Eroica California

Eroica California

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.

IMG_9634Bruce Gordon and Paul Sadoff at the start.

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.

IMG_9638The loose affiliation of old guys known as the Dinos were well-represented.

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.

IMG_9658At the right, Bill Cass. On the left … oh you get it. 


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.

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  1. Frederick B.

    Really enjoyed this…felt like I was there. I’m afraid I’d never make it through the wine country…not sure that would be all bad.
    “So many roads, so little time.”

  2. Sophrosune

    I am signed up for the ride in Rioja, Spain this June and the one in Tuscany in October. I will hopefully be giving a knowing nod to my colleagues as I roll out in my Masi.

  3. Waldo

    Someone told me you can ride clipless pedals if you have a doctor’s note…… I would probably get one from a psychiatrist.

  4. Andrew

    I’d love to do one of these. But I don’t have an old bike and I start itching uncontrollably if I am in the zip code as wool.

  5. Scott G.

    Does Eroica have rules against pre 1960 French or British bikes ?
    Seems like all the reports bemoan the dearth of age appropriate
    gearing. The brakes can be improved by using Jagwire compressionless
    housing (the braided steel looks vintage) and Kool stop salmon pads.

    1. Phil S.

      Scott, the basic rules for equipment is, bikes 1987 and older (regardless of country of origin), no aero brake levers, downtube or bar end shifters (friction), and pedal with toe clips & straps.

    2. Wesley H

      You may use the modern cables and brake pads as long they are presented in the vintage fashion (brake cables/housing are routed over the handlebars, brake pads are fitted in the original vintage pad holders). Many riders are using the Kool Stop pads on their vintage brakes as well as the Jagwire cables.

  6. Author

    Everyone: Thanks for your comments.

    Sophrosune: #envy

    Waldo: I saw plenty of riders who went with mountain bike shoes or sneakers and no cleats.

    Scott G, Andrew: I saw a few bigger freewheels and a couple of guys with triples. There’s no rule to how old you can go; I saw one bike with the old Campy suicide shifters. A friend once referred to the Cambio Corsa as “fingerless shifting, but only if you got it wrong.” I suspect that there are two hurdles where age-appropriate gearing is concerned. The first is that many riders are looking to recreate the bike in its idealized form, not emasculated, which is sort of the subtext that many imply when they talk of smaller gears. The second is the investment in both time and money to find such parts; how much time do you have to pursue a project like that for a bike that is probably, at best, a spare? As to the spirit, of the event, that’s a valid point, but that ride was so hard that I feel like I violated the spirit of the ride by walking some. I mean, I was supposed to ride it, right?

  7. Waldo

    Padraig, would you have honored the spirit of the event by quitting rather than walking (that was your only other option)? No. Racers have walked up too-steep grades for over 100 of years, including somewhat recently, when climbing too slick and too steep berghs of Flanders.

    1. Author

      Waldo: That’s a fair point, but one I that I dismissed in my head when I asked myself the question. The reason I dismissed it was Flanders is the only event where dismounts were a regular part of the event’s history. No one bats an eye if you dismount for muur in Flanders; and you brag about all the hills you *didn’t* have to dismount for. Is dismounting for the hills in l’Eroica a thing? If so, it hasn’t been reported enough to become a part of the event’s identity. Quitting isn’t really my thing, but I can’t stop the thinking that led to this rabbit hole. But then, I’m grateful for all the rabbit holes; this is the part of the conversation that is often most interesting.

    2. Touriste-Routier

      Walking some of the hills is even a tradition in the Tuscan L’Eroica; there are grades well over 20%. And like the Koppenberg, if the grade/cobbles doesn’t get you, traffic and loose gravel can.

      I had to walk parts of Kiler Cyn (though I made it over the Tuscan equivalent in 2011). Another bad East Coast winter didn’t give me the legs to muscle over the steep bits near the top this time, even with a 42 x 28. Next year…

      Wool isn’t required, but is encouraged. They do allow vintage lookalikes (in the spirit of the era), and I believe they looked the other way in regards to some clothing and equipment in this inaugural year.

  8. Andrew


    Yes, I have. I totally aspire to be the person who wears eco friendly stylish merino clothes made from sheep I have personally communed with in a Bhutanese monastery (seriously, mostly), but alas I am at 4 standard deviations in my sensitivity to wool.

  9. MCH

    Damn, looks like fun. Random thoughts – wish I’d kept some of my old bikes, and my Sidi Titaniums. Do the old Cinelli clipless pedals qualify?

    1. Wesley H

      Yes, you can use the old Cinelli Clipless Pedals, but we can’t recommend using them unless you are used to using them and know how to disengage quickly from them.

  10. Scott G.

    You rode Eroica in the guise of a late ’70s Italian semi pro, so you’re setup correctly.
    I would go as a keen clubman of 1950s Britain, so I can chose lower gears and better brakes
    and still be period correct. Walking is using your 2ft gear.
    Rule Britannia and Cyclo-Benelux!

    1. Andrew

      Andy Hampsten seems to get around. I feel like I’ve read several articles about people riding with him. Maybe they were all on RKP. He seems to be a total gentleman and still a monster on the bike. I’d like to get him to come do some of our gravel rides here, like the Almanzo.

  11. Author

    Touriste-Routier: Anything else you wish to add? Pardon me egging you on, but your comments at the last rest stop were … restrained.

    MCH: Hahaha!

    Wesley: Thanks for stopping by; nice work.

    All: Wesley has taken a low-key approach in his comment; his is the man behind Eroica California.

    Scott: I like how you put that.

    Wayno: I wouldn’t so much say I rode with Hampsten and near Hampsten. Bill did a lot more riding/chatting with him, but thanks.

    Andrew: If there’s a nicer grand tour winner on the planet, I’d like to meet that guy. And Hampsten gets around far too much for us to have a lock on tales of him. He’s much too democratic a guy to allow that to happen. Doesn’t befit a gentleman. And he’s not the only person who needs to ride the Almanzo, wink wink.

    1. Touriste-Routier

      OK, I’ll take the bait…

      While I thoroughly enjoyed the event as a whole, and hope to return, when I saw Padraig at the 3rd controle, I was not a happy camper, to say the least. I was one of the quite a few riders who missed the turn that he mentioned in his article, and ended up at the finish line with ca 51 miles, instead of at the winery. It was 6 miles & > 1000 of climbing to get back on course, then additional miles (and climbing) to get to the controle at the winery. That was way more than I needed, so when I saw him, I was very annoyed and completely blown.

      While the course signage was very stylish, gorgeous, and provided a great branding opportunity, it wasn’t nearly as functional. The small white arrows on a burgundy background were hard to see and distinguish until you were practically on top of them; I saw people missing turns throughout the day. As such I was relying on my Garmin Edge (on which I loaded the organizer’s TCX file, which I set with turn warnings), and used the event signs as confirmation.

      The problem at the point Padraig was referring to, was that it was the start of a loop on the course (which I didn’t realize at the time), so we evidently had to go through that area twice. Unfortunately, my Garmin told me to go right, instead of left, and the signage I saw seemed to confirm this (and no one was standing there when I came through). But alas this was incorrect. I was as confused as my Garmin when I found myself approaching downtown Paso Robles, 19 or so miles short of the cited distance. I met a number of people who did the same thing I did, so even if I was the village idiot, I wasn’t alone.

      As a first year event, hiccups are bound to happen. With some diligence, they’ll work them out. Wesley and team did a great job of organizing this event in only a few months, which is a monumental task. As a veteran of the L’Eroica event in Gaiole, they should be commended on their success at replicating the Tuscan feel of the event. I will enjoy every last drop of the locally made, privately labeled olive oil I received as an official finisher; though I needed some vino to compensate for my bonus miles…

  12. choke

    Nice write up, it was definitely a great time and I hope to be back next year. It was nice meeting you and chatting in the hotel parking lot.

  13. Andrew

    Padraig: The next one is May 16. Come ride it!! There are some seriously fast people here- you can try to hang with them, or ride with those of us in the second group.

  14. BillC

    That was an Epic ride and I will most certainly be back next year. Personally, I think the challenge was the perfect test. An incredibly strong rider would have been able to pedal the whole course without walking. In a past life I might not have had to walk. My ’72 paramount was the perfect rig for the ride. The gears were tough but the bike handled like a charm on all the fun dirt and fast twisty bits. My tubular tires were more than capable. I may go up a size for next year and see about finding a couple teeth to add or subtract but the goal will be to change my body not the bike. Riding next to Andy and being able to chat was one of those moments I will remember for a long time. I can’t say enough about how amazing that was without sounding like a creepy stalker. Thanks again to Patrick for waiting for me and getting me over that last hill. I was toast. I think there is a L’Eroica inspired illustration in my future.

  15. George Mount

    One tip: Studying the route, turns, etc. before the event is part of the experience of riding events 30 years plus hence, so next time study the route. Throw your Garmin away and try some maps, you shouldn’t be using it anyway on this ride.

    I stopped a few times to look at the provided route info and while there were some “inconsistencies” it wasn’t rocket science if you pre-studied the route and took your time to think it through. I recall a few local races in the 1970s where entire breaks went off the front only to have to regroup, return,and chase to get back on course, so it’s really fitting. The signs could have been better but a little pre-event planning and study of the course would have helped. It was a very good event that will only get better and I am sure Wesley is listening.

    Many of us Dinos will be back next year and I hope to be fit enough to do the longer rider but I will need more wine at the stops! Thankfully some of us pre-hydrated the evening before at the local brewery. My 1978 dead stock Marinoni stood me well although I will consider better shoes than my now miniaturized Italian customer leather shoes of yore I stretched out for 2 months were not the best for my feet.

    All I can say is Be there!

  16. Ajax

    Looking at the pics you can tell what a beautiful ride that is and the fun the riders had. I wish I had an old steel bike with loopy brake cables and toe clips so I could participate.

  17. bob


  18. JohnK

    I have signed up for the 2016 version and am happily pursuing the right bike. I wish I’d kept my Fuji from my University of Wisconsin days, (class of ’87), a silver beauty with SunTour Superbe components. My only concern is that does attending this move me one step closer to becoming a Civil War reenactor?

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