After the Desert Ramble, I was pretty burnt out on bikes. From October on, the Surly ECR stayed in its airline box, and I walked to work instead of riding. Then came this email exchange with James, one of the Big Kahunas at Element.ly:
Fat. Ass. Fat ass? Hey now! Really? OK, so even though that was (partially) true, them there were fighting words. I was in. Fat ass my, um, ass! (Really?)
What really was the Eroica California, anyways? What the heck had I just agreed to?
The Eroica California is the first ever American offshoot of a famous ride in Italy called the L’Eroica. Started by Giancarlo Brocci, in 1997, L’Eroica is a ride that celebrates not only vintage cycling, but also fine food, wine and the famous dirt roads of Tuscany. Wesley Hatakeyama, the organizer of the California edition, was convinced that the dirt roads and vineyards of Paso Robles were a perfect place to hold such an event. After taking a ride with Wesley, Giancarlo agreed. Thus, the Eroica California went from a crazy idea to a crazy reality. It’s even supporting a fantastic local charity, Hospice SLO.
There are three routes, 41 miles, 65 miles and 125 miles in length. The long route of 125 miles long, 80% of that being dirt roads was, of course, what Jim wanted me to do.
But the rules! The rules, as Scott at Alameda Bicycle put it, “made for an interesting and entertaining read.” All bicycles must be pre-1988 in manufacture or style. No mountain bikes or cyclocross bikes, road bikes only. Downtube shifters or non-indexed bar end shifters, threaded headsets only (threadless not coming around until the 90’s), etc. Even the saddles had to be vintage or new but of vintage style. Think Brooks saddles and you’re on the right track. All brake levers *must* be of the non-aero variety, with the brake lines running to the tops of the hoods. No clipless pedals, either. They were too modern, even though they’d been invented in 1971, 17 years before the equipment cutoff date of 1988.
Which, honestly, really highlights the overall ambiguity of the whole thing. Sprinkled liberally throughout the event site are references to vintage this or that, but nowhere does it specifically state *what* vintage the organizers want. There are no eras or years specifically highlighted. Even their promotional material is a little at odds with the rules. They say, for example, to bring metal water bottles but the promo images have a guy with an old school Bianchi sporting plastic water bottles. Another rider is rocking a 7-11 jersey, which didn’t exist until the 80’s. Erm, OK.
There appears, in short, to be a lot of room for interpretation for both equipment and clothing. It seems to come down to what the event organizer will find fashionably appropriate on the day of the ride. And whatever they find unfashionable they will not allow on the course. That, at least, is something they very clearly state.
After looking at the Eroica’s rules, there was no way I had a bike that would work even under the loosest interpretation possible. Step one was to start hunting for a bike that would. Plumbing through the mental rolodex, calls and texts were sent. Almost immediately there were hits.
Ben Witt, a friend of mine based out of Minneapolis St. Paul who works for Salsa, had two possible options—a made in Wisconsin Trek frameset and a Bridgestone setup as a flatbar townie. Rob, the owner/proprietor of Ocean Air Cycles, thought he had an older model Rambler “up in the rafters” that could be tweaked to fit the technical rules. American Cyclery in San Francisco was given as a contact from Element.ly, and they had over a dozen great vintage bikes in stock. More calls, more texts. Scott at Alameda Bicycle thought George, who also works at Alameda Bicycle, had a suitable bike but he was out of town—call back Monday. A random stranger on the Bay Farm Ferry who overheard me talking about the Eroica, said he had nearly a dozen of his old race bikes from when he raced Cat 1/2 in his younger years. If I didn’t find anything, I could check with him, he might loan me one.
Then, on Monday, pay dirt. My buddy George, who is somewhat close to my size and has immaculate taste in bikes, picked up the phone at Alameda Bicycle. Yes, he’d heard of the Eroica, had checked the rules himself out of curiousity. Yes, he had a bike that would work, a silver 1981 Zunow. It was short a few parts—stem, handlebars, brake levers, saddle, but that wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle. Without even knowing what a Zunow was, I told him I’d take it. I had faith in George’s aforementioned immaculate taste in bicycles, so whatever it was, it would probably work well and look great. And yes, looking great matters. Remember the “fashionably appropriate” part? Right.
I now had an Eroica legal bike. Or most of one, at least. But, still, I was curious. What were other people doing for their rides? I stopped by American Cyclery to find out. There I spent some time chatting with Evan Baird. Evan is a pretty young guy who has done A LOT in the cycling industry already. He’s designed multiple bikes and tires for Soma, works closely with the crew at Interloc, is the Sales Director for Rawland Cycles and also spends time working at American Cyclery. Because, apparently, he doesn’t have enough to do. Evan himself is a huge fan of older styles and designs. “That stuff is simple. It looks good and it just flat out works without being overly engineered and flashy. I love designing new things that modernize older designs without losing that simplicity,” he told me.
According to Evan, the bicycle choices were almost limitless. “Oh, man. There are early Colnagos, Masi, Schwinn Paramounts, stuff like that. We have a bunch of obscure bikes here that I’d never even heard of before working in this shop. And besides here, there’s the Internet. The Internet has really replaced swap meets. The problem is that vintage stuff has gotten really popular the last five or six years. There isn’t enough supply to meet demand, so companies like Velo Orange and Soma have started making new parts and bikes to fill that need.”
He then took me on a quick tour of some of the new bikes which could be easily modified to become Eroica legal. The New Albion Homebrew and Soma Grand Randonneur, both of which Evan had designed, are both available brand new at American Cyclery. Swap out the modern brake levers and saddle on either of them and you’d have brand spankin’ new, vintage styled, Eroica legal ride. Depending on the vintage bikes you’re looking at, it’s actually a less expensive option to buy new than old.
When asked how much interest they’d had in the event, he told me they’d fielded at least 10 requests that week for parts or service on bikes intended for the Eroica, which was pretty significant. There are a lot of vintage bike collectors floating around northern California. Apparently they were more than a little bit interested in dusting off their machinery and giving the ride a go. Towards that end, Evan pulled out a box of old brake levers, which he called “the good stuff”, which folks had been going through. There was plenty of lightly used or new old stock components floating around as well. To top it off, Soma and Nitto make brand new quill stems, and Velo Orange and Dia Compe both make brand new non-aero brake levers. Brooks and Selle San Marco make new saddles of the appropriate style.
There are even old rear derailleurs that have been retrofitted to be able to use larger, modern gearing. “Most of these bikes have pretty tough gearing compared to modern stuff, 26 tooth maximum. Old guys can’t push those gears very well, so these help them use newer gearing without breaking the rules,” Brad, the owner of American Cyclery, explained.
I know what the ride is. I sort of have a bike. I kind of understand the rules. Now I have to finish putting the Zunow together, get my “fat ass” into shape, select my “vintage” riding gear and, of course, settle on a good old school film camera to photograph the Eroica California. You can’t document something like this with digital. Everyone else can use this as an excuse to dust off their old vintage bikes, that’s fine. For me an even bigger highlight is to bust out a sweet old camera from the 60’s or 70’s and pretend I am Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa or Eugene Smith!
A person’s gotta dream, and I have to admit, I am now dreaming about the Eroica California.