The Queen of Tuscany: Cycling The L’Eroica with InGamba

L'Eroica riders take a break in one of the Tuscany hill towns

L’Eroica riders take a break in one of the Tuscany hill towns

Tuscany, as you may well know, is home to many superlatives:  wine, olive oil, endlessly rolling hills, azure blue skies, historic small towns, famous artists, and of course cycling roads. In October, I flew to Florence and met up with a group of cyclists, and a tour company called inGamba. Our plan was to watch the World Championship Road Race, spend a week on our bikes, and close out the week with the L’Eroica. L’Eroica is a one day ride with roughly 5000 cyclists. Put simply, it is a celebration of the strade bianche, the “white roads” of Tuscany.

Gaiole, in Tuscany’s northern reaches, is the starting point for the L’Eroica. Our inGamba group set off on our vintage bicycles, brakes screeching and headlights piercing the predawn pitch black. Luckily, the rain had stopped sometime during the night and there were a few stars showing.

Tuscany is all about its towns. The first town on the 205km L’Eroica course is La Madonna. It’s also the first segment of white road, looping up the candle-lit drive toward Castello di Brolio and up into the high vineyards. Incidentally, the white roads are actually gravel and difficult to navigate on a vintage bicycle with toe clips and down-tube shifters.

There is no such thing as flat or straight in the Tuscany. This aspect of the geography makes cycling the region exhilarating, but also taxing. There is no time to rest easy while riding on gravel, as the downhills are where spills are most likely to happen. Riders often find themselves tossed among the olive trees when suddenly unable to navigate a turn on a gravelly descent.

We looped around the outskirts of Sienna just as the sun was hitting the Torre del Mangia, and barreled south toward Montalcino. While I was with a group, the difficulties of riding in the dark and the odd nature of flat tires and mechanicals can raise havoc with riders trying to stay together. We would reconnect at mandatory checkpoints, generally every 50km, only to lose touch with one another again on the next stretch of road.

After Montalcino, the white roads become relentless. The climbs are long, often stretching 10-20km. Gearing on vintage bikes is nothing like modern bikes, which makes gravel uphills even more wrenching. Often riders have no choice but to dismount and walk up the steep segments. Between Asciano and Castelnuovo Berardenga the steep gravel pitches take everything you’ve got to crest each hill, only to ride into another… and then another.

By this time, well into the afternoon, the long hours of rigorous riding begin to take their toll. My body, accustomed to four to five hour rides, is beginning to ache: feet, legs, back. There is no way to settle in and find a comfortable place on the bike. As we near home, some of the roads are familiar. Achingly, the L’Eroica course does not go where my body wants it to – there are still more kilometers to ride. The last town before the finish is Rada, and like so many charming Tuscan towns, Rada is on top of a hill.

Nearing the town, I begin to feel that precarious sensation when your body is about to run out of energy, for good.  I quickly eat the rest of the food I’m carrying (including home made rice cakes, by our Soigneur Raul, thank you) and hope it’s enough to get me to the end. No more water either. Leaving Rada, the course climbs toward the familiar Badia a Coltibuono, and then turns down the final stretch of strade bianche into Gaiole.

The finish is spectacular. Hundreds of family and friends are there cheering each and every rider. Riders pull up onto a podium for a photograph and a final passport stamp. Spoils include a bottle of Chianti from Barone Ricasoli and a personal 205km monument (cycling monuments are the oldest and most prestigious one-day races). Very fitting.