Peter Bedingfield writes…
60 or so years ago the ‘strade bianche’ – unsurfaced gravel roads – that link the hill towns of Tuscany were host to stages of the Tour of Italy; they witnessed the titanic struggles between the two Italian heroes of the day – Gino Bartali (Il Pio) and Fausto Coppi.(Il Campionissimo).
In 1997, 90 or so riders set out to commemorate the era, with a 205 km sportive through a sumptuous landscape of vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees. That has grown to an annual pilgrimage, 5000 bikers turning up from the world over, all using machines from 1987 or earlier – some 1920s. No carbon frames here!
This year was my fourth visit. To be honest, as much as anything I enjoy the effusive hospitality, the refreshment stops with chianti, local specialies, prosciutto, parmesan, torrone, soups, stews, tarts. It all helps keep the spirits up as the legs grow weary and the backside complains at the hours spent perched on a saddle thats masquerading as a jackhammer. My chosen steed was my white 55 Carpenter, 23mm tubs, Brooks leather saddle, 5 sprocket block. I fitted 14-28 on the back, 46 on the front with a 32 granny ring which only worked with the two biggest sprockets (old rear mechs cant handle big ranges).
Saturday afternoon before the ride was spent rummaging through the extensive array of trade stands and flea-market with my friend Ian, some pre-ride sledging banter with a group of Aussies from Melbourne then a serious session of pasta carbo-loading at a little restaurant. On Sunday Ian drove me to the start at Gaiole, 6:00 in the morning (and already an hour behind my optimistic schedule!) and pretty damn cold. Then with route card stamped, off we went, hoards of bikers, a ribbon of red lights weaving up the dark road ahead. Within 40 minutes we hit the first stretch of gravel, a zig-zag 230m climb to Castle Brolio, the road lit by oil lamps adding to the fairy-tale atmosphere. Already I was down to 32×28, but hey-ho! My tactic at this early stage was to take it easy, a lesson learned the hard way from my first visit. Anyway, its a good chance to chat to other riders. I stopped briefly to lend my riveter to an American with a broken chain.
Before long we were approaching Siena, where we were treated to a Tuscan sunrise lighting the landscape. With 50k done we reach Radi, the first rest stop. The place was heaving with bikers, it took a good 15 minutes to get my card stamped. As arranged I reported in to Ian by text, then wolfed down some of those delicacies before we were off again onto the longest stretch of Strade Bianche.
At 64km came the decision point. Id made up some of the late start, the bike was holding up, all going well. I sent a second text to Ian (no response from the first??), turned right and pressed on with the long ride rather left for the 135k medium option. From this point the crowds thinned substantially, most have wisely gone left…. this is where the road gets seriously evil. Wed had some hills (hardly my forte!) but the climb to Castiglion del Bosco has protracted 15% gradients. On gravel surfaces traction is key – hit the loose stuff at the edges, stop, and its hard to restart. So its just a matter of sitting down and grinding it out in bottom gear. I pretended my legs werent screaming. Near the top, in a welcome tarmac stretch was a water stop. Wed passed the point where my pedal stripped out of its crank four years ago. A third text to Ian but still no response. 130k to go.
Next the hill town of Montalcino. More or less halfway now. At last the reward of a fantastic swoop down smooth roads, dropping 400m in the next 4k to the next food stop. Again, there were the trestle tables groaning with delicacies, served up by ladies dressed in traditional costumes, all the hubub of a fiesta. But I couldnt sample the wine this time! A quick bike check, then on through undulating terrain, sort of like the Ashdown Forest with added gravel. At Lucignano d’Asso I cursed the cruelty of a lengthy 10% downhill on corrugated rutted road. No swooping here! Brakes jammed hard on the whole way, the old bike shuddering under the strain. On we went, routed through mediaeval towns I was too weary to appreciate.
At Pieve a Salti came my last bowl of hot stew. The mechanics tent was busy with punctures, wheels, broken forks. Happily my bike was OK, it was the legs and stomach that had surrendered. No reply to my texts to Ian, so this time I phoned him. We arranged to meet 40k further up the road at Castelnuovo Berardenga, 166k. On the way I walked my first hill, no bigger than the very first but it seemed a mountain – I was ready to pack. But at the rendezvous Ian revived my spirits. I was still well ahead of the broom waggon. So after a quick chat I joined forces with a couple of Norwegians and we headed for Pianella, 176k. The sun was setting, our lights went back on, but the pace has picked up on the good roads, Olaf was leading as the strongest of our little trio, me snucked in at no. 3.
All was going well, my tyres humming sweetly on the smooth surface, then problems. Yuk. My front mech had finally succumbed to the earlier hours of hammering vibration. It dismantled itself and tangled with the chain. The Norwegians pressed on, I fumbled about in the dark fishing through my toolkit. Characteristically, within 5 minutes a passer-by stopped his car, shone his headlights onto my bike and helped me disentangle the mess. We removed the offending mech and now with just my big ring in action my only option was clear – 20k back by the level-ish tarmac roads rather than 25k over the final remorseless gravel hill. To be honest, I was grateful for a mechanical excuse to spare my legs any further punishment. After 200k on the bike, 3700m of climbing, 14 hours in the saddle, I rode back into Gaiole in the company of an Italian who embraced me emotionally at the end even though wed only met 15 minutes earlier….. a little presentation from Claudio Marinageli, the founder of L’Eroica, a gift of Sienese Panforte and Chianti (what else?) and a plaque, then Ian bought me a lager and talked about a meal. I couldnt stomach either. I just crashed out.
Chapeau to Il Pio and Il Campionissimo, you rode these hills twice as fast as I could, day after day. Those missing text messages? In my haste Id been sending them to Ians home phone in Dormansland, they were delivered to his mystified wife as Dalek-like voice messages. The best laid plans and all that…. Somewhere in the mob were Erik Zabul, Marianne Vos and others. And the bunch from Melbourne? One injured his shoulder in a freak fall before he even started, the others all made it fine. Theyll be back. I guess I will too. Ian is retrieving the Fred Dean bike he raced years ago….