After a year of anticipation, the day of the actual 2015 Eroica Britannia ride had arrived. After the inaugural event, at the same location as last year’s — Bakewell, in the hilly Peak District, the locals were just as excited about it as this year’s 50,000-odd visitors. Saturday’s festivities were the final stoke of the fire. It was Sunday morning, and we were ready to ride.
Three routes were offered: a 30 mile, 55 mile and a 100 mile option. Those true heroes who chose to ride the 100 miles had set off earlier in the morning. The majority of our Brooks England team were riding 55 miles, which afforded the opportunity to ride in a more relaxed timeframe, arrived at the starting line at about 9.30am, and were despatched by the town crier.
The first section of the route took us to the Monsal Trail, which we visited the day before. It was originally part of the Midland Railway line, built in 1863 to link London and Manchester, but is now a finely graded and well-maintained cycle, walking and horse trail. It was easy to imagine the powerful locomotives charging along it, bellowing clouds of steam out of Headstone Tunnel.
After a few miles we crossed the famous Headstone Viaduct and passed by the first of many stately homes before arriving at the first refreshment stop — a legendary Citroën HY van that served tea, coffee and flat cake. It was drizzling lightly which threatened to deter our enthusiasm. And failed. After a short break, we descended to the River Wye, struck onto the asphalt and begun our first climb.
While pausing to photograph a legendary #adventuremobile, a Camel Trophy Land Rover Discovery, Luciano Berruti passed by, slaving over the handlebars of his famous fixed gear bike, sinewy calves pushing and pulling like tree branches in the breeze. Luciano and his moustache run the Museo della Bicicletta in Cosseria and is a familiar face at every Eroica event.
The local Shetland ponies were very friendly, and were more than happy to pose for the camera. By now, they must be used to the sight of a few thousand red-faced and sweating cyclists in colourful kit struggling up their road. At the top of the peak the heavens opened and we sought shelter under a spinney, but lasted only briefly, leaving the valley below us shimmering in the fresh sunshine.
Still climbing, we crossed a busy road, a rare occurrence during the entire event, to join a bridle path that was barely wide enough for one rider. After straddling the peak’s ridge for a few miles, we turned onto a dirt road and descended again to another river, which became a theme throughout the whole day. There was no complaining, though, there was no other place we’d rather have been.
Gravity carried us down for what seemed like hours to Hartington, yet another quaintly idyllic village nestled in the valley arms. Thankfully, building codes are quite strict in these parts, so all the cottages are built from the same drab stone. There was no weatherboard or fibro houses to form a blot on the visual landscape. Our arrival changed all that — Harrington’s eyes must still be streaming.
The locals put on a great spread, with regional cheeses, ales, cakes and slices. The hospitality offered to the participants was another feather in the cap of the organisers. A brass band and Morris dancers entertained everyone, especially those from foreign countries who were unused to such traditions. These two ladies had the right idea, seeking shelter from the commotion in an immaculate Kombi.
This youthful-looking fellow showed off his Strava profile picture: a photo of him racing the Witcomb he’s standing with at the age of 16. The components were nearly as they were when the photo was taken, but he recently had the frame resprayed in the original design. That’s the beauty of these steel frames, they were designed and built to last a lifetime.
Immediately after leaving the Hartington village limits, we were faced with a near-vertical climb — at least, it seemed that way after a meal of baked delights and a couple of cups of beer. Testing us further, the road veered onto a dirt path. Our journey turned into a rollercoaster ride of descents and ascents, each peak revealing breathtaking views over the district.
It was a bit of a shock to the system: you have to travel a fair way out of Sydney to get hills of this stature, at this frequency. We were well and truly in it, now, but we revelled in the challenge. It was enough to make you consider relocating to the Peak District, to further explore this spider’s web of pathways, green lanes and public footpaths.
Most of the route was part of the UK’s National Cycle Network. Founded in 1984 to promote that olde English tradition of bicycle touring which, after the wars, was a primary holiday activity. There are 10 national NCN routes, with scores of local routes, many of which were made apparent to us by the clear signposting. Today, there’s over 14,700 miles (23,700 km) of signposted routes to explore.
Surrounded by all these handmade frames, thoughts inevitably turned towards custom gravel and touring bikes, until the realisation struck that it was perfectly possible to ride these roads, albeit carefully, on a 30 year-old racing bike. As long as it had a Brooks saddle on it, of course. That wasn’t just a shameless plug, there’s a kernel of truth in there too.
There were casualties: this Stan Pike tandem racer copped a DNF with a pretzeled front wheel. It’s real cattle country up there in the peaks and cattle grids come with the territory — an irregular crossing may have been the cause of this failure. Stan Pike was a highly respected frame builder based at Crewkerne in Somerset. He began building in the early 70s and passed away in 1983.
Run what you brung: a 700C racing trike and a Brompton go head-to-head in a battle for the King of the Mountains title. There were many Bromptons and Moultons on the course, riding with a great deal of fervour. Observing a trike take a corner at speed, however, is a sight to behold. One of the main advantages of these bikes is never needing to find a pole to lean them against.
The afternoon’s undulations drew a breath on the banks of another river — a much-needed break. We had it all laid on. If this was a Classics race 60 or 80 years ago, we’d be running into a pub or café to steal a loaf of bread or a carafe of wine. Not at Eroica. We had barrels of delicate locally-brewed beer on offer, as many bottles of San Pellegrino as we could throw down. And more cakes and slices.
There were plenty of beautiful bikes to look at:
The first half of the day was spent riding almost as slowly as possible, trying to draw out this wonderful experience as long as we could. After this break, however, there was one final stop at Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire — home to the Cavendish family since 1549. The riders had the smell of victory in their nostrils, and the pace was unwittingly quickened.
It was breathtaking to round that last sweeping bend and see the House loom into view. Rapha’s own Citroën van was there, decorated with Sir Bradley Wiggins #myhour livery and delivering cups of sparkling white wine to our thirsty throats. Bakewell tarts were on hand, giving us an extra taste of our final destination.
It wasn’t over yet. Leaving Chatsworth House, we battled holidaymakers trapped inside their cars, struggling to exit the grounds. A left turn took us to the foot of our highest climb yet. Many walked up the slope, and for those of us who didn’t get off our bikes, the view from the top was made all the more gratifying. The air was rare up there.
We got to the top and then, like a helter-skelter, cascaded down again into the Festival grounds, shepherded around the final straights by concierges. We were exhausted and elated, we had toiled and triumphed, and we came as close as we could to feeling like the heroes we had travelled to the Peak District to celebrate.
The Spoken would like to express our heartfelt thanks to the people of Bakewell, the organisers of Eroica Britannia and especially, Brooks England for the opportunity to experience this amazing event.