Q&A: L’Eroica founder Brocci brings golden age of cycling to California

An interview with the iconoclastic founder of L'Eroica, Giancarlo Brocci, ahead of the first-ever Eroica California in Paso Robles

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

L’Eroica started in 1997 because of one man, Giancarlo Brocci, who admired the values of cycling’s past so much that he wanted to reconnect others to that heritage, one inspired by Italian history, literature, culture, and music. L’Eroica also began as a foundation for the protection and preservation of the last gravel roads in Tuscany. The ride was born and held in and around the Chianti region, with 92 “hunters of feelings and emotions,” as Brocci calls them, at the first event.

Now, the charm and effort of riding a vintage bike over rolling country hills has spread throughout the world, including events in England, Spain, and Japan, and, this year, California.

On April 12, Paso Robles, California, will host Eroica California, taking advantage of the beautiful unpaved and paved roads through the vineyards, oak-studded rolling hills, and coastal mountain ranges of San Luis Obispo County in central California. It will be the first Eroica with an ocean view.

VeloNews spoke with founder Brocci (through a translator) to learn more about the event and the L’Eroica phenomenon.

VeloNews: Why L’Eroica? Why did the world need an event like this?
Giancarlo Brocci: Why L’Eroica? Because sport needs new, credible heroes, who awaken people’s enthusiasm.

L’Eroica, in today’s world, considering how sport has been molded to business, is a return to the deep roots of cycling, rediscovering the beauty in fatigue, getting back to real needs, like hunger and thirst, which must be satisfied, or being physically tired, as opposed to stressed.

L’Eroica means pedaling along peripheral roads which require dexterity and speed but which, at the same time, distance you from the pressure of the motorized world, make you look around, rediscover your surroundings and a healthy way of life.

L’Eroica today is also an opportunity to rethink the cycling of the future, the type of cycling that is capable of attracting people to a world of adventure and unexpected events, enterprise and crisis, and of champions that we can start to trust again.

VN: How did you decide on the rule that participants must ride bikes built prior to 1987?
GB: Bit by bit we adopted this rule to establish a selection criteria. Initially, all types of bikes could participate in L’Eroica, although prizes were only given to those taking part on vintage-style bikes. Then we excluded MTBs, and from 2009 modern bikes, reserving our event exclusively to “Heroic Bikes.” The year 1987 was chosen for various reasons, but basically, bikes participating in L’Eroica must have external brake cables, down-tube shifters, and pedals with toe straps.

Bianchi is creating a special model with these characteristics; “Bianchi for L’Eroica” will provide a vintage-style bike in modern sizes, especially for young people who often have difficulty finding old bikes that are suitable.

VN: What is the golden age of cycling, in your opinion? Is it in the past or future?
GB: For us Italians, the golden age of cycling coincides with the sporting duel of the century, between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. Their rivalry told of a deep passion that involved and divided the whole country, well beyond the reaches of their battle on the road. Their victories also marked the rebirth of Italy in relation to the rest of the world, following World War II.

Here again the bike prevailed over the arrogance of the motor; cycling was on the front pages of all our newspapers and the feats of the cyclists, more recounted than witnessed, became legend overnight. Ask me about that era of cycling and you’ll get an obvious answer — the answer was the creation of L’Eroica. You must start from cycling’s amazing past if you wish to rebuild the future of this great sport.

It is no surprise that my idea to bring professional cycling to the white roads — obviously considered folly by the experts — was met with huge world acclaim: Strade Bianche [for professional riders] was followed by the Montalcino stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2010, and the inclusion of a cobblestoned stage in the Tour de France.

VN: Would you like today’s professionals to use less sophisticated bikes?
GB: Without exaggerating with the nostalgia, I think that something can be done to restore the original traits of cycling. I am not a great technical or mechanical expert, but I am happy to see that efforts are being made to stop hyper-technology from distorting an essentially beautiful vehicle. All too often, safety is sacrificed in the quest for speed and performance. It is also useful to remember that the Tour de France forbade the use of gears until 1937. Not putting limits on the use of gears leads to a type of uphill cycling that is in no way “historical” and is decidedly unromantic to watch.

VN: Who are your favorite professionals today? Is there anyone who reminds you of past greats? Are there any heroes in cycling today?
GB: I would say [Vincenzo] Nibali and [Fabio] Aru, because they are talented and they are both good and serious athletes; and [Fabian] Cancellara for his physique and showmanship.

Of course they could remind us of past greats but today’s cycling is in the hands of trainers and rule-makers: without asking them, it is difficult to understand when we’ll be able to rekindle our enthusiasm. We will end up losing interest and that is the worst thing that can happen to any passion.

The young pro cyclists of today are already heroes just by virtue of the fact that they have chosen such a difficult sport in the 21st century. [In the past, cycling] was a relatively easy choice for most people, as the choice was simply between various [difficult professions], and as the great Alfredo Martini once said, “At least cycling means that you get to eat in restaurants often.” Today, top-level cycling is not a need, it’s a vocation; cyclists should automatically be put on a pedestal.

But, those who manage today’s cyclists don’t want them to be heroes; restrained by the business of sport, [pro cyclists] receive highly specialized training to reach their “peak” performance; they get thinner and thinner, it’s terrible to watch, crazily pushed on by the power-to-weight ratio.

Let them eat! Introduce a minimum body weight. Then they will be attractive to watch again, and they will last more than one month a year. One of our L’Eroica mantras is: “From heroic cycling to the sweet life,” when cyclists were good-looking sex symbols, not to be pitied, like anorexic models or patients suffering from a chronic illness, queuing up for a drip.

VN: What’s your favorite thing about the bicycle?
GB: As a boy, my passion for cycling was brought to me by those around me, at the clubhouse by the old people of the village, because when there was a cycling race, there was always a party.

Then, when I went from reading about cycling to practicing the sport, my bicycle became a life companion, enabling me to discover slow tourism, a healthy lifestyle, a special sense of freedom, it helped me to lose weight — very gradually — I felt capable of great feats which were only valid in my own head. I still feel really young, although I’m now a grandfather. With good reason, the beautiful Gaiole in Chianti, my hometown and that of L’Eroica, was nominated by Forbes magazine as one of the “best places to live in the world.”

VN: The idea of L’Eroica has spread around the world. Where would you like to see it in the future?
GB: It is fantastic to see how many people, sharing the same values, also share the concept of L’Eroica. Participation is growing among young cyclists, women and English-speakers, exactly those who never knew this type of cycling. A real community is forming, of people who are happy to be together, sharing their experiences, feelings, and passion and, in some ways, a lifestyle.

After Japan and England, I went off to discover the wonderful roads around Paso Robles in California and those of the Rioja in Spain; like my own home where we have Chianti Classico and Brunello, these are also great wine regions offering gravel roads, without traffic and with breathtaking landscapes.

The future? The south of the world. I’ve seen a lot of it and it would be fantastic, during our winter, to cycle in the southern hemisphere, where cycling is younger and where it is easy to capture the idea of adventure and wide-open spaces. Where would I like to go? South Africa and Australia are the two objectives that seem closest; Argentina is my heart’s desire.

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.