Archive for the 'Year of True Cycling' Category

2012 l’Eroica

March 8, 2013

Stage 1 of my year in cycling

For those who don’t know, l’Eroica is a ride in the Chianti region of Italy with simple rules: Your bike has to be pre-1987, in particular with brake cables running externally from the hoods and no clipless pedals (although both started to make inroads slightly before 1987).

Eroica - nothing better

Eroica – nothing better

However, that simple premise doesn’t even begin to explain what l’Eroica really is: it may very well be the purest celebration of everything that is great about cycling. The bikes you see range from beautiful to stunning to interesting to weird, while the people are wonderful and the outfits nostalgia-invoking. Add to that a route on Chianti’s famed strade bianche, the gravel roads that dissect the vineyard-covered rolling hills, and you’ve got cycling heaven.

You should do this ride to experience any of the following:

  • Riding my late-70’s Gargiulo (a small Napoli outfit) makes me realize technology has come a long way. Its brakes barely slow me down even with the greatest effort. The frame stiffness is negligible. The smallest gear of 39×23 – compact cranks are still over a decade away – is a challenge on 20% gravel inclines.
  • But the 30rpm cadence that results is wonderful, my whole world narrows down to the next 180 degree turn of my cranks, and the next, and the next, until eventually, the hill is crested. Only to have the relaxation instantly extinguished by the terrifying – equally steep and poorly surfaced – descent on the other side.
  • The only invention I truly start to appreciate is index shifting. It’s easy to forget how finicky shifting used to be, with slipping gears quickly leaving me with only four options (big ring or small ring and biggest cog or smallest cog). I am not sure if there’s a statue in Japan somewhere for the engineer who invented indexed shifting, but there should be.
  • Riding in wool shorts with barely a chamois may sound like hell, but it is remarkably comfortable. At least it was for me, and in combination with my Brooks saddle. I am seriously considering putting that Brooks on my regular road bike.
  • Cycling history is so incredibly rich. Walking through Gaiole before the race and looking around during it, you see so many beautiful bikes, from 1920’s single-speed racers to firefighter bikes (with the hose rolled up inside the front triangle) and from the earliest derailleur models to 1970’s Giro-winning bikes. Together with all the vintage apparel, it’s a wonderful rolling museum.
  • One of the highlights of l”Eroica are the rest stops. The first one serves water, wine and breads with marmalade, sugared win spread or olive oil & salt. Slightly apprehensive at first, I finally try a slice with the oil & salt and it is amazing. This may very well be the best sports nutrition on earth. I was a bit hungry on the stretch before the stop, so I go all out and probably eat 15 slices. “It’s delicious AND nutrition”, as they say.
  • As I want to leave the rest stop, a guy in a yellow jersey walks by. In any other event, wearing a yellow jersey will get you ridiculed, but here even that is tolerated. Especially since, uhm, the guy is Pedro Delgado and he’s wearing an original.
  • By now I’ve lost all sense of distance, and of course there’s no computer on the bike. I also didn’t bother to check at what distances these rest stops are, but rather than a problem, this state of mind is a wonderful experience. After a nice descent and long climb we hit a tiny town that has decided to organize its own “bandid” rest stop. Here, wine and sausage is on offer. I had resisted the wine at the first stop, but following the “when in Rome or close to it” adage, I give it a try. The wine is alright, although one sip is enough. The sausage is another story, the greasiness makes it possibly the worst thing I have ever eaten on a ride.
  • The climb before the final rest stop is a killer, the surface is rutted and it is so steep that most people walk up it. Just to get the full experience, I do too. It’s a long walk but well worth it, at the top we are treated to a very nice Ribollita, a bean stew. Not your first choice on a ride maybe, but wonderful.

So if you’re interested in doing l’Eroica, register early. If you want an all-organized trip (including the use of a historical bike), there are several outfits. InGamba from my good friend Joao Correia (ex-Bicycling publisher and ex-Cervelo TestTeam rider) is one, and Google Caffe Gruppetto for another one popping up in a few months.

Cape Frustration

February 13, 2013

My Year of True Cycling started so well. Eroica, the Hell Week in Toronto, bigger and bigger training loads for November, December and January. All fantastic and gearing up towards my big block in South Africa culminating in the Cape Epic.

sauser_elephantThe Cape Epic has something mythical for many people, and it definitely has for me. It may have been because of this photo, which is the first I think I ever saw of the Epic.

So when the 10th anniversary event was announced for 2013, it was the perfect opportunity to include the Epic. And with my Open Cycle partner in crime Andy also going and our OPEN hardtail ready for action, it was scheduled to be a great experience (not to be confused with a great race, because I have zero illusion that I would be able to keep up with Andy and his riding partner).

Also, it would be our first trip to Africa with OPEN, and we were looking forward to meeting up with our early followers there (which includes Cape Epic’s founder, Kevin Vermaak).

And then the wheels came off. Andy has his own “Cape Frustration” and was out, then I found myself without a riding partner. Finally, my body mocked my attempts at peak fitness by challenging me to pick up a T-shirt from the floor, resulting in me throwing out my lower back, three weeks of physio and no riding.

I just started riding again but the Cape Epic is unfortunately off the Table Mountain. I will still go to South Africa for a short trip and do the Grape Escape, a 3-day mountain bike event put on by the same people that organize the Pick ‘n Pay Argus CycleTour, but the Cape Epic dream will be postponed for one year.

On the positive side, that will hopefully give me time to practice my T-shirt lifting techniques and achieve that elusive fitness level. Because there is no doubt that I will ride the Cape Epic one day.

Pancake Ride & Durham-Roubaix

January 14, 2013

The first weekend of Hell Week (November 24+25) consisted of two rides East of Toronto, organized by my friend Lorne. With the first snowfall the night before, there was no confusion that winter had arrived.

Unfortunately, nowadays that means the snow mobiles arrive as well, although there wasn’t quite enough snow for that yet. The biggest threat snow mobiles pose is that their owners seem to be able to convince towns everywhere to smoothen out their rail road beds, making once-hard sections of our Hell Week rides easier every year. Such is also the case for the Pancake ride (named for the post-ride breakfast, not the course profile), although I found it plenty hard.

With the wide range of skills and fitness in our group, we splinter off quite quickly but once you settle into a pace, it’s just enjoyable to be out there in this weather. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage on the gravel roads with my mountain bike, but as soon as we hit a long stretch of singletrack I catch up with  stragglers in front of me. Good thing too, as we soon encounter a fenced-off bridge which would have been tough to negotiate alone (short of just chucking your bike across and hoping for the best).

With that in mind, three of us decide to wait for the two guys still further back, and wait, and wait… Now we get worried, retrace our tracks but nobody to be found. Half an hour and a five degree core body temperature drop later, we give up searching and continue on our route. We later find out they were the first back at the breakfast spot, with “a slight” shortcut.

The rest of the ride is magical, I had forgotten how much fun it is to ride in the snow. Of course, by the time we arrive at breakfast, everybody else is done, but that doesn’t make the eggs & bacon any less tasty.

The next day we line up for Durham-Roubaix. Lorne really has put a lot of effort into this one, getting permission from a few private landowners to cross their land, which opens up some fantastic trails.

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A “healthy” breakfast is enough reward

After what happened yesterday, we have decided to stay together with a group of five including Lorne (tough to get lost with the organizer by your side). Fifteen minutes in, we get a flat. This one proves tough to fix, but eventually we get going again. Then I get a slow leak, which in trying to fix turns into a fast leak. Fixing that fails, and with me being the only one with mountain bike tires, I’m screwed. Durham-Roubaix: DNF.

I’m disappointed not to have seen the whole route, as is Lorne, so we decide to try again two weeks later together with Matt (the OPEN webmaster). In fact, it’s a day after I rode the original Hell Ride by myself, but more on that next time.

Conditions are completely different now, as it has been raining for two weeks straight. The mud is incredible, some slopes are ridable only at crawling speeds while finding a balance between giving enough power to propel yourself and not so much that the rear wheel slips.


At one point, there is so much mud on my bike I can barely lift it off the ground. I know that sounds like an exaggeration and it doesn’t even look like that much mud, but I honestly have trouble lifting it (insert upper strength joke here).

Because of the conditions, the course is so slow today, it takes us roughly an hour and a half more to complete than most people two weeks earlier. Maybe the best indicator of how tough it was is that although we didn’t take any breaks, the Garmin records no less than 45min of stopping time. If your GPS can’t detect your progress, you know you’re in trouble.

But, to me, this is probably my favorite ride of the winter. Partially because I feel strong when I am supposed to feel weak (I rode a hard 6 1/2 hours the day before), but mostly because it’s just great to battle the elements instead of opponents and to get this “we’re in this together” feeling trying to struggle to the finish. On top of that, it’s also a very nice route, with some very unexpected trails in the middle of Oshawa.

One disappointment on these two rides was my GoPro. My charger didn’t work properly, my battery seemed to have problems with the cold, long-story-short it didn’t record very much of these two rides. What it did record, I put in this little clip (the snowy bits are of the Pancake Ride, the rest is Durham-Roubaix).

Hell Week

January 7, 2013

After the Eroica, my “Year of True Cycling” moved to Canada for a few events that collectively are called Hell Week. They embody everything I like about cycling.

Decades ago Mike Barry Sr (yes, the father of) started organizing a winter race for die-hard cyclists in Toronto. Randonneurs, semi-pro riders and other people with more guts than common sense would show up to ride 140km through gravel, mud, snow and ice. It was aptly named To Hell and Back.

Although nominally a race (then again, not really, to avoid insurance issues), I don’t believe first prize was ever much more than the entry fee. Showing up, experiencing the elements and if possible finishing the darn thing seemed to be more important than racing. You can read about my first experience with the race in 2000 here.

Mike has since stopped organizing the race due to a combination of insurance issues and retirement, but my friend Nigel Gray, whom I had convinced to come along that fateful day in 2000, decided to carry on the tradition. It is now a ride among friends, no entry fee, no organized support, only a starting time & place and a course map (we kept using the original Mike Barry maps for a few years, although nowadays it’s all on the Garmin of course).

Enthusiastic about the ride, another friend Lorne Cunliffe decided to scope out unpaved roads and trails around where he lives, which resulted in the Pancake Ride and Durham-Roubaix. Finally, Nigel created the City Loop, 95km of trails, paths and quiet residential streets that you would never expect to find inside a large city like Toronto.

Put together, they form the Hell Week. Most use cyclocross bikes for the rides, but obviously I used the OPEN mountain bike. I did switch the tires to cyclocross for a few of the rides (one more advantage of 29er wheels, the rims fit 28″ road and cross tires perfectly).

So how about you, are there events like this in your area? Do you participate in them or even organize one? Let me know in the comments section below!

Coming up next, a report and some video from Hell Week. You can subscribe here to get notified of that automatically.

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