“Barry!” people keep shouting as I ride past. But I’m not Barry.
Barry is the bike. A sleek, vintage machine named after the great Barry Hoban, who once held the record for the most stage wins in the Tour de France by a British rider. I’ve borrowed Barry (the bike) from retro cycle hire experts Glory Days in order to ride the glorious L’Eroica Britannia. Eroica is a bike ride and a fancy dress party combined, part cycle event, part village fete, part music festival. And importantly, your bike, like Barry, must conform to Eroica’s strict rules in order to enter – built pre-1987, shifters on the down tube, toe clips instead of clipless and so on.
Based in beautiful Bakewell in Derbyshire, a choice of three Eroica ride routes circle out and back across the Peak District. Barry and I are riding the 55-mile ‘medium’ option, alongside the Brooks England team. Brooks have very kindly invited Boneshaker along to enjoy a jolly weekend of gin, gentle riding and general appreciation of their rather fine saddles and luggage. Here we all are, just about to set off.
This is Eroica’s second year on British soil – it originated on Tuscany’s strade bianche, and now has partner events all over the place from California to Japan. A reported 50,000 people have come for this year’s festival experience as a whole, of whom some 3,600 are actually riding. The rest seem happy to camp and laugh and wander among the stalls laden with bikes and bike parts old and new, or just to flop down with a large Hendricks gin, which seems to be everywhere. No bad thing.
There is a smattering of live music (everyone loves a brass band), a tween-screaming funfair and a mini-cinema tent screening cycling movies. Oh, and about a million dogs, many of them wearing tweed. Really. The days running up to Ride Day had brought chilly winds, banks of ominous black cloud and the occasional flurry of rain. We shivered as we stepped off the coach from sunny London.
But Sunday brought glorious sunshine for the most part, and the ride itself wove through spectacular scenery – if you’ve not yet ridden in the Peak District National Park, add it to your to-do list immediately. We climbed brave and windswept peaks, bounced across gravel and even forded a river. I took this a bit fast and almost ended up face first amongst the fishes.
Derbyshire’s answer to the strade bianche proved to be the Monsal Trail, with white packed gravel offering authentically dusty ruggedness. Much of the Monsal follows the former Midland Railway Line making it pleasingly flat, with a series of impressive viaducts and dark, dripping tunnels.
The on-road sections were mostly quiet and even where we did meet traffic, sheer force of cyclist numbers meant motorists seemed resigned to sharing the road with good grace. As we rolled through picture-postcard villages with butchers and bakers and red telephone boxes, it felt as though we’d pedalled back about sixty years. All the plus fours, flat caps and ancient bicycles around only served to enhance the sense of timewarp.
The band of Brooks riders were a disparate bunch: journalists, bike retailers, Brooks staff and Eroica organisers from Europe, the US, Australia and Japan. We all rolled out together happily enough, with much admiration for each others’ bikes. High-end Japanese cyclewear brand PEdALED equipped us with matching socks, whilst Brooks England supplied suitably retro-styled woollen cycling shorts and jerseys. Suffice to say we looked awesome.
As the ride progressed we’d separate and regroup, especially at hilltops (where the views really deserved savouring) and the feeding stations, which seemed to pop up in a flutter of bunting every 5 minutes, offering local ale and other sports-performance fare including sausages, stilton and masses of Bakewell tart. Penultimate pit-stop was in the grounds of Chatsworth House, where plentiful free champagne from Rapha made the final hill a good deal more challenging than it really deserved to be.
Barry performed impeccably, and we all agreed afterwards that riding old bikes is a lot of fun. Mind you, riding any kind of bike is usually pretty fun. The Brooks saddle, brand new though it was, revealed itself to be extremely comfortable. And I’m not just saying that.
Despite its name, Eroica proved not to be heroically hard work. It was very much a leisurely day out on two wheels, more like the great cake-fuelled British institution that is audax than the more performance-focussed sportive.
Indeed, it was all very British, in the nicest possible way: friendly, inclusive, international, with plenty of tea and cake. And gin.
Our friend Thom Heald took loads of wonderful photos, so feast your eyes on the selection below – and perhaps we’ll see you in Bakewell next year?