Giaole in Chianti is a two day drive from Jersey and was to be the final round of our second season touring Europe's best bike events.
The L'Eroica is Italy's equivalent of Paris-Roubaix. Instead of cobbles you race over the strade-bianchi, the "white roads".
An intrepid band of artisans are fighting to keep them from being covered in tarmac. This event helps raise their profile and keep them on the map. A couple of year after we did this event, the pro's arrived. A 100 years too late for it to be a monument, but it has everything it needs to be classed as one, just not the history!
I thought the strade-bianchi would be like Jersey's railway walk, smooth, shale covered roads. In fact, our equivalent would be El Tico's car park. Deep ruts, pot holes and industrial sized gravel. Just acceptable for a car park but a little daunting for a public highway.
Dianne, ready for the off awaiting the starting rifles!
As ever, the Italian events seem to have that little bit extra; the L'Eroica was no different. Signing on took place in the town's sports centre which was filled with bikes from the last century, with jerseys and riders to match! It was worth the drive just to see the signing on.
Forget all the ideas about all sorts of Italian bikes being ridden by Italians. I can tell you they ride and love only one; Bianchi. My Colnago stuck out like a sore thumb. As did this glamorous lady of a certain age...
The full distance L'Eroica is a monster. It's 200 kilometres, with 110 on the rough stuff.
Anyone who finishes in under 12 hours gets a massive Tuscan hamper. That's how hard it is.
I was up for the 140k ride but that started at 5:30 am!
Seeing as I was on holiday I decided to ride the 80k event with Dianne, 40k of which was on the dreaded white road.
The start was to be at 8:30. With typical Italian organisation there were 600 riders all having their bike inspected for the best retro bike prize, and only two inspectors.
So at a little before nine, to the sound of musket shot!, we all set off...
The guns were so loud they made me jump!
We headed out of the town square, and out of town, for the 10 kilometres downhill cruise to the first hill and the first mechanical casualty.
A snapped chain on the climb to Lucignano saw the first rider stranded by the roadside. Being Italy he soon had a crowd to help, advise, remonstrate and shout him back on his way.
L'Eroica is an event for big old boys, on big old bikes, in medium-sized, classic jerseys from day's gone by. Dianne's "relative" youth, and svelte frame, helped her pass many of these power-house-riders on the climbs, but would prove her undoing before too long.
The sheer number of mature riders squeezed into original retro jerseys brings a nostalgia to this event like no other. The fact that they obviously bought them when they were a little less "stocky" than they now are, is a fact not worth mentioning. But I have and it gives you an inkling of the passion of these true hero's of the road.
You really do feel as though you've gone back in time. Cycling really doesn't get much better than this.
Baptism of gravel
Once over the first climb, comes the first descent and the first stretch of strade bianchi. Dianne's undeniable bravery to skill quotient this time, skewed to the less safe of the two options, when she took a tumble, along with quite a few others, on the gravelled descent.
It wasn't so much a lack of skill as a lack of experience. Her front wheel just "sunk" in to the soft gravel at the edge of the road and stopped the bike dead. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the rider.
An over the bars exit, a quick brush down, and she was back on the road, climbing the 12% sloping bianchi to Pianella.
When you weigh just 50kgs, climbing on gravel can be extremely tiresome.
You don't have the strength or weight to "man handle" the bike over the pot holes and ruts.
This means you can't build the momentum you need to crash over them like a more powerful rider would.
However, due to your better power to weight ratio, your lack of weight allows you to pedal where many, many others have to walk.
This questionable advantage allowed Dianne to take back loads places on the many, many hills, that she'd lost on the technical gravel sections.
On the bianchi to Radda, we're passed by the commissaire. The whole event is held in conjunction with a vintage car rally running over the same route.
The commissaire is no exception. Dressed in period costume he travels up and down the race shouting encouragement from a loud speaker bigger than the inside of his Fiat!
As we reached the halfway point the hills came thicker and faster! The "stocky" powerful riders who dropped Dianne like a stone on the flat were now being picked off one by one as she cycled the 10% climbs that followed.
Even those off their bike and pushing, were shouting encouragement to her. With five kilometres of climbing to the feed the gradient was relentless but she pressed on and didn't grumble ~ much. (When she's tired she can get a bit tetchy!)
We decided to take a drink once we reached the top of the monstrous climb to Volpaia. At the top we took a drink and tried not to let too many of those we passed retake us.
Trying not to get distracted by the typical Tuscan view, we pressed on as a new section of bianchi lay before us.
By now Dianne was getting tired. We were three hours into the ride and energy levels were beginning to drop. I could tell from the way the bike was crashing in to the stones and pot holes, rather than bouncing over them.
There was also the tell-tale stare. You all know what I mean. Looking three feet ahead of your front wheel, waiting for your second wind, looking for inspiration and motivation to come from somewhere. Then it arrived, the feed stop.
The Feed of All Feeds
At 55k bang in the middle of a 10k stretch of bianchi was a throw back to times past. Girls in period traditional dress were handing out water, grapes, figs and garlic bread (garlic and bread?) dipped in olive oil.
There were also a few dubious cheeses. Brandy and ale were also being freely passed around. Apparently this is the traditional fair of our ancestral hero's of the road. Playing safe, we stuck to our self-supplied power bars and the local mineral water.
After a short rest, a regrouping and getting our carnet stamped, we set off to complete the rest of the bianchi and the run-in to the finish.
Which was very, very much, uphill. Dianne started to zig-zag to keep the gear turning but just didn't have the power to keep the bike moving at a speed that would keep her upright.
So far, all climbing had been done in the middle ring but this 15 percenter was just too much. All around us there were people walking and shaking their heads. This was a cruel, cruel section so soon after the rest stop.
Eventually Dianne ground to a halt. Beaten by the gradient, she dismounted with the top still a kilometre away. I thought she was going to push like everyone else, but she turned her bike down the slope and rode back down the hill to a flattened out bend.
She dropped it on the small chain ring on the way down, turned on the flat bit, then rode back up to the top to the astonishment, and encouragement, of the riders who were walking up when she was riding down. Once off this section it was a smooth, gentle 10k road thrash, to the next one at San Donato.
All through the ride we'd been swapping places with a group of around eight riders who were working together.
They'd form a chain gang on the flat main roads and open up a gap on us; but come the hills they'd break up and go backwards.
We could stretch them on the bianchi and open a gap on the uphill sections but they always got us back on the flats as Dianne was not strong enough to hold their wheel when they came past.
They may have been gentlemen of a certain age but they'd lost none of their class or guile; these were racers.
We decided to attack on the last flat section of bianchi, give it 100% on the gravel descent, then try to hold our own, and the gap, to the finish.
The Finale ~ The Fat Lady's Warming Up
The end of the San Donato bianchi is at an altitude of 566 metres. Giaole sits at 260 metres, and 10 kilometres from it. Half the downhill is bianchi, the other half tarmac. By now Dianne was very tired and it was important that we finished in one piece, tired but happy, rather than the less favourable alternative.
It's so easy to make mistakes when your blood sugar is down. Your brain can only run on sugar, unlike the body which can burn fat as fuel when the glucose has run out. So although your body is capable of pushing your bike at 40 mph down hill your brain may only be operating at 20 mph.
I've seen so many people 'come a cropper on a big descent on corners that are little more than kinks. Their brain and perception has let them down, not their ability. It's important to keep focussed and suggared-up, so I force her to take a gel.
As we approach the town we can see our stronger chasers getting closer and closer. With two corners to go, approaching a sharp right hand junction, Dianne overshoots and locks a back wheel.
She gets it all back together then fires the bike down the last steep run in to the flamme rouge (yes they had one) at the bottom of the hill where our car is parked. We turn a sharp left and they're now entering the corner as we are leaving it. I go to the front and give her, her very first lead-out.
We pass the crowd at the entrance to the town square and she comes off my wheel to enter the square first. Then some crazy parent lets their two year old kick a ball across the finish line and chase it!
Dianne slams the brakes on and somehow gets around the child without killing it or scratching her bike. The others scream in behind, but it doesn't matter because she's already crossed the line to finish in a time of just over five, very hard, hours. The longest and hardest ride she's done in her eighteen months of owning a bike.
Her new friends are now the organiser who remembered her from the morning sign on (I think she had her top open) who was genuinely interested and asked how she got on and congratulated her for finishing.
The other is Luciano Berruti, the face of L'Eroica. During sign-on he invited Dianne to sit on his Bianchi while she had her photo taken.
This is the second photo. Couldn't use the first one as he was looking down her top when I pushed the button. And she did say he wasn't just holding the saddle! Don't you just love Italians?
A fantastic end to a fantastic season. From April to October we had wind and rain, snow and ice, and wind and heat. From the cobbles of Belgium to the gravel of Italy with the odd Alp thrown in for good measure.
Dianne's biggest triumph was riding Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Het Volk in the middle ring because she forgot she had a triple fitted. Her biggest disappointment was getting within 20 metres of the top of La Redoute and not realising she could change down!
Oh that and walking in to a metal bed post in the middle of the night at the Picarde and having to go to hospital to have six stitches in her forehead.
We still have unfinished Picarde business for next year.