Day 4 - Sun 1st Oct, 2017 - L’Eroica in Gaiole
After registering eight months earlier as one of 2000 Non-Italian men, I woke before the 4:00 alarm with anticipation of an exciting day
I left Siena at 4:20am and cycled 28km in the dark to the start at Gaiole. A quote for a taxi one way was €55, which I decided to spend on a nice meal later.
As I rode into Gaiole, there was already a stream of lights from riders who had started on 209km ride (from 5:00am onwards).
At the start, I put on my suncream (in the dark) and it reminded me of the past insane start times when competing in the Sydney Half-Ironman in 1986,87,88 at Narabeen Lake.
After getting the first checkpoint stamp, it was a relaxed start from Gaiole with no idea of what lay ahead. It was a festive mood and no urgency for the early start.
About 5km along the road, we turned left and started the long climb to Castello do Broslin, at 10km, 525m & 39mins. This was also the first gravel section of nine, which with fresh legs seemed tame. On the return journey 11hrs later, this section was a lot tougher!
As the sun rose, it was a picturesque view across the Tuscan farms towards Siena watching a hot air balloon rise in the morning stillness
The first gravel section lasted 3km, but I soon found descending was a lot harder then ascending. I had researched tyre selection and chose Panaracer Pasala tyres in 28mm width. The 60’s ‘Mafac Racer’ brakes were not great, so I went a lot slower then others. As some descenders found out, it’s a long, painful wait for an ambulance.
Research on handling the loose gravel climbs and being fast/safe on descents only help a little in practice. My English Sturmey Archer FW 4 Speed was geared as a compromise between bitumen and dirt- in reality those with derailleur had two extra lower gears then my internal planetary hub and could keep traction by remaining seated and spinners their legs.
The 209/135km Route headed south towards Siena, after crossing the river at Pianella. I was familiar with this town as it was halfway on the bitumen between Siena and Gaiole which I’d ridden on the previous two days.
Radi was the first food stop at 48 km & 9:35. As with most cyclists, this was the first gravel climb to walk - the village was at 245m. As the ride went on, it was evident on the steep climbs almost everyone walks eventually. Those not practiced and prepared to exit the toe clips quickly had zero speed falls. I lost some elbow skin on the first dirt section when I found an unexpected false neutral gear. From then on, I was prepared and selected and held first gear- it did happen a few times, but I eventually adjusted the stretching cable and had consistency of low gear selection.
Another observation was the number of broken derailleurs when the rider realized too late they needed a lower gear. Most climbs were littered with broken bikes and walking riders. It also appeared that many waited for the mobile mechanic on his vintage Vespa to change their flat tyre.
I was surprised at the number of riders using glue-on tubular tyres. Having used these in the 80s, I could see the advantage of quick changing and also it was easy to carry two spare, criss-crossed across the chest like the racers of old. A number seemed to have tyre trouble, which fortunately I did not. In the two weeks before leaving, I had a lot of flats on my new tires, all attributed to the incorrect rim tape.
At 55km was the Murlo control/stamp point. It was a lovely village and the local clergy were welcoming riders and getting group photos.
Missing the cutoff for 209km route by 7mins at 65km was no surprise and almost welcome. Calculating my average speed, I was ok with doing 135km. 65km had taken 4 hrs with stops. So it was still a long way to go.
At Buonconvento-67km was the junction with the 209km route, and these riders were pushing hard to keep moving, sometimes finding it hard to get through the stopped riders. I enjoyed the rest and warm, sweet wine.
About 20mins along on a flat gravel terrain, my bottom bracket undid itself and locked the pedals from turning. Fortunately, I got out of toe straps without crashing. 20m up the road, a young Russian cyclist was trying to change his tubular tyre but for some reason had no glue - he was in a bind. Fortunately , I was carrying miracle yellow tape which he used and it was still holding 40km later at a food stop when I saw him. Didn’t even wear through!
Asciano- 95km at 14:16 was a control and food stop. The warm, thick soup and olive oil soaked bread was a good source of fuel. The threatening rain was light and added to the difficulty on the dirt and was slippery in cleated cycling shoes and clogged the pedal slot. I noticed the black mountain bike/touring shoes were common- not authentic, but much easier & safer to walk the hills.
Monte Sante Marie - 96km, 15:35 was a welcome stop after another gravel climb. I’d been riding with Kiwi Darren and his Dutch friends, which were good company.
The last big food stop was at Castelnuovo Berardenga - 113km at 16:28. Last year, Kiwi Darren thought this was the finish and had celebration drinks and called his wife only to find he was still a very hard 30km to ride.
The ride to Pianella was enjoyable over rolling hill with some fast, bitumen descents . I saw the worst of crashes on a very steep downhill gravel section. At this stage of the day there was continuous sirens of ambulances. It was often slower going down, just to be safe.
The last 30km back up to the ascent of Castello Di Brolio and back to Gaiole was a bit of a blur.
I finished at 18:15, 12 hours after starting, collected my medal and took my painful shoes off. Finishing these events is often a combination of relief and an anti-climax, until writing up the blog and reliving the day.
There was a stream of 209km riders arriving to great applause as the darkness set in and I definitely respected them for their achievement.
At 21:00, I had cycled back to Siena and was back in my room after 198km of cycling. After an enjoyable long shower and eventually clean hands, and a big glass of water it was sleep time for me - sleep trumped dinner!
In summary, I was very happy with my first L’Eroica ride. It had consumed me for many months of bicycle restoration and training. My family have been ultra supportive.
My 1950’s Australian made ‘Healing’ frame was unique at the event and I had many questions of its origin. My use of a Sturmey Archer 4 Speed FW internal hub was also unique- I received a lot of “Bravo Fixie” encouragement! It wasn’t perfect as the lowest gear meant more walking then expected.
The main issue was the corrugated roads- I lost my chain at least 3 times, the circlip holding the rear sprocket came off once, the bottom bracket continually came lose. Maybe more locktite would have helped. Overall everything went well and to plan, I had no flats or serious crashes.
The perfect L’Eroica bicycle? That’s my standby bicycle, a 1984 Vitus aluminum with compact crank for low gearing. It’s light, absorbs the bumps and easier and more recent to maintain.
So if doing the 209km, I suggest getting an 80s light steel or aluminum (see regulations), add a compact low chainring set (many had tripled), the biggest tires possible for the wheels (>28mm) and train on mountain bike trails.
Doing the 135km allows lots of time at food/check points, make friend and not forcing dangerous speed on downhill sections. You can rego for 209km and miss the cutoff if plans don’t work out.