We arrive late, pulling into the small parking lot at Kila School in northwestern Montana (just south of Kalispell), hoping we have enough time to register and get our gear loaded onto the truck before the ride starts. The parking lot teems with nearly a hundred and fifty exuberant cyclists removing bikes from racks, and making their way to the registration line, to the jersey pick up line, to the line where you get your bike inspected.
Doris in Wonderland
My first organized cycling event, and so far it is everything I could have hoped. A near sensory overload, the landscape awash with color, sound, smell; a sea of jerseys, bicycles, a metallic perfume punctuating the air, beneath a subtle grey sky alluding to rain. I’m Doris in Wonderland (Doris is the slang name of newbie female cyclists) feeling very much that I have fallen through an enchanted hole in the earth to some surreal world that begs of adventure. I worry that at any moment I’ll be woken up from this wonderful dream, “Doris. Doris. It’s time to wake up.” Instead my friend taps me on the shoulder and tells me we need to hurry.
But, before proceeding with this adventure I must detail more accurately the landscape of my story. You, Reader, may have the image of a group of adrenaline soaked racers clad in full Lycra kit, straddling carbon-fiber race bikes. Not so. We are the frozen figures of an aging photograph brought back to life and set into motion, resurrecting another time, and erasing the present.
This two-day, one hundred and fifteen mile odyssey by bike is of a particular variety attracting a particular breed of rider. We aren’t here to raise money or awareness for any cause, event or organization. Nor are we here with the promise of a trophy, or special colored jersey to be awarded to the first to cross the finish line, except for a cold beer, and everybody who makes it to Alameda Resort gets to drink as much beer as he likes. Finally, if you show up with a ten thousand dollar ultra light carbon fiber bike you’ll very much out of place.
Cino Heroica is a celebration of cycling, particularly the early days of European cycling. Some call this the Golden Age of Cycling, (every great thing deserves its golden age!) with dates that fluctuate and change depending on the historian, or writer’s personal bias and inclinations. For our purposes we’ll say it begins at the turn of the century, when the design of bicycle reached a culminating point in terms of form and function to when Greg LeMonde won his first Tour de France in 1984 when the next major shift in bike building took place with the advent of lighter weight materials.
Think Fausto Caupi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, riding handmade steel-framed bikes by Bianchi and Peugeot, wearing wool jerseys with grinning, tanned faces. Or even further back to the nameless riders gulping down beer after reaching the top of the Col du Tourmalet, spare tubes draped around their necks, sharing a cigarette. Think of the muddy, storied Paris-Roubaix and you’ll get a glimpse into the soul of Cino Heroica.
But at this point I’m slipping into a pink wool jersey with Cino Heroica emblazoned across the breast in a typography that would be fitting a café in Venice or Rome, and not contemplating the idea of what it means to be Cino. Like Alice, it’s all I can do keep up with the strange inhabitants of this intriguing world in which I have become gloriously lost. Only two hours from home, it feels that I’ve travelled farther than that, or rather deeper into that Golden Age, giddy with the understanding that a rare privilege has been afforded me.
We are called together as a group to listen to Cino Heroica founder, Reed Gregerson’s “sermon,” before departing. Standing on the bed of a truck, his chin length hair slicked back, wearing a tweed jacket Reed looks very much like a pastor from a bygone era ready to deliver a sermon to a wandering tribe of like-minded souls. He proceeds to tell us just what it means to be Cino. I have a notebook and pen tucked into my back pocket with the intention of recording every moment of this journey, but like most uninitiated travelers, I forget it, drunk on all that’s happening around me. I can feel my cheeks aching from the grin that has eclipsed my face, and that will remain like this for the entire weekend.
The idea of Cino Heroica came to Reed Gregerson seven years ago when, at the age of fifty, he took up cycling after a long absence. Gregerson was a top ten finisher of the World Championship Iron Man Hawaii. Like many people who get married, have kids, and work demanding jobs, he gave up racing in exchange for leisurely rides with his kids on Saturday afternoons.
As he got older he started looking more carefully at people his age, “ I saw people my age who were aging well, and some who weren’t aging well. So I started riding again,” says Gregerson, as I spoke with him in the day’s following the 2013 Cino Heroica. “The bikes I had in my garage were from the seventies and the eighties and so that’s what I rode. At that same time I learned about a ride in Italy called, L’Eroica, where cyclists ride together to celebrate the roots of cycling and to preserve those old white gravel roads that are a part of their cycling heritage. I thought it sounded pretty cool, but didn’t have the money at the time to ride in Italy so I thought, why not do something like that here in Montana?” Reed had the route already mapped out in his mind beginning in Kila, bypassing the highway in a traverse on dirt and gravel roads to the town of Hot Springs, some sixty miles south of Kila. He called his good friend, Craig Christopherson, and asked if he was up for doing a L’Eroica ride in Montana. “I thought he’d laugh at the idea, but instead he said let’s do it!” That first year there were seven riders, a couple of them on old road bikes, most on mountain bikes. The following year, there were fifteen riders, a few more opting for road bikes. Each year the ratio of vintage road bikes to mountain bikes grew in favor of the road bike.
Now, in it’s seventh year with nearly a hundred and fifty cyclists, in order to be considered Cino, a bike must meet three of the following: steel-frame, preferably built before 1987, non-indexed shifting, old style clip pedals and straps, single speed, downtube shift levers, tubular tires, fixed gear. No carbon frames or suspension forks allowed. The folks at Cino have been fairly forgiving. The bike I rode this year met only two of the criteria, and aside from a few friendly jabs at my expense and having to endure the shame of knowing I wasn’t truly Cino, nobody cared too much. I was however strongly encouraged to find a more Cino bike if I was planning on returning in 2014. Authors note: I’ve already begun my search.
“For garb, we like to see wool clothing, leather shoes, hairnet helmets and white socks of course,” the Cino website instructs. This, happily, is one ride where you don’t have to wear an ANSI approved helmet.
Cino riders take this seriously. A long-time Cino rider from Seattle says that back home he rides his old bike and wears wool jerseys and his rider friends give him grief for being weird. Finding Cino, he said, was like coming out of the closet. He’d found a place with people like him, who shared his love of the bike and all things cycling.
Why else would riders leave behind their light weight race bikes and their Lycra, their cell phones and internet access, to ride up, and down unmaintained gravel roads in the sun, heat, and sometimes rain on heavy bikes that have otherwise lost their relevancy in the modern world that is all about speed and efficiency, if not for a love of cycling? First time Cino rider, Lane Wilkinson, returning from his second trip to Tuscany to participate in L’Eroica, was lamenting the fact that there wasn’t anything like in the states, when a friend told him about Cino. He signed up right away. For him, being Cino means slowing down and enjoying the finer things. “Handmade bikes, good food, connecting with people who share the same passion. This is how life should be. It really is very Italian, to revel in the simple pleasures.”
Cino is not for the rider looking to post a record time on Strava, nor is it for the Hipster looking for a place to try out his new fixed gear and indulge a bit in history. It’s become fashionable to pull apart certain aspects of the past, draping ourselves in the accouterments of history. But for what purpose? In the process, the authentic gets devoured and spit back out in the form of kitsch. The great Franco-Czech writer, Milan Kundera contemplated the concept of kitsch in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and said of it, “…it is the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.”
Somewhere between the modern world with its allure of speed, and that world of kitsch, best exemplified by the Hipster, is a narrow, hard to find landscape of authenticity. And it’s a lucky few who find it. “Riding a bike can be about many things,” a fellow rider, long-time cyclist, and Cino before there was Cino, told me. “Sometimes riding a bike is about searching, about finding the truth, about suffering, and self discovery.”
I discovered Cino in 2012, after purchasing my first road bike. Cino spoke of style, elegance and a love of the bicycle and cycling. In short, everything I’d hoped to find when I started riding.
As I take off on my bike that cloudy September morning from the Kila School parking lot at the head of the pack (the first and only time I would find myself in this position) with Reed’s sermon fresh in my mind, it is a scene from the movie, E.T. The Extraterrestrial that suddenly appears to me. I’ve been asked by friends and family who don’t bike, what appeal there is for me in spending hours on a bike, or what it is that I like about the sport? How does one accurately describe a passion? And must we feel compelled to defend it to others? Sometimes it’s enough to acknowledge it and be thankful for it when you recognize it. For me that moment came when I was pedaling my bike, smelling of wool and riding with a childlike joy without a helmet that Eliot and his alien friend appeared in my mind like a vision. It dawned on me that it could very well be this movie that was the origin of my passion for cycling and a strong attraction to that particular machine.
I was the same as age as the central character, Eliot, and like him felt at odds with the adults who lorded over me, impressing their will upon me. It was as if Steven Spielberg had found a way inside my head and plucked from it all my thoughts and feelings. It was the first time too I’d begun to contemplate those questions that we all grapple with: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? When Eliot and his band of misfits take off, trailing off the earth behind, leaving in their wake the stunned, outraged, but helpless adults that was the beginning of my love affair with the bicycle. The bike became a symbol of my search for, and means to freedom. From then on, whenever I sat atop the saddle of my Schwinn ten-speed I felt as if I were flying away and leaving behind a world that was not mine.
As an adult I understand that taking off on my bike won’t transport me very far, and if it does I eventually have to return home. And so it would be just as easy to become sentimental about that Golden Age of cycling when riders rode without helmets, when wine was the athlete’s recovery drink, and when amphetamines were handed out to cyclists without much thought or concern for either the cyclist’s health or what it meant to the sport. But of course those times were no more perfect, or imperfect, than our own. And if we only take away from it the wool jerseys, Merckxs’ beautiful riding, and the appeal of an old vintage bike without putting it into context we’re nothing more than poseur’s in search of the beautifying lie.
Gregerson states with conviction, “Cino is a step back in time and for two days we all have a change of attitude. It’s not about getting from point A to point B in record-breaking time. And it isn’t about putting on a wool jersey because it’s cool to wear vintage jerseys. Cino is a journey in and of itself. It’s about how you get there and why you’re going.”
If you’re still not sure about what it means to be Cino, if like me you relish the idea and spirit of Cino, but can’t quite let go of that need to win, the first thirty miles of the ride will change your mind. By the time you arrive at pranza you’ll be set right. Pranza, which is Italian for “to lunch” isn’t the activity of shoveling food substances such as gels or supercharged jellybeans into your mouth while pedaling down a paved road with semi-trucks racing past you. Pranza is a way of eating that reflects a celebration of life, and living. As I got off my bike at the half-way point, my breathing labored from the final climb into this narrow valley on the banks of a trailing creek, I saw riders sitting on white tarps spread beneath the shade of cottonwood and pine trees, or in the sun that gave the late-summer grass a golden-hue and realized what it meant to be Cino. Riding hard, not racing. Elegance and style, not fashion. Disconnecting from the landscape of our modern existence and riding for the sake of the ride and a camaraderie with fellow riders, both those living and those long past this world.
Pranza was served on tables covered in white-starched linen, beneath billowing white tents, an assortment of breads, cheeses, meats, fruits, salads, along with wine, beer, sparkling water and juice. With no cell phone service or access to the Internet we were forced to sit face to face and talk with one another in a manner that really isn’t too far removed from us, but that at times feels very much in our distant past. “I own a high tech company,” says Gregorson, “so I’m not a Luddite, but I do appreciate getting a break from those things.” And as we sat there with nothing beeping, ringing, or singing at us, we began to feel it too, this break both literally and metaphysically from the world in which we are firmly planted.
We lunched for two hours, perhaps more, as at some point we stopped looking at our watches, samping dishes provided by each rider, potluck style, and transported via an old Suburban dating from the mid-century to this remote, tranquil landscape. I had every intention of eating in a timely manner so as to make it to that imaginary finish line ahead of some imaginary group of competitors when my riding compatriot sighed and said to me, “I’m not in any hurry. I think we should take our time,” and so we accepted another glass of wine and stretched out under the shade of a tree forgetting the world we’d left behind.
The first leg of the ride took us through alpine forest, the second half of our journey was open countryside with fields of freshly cut hey, tall, dry grasses burned by the late summer heat, and the occasional farmhouse in the distant horizon. After our long lunch, the heat felt hotter, the sun’s rays more penetrating, and our bellies lulled into a state that wanted relaxation and not the traverse over rock and gravel that waited. But in the spirit of Cino, championing those riders of the past, we found in us some ancient reserve of grit, and rode hard on to the day’s end.
Reaching Hot Springs we are greeted by the owner of Alameda Resort, Paul Stelter. With wispy, longish blonde hair, he appears before us, arms spread wide with welcome, like a desert apostle, or an old surfer who has found himself far inland, and pleased with the change in scenery, decides to stay for some undetermined time that becomes a lifetime. A living relic from the past who doesn’t own a cell phone, as there is no need for one here, nor does he seem to miss not having the Internet. He is both den mother and tour guide to us, making sure we knew when dinner will be served, and where the best showers are to be found, and reminding us to keep ourselves under control, as the festivities get under way. One rider from the last year’s Cino Heroica got carried away and kept the other riders, and the town of Hot Springs awake all night yelling: “I’m going to Cino all night long.” Nobody wanted a repeat, although that same rider was back, and had become a Cino Legend. Distance seems to put a finer sheen on certain things.
For the evening meal it was suggested that we dress appropriately. The information on the Cino website issued this advice: “We won’t give you a hard time if you prefer shorts and a T-shirt, but if you want to identify with the bicycling greats, you start by dressing like one. Fausto even dressed cool when he rode, and it was a linen suit when he didn’t.”
Here again, the cyclists fully embraced the spirit of Cino and dressed in everything from cocktail dresses to period pieces dating from the 1920’s, with men in linen suits, knickers, and ascots; a well proportioned mélange spanning that Golden Age. We dined al fresco beneath dripping cottonwood trees in the early evening as the sun was setting, and cheering for the occasional rider just finishing his day’s ride. I wonder about their journey.
After the last bottles of wine and champagne were being served there was an award ceremony, paying homage to the riders. The L’Eroica rider, Lane Wilkinson won the “white tape handlebar” award for the rider who best exemplified the spirit of Cino. The festivities continued on into the night as we collectively descended on the sleepy town of Hot Springs at one of the two bars for dancing, drinking, and a bit of debauchery.
I woke the following morning feeling better than I should I have given my quest to Cino all night long. Good enough anyway to eat a bit, and drink a couple of cups of coffee. The sky was overcast with heavy, rain filled clouds for which I was thankful.
Day Two, though shorter in distance, provided cyclists with the chance to ride what one seasoned Cino rider called a climb of “six miles of Hell.”
My friend and I opted not to imbibe our spirits with alcohol at pranza that day, saving ourselves for the hellish climb promised us, and because the weight of returning to the world of cell phones, emails, and jobs was becoming real. Exuberant celebration became resignation, and the bittersweet feeling at having been a part of something inextricably rare and wonderful, and fleeting, as we have no choice but to return to our own time. The great German author, Thomas Mann, wrote in his epic-novel, The Magic Mountain, “A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries.” It is why Alice has to step back through the looking glass, and why we modern riders have to return home, to face the emails that warrant our urgent attention, the homework left unfinished by our children while we are away, and yes, the allure of the race bike sitting and waiting impatiently in the garage, all the trappings and necessities that enable us to live in this world that is ours.
As if feeling our collective poignancy, the sky grumbles with thunder and it begins to sprinkle rain. It is time to get a move on. We eat quickly, setting off for the pass, and finally, our descent back into Kila. My friend and I part ways at the climb, he being a much stronger rider than me, and agree to meet each other at the top.
And it was a formidable climb, the kind of hill that makes you wonder why you’re doing this to yourself and longing for that lightweight bike you left in your garage. Upon reaching the top I had just enough time to reflect on the suffering I’d endured and the heroics I’d employed during that same suffering to the top, when the sky opened up with a downpour of cold rain. Yes, I told myself, a very fitting end to this ride.
I was not equipped with rain gear, not because it would have been unCino of me, but because I’m not an organized planner or packer. I’ve done okay with my method of putting things together at the last minute, and despite the rain that was pelting down on me I had no regrets about not throwing my rain jacket in with my other gear. By the time I reached the bottom I was splattered in mud, and soaked wet through to my skin, shivering from the cold, and feeling heroic, as I’d found that thread of history binding myself, if only for the moment, to the venerated denizen’s of the past, and possibly grasping a shred of truth in the importance of being Cino.