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Eroica Britannia: Retro event rolls back time and reverses its route for 2018

Joseph Delves
6 Feb 2018

A new direction for the classic ride sees new climbs, new villages, and a rest stop in a stately home

Now heading into its fifth edition, Eroica Britannia sucks a little bit of the Peak District through a cycling time warp each June. A three-day festival that attracts over 10,000 visitors, at the heart of the weekend’s festivities is Sunday’s classic ride. Undertaken on fastidiously assembled retro bicycles and in matching period-correct kit, it’s the British outpost of the Eroica franchise.

A sort of historical reenactment society for fans of cycling’s more glorious past - think steely resolve, wool jerseys, tubular tyres wrapped around shoulders, and not a power meter to be seen anywhere.

Explaining Eroica

The first ever Eroica ride took place in Tuscany as a tribute to Italian cycling champion, and anti-Nazi resistance operative, Gino Bartali.

Originally organised informally among friends, the event sought to recreate as closely as possible the conditions in which Bartali raced, from the historically accurate bicycles and kit, to the unpaved roads.

In the two decades since then L’Eroica has spawned its own pro-race version, the Strade Bianche, and become a worldwide phenomenon, with devotees tackling events as far afield as Japan and Uruguay.

All on pre-1987 bikes, and all attempting to channel the same spirit of cycling’s heroic age.

The British edition is now approaching its first half decade. Accordingly the routes tackled each year have started to get nearly as well worn as the rider’s bikes. Mindful of this the organisers have decided to shake things up and this coming event will see each course revised for the first time.

The main focus of the weekend, entrants will collectively cover over 250,000 miles on the three Sunday rides. With options ranging from the relatively sedate 30 mile Tourist loop, to the taxing 60 mile Sportsman option, and 100 mile Hero century ride, all are getting updated.

Ensuring each provides both an adequate challenge, along with a dose of inspiring scenery, is the work of route director Marco Mori.

Route reversal

'We get a lot of repeat riders and we wanted them to experience something new,' he explained of the recent redesign.

With each previous edition having followed the same route, this year riders will head in a new direction. Reversing the courses, which now run clockwise, has allowed for an update of each.

This includes new sections, along with fresh takes on some classic stretches and trips into a host of new villages. Given the sometimes less than efficacious brakes on the riders’ period-correct bikes, organisers have also taken onboard feedback regarding the steeper descents.

In the reversed routes, these now become punchy climbs, with more gradual rolls back down.

'The descent to High Peak Junction, coming just four miles after the depart was always a tricky one so early in the morning, the descent to Beeley was also very, very fast, and out of Bakewell the lane is very winding too… Reversing the route takes the danger out of all these in one go,' said Mori.

With each route now heading off in its own direction, there should be no bottlenecks formed in the early stages. Due to popular demand, the shorter Tourist ride has also grown six miles.

Now a total distance of 30 miles it leaves more opportunity for cafe and pubs stops, and means riders are less likely to feel their day has been cut short too soon.

The most popular option, tempting around 2,600 riders last year, the 60 mile Sportsman medium route also gets a makeover. After a halfway stop at the stately home of Thornbridge House the last part of the ride now packs in climbs at Bakewell, High Peak, and Beeley.

Further details of the event can be found here: eroicabritannia.co.uk

 

Trip back in time

To get a feel for the new parcours I headed up to Derbyshire for a preview. But first I had to get properly kitted out. With a collection of several hundred period correct cycles, including models from Brian Rourke, Bianchi, Holdsworth, Carlton, Colnago, and Raleigh, Andy Franks proved the ideal man to equip us ahead of the ride.

The owner of the Vintage Bike Shed he rents some of his stable to Eroica riders each year. Handing over custody of a shiny chrome Ammaco he also ensured I was familiarised with the downtube mounted shifters and clips-and-straps type pedals before I set out on an blustery February morning.

Now looking the part, transitioning back to technology I only vaguely remembered from pinching my Dad’s old tourer took a little longer.

Initially sceptical as to how the retro bike with its skinny, steel frame and narrow tyres would handle the gravely terrain I was quickly won over, with its inherent flex imparting a surprisingly easy going ride on the unmade paths.

Even reaching down to shift didn’t prove too tricky, although I won’t be trading in my SPD pedals any time soon.

With riders making use of recommissioned classic bikes, often resurrected especially for the event, the three Eroica routes do the same for Derbyshire's own industrial heritage.

With much of the way following the disused railway tracks that formerly transported the goods and materials that made the area the heartland of Britain's industrial revolution, the route crams in stunning scenery both natural and manmade.

Crossing high bridges, venturing into tunnels, and racing through abandoned cuttings, piggybacking on this industrial infrastructure makes it possible to cover a huge amount of the local area.

Not that all of the topography is smoothed out. The 100 mile route navigates a fearsome 7,565ft of climbing, including trips up Mam Tor (Mother hill), Monsal Head and Beeley Moor.

To these can be added the now reversed stretch up from High Peak Junction, which I rode on the short reconnaissance mission.

So steep that the trains formerly passing through had to be dragged up by a system of winches, it’s now up to the riders to provide their own steam power.

 

The reward for hauling oneself up the tree lined slope is an amazing vista at the top. Looking down into the Derwent Valley and over Sir Richard Arkwright's famous Masson Mill there’s hardly time to catch your breath before a second, shorter climb deposits you onto the final flat eight mile stretch to the line.

Arriving back at our basecamp just as a snow storm blew in, I’d already started formulating plans to scour ebay and put together a vintage bike on which to tackle the full route come June.

With tickets now on sale I’ll be aiming to build both my fitness, and expand my retro wardrobe ahead of the event.

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