In the final marshalling area at the 2012 L'Eroica, a lone and empty corral awaited the arrival of the first finisher of the gruelling two hundred and five kilometre challenge. Along the crowd lined streets of Gaiole in Chianti Tuscany, countless participants in the shorter distances finished, had their course passport stamped for the last time, confirming their completion of their chosen distance, then disappeared to celebrate.
L'Eroica is about soaking up the Tuscan hospitality and atmosphere that only a unique event like this can deliver. Wine, fine food, pastries provided at the roadside by the locals and a pedal with your mates! However there is also a select group, who's goal it is to get around the longest 205 km course in the fastest time possible, yet above all, still having fun first. "The top five percent," Brad says "are going hammer and tongs, there's no doubt about it, yet the thing to remember is you don't win L'Eroica, but there is a bit of prestige associated with arriving first."
When Brad Nightingale arrived in Gaiole in Chianti and crossed the finish line in the Piazza, he was the first participant to complete the 205 km course, yet no one knew who he was. They'd all expected to see local rider Franco Rossi appear and be the first to head into the 205 km finishers corral. Brad headed to the lonely corral on his own. Some confusion ensued.
"You finish with everyone else from the shorter courses, it's not like you go over the finish line with your arms in the air in a salute. Over on the side was this lonely corral marked 205, there was no one there yet, so I rode in. Around the course you get a cardboard passport and you've got to get a stamp at about six or seven check-points. When I got to the finish I was aware that there was one more stamp I needed …. the crowd was four deep and shouting, I didn't understand enough Italian. Eventually some guy realised and spoke to me in English, 'have you done the 205', so the crowd started shouting at the officials, one of the officials came over, he was all gruff as officials the world over are, he looked me up and down thinking there's no way this guy has covered the required distance, so I showed him my passport and in disbelief he stamped it together with an emphatic 'si', the crowd erupted, I wasn't expecting any of this. The next thing there's old Italian men kissing me on the cheek and taking photos, and photos of me with the bike…".
In 2013 when Brad repeated the same feat, everyone knew who he was!
Months before Brad's 2012 L'Eroica success he sought out an early 1980's Gazelle Champion Mondial, until then he'd never heard of L'Eroica. The Gazelle became Brad's ticket to finding out about the Tuscan event and the limitless passion of Italian cycling aficionado's, an experience of a lifetime, and one he'd never bargained for.
I decided I wanted to get a bike like the guys were riding when I first started, there was no chance I could afford one with a Campag group-set back then, I first started racing about '89. I wanted to get a bike I could do some casual rides on, nothing too serious. I worked out there were a lot of bikes out there, but not a lot in my size, I'm about six foot tall. Most of them were 48's and 50's, available in places like Italy. I thought where are people a bit taller, so I tried Holland. I was thinking about teams like TVM and Gazelle bikes from the 80's. I found a site in Holland called marktplatz, there were plenty of taller bikes available there. In the end it cost about a thousand bucks, shipped to Australia. I got some wheels from Western Australia, Campag Record hubs laced to Mavic OR 10 rims. At the end of the day a bike is just a tool, so I never got really excited about bikes, but I found myself getting really excited about this old bike. When I opened the box it was in better condition than I'd anticipated. I had a local mechanic Pete Goding go over it, Pete was surprised how good it was. That's the beauty of gear from that era, no one was concerned with the last tenth of a gram, it lasts, we didn't have to change anything, just a rear derailleur cable. It is what it is, I built the bike up to ride it, it's not a show piece, it's pretty rough and will never win a Concours d'Élégance. I've got a set of modern Vittoria Corsa SC's fitted which come with yellow sidewalls for authenticity.
Through researching the Gazelle is how I came across L'Eroica, I didn't know anything about it before that. I'd been racing about twenty years and thought that's something different, not the same old road racing I was used to. So the bike came first and the event followed, L'Eroica is someone's idea of the "glory days", harking back, it appealed to me. I geuss I had about eighteen months to prepare, I'd missed the cut off for 2011, so was on the L'Eroica website at the right time in 2012 to register. The more that I researched and saw how the event was structured, 205 k's on a push bike is a long day in anyone's language. The dirt roads, the profile of the course, really steep climbs it's really hilly. I thought for this event to be fun I'm going to have to be fit, the thing to remember is you don't win L'Eroica, it's not a race ….. at the end of the day though, you're in Italy, it's push bikes, they issue you with a number to put onto your jersey, it's going to be a race. I'm a bike racer first and foremost, I want to be where the guys are going hard, I don't want to go out and just roll about in the sunshine, so I made sure I was fit. I really enjoyed getting fit for it and I trained really hard.
On the day in 2012 over the course of the two hundred and five kilometres I found myself at the front with Franco Rossi, by the last twenty k's Franco was cooked, so I just went on with it on my own…. with the confusion at the finish, at first I'd thought I'd done something wrong to upset everyone! Luckily my wife was there, she heard this commotion, she couldn't work out what it was, it was a really weird experience. Franco came in a few minutes later, everyone was asking him what happened, I got to know him he was really excited that someone could come from Australia and be so prepared, he encouraged me to come back for 2013 and stay with him.
For this year I really trained hard, this time I knew what I was getting myself in for, the first time was harder than what I'd expected. I thought I'm only going there if I'm fit, the course is that hard. Franco was a bit morose, he couldn't ride this year as he was asked to chaperone Francesco Moser's group of VIP's around one of the shorter distances. The night before L'Eroica this year I was invited to a testimonial dinner for Francesco Moser, there were a lot of retired Italian pro's there, also Pasquale Morini as well as Moreno Moser who'd won the Strade Bianche this year. I got to sit at a table and talk to Moreno Moser about how he actually won a real bike race. They were all really keen to talk to me about L'Eroica and see how much training I'd done, whether I was feeling good, it's funny people say it's not a race but they are Italian bike racers and they're into it!
You can leave any time from five, if you want to be in the front where the guys are going hard you've got to leave in the first group. It's in the pitch black, you've gotta have lights on for safety, the first five kays is pretty benign, then you turn onto the first candle lit climb along what's effectively the driveway to Castello di Brolio, it's spectacular. What goes up must come down, so you've got to descend in the dirt in the dark, no one's riding with a thousand lumens of light, it's pretty sketchy. Having a fairly steady climb sorts it out fairly early, it's not like there's a front group. It's a 200 kay day and everyone knows it, the first hour is pretty steady while everyone sorts out where they are, it's not so chaotic at the start. As the sun's rising you're riding around the outskirts of Sienna.
This year the weather the day before was horrendous, torrential rain for thirty six hours up to the morning of L'Eroica it's hard enough when it's dry and dusty, let alone when it's muddy and wet. What makes the roads white is it's quite chalky, when it gets wet it becomes this paste, this year was harder than last year because of that, the gravel it does dry out fairly quickly though. The road is quite dead when it's wet, it allowed you to see the spots that are muddy or dry, so you could pick a line more easily. When it's dry there are sections with deeper powder, if you got into that it made it a bit sketchy.
The course is so hard at no point is there a massive group, it's groups of three's and four's, it's just up and down all day.
The first big climb into Montalcino comes after about 80k's, it's really steep and it's dirt. Montalcino is where Cadel Evans won a stage in the Giro a couple of years ago. Once it gets that steep you're not really racing, you're just getting up it at your own pace. I got away from the others on the Montalcino climb, it's a long way to go from there on your own, another hundred and fifteen k's. Realistically I got away from the others without intending to, far earlier than I wanted. So I went into the next feed zone down the other side of Montalcino to get my stamp, fill my bottle up, get some food and I waited a bit for the other riders. You have to stop for a minimum of five minutes anyway to make sure you get everything done and enough food to continue, yet no one arrived so I continued on my own. You start to get a bit edgy, you've built up a bit of a lead and don't want to give it away. So I put my head down and pressed on with it.
The locals come out and put on this spread of food for all the riders, the locals are really proud of their produce. The villagers at the check points all know Franco and were calling him from their mobile phones to give him updates on where I was around the course. By the time I arrived near the finish where the course rejoins at four k's to go, I'd caught up to Franco and Francesco Moser with his VIP's, so I got to ride across the finish line together with Franco, it was a real thrill. When you finish you're getting pulled from pillar to post, everyone wants to get a photo with you, see what bike you rode, find out who you are and where you come from.
After the ride Franco and myself went to a local restaurant and I walked in and I got a standing ovation. It's not every day you get a standing ovation, then we had photos together with Francesco and Moreno Moser, they were interested in how I went. It was a bit daunting being in the presence of Francesco, for locals it's like he walks on water, yet there he was interested in my ride.
For me L'Eroica is about achieving a personal goal, rather than it being a big deal for anyone else, I got to enjoy the day, I rode in with Franco, I got to ride the Gazelle around the course and the enjoyment of the day is the key, whether ten other blokes rode in in front of me or not wasn't important. Some people take fourteen hours and enjoy guzzling as much wine as possible, as long as you're having fun that's what matters.
All Gazelle bike images by Robert Cobcroft