They itch and you can’t get away from it. Or almost. They itch in the morning when both air and thoughts are sparkling. They itch when it’s sunny, those Eroica jerseys. And when they get heavy with perspiration and the shorts become hot and leaden. Black is unforgiving in the heat too. Then there’s the rain which is even worse because it gets absorbed, soaked up, and then you have to drag them along like an extra weight of exhaustion on your shoulders.
The Eroico (heroic!) cyclists in their woollen kit, however, will be smiling regardless of the weather. They are pedalling into history and through it, bringing to vivid, colourful life the black and white photos from crumpled magazines and albums. That itchiness becomes a cycle of devotion, an homage to history, definitely not fancy dress. But that’s the biggest mistake you make about L’Eroica: thinking it’s fancy dress. It wouldn’t be even if they were using the original jerseys and even in the old-style modern ones, it isn’t either. Fancy dress is about interpreting something that isn’t yours. But in L’Eroica, people live it, take part in and make history their own. That’s a huge difference and anyone that thinks otherwise has a lot to learn.
In the Eroica, you also have the blackest dark of the predawn start and the alarm that you may not need at all: some do the full tour the evening beforehand when they celebrate cycling friendship and discover an affection for different jerseys and different languages: if these aren’t heroes, then who is? For the others, the morning alarm is almost scary: already? And then you put on your woollen kit, a jacket to go on top to not make you, inner tubes inflated, the number ready to go pinned onto your jersey and the one on your bike frame.
It isn’t a competition even though the participants do have a number on their backs. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that when it starts, all the itching, tiredness, cold and fear evaporate. Having the start stamp on your event passport is always an adrenaline rush even though this may be your umpteenth Eroica and you’ve had numbers from big races on your back. But after that dry clack at start time, you only have a second or two to find the pedal cage, a well-tried and tested gesture for many, new for others. You recognise them all, a few swears. The ones that slip their toes in on the fly. They are youngsters again and ages no longer matters.
And you’re off. Leaving Gaiole in Chianti and immersing yourself in the dark and in humanity picked out by modern lights permitted to keep people safe. A few try it with acetylene lamps, dim lights protected from the air that are barely strong enough to see the potholes just ahead of your front wheel. The rest you have to just guess – and say a prayer, of course. L’Eroica takes place just as autumn comes knocking but leads the way to cycling winter, at least that of once up on a time. It is a Tour of Lombardy that brought the curtain down on the cycling season. The only thing to do after it was to take stock and then start thinking about the future. L’Eroica di Gaiole in Chianti, the one with the article that distinguishes it from all the other Eroiche.
As you clock up the kilometres, your mind runs at the same rhythm, each kilometre has its own pace, different friends for different kilometres but you are never alone. So much so, in fact, that on the rolling countryside of Chianti, the cyclists never finish on the first weekend in October – not even now that they have made it a two-day event. Passing out and being passed out are normal. A careful eye will be able to clock hundreds of historic jerseys. Some modern takes, others slightly moth-eaten, the wool held together in various ways, the rattle of the frame.
It is no surprise that L’Eroica’s success also coincided with the return to using modern steel in modern bikes. A cultural and technical tide that reinterpreted the market. From a rush of novelties that made other materials seem old to an evolutionary pursuit that became completely natural, it opened our eyes to a very different approach: today it’s not about new and old, just more suitable or less suitable to a particular occasion. Carbon-fibre is excellent for some purposes, steel for others. The same applies to aluminium and titanium. Each to his own and what was initially a sliding scale of values became a single plane of equal dignity. Deep down, if the bike market broadens it is partly because we are rediscovering these qualities and the taste for artisanal craftsmanship that is driving different interpretations all over the world as we chase idea.
This applies also to the increasingly body-hugging and aerodynamic jerseys which have now returned in certain instances to being slower and more versatile. Not just for cycling but always stylish and permeated with modernity. Jerseys made from modern wool are useful without all the discomforts of their old-fashioned counterparts. They don’t slow you down when it rains and don’t feel like sacks of cement when you sweat. New technologies and new interpretations too abound in the graphics.
Some do itch – there’s no escaping that. But then again, people in L’Eroica cycle slowly because finishing too early means losing a part of the journey and a bit of the fun. But before taking your leave, you need to turn and look back a moment to capture that last snapshot for your album of memories – in black and white once again.