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Geeking out at Eroica California

From issue 77 • Words by Michael Gamstetter with images from Paolo Martelli

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A friend recently chastised me for showing up to a ride on a Gios Torino bike, built in 1972, wearing a wool jersey and shorts. “I hated all that stuff when it was new,” he quipped.

He then explained to his buddies that I was training for Eroica California, a ride for vintage road enthusiasts a few months away. “Eroica is like Comic-Con for cyclists,” he said.

“What? Comic-Con is for nerds and geeks,” I protested. But, before the words left my lips, I realized he was sort of right. My mom likens my passion for riding vintage bikes in costume with those who reenact Revolutionary or Civil War battles. More nerds.

I spent most of my life trying to not be a nerd. But it was clear I had definitely become one—a nerd who dresses up like a bike racer from the 1970s, riding a matching bike, with fantasies of racing the cobbled classics rolling through my head.

Total nerd. And I’m cool with it.

Bike Nerds Unite
I am not alone. There are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of us worldwide. Vintage road bike collecting and riding is big in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, the U.K. and Japan. And it’s growing in the U.S. where, for two days in April, I joined 1,000 likeminded bike nerds in Central California wine country for Eroica California, to suffer over dozens of miles of dirt roads and up thousands of feet of climbing.

L’Eroica is the brainchild of Giancarlo Brocci. Inspired by the duels between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Brocci turned his passion for cycling culture and an interest in preserving the gravel roads of Tuscany into a worldwide phenomenon that celebrates the “beauty of fatigue and the thrill of conquest.”

Today, an estimated 30,000 people participate in the 10 L’Eroica events, held annually in half a dozen countries. More locations are added each year.

Getting to Eroica
My journey to Eroica started in 1995, two years before Brocci and 91 of his closest friends did the first L’Eroica in Italy. That was the year I nerded out and built my first vintage road bike—a 1970s, Italian-made Masi Gran Criterium. I rode it dressed in vintage wool shorts, a reproduction wool Molteni jersey, vintage Rivat shoes and a Cinelli hairnet helmet. My nerd level was high; but I had yet to peak.

While I put in a lot of miles on that Masi I spent a lot more time on contemporary road and mountain bikes. As I moved from steel frames to titanium and aluminum, the bike tech got techier and life gave me less time to ride—and the Masi began to collect dust. I grew bored with the bike and sold it in 2001.

My passion for old bikes, however, never died. The flame was rekindled in 2015 when I read about L’Eroica. I loved the concept. Despite not owning a qualified bike—there are strict rules governing what you can ride at an Eroica—and being in the worst physical condition of my life, I had to do it. I still had boxes of old bike parts, so I just needed a frame to get a bike together. It would be easy.

Breaking the Rules
Thanks to a friend in the Netherlands, I found an Eddy Merckx in Hitachi team livery in Copenhagen that fit my body and my budget. After numerous fits and starts—most due to my need to get all the details correct—the bike came together too late for Eroica California 2016. So much for it being easy!

But by the time the 2017 Eroica rolled around, I owned three vintage bikes, all built within the strict Eroica guidelines. I also had a wardrobe to match each bike.

My first choice for the ride was my Colnago Roger De Vlaeminck. I was a huge RDV fan and the bike was beautiful. But I had no confidence I could do the 71-mile Medium Route and its 5,000 feet of climbing with a low gear of 42×26. My Mavic-equipped Merckx, however, allowed me to use a Mavic crankset with a 39-tooth chairing, and the Mavic 851 rear derailleur would easily handle a 28-tooth cog.

Technically, I was “cheating.” The Eroica rules state the bike must be pre-1987. My Merckx was made in 1988 and wouldn’t be ridden by the Hitachi team until the following season. Second, the Mavic 631 crank wouldn’t hit the market until 1990. I should have used the older 144-BCD 630 with a 42-tooth chainring like Claude Criquielion did. But I don’t have Claudy’s legs. I needed every bit of that low gearing.

Despite objections from my inner nerd, I rode the Merckx, a close replica of Claudy’s bike. Of course, I wore a matching 1989 Hitachi team kit, complete with Hitachi bib shorts I had custom made.

I suffered on that first Eroica like I had never suffered on a bike before. My legs cramped and locked up several times. I got lost and ended up on the Cypress Mountain climb when I should have been crossing the finish line. The course was tough, but being out of shape was the real problem.

Brooklyn Bound
On the four-hour drive home, I decided I would spend the next year training for the 2018 edition and I would do it on a real 1970s race bike in Brooklyn kit. I would have to train my ass off. And I needed a new bike. I found the perfect frame listed for sale on one of the Facebook Steel Is Real groups. Not only was it a Gios in my size, but it was an actual Brooklyn team frame used by the Belgian sprinter Julien Stevens.

I spent the next four months building it with parts made between 1972 and 1973 and collecting a range of replica Brooklyn apparel—wool jerseys (three of them), wool shorts, caps, rain jacket, musette bag, proper shoes and even a vintage Rodania watch, the same as Roger wore.

The bike was beautiful. And I looked good in Brooklyn red, white and blue. There was no doubt, this was going to be my Eroica bike. Now I needed to ride it. A lot. And hard.

Wool Jerseys & Big Gears
Last July, I committed to exclusively riding the Gios “in character” for the nine months leading to Eroica. I wanted to get used to the big gearing, toe clips and straps, a single bottle, leather-soled shoes and wool jerseys and shorts. After a few weeks, I was perfectly comfortable on the Gios, poor ergonomics, bad brakes, toe straps, 40-year-old saddle and all. And the wool jerseys became favorites.

Roger raced in wool through the humid European summers, so why couldn’t I ride in wool in Southern California? As it turns out, wool jerseys aren’t bad in the heat. Sure, I was hot, but I would have been hot in a modern poly jersey. Wool wicks really well, helping keep you cool as your sweat evaporates. And wool jerseys never stink.

Climbing in the big gearing that a Nuovo Record drivetrain is limited to would be the toughest challenge. I was 40 pounds overweight and close to 60 pounds heavier than in my glory days. I found a rare, 41-tooth, Campagnolo chainring and combined it with a 14–26 freewheel to make climbing a little easier.

Going from modern compact gearing wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. At least not initially. I could get up my regular climbs, albeit at a much slower cadence. After a few weeks, I was able to climb them in the 24-tooth cog, saving the 26 for the steepest inclines. But I knew the climbs at Eroica would be steeper, longer and over dirt.

After four months of riding in character and slowly upping my mileage and the amount of climbing I was doing, I began to have lower back pain. I tried climbing less and spinning more. It didn’t help. I checked and modified my bike fit. I also started seeing a chiropractor and sports massage therapist. Within a few weeks, I was riding pain free.

Until the week before Eroica.

Back Blowout
About a month before Eroica California, I discovered that a Nuovo Record rear derailleur could handle a 28-tooth cog. (Otis Guy used a 32-tooth cog at Eroica. Apparently, that’s the actual max, with some limitations.) I bought a vintage new-old-stock Regina 14–28 and was ready to tackle whatever Eroica would throw at me. I hoped.

The week before the ride, I was on the back end of my regular lunch ride. At a stoplight at the bottom of a fast decent, I stood up to cross the intersection. I was still in the 53×14. As I pushed on the pedal, I felt a twinge in my lower back. My heart sank. There was no pain, but I knew I’d done something. As I completed the 10 miles back home, my muscles tightened around my spine. The next morning, I was very uncomfortable. It was back to the chiropractor and massage therapist.

Two days before the big ride, my back was feeling okay, but remained tight. I had serious doubts I’d make it through 7,900 feet of climbing in a 41×28. I was sure going to try though….

The Big Weekend
As I wandered around the expo area the day before the ride, looking through the piles of greasy bike parts for sale and ogling the beautiful bikes displayed in the concours d’élégance, I met some of the many bike nerds I had become friends with on Facebook. Guys I’d never met in person. We chatted about our bikes and the next day’s ride. The brutal climb up Kiler Canyon and its rutted 17-percent grades kept coming up. That and Cypress Mountain made me very nervous.

I was in better shape than in 2017. I was lighter. But did I bring the wrong bike? Should I have put on the Campagnolo Super Record triple and long-cage derailleur?

I woke up early Sunday morning to eat a good breakfast and make three prosciutto, mozzarella and fig jam sandwiches for the ride. The temperature was a comfortable 50 degrees, but would rise to 70 in the afternoon. I dressed accordingly then rolled downhill from my Airbnb to the start.

The Kiler Canyon climb came at 7 miles, a bit sooner than I expected. It was time to find out if I was ready. Slow and steady was the plan.

As it turns out, my definition of a “nasty, rutted Jeep trail” is a bit gnarlier than the average Eroica rider. Kiler was a slog in the 41×28, but not as bad as advertised. Had I not crashed when the edge of the road gave way, taking my front wheel with it, I’d have made it to the top without getting off my bike. Plus, I had no back pain. These were good signs.

The 5.4-mile Cypress Mountain climb comes at mile 23 and is no joke. It’s dirt all the way and averages 4 percent with grades up to 13 percent as it climbs to 1,139 feet. The last couple miles are the steepest. It was here that it felt like someone punched me in the thigh with each pedal stroke. At times, I was going so slow I thought I’d fall over. Near the summit, I pulled my foot from the pedal and was forced to walk a few hundred meters until the terrain was mellow enough for me to remount and ride over the top.

This was the worst of the climbing, but not the end of it. And my legs were toast. Fortunately, the next 25-or-so miles were basically downhill, and there were two rest stops. It looked like I’d make it back to Paso Robles relatively easily. But before I did, there was the 6.2-mile climb up Santa Rita Creek Road at about mile 60. It was almost as tough as Cypress Mountain. I grunted and wobbled my way up it knowing that from the top only a fast, mostly dirt descent and a handful of rollers stood between me and the finish.

Back in Paso Robles, my Strava app said I finished the 90.7-mile ride with 7,931 feet of climbing in 7 hours and 40 minutes. I had done it. I felt fresher than the previous year, when I rode the 71-mile route with easier gearing. I was sore all over, but my lower back was pain free. It had been a good day. It was time for a beer…and time to start planning my bike and costume for 2019.

Provenance: Frame was built in 1971-72 by Gilardi of Milan, Italy, for Julien Stevens of the Dreher Cycling Team. Stevens, a strong sprinter, raced the frame for Dreher in 1972. When the Perfetti candy company bought the Dreher team at the end of 1972 and renamed it Brooklyn, it also acquired all the team’s tools and mechanics, and did a deal with Gios Torino to be the frame supplier.

At the beginning of 1973, however, Gios Torino was unable to supply all the Brooklyn team riders with new frames. Instead, Gios Torino repainted and modified some of the frames as a stopgap measure until they could get new frames built. This frame is one of those. After Stevens received his new bike, this one was used as a spare.

It remained in the Belgian rider’s possession until a few years ago, when his friend and a former mechanic for the TI-Raleigh team, André Delagrense, sent it to Gios Torino for a complete restoration. The original fork had been lost and was replaced with an era-correct Gios fork. I purchased the frame and fork from Mr. Delagrense last year and built it with Brooklyn team, era-correct components.

I ride the bike several times a week.

Gios Torino Record Brooklyn Team Bike


Frame: Gilardi-built Columbus SL frame for Julien Stevens of the 1972 Dreher, 1973 Brooklyn team. Repainted and modified (drilled dropouts, brake cable guides added) by Gios Torino in 1973. Restored by Gios Torino in 2017.

Fork: Gios Record, Super Record fork used 1973–1978

Stem: Cinelli 1A

Bars: Cinelli Campionato del Mondo 66-42

Handlebar Tape: Velox cotton with Cinelli bar-end caps

Headset: Campagnolo Nuovo Record

Brake Levers: Campagnolo Nuovo Record w/reproduction hoods

Brake Cables: Campagnolo

Brake Calipers: Campagnolo Record, pre-CPSC

Seatpost: Campagnolo Nuovo Record, Gios Torino pantographed

Saddle: Cinelli Unicanitor

Crankset: Campagnolo Nuovo Record 53-41; 53T with Gios Torino Pantograph

Pedals: Campagnolo Nuovo Record with steel Alé toe clips, Binda Extra toe straps with Cinelli buttons

Bottom Bracket: Campagnolo Record

Chain: Regina Extra

Freewheel: Regina Oro

Shift Levers: Campagnolo Nuovo Record with Campagnolo rubber covers

Shift Cable: Campagnolo

Front Derailleur: Campagnolo Nuovo Record

Rear Derailleur: Campagnolo Nuovo Record (recently replaced a Pat. 73 RD with a nicer, better-performing Pat. 74)

Wheels: Campagnolo Nuovo Record hubs, dated 1973, with pre-CPSC QRs, laced to Mavic Montlhéry Route rims with ACI spokes

Tires: Challenge Paris Roubaix

Other: Silca Impero pump with Campagnolo pump head, steel TA water bottle cage and TA water bottle

Cost of Getting There

Bike: Approximately $1,600

Wool Jerseys: 1 short sleeve, 1 long sleeve $400

Wool Shorts: $160

Rain Jacket: $40

Cap: $18

Crocheted Gloves: $16

Vintage Leather Shoes: $50

Hairnet Helmet: $100

Vintage Watch: $90 + $285 for unexpected repairs

Musette Bag: $14

Ride Food: $15

Vintage Water Bottle: $35

Chiropractor: $440

Massage Therapy: $515

Event Entry: $100–$140

Lodging: $360

Brooklyn Team Car Hood Wrap: $200

Total: $4,438