I have traction. I am keeping the front wheel down. Amazingly, I’m turning over a gear so monster I think of it as something I’d use for flat ground, not any sort of hill. And then it happens.
I pull my right foot out of the pedal.
The last time I’d used clips and straps with a slotted cleat the first President Bush was in office. For that reason, and maybe a couple of others, I chose to leave the toe straps on the loose side. I didn’t want to wind up on the ground because I couldn’t reach my foot mid-way through the pedal stroke while my cadence was 20 rpm. So there had always been a risk that I’d do exactly what I’d just done.
I try slamming my foot back on the pedal and it slides off. I turn the pedals over once more and then try flipping the pedal over and jamming my foot in, but I don’t get the pedal flipped over all the way and I kick my foot out ahead of the pedal. One more slippery pedal stroke later I try again. Again I miss. At this point my muscles are all incinerated and I have no choice but to put my foot down and then grab the brakes to avoid rolling backward.
The point to doing a big ride is to present a challenge. It’s a way to mark fitness, determination and resourcefulness. Eroica California did that in a way many rides fail to even at significantly greater mileage. In a brief conversation with Giancarlo Brocci the day before the ride he told the story of how as a child he’d read the daily race reports from the paper to the old people of his town. It was in doing this that he got to know the exploits of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi.
Years later, when Brocci conceived of l’Eroica, he wanted an event that would recall that history and remind us of how difficult cycling used to be, just how hard those hard men were.
But the ride is more than just a celebration of those great riders. It’s a celebration of every aspect of the sport, from the routes, to the clothing and, yes, to the bikes. Like old-time team affiliations, Colnago owners greeted each other as old friends. Paramount owners high-fived each other’s stellar taste. Masi owners? They smiled knowing smiles as they nodded. There can be little doubt that most of us spent more time at the rest stops than we might otherwise have on another ride because we were busy admiring all the amazing machines.
That Paso Robles was selected as the location was a surprise to nearly everyone except for Brocci and Wesley Hatakeyama, the Eroica enthusiast who had ridden a couple and approached them with the suggestion that they do one in Central California. Hatakeyama didn’t need to be that skilled a salesman to make Brocci see the similarity between Tuscany and Paso Robles. Between the many unpaved roads and the frequent vineyards, the similarity could only be missed by the unconscious.
I elected to do the 65-mile route out of simple humility. I might be able to ride 123 miles (the long route), but I didn’t think I’d finish before nightfall with 42×23 low gear. Organizers also offered a 41-mile route for those who came equipped with an abundance of good sense.
According to the web site, the 65-mile route had 18-miles of unpaved road and 4900-feet of climbing. As it happens, I recorded 70 miles and 6000 feet of climbing; I suspect we had more than 20 miles of dirt, but that’s only because of the way legs continued to hurt for the next four days.
Of course, my legs wouldn’t have hurt so much had I been on a modern rig. Bear in mind, I’m not complaining; I’m just telling a story. My bike for the day, procured by a friend, was a Specialized Sirrus. I picked it over an early Fuji with first-generation Dura-Ace because the crank had half-step gearing—50/45 chainrings—and 23mm tubulars that looked more like 21s. The Sirrus was from the mid-1980s and equipped with Shimano 105 and clinchers, one of which appeared to be the original Turbo from the era of shoulder pads and big hair. I swapped the 23s out for a pair of 25mm Panaracer Race Type A clinchers off my bike. Did I mention the frame was 2cm too small? Ah well. I raised the saddle (and the stem) and pumped the tires to 85 psi.
While plenty of riders rode in old Vittorias and Sidis, most riders I saw were shod in Keds’ finest, or something similar. I was able to wear a pair of Giro Empires thanks to a pair of cleats that I purchased from Art’s Cyclery that used just the bottom two bolts of standard three-bolt cleat configuration. Unlike the rounded profile of the old two-bolt cleat, which made them easy to slip into the pedal, these cleats had a variety of corners that made them nearly as cooperative rush hour traffic.
I’ve been riding in and around Paso Robles for more than 10 years, which is enough to fall in love, but not nearly enough to explore all the options. What I can say from experience is that the views offered from the hilltops rival those I’ve encountered in Sonoma County, and because not every acre has been planted to vineyard yet, Paso Robles is a bit more diverse in view.
One thing I hadn’t anticipated in the ride was that Andy Hampsten would roll out with us for the 65-mile route. Even though he’s written an introduction to one of my books, he and I are little more than acquaintances. In the limited time I’ve spent with him he’s what every cyclist wishes every pro was: modest, charming, still unbelievably fit, zero need to prove a thing and sunnier than a day in Arizona. I wouldn’t mind if my sons settled on him as a role model.
My companions for the day were Bill Cass and James Newman. Cass’ name should be familiar; he is responsible for the art on the Merckx and Hampsten shirts. Our professional association goes back to the days of Bicycle Guide and he and I raced in New England and have a long list of mutual friends. Like us, he’s fundamentally a bike geek and was stoked to meet Hampsten at the dinner the night before the ride. Newman wrote the feature “A Week in the Life” illustrated by Bill that was a look inside a U.S. Postal Service training camp. I’d never actually met Newman before and this was the first time I’d seen Bill in close to 10 years.
Just as our peloton began to break up on the first section of dirt I looked over my shoulder to see Bill riding alongside Hampsten, the two chatting like long-lost teammates. Hampsten would roll at the front and a group would form behind his pink jersey with riders cycling up to the front to share a few pedal strokes and a short conversation with the only American winner of the Giro d’Italia.
Once on Kiler Canyon, a dirt road I’ve done previously, he held his pace. His pedal stroke was a model of souplesse, and his pace, relaxed on flat ground, never wavered as the road tilted up. He maintained a conversational tone and had I not seen his bike I would have sworn he was running some sort of bailout gear. He rolled away from all but one of us as the road degenerated into a two-track jeep road. At the start he said something about not being fit, but after what I saw on Kiler Canyon, the only way I can process what he said is to either conclude he was lying through his teeth or he thinks Cat 1s are slow but is much too polite to insult anyone.
From Kiler Canyon we made a right onto Peachy Canyon Road, which is as delightful a strip of asphalt as has been laid. It twists, it bends, it tilts—both up and down—and it often does all of these things if not simultaneously, then in synchronous succession. It’s a far better road for cycling than it is for driving to see wineries. Roads like this cut down on just how many tastings you can do due to passenger syndrome.
Just as the road entered a stand of oaks drooped down while sweeping right, we were meant to make the left turn into the driveway of Nadeau Family Vintners. More than a few people blew by this turn only to find themselves back in town and wondering why their GPS units read something shy of 65 miles. Oops. Riders began collecting at the turn to warn others not to miss it; even so a few people didn’t bother with brakes.
The owners of Nadeau Family Vintners are Robert and Patrice Nadeau, who happen to be both genuinely nice people and avid cyclists. Robert is a friend; I’ve been drinking his wine for close to 15 years and we’ve been known to trade RKP kit for bottles of fermented grape juice. It’s the sort of deal that results in high levels of satisfaction.
The Nadeau’s home vineyard stands before the tasting room and their gravel drive winds around it. Robert was out volunteering with the event and left Patrice with gallons of water to offer riders an impromptu water stop; they ended up serving 30 gallons to folks who stopped.
And while I don’t normally drink and ride, I couldn’t help but taste a couple of his Zins. Bill joined me, but on our next hill confided that the burps suggested it hasn’t been his best move of the day. Oops.
For those of us who have become accustomed to dual-pivot caliper brakes, or even disc brakes, the return to single-pivot calipers can be less than reassuring. Fortunately, none of the descents on the ride were very long and most of them featured sculpted turns that allowed for nearly brake-free runs.
After winding through the hills west of Paso Robles, we returned to Peachy Canyon Road, only this time would follow the road straight into town. And while you might describe the road as rolling, early on it’s more up than down and the final hill before the run into town is gets longer with a bike’s age. My cadence on the hills was less than my age, but despite some surprising fatigue, I managed to keep turning the gear over. I paused at the top for a few moments to wait for Bill; we double-checked to make sure our bottles were empty and then rolled into what I assured him was all downhill from there. I’m lucky I was right.
My passport that was stamped at each of the rest stops had taken quite a beating due to the amount of stuff I had in my pockets. With no seat pack on the bike, I had a mini-tool, CO2 gun (I was not going to stand around waiting to borrow a frame pump), spare tube, arm warmers, cell phone and more that I must be forgetting. I had to jam the passport in and it looked like something that had lived in my son’s pocket during a day at the beach. The guy who gave it the finishing stamp actually chided me for the condition it was in.
Being reprimanded by a race volunteer was funny the way having a kid make fun of your helmet is. I mean, he had a point, but really; no, really. While I love souvenirs, nothing was going to make me remember that ride better than how destroyed my legs felt. I won’t forget that any time soon.