By Adam Perry
Legendary 1988 Giro d’Italia winner and former Tour de France stalwart Andy Hampsten—joyfully holding court at a communal dinner table before the first-annual Eroica California in Paso Robles, Calif., last weekend—more than adequately summed up my own feelings about the event when he smiled and said, “I’m just super jazzed about this.”
Based on Italy’s L’Eroica, which since 1997 has encouraged cyclists to don vintage clothing and ride vintage bikes, the first-ever Eroica California aimed to “rediscover the beauty of fatigue and the taste of accomplishment.” Hearty cyclists who made their way to Paso Robles were required to conquer the gorgeous, hilly northern San Luis Obispo County countryside on either historical (1987 or earlier) bikes or new, vintage-style bikes by craft brands like Soma. From regulations on clothing (wool jerseys and shorts, leather shoes, etc.) and accessories (1987 models or earlier, or new leather saddles by Brooks, et al) to guidelines on wheels, brake cables, pedals, shifters, etc., Eroica California invited riders to pay $150 to participate in something as fun as it was challenging.
A few weeks ago, I bought an early ‘80s Torelli 12-speed on Craigslist for just $200 (above), and had Gary Gringas at Fatty Kitty Cycles in Boulder get it ready for Eroica California and four subsequent days of challenging rides up the coast. My legs were ready, but I had to wonder how long the Torelli would last on the Eroica ride, let alone Nacimiento Fergusson Road and Mt. Tamalpais the following days.
Arriving in the Paso Robles town square early in the evening before the ride–like nearly all the approximately 700 participants, I chose the 65-mile ride over the 123-mile route–I was pleased to see folks from Italy, England and all over America decked out in vintage or vintage-style gear, showing off bikes as many as 100 years old. “Route Master” Eric Benson, just ahead of me in line for the group dinner, expressed some nervousness about the inaugural Eroica California, which was organized in just three months. Last-minute mapping problems forced Benson to announce to dinner guests that the advertised 65-mile route (featuring 4,900 feet of climbing) was actually closer to 70 miles, with “just a little less” than 6,500 feet of climbing.
That difference wasn’t trivial, as most of the riders had either just recently set up an old bike, as I did, or rented one for the weekend from a local shop. But thankfully no one, it seemed, was scared away by the announcement.
The first 11 miles were easy enough, and ended at Cass Winery, where we were given water bottles full of yummy white wine. Some imbibed right away, but I packed my complimentary wine in the beautiful Banjo Brothers saddlebag attached my Torelli.
After a rest stop at Olea Farm, which produces olive oil and served riders French fries, grueling Kiler Canyon—known to locals as “Killer Canyon”—found many riders struggling to get old 10- or 12-speed road bikes, with skinny tires, up steady climbs that approached 20-percent grades on loose gravel and dirt. The second half of Eroica California found us, at one point, winding up a shorter—but just as steep, hot and rocky—series of switchbacks. The blazing midday heat was no help.
The final 25 miles or so, however, found participants rolling up and down pleasant little hills around Paso Robles before bombing back to the center of town.
Eroica California was a blast, and I’ll agree with Benson that “overall the weekend was successful.” The scenery and camaraderie were remarkable. I would’ve had a more comfortable time with thicker tires and more gears, but that was clearly part of the experience, one I hope to build upon this May in The Midland Rail, my next Eroica experience; it’s a similar vintage ride that’s been held in Grand Junction, Colo., since 2012.
Hampsten, whose rented ‘50s bike failed a test ride the day before Eroica California, zoomed past me at one point along Kiler Canyon on a more reliable set of wheels. He also completed the 70-mile route.
“I got the competitive edge out of my system in 12 years as a professional cyclist,” Hampsten told me, “But man, I’m going to get ready and do this next year, too. The long one.”