Friday, February 3, 2017

Eroica California 2016

The Spring 2016 Eroica California was the second edition of this vintage bicycle rally and festival held in the Paso Robles region of California’s Central Coast. The featured marque was Masi and coinciding with this, the weekend events kicked-off with a special VIP dinner attended by actor Dennis Christopher and with a screening of the 1979 film he starred in “Breaking Away,” a coming-of-age story in which he plays the lead character, rides a Masi racing bicycle, and loves all things Italian.

Going to Eroica generates a great feeling of anticipation. The vintage bikes, the roads, setting and interesting people make for a memorable vintage bike event. Saturday’s activities included a bike festival with a small swap meet section, sponsor and vendor booths and the vintage bicycle Concours d'Elégance (contest of elegance) and judging. There were rain showers during the day and the Concours took place in the main tent that would be used for the dinner later in the evening. The Concours this year was a showcase for Italian and other notable vintage bicycles. These included some amazing examples of major Italian makers and other more obscure brands. An early Brambilla with an adjustable stem stood out, in all it’s weathered glory.

The best of show was a Masi Grand Criterium that had originally been purchased by the owner when he was a teenager. It had been reconditioned at one point. Usually the judges prefer bikes in original condition (there is a separate category for reconditioned bikes), but they also like a good story behind the bike and the owner.

The dinner took place that evening with appearances by the Eroica bike rally series founder Giancarlo Brocci, who spoke in Italian with an English translator, former racer Andy Hampsten, who was at the 2015 event returned again, the only American to have won the Giro d'Italia, and actor Dennis Christopher. Veteran racer Luciano Berruti was also present again this year, with his 1899 Eagle Quad single speed that he rides with #1 on his jersey and bike. When he's not riding Eroica events, he's purveyor of Museo della Bicicletta in Cosseria, Italy.

At the dinner, I happened to sit at a table with Yoshiro Kato, an elder statesman of cycling and owner of Kato Cycles of Nagoya Japan. He was with his son, Shin and they were both there for Eroica and to attend the Sea Otter bicycle event taking place the following week near Monterey. Mr. Kato had a vintage bike of his own name and Shin was riding a very early orange Fuji Racer with beautiful chrome details. I don’t speak Japanese and they could speak limited English, but we could both speak the language of bicycles.

After riding the innaugural Eroica California event in 2015 (see Bicycle Quarterly #55, Spring 2016) and seeing such a dominance of Italian bikes, I thought it would be fun to rebuild a vintage French bike to ride in the 2016 event. In March 2015 I acquired a late 1950s Urago frameset in original condition. The frame seems lightweight for it's time, possibly Vitus tubing.

Over the following months I rebuilt it with vintage French components. Founded in 1901 in Nice, France, Urago had a long history of bicycles. It's factory closed in 1972 and their shop in Nice at 17 Avenue de la République, switched to motorcycles in 1997. It finally closed in 2008.

Urago made a variety of bicycle frames, many with highly finished Nervex lugs and chrome details. As a company founded by Italian emigrés, a Urago was the perfect crossover for Eroica. The frame I acquired has Nervex ornate lugs, a long fork offset, Simplex drop-outs and room for fenders so probably a sportif bike. It still had it’s original weathered black paint, with a red primer coat underneath showing in a few places and the original decals. Still on the seat tube was a dealer decal reading “E. Gamard, Cycles - CycloMoteurs, Agence, Peripagnan, France.” Emile Gamard was a successful racer in the 1930s.

I built-up a set of 700c wheels myself with vintage Atom alloy hubs and Super Champion Model 58 rims. 700x32 tires fit with enough room for Weinmann alloy short fenders. For gearing I added a Stronglight 49D crankset with 47 and 28 chainrings and a 14-26, 5-speed freewheel. This year, with a lowest gear of 28x26 I was able to stay on the bike on the tougher gravel climbs, The big difference in chainrings created some amusingly abrupt changes in pace, shifting to the inner ring while powering up on some of the climbs, but the set-up allowed plenty of gearing and slightly lighter weight.

The morning of the ride I rode from the motel to a cafe near the main square and had a nice chat with a rider from Arizona on an Alex Singer and his daughter who was riding a beautiful vintage Rossin. On the Singer, he said he’d unknowingly bought the bike, that had no decals, for $40 at a Goodwill store. When he’s mentioned it to other vintage bike fans, people have said, “Oh, YOU’RE that guy!” (word of the barn find had quickly spread through forums)

Coincidentally, this year’s Eroica rides took place on the same day as the oldest of the European one-day "classic" races, Paris-Roubaix. The weather for the Paso Robles area was forecast for rain and given that various sections of the ride would be on gravel, it was hard to tell how muddy it might be. The geology of the Paso Robles, however, consists of a fair amount of sedimentary soils. Even though there was rain on the days before the weekend event, most of the gravel roads absorbed the rain and there were very few places that were actually muddy and most all of the gravel sections I rode were in great shape.

The area of Paso Robles provides spectacular riding, especially in the spring. Rows of vineyards are highlighted by the varying topography and the many hills are green, sprinkled with yellow mustard flowers. The morning of the ride, there was very light coastal rain, but not enough to warrant even wearing a rain jacket. At the start, groups were staggered at intervals. By the first climbs riders spread out and you could go at your own pace not being crowded by groups as in larger cycling ride events.

I started the ride with tires at about 95 PSI. I had been riding Panaracer Pasela TGs previously, that are great tires, but they can feel a little sluggish in the wider sizes. Compass Stampede Pass tires, with their lightweight casing ride very responsively. These tires, combined with the newly built-up wheels and stiff Stronglight cranks with their narrow Q-factor width, the Urago was especially responsive on climbs. Urago was a small frame builder often having to compete with much larger bicycle brands, so they tended to put more into their handmade frames.

At 95 PSI the tires felt fast on the pavement, on the light gravel they felt pretty good as well, but the tires really seemed to come alive after I dropped the pressure slightly to between 85-90. At this pressure the bike absorbed the bumps but still seemed to handle excellent without feeling sluggish. Towards the end of the ride, not having full fenders some of the wet dirt accumulated on the chain that started to affect the shifting with the large difference in the chainring teeth, but mostly ok. The Compass tires were a perfect complement to this vintage lightweight Urago. Although the bike was over 50 years old it felt new with these tires.

Not knowing how well such an old Urago would do on a distance, I rode the short route this year. Having ridden last year’s medium event in the heat I thought the short route might be boring, but it wasn’t at all. The constant rolling hills were all the more interesting. With the gypsy guitar music of Django Rheinhart going through my head (“Twelfth Year”), each turn and hill revealed a new section of this splendorous area. Along the way it was fun to see so many different riders of all ages and the variety of vintage bikes from the US, Europe as well as Asia.

The routes had better markings this year, with more route signs, plus color coded arrow markers on the asphalt that more clearly indicated each of the three routes and where they split up that was very helpful.

At the rest stop at Olea Olive farm, we were served the traditional lunch of French fries and homemade garlic tomato sauce, plus a flat bed truck was filled with bananas and tangerines.
At Olea, I had a nice chat with Sasha from Citizen Chain in San Francisco, who was riding a sleek gray vintage Albert Eisentraut bike with his distinctive logo signature. Eisentraut, a long time frame builder in San Francisco Bay Area, who has taught many others his craft.

After this second checkpoint, the riders were spread out now, and one could enjoy the scenery along the route. In one section of white-ish gravel was highlighted against dark clouds in the distance, creating a dramatic landscape.

While many riders were older, there were a few younger riders participating. There was a father with his teenage son and daughter all riding Mondia bikes and custom matching racing themed T-shirts. John Fitzgerald, a frame builder based in Santa Rosa rode one of his beautiful randonneur bikes with a traditional fillet/lug combination on the head tube and seat stays that extend beyond the seat tube (similar to the frames of Jo Routens).

After finishing the short route, I was left wanting more… Overall this was another great cycling event, especially suited for vintage lightweight steel bikes.

As fans of classic Italian and other vintage bicycles grow older, while others discover and learn to appreciate traditional steel vintage bicycles anew, who will be the next generation of Eroica riders?

© 2016 Mark Eastman