Sunday, 26 June 2016

Old men, old bikes, old clothes.....

We've got a plan for next year - L'Eroica Britannia.

What happens when you combine a vintage Italian bike ride with the rolling hills of the Peak District? You get a lot of tweed, flapjacks, and loads of vintage bike geekery. LEroica Britannia is a three day, family friendly cycling festival held in Bakewell in the heart of Derbyshire. L’Eroica is more a way of life than a cycle ride. The name means ‘heroic’ and it began life in Italy in 1997 when 92 riders came together to highlight a campaign to prevent the asphalting over of the famous Tuscan white gravel roads – the strade bianchi – and to celebrate the fortitude of the cycling heroes of yesteryear.

Since then, the annual event has been governed by strict rules: the bikes must be from 1987 or earlier – so no indexed gears, gear changers must be on the downtube, and no routed cables. Clothing must be of an appropriate era to the bike. It's a non-competitive event and has always been about more than cycling alone – a celebration of the environmental heritage, and the food and drink of the region, a fond remembrance of when cycling’s biggest drug controversy was a few too many swigs of red wine at the food stops.

From these beginnings, L’Eroica is now becoming a global phenomenon. There are events in Japan, California, and Spain, It's been running in the UK for three years now (we went to the first one - think there's a blog somewhere?) 

Finish the ride in Italy and you get a bottle of Chianti and the local bread. Here, you get a Bakewell pudding and a pint of beer especially brewed for the event by Thornbridge! The vision for Eroica Britannia was always more ambitious though. “We dreamt of a festival that celebrated the best of British across a spectrum of vintage and lifestyle and obviously bikes.” says the organiser. Their aim is for Eroica Britannia to do for cycling what the Goodwood Revival has done for classic cars. The festival offers a 30 acre showground estate awash with family fun and frolics, including, rather bizarrely in a town that is renowned as an agricultural centre, a recreation of a Great British beach, complete with deck chairs and 30 tons of sand. Still, the kids loved it.
But the centrepiece of the festival is, of course, the bicycle. If your thing is old bikes and vintage clothing, you would have thought you had died and pedalled off to nerd heaven here. And you wouldn’t have been alone: the three day bash attracts over 50,000 visitors.

Stefano Del Sarto used to be a professional cyclist and now runs tours in Tuscany to ride the L’Eroica. “More business here,” he says in imperfect English  as he gestures to the bustling stalls around him. “In Italy, all free.”

Welcome to England, Stefano.

L’Eroica is just as much about clothes and food as it is about bikes. It’s a festival for retro fashionistas and foodies alike. The majority of cyclists are decked out in 60s, 70s or 80s garb with  steel framed 531s or Columbuses, but there was a significant number in finest tweeds, plus fours, handmade brogues and stylish summer dresses from various periods on traditional ‘sit-up and beg’ steeds.
The whole point of L’Eroica is to make a bit of an effort - and it doesn’t matter too much if you get your periods mixed up – everyone looks good and everyone has tried hard to get their look right.

Without doubt it‘s the best two-wheeled fancy dress party imaginable.

As you walk around the maze of stalls selling almost every component ever made for the bicycle and every garment ever worn, your senses turn to food as the aromas wafting around become irresistible. Finest prosciuttos, cheeses and salamis sit next to enormous pans of ragu and pasta with vino rosso being the absolutely obligatory accompaniment.

Yes - this is next year's target. Gary has already found his bike - a 1959 McLean - currently undergoing restoration. I've placed an order for an old Italian bike - I've dreamt of owning one since my early teens - and it has to have Campagnolo components! - watch this space for further details as the project develops - we've got almost a year to get things sorted and source old clothes/shoes/hats/goggles etc!

Nailstone to Norfolk.....

The year is passing so quickly - my youngest is revising for college exams - I've seen her and I've occasionally seen her books , but never together. Last Thursday she attended an all-day revision session at college and came back looking suspiciously sunburnt. Suddenly I realise our annual 'ride', our 'target', our 'goal' is here - and i realised that I should have practiced what I preach.

As the 'event' got ever close I fell into a kind of morbid dread at the prospect of a long ride. This year has been rubbish for cycling. I don't want to start making wimpy excuses, but the truth is I simply haven't done the miles. Leading up to it was day after day of torrential rain - I told Gary that I wouldn't ride in the rain - too dangerous, no pleasure. Then every evening I danced naked around the garden in my Sioux headdress. It worked well; come Thursday morning the rain was still pelting down. Then Gary texted..... 'We'll be there at 10.00'

'What about the rain though' I replied.

'Goose Fat' was the response.

There just isn't anything good to say about setting out on a 100 mile bike ride in the pouring rain. It's not clever, it's not in any way fun... it is pure misery. Grey skies have hung over us for days, dark leaden and spouting, stretched from horizon to horizon like a mottled blanket the tones shift and change as though the heavens can't decide on the palette to use. Artists can replicate what they see, mixing colour and tone with a sensitivity that is hard to match with words; gunmetal, teal, flint, pewter, charcoal, ash, limestone and 50 shades of grey - all are here and more. Gary and David arrived at the meeting point...drenched and within ten minutes of setting off I was soaked through too - even though I was wearing a so-called waterproof jacket. We plodded along through Stanton under Bardon up some steep roads to Copt Oak and then Woodhouse Eaves and Quorn. We paused for a minute to pick up new paddles and I asked where we were heading next - 'Six Hills'

I usually prefer not to know what lies ahead on one of these trips - somehow I had perfect vision this time.

Actually the hills weren't too bad - a better name might have been Two Hills with Four Humps. As we skirted around Melton Mowbray I noticed signs for Long Clawson and Colston Bassett - we were in cheese country. The rain had actually stopped by now and amazingly we dried out quiet quickly. Then it started again. Then it stopped. Then it started. Most of our time was spent at the roadside either dressing or undressing. Then it was time to eat.

Through misfortune or sheer bad (or maybe good) planning we were cycling on the day England were playing Wales in the Euro's. We stopped at a big Thatched Pub on a crossroads. The TV was ready and the pre-match build up had started - 'It'll be mad in here when the game starts' said the barmaid - 'You okay with that?'

We weren't bothered to be honest. Our plan was a pint, a sandwich and be on our way, thank you very much. The sandwiches were good though. We set off with about fifteen minutes to go to kick-off - the pub was still more or less empty.

By now we'd covered 50 miles or so - I was doing okay considering I hadn't cycled this sort of distance in one go since last year. We passed through some superb little villages, the rain was holding off now and everything seemed brighter. Gradually the landscape flattened as we travelled further East, which has to be a good thing.

We paused outside a Wild Hog farm... that's right......somewhere? - and feasted on Jelly Babies - glycogen levels needed lifting, many jelly lives were sacrificed for the cause. And we battled on. By now I was weary; my legs were aching, my arse was sore, hands and neck as well. My lack of proper preparation was beginning to tell and we still had 20 or so miles to do. I managed to hang on though and we finally made it into Wisbech at around 6.30pm.

Wisbech is a town that looks past its best. There's a sorry, faded grandeur to the place that seems a shame. It's the kind of place where you might step into Miss Haversham's house. The Georgian buildings lining the River Nene look to be original and with a lick of paint would probably polish up nicely. We rolled into the backyard of the White Lion Hotel, there was a gang of drunken football supporters rocking gently from side to side and trying to talk to each other. It didn't look good. Gary went inside and re-emerged with a youngish scouser from behind the bar - he took us to where the bikes were to be left - a store room full of soiled mattresses, drums of vegetable oil and general mess.

After a quick shower we were down in the bar for a couple of well earned Stellas before supper. We booked a table for 8pm - The scouser said it would be busy, but we were the only ones eating. The food was okay and the chef was a friendly chap from Aberdeen. We bought the scouser a drink - but we made him promise not to steal the wheels off our bikes - we put a drink in for the chef too.

I didn't hear Gary scream in the night but I'm sure he did - he always screams when he gets cramp and if he's sitting anywhere near a table he usually knocks it over. Over breakfast, cramp was the subject most discussed. We all suffered during the night. For me it was like a nightmare, a shadowy monster tearing the muscles from my legs and then devouring them as I lay there helplessly. Gary apparently had to rush to the bathroom and disguise his screams by ramming a whole toilet roll into his mouth - it worked - I never heard a thing.

The morning looked promising. No sign of rain, relatively clear skies and no wind to speak of.  Just wait for the beans to work their magic. We set of in reasonable spirits - the first mile or two in relative silence as we concentrated on controlling the pain from our undercarriage.

It's interesting that we all think a ride out to the east is going to be easy and flat. We climbed around 6000 feet yesterday! - although today should be a lot easier. I can't remember much about the final 40 or so miles into Hunstanton - I felt pretty good to be fair - better than I deserved that's for sure, and we made good progress, arriving at Old Hunstanton at about 1.00pm for a celebratory drink at 'The Lodge', our work was done and we could now relax with the promise of a couple of days of fine food and wine in the company of friends - apart from dry weather what more could you ask for?