PEAK HEROICS: RIDING EROICA BRITANNIA 2014

Mark Shelton took his place in the Eroica Briatannia, swapping the sausages of Tuscany for the tarts - alright, puddings - of Bakewell .. and sausages of Hartington ...

The Eroica had been on my list for some years.  At first reading, I was immediately hooked by the idea of a long-distance ride evoking the feats of old-time bike racing.  Vintage bikes, unmetalled roads, period costume, and the whole thing taking place in Tuscany, with refreshment stops offering local wine and sausages – how could anyone resist?

 

Well I resisted, actually, for a few years.  Much as I was attracted, I was also daunted by the prospect of over 100 miles of riding made tougher by a route which wilfully sought out long stretches of strade bianchi, or white roads – the rough unmetalled tracks which link farms and villages in the region.  It was not until 2008 that I decided it was my year, and acquired via eBay a restored 1935 Sun Manxman for the purpose.

 

Registering at the festival surrounding the Eroica the day before the ride, it became obvious that while many people had brought along bikes of a similar age to show, most were intending to ride on something of rather more recent vintage.  Italians wandered past murmuring ‘che bella’ at the Manxman, and a couple of entrants staying at my hotel tried a ride around the car park, grinning broadly.

 

On the day, it was rapidly obvious that I was not going to manage the full distance.  The climbs were a real struggle with the limited gearing, and after some early descents on the strade bianchi, my hands were locked into a death-grip on the brake levers.  The only way to maintain any kind of control over the speed on the descents was to put a foot down, and I was rapidly wearing through the soles of my bike shoes.  I decided that it was kinder to a 70-year old machine to retire it.  I took an early departure from the planned route, and made a 25-mile ride of it.  My DNF was done with some regret, as I’d been enjoying the regular ‘bravo’ and ‘chapeau’ from those overtaking me on less challenging bikes.

Between then and now, I’d acquired a 1983 Claud Butler Sovereign frame.  My first decent quality touring bike had been a secondhand Claud Butler Dalesman back in the early 80s, and it was a pure nostalgia trip for me to build up the frame with centre-pull brakes, down-tube shifters, and all the trimmings.  So when it was announced that the Eroica was coming to the Peak District I already had a bike which qualified, and which was a much more realistic prospect than the Manxman.  I had to enter.

The Eroica in Bakewell had a very different character in some ways from the Tuscan event.  As well as a music stage, bars, catering concessions and bike jumble, the festival site had a number of stalls, which hinted pretty strongly that we were in the territory of the style-conscious young male rider; all grooming products and manbags.  Many had moustaches, whiskers or full beards for the event, and were walking around the festival site in Edwardian garb, looking like something from ‘Three Men In A Boat’.

 

That said the entrants were certainly not all of a type.  There were skinny teenagers, solid middle-aged gentlemen such as myself, and wiry, fit pensioners.  There were married couples, bike clubs, and face-painted children.  I spotted Germans, Italians, French, Dutch, American, Australian and Japanese.  The uniting factor was that they were all bikies.  Any overheard snatch of conversation, from among this wide sample of mankind, could be guaranteed to be along the lines of “I couldn’t believe the average speed …” or “Since I put the other block on …”

Morning dawned.  Knowing that I’d need plenty of time, I turned up for a 6.00 am start.  We were set off in batches of half-a-dozen or so, riding over a Union Jack on the start line.  (Was that respectfully patriotic or the exact opposite?  I decided not to worry).

 

Out of town, it was a quick, flattish three miles or so until the first strade bianchi, the Monsal trail.  The trail was as flat as you’d expect from a disused railway, and the surface was an excellent, gritty hard-pack.  Low cloud and mist were draping the hills, in the early morning, so scenic splendour was put on hold for the time being.  For lovers of civil engineering this trail section was a great early treat, as it passed through the Headstone, Cressbrook and Litton tunnels, and over the Headstone viaduct.

 

Back on tarmac at Miller’s Dale, it was a haul up the valley to Tideswell, for the first feed-station.  This was only 12 miles in, but excellent bacon butties made it well worth the stop.  Setting off, I noticed that one of my toe-clips was at an odd angle, and found I was missing one of the nuts-and-bolts holding it on, and was on the verge of losing the other.  I tightened the remaining one, reflecting that bikes can always come up with a problem that’s new to you.

 

From Tideswell we headed north via Bradwell to Hope, and so into Edale.  The terrain now had lots of sudden swoops and ramps, which came as a sharp practical reminder of the demands of down-tube, non-indexed gear shifting.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had to get off and do a stationary gear-change.

 

We ran westwards through Edale, and as we turned south to climb out of the valley, the climb of Mam Nick reared up in front of us.  A lot of riders, it seemed, had taken the organisers’ stipulation of “pre-1987 race bike” very literally.  In contrast to my tourer, many people had mouth-watering Italian race steeds, fully equipped with totally unsuitable gearing.  As we hit the initial 16% ramp at the bottom of Mam Nick, they began to struggle.  Some heaved up the climb with much difficulty, but most got off and walked.  I received a fair number of gasped comments along the lines of “Hah – a triple!” in which envy mingled, I thought, with a suggestion that perhaps using a triple chainring wasn’t quite cricket.  As the day wore one, though, envy was the dominant mood.  At one point a young lad said “Oh, look at his low gear!  Man!”  I pointed out that gears like that are reserved for fat old gits like me, and it would be another 25 years before he could have one.

 

What should have been a wide-ranging view at the top of Mam Nick was obscured by mist and low cloud, but we got a different reward anyway, in the form of a fast, flowing descent westwards to Chapel-en-le-Frith.  Turning south again up the Goyt Valley, we negotiated the only really rough off-road section, leading past two reservoirs.  The mist had pretty much burned off by now, and things were heating up as we climbed.  The Goyt Valley was a new treat for me: a deserted bracken-clad V, with a peaty stream gushing down it.

 

At the top was the second feed-station, at Derbyshire Bridge.  After all the climbing it was a welcome sight.  A lone barista in a van with a coffee machine was doing his best to cope with the demand, but it was a long queue for hot drinks, and as I was getting bitten to death by midges I decided I could manage with a bite to eat and a refill of the water bottle.

 

We emerged from the valley into proper upland, with the famous Cat and Fiddle pub visible on the horizon, and descended in the direction of Earl Sterndale.  I rode for a while with a genial German, bemoaning the fact that all the riding round Hamburg was flat.  Though worrying that he didn’t have the legs for the ride, he was still enjoying his day.  “It is amazing, zis landscape.  It is extremely peaceful.  I was in Wales six months, and Wales is beautiful, but zis…”

 

Shortly we picked up another trail section, following the Pennine Bridleway for a long stretch to Hartington, where the route of the 55-mile ride rejoined ours.  There was a village fete atmosphere on the green, around a classic English duck-pond, and if that was not enough for our overseas visitors, there was also Morris-dancing.  This was the obvious point for a reasonably substantial lunchtime feed, and there were cheese and pickle rolls, scones and home-cooked oat biscuits to keep the wolf from the door.  As Hartington is, counter-intuitively, the home of Stilton cheese, there were also pork and stilton sausages.  A small tumbler of beer was an extra treat – possibly unwise, under the midday sun, but having arrived at the halfway point deserved some sort of celebration.

 

Out of Hartington we picked up the Tissington trail, for another long trail section to Tissington itself to get the route-card stamped.  The routes diverged again here, and we 100-milers headed off for a further three miles to Ilam, where tea and scones were served in front of Ilam Hall.  The legs were groaning now, and there were still another 35 miles to go.  I obliged by taking a photo of a chap with his bike “to convince my wife I really did do this”, and we ended up riding together and swapping stories of the Italian Eroica for the next few miles.

 

It was 14 miles to the next feed-station at Cromford, passing through Ashbourne, the southernmost point of the route.  The High Peak trail, another disused railway, provided the last bit of real off-road.  It sits high in the landscape, giving some great views over towards Matlock, and features a number of inclines where trucks used to be hauled up to the railway line.  We descended two of these; they were long, steep and rough, and as I prised my cramped fingers off the brake levers, I wished for the only time that I’d had my mountain bike.  I texted my wife: “This is double hard”.  Exiting the Cromford stop, I walked my bike as requested in the route-sheet down a short steep pedestrian path, earning the thanks of the marshall at the bottom, who’d been standing there all day watching people ignoring the instruction.  As I said to him: “I had nothing else to read at the feed-station, so I read the instructions”.

I was largely riding on my own from this point.  There were fewer hard gradients on this stretch, and the 17 miles to the next stop flew by, on quiet lanes through a succession of pretty villages, until we entered the grounds of Chatsworth for the final stamp and feed-station.  Pimm’s and champagne were available, no less, as well as a pile of potted-meat sarnies.  As I tucked in, the guy on the stall said “Remember to like us on Facebook”.  I said I would, though it has to be said that potted-meat in white sliced bread was a bit of a push for a ‘like’.  I was hungry enough not to be fussy, and I was enjoying the sarnies, also I appreciated them supporting the event; but still.

 

Just the final four miles to Bakewell remained: a final climb, a twisty descent, followed by a slightly roundabout ride through the festival site, designed to enable someone to take our numbers and pass them on to the announcer by walkie-talkie, so that each finisher was individually announced and congratulated as they approached the finish-line.  I was greeted and given my finishing stamp on the line by a genial soul who said “Complimente”.  It was a nice touch to have someone from the Italian event there.

 

Either event, Italian or English, is a tough challenge for anyone.  2500m of climbing over 100 miles on a vintage machine tells you all you need to know about the strides made in the last 25 years in the design of gears and brakes.  The Peak District’s strade bianchi provide welcome stretches of flat ground, though, whereas those of the Italian event are the essence of the challenge.  Both rides showcase local delicacies and drink at feed-stations.  As regards scenery the Peak District more than holds its own.  A fine day in Derbyshire, with no wind, can only mean that the cycling gods were pleased.  Of course the ride’s available to do any time you want (apart from the mile or so through the grounds of Chatsworth), but the company, vintage bikes and period clothes made for a special event, and one which looks likely to grow and prosper. 

 

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