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person would push their bike in any event. There are thousands of cycling tours every year in Europe but none like L’Eroica. This is the Mille Miglia of bike racing: Celebrated, infamous, a legend, far removed from all the safety considerations, tuned suspensions and electronics that have made cycling so predictable and boring nowadays. In L’Eroica even short tours have large elevation gains that are otherwise found only in Alpine passes. However, the majority of the sweat—and often some blood—is shed on the Strade Bianche: poorly maintained, bumpy dirt roads with potholes and a fine white dust that settles everywhere. When it rains, cycling there is torture. Then the dust turns to mud and later sticks like cement to man and machine. The gearshift jams, the brakes fail. And it rains often. To prevent the old, white trails from being paved, Giancarlo Brocci from Gaiole in Chianti, at the time a sleepy hamlet known only to wine aficionados, began to ride these roads with his friends as a kind of protest. Earlier, during the legendary period of cycling when Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali duelled, you ultimately had no other roads available. It seemed like a bizarre hobby of some older men who were celebrating the vintage days of cycling. Only 92 like-minded fellow travellers accompanied the 43-year-old Brocci during the first-ever L’Eroica in 1997. Today, no one is considered an oddball when he makes the pilgrimage to Buonconvento in spring or to Gaiole in autumn to risk his bones. For the now more than 6,000 participants, the aim is first and foremost to belong to the Eroici, to the valiant. Those who rise to the challenge and prove to themselves and the world that it was much better and more difficult in days gone by. Owing to its immense popularity, L’Eroica In the first light of the sun, polished alloy and perfectly restored paints vie to outshine one another, and the green of the Tuscan forests is captured in the chrome embellishments. Tires crunch softly on the gravel, chains purr and on the tube frames the big names of European cycling from yesteryear can be read: Merckx, Learco Guerra, Gazelle, Rickert, La Perle, Bianchi, Hetchins, De Rosa, Cilo. This morning the route gently leads down to a magnificent view. Opposite, above vineyards and olive groves, the first-stage goal emerges: On a rugged, towering mountain stands an old church. A postcard idyll. It is beautiful. And terrible. Because there’s no time to enjoy the postcard idyll. The way to the church first leads down a steep slope and then up an equally steep ascent. The brakes bite into the rim with a squeak, gravity pulls the riders in their colorful wool jerseys of bygone eras mercilessly into the depths. Downward over gravel, rock and mud. Brake too hard and you risk a rollover, so you give yourself to fate, let it go, only to frantically rip into the lowest gear in the next moment during the slalom through your fellow suffering riders, and finally to heave yourself up the brutally steep slope to the church after this injection of adrenalin. Some manage it with their last bit of strength, wheezing lungs and burning muscles; others walk their bikes. “Does it go on like this?” asks a breathless novice at the top. The truth might worry him. L’Eroica is a spectacle far removed from any kind of sanity: Anyone who rides in this race has in most cases spent weeks trying to restore an old steel racing bike to a shiny new state. They have readjusted the old shifting mechanism and cleaned the steel, only to then torment themselves on scabrous routes up mountains that one would normally avoid, and finally to hurl themselves into descents on which any reasonable Survival is everything. And there’s only one way to find that out: On coarse gravel and over thousands of meters in elevation, every year in Tuscany friends of a bygone cycling culture test their threshold for pain. “L’Eroica” is the annual event where men and women become true heroes through steel, dust and tears. I T 102


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