Day 2 NYC to Philly Intermission: Eroica California

Proud of the ride yesterday and deserving of a rest.

Since I have no cycling planned for today I am taking this opportunity to hopefully entertain you with the story of my L’Eroica ride last month as I teased in my Birmingham log.

The journey began for me last fall when I kept stumbling across vintage bikes and part listings on eBay referencing Eroica. Curiosity piqued, I found the L’Eroica site.

Apparently, in 1997 an Italian in Chianti, Giancarlo Brocci worried about the preservation of the famous white gravel roads called the Bianchi Strada in the wine country.

So he gathered fellow cycling enthusiasts and launched a vintage bike rally. It was effectively the Mille Miglia for bikes.

The rules were strict. All bikes and equipment must be 1987 or prior. This year was important because it for the most part assured the following:

  • Steel only bikes – No Aluminum or Carbon Fiber
  • Friction Shifters on the downtube – No integrated or index shifting
  • Basket clips on the pedals – no modern quick release shoes and kleats
  • Big chain ring with corn cob cassettes – No compact or triple gearing
  • Tubular tires at 25mm or thinner – No wide knobby tires
  • Wool clothing – no technical wicking material

The course is 30% gravel and 200km or 130 miles at is largest. Of course shorter options were available.

The first race in Chianti had 90 riders. Today there are 5000 and it sells out a year in advance. Rather than modern gatorade and Gu, the rest stops are filled with local fare like sausage, Italian pastries and bottles of Chianti. Every October it’s a giant party.

It’s since expanded to 10 additional cities around the world.

After obsessing over every article and blog post, I was hooked. I planned my attack. The Eroica California takes place in Cambria California. (San Luis Obispo – Hearst Castle)

I figured to get a bike, practice on the California rides and work up to Chianti in 2021.

The Bike: I thought about restoring one, vintage bikes are cheaper than new pikes and parts are readily available on eBay. It would make for a fun project. But then while searching I found an amazing bike in my size: a 1980 Olympia Campiozone. The bike is Italian with a full Campagnolo Nuovo Record Groupset and 3TTT handlebars.

Olympia is the second oldest bike company in Italy (Bianchi is #1). They have a rich history but never sold in the US. Some of the old artwork is spectacular:

To see the bike in all it’s amazing detail, check out this site.

The bike was light, finished and gorgeous. It had amazing pantograph detail, an approach where Italian bike artisans would route out metal for weight and then paint in the space.

By November the bike was in NYC ready to ride.

I found era appropriate pedals, shoes and clothing. Happily my well worn Brooks Leather saddle was also age appropriate.

Time to train.

Riding a bike of this era gives you great appreciation for the riders of the 70s and 80s like Fausto Coppi, Eddie Merckx and Marco Pantani.

First I had to get use to the shoe clips. I had memories of falling in my kleats 20 years ago. So I was super careful for the first few rides trying to understand the mechanisms and timing with the straps. I finally figured out you either leave them loose or else you have to reach down and loosen them each time way before you stop.

Thankfully I made it through the adjustment without any falling.

On modern bikes like my 18.5-pound Pegoretti dream bike (Story and Pics coming in a later post) I can be a lazy rider. I can sit back in the seat, shift at the touch of a button and grind on the nearly 1:1 gear ratio.

Although this bike was still fairly light at 22 pounds, I had half the gearing and had to take a hand off the handlebar and get things just right. It’s a bit like playing a trombone for the first time. It makes it so you don’t want to shift unless you absolutely have to.

Modern bike – Slight hill or want to push? Finger click and start spinning.

Olympia – Slight hill or want to push? USE YOUR LEGS DUDE!!!

Then you have half the gearing so when you run out of the gears? GET OFF YOUR ASS AND STAND UP!!!

I spent 200 miles riding more aggressively than ever before. I even adopted an alter ego for the bike.

Here is Fausto Montare (Auspicious Climber):

Fausto put on more than 5 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks of training just by climbing with the Olympia. In March I shipped the bike to California and got ready to race.

While the bike was en route I got in a few more rides on my modern bikes but stayed on my big chain ring even on big hills so Fausto could stay in shape.

For the California Eroica, I signed up for the 75 mile route. 5500 elevation. 20 miles of gravel. I set up the bike with 25mm tubular tires (tire and tune sewn together into one unit.)

There would be about 1000 riders at the event.

I spent 2 days getting reacquainted with the bike in San Jose. A local bike shop gave me a lovely route on Los Gatos Creek road that had gravel, hills and lots of bike path.

I got in a 20 miler on day one.

I had one incident on a steep gravel hill where I was slow to get my foot out of the basket and took a spill banging up my shin on the rocks. Nothing to do but walk it off and get back on the bike.

I was staying at friends Amy and Kelsey and their dog Mochi was happy to help heal me.

That and Kelsey loaned me his compression boots each day. Don’t know if they actually work but they sure felt great.

Next day I went out and attacked the hill again. This time success. A 42 mile ride with plenty of hills and gorgeous views.

On Friday we headed down to Cambria for the festivities. My friend’s Tim and Karen graciously hosted Amy Kelsey and me in the lovely town of Cambria.

After a great dinner and wine on Friday we headed to the Eroica venue so I could register. There were sponsored booths from Bianchi, Brooks and others, but the highlight was the swap meet for parts in the back and the Concourse D’Elegance showing off lovely restorations on bikes dating back to the 1930s.

I picked up a French Simplex front derailleur for my buddy Jeff who is restoring his 70s Peugeot which he intends to ride in Eroica next year.

Then I took off for a Saturday warm up ride up the coast so I would be ready for Sunday’s race.

I road from Cambria up to San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle.

My time in California was blessed with a super bloom and the flowers would show along the coastline in huge color all week.

After an 18-mile ride I was ready. I felt great. I even considered attempting the 107 mile ride. but that would mean starting at 5AM instead of 8AM and that would mean skipping the wining and dining with my friends. So I decided to stick to the 75 and enjoy the day. It would be my first attempt at this event and I wanted to have fun. I had nothing to prove to anyone.

I had a great dinner with my friends and a good night sleep. The morning came and my friends joined me for the start.

It was time for Fausto to race.

We started in a pack of about 50 and headed down the coast about 17 miles.

The ride was easy and cool. At the first stop in Cayucos, there was an odd combo of breakfast burritos and chocolate dipped strawberries. After fueling up we headed inland and up the first major hill.

The hill was a steep climb on dirt up and over the coastal range. The training paid off. I was mostly able to grind it out standing. I did stop once at a super steep point and walked for about 5 minutes. But once I got my heartbeat down I got back on the bike and finished riding up the hill to stop #2. It was tough, but I was pleased with my performance. After a bit of fruit and a cookie, I was off again.

The route took me through a steep rutted dirt downhill. Navigating off road on skinny tires was challenging, but not impossible. It took focus and concentration for a good 8 miles.

Once back on pavement, it was mostly winding rollers in the Paso Robles wine country. I was often on my own as the crowd thinned out. But also at times I would group up with a couple other riders. We would admire each other’s bikes and share some stories while riding. At mile 50, we hit the lunch stop.

Lunch was at a winery and was ok fare. Soup, fruit and PBJ sandwiches. The other rides had caught up here so there were lots of bikes to ogle and lots of people to talk to. A few had been to the actual Chianti event and were only too happy to share their experience.

The ride post lunch was an easy 5 miles just before heading up Crestview ridge. This was the longest and steepest of the hills, and all dirt. I cranked as hard as I good but it was just too much hill for the 42/23 combo. Several people were actually shocked I had gotten as far as I did on this gearing. They had upgraded to modern gearing which is somewhat common in the California race but fiercely frowned upon in Chianti.

I however was not the only one walking up this hill. And I did it proudly. I felt good about sticking to the spirit of the event and felt connected with the heros of before. I walked about a mile and finally hit the top. I truly at that point felt the fatigue that Eroica meant to be shared.

All that was left now was a steep, winding downhill toward the coast and then 10 curvy miles to the finish back in Cambria.

Just before we took off the sheriff announced at the stop that there was a tough downhill curve coming up in the gravel. He parked a couple of units nearby advising us to slow down when we see them. “I have no need to clean up the mess of any more of you guys today.”

Sure enough, about a quarter mile down, I saw the flashing lights and slowly made my way around the curve.

Then came the downhill. The dirt was hard but when the road turned to pavement it got steeper and windier. It didn’t take long for my hands to become sore managing the grip on those 40-year-old brakes.

I really didn’t think there would be much difference in the brakes since the mechanics were essentially the same, but I have to give credit to the modern bike engineers for figuring out how to get more leverage with less of a squeeze.

This downhill was long, technical and grueling for about 3 miles. I heard several veterans complain about how their hands hurt from the old style grips.

Finally I reached the more level 8-mile run to the finish. Just as I was cruising along, I picked up a couple of bogeys in my mirror. Up came 2 thirty-somethings and as they started to pass, Fausto kicked in.

I got a second wind and the race was on. out 25 to 2We jockeyed for position running about 20 -25 mph. Every time they got ahead, I would push and catch up. Then I would pass and they would draft.

Finally with only about a half mile left they made a hard push. the one in front riding a beautiful Cinelli looked at me and shouted in an obvious Italian accent, “DUDE! Your Pace! She’s Amazing!!!”

I smiled and yelled as they passed, “What do you want from me??? I’m an old man!”

My day had been made. I crossed the finish line and caught up with my challengers to get a pic. The Italian is on the left, and Evan in the middle is the owner of a wonderful vintage bike shop in Long Beach, The Bicycle Stand.

Evan would host me for an all-new bike experience which I share below.

The race was a success and I was happy with my performance. I was done with Cambria but not with the Olympia. I needed to get a sense of how strong I really was on the Olympia. I wanted to truly understand Fausto’s capabilities.

As it happened I stayed Monday night at my friend Justin’s house in Oakland. He lives near the base of Tunnel road which is a long climb to the top of the Caldecott tunnel in the Berkeley hills. I had ridden this hill many times on modern bikes, but never on such low gearing.

I took off, and 30 minutes later I had conquered the 5 mile climb without a stop. Not even a tough workout.

I was treated to a great San Francisco bay view.

The Olympia had done its job. It was time to retire it for the season.

Next day I drove down the coast to Southern California and witnessed the most beautiful coastal bloom I had ever seen.

I picked up my Folding Dahon which I had left in Manhattan Beach from my last trip and went to San Clemente to visit my friend Jack Daly.

Jack is an incredible athlete at 70 conquering marathons and Ironman competitions on multiple continents.

It was time for him to meet up with Fausto on the road.

Jack and I had 2 great rides including one down to Camp Pendleton. All in all we put in about 70 miles of coastal riding in 2 days.

On my way back to LA, I stopped to see Evan in Long Beach and he invited me to check out the Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Apparently Sunday is there event night so I went to see this incredible venue and get on a track bike for the first time ever.

The arena is a 1/4 kilometer wood ring with 48 degree banked turns.

The bikes are fixed gear which means no shifting, no coasting and no brakes! You have to keep spinning.

It’s precision riding. You must go at least 16 miles an hour just to stay up on the banks. Then your position relative to other riders is controlled by moving up to the outside lanes or down to the shorter path.

Evan set me up with a Trek rental. I brought my own shoes and pedals.

Evan trained me well and by the end of the evening I learned to trust the bike and was able to ride with confidence and in formation.

Our last ride was 3 of us in formation for 20 laps. At every two laps, the front rider would move up allowing the other two to pass underneath. The lagging rider would call out the lap number.

We hit speeds of 30 mph banking around the corners. It was exhilarating. It felt like Formula 1 on bikes.

That’s me in the yellow jersey.

I am grateful to Evan for this experience and will do it every time I am in LA. They have an outdoor track in Queens but I hear it’s just not the same as this $15 million Olympic class venue. (The 1984 Olympic Velodrome was a concrete precursor at this campus, now converted to a soccer field.)

Here is Evan, me, and a gorgeous Cinelli Pista. If there were an indoor Velodrome in the East, I would make this my 5th bike.

It was a great week and only one thing could cap it off…


I picked up an al pastor on the way to my room and got a great night sleep.

So there it is, The Eroica California journey. A great success and I happily have two buddies prepping bikes to join me in Cambria next Spring. Feel free to come along. maybe even come to Chianti in 2021.

Tomorrow I am back on the road from Philly heading home to NYC. This time with some climbing through the Delaware Water Gap near the Appalachian Trail.