THERE is a rule of thumb that sequels are never better than the originals. Exceptions to this are few and far between. Even then, most divide option, but one thing is certain – if you’ve found a winning formula once, then success becomes progressively harder to achieve.
Another exception to this rule was the second running of the L’Eroica Britannia. Held once again against the magnificent backdrop of Bakewell in Derbyshire, where classic bikes of all ages descended for a weekend of retro cycling, food, music and vintage cycling jumble sales.
With more than 3,000 cyclists dressing the part in retro kit astride their vintage steeds for the UK version of the Italian L’Eroica event, the three-day event attracted riders from all over Britain and Europe.
L’Eroica Britannia has become a pilgrimage for those with an appreciation of cycling from a bygone era – despite this only being the second time the event has ever been held in Britain.
Last year, I was one of the first 500 people to pre-register and secure my place for the inaugural event. I loved it so much that, as soon as the dates for the second one were announced, I booked a hotel, put a holiday request in at work and then began waiting eagerly for the tickets to go on sale.
I wasn’t to be disappointed. This year’s event was bigger and better in ever way – well, except for the typical British weather, which did little to dampen anyone’s enjoyment. Light showers aside, it was a ‘reet good laugh.
On a much larger scale this time was the festival site itself. There was an abundance of choice in food, drink, entertainment and camping facilities compared with last year. There seemed to be more stallholders, too, which made the hours pass quickly walking round looking at the cycling-related goodies on the Saturday.
As I mentioned before, this time round I decided to stay in a nearby B&B. Admittedly, I just wanted to have a decent night’s kip and I am not the best camper, either. It proved to be a good choice and I was feeling fresh as a daisy despite my alarm going off at 5:45am on Sunday.
Once again, I had opted for the 55-mile route. I really enjoyed this route last year and wanted to relive it again, so it seemed like the perfect choice.
This time, though, I wanted to pick up the pace a bit more. I am always wary of routes that I don’t know too well and tend to hold back. Having ridden the same route the year previous meant that I could put the hammer down a little bit more.
Compared to last year, the weather wasn’t as kind. Back in 2014, the sun was cracking the flags. However, it was a bit overcast and threatening light showers this year. That didn’t seem to bother those who were at the starting line ready for the off. Everyone was in good spirits and there were plenty of bare legs on show. Time to nut up or shut up, as they say.
Having spent the previous week cleaning and polishing my vintage Pete Matthews bike – nicknamed ‘The Champ’ after the man himself – I was eager to get started. I’d purchased a pair of NOS vintage road shoes, complete with vintage cleat grips, a few months earlier and was finding it a bit difficult to get my feet in the toe-clips, so I missed the first group out.
Once I worked out how to get my feet in without falling over, I quickly found myself moving up from the second group, through the first and then joining some of the people who started a bit earlier at 6am for the 100-mile route.
Disaster struck on the first climb near the River Wye. My left foot kept slipping out of the pedal and when I looked down, I realised the vintage cleat had come completely off – bolts and all. I had to pull over the side of the road and remove the cleat from the other shoes to even things up.
Leather soled shoes don’t have the best of grip in toe-clip pedals, so you can imagine how difficult it was to get started again on a climb. Oh, there was the small matter of the toe-clips and NOS shoes also killing my big toe. For the remainder of the ride, whenever I put too much pressure down with my left foot, it felt like someone bashing my big toe with a hammer. Ouch.
One thing that took my mind off my Hobbit-esque feet causing me slight pain was the scenery. It’s something that the L’Eroica Britannia has in abundance. That and the British version of strade bianche, which is more-or-less just gravel paths used mostly by farm vehicles and a few thousands cyclists on days like today.
Due to the slightly cold weather, I wasn’t planning on stopping too long at the first feed stop in Hartington, which is a very picturesque village that’s like something straight out of the TV show Heartbeat. Last year, this was one of the best feed stops on the route and, again, it didn’t disappoint.
There were roughly about 10 tables absolutely rammed with various food-stuff, including sausages, cakes, bananas, sandwiches, and even more cake. A new addition was some lovely Stilton and crackers, as well as lots of cans of San Pellegrino, but by far the most popular was the real ale. I am not sure what that says about cyclists – especially so early in the morning.
Pretty soon, there was a steady line of hungry and thirsty cyclists lining up for some top scoff before finding a space to enjoy their scran next to the pond in the centre of the village. Now, I am a bit of a lightweight when it comes to drinking, so I opted out of the real ale – mainly due to the fact that there is a big climb straight out of the village and drinking half a pint of real ale made me a bit worse for wear last year.
After a very sober climb (for me, at least) out of Hartington, it was back on the gravel paths of the Tissington Trail for a while before rejoining a lovely section of smooth asphalt that took the route straight through a ford across Bradbourne Brook. Last year, I bottled out of riding through the ford through fear of, well, falling on my arse. This year, I am proud to say that I completely bottled it once again along with the eight or so other riders in my group. Strength in numbers and all that. Maybe next year, eh?
From here, the route was pretty straightforward and not much to write home about. It was all on very quiet roads with little traffic before heading back on the gravel track not far from Bolehill. Next up was one of the highlights for me – the High Peaks Trail. This is a pretty gnarly – and seemingly endless – descent down a mostly dirt and gravel track to the bottom at the old train station in High Peaks Junction.
Last year, I had to stop halfway to give my brakes and hands a bit of a rest. It’s not the easiest to navigate on a road bike with skinny tyres, but this time I was able to sail down pretty confident thanks to knowing what lay ahead. Sadly, I later heard that another rider had an accident on this section and an ambulance had to be called. I hope that they’re okay and recovering.
At the bottom, the organisers once again did themselves proud with another cracker of a feed-stop. There was plenty of scrumptious food and drink. I even managed to nab myself a little tub of ice-cream that soon quickly disappeared. Well, it’s all carb-loading, isn’t it?
Oh, I forgot to mention that at every feed-stop there was a mechanic on hand to fix any problems riders might have had with their vintage bikes free-of-charge – a lovely touch and I am sure they were kept busy judging by the age of some of the machines.
Straight out of High Peaks came a whopper of a long drag reaching about 11 per cent gradient in places. Truth be told, it wasn’t all that taxing. It was pretty quiet and there were hardly any cars on the road. Once you got in a decent rhythm, it was fairly enjoyable and straightforward.
From here, the route navigates through various B-roads towards Beeley Lane before hitting the mega-enjoyable descent down through Beesley Forest and on towards the last feed-stop at Chatsworth House.
Wow, what a descent. The road surface was lovely and smooth – not to mention dry. There were a few twisty-turns to add a bit of excitement, but nothing you couldn’t navigate safely. Me? I barely touched the brakes all the way down. Surprisingly, I went past two cars, a caravan and another group of riders with ease – and I am not normally known for my descending skills. Perhaps it was the steel bike – steel is real, after all.
After another quick feed-stop inside the lovely Chatsworth House Estate, where everyone was cooing over the Rapha van – surprisingly stocked with white wine instead of the usual doppio – it was back on the road for the final five miles.
What a way to end a fantastic day – one long, big bloody climb. I absolutely loved it – even if I was crawling along at this point. Don’t be scared, though. There were a fair few – both this and last year – who I seen get off and walk up but they’re not that bad. I hadn’t ridden my bike for two weeks and had been a bit unwell the week leading up to L’Eroica, so that gives you a good indication of how manageable this final section is – oh, not forgetting that I am not the lightest lad either.
Once at the top, it was time for another wicked descent down towards Bakewell. Unlike the descent through Beesley, this one is a bit narrower and cuts through the local golf course, so you need to be wary of golfers crossing. For the daredevils and technical riders, there is an absolute cracker of tight hairpin nearly the bottom. It’s so tight that you practically come back on yourself. In fact, I could hear the rider behind me screeching his brakes like they were going out of fashion.
That’s it then. Well, almost. There is a very short bimble back onto the festival site, where you’re met with a wall of noise, cheers and applause from the massive crowd gathered near the finish line. It’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to a Grand Tour, so I couldn’t resist the chance to sprint past the guys in front of me and take the final corners at speed.
Even better was the announcers shouting: “Here’s James Maloney from Liverpool.” To which I punched the air as if I’d won said Grand Tour. Across the line, I was offered a bottle of water, reminded that I could get a drink and Bakewell Pudding (not tart) from the HQ. Sadly, I had to head straight home ready for a night shift. My legs were tired, but I was smiling from ear-to-ear for a second year running. Some sequels are worth waiting 12 months for. Same again next year? Yes, please.