Strade Bianche: L’Eroica Vintage Retreat

Alex Stieda, a former professional cyclist from Canada who raced for the 7-Eleven Cycling Team, was the first North American to wear the maillot jaune at the Tour de France, claiming yellow on the second day of the 1986 Tour. Riding the infamous strade bianche, or ‘white roads’, of Tuscany as part of the heritage cycling event L’Eroica has been a dream of his for some time. Here, Alex talks us through his recent experience guest guiding on the L’Eroica Vintage Retreat in Italy with Rapha Travel.

It started last year with a call to Rapha. “Brad [head of Rapha Travel], I’d like to be a guest guide on your L’Eroica trip. It’s always been a goal of mine and I’d love to ride it with your clients, and I can even resurrect my 7-Eleven jersey and ‘87 Eddy Merckx bike.” And so it began.

The rules for L’Eroica sounded simple: use a steel-framed bike from 1987 or before, with exposed brake cables, down tube shifters, and toe clips. I had to retrofit the Merckx with correct brake levers, which I found on eBay, but other than that it qualified.

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On Friday morning, 1st October, we were picked up in Florence by the Rapha Jaguar team car and transported in style to our luxury accommodation in Radda, Chianti. Upon arrival, our team mechanic Mattia quickly built up our bikes for an afternoon break-in run, which involved a roll down to the start town of Gaiole to register. The festivities were already in full swing, with bikes and kit from every decade on display. Even two days before our Sunday morning start, people had dressed up for the occasion, embracing the vintage feel of the weekend.

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Registration for the ride completed, it was time for an evening push back up to our residence. Just as the light waned, we witnessed an extraordinary sunset over the Tuscan hills, before capping off the evening with a sumptuous Italian dinner.

On Saturday morning, we awoke to a massive cloudbank enveloping the hotel, and breakfast was spent eagerly checking the weather. Our intrepid international group included Ricardo and Clecius from Brazil, Erik from Belgium, Marco from the USA, and Steve, Alexis, Kev and Bill from the UK. Fortunately, the fog looked to be burning off, so the ride started as planned at 9:30am. It was a 45km loop that would include a section of strade bianche, or ‘white roads,’ to give us a feel for the white gravel surface that L’Eroica is famous for.

That afternoon, we drove down to Gaiole to absorb a bit more of the excitement and culture that is “L’Eroica”, and I met up with my good friend and teammate from my 7-Eleven days, Andy Hampsten. Having won the Giro d’Italia in 1988, he had a certain celebrity status, and was pulled away to interview with local press. Once back at our abode, it was decision time – which distance will each of us ride: 46km, 75km, 135km or 209km? After our recon rides, everyone had a good idea of where they fitted in, and a few of us decided to take on the whole distance, which we knew would be a big day.

An early start of 6am was necessary to finish in our target time of 10 hours. That meant wake-up at 4:30am, breakfast at 5am, and a shuttle to the start at 5:30am. Efficient as ever, the Rapha Travel crew had our bikes and equipment sorted and we were on the start line in the dark at 6:15am. With our lights on, we navigated through throngs of old bikes including a group of vintage 1930s velocipedes.

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We knew that we had to keep the intensity low and not burn our matches early. The southern portion of the long route would take us through the higher hills of Montepulciano, and the last 60km had a shark tooth profile. Calories and hydration were the order of the day so we made sure to fill our bellies and water bottles at every opportunity.

At 65km we passed the point of no return, where the 135km route turned off the 209km route. Waving goodbye to the riders who opted for the short route, we pressed on to the south. As we climbed the Tuscan ridges on the gravel surface, storm clouds gathered. Through thunder and drenching rain, we persevered. These were the longest climbs of the route, a total of roughly 6km of climbing before we descended on ‘asphalto’ to the next feed station.

At 150km, a flat paved section allowed us to set a tempo for the first time all day, but it quickly ran out, replaced by a series of incredibly steep gravel climbs. The final feed stop was at 170km, and before long we started to overlap with riders on the shorter routes. The line for fod was crowded and many of the riders were simply resting on the steps in the sun. We knew that if we waited too long, our legs would turn to stone, so we limited ourselves to a quick coffee stop.

More gravel and Tuscan climbs ensued. Erik, my ride partner, was beginning to bonk. In desperation, Erik asked every rider that passed for fuel, and within a few minutes, his belly was full. One of the great things about these kinds of rides is the camaraderie. With a newfound energy, we dropped into a beautiful valley filled with the coloured leaves of autumn – we slowed and savoured the sights. It was a serene moment, and one that we will never forget.

Approaching the final kilometers was both chaotic and euphoric. We were funneled into the finish chutes, proudly taking the “209km Long Route” line to the scattered applause of those still watching. Ten hours of riding time, 5,000 metres of climbing, and two satisfied hearts. Erik and I had a final bonding moment over a tall Italian beer and fresh Panini, before heading back to the Rapha Jaguar.

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By the time we get back to the hotel it’s time for dinner, and we proudly show off our muddied legs to the rest of the group. After showering we take our seats at the table – food never tasted so good.
With bikes packed and a morning transfer to the airport, it’s over as quickly as it started. Back to the ‘day job’ with memories of something very special, something that your co-workers will have a hard time understanding. That is, unless you convince them to do it with you next year.