian he could until we arrived at the first control at Radi.

The controls offered an opportunity to stop and fill water bottles and take on food all served by young local talent, and to hear the Italian banter. Most Italians took the opportunity to sample the local wine and grappe whilst waiting for club mates to rejoin the group and set off in convoy again. I began to enjoy a local ‘tart’ ..no jokes! whilst Dave would eat raw eggs (honest) at most controls. It has to be noted that we spoke to another British rider at this point who was riding a legendary Alan bike. The chap seemed quite jovial considering Dave had absolutely hammered him and me over the previous section of strada bianchi.

Now we moved into the real hills and after a further control and more bloody ‘strada bianchi’, began the (1 in 6 in parts), climb at Bounconvento. Not only was this 1 in 6 but 1 in 6 on gravel and about 4km long. What a Bastard! It was at this point that I first experienced the short comings of 1970′s equipment, when I was unable to engage my bottom gear and had to make most of the climb out of saddle on 42 x 21. At this point Dave had blown every body away and I continued on my own in pursuit of Dave on the tarmac descent, to the next section of strada bianchi. I have to say to the reader that riding on the flat on strada is bad enough; the gravel and pot holes took up energy and shook both bike and rider to pieces. Some of the descents are about 1 in 8 or even 1 in 6 in parts and require you to drag your feet on the ground to slow down to avoid the pot holes.

At the beginning of the 5th section of strada I caught Dave changing his 3rd tyre and left him with my pump, he had forgotten his, and a spare tube. I agreed to wait at the next control. I soldiered on mixing with various groups of Italians enjoying the sunshine, the glint of sun on chrome, the banter and all except more strada bianchi until the control at Giovanni D’asso. At this point I was at my lowest, hammered and now in some discomfort from the pounding of the bloody strada and I took to taking nurofen to ease the pain in my back and wrists. However this wasn’t my only problem. After waiting for Dave for some 30 minutes, I decided to press on, on my own and on the 9th section of strada I punctured! Fortunately a service car arrived and I was able to borrow a pump and press on. Most sections of strada are about 5-6 miles long and about half seem to contain at least one big climb about as big as Edge Hill and of the same steepness. On I pressed in various groups of dark skinned wool clad Italians and young racers in lycra on borrowed Bianchis until delayed by a further puncture, I approached the final climb on tarmac where I caught up with two Italians who looked as though they were out for a stroll. Needless to say I raised enough energy to jump them on the other side of the road.

Again I must explain to the reader that the route is marked by permanently erected signs which prevent you from going off course, by this point I had to wonder who the hell would want to ride around anyway. On again to the last section of strada which was mostly downhill until the final tarmac descent in Gaiole after some 205km and more than 11 hours and 45 minutes.

At the finish, I was almost glad to see my wife on the finish line. I was so hammered I could hardly raise a conversation except to say that I would never do that ….ing event ever again!! After a brief rest and a drink, I began to appreciate the majesty of it all; every finisher of the 200k gets an enormous cheer at the finish as they cross the line. Covered in dust with tyres held round their backs, the banter and stories seem to go on for hours as they show their scars and blood stains to their family and friends.

On returning to the changing rooms to “shower” it reminded me of the videos I have seen of Germandi, Merckx etc as riders dismounted their “retro” bikes and entered the changing room to emerge in period casual track suits and slippers. In Italy it would seem that Retro is cool!

What of Dave? He finished about an hour after me having had 8 punctures and I am sure his own story to tell. In conclusion, I would say you have to treat the event with respect. It is harder than anything I have ridden in 20 years, but I now know what its about and it is my intention to beast the bugger in 08 and I would encourage anyone to go even if it just to do the shorter routes, 70k plus or whatever as in my opinion this is the best cycle sportif in the business.

A note to Neil, come and ride it on a modern bike. It’s not the point but you have to experience it.

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