A ride back in time
The L'Eroica re-creates historic cycling race held in late 1800s
Before outdoor enthusiasts enjoyed the Grand Valley’s roads and trails perched atop bikes sporting carbon-fiber frames and sophisticated gear and suspension systems, there were simpler times.
There once existed a pure and primitive era of cycling in which man powered his single-speed, fixed-gear machine without a whole lot in the way of technological assistance.
The L’Eroica, a 102-mile race from Grand Junction to Glenwood Springs, is a pride-packed nod to that era.
A re-creation of a race held in the late 1800s and early 1900s pitting cyclists from the Roaring Fork Valley against those from the Grand Valley, L’Eroica is very much a celebration of western Colorado’s rich cycling history.
“I think it’s really cool to re-create something from back then,” said Tony Bruton, a remodel contractor who will participate in the May 18 race put on by Chris Brown of downtown Grand Junction’s Brown Cycles. “It just goes to show you that western Colorado has always been a bicycling community, even before the mountain biking and all that, which we’re known for now and is awesome.”
Brown pieced together the first modern-era L’Eroica in 2011, and it’s grown from a modest turnout of six riders that first year. Last year, roughly 25 participated and, this year, Brown anticipates a turnout between 75 and 100 cyclists hoping to conquer the old Midland Trail rail route of the early 1900s.
Brown, a history buff who has spent countless hours poring through newspaper articles and history books to make the event as authentic as possible, is somewhat surprised by his creation’s rise in popularity.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know if we could finish it that first year,” he said. “I had never ridden that road, and definitely hadn’t done it on a single-speed that was 50 years old. I didn’t know if people would like it or hate it, or if it’d take all night.”
People have embraced it, some more than others. Finishing Brown’s race is as much about embracing the past as it is pedaling to the finish in the shortest amount of time.
A points system rewards riders for their attire and bicycle of choice. The more a racer looks like he or she just stepped out of Doc Brown’s DeLorean after a ride through time from the early 20th century, the more points he or she accumulates.
Gathering for what Brown terms a “Tweed Training Ride” on a recent Sunday, Bruton fit the bill. Green knickers with high black socks, a vest atop a gray undershirt, an old-school brown hat and a carefully curled mustache perfectly complemented the replica 1913 Harley Davidson bicycle he himself cobbled together.
“When you have guys you don’t even know showing up looking like that, then you’re like, ‘He got it.’ ” Brown said, motioning toward Bruton, his longtime friend.
“I love bikes, and this is the most simple form of it, you know,” said Bruton, for whom bike building — and riding — is a go-to pastime.
For Bruton, who trained that Sunday for his first L’Eroica — riding a fixed-gear, single-speed more than 100 miles requires some training, after all — the event is a simultaneous celebration of the Grand Valley’s cycling past and present.
“It just goes to show that bicycling is so ingrained into the history of western Colorado and the Grand Valley,” Bruton said. “Seeing these guys, even with the Fruita Social Wheel Club at the turn of the century into the ‘20s, we’re building bikes to be like those bikes, but that was all they had.”
And that’s all Bruton and many fellow competitors will have on May 18. Not having an old bike doesn’t preclude one from participating in L’Eroica, but it will subtract in the points department.
The event’s roots trace back to the late 1800s, when cyclists from Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs first convened to square off in a two-wheeled showdown.
An excursion train would shuttle spectators to the race site as they rode along the race route from Basalt to Glenwood. A Grand Junction band would accompany them on the train and a bevy of post-race-activities — a baseball game, first-aid contests, awards ceremony and a swim in the Hot Springs Pool — entertained the masses.
The Midland Special train would depart that night to bring the spectators, band and cyclists back to the Grand Valley.
Brown named his version of the race after a century-old Italian race named L’Eroica, which translates to “The Heroic” in English.
The modern-day Colorado version departs outside Brown’s Main Street shop at 7 a.m. Last year, riders rolled into Glenwood between 1 and 7 p.m.
A post-race banquet at Hotel Denver — and, for many, a dip in the Hot Springs Lodge pool — awaits this year’s riders. And, much like in the old days, many will make the train ride back to Grand Junction.
Of course, short of hopping a freight train, they won’t be headed back the same day in true vintage fashion.
“They’d hit the pool and come home,” said Brown, who will be atop a 1916 Indian for this year’s L’Eroica. “Our train leaves the next day at 1.”
But, without Doc Brown’s DeLorean time-traveling technology, Chris Brown does his best to achieve authenticity.
“It just seemed like an awesome idea,” Bruton said. “It’s a really cool race, just fun-hearted, you know. I think it kind of takes you back to a time when life was a little more simple. Bicycles were definitely more simple, and it’s like man vs. machine vs. the elements.”