“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer fear for the human race” – H.G. Wells
For quite some time I have thought that bicycles have semi-magical qualities. Riding one can make you happy when you are otherwise sad and they can make you believe that you are someone else – usually someone far better at riding a bike. They can make you fitter and more sociable and, as Mr H.G. Wells says in his wonderful quote above, they can change the destiny of the world. It’s a given then that they are wonderful things. But, until this weekend at the sublime L’Eroica Britannia event, I had not realised that they are also capable of enabling time travel. Perhaps that’s why old H.G. (who knew a thing or two about Time Machines) loved them so much.
Eroica, for those that don’t know (and after the storm of positive media that followed the event that can’t be very many who might stumble across these pages) means ‘Heroic’ in Italian and L’Eroica is the ‘Ride of the Heroes’, an event which takes place annually in the gorgeousness of rolling Tuscan hills. Comprised entirely of pre-1987 bikes, it harks back to the more ‘heroic’ ages of road cycling. Riders cross spare tubulars across their woollen jerseys, strap their plain leather shoes into toe-clips, adjust their simple peaked cap casquettes and take to the local white gravel roads – the strade bianche – on venerable steel machines. It’s been so successful that a pro-race route – also called Strade Bianche – was created around the same area. It’s a beautiful event that many thought couldn’t be bettered. Until some clever, passionate people from the Midlands decided to bring it to England.
I must admit that I have never travelled to Giaole in Tuscany for L’Eroica. The time, expense and logistics have so far out-foxed me so when I heard that the event was coming to the Peak District this year I had my name down very early. The fact that it was being held near Chatsworth close to where my Dad often stays at his partner’s aunt’s house, and that there also would be an accompanying festival which I could bring my family to wasn’t so much ‘icing on the cake’ as merely an extra couple of cherries on an already delicious looking Bakewell Tart. And, in stark contrast to my overly swift signing up to the recent London Nocturne Folding Bike event (for which I didn’t actually have a folding bike), this time I already possessed at least 75% of suitable machine. A couple of Ebay bids and favour from a knitting neighbour also completed my period attire for the day.
My parents were ramblers and, as such, there aren’t too many corners of the British Isles that I didn’t have to drag my young self and a rucksack around in the 1980’s. The Wolds, The Dales, The North Yorkshire Moors, The Lakes, The Highlands, Snowdonia and, of course, The Peak District all knew the trudge of my usually reluctant feet. Much of it I have shunted to the backs of my memory banks by now, filling up the front areas instead with useful stuff like knowing which way to unscrew both pedal threads (upwards and towards the rear of the bike), remembering Henri Desgrange’s birthday (Jan 15th 1865) and knowing the difference between my Magne and my Magni (Frenchman Antonin and Italian Fiorenzo respectively). A brief look at the map to locate where Eroica Brittania would be held threw up some familiar names and the inevitable one-liner “I’ve been rambling around there before..” but not an awful lot more. I knew it would be hilly though – calling it the Peak District is a bit of a giveaway and I did recall a cable car ride up the Heights of Abraham at nearby Matlock (or at least buying a rubber with a picture of the cable car on it from the gift shop in the village) – so in the weeks leading up the ride I concentrated instead on getting used to getting my metallic orange 1970’s Continental, and its close ratio, non-indexed downtube shifting, 10 speeds up the hills of London and Kent.
Because of the kids’ school commitments we drove up on the Saturday morning, having watched with interest the first slew of photos and tweets that emanated from the site on it’s Friday opening. As they were mainly concerned with the gloriousness of the weather and the abundance of alcoholic drink-producing sponsors, we looked set fair for an enjoyable weekend. We arrived at the Bakewell Showground – Eroica Britannia’s home for the long weekend – just in time to catch the last of the awards. Normally the site of a twice-weekly livestock market (and therefore more used to dishing out Best In Show rosettes to cattle and sheep than to nattily-attired rouleurs clutching ancient iron bicycles) this natural bowl is surrounded on all four sides by relatively benign – but not inconsiderable – looking hills and, on the evidence of the weekend a meterological micro-climate. From the moment the show was opened the day before by the local Lord of the Manor, The Duke of Devonshire, strong sun blessed the showground, even though dark clouds often hovered above the Duke’s stately home – the incomparable Chatsworth – just a few miles away to the North-East .
Having been roundly welcomed into the camping area by June – a friendly steward whose ubiquity across the weekend led me to suspect that she was one of a set of twins or, more likely, triplets – and pitched our tent, we scurried across to the stage area to see the Best Bike award being presented to the owner of a suitably lust-inducing silver Cinelli. This award followed ones for Best Dressed Lady, Best Family, Best Moustache and Best Gent Rider. The rider welcome musette (as this is a music festival does this count as a ‘rider’s rider?) was found to contain all manner of good stuff from the sponsors – including an Eroica-themed ‘Handsome’ ale from the local Thornbridge brewery, who had also set up a marquee pub on site to compliment the two (!) gin bars by Hendricks and Tanqueray and a Routemaster bus by Pimms. With our kids looking eagerly at the dodgems, bouncy castles and other attractions like the 10 or so upright pianos dotted around the fair, we planned our strategy for combining their desires with our own preferences for the large number of vintage and cycling stalls that made up the western end of the showground.
Most of the cycling events I attend are peopled with folk who are… well, how to put this.. hardcore cyclists. Like me, they would quite happily rummage through odd bits of bike jumble for most of a morning before finding a beer and a sandwich and then spending the afternoon talking about curly stays and 953 tubing. Not the greatest family day out you can imagine. My long-suffering family are pretty resilient but I had genuinely feared for their boredom levels prior to arriving and had actually contacted a friend when I heard he was bringing his family to set up some playtime for the kids together. I really needn’t have worried. The Eroica Festival with it’s wide range of products and free entry seemed to have attracted everyone for miles around as well as the 2,000 riders and their well-catered for spouses, kids and parents. By the time I got to sit down with the organisers you could barely find a straw bale or deckchair to watch the stage from and the lady running the bouncy castles had almost already called it a day on feeling the need to charge.
Gian Bohan was looking as pleased as a bowl of Pimm’s punch when I met him at Eroica HQ to one side of the main stage. Resplendent in a fetching waistcoat, ‘Peaky Blinders’ cap and knee-length breeches he was as warm and welcoming as the Showground (and steward June, and Sally at the rider sign-on, and in truth, everyone connected with the event from the Hero Maker stewards out on the course to the bloke emptying the Portaloos on Sunday morning). With one of the many musical acts providing the background beats, and having got to the bottom of the riddle his first name – I had heard it as ‘John’ and then ‘Jan’ – by learning that he is half Italian and half Irish and that it is short for Giancarlo Massimo – I picked his brain about how he and three friends dared to dream about bringing Heroic Tuscany to Little England and make it their very own. “Tim [Hubbard], Marco [Mori], Nick [Cotton] and I had done L’Eroica in Italy a few times” enthused Gian, “and loved the mixture of food, wine, cycling and the setting. We got to know [organisers] Claudio and Giancarlo and over a couple of glasses of Chianti we thought that ‘We could do one here.'”
Simply transplanting the L’Eroica experience to the Peak District was never going to be enough for Gian and his friends though. They really wanted to give it a local flavour and inspire the local communities around the start/finish point and along the route. “They have their Chianti, we’ve got the Thornbridge Brewery, which is just behind that church spire there..” he says pointing to nearby Bakewell. “They’ve got the Italian cakes, we have Bakewell puddings. I work in the food and drink trade, so getting the best produce was really important to us. But getting the villages on board was even more important. In Italy, when you get to the villages it’s like… ‘Wow’. They make it so special. It was so crucial to get them on board. Once we had sorted the route – and we really surprised ourselves with the roads that we found – we really focussed on the villages to get them to buy in and do their own things – doing a fete, morris dancing, bell ringing, well-dressing. All of that is going on tomorrow. And, of course, we will have our ‘Golden Stop’ on the lawns at the front of Chatsworth House.”
And on the subject of bikes Gian is similarly locally focussed. “A 60mile radius of here was probably the centre of British family bike-builders so there are lots around. Some people are bringing them out of their sheds where they’ve been sitting forgotten for 20 years, and others are bringing their absolute pride and joy which is normally hanging on the wall. Everyone has got a story..”
Indeed they have, and it seems that the atmosphere of Eroica Britannia is enormously conducive to sharing those stories. Conversations spring up at every turn as everyone seems to have dropped whatever natural reticence that they might have to be a part of the “Great British Adventure” that Gian and co have created. Whether it’s at the bicycle powered disco (good for wearing out the kids), the large vintage clothes market and bike jumble, or back at the tables outside the Thornbridge Arms, everyone just seems to want to interact. As I chat to the owner of a stunning dark grey Merckx – who it turns out is the neighbour of some friends in London – a guy starts playing flip-flop football with my kids. When he finally takes a break from being nut-megged by my 7 year old and introduces himself, Frans tells me that he is Dutch and that he has ridden up from the Harwich ferry to take part. It sounds like a long way but he is still quite local compared to some of the others milling around. Naturally many have come over from Italy but there are also people from as far as the States and even New Zealand.
As the sun finally begins to sink towards the horizon and the Hendricks outdoor cinema begins to show Belleville Rendezvous to an appreciative audience I have another wander and try to take in what I’m seeing. Hundred’s of retro cycling caps and jerseys fill the late evening light with their simple graphic patterns and bold (but rarely garish) colours. Pockets of cyclists cluster around particularly fine or ancient bike and lone riders weave through the throngs taking loaned machines on test rides. I just about master an ancient semi-recumbent before Mrs TJP and I try out a tandem for the first time. The enthusiastic sharing of stories, beers and bikes is a ongoing theme of the weekend. And for some it goes on long into the night.
With an early start on the cards we head back to our tent just as the headline act – The Payroll Union – finish their well-appreciated set. The initially odd sight of seeing hundreds of small tents, each with a vintage bike or two outside has become run-of-the-mill and I resolve to wait until morning before looking at any more. After their mammoth disco-powering cycle and soccer sessions the kids are asleep quickly. Having consumed half a roast chicken from a divine smelling rotisserie and tried at least one of each of the beer and gin sponsors’ wares through the evening I’m not far behind them.
During the night my dreams are as vintage as some the bicycles on display outside of the closely clustered tents. Faint memories of local hills and multiple youth hostels have been stirred by the semi-familiar landscape and also by the presence of my Dad, who popped over for a hour before the the solstice sun finally disappeared and we called it a day. We’ve arranged to meet him again tomorrow on the lawn at Chatsworth for Gian’s final Golden Stop. Before that though there is the small matter of actually doing the ride..
I think it’s telling that the ride will probably take up less than half of this ‘ride report’. Although the event clearly couldn’t exist without it, taking part in it isn’t a pre-requisite to enjoyment of the weekend. It’s a bit like the relationship Glastonbury has with the musical acts – a large number of festival goers will not even see a single band whilst they are they there. There is so much else going on that it isn’t necessary to see the bands to have a good time. The festival exists autonomously around the music. With so much going on, and judging by the positive reports from people who went but who weren’t doing one of the rides, Eroica Britannia could become the Glastonbury of cycling..
Waking with the dawn and hearing the braver souls who had elected to do the longer 100 mile route making their way off to the start line in the centre of Bakewell was somewhat comforting as I knew that I at least an hour more sleep ahead of me. By the time I had struggled into my Peugeot bibshorts and jersey and pinned my race numbers on – not an easy task in a small, low tent with three other sleeping human beings – the early mist was being slowly burnt off and other sleepy cyclists were emerging from their canvas domes like so many baby turtles on a Carribean beach. And just like turtles we all instinctively knew which way to turn and head: not for us the dangers of the open ocean but rather the more stimulating offerings of the excellent coffee and flapjack stall, which was doing brisk business with the early trade.
Even at 7.30am Bakewell was en fête with strings of Union Jack bunting cross-crossing the tiny streets and shop owners cheering us on from their doorways. It was a very worthy send off for the waves of vintage bikes leaving the village every few minutes and heading out into the green, green countryside. The first half of my 55 mile route (the same distance as we covered in our walking holiday here all those years ago) was characterised by the sheer-sided gorges of the area that river and rail have mercilessly cut through the landscape. Gian had spoken of the area being a cradle of industrialism and this was much in evidence along the course of the River Derwent as we wove our way past imposingly vast ancient factories – which would later include Arkwright’s famous water driven millworks at Cromford and the still-working John Smedley (a key commercial partner of L’Eroica Britannia) site at nearly Lea. Our anti-clockwise route would bring us back to them later in the day but for now our path rose West out of the valley on a long incline in search of the first section of heroic ‘white road’.
The general decline of heavy industry in the Midlands and the Beeching Cuts to Britain’s once incredibly dense railway network has left behind a huge ghost network of abandoned railway lines, many of which are being turned over to cycle ways. The first one we encountered was the grey-gravelled Monsal Trail with it’s three major tunnels. Long enough to require their own lighting, and dripping atmospherically with condensation, they were our gateway to Times Past. We may have entered the Monsal as grown men and women acting out a fantasy but when we exited the last section of darkness and crossed the vastness of the Headstone Viaduct it truly felt as though we had been transported back in time. Those cyclists who were lucky enough to have been greeted out of the tunnel by a small local choir can only have only have felt it more intensely.
As we shifted from one section of railway line to the next we took to the white gravel and stone-strewn farm roads that cut across the exposed tops and unwooded hillsides. This is the landscape I remembered from my childhood and as I let the front wheel find its way across the rutted roads I recalled the feelings of kicking similar stones along similar tracks – heavy leather walking boots on pencil-thin legs. The remembered weight of the phantom boots and the itchiness of the socks welled up across the years and suddenly it was all there: the feeling of the rucksack straps; the sweat patch on the T-shirt in the small of the back; the smell of dubbin; the sting of the nettles and frantic search for dock leaves. Riding on the white roads was evocative of more than just Tuscany.
Up ahead an older rider was taking uncertain lines and I slowed to help see him through the worst of it. Frank, a reed-thin seventy-two year old from Manchester resplendent in a maillot jaune jersey, saw my Peugeot kit and told me that he had once bought a track suit from Tommy Simpson at an Isle of Man race meeting in 1957. He had later given it to a friend when he briefly fell out of love with cycling but that his friend’s wife had then burnt it when she fell out of love with him. Another sad Simpson story – especially when told by Frank, who also confided in me that he was having trouble with his short term memory and, cruelly ironic on a day like today, was being forced to increasingly live in the past.
The feed stop at Hartington brightened our temporarily downbeaten mood. With enough sponge cake to dry up the vast duck pond (around which about two hundred bikes were neatly arranged) and beakers of beer to wash it down, it was hard to remain sad for long. Basking in the sun around the pond I found Geoff and Terri – co-marshalls on the recent Tweed Run – and spotted a few other familiar faces. Terri was also wearing a Peugeot jersey but hers was a such a fabulous woollen original (which rather put my man-made fibre reprint to shame) that I made a lone exit for fear of continued comparison. As with Bakewell, Hartington had put on a real show – the village bakery was open and church bells had been rung – and many riders lingered around the pond for a long while. I was immediately glad that I had pushed on though as the incline out the village was the steepest of the whole day.
The vicious climb out of the village goes past a Youth Hostel – Hartington Hall – which I instantly remembered from that holiday a quarter of a century earlier. 1987: the same year that the very youngest of the bikes being ridden at Eroica Britannia would have been being forged, lugged and painted. I don’t know if somehow the thought of those times inspired me to climb faster but, somewhat unexpectedly, Strava later told me that my ascent of the hill was the fourth fastest of the day. Powerful stuff the past..
One man who knows a lot about the past, and more about L’Eroica than most, is Luciano Berutti – the walrus moustached figurehead of the Italian ride and the face on the bottles of Thornbridge’s special L’Eroica ‘Handsome’ ale. I met him out on the road – a rare bit of proper tarmac in the middle section of the ride. He was looking for his friend, “Mio ami”, who had dropped back and he had got off his bike in concern. It takes a lot for Luciano to stop riding. On the L’Eroica Japan ride last year (the only other time the event had been done outside of Tuscany) the pusher brake on his 1907 bicycle broke mid way round the course so he clambered into a nearby wood, found an old branch and tied it to one pedal. When he needed to slow down a bit he just pushed it against the road surface and duly arrived at the finish as cool as a cucumber despite the fact that the branch was almost on fire. Having got word that his friend was fine Luciano set off again and I was privileged to ride with him a short way. His lack of English was matched by my lack of Italian and so we simply shared the road rather than our stories. It was a wonderful moment.
At Tissington we stopped again to get our Brooks route cards stamped. Elegantly printed they may be and a great souvenir of the day but for the life of me I can’t understand why the vintage map behind the 30, 55 and 100 mile routes is of MidWest America rather than Midland England. In truth I didn’t even notice until I got home – the route was well marked, though I appreciated having my Garmin on board as well in order to help anticipate some of the turns and reduce reliance on the Continental’s less than wholly effective brakes – and it is a sense of puzzlement that prompts it’s discussion rather than any note of disappointment.
Somewhere after the halfway point we passed Middleton Top and another memory twanged somewhere in my brain. Maybe we visited the railway museum here or just stopped for a picnic lunch. We joined another rail line before plunging down the steep muddied slope of Black Hill into Cromford where we re-found the River Derwent and the Cromford Canal. Easily the most technical part of the route, the smell of smouldering brake blocks filled the woods as we juddered down to another drinks stop at Lea Bridge. I found Frans – the footballer from the night before – there on his elegant 1974 titanium Speedwell and we caught up a little about how the ride had been. I was keen to press on though as I wanted to soak up as much of the Festival as possible and so left Frans sunning himself by the canal, turned my Peugeot cap backwards and put my head down for a few fast miles.
Cycling alone can be as rewarding as cycling in company and, save for one incline where a couple of Cimi Coppi riders got onto my wheel and, in their words, “drafted Tommy Simpson” for a couple of kilometres, the road was pretty much mine until the approach to Chatsworth. The crossing of Beeley Moor and the long fast descent off it was my personal highlight of the whole ride. The intense smell of bracken – one of my very favourite things – again took me back to childhood and distracted me from the by now very real pain in my feet. Unused to such thin shoes and tight straps I was suffering quite a bit and was grateful for the minor mechanical I suffered at Beeley that allowed me to get off the bike for five minutes and wriggle my toes a bit as I made a quick repair to a slipping gear cable.
With the bike back in tip-top condition all that remained was the slow roll along one of Chatsworth’s private driveways up to the ‘Big House’ (as my Dad’s friend Gladys – the widow of the ex Head Gardener of the estate – calls it) and Pimm’s, local sparkling wine, potted meat sandwiches and strawberries on the Duke’s front lawn. Gian was on hand to welcome each and every rider and share the magnificent views across the 450 acre ‘Capability’ Brown and Joseph Paxton designed gardens. Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, first built a wondrous Great Conservatory here in 1836. Such was it’s beauty that it is said that grown men wept as they demolished it following the death of all the plants when it could no longer be heated during World War I.
I did not weep at Chatsworth: seeing my family and knowing that the ride was almost done brought greater smiles than the Beeley descent, but I must admit to some cursing and gnashing of teeth a couple of kilometres later as Gian had seen fit to throw in a final climb that touched 26% at times. Coming shortly after a very large Pimms and a glass of the local fizz I felt like my cork had also popped and I toiled up those last ramps with all the (lack of) finesse of the Belleville Rendezvous riders just before they are swept up by the Mafioso gangsters in their stolen broom wagon. I managed to avoid being kidnapped and put to work on a treadmill for an illicit gambling ring and, having finally crested the ascent, instead enjoyed one last set of descending switchbacks before finding myself being welcomed back into the showground by the ever-present June and then being announced over the PA as I took my turn to cross the ceremonial finish line at the heart of the festival. Cheered home by the huge crowd it was a suitably fulfilling end to a great ride.
Having gratefully accepted the kisses of the welcome team (and even more gratefully received the beer and food tokens given to all riders) I knew it was time to change out of my costume and – like the Mr Benn cartoon from the era of the majority of the bikes around me – return my mind and body back to the present day.
We were able to stay at the festival for a hour or so before needing to head back to Chatsworth to see my Dad at Gladys’ house. We left there after 4pm and riders were still very much in evidence on the parts of the route that we traversed on the way back to the motorway. They all looked happy enough despite being having been up to 10 hours out on the road. For sure the weather and the welcome they will have received at every village stop will have made the time something to be enjoyed rather than endured.
We were really sad about having to leave the Festival so early and, once again following the rest of the events on social media, saw that we missed a third great evening of fun. As much as I loved bringing the kids I think next year, unless it’s arranged to coincide with school holiday time, we will leave them behind to really make the most of the event. Gian and his team have an initial five year licence for L’Eroica Britannia so the plan is most definitely to “See you there!”
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