Oldnago and Campagnoldo: Viva L’Eroica Britannia!
‘Look, that is a vintage Giant!’ Lying in the grass, surrounded from all sides by tents, my steel frame bicycle is being admired by one of the camping fellows in Bakewell, Peak District. I should have got used to this by now, it’s my second day at L’Eroica Britannia, a festival dedicated to all things retro biking.
Giant, a Taiwanese company best renowned for high tech, modern bicycles, had its own ‘vintage’ era in late 80s, early 90s, when they built the road bicycle I’m regularly riding. Still, some of the connaisseurs are surprised to learn that Giant ever built steel frames. Suspicious and amazed at once, my neighbour looks closely at the company’s logo on the down tube of the frame while I explain him that this is how it looked in the 90s, written cursively with red minuscules, nothing like the upper case modern letters that can be seen today on their bikes.
My bicycle hardly got any more attention during the three days of festival. L’Eroica Britannia is all about really old and exquisite bicycles whose owners have been finally given the opportunity to display the most precious and well preserved items of their personal collections. The properly trained eyes know how to hunt and judge bicycles from brands such as Colnago, Cinelli, Bianchi, Olmo, generally the famed Italian designs from 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years ago, that only recently raised to cult status amongst the collectors and picky riders alike.
The whole ‘L’Eroica concept’ is of Italian import, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the greatest deal of consideration is paid firstly to the italiano vero bicycles. The ‘original’ event is being held in Tuscany since 1997, its purpose being, the organizers boast, ‘to safeguard the heritage of the white roads of Tuscany’. It is at the same time about riding ‘heritage’ bikes. The older and less common, the better.
What makes Eroica such a must event that lures cyclists to ride onto the hilly Peak District? Well, in the first place it is different from all organized rides and races in the UK countryside. The emphasis is explicitly in opposition to that of all other non-competitive rides (be they sportives or audax) who lure at the start almost exclusively cyclists dressed in full lycra riding fast modern carbon bicycles. Instead, at least on their website, the requirements for the bicycles that participate at L’Eroica are rather different: 1) Only cyclists with “heroic” bicycles will be permitted to participate; 2) ‘Heroic’ bicycles are road racing bikes, built before 1987; 3) Gear shift levers on the down tube of the frame (exceptionally, only pre-1980 bar-end gear shifts are allowed).
I knew about L’Eroica Italia for a few years now from a friend in Bucharest, Sorin, who’s been dreaming to ride it one day. He had a nice Bianchi bought from eBay, that he restored himself, but despite his success to find on the Internet the original components that were shabby or just missing, he didn’t have yet the chance to take his precious bike to Tuscany. Neither did many of the people I met at L’Eroica Britannia. Most knew about the ‘original Eroica’, many dreamt, of course, to ride it one day.
‘We wanted to come [at L’Eroica Britannia] because we were actually thinking to go to the Italian one. And we probably will do at some point, but as soon as we we heard of this event, it was like When can we sign up?, straight away. Did we sign up in the first week, Graham?’ Roger and his friend Graham are in their 60s and they both started building bicycles ‘since we were little’. ‘What’s classed as old here are the bikes that we started on, ’cause of the age we are’, laughs Roger.
The younger participants might not have made plans to ride the ‘original L’Eroica’ and might not have been building bicycles for years and years as did Graham and Roger, but some of them were instantly charmed by the idea of a vintage ride in the countryside. Lester (34) is from London and his tent is close to mine. He’s riding a rather new single speed Condor in the city, but for L’Eroica he got himself a 1970s Claud Butler, ‘just a cheap bike off eBay’. ‘I saw the L’Eroica in Tuscany, I saw a video, I thought it would be a really cool thing to do. And then, I can’t remember who sent me the link, but I realized it was happening in the UK for the first time. I thought it would be a nice thing to do. And, you know, it’s like an alternative weekend, isn’t it? It’s the weekend when you’re not sitting in the house, playing computer games or getting stoned. So it’s nice to get out in the countryside and look at it around here, it’s beautiful part of the country, you make friends and drink some beers, you know, it’s not too serious, it’s not a race where everyone is trying to beat each other’.
Lester and his friend Alan (30) don’t seem concerned at all about the vintage appearance of the bikes they’re riding or the clothes they’re wearing. Alan insists that everything they wear is bought from H&M, while Lester adds that it’s the idea of a team’s uniform that matters more: ‘I’m just going to wear white t-shirts, matching hats, matching t-shirts, black shorts, be like a team, you know. I’m not really into spending loads of money on merino, wool jerseys or L’Eroica jerseys or anything like that, it’s not really about that’.
Sitting down in the grass, close to the tent, and chatting with Lester and Alan, I think about my no logo merino yellow jersey and my custom made grey cycling cap that I’m going to wear the next day during the ride. I’m thinking that I’m more like the rest of the participants, taking my role in this vintage play rather seriously. But as I walk away from the two and start observing the others, I realize how far I am from perfection. Getting closer to the core of the festival main venue, near the stage, the quest for authenticity is on and is very fierce.
Father and son both dressed in full tweed, similar bows and goggles, almost make me cry. Steel frame Peugeot bicycles from the 70s and 80s with all the original components on them walked by perfectly matched riders in their Peugeot white cycling jerseys and caps remind me again how long a journey I still have to take. Is it possible that I have mutilated my poor old Giant with the new rims, tyres, bar tapes and group set that I put on it, instead of keeping the original components, worn out as they were?
The pain continues as on the stage starts a parade with the best dressed women and men, best dressed couple, best looking bicycles, best moustaches! They look all impressive, their tweed and dresses match the bicycles, the bicycles themselves, old as they are, don’t have any rust stains, I’m wondering if they have ever been ridden at all.
Team eBay Obscura
I want to get away from the stage, where, predictably, everybody seems to swarm just to show off their clothing and bicycles. Just opposite the stage, after I pass all the exhibitors’ tents with their brand new vintage bikes and jerseys, there’s a completely frozen in time world of bits and pieces sold almost on the car hood. It reminds me of the flea markets I used to frequent in Romanian cities in late 90s searching for my first road bicycle.
You can buy a steel road bicycle here for a couple of hundred pounds or just trade a set of wheels or a pair of Campagnolo brakes. It’s the sort of deal you get on eBay, only that instead of biding, you negotiate, and, even better, you get to touch before buying. I could spend hours here, rather than get back to the perfectly matching cyclists and bicycles on the stage, but I don’t have much money with me. I ask one seller where he gets them from and he replies that he goes a couple of times a year in the Netherlands and Belgium to load his car which gets then emptied back in the UK.
The cycling jerseys and caps are especially intriguing items on sale here. Colourful as they often are in the professional peloton, they feature names of forgotten teams and sponsors that nobody but the very few keen and devoted fans have ever heard of. Still, somebody sells them and somebody eventually buys them and this is amazing. I smile as I see a Deutsch Telekom magenta jersey from mid 90s: my favourite cyclist, Jan Ullrich, won the Tour de France in 1997 wearing that pink colour on his shoulders. A few years later he was caught doping, why would anyone buy such a ‘dirty’ jersey today?
Next day, the ride itself was amazing. The landscape in the Peak District and the perfect sunny weather both contributed to a Sunday to remember. I rode together with Lester and Alan on and off road, in the refreshing forests, into the tunnels. Until I had my first of the four punctures of the day. It happened each time at the same tyre on the back wheel and I simply couldn’t understand why. I almost had a nervous breakdown at some point out of frustration, so I told Alan and Lester to continue their ride without me, it was no point wasting their time too.
Later in the day a keen mechanic recommended me to change the tyre altogether as it was worn out, which I immediately did. I put new tyres just last summer and I had no idea that they were due to be changed again! They didn’t puncture recently on the Lancaster asphalt, but the gravel roads of L’Eroica Britannia were a different challenge. The consolation came only when I saw the pile of other tyres that the mechanic changed that day. They all looked far more worn out than mine. Vintage comes with a price, right?
Back to the nice memories. After a couple of days I still carry the signs of L’Eroica Britannia: the blisters on arms and legs from the tan, the chapped lips and, obviously, the mild and pleasant pain in the whole body. They are more alive than any other memory from the Peak District.
And the official proof I finished the ride: I collected all the required stamps!