(Photo: Paolo Penni Martelli)

Eighty Miles and 6,000 Vertical Feet on a $324 Bike

For this year's Eroica California, Bike Snob NYC bypassed the dream rides and went straight to mail order and Craigslist

Bike Snob NYC is living proof that it's possible to cycle 80 miles and 6,000 feet on a cheap bike.

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The Eroica are perhaps the world’s preeminent festivals for classic bike enthusiasts and collectors. What began in 1997 in Gaiole in Chianti, Italy, as a vintage-bike-only ride on the storied strade bianche of Tuscany has since embraced modern bikes as well, and it’s now a worldwide phenomenon: there are Eroica rides in Spain, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, and South Africa.

The American franchise, Eroica California, takes place in April on the stunningly beautiful central coast. This year’s edition moved west from Paso Robles to the coastal town of Cambria and featured not only the Classic vintage bike ride on Sunday, April 7, but also the Nova Eroica ride on Saturday, April 6, for modern road and gravel-type bikes, complete with timed Strava segments for the competitively inclined.

As this year’s Eroica California approached, I gave serious consideration to what I’d like to ride. Last year I bypassed vintage altogether and braved the terrain on a bicycle that predated the United States’ entry into World War I. This year I figured I’d be kind to myself by foregoing the museum pieces in favor of a bike I could shift. I also wanted to ride both the Classic Eroica and the Nova Eroica, which meant I’d need a suitable modern bike, too.

I briefly considered bringing my own bicycles with me, but flying with bikes can be expensive, thanks to those unconscionable airline fees. Bikes are also cumbersome to travel with; the only thing worse than traveling with a bicycle is traveling with a toddler. And then there’s arriving at your destination and opening your case only to find that your bicycle has sustained damage at the hands of the airline or the TSA. Plus, you get to do it all over again when it’s time to go home. Screw that, I thought.

Ultimately, a bike’s just a middleman between you and the road, and the best ones take the smallest cut.

Then it hit me: I’d simply buy the cheapest new bike I could find and have it shipped to California. And I’d hit up Craigslist for a vintage bike. Moreover, I’d allow myself to spend no more than what it would have cost me in baggage fees to fly round-trip with a couple of bikes, which on some carriers could easily exceed $500.

The biggest challenge would be sourcing bikes that would allow me to fully enjoy the ride despite my severe budget constraint. Flying across the country for the highlight of your riding season only for a bottom-bracket spindle to snap halfway up a climb would be a disaster. With just a couple of weeks to go before Eroica California, I hit the internet and started searching for the cheapest brand-new bicycle I could find that looked suitable for an 80-plus-mile ride with lots of dirt roads and over 6,000 feet of climbing. I also wanted a bike that came from an actual bicycle retailer; even if I was going to do an end run around the local bike shop, the least I could do was avoid the giant faceless retail behemoths.

Despite my very limited budget, I had a number of decent-looking options to consider, but ultimately, nothing came close to the affordability of the Brand X road bike while still being a “real” bike. Brand X is the house brand of UK mail-order retailer Chain Reaction Cycles, and for $323.99 (plus shipping), its road bike offered integrated Shimano shifting, proper drop bars, and a pretty cool-looking matte-black aluminum frame. The narrow-for-gravel 25-millimeter tires were a bit of a concern, given that significant portions of the Eroica course would be unpaved, but the customer reviews were positive, and on paper (or in pixels), it looked like it would do the job. So after consulting Chain Reaction’s size chart, I pulled the trigger and had it shipped straight to my California hotel.

(Eben Weiss)

Securing a decent vintage bike was more challenging. Shopping online for a bike—even a cheap one—is a fairly white-glove affair. Shopping on Craigslist is more latex glove, like trying to fish a wedding ring out of a clogged toilet. Moreover, there was no point in searching until the very last minute, since I certainly couldn’t ask a complete stranger to hold a bike for me, nor would I consider sending some sort of deposit into the ether.

Since I’d be flying into Long Beach before heading up the coast to Cambria, I hit the Orange County Craigslist a few hours before my flight and found a 1985 Univega Viva Sport complete with a black and red fade paint job. The ad was short on detail (“Runs great” was pretty much it), but the bike appeared to have solid Suntour components, a decent frame, and the sort of racy disposition that would make it fun to ride. It also appeared to be Eroica legal, comprised of pre-1988 vintage components. Most importantly, the price was right at $125.

We closed the deal via text message while I was heading to JFK on the subway, and we made plans for me to pick up the bike first thing the next morning.

On my first night in California, as I was settling into my hotel room, a bellhop arrived with a large Chain Reaction Cycles box on a luggage cart; a few turns of the included multitool later and my brand-new bike was ready to ride. It probably took me half as much time as it does to reassemble my travel bike with S&S couplers, and my hands stayed a lot cleaner.

The next morning, I took my new bike out into the California sun for closer inspection. The all-black color scheme wasn’t exactly thrilling, but it was certainly stealth, and it also helped camouflage the budget nature of the machine. You had to get in pretty close to see how Chain Reaction had kept the price so low: the fork was steel, the chainrings appeared to be riveted together, and the rear wheel sported a seven-speed freewheel as opposed to a cassette.

Still, a test ride along the beach bike path revealed no glaring defects, and apart from the initial spoke pinging you get from cheap machine-built wheels, the bike felt solid. I’d added the clipless pedals, bottle cages, and tool roll I’d brought with me from New York, but other than that, the bike was exactly as it had emerged from the box, pie plate and all—I didn’t even adjust the air pressure. Once I’d dialed in the saddle height and bar angle, I was optimistic that my mail-order special would be up to the task.

(Eben Weiss)

My Craigslist pickup that morning also went smoothly. At 7:30 A.M., I parked my rented minivan by a tidy house in Orange County and met a polite but not particularly talkative gentleman who looked like he was probably younger than the bike. As for the bicycle itself, he had advertised it as a size 56 centimeters, but it looked more like a 54. There was also some play in the bottom bracket, the headset was loose, the bar tape and brake hoods were a mess, and it was obvious from the cobwebs and spider eggs that it had spent most of the 21st century in a garage. But overall the bike seemed to be in rideable shape, the tires still had some meat on them, and anyway it was already Friday, and what choice did I have?

I handed over $125 without even a token attempt at haggling, and by midmorning I was heading up the coast in my Dodge Caravan with two hastily purchased bargain bikes in tow.

The weather forecast had been calling for rain in Cambria on Saturday, but by the morning of the Nova Eroica, it was obvious that we were getting sunshine instead. Conditions at the start were ideal, and riders on state-of-the-art gravel bikes mingled before a backdrop of sponsor banners, classic show bikes, and vendors offering woolen jerseys, hand-dyed cycling apparel, and vintage bike components.

With my Brand X, I added a new element to this heady dream-bike atmosphere: frugality. From a distance, the bike blended in with the rest of the carbon, steel, and titanium exotica, but it didn’t quite hold up under close scrutiny. Even the odd Surly seemed posh in comparison, and I worried that I was radiating too much smugness for having what was easily the least expensive bike there by a factor of three.

As we rolled out on the Pacific Coast Highway, keeping the beach on our right, I waited for some fatal defect in the bike to reveal itself. Chain Reaction’s sizing guide had been right on, and the bike fit me well, so no issue there. There was a bit of front derailleur rub in certain gear combinations, but otherwise the shifting was pretty snappy, especially considering I hadn’t made any adjustments at all upon taking the bike out of the box. Even the saddle seemed reasonably comfortable, if a bit squishier and foamier than I’d like. Try as I might, I couldn’t really find anything wrong with the bike. In fact, I quite liked it.

About 20 miles into the ride, we turned away from the coast and began climbing in earnest. The Brand X was by no means a light bicycle, but I didn’t particularly notice the weight—and with a low gear of 30×28, I was able to get up even the steepest pitches. On the first real descent, I did encounter a weak spot: the brakes. They were a bit spongy, possibly due to flexy calipers, flexy brake levers, the stock brake-pad compound, or maybe a combination of all three. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d notice under normal riding, and it wasn’t nearly enough to make me feel unsafe, but it did mean that twisty descents required an extra degree or two of caution.

I confirmed my suspicion that, even in today’s landscape of $10,000 gravel bikes, you’re never more than a few hundred bucks away from cycling bliss.

Given the 25-millimeter slick tires, I also had to be doubly cautious when the descents were unpaved—as many of them are at Eroica, since dirt and gravel is kind of the point. Like the brakes, the tires were perfectly adequate most of the time, but if I carried too much speed into a loose turn, they were like a Jack Russell terrier on a dental-floss leash, always on the verge of breaking free.

Those relatively minor shortcomings notwithstanding, by the halfway point of the ride, the Brand X had my full confidence, and by the time we hit the last big climb of the day (Cypress Mountain, which takes you up over a thousand feet in just over five miles), I figured an incident-free finish astride my mail-order special was all but assured—until the inevitable pinch flat on a particularly fast section of rutted dirt on the run-in to the climb. Even so, I was back on the bike and rolling within minutes, and I’m sure plenty of people managed to flat on their fancy gravel bikes, too.

Apart from the flat, I had no mechanical or equipment-related difficulties of any kind, and finishing was twice as sweet knowing my entire bike had cost half as much as most of the rear wheels I’d been sucking that day.

Sunday was the Classic Eroica. I’d opted for the 35-mile Piedras Blancas Route, a rolling out-and-back along the coast. Having already tested my limits the day before, I wanted to savor both the company and the landscape without subjecting myself to undue physical duress.

Since buying the Univega on Friday morning, I had not actually ridden it; I’d just stuffed it in the minivan like a kidnapping victim and headed straight up to Cambria. So I spent the morning of the ride getting acquainted with it. As I had suspected, the bike was smaller than advertised. In fact, even with the seatpost at maximum extension (short seatposts were typical of the presloping top-tube era), my saddle height was still about a centimeter or two shy of where I wanted it to be. It wasn’t knees-hitting-me-in-the-chin low, nor was I desperate enough to source a longer seatpost in the final hour or two before the start, but I certainly would have if I were tackling the 110-mile Heroic Route.

(Eben Weiss)

Besides the sizing issue, the bar tape was coming unraveled and the left brake hood was in an advanced state of decay. Ideally, I’d have replaced these along with the seatpost, but I figured that for now a pair of gloves would be sufficient for my purposes. Otherwise, the shifting was right on, and the tires held air, and I made only a few minor last-minute modifications. I swapped the saddle for a Brooks I’d brought with me, I added some toeclips I’d bought at Wally’s Bicycle Works Tent (they were also kind enough to tighten the knocking headset for me before the rollout), and I doused the corroded chain with a liberal amount of lube.

I’ll admit I was self-conscious about my dusty Univega. Amid all the glistening lugs and wool finery and spare tubulars wrapped in copies of La Gazzetta dello Sport, I felt like an interloper in an ill-fitting loaner tux that smelled of mothballs. I needn’t have. The prevailing spirit was one of camaraderie, and people took a genuine interest in my bike. An older gentleman on a pristine Paramount remarked on how many Univegas he’d sold back in the day, and it occurred to me that bikes like mine had essentially underwritten much of what I was seeing around me. Given this, my bike was at least as relevant to the proceedings as all those Paramounts and Masis and Colnagos.

Sliding back on the saddle to make up for the 20 millimeters of leg extension I was missing, I relaxed and settled into the ride. Hearst Castle loomed on my right, the elephant seals barked and farted on my left, and the riders of Eroica were all around me. Some had been riding for much longer than I’d been alive, others were much younger than me and engaging in the cycling equivalent of ancestor worship, but all of us shared a guileless love of cycling, and together we basked in the beauty of both the event and the scenery in stupid bliss, just like the seals who lay a bidon’s toss away.

All told I’d laid out $552.99 for my Eroica equipment, which breaks down as follows:

  • Brand X Road Bike: $323.99
  • Shipping: $64.00
  • Univega Viva Sport: $125
  • Toeclips and straps from Wally’s: $40

I easily could have spent that in bike fees had I traveled with my own, and I also could have easily recouped a good chunk of it had I turned around and sold the bikes at a deep discount before returning to New York. (Instead, I re-homed both bikes before leaving: the Brand X now lives in Berkeley, and the Univega went to the Cambria Bike Kitchen.) I also sacrificed virtually nothing in terms of cycling enjoyment; wider tires would have made the Brand X as capable as any gravel bike, and a longer seatpost and some bar tape would have made the Univega perfectly viable for an all-day ride. In fact, I probably ended up enjoying the ride more, since I got to embark on a retail scavenger hunt, and I confirmed my suspicion that, even in today’s landscape of $10,000 gravel bikes, you’re never more than a few hundred bucks away from cycling bliss.

Ultimately, a bike’s just a middleman between you and the road, and the best ones take the smallest cut.

Lead Photo: Paolo Penni Martelli