Neil Shirley recounts Eroica California 2017
For about the 87th time that day, I fumbled around trying unsuccessfully to get my foot into the toe clips correctly. That’s right, toe clips. Remember those things that we haven’t used since the early 90s, or late 80s, for the more privileged? Well, I’ve come to realize that the only way to truly appreciate what you have is to do without it. Once a year, for the past three years, I’ve cast aside modern cycling technologies of carbon, electronic shifting, clipless pedals, and Lycra in favor of a steel frame, downtube shifters, toe clips and yes, even wool.
Why would I give up such luxuries of cycling? Just two words: Eroica California. Eroica California is one of the vintage events inspired by the original L’Eroica that’s been held annually on Tuscany’s Strade Bianche roads around Gaiole in Chianti for the past 21 years. That event draws over 5,000 riders each year and because the demand has been so incredibly high, eight other events worldwide have been added under the Eroica banner. Eroica California is the lone event in the U.S. and is held in Paso Robles, smack dab in the middle of the Central Coast’s wine country.
The very premise of Eroica is to enjoy the bicycle in its simplest form, which is deemed to be anything pre-1987, and riding routes that mix pavement and gravel, just as the cycling greats of past generations have done. There are really only a few rules when it comes to equipment that can be used: downtube shifters and toe clips are a must, and other than in a few cases, steel is the only frame material that can be ridden. Helmets? Those are optional. Essentially, parts and bikes need to be “vintage inspired”, or at least look the part. So even a brand new steel frame could be Eroica-approved as long as the aforementioned details were met.
Like most of the other 900 riders that showed up at Eroica California, I am not a vintage collector, nor do I even own a bike that dates later than, say 2015. My options for sourcing a bike came down to purchasing one second hand at a garage sale, finding one on Craigslist, or renting through Eroica California’s rental shop partner that has around 50 vintage bikes at the ready. A friend of mine at The Pro’s Closet provided me another option, and pulled a mid-80s Rossin out of their own collection. And as an added bonus, he swapped the original 12-23 freewheel for a much more forgiving 13-28, making the steep climbs so much more manageable. I could get used to using toe clips and downtube shifters on an everyday basis if necessary, but being forced to use standard gearing from 30 years ago is where I can truly appreciate modernity.
As much as the equipment is the focal point around Eroica California, it isn’t the only thing distinguishing it from just about every other event I’ve been to. The weekend festival got things started Saturday morning with a Concours d’Elegance set up in the Downtown Park with dozens of some of the most remarkable vintage bikes in the world on display, including a 1907 Peugeot with original parts and wooden rims. Next to the Concours was the swap meet where vendors had just about everything imaginable from every era of cycling. Live music and additional booths from Bianchi, Santini, and a number of others, kept me entertained for hours.
For Saturday evening, I was one of the 300 people that were fortunate enough to have pre-purchased a ticket for Cena Eroica and was treated to a true Tuscan meal prepared by notable local chefs, in addition Michelin star chef Vincenzo Guarino that flew in from Tuscany just for this event. I had planned on getting a nice meal ahead of the next day’s ride. Once there I realized this would be more that just dinner, as 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten and his team director and former professional Mike Neal traded stories up on stage about the early years of Team 7-Eleven and breaking into European racing as an American team. A couple members of the cycling media and I sat there wide-eyed and enthralled by the first-hand accounts Mike and Andy shared of forging the way for later generations of American racers. The cost of entry was well worth the stories alone!
Sunday was ride day, and I couldn’t wait! Having grown up in the area I was excited to show off the roads I first started riding as a teenager. Half a dozen of us planned to ride the 86-mile Coastal Route together, which was one of four route options available. Just a few miles after the start we were already on rolling country roads with oak trees as far as the eye could see. The occasional vineyard was about the only cause for cars to be out there, but at that time of the morning the only sounds were of our own banter, ratcheting freewheels and the grinding of gears thanks to friction downtube shifting in the hands of amateurs, like me.
After a stop at Halter Ranch where warm stew was served, which helped us warm up from the 40-degree temps at the start, we were back on the road headed for the hardest climb of the day. Cypress Mountain, a dirt ascent that pitches up to 18-percent is a challenge on any bike, regardless of the era. Once at the summit, the 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean to the west and endless green, rolling hills in every other direction are truly stunning. An hour later we were skirting along the coastline we had viewed from Cypress Mountain and headed to Cayucos where we would enjoy chocolate covered strawberries and a bottle of Coca Cola on the pier. Best rest stop ever!
Heading out of Cayucos and back inland we would encounter one big climb, two gorgeous gravel roads and three hours of pedaling time before we rolled back into Paso Robles to collect the final stamp in our route book. It didn’t really dawn on me until afterwards, but in the second half of the ride the shifting became second nature, and I even managed to get my foot in the toe clips on the first attempt a time or two. I’ll count those as small victories.
Somehow in just the six hours I had spent on the Rossin there was some sort of emotional attachment I felt when having to hand it back over to The Pro’s Closet. It served me well and helped cap a memorable weekend. The equipment itself helped create a completely different experience that was so much more social and relaxed compared to a Gran Fondo. The overall atmosphere, from Festival to the ride, is something that Eroica California does so well. It turns out that all it takes to fully appreciate my Di2 shifting, disc brakes and clipless pedals is riding for six hours without them–having them again never felt so good. Yet all I can think about is coming back to Eroica 2018!