31 October 2015

Girl in Gaiole - L'Eroica 2015

I've taken on the luscious green hills of the Peak District twice and become a hero on home soil. After wondering what it would be like to do it in Tuscany, I got the chance to ride the climbs, descents and Strade Bianchi of Gaiole. It was a very wet and rain soaked Sunday - not the cycling scenario I'd usually be into. But this wasn't hell. Surprisingly to myself, I loved every muddy & exhausting minute of it.

Back in June at Eroica Britannia, me and The Boy were invited by Brooks England to experience L'Eroica in its birthplace. There I was, mentally preparing myself to ride the Peaks again, while an agenda for my next heroic adventure was already being set! The answer was of course "YES!" to doing it; other than it being an AMAZING opportunity to be offered, I'd made a promise to myself to do more challenging rides... and from the stories I'd heard about the Tuscan countryside, this would certainly fit the bill.

Arriving in Pisa on the Friday and being driven to our accommodation up in Gaiole in Chianti, two things struck me immediately:
  1. How beautiful the place was.
  2. Just how hilly the countryside we were driving though appeared to be.
We were going higher and higher into the hills. With every bend in the road came a new breathtaking view of what was below us before... as well as passing roadsigns that were detailing part of the route of the ride. It was slowly dawning on me exactly how steep a ride L'Eroica would be. Now, don't get me wrong - I LOVE a good descent, but going down these would be a whole new ball game. As I gazed out the van windows, that tiny voice of doubt started to natter away in my mind... but there was no way I was going to listen to it (well, not too much) and miss out on riding that terrain. 

Other than the big day itself, one of the things I was hyped about experiencing at L'Eroica was the vintage bike market, along with the atmosphere of the village over the ride weekend. It's quite the sight to see: pretty much all of Gaiole comes out in celebration of the event. You're immediately welcomed in by all the locals - look up and you'll see banners with messages of encouragement hanging from all the buildings. The small village lends itself almost entirely to the vintage bike market which could cover all bases for your kit for the ride - from old steeds and components to jerseys, banana helmets and shoes, it was all there and was magical to look though. Everyone was in the spirit and the romance of what was to come on Sunday...
For me, there was no need to buy a bike (as tempting as it was) as hire had been covered by Brooks - all I had to do was choose which of the bicycles in the shop would be mine for the day. The shop they were kept in was an Aladdin's cave of cycling - I had to stop myself from checking them all out and just look at the group of bikes that were in my size! After what felt like ages of cooing over frames, I gravitated towards what became my steed: an Andre Bertin road bike...
I joined some of the others in our group in getting our bikes tweaked and having a test ride around the village. I was happy with the fit (and the fact it had no cages on the pedals - I'm still not ready for that yet) and the gearing was great - I'm getting better with shifters over time, so that was a relief. My one concern? The brand new Brooks Swallow saddle the bike came with. It was an absolute beauty, but the thought of breaking in a new saddle on a 46km ride worried me just a little. After being assured by people that this would be a dream to be sat on, I didn't swap it out & hoped that this would be the case throughout the ride.

The festivities continued into the evening with the "Dinner of The Heroic" - an official meal laid on by L'Eroica the night before the event. In the best possible way it's an overwhelming experience: a huge white marquee hosts table upon table of participants of the ride. Everyone there has a ticket for the evening, to eat the traditional dishes of Gaiole, and drink what feels like copious amounts of Chianti, which flows abundantly throughout the night. Sustenance is KING on this night! Stacks of bread, cured meats, bowls of Ribollita, pasta dishes, grapes and biscotti served with Vin Santo ran as far as the eye could see.
I totally loaded up on the courses... I know what I'm like when it comes to eating the morning of a huge ride (not enough) so I needed those extra calories to spend on Sunday. The dinner is intended to set you up for what the "heroes" will face the following day... so stuffing my face was 100% acceptable. Going crazy on the Chianti was not an option - after having my fill, all I wanted was a clear head and a restful night to take on whatever Sunday had to throw at me.

On the morning of L'Eroica I was a mix of emotions: mainly a bundle of excitement mixed with slight trepidation. Believe it or not, my face below was that of nerves. Rain had been forecast for the day and the early morning sky was brooding. Again that little voice started going off in my mind... "you've never done climbs and descents like this before Jools... and in the rain?!" I listened to it for a moment, but it soon got hushed when me and The Boy set off from the courtyard of Coltibuono and cycled the long and winding road down to the official start line. We gathered with the swathe of other riders setting off for the 75 and 46km courses. The sea of colourful woollen jerseys, vintage bikes and joyful conversations was drowning out any of the reservations that had crept in. Immersing myself in this atmosphere allowed me to think about the ride ahead and to just drink it all in...
We shuffled through, got our 1st checkpoint stamp and that was it - we were off. For the next few hours it would be nothing but stunning open roads, pedalling, fresh air... and rain. The dark clouds gave up the pretty obvious secret they were keeping: that the day would be incredibly wet. God knows what was (or wasn't) going through my mind - I didn't have a single piece of waterproof clothing on me! No packable jacket in my pocket, no water resistant cap stowed away in my musette - it was just the beautiful woollen jersey, padded shorts and a cap that stood between me and the downpour. Usually, there would be a slight tantrum at a small shower dampening my day: this was a full on weather assault. Something inside of me came to life in the rain... I'm still trying to explain it to myself now, but I absolutely loved it.
Being told by lots of seasoned riders of L'Eroica that this was the worst weather they had ever seen at the event didn't put me off in the slightest. A mix of the atmosphere, strangers shouting "Allez, Allez!" as I cycled along, bumping into friends on the ride who were also battling up the climbs and down the descents & the Strade Bianchi essentially becoming mud roads made it for me. 

Through all the wobbles, drenching and tiring cycling, the one thing that was constant was smiles and laughter. Every corner turned revealed a new adventure - be it the brilliant food station, a breathtaking view to stop and take in, more familiar faces on the course, or grapes growing wild providing extra sustenance... there was ALWAYS something new to relish and enjoy. That and feeling bloody amazing with every mile I'd put in...

The relentless rain eventually stopped, but there was still plenty of treacherous terrain to cycle through thanks to the downpour. After many more kilometres of mud, the desire to push on never faded... and eventually the end of the heroic adventure was in sight. Arriving back in Gaiole I was once again immersed in a sea of riders - all bearing the same mucky and muddy splashes all over their bikes and bodies. We were all messy, damp and tired but revelling in the feeling as we crossed the finish line. Celebratory hugs and drinks and dirty bikes were the order of the afternoon in the centre of the village...

And with that, one of the best adventures I'd ever had on two wheels was done.

The sense of euphoria while riding L'Eroica and on completing the course was like nothing I'd ever felt before on a bike. Plenty of doubts had crept into my mind over that weekend, along with fears that finishing would not happen. Somehow I revelled in rain, celebrated the climbs and delved into the descents at full pelt. Believe me, there were moments where I was screaming in the saddle with exhaustion and tiredness, but something kept me going. Finding power in my cycling legs that I never knew existed was a mighty revelation for me, and one that I'm going to hold onto forever. I know that I would love to do this again, along with more challenges on the bike. Being a hero just for one day in the spirit of L'Eroica is a cool feeling, and I'm thankful for that... but I'm going to push this feeling on, which is one of the greatest gifts doing this ride has given me.

Special thanks to:
Brooks England for hosting me and Ian (The Boy) for the weekend.
L'Eroica & Eroica Britannia for basically being amazing.
Ian James for all photography (his full set can be viewed here) & being my ultimate riding bro.


Simon Douglas Thompson said...

What a fabulous retro event, and you got to ride on the pink stuff as well!

Teresa Stokes said...

Looks like you has a wonderful time, and you and the Boy are such a stylish couple in your matching Brooks outfits!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful report, thank you for writing it. It was my first L'Eroica too. I did the 75k and recall the water teeming down on me and desperately not wanting to cover my vintage Bianchi top with a horrible modern dayglo pink waterproof top (which proved utterly useless against the deluge)!

Oh, but the magic, the mud, grit, cheerfulness, singing in the rain (multi nationalities), salami and Chianti fuel stops and most of all the pride swelling up in me that I was part of something so special. Bystanders applauding us on entering Radda and the butcher in Panzano blowing his trumpet!

Like you, I'm not sure how I managed it but I did and adored every moment and felt battle weary but so proud crossing the finish.

Never has a hot shower and glass of Chianti felt so good ��������

Unknown said...

Great article and photos. One thing that amazes me this year is all the talk of rain. I did the 209km route, and not a single drop fell on me, and I always had the sun in the sky. I must have threaded the needle between storms. But like everyone else, I did end up with a nice coat of mud over jersey, skin and bike. Keep on writing!

TC said...

Looks like a great event. Will have to add it to the list. Love your blog, only wish you posted more frequently.

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