So, I have been musing about the deeper meaning of this Eroica thing. You know, that vintage bicycle event, where people of all ages, genders and fitness levels dress up in retro gear and haul themselves and their outdated steel frame machines up and down the gravelly hills of Tuscany – for no apparent prize or reward whatsoever.
An email from one of the participants put things in perspective for me. Elena, pictured below, explained that she carried with her, for the full 135 km, her first set of skis from her childhood. Apparently she grew up in the foothills of the Alps, and when she was small her parents used to cycle to the ski resorts. This, I guess is where she got her lasting love of all things naturey – she now runs an outdoor-activity-holidays business for a living.
But, back to the skis at L’Eroica. Although small in size they can only have made the ride more difficult for her, they served no purpose on the day, and yet she deliberately brought them along. Now, why would she do that? And why have been finding myself thinking about restoring my grandmother’s bike from 1958 to take part in the race next year? (This borders on insanity, as the bike has no gears and weighs half a tonne, right?) In fact, why would anyone, in their right frame of mind, not choose a modern, comfortable, lightweight bike, and cycle it on decent concrete roads? What made 4,000 people choose to do things the hard way on Oct 2nd this year?
Well, let’s consider for a moment who else voluntarily puts themselves through such ridiculous hardships. Mountain climbers. Arctic adventurers. Sometimes humans engage in practices that seem to contradict our basic needs for comfort and survival. There are, of course, emotional rewards in doing something difficult, in challenging yourself and succeeding. Getting to the mountain top. Reaching the North Pole. Such feats bestow upon the person the right to feel pride, and often a higher level of status as compared to us mere mortals who prefer to explore mountains via the telly.
But, what strikes me about L’Eroica is not just the voluntary suffering. It is also the treasured objects, the childhood skis, the jersey worn by the rider’s father twenty years ago now resurrected by the son. Any of the vintage bicycles that were used on the day. Painstakingly and carefully restored, the bikes are clearly precious to their owners, imbued with meanings and values that someone outside the vintage bicycle community might not immediately ‘get’. They are magical objects, sacred totems, as Durkheim would say, and riding them, wearing them, or carrying them with you through the heat and dust, allows you to connect with something out-of-the-ordinary. It transports you away from everyday life, to another realm, where past and present collapse into something simpler. Where your entire being is focussed on getting up the next hill, to the next checkpoint, to the finish line.
I think of L’Eroica as a modern form of pilgrimage. No longer tied to any creed or religious organisation, it is a spiritual ritual in is simplest form. There is you. And the bike. And perhaps a magical object or two, to help you invoke whatever values or memories you have invested in them.
For Durkheim, religious ritual held society together. Here, it creates in the participants a feeling of belonging to a community, even though it is a temporary one. I discussed that in my last post. But it also sets the ‘heroic’ vintage riders apart from their contemporary counterparts with their light carbon frames and aerodynamic helmets. It reinforces in them particular values and ways of being. It is an annual ritual that celebrates the past and allows participants to step back into it, away from the individualism, consumerism and competitiveness that characterise life in the present. To enter a time when hard work, beautiful craftsmanship and participation counted more than coming first. When all that really mattered was getting up that dusty hill.
More pictures here.