Suitably dressed in attire to complement our period bicycles, Katherine and I set off from the picturesque peak district town of Bakewell, under gloomy skies. The famous tart making town plays host to the Eroica Britannia, a magnificent festival celebrating pre 1987 cycling with food, drink and live music thrown in for good measure. This is only the second year of the British version of the original Italian event, and was held over three days from the 19th to the 21st June. The beginnings of the festival have Italian roots but Britannia Eroica has a tangible British feel, reminiscent of traditional village fetes and country fairs, and it must be said, including traditional British weather.
It has certainly struck a chord with the British public and also with our neighbours across the channel with many European cycle lovers taking part. It is estimated 50,000 people attended this year, with 3600 entering the Sunday rides. Katherine was riding her Mother’s three speed 1980 Raleigh shopping bike, complete with wicker basket and I was on my old faithful 1948 single speed Raleigh Pathracer. Having only four gears between us and knowing how hilly the Peak District National Park is, we had decided the shorter distance of 30 miles would be challenging enough and left the 50 and 100 mile routes to the more adventurous.
As soon as we left the town, resplendent in union jack bunting, we started to climb the first hill of the day. And that’s when disaster struck! Katherine tried to change gear and discovered the sturmey archer gear lever didn’t work. The cable had come out of its slot resulting in a very limited choice of gears, namely top gear only. Not the perfect start that we had hoped for. Nevertheless Katherine, with youth on her side managed to cycle most of the hill before walking. It looked like it was going to be a long day! We were relieved to turn onto the Monsal Trail which runs along the old Midland Railway Line. The flat terrain allowed us to gather speed as we steamed along the flat old railway cutting, catching up and passing some of the other retro attired riders. There was a eclectic mix of styles, ranging from the 1920s to the modern era. It felt like being in some weird BBC costume drama. At the end of the traffic free trail, which included tunnels and glorious views, an oasis of coffee and other refreshments greeted us at the old station at Millers Dale.
Unbeknown to us the hero of the day was enjoying a break too. We started chatting to Stuart and his brother in law, Gary, who showed interest in my old steed, which looks older than it actually is thanks to the design dating back to before the second world war. Well I think they were admiring the set up; they weren’t laughing! I mentioned that if they thought I was in for a challenging day with a single gear and only one coaster rear brake, I pointed out Katherine had a bigger challenge stuck in top gear.
Immediately Stuart’s eyes lit up and he dashed across to the lame bike. Fixing the gear changer was out the question but Stuart informed us; “In the day, sturmey archer riders carried a nail for just this problem.” We wondered if Stuart had lost his marbles as we failed to see how a nail could possibly help. However we enquired amongst the throng of riders if anyone was carrying any ironmongery and unsurprisingly the answer was no. Stuart went on to explain that a nail or hair clip was required to put into the chain that operated the internal hub gears. Once the chain had been pulled out and first gear selected, the tension of the chain could be secured by slotting the nail through the linkage and hence keeping first gear selected.
The penny dropped, and Gary had the bright idea of using a safety pin. Sharp thinking! The pin was duly fitted and hey presto, it worked, and Stuart’s reputation was restored. Now it was Katherine’s turn to light up her face. We now had a chance of completing the ride before dark – as long as the safety pin held! (Spare pins were issued just in case). Without doubt Stuart had saved the day. Gary informed us that we couldn’t have met a better person to help us out, “Stuart is a legend”. We couldn’t have agreed more! Leaving the station the road turned left and skyward. Climbing the steep incline with some riders zig zagging up the hill, in our thoughts we thanked Stuart again, for without his help Katherine would have already been pushing her two wheeled wicker basket.
We proceeded through beautiful rolling countryside, chatting to fellow cyclists along the way. Chris Boardman, who is an advocate of using bikes for normal transport wearing normal clothes, would have been in heaven seeing all these people riding bikes with no lycra in sight! We passed gents in tweed suits, ladies dressed in flowing dresses and high heels, and even a policeman complete with cape. Who would have thought time travel was possible by bike! Thoughts soon turned to bacon butties which was included in the entrance fee. However a large hill had to be conquered first. With a gradient of over 10% only the very fit or those with appropriate low gears made it to the top without dismounting. Walking however just gave us another opportunity to chat some more. Everyone we met had smiles on their faces and positive comments. It was clear to see that the Eroica isn’t about the fastest time, its more a social and fun event with the challenge of completing the route on ancient machinery.
Bacon butties and tea were duly served in the church yard of the ‘Cathedral’ of the Peaks at Tideswell. A wonderful setting. It was great to have real food instead of gels and bananas that are normally provided at the more usual sportives. Bike mechanics were also stationed in the church yard, helping those with even greater problems than we experienced. Fuelled by the food of champions, Katherine found the energy to conquer every hill, even passing those on expensive lightweight racers from the sixties and seventies. As well as thinking she must be annoying a lot of riders, I also thought that I may have a natural climber on my hands. She certainly doesn’t take after her father! Along the route people took the opportunity to sample the hospitality and refreshments provided by the many pubs and cafes. We stopped at the official stop, which included cake, tea and more chat. It was obvious the 30 miles were going to take a lot longer than normal.
The last downhill (and there are many) was a steep 13% descent into the valley bottom. With trepidation I started the plunge downwards, hoping the coaster brake would not let me down. I looked out for soft landing sites just in case the worse should happen. It was perhaps a little foolish of me to enter a bike that was designed for track racing. And it is also a little foolish of me to admit to using a bike with only one brake, should any law enforcing officers happen to read this article! Back in the day some cyclists fitted ‘Bobby Dodgers’ to keep the local Police establishment happy. Bobby Dodgers were basically a lever attached to the handle bar that operated ‘pull up’ front brakes. Must get one for next year! I’m happy to report the coaster brake worked perfectly, partly thanks to the dry conditions and the grip from my ‘oxford leather shoes’. Had it been wet I probably would have taken to walking or ended up lying in a ditch.
The final uphill challenge was a 1 in 6 monster of a climb to Monsal Head. So far the safety pin had worked, we just hoped Stuart’s magic touch would continue to do the trick. Taking a ‘run up’, we managed to cycle a good third of the climb before joining others wearing out their shoe leather. The road passed through a wooded area and then opened out into a wonderful vista. We could see in the distance a crowd of on lookers at the top of the hill, watching the spectacle of worn out cyclists either pushing or gallantly cycling up the ‘ski jump’ like gradient. A pub and ice cream van were located at the top giving a great incentive to alcohol and animal fat lovers. Katherine and I decided to put on a show for the audience, even though we didn’t know how the last scene would end! Stomping on the pedals and going so slow I thought I might fall off, I managed to cycle over the crest to a round of applause. A few moments later a cheer and more applause could be heard. Looking round I witnessed Katherine also conquering the monster. She was smiling from ear to ear, justly proud of her achievement, no doubt to the annoyance of even more riders on their multi geared wicker basket – less cycles.
We celebrated our accomplishment by devouring two large ice creams whilst admiring the wonderful view across the Monsal Valley. The alcohol would come later. The ride back to the festival ground included another lovely spin along the Monsal Trail before we crossed the finishing line six hours after we set off. The supportive crowd, informed by excellent commentary, cheered and clapped each and every rider and there were scenes of joyous celebration all around. It reminded us of the atmosphere at the finishing line of a Marathon. Our ride time was never going to break any records, but the ride was definitely all about the journey and not the destination. I have to say it was one of the happiest six hours I or Katherine have ever spent on a bike. The landscapes we cycled through, the people we met, the fun we had, and the food we ate all contributed to a delightful and unforgettable experience. Even the weather behaved, after a sharp shower at the start, it was mostly dry, if overcast.
Once the official photo was taken there was only three more things to do; collect our free real ale, sample some of the fantastic food on offer and collect our free bakewell tart. All of which was carried out and in that order! Special thanks must go to Stuart and to the humble safety pin. What a brilliant repair, what a brilliant day, what an absolutely brilliant event. Roll on next year!