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now has offshoots in California, South Africa, England, South America, Japan and this year for the first time in Germany too. The original, however, remains the highlight. The rules are strict: Only bikes that conform to the pre-1987 technical standard are permitted. Ten speeds are already a luxury; some even lug one-speed bikes from the period before the First World War up the mountains. The riders are also compelled to squeeze themselves into historical costumes. After a hundred mountainous kilometers, thin leather laces painfully cut into your feet. On the short tours you can see not only racing bikes but any kind of vintage cycling culture: baker’s and fireman’s bikes compete, Don Camillo and Peppone skirmish, women travel in fancy costumes and with a picnic basket. Experienced participants take their precautions and walk bikes with archaic suspensions at the start: “Very comfortable. Molto commodo,” says a Briton on a purple Hetchins whose chain and seat stays are wildly contoured. The belief that one millimeter of additional spring deflection provides more comfort among the local chunks of stone apparently moves mountains for the islander. All the others rely on old, soft-seated buckskin in their trousers. Giancarlo Brocci is no friend of comfort; he expects hardship, hunger and stamina of his riders. For beginners even the preparation can be an absolutely frustrating experience: In Tuscany, old Italian men to whom you would offer a seat on the bus fleet-footedly leave you behind on all the ascents. Here the elderly revive their youth. And during the course of the tour the younger participants learn humility in the face of the accomplishments of the older generations who in victory drank no isotonic sports drinks but rather gallons of wine if anything when the sun was merciless. Everything that delights the connoisseur of vintage steel steeds can be found at the L’Eroica parts market: “Trenta? Trenta?” asks someone looking for a 30-tooth rear sprocket wheel to conquer the mountains. Another booth offers leather gloves in proper style. There’s no microfiber and Lycra here. If you topple, you’ll be glad of the thick leather on your hands. Meanwhile, in the mobile workshop across the way, a racing mechanic from the old school shifts through the gears with black fingers: click, click, click. The man doesn’t look satisfied and re-oils using an old jug. Click, click, click – the rocket is ready for the big day. In early October, the town of Gaiole transforms into a giant bike paddock for a week. Between the tours there’s endless shop talk yet even more indulgence in Tuscany’s culinary virtues: food, food and more food, entirely in the spirit of Giancarlo Brocci. The founder of L’Eroica doesn’t much care for malnourished top athletes. He wants to see his participants strong as oxen, heavy and muscular as they climb the mountains. That’s why there are no energy bars along the way. Along with wine, freshly cooked bean stew, pecorino, bread with oil, salami, ham and Italian tray bakes are served. And if the well-fed participants then throw themselves back on the bumpy road, all the country’s many beauties lie before them – as well as in their stomachs. After the first pass in Chianti has been overcome by torchlight, the towers of Sienna already beckon from afar. It continues along avenues of pine trees along the Crete Senesi, the charming Tuscan landscapes in their colorful shades of brown. The longest route leads past the famous Sant’Antimo abbey to the no less famous Brunello di Montalcino wine-growing region and to a further refreshment station. There an inexperienced participant wonders, “Why is food being dished up here again after just 20 kilometers?” But that’s correct, because the organizers have crammed some of the most unpleasant chunks in all of Tuscany into this little stretch. Slippery ascents that are actually impassable. Slopes that you don’t want to begin to imagine. Routes that you take out of necessity, because in the middle of this wilderness no other way leads back to Gaiole; to the right, the only path leads to the cemetery. And from behind someone shouts, “Avanti, amici,” so it’s best to always follow the lanky Italians. Finally, you think, the climb to this line of hills is behind me, and on the descent the idea comes to you that it can’t get any worse, the feeling you can actually manage it despite all the mountains that still lie in wait. This is the moment that you won’t soon forget, where the rough going becomes pleasant and you begin to appreciate the Strade Bianche. In the end the white roads are not defeated. They spit out dirty, sweaty and haggard people who at first are simply just happy to have survived all that. Nevertheless, next October most will come again as long as they are lucky enough to snag a starting number. There is no placement. Either you arrive or you don’t make it. Hero or not, L’Eroica knows no mercy. E F 105


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