Leave your Lycra at home, forget about carbon fiber, stop meticulously counting the grams of your new crankset and prepare for a healthy dose of fatigue. At the inaugural Eroica California ride—part of the Italy-based Eroica series of non-competitive rides and festivals with editions in England, Japan, Spain—vintage bikes and apparel are the rules of the day. That means steel and aluminum frames, olive oil instead of energy bars, wool jerseys, drop-tube shifters and no clip-in pedals. It’s a throwback and, to the uninitiated, it might look like cycling’s version of a Civil War reenactment. As we learned riding the first Eroica California through San Luis Obispo County, it’s far more than pageantry; it’s an experience in what lies at the soul of bike racing.
At its roots, cycling is about heart and passion. From pushing through pain to conquer a climb, navigating serpentine descents as the wind draws tears from your eyes, with every rock and debris littered on the road given a risk assessment in fractions of a second—the pith of the sport is exploring one’s physical, mental and emotional limits. A long day on the bike can teach you a lot about yourself.
Modern cycling arguably makes this ‘self-discovery through suffering’ slightly less accessible and, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Bikes are faster, lighter, safer and more comfortable than in the past. Clip-in pedals make for more efficient power transfer from your burning quadriceps to spinning that rear wheel. By the time one crosses the finish line of an Eroica, these advancements are more appreciated than ever—and that’s the entire point. Giancarlo Brocci, founder of L’Eroica, is a firm believer in appreciating the rich history of cycling by recreating it and sees modern cycling as perhaps too mathematical and lacking drama.
It’s not just about dressing up, it’s about really appreciating the beauty of fatigue and the feeling of accomplishing something at the end
“The challenge aspect of Eroica is very important—that’s why we decided to have the 127-mile route,” Brocci says. “Because it’s not just about dressing up, it’s about really appreciating the beauty of fatigue and the feeling of accomplishing something at the end. It’s still competitive for one’s self, because you challenge yourself by doing a long route with climbs on these kinds of bikes.”
Brocci’s love of cycling has literary origins. As a child in Gaiole (a small town in Tuscany known for its white gravel roads), he would read the weekend’s race results in the morning paper to the older residents of the village on his way to school. The early memories of the courage of those riders stuck with Brocci, prompting him to start the ride and name it Eroica, Italian for “heroic.”
The Eroica California is broken up into three routes that meander through the hills and vineyards of San Luis Obispo County on the Californian coast. A short 41-mile route—along with a 69- and 127-mile route—offers challenging terrain for even the most seasoned riders. Rest stops dot the routes, with the longer rides providing unique rewards for participants: a pizza stop in the surf town of Cayucos, a wine-tasting in the throes of a perilous descent, a mid-ride stop at an olive farm for bread soaked in olive oil and french fries. Cyclists can be notoriously neurotic about nutrition and Brocci’s insistence on period-appropriate food contributes to the experience—even when you’re sipping on a water bottle of wine before a climb.
The day before the main event, it’s necessary to take a short ride to get familiar with your bike. For riders accustomed to state-of-the-art equipment, hopping on a bike that’s older than you is akin to, well, re-learning to ride a bike. Shifting takes concentration, each pedal stroke at the apex of a hill must be measured and every shift is strategic. The day before the race is also a chance to celebrate some of the bikes that will be on the course the next day. The Concours d’Elegance is judged by two Eroica insiders and everything (from early fixed-gears to rare racing bikes) is on display.
Riders leave the starting gates before the sun rises. There’s no mass start; it’s a far more laissez-faire beginning. In the early morning, as the fog lifts off the vineyards and the city streets of Paso Robles give way to gravel, the beauty of Eroica reveals itself. Despite the previous day’s ride, Murphy’s Law is holding true throughout the course as vintage tubular tires go flat on the first stretch of craggy gravel, chains stick and derailleurs go slack. While there are mechanics at each rest stop, it’s the camaraderie of helping a fellow rider with a flat that makes the day. (Like it or not, after an Eroica ride, you’ll have a deeper knowledge of bike maintenance.)
As the light crowds around rest stops spreads out, riders settle into their own mental and physical pace. Intoxicated by the spectacular terrain and scenery and maybe just a little buzzed from the water bottle of chablis you just picked up, the singular focus on pedaling is nothing short of meditative. Conversation with fellow riders comes easily; complementing a bike or sharing in suffering builds quick friendships. On some of the especially challenging dirt climbs, it’s easy to start pining for modern gear. But as a group of fellow riders cheers you on, heavy steel frames in hand—you embrace the temporary pain, the suffering and push forth. It’s not about how fast, it’s only about not giving up.
Prior to the finish, there’s a long and extremely winding descent through a canyon that ends abruptly in downtown Paso Robles. After the thousands of feet of climbing, it might seem this descent is a reward, a coasting to the finish of sorts. But riders are, no doubt, tired. You just ran out of water and you’re on your last spare tire. Hitting speeds in the neighborhood of 40 MPH with hairpin curves, the final descent draws on one’s mental reserves. It takes intense focus and adept use of brakes to make it, but you’ve got to be heroic—and winning has nothing to do with it.
Images by Hans Aschim