L’EROICA BRITANNIA

IT’S BEEN three full days now since L’Eroica Britannia and, if truth be told, I am struggling settling back down to normality. Fact is, I am gutted it ever had to end. T’was almost like a love affair.
My vintage steed – a Pete Matthews original and previously owned by ‘The Champ’ himself, in case you’re asking – is still covered in dust from traversing the UK’s version of ‘Strade bianchi’ and I am reluctant to clean it just yet, as if doing so would somehow erase those wonderful memories.
I also keep looking back at the pictures on my phone like a proud new parent, eager to show off their newborn to anyone who shows the slightest interest. Thing is, I am starting to annoy people that I work with, as they have no interest in cycling whatsoever. Yet, I don’t care. I am still on Cloud Nine. Sod them.
There are some rides in your life that just seem to make all those hours pedalling in crap weather worthwhile and the first-ever hosting of the famous L’Eroica on British soil not only lived up to exceptions, it bloody surpassed them.
For those of you who have had your heads buried in the sand, L’Eroica is a Tuscan vintage bike race in which middle-aged lads and lasses roll out bikes most have probably owned since they were nippers, cleaned them up a bit and then ride them to near oblivion over all kinds of terrain.
Obviously, there is a little bit more to it than that. For starters, only bikes made prior to 1987 can enter and riders are encouraged to dress in appropriate costumes, such as woollen jerseys, leather shoes and small peak caps.
There is also the matter of the course being mostly made up of bone-shaking ‘strade bianche’ – or ‘white roads’ – that normally you wouldn’t dare point your pride and joy in the direction of. When it was first held in 1997, the event was intended to help save these roads from being gradually replaced with asphalt. It worked and now the route is marked with permanent signs and the hundreds of miles of lumpy, pot-holed lanes are still there in Italy.
Roughly translated ‘L’Eroica’ means ‘heroic’ and its easy to understand why. The rough surfaces breaks bikes, shreds tyres and tests even the most skilful of bike handlers. Oh, if you break down for whatever reason, you’re on your own. Brutally, but fantastic all the same. Who wants to explore the rugged countryside while being wet-nursed?
On Sunday, the picturesque village of Bakewell – remember, they’re ‘Bakewell Puddings’ not ‘Tarts’ – was transformed into the magnificent L’Eroica Britannia. Featuring great food stalls, lots of vintage clothes outlets, bike jumbles and all sorts of attractions for adults and children alike, the three-day festival added a touch of quintessential Britishness to this very Italian race.
Even if your family were not into cycling, there really was something for everyone. Both camping and parking were free, as they included in the race entry, and the facilities were of a decent standard. I parked up in a field on one side of the road, then crossed over the other and pitched my tent. I never had to wait in a queue to use the loo and the showers were better than expected.
Entertainment was diverse and there was always something to see or watch and even take part in. Food and drink stalls were second to none and akin to some of the major food festivals that you’d find across the UK.
Don’t get me started on the selection of real ales. Like most cyclists, I am a lightweight, so one pint does it for me but it was very tempting to order a second, find a deckchair to relax in and let that evening’s entertainment unfold on the main stage. This was like cycling’s version of Glastonbury – rock ‘n’ roll.
Back to the actual ride, there were three routes to choose from – a short 30-mile route, medium 55-mile challenge and the ‘daddy’ 100-mile version. Opting for the 55-mile route (my dad had planned to join me for the day, but opted out when he found out camping was involved), I was warned by a few riders that it was a tough course and took in quite a few challenging hills.
Peering bleary-eyed out of my tent the following morning at 6am, I was greeted to the sight of the morning sun slowly creeping over a nearby hillside and through a thick blanket of mist. What a start to a great adventure.
Pulling up to the start line in the centre of Bakewell, which was decked out in marvellous patriotic bunting, you could sense that this was going to be a magical event. Everyone was in a cheerful mood – especially the locals, who had got up out of bed to wave off the riders – and the weather was simply perfect for a 7.30am start. We even got an escort from the Holdsworth vintage Ford team car for the first mile – how cool is that.
Before long, we hit the first section of the gravel trial. Normally, as a cyclist, you fear gravel a wee bit, but before long I was racing along and switched sides of the trial with ease. Next up were the old train tunnels, which were bloody fun to ride through and pretty much everyone around me seized the opportunity to shout ‘echo’ as they did.
Like the original Tuscan event, the organisers of L’Eroica Britannia obviously put a lot of research into finding the best white gravel road in the area and did their very best to replicate the Italian sections in all their rugged glory. Well, they deserve a huge pat on the back, indeed.
Some of the sections were quite technical in places and, to coin a phrase used by a certain Mr Pete Matthews, a few potholes were so big that ‘you needed to go down a gear to get back out of them’. On one section, I gave up trying to pick my way through the various size gravel and just did a ‘Paris-Roubaix’ straight down the middle on a tiny thread of grass verge. After the blind panic wore off, it was quickly replaced by euphoria. Yes, it was tough going in places and difficult to stay upright, but it was probably the most fun that I have had on my bike in years.
In-between, there were fantastic feed stops. Normally, you get a cuppa and a few biscuits. Not at L’Eroica Britannia. My plate was stuffed with locally made sausages, scones, sandwiches, cakes, cookies and, ahem, real ale – all at 9.30am at the first stop in the tiny village of Hartington. Brilliant.
Like I said, I am a lightweight and the beer made me feel a little worse for wear as I hit the big climb out of Hartington. Straight at the top of the climb, it was back to the rough stuff and the adventure continued once again.
Myself and a few others, including a guy who used to ride for Weaver Valley (sorry pal, I forgot your name) and Marco from Florence formed a nice group with a couple of German guys to batter along the Tissington Trail. We’d all got a little lost after coming out of Hartington (probably the effects of the real ale) and ended up taking a little detour, but this just added to the adventure.
Back on course, the trial turned extremely technical as we began our long descent down what can only be described as woodland trail scattered with railway sleepers every few yards. Like I said, it was very technical but it ultimately exhilarating – although probably not for the guy who busted a spoke a couple of spaces behind me and ended up having to walk down to the next stop at High Peak Junction.
After a few cookies and refilling my bidons, it was time to push on. After bimbling through some beautiful country lanes, I couldn’t help but stop and take in the view. It was simply breathtaking. Alas, it was time to clamber back on the bike.
From here on, my memory becomes a bit jumbled up – if truth be told. My feet were killing me. I hadn’t been able to buy a pair of vintage cycling shoes as I had hoped from the cycle jumble in Bakewell, so was forced to ride in my very thin soled trainers. This created two problems – firstly, my pedalling style was restricted to the down-stroke; secondly, my bloody big toes were taking on helluva battering.
There were a couple of steep hills to tackle, I think. There was even a ford to navigate, which I decided to swerve and use the gate. I have no idea of the order these obstacles arrived in, I just wanted to get to the final feed stop in Chatsworth.
Somewhere between Beeley and Chatsworth, my group were treated to a fantastic twisting descent. The road surface was smooth and the road wide enough to drop down at speed. It felt brilliant to be putting my vintage bike through its paces – almost like giving it a second chance at life.
Then we turned into Chatsworth House stately home and grounds, where we enjoyed an exclusive route right through the grounds before stopping for our final feed station. Ice-cold Pimms and sparkling white wine were served along with some posh sandwiches and riders had the choice of sitting in some deckchairs or on the grass to take in the view across the nearby river. Bliss – I didn’t want to move.
With only five miles left, I pushed on once more. How bad could it be? Well, after two glasses of Pimms (remember how much of a lightweight I said I was?) there was the small matter of one or two long drags to tackle. Before long, though, I was enjoyed the final twisting descent back into Bakewell and being cheered on by the throngs of spectators visiting the festival for the final day of L’Eroica Britannia.
On the two hour drive home, I was left thinking: Why did it have to end? I wanted to do it all over again – well, maybe not straight away, but I’ll definitely be putting my name down again for next year and dragging a few other people along with me to sample the delight of the British version of a Tuscan delicacy. Perfecto.

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