THE EDDY MERCKX DRESS-UP PARTY
Let’s just say it was a mild evening in October where this journey first started. I couldn’t tell you the exact date because I’m far too disastrous to have written this sooner, allowing me to remember the finer details. BUT – on this mild some-time-in-October evening, I was just at my friend’s Damian and Nancy’s (of A’QTO Cycling) home where they popped that exact question to me.
“Don, do you want to come to Italy with us?”
As it turned out, Brenton Jones couldn’t be there to take up Directeur Sportif duties, and with my wealth of DS’ing experience, I was clearly the perfect step-in. There was no need to hand over my resume, tell them about myself, or discuss a time where I have overcome adversity in the workplace, which makes me think it was all down to the current condition of my quads. I, of course (being the gentleman that I am) asked if Monty could come along. She could, and so I formally responded to their question so wonderfully popped with a tentative:
I broke the news to Monty a few hours later as I picked her up from work. She was keen, I was keen, who wouldn’t be – and just like that we were Jack and Fabrizio from the Titanic; “WE’RE GOING TO ITALIA!”
STAGE I: FLORENCE TO GAIOLE
It would be in Firenze (Florence) where my Directeur Sportif career would officially commence. Monty and I met Nancy and Damian in a beautiful piazza to pick up the DS vans and from there we drove the two big fuck-off vans through the tight streets of Florence to pick up Nancy and Damian’s 12 guests at the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.
CITY PROFILE: FLORENCE
In Italian: Firenze
Region: Tuscany (Toscana)
Population: 383,000 (2016)
Known For: The Renaissance, Medici family & hella Italian fashion
Landmarks: Il Duomo di Firenze, Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Pitti
Football Team: ACF Fiorentina (Serie A)
Cuisine: Bistecca alla Fiorentina (savoury), Cantuccini & San Felice Vin Santo 2007 (sweet)
Soup Boys Sticker: Outside the Università degli Studi Firenze
From the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella it would be an equally twisty drive of around 40km to our final destination; Gaiole in Chianti – the home of L’Eroica.
We would spent the next 6 days in Gaiole where Nancy and Damian host an unreal Tour of Tuscany in which 12 guests ride and eat their way through the region. In short, it would be a finely tuned 6 day carb-filled training camp to get ready for the big dance on the seventh day. Sunday. Nope, not prom. L’Eroica.
STAGE II: STEEL IRL
It had been a few hours after we had arrived in Gaiole, and everyone had had the chance to dump their stuff at the A’QTO Villa. It was now time to stroll down the hill into town proper, as like excited kids we checked out the vintage markets in Gaiole, and picked up our whips for the week.
COMUNE PROFILE: GAIOLE IN CHIANTI
In Italian: see above
Region: Tuscany (Toscana)
Population: 2,800 (2010)
Known For: L'Eroica, Forbes calling it one of "Europe's most idyllic places to live."
Landmarks: Castello di Brolio, half a dozen Pieve
Football Team: A.S.D Chiantigiana (Promozione 6th Div.)
Cuisine: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Suino Cinto Toscano DOP, San Felice Chianti Classico
It would be here, at the marketplace in this stunning Tuscan town that I would first come into contact with a pre-1987 steel bike. The bike I was blessed with was a beautiful red Anselmo with this unreal yellow bar tape with black polka dots. In the spirit (and rules) of L’Eroica, levers were on the down tube, and I had the pleasure of dealing with toe clips for the next week. It wasn’t light, but it was both sick and extremely beautiful.
Wandering the markets afterwards was immense, an overload to the cycling senses. It made me realise that the best, most legit way to do L’Eroica in the future would be to go over with a few thousand dollars saved, and build the bike up from all the parts you could source from the market. There’s everything you could possibly need and/or imagine, all really cool, and really beautiful.
I was walking around the market slowly when, like a thicc, fresh, wet Salmon to the face – I realised I knew very little about cycling history. For me the market place, and this trip was a learning experience, and a chance to expand my knowledge through details passed down from the older guys on the tour. Older guys like 69-year-old Steve, who had enough vintage bicycles to build a bicycle museum in Queensland, and who at the end of the tour ended up shipping at least 3 bikes back home to add to his collection. Incredible.
STAGE III: UNO PANINI PER FAVORE
The only Italian I had learnt so far was the following:
“Is the dog a good boy?” = "Il cane è un bravo ragazzo?"
And how to order a panini from any of the Alimentari’s we happened across in the little towns we would stop in. It’d be criminal for me not to share my panini order/recommendation for maximum performance in the Tuscan hills, so here it is.
“Ciao, uno panini por favore”
(cue hand gesture, signalling one in case you manage to fuck “uno” up).
Formaggio = for-majj-iyo
Prosciutto = prœ-shüu-toh
Pomodoro secchi = pomo-doro sekk-ee
Melanzane = mell-an-zahn-e
Don’t forget your “grazie” (thank you) and coca-cola!
STAGE IV: THE EDDY MERCKX DRESS-UP PARTY
Something something five hundred panini’s later, L’Eroica had arrived a lot sooner than expected. Fortunately we had all managed to get some good kilometres in the legs, and were all carbed up to the eyeballs from a feast cooked the evening before by Andrea; the owner of our Tuscan villa.
We rose at 5am, slid into our woollen jerseys and fumbled our way through putting on old school leather shoes. We ate a really quick breakfast and rolled down the hill to the piazza. Like we’d just pulled up to the club, double espresso’s were shotted at a little café that was next door to house #69 – truly blessed. Plenty of other riders were there, all in their woollen jerseys and aboard their steel bikes. There were a shit load of Molteni jerseys floating around and I thought of it as a Halloween party where everyone dresses as their favourite cycling hero.
PARTENZA – 0/135km
Our heroic, 135km long journey throughout Tuscany started at 5:30am, around the same time Lachlan Morton would have started his 209km meander along the fully authentic route – but more on that later.
About 20 minutes in an Italian man came up beside me and asked if I was from England. I told him “no, Australia”. He knew I wasn’t from here because I was “wearing short sleeves. You must be freezing!” I was, but I laughed. He didn’t quite reciprocate my response, fucking off up the road (read: dropping me) never to be seen again. He left me alone as I happened upon one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had on a bike. With darkness still upon us we climbed up to Brolio Castle along a path lit by candles of either side of the road. I was taken aback, left utterly floored by the beauty which presented itself in front of me. But as quickly and as unexpectedly as it arrived, so too did we have to say goodbye. Our first gravel sector was upon us.
A descent into complete darkness, no candles on the side of the road, no moonlight or pre-dawn glow, not even the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. The only thing guiding our paths were the sporadic, flickering lights of the riders. It was sketchy as fuck, I spent the entire descent shitting myself and on the brakes at 5kmph. Some psycho Italian’s, probably Sicilians were flying down without an ounce of fear. Others, like the one directly behind me were a little more cautious. It was in this near death experience where he would teach me my third piece of Italian.
5 seconds later, and in the complete darkness; the sound of him hitting the deck.
The L’Eroica route is super challenging yet totally doable; designed to take you on an appreciative journey along the white roads and through the small towns of Tuscany – the true reason for L’Eroica’s creation. Some of the gravel climbs just went on forever, and picking a good line became paramount as we would hit the bottom of each hill. Once you have to take your foot out, it would be a walk to the top. While this would be the case for some, the terrain was absolutely breathtaking, and the thousands of riders by your side along the road were all super-friendly.
The challenges wouldn’t only come on the uphill however, as I’d soon find out. There was one gravel road where I found some courage to let go of the brakes, let my hair flow and enjoy a little descent, only to get to the bottom and hit some hardcore and unexpected corrugations that nearly threw me off the bike. When you weren’t white knuckling your way along the route, you would lose yourself in the beauty of L’Eroica. My experience was a lot like riding in the Dandenongs with Adrian – being dropped constantly by Italians with better hair than me. There were a lot of moments where you’d look over and see people not wearing helmets, in their woollen jerseys and aboard these beautiful steel bikes. It would transport you to another, simpler time. A time where Coppi, Bartali, Anquetil and heaven forbid we don’t mention him; Merckx were the heroes of the day.
STAGE V: GO TO L'EROICA FOR THE EXPERIENCE, STAY FOR THE FEEDZONES
I was already feeling pretty cooked as we approached the first feed zone. I felt like I wasn’t even going to finish the whole ride, and that I was going to have to pack it in before a major case of Ryder Hesjedal-ing up a 2% false flat. That was until, like a beautiful oasis in the desert; the feed zone appeared. There would be no need to raid the small stores in each town like the Giro d’Italia’s of yesteryear, as the townspeople collab’ed with the organisers of L’Eroica to put on some truly wild style spreads.
We pulled up to join a few guys that were well on their way to re-carbing. The feed zone was designed for maximum bonk prevention where you could get yourself a glass of wine along with a few bits of bread with prosciutto and cheese, bananas by the half, Nutella sandwiches and other insanely delicious pasticceria. I inhaled about four Nutella sandwiches, a glass of red wine and 2 bananas. Resurrected from the dead I was now willing and able to jump back aboard my bike and push forward under a new race strategy. Considering I was the DS during all of this, decisions were mine to make on the fly.
RIDE FOR THE FEED ZONES.
As you went on, the feed zones just got better and better, however this could be through a combination of things. Either a) I was slowly but surely falling apart, my decaying physical condition and major calorie deficit leading me to believe that each morsel of food, each drop of that beautiful Chianti Classico was more precious, and more nutritious than the last. Or b) Each town simply wanted to one up their predecessor, to ensure they offer the most memorable spread. Lets go with a bit of column A, a little bit of column B. It would be just over halfway that we came across the holy grail. On top of the assortment we had come across at the first feed zone was the marvellous addition of ribollita soup. I’d arrived in heaven.
STAGE VI: ARRIVO
After passing through the final feed zone, we were well on our way to the finish line. At this point I looked down at my black socks and noticed they had turned a chalky white from all the dust. While we had truly been blessed with the weather, I was feeling a little disappointed that my dream of returning to the town covered in dirt like the riders of Strade Bianche wouldn’t eventuate. In past years on the TV I’d seen riders roll into Siena looking rather forlorn, faces covered in layers upon layers of mud. I too sought that level of exfoliation and self-care, but it wasn’t to be. Even as rained began to fall with less than an hour of riding left to go, the dust wouldn’t transform into mud. Instead I was cleansed, left as fresh as a daisy – a daisy that was completely cooked.
We began winding down our efforts, safe in the knowledge that the finish line was only a few rolling hills and sandy corners away. It was then that I spoke the unspeakable. I realised that after all the harsh gravel we had ridden on our tubular tyres, none of us had punctured. And almost on cue – pssssssssssssssst.
Damian punctured his rear tyre. It was here, on the roadside that I learnt the true secret to puncture prevention. It’s not the latest the technology. It’s not going tubeless, it’s not even picking a line free of sharp rocks, sticks, nails and/or boulie tacks. It’s simply not speaking or thinking about them. The only surefire way to ensure they don’t happen.
Rear tyre fixed we turned onto our final stretch of road – a familiar one given we had ridden on it earlier in the week during phase one of our carb up training camp. The familiarity of it all instantly boosted morale, and in the persistent rain I started to push the pace a bit as I was really ready to jump off my bike, see the end of L’Eroica and get busy eating and drinking. As we got within sight of the finish line I could see Lachy Morton chillin’ along. He’d finished a route 70km longer than mine, and had probably been around town for an hour or so now. Officially, in this ongoing battle between Soupkind and Lachy Morton it is now 1-1.
May round 3 bring better fortunes.
All in all you could simply say that yes, through L’Eroica I did discover the true spirit of cycling. There was no Garmin, therefore no rules, and I, along with the thousands of other participants were pretty much going back to basics. It was just me, Fausto Coppi looking down on me from the heavens, an old school bike and some of the most beautiful roads and picturesque, rub your eyes in disbelief kind of scenes I’ll probably ever see in my lifetime.