Eroica Britannia - three days of handsome fun, frolics and vintage bikes

Cycling in style

Cycling in style - Credit: Archant

Earlier this summer Andrew Griffiths visited Eroica Britannia, when the vintage cycling festival that is going global settled on Bakewell for three days of handsome fun, frolics, and the small matter of a bike ride

Start of the ride, Water Street, Bakewell

Start of the ride, Water Street, Bakewell - Credit: Archant

Riders shuffled thickly together, most standing beside and wheeling their machines, while some of the more confident in the saddle at slower than walking pace wobbled through the throng. Some 4,500 of them would be funnelled from the showground in Bakewell, along the narrow confines of Water Street with its art studio, craft jewellers and Italian bistros, before under orders they would be finally let loose to toil in the Peak District hills.

But for now, as they waited for the off there was the whirr of voices and the constant ringing of bicycle bells, a tintinnabulation that made you feel as if a nursery rhyme was about to break out. It was an atmosphere aided and abetted by the period costumes the riders were wearing with varying degrees of extravagance and enthusiasm.

This was the start of Eroica Britannia, the Great British vintage cycle race now in its third year. There were Union Jacks everywhere. People either wore one, held one, shook one, looked up or looked down at one. Bunting ribbed the streets as if it was a coronation. For Eroica was more than a cycle ride, it was a lifestyle event. A very British lifestyle event, and as everybody knows, us Brits are just plain bonkers, aren’t we?

Eroica’s growth has been impressive, tapping into a surprising appetite for kitting yourself out in fancy dress, getting on an old bike and slogging your way up some seriously steep hills. The first year the event was held in Bakewell it attracted 1,800 riders, and in this, the third year, there were 4,500 – with 1,200 women, who were no doubt attracted by the prospect of dressing up like a district nurse and pedalling round the Peaks on an old boneshaker with flowers in the basket. There were quite a few.

Bakewell by the mud!

Bakewell by the mud! - Credit: Archant

This year, over the three day festival period, some 50,000 visitors passed through the gates. There is some serious business going on here. Last year it is estimated that the event brought £3.5m into the local economy and this year the organisers expect the scale of the event to better that.

L’Eroica means ‘the hero’. The event began in Italy as a celebration of the heroic spirit of the great racers of the past, and to highlight the need to preserve the ‘strade bianche’ – the unmade white gravel tracks of Tuscany. L’Eroica events were low key and for real hardcore cycling enthusiasts, but three riders, friends and businessmen from Sheffield, saw the commercial potential and set about bringing the event to England’s Peak District where we have our very own ‘strade bianche’ – the Dale trails.

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The British team did this for the first time in 2014 and so impressed the Italians with the job they did that they now market the Eroica brand worldwide. It is a growing portfolio, including the USA, Japan, Netherlands, South Africa and Spain. The idea is to celebrate all that is good about the history, tradition and community spirit of a country, which naturally involves a lot of flag waving and national pride, and telling everyone who’ll listen how jolly good you are at everything.

Finish the race in Italy and you get a bottle of chianti and a piece of local bread. In Britain it is a Bakewell pudding and a pint, in Japan a shot of sake and sushi etc.

Richard Thoday and his penny farthing, after the race

Richard Thoday and his penny farthing, after the race - Credit: Archant

Tim Hubbard, one of the original team of three and the man whose Sheffield-based marketing agency, 93ft, now plans the strategy for the Eroica brand worldwide, tells me that it is important that each event reflects its own national characteristics.

‘What we’ve really tried to do is make Eroica Britannia really British,’ he says. ‘So when people come here not just from the UK but from the 60 countries that are represented here, it is important that they have a very British “jolly good time!”’

The emphasis is on celebrating local food and produce, and craftsmanship, and these interests are reflected in the events on the showground over the weekend. It is also a chance to dress up like an extra in an episode of Downton Abbey, but Tim maintains that Eroica Britannia is more than just a vintage event.

‘People do get dressed up because it is about an era. But when you look back, it was about community, heritage, quality, and I think this is what this event is about, it represents all those things,’ he says. ‘What it allows us to do is to connect back to things that were good about humanity and national pride and manufacturing.’

Cycling in style

Cycling in style - Credit: Archant

First and foremost though it is about the small matter of a bike ride. There are three routes to choose from, ranging from the entry route of 30 miles, an intermediate route of 55 miles, and a route of 100 miles for the real masochists out there.

Richard Thoday, the UK national penny farthing racing champion and runner up in the European championships, this year completed the 55 mile course on his penny farthing – the first person ever to have done so. It took him a full 8½ hours, so he will possibly be the last as well.

‘It was hard work, there is no two ways about it,’ an exhausted Richard told me at the finish line. ‘There are an awful lot of hills!’

I asked Richard how the event compared to last year: ‘Exactly the same spirit amongst the riders, but it is a busier event. There are a lot more people,’ he told me. ‘So there are longer queues at the food stops, but everyone out on the road was having a good time.’

Organiser Tim Hubbard acknowledges that the increased numbers did cause some problems this year, not helped by heavy rain the week before the festival, which turned the Bakewell Showground into a quagmire, for that authentic Great British Festival feel. Still, it did at least give us all a chance to show that traditional British pluck and laugh in the face of adversity.

This was amply demonstrated by the singer on the soundstage as she belted out renditions of Don’t sit under the apple tree, A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square and We’ll meet again to some people sitting in stripy deckchairs in a muddy field while a few other plucky souls braved a waltz on the duckboards. It was all very bonding.

The organisers now have a rolling ten year lease to hold the event, although next year it will not be held at Bakewell Showground. It will take place in the Peak District though, but at the time of writing the location was still top secret. But Eroica Britannia does look set to become something of a Derbyshire institution.

Richard Thoday certainly hopes so, and this year he was moved to wear tweed for the first time on the ride.

‘There are people from all over the world here discovering the Peak District,’ Richard told me after completing the longer circuit. ‘The route they’ve chosen is very clever, some fantastic views. It will bring people back, and that has to be good for the area, hasn’t it?’

It is the bike ride that forms the core of the festival and that sets it apart from other vintage events.

‘Our headline is our riders. They are the people we need to make sure we keep happy,’ Tim Hubbard told me. ‘They are the people who spend all year either finding a bike or building a bike, looking after a bike, and in training to ride the bike. A normal festival experience is that you go online, you buy some tickets, you pitch your tent and have a great weekend. But for this, for the riders, it can be a year-long process.’

To some extent the organisers are learning about the event as they go along and there are no plans to increase rider numbers further. Their ultimate aim is for Eroica Britannia to do for cycling what the Goodwood Revival has done for classic cars. This year, the event’s main UK sponsor was the performance car manufacturer Maserati, which is quite classy really, so it looks as if they are on target so far.