It’s always a welcome moment when the opportunity to return to Gaiole in Chianti arrives at the beginning of October. When I first discovered l’Eroica for myself in 2010, the pictures were immediately captivating. From that point forward, a semi-foolish adventure  began the year after to personally discover the classic bikes, farming roads of Tuscany, and in particular the faces and people of its 209kms route. It did not disappoint, but was certainly humbling in many ways. Near yearly returns have been followed since.

L’Eroica was initially about saving the memory and history of cycling, as well as to save some of the rapidly disappearing white roads of Tuscany. In this mix however is another point it shares with many of the best events – the people. Even as it’s boomed and more appeared, some faces have become familiar. Car parked, tent set up, into the village on Friday evening we go.  As the weekend winds up, it doesn’t take long before catch ups and new introductions to begin. Over the obligatory glass of chianti, there is also the all too familiar question heard each year – which course? Good question. 

In the past, personal preference has always been on the longer two options on offer. Current form and knowledge of its challenges advise against the longest percorso. It lives up to reputation, and has humbled before. The 135kms is always tempting, but there is also a new option on offer to replace the 120kms introduced a few years back which had mixed reviews. This new route, at 106kms in length, is just under the amount of vertical meters of its 30kms longer sibling. Shorter, but steeper, and it also features a section known only to the pro circuit as part of l’Eroica’s twin the Srade Bianche. Hhmm.. Testing it would also allow a later start, which could be an interesting change. Tempting… It means we won’t see the first section of strade lit up by candles in the dark, but having only ever seen it that way, a change could be welcome. Why not? It will also be a good gauge as to whether the now 8000 count of participants is testing the limits of the Tuscan roads.

Through the Saturday’s preparations, the larger crowds are visible throughout Gaiole in the bike market and numerous events. It does look like the organisation has taken some tips on handling its growth. It’s busier than ever, but things are running smooth in the crowds and everyone looks to be having a great time. A very welcome sight, as this is one of the points around which there have been questions during the last years. Had it gotten too big? Doesn’t look like it! Great opportunities for further catch ups with more faces throughout the day as well. Again it’s the people! The new percorso looks like a popular offering for many. Of course, a good few remain interested in the other circuits. There’s a lot of chat about this one though as it looks to be checking many of the right boxes. Tomorrow will tell!

Come 4am Sunday morning, the first rumbles can be heard from the tents in the campground hosting participants in the two longer courses. Start is at 5 after all and especially for those on the long course, it will be quite a day. It’s a bit missed not to be one of them this year, but there’s also a welcome smile that comes with that extra hour and a half of available sleep.

The other perk of the chosen option is not being required to plan lights for the first, and potentially last portions of the day. Less kit needed is always welcome. With the first rays of sun we are off on the familiar first stretch towards Brollio castle. Even though this stretch is common to nearly each route, it looks totally unfamiliar seen through light of day. The candles remain in the Luciano Berutti sector of strade rising up to the castle. With extra time on offer however, the pace is more relaxed, and it really is about having a good time for all. Even time for a quick coffee! 

Come the first real stop in Radi after four sectors, it remains a bit surreal to think we are already half way through the course. This is normally but a quarter of the way, and the clock’s already a factor then. Not this time. There’s a welcome opportunity to enjoy some of the tasty treats Tuscany’s got on offer. Not too many though, lunch is actually only a few kilometers down the road! Shortly thereafter is also where the fun will really begin. Following a hard left off the known course from Radi, the route heads on to Monteroni d’Arbia for some yummy ribollita toscana. Stomach full, and back to business. The much waited for 5th sector arrives on the Via de San Martina. New paths await and do not disappoint. A new personal favourite sector I think. As it winds down near Vescona, the views from the top are definitely some of the finest on the entire course! No wonder the Strade’s become a favourite of many of the pros who participate. Wow. 

Some climbing is done, but the bulk of the day’s vertical remains. To do so, the course realigns with the 209kms route. Not as daunting as the climb up Montalcino seen by those tackling the Longo, but nonetheless a gradual 10kms sap on the 7th sector of white roads up Vagliagli to the final rest stop of the day. A nice touch by some locals is an unofficial refreshment stop half way. Certainly welcome by many. It’s warm after all, and bottles empty quickly.

Refilled with further sustenance in Dievole, on to the final stretch of the day and the ride back home. None too soon for some as the vertical meters and gravel grind can take their toll, even on the shorter routes. Several faces are starting to show it.

It’s really at this moment of the day that the event’s motto most rings true:

The Beauty of Fatigue and the Thrill of Conquest 

The party taking place in Gaiole that welcomes all coming off the different routes is like few others. For those previously familiar with the event, it’s a welcome reminder, especially if the day offered a few points to push one’s self. For those new to it all, it’s here that a true understanding forms. In many endurance events, the effort is the reward. Special to l’Eroica however is the finally tuned mix… the history, the beauty of the landscape and the hospitality also most reward effort made. They combine to distract while digging deep. It’s alive elsewhere but in few places does it have such a heartbeat. A special tip of the hat here to Gianluca in our group for that last stretch home on a flat. Digging deep indeed, and there’s nothing but a tip of the hat and a very appropriate word for it:

La passione

The Italians have it, and they know how to share it. It’s part of what keeps us coming back for more.

Words and photos by Simon Milligan, additional photos by James Lloyd.