This weekend just gone was Eroica Britannia, and this year I managed to go! Ever since I heard about Eroica and vintage cycling as a whole a few years ago I’ve been desperate to go, and with the randofurb bike roadworthy and well within Eroica guidelines I couldn’t say no again. The only stumbling point is that the bike doesn’t have toe clips, but as the pedals are original (they can’t have toe clips fitted, sadly) and there’s some leeway with non-racing bikes, such as my randonneur, so away we go.
EB is a Friday-Sunday weekend festival along with a bike ride, with people arriving from the Thursday onward. With work commitments, however, we weren’t going to be able to get there until Friday afternoon, and with both parking and bike racks on a first-come-first-serve basis. Considering this (and a lack of a tent) we decided to go with the festival’s ’boutique camping’ which came with guaranteed parking, bike rack, and tent. On arrival we go and check in on the boutique site, which is separate from the other campsites, and a porter takes us over to our tent. They’re advertised as 3-man tents, but then again tents are never as big as they make themselves out to be. You can see some of the larger tent options to the sides, including the very impressive tipis.
The bike racks were a complete letdown, though. There were racks at the boutique site for maybe 25 bikes – nowhere near enough space for one bike per tent – and the majority of us were left having to lock our bikes onto rails. Rails that, we were told, might get relocated in the night, and that we were leaving our bikes on them at our own risk, but what other choice did we have? I’d brought two locks – one to go through each wheel – so the bike would be secure enough, but this was still pretty frustrating.
Feeling relatively comfortable that the bike is secure, we venture over the to the festival itself! The weather wasn’t looking terribly promising, very overcast, grey, and windy, but the forecast looked much more promising and (a few showers aside) it was still nice enough to go wander around some of the stalls. It was still pretty quiet on Friday night, no doubt the weather didn’t help, and most of the shops weren’t properly open yet, but we had a little wander, got our bearings for Saturday, and watched Norman Jaye’s set later on. one thing that was really impressive was the sheer amount of good food stands on-site. Festival food usually equals a dirty burger van charging £15 a burger, but there was a really good variety of stalls all pushing the more gourmet side of street food. Saying that, the burrito I had for dinner was pretty lacking, though I think the stall itself was running out of stuff when I bought it. We had churros, too, and they were pretty nice.
I woke up stupidly early on Saturday morning – 5am – due to the combination of both the June sunrise being around that time and the tent becoming unbearably warm as the sun got higher and higher. I’m not entirely sure if the colour or material of the tents played a part in this, but they trapped both heat and moisture pretty efficiently to put it kindly, so rather than lie around feeling sweaty and miserable I got up, had a read, and set up our cooking equipment so I could cook sausage sandwiches (a bit of a Saturday tradition, not stopped by camping!) It’s a chance later on in the morning to use the facilities, which are exceptionally good. Proper shower rooms and toilets – there are some portaloos to increase capacity but these are also kept impeccably clean over the course of the weekend. It’s almost hard to believe this is a festival at times, things are so civil.
After coffee and a wander around, we come across our first organised event of the day – best dressed dog! This was meant to be later on in the day, but was switched around to be earlier and faster so that the dogs don’t have to be dressed up in the afternoon heat, or wear clothes for too long. The whole thing is done in about 5 minutes, but it’s 5 very charming and lovable minutes with lots of very well behaved pooches.
The timing is spot on – though warming up it was still a little below 20C at this point, but come 1pm we’re pushing 30C – hosting the dog competition at it’s original time of 2:30 would have been cruel (and likely harmful) to the dogs. Instead, competitions like best dressed man, woman, family, and rider are held later on, who can at least make it clear that things are too hot for them. The heat was particularly tough because of the lack of shade – this is how it tends to be at festivals – but on the plus side free bottled water was available all around the festival, and it was announced repeatedly throughout Saturday that any water supplies, such as at dish-washing stations in the campsites, was all clean and safe to drink. The sun cream definitely paid for itself over the weekend, though. Following this I went to watch a Q&A session with Ned Boulting and Dave Millar! Some very interesting points put forward by the two of them, particularly around the length of stages in grand tours with Dave saying the shorter stage races in the women’s tour often being more exciting than the men’s equivalents. Considering it cost nothing at all to go and watch this it was a fantastic addition to the festival (and understandably jam-packed.)
Around the same time as the shows and Q&A was the bike jumble – described as the biggest in the UK. Unfortunately, because of the other various events going on, I wasn’t left with a great deal of time to browse, which is a shame because it looked like there was a lot of very interesting stuff on sale. I’d been hoping to try and find the front pannier rack I needed for my Peugeot and maybe try and pick up a second-hand handlebar bag on the cheap, but had to hurry around and didn’t have chance to really talk to many of the stall owners.
After this it was time to make my way over to the registration tent and, well, register for tomorrow’s ride. Back into the bar-tent to hand in my registration form, and in typically lovely Eroica fashion, they give me a musette with everything I need in it. Everything, and a Bakewell pudding, UK hostel guide, JD and ginger, Jagermeister, gin, and some chamois rub! It’s a bloody impressive bit of kit, and the musette itself is good too, sturdier and made of canvas, rather than the usually quite flimsy cotton musettes.
Saturday’s evening entertainment was 80s popstars ABC! It was a relatively early start of 9pm for them, however they had the benefit of the sound crew’s 2 days off fine-tuning the PA and sounded fantastic. Martin Fry is really impressive in the way his voice hasn’t changed whatsoever in the best part of 30 years, the band sound as good now as they did when songs like ‘Poison Arrow’ were released. There were day tickets available ‘on the door’ at Eroica, and it was clear they’d done pretty well in terms of extra sales – the festival was jam-packed compared to the night before! The whole thing was done by about 10pm but that’s not too surprising really – an awful lot of people will be getting up bright and early for the main event tomorrow morning.
Dinner tonight was from a smokehouse – smokestall, I guess – where they made wagyu beef burgers. Mine came with chorizo and pulled pork, and was utterly sublime. Five-star stuff, I’d be happy to get something like this in a restaurant any day.
And then came the day of the big event. Another early rise but that’s fine, gave me enough time to have a nice breakfast and a quick wash before getting changed into my kit for the day – a modern recreation of the San Pellegrino jersey and cap. Rather than have instant coffee, I go over to the Maserati stand to get an espresso – word on the street is they make the best coffee at the festival – but they don’t open before 10 and my ride sets off at 9, so I go to the bar-tent which also does coffee for a double shot of pure cycling power, then make my way over to the start line.
There were something in the range of 4,000 riders taking part in Eroica(!) broken down by the 25, 55, and 100 milers. I was doing the 25-miler, so we were the last to leave, the 100-milers leaving as early as 7am for their rides. As we turned up and got our cue sheets stamped at the start line riders were sent out in batches of 30 at a time to avoid clogging the routes up too much. ABC’s Martin Fry apparently led out the first batch of 25-milers, taking a left as we leave the festival grounds where everyone else took a right, with the event announcer giving us a proper send off, the crowds applauding as we pootle away. With the original Eroica being a homage to the ‘Strade Bianche’ of Italy – white gravel roads that are slowly vanishing throughout the country – it’s only fitting that much of our own ride is spent on the British equivalent: the much less romantically-named aggregate. This has the double effect of keeping us away from the roads and therefore cars for much of the ride, but also adds to the vintage feel of the event. People would have been riding bikes on these roads for a long time, after all. The vibe of the ride is lovely, people chatting to one another as we all go along, small groups of hikers and families on the sides cheering us on, and riders giving celebratory dings of their bells in reply. The first 7 or so miles are relatively flat and easy going, a gentle introduction to the ride with few people riding any faster than 15mph, then we hit a climb on a particularly rough section of aggregate that turns into the first portage for many of us.
From here we switch onto tarmac roads for a while and the terrain begins to roll up and down much more than previously. Driving to Bakewell on Friday had reminded me just how hilly Derbyshire can be, and in truth made me a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the hills in the area, but the super rando’s ‘granny ring’ paid for itself, giving me enough of a range of ratios to handle the gradients that undulated ahead of me. This really was a lifesaver – my lowest ratio would have been a challenging 40-24 without that third ring at the front, and sure enough there were plenty of people grinding their way up those hills along side me. Once you’re at the top you have to come back down again, of course, which proved to be equally terrifying to the climb’s sheer effort, as along with many others I found out first-hand why old styled brakes aren’t particularly popular any more. There’s something about these old bikes that makes riding at speed feel particularly exhilarating, probably the fact that you can’t really stop without a notice period. The series of climbs and descents finish nicely at the roughly halfway point where we reach Monyash, our feed stop.
Welcomed by a brass band, even something as simple as the place for riders to have a bite to eat and a drink is a little even in itself, and I think it’s this attention to detail that makes Eroica so special. The feed stop doubled up as a control, and after your cue sheet was stamped by a marshal they directed you to the good stuff. The food pack and beer – all included as part of the ride – is a proper mix of stuff you’d want on a bike ride: sandwich, banana, flapjack, can of san pellegrino (fitting!) and extra water. I get chatting to a few people there, sharing stories about our bikes and how we’re enjoying ourselves, and a very old Spanish man asks me to stand up so he can take a picture of my jersey and cap.
As delightful as the feed stop is, it quickly becomes clear that it may not have been placed in the most ideal of locales, as upon leaving Monyash you’re immediately welcomed by a category 4 climb. The majority of us, myself included, probably spent a little too long relaxing at the feed stop, and the combination of a full stomach and muscles being no longer warmed up brought many of us to a complete standstill. I gave it a good try, but with cramping stomach and gasping lungs I admitted defeat, jumped out of the saddle, and started pushing. Once we get beyond this, though, we return back to the aggregate and much more level riding, but feeling a bit rough from going into the red I stop for coffee a few miles down the road, giving me a chance to take a few photos of riders as they pass. There are quite a few non-eroica cyclists at the coffee stop wanting to know why everyone looks so weird and can’t afford new bikes, then wishing they were a part of it all when it’s explained to them.
I stop off a few times along the way to get extra pictures now, then, sure enough, get a flat tyre. It’s to be expected on rough terrain such as this, especially when I’m using relatively narrow tyres on it, but that roughness also makes it difficult to tell whether I’ve actually got a flat tyre or whether the road has simply gotten rougher, and I ride on for a little longer than I should have done. When I do finally realise what’s happened and pull over, a girl comes up to me crying – she’s lost her family on a mountain biking ride. Having no phone reception out on the ride I walk her back to the marshalls, where they have walkie-talkies and other ways to contact people, and I can also pick up a spare inner tube. Sure, all this walking around might make my Strava look embarrassingly slow, but I managed to do a good deed and besides, I’ve never been one to go hunting for KoMs.
Following this accidental break the heat really began to catch up with us. It was around 1pm at this time, right at the hottest part of the day, and though most of the ride had been warm cycling tends to keep you cool. Not any more, the heat was overcoming even the breeze we had, and people started to flag. This wasn’t helped by having the second major portage, this time clearly signposted as a mandatory walking section, much longer than the first one. The ground here was rough enough to make even walking difficult at times, but that didn’t stop a few daredevils shooting past. This topped off on a hill, where we all re-mounted and pootled away to do the final few miles. The heat, climbs, and rough ground were all catching up with us now, and thankfully the return leg of the ride was similarly forgiving to the start, much of it covering the same ground.
The ride finished where it began, passing under the start sign and warmly welcomed by applauding spectators. I did it! I meet up with my other half for a celebratory sandwich and to get my cue sheet stamped at the final stop – the bar-tent – where you were given a beer and a warm ‘well done!’ from the staff. Sweating from the heat and humidity, filthy from the dust those old paths kick up, shattered from a gruelling ride, as I soaked in the atmosphere and chatted to other riders, one thought kept coming up in my mind.
I’d do this all again next weekend if i could.