You know you’ve finally escaped the hustle and bustle when Gaiole in Chianti counts as a “big” town. After all, it only has a couple of thousand inhabitants. Compared to inGamba’s home in Lecchi, however, it counts as a metropolis.
Ordinarily, it’s a sleepy little enclave in Tuscany’s idyllic countryside, and if you stopped there mid-ride for a coffee, or drove down to pick up some meat from the 300-year-old Chini butcher shop, you couldn’t fail to notice just how peaceful the place is.
Once a year, though, that tranquil pace is interrupted by an influx of retro riders, all searching for the ultimate in classic thrills: L’Eroica.
A local doctor, Giancarlo Brocci, started the now world-famous event in 1997 as a tribute to his beloved golden age of cycling, when the roads were treacherous, the bikes heavy and the riders all classic “hard men”.
These days, more than 4,000 wannabe hard men and women from all the world flock to Tuscany to test their mettle – and their metal. Riders of all shapes and sizes, straddling all manner of steel framed classics, seem magnetically drawn to both the charming countryside, and the idea of cycling that it represents.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. When the first riders took to the road 18 years ago, they were few and their motives were simple: celebrate the golden age of cycling and protect what’s left of the region’s iconic strade bianche by raising awareness.
The roads were fast succumbing to modern asphalt, and while for the most part this kind of surface is better for everyone, it lacks the history and charm of its dusty predecessor. Almost two decades on, and the white roads that so epitomise the old, rustic charm of Tuscany are protected by local government and preserved to torture cyclists for decades to come.
Brocci is still at the heart of the event, though along the way he’s had to enlist the help of countless volunteers and fellow appassionati. The Tuscan has called Gaiole in Chianti his home since he was born there in 1954, and claims to have become a cycling fan as a young child when as one of the few people in the village at that time who could read, he’d be called upon by the elders to recite the cycling action from La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s most popular sports daily and the newspaper that shares its famous pink colour with the leader’s maglia rosa in the Giro d’Italia.
L’Eroica now has popular events in Japan, Britain, Spain and the US, but for us, the Italian edition will always be the Primus inter pares, the first among equals, when it comes to clearing dates on our calendar. It’s where it all started, and there’s no place like home.