PASO ROBLES — Eroica, pronounced EH-ROY-KA, means “hero” in Italian. The very first ride was in 1997 in Tuscany’s Gaiole (now formally a sister city to Paso Robles) in Chianti, Italy and has grown to nine locations around the world including the UK, South America, Italy and Japan. The only ride in the United States takes place right here in Paso Robles.
Last weekend, Eroica partnered with Hospice of SLO County for its third year attracting more than 900 vintage cycling enthusiasts and a smattering of spectators from all around the world. While 900 may seem like a lot, it pales in comparison to more established Eroica events. For instance, the UK event alone had 4,500 participants with more than 35 thousand spectators in 2015.
California Director Wes Hatayekama, a 45-year resident of the North County, is responsible for bringing the event to Paso Robles. While experiencing an Eroica ride in Italy, Hatayekama met the founders and they discussed the possibility of bringing the ride to the U.S., specifically California. The founders were eyeing Napa Valley but Hatayekama convinced them that North San Luis Obispo County was the place to be.
“It's better than Napa, not so crowded and there is a very unique culture here in Paso Robles,” Hatayekama said.
Riders, 95 percent of whom were from outside San Luis Obsipo County, assembled at the starting point in the Paso Robles Downtown City Park at 7 a.m. Sunday. The energy was electric. “The Italians,” including Eroica founders John Carlo Brucci and Luciano Berruti, took up the entire front line and added quite a bit of levity to the point where Hatayekama, attempting to give final directions and cautions to the crowd, had to shout, “Italians shut up!” As the crowd burst into laughter, Berruti false started only to entertain the crowd with some slapstick tricks on his 1907 Peugot bicycle and finally, by 7:30 a.m. the crowd was brought back to order and groups of 50 were released in staggered starts every 10 minutes.
Participants are required to wear apparel and use gear — including their bikes — made before 1987. There were four routes to choose from: 40 miles, 70 miles, 87 miles or the “Heroes' Ride” at 127 miles which winds from the flats of east side Paso Robles, through Templeton all the way out to the coast and back. With massive hills and the gravel roads the ride can be brutal which is befitting of the the Eroica motto, “The beauty of fatigue and the thrill of the conquest.”
“This was a strange year, with all the rain, it was an especially hard ride," Hatayekama said. "With all the unpaved roads…these older bikes are very heavy. And we encourage riders to fix their own flat tires, not wait on the support vehicles. It’s a beautiful thing to see everyone helping each other and supporting each other. It works everywhere around the world, that’s what makes our event unique.”
Whether or not this unique and inspiring event will continue is yet to be seen. While Hospice of SLO County provided more than 200 hundred volunteers in return for a $25,000 contribution from Eroica, many more volunteers are needed.
“They (the volunteers) not only help with registration and logistics but run the ham radios, the support vehicles and being that 25% of the route is required to be on unpaved roads, you can imagine there are a lot of flat tires,” says Gracie Rey, local Hospice director and lead volunteer.
“Greater financial sponsorship and support from the city of Paso Robles will be needed as well,” Hatayekama said.
The City of San Luis Obispo has been vying for Eroica to move its operation south of the grade. Yet even after several large financial contributions, Hateyekama insists that the North County area is far superior for the event in regard to terrain and amenities.
One downtown business owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they would like to see the City give greater support to events like Eroica in the future.
"Eroica has the potential to bring in thousands of well-heeled visitors from around the world that are encouraged to patronize local shops and restaurants," the business owner said. "They actually eat, shop and drink while they are in town unlike the ‘free’ events sponsored by the city that attract locals that simply come in and out of the park without purchasing any more than a pizza and maybe a few beers from the Firestone truck. While those things are great for the local community spirit, they don’t do anything for my bottom line, they can actually hurt."
To participate as a rider or a volunteer next year you can join “Eroica California” on Facebook and start collecting that vintage gear. Who knows, you might still have some in your parents’ attic.