England’s very own strade bianche

Last weekend the Derbyshire town of Bakewell was transformed into a retro cycling haven by L’Eroica Britannia. All the classic bicycle marques of yesteryear gathered and with them came stalls selling every old school accessory and clothing item you can imagine. With hay bales for seats, constant live music and delicious local food and drink on tap, everyone had something to smile about.

The weather can be a deal breaker with any outdoor festival but this one really would have suffered in the rain. Quite a bit of the ride was on dirt roads and trails – the equivalent of the strade bianchi, or white roads, of the Italian ride – that would have been very slippery and dangerous if they’d got wet. And of course this being Britain it was impossible to know whether they were going to be until the event was virtually upon us. As it turned out, conditions were pretty much perfect.

We signed up for the mid-distance 55-mile ride, with author Tim Moore joining us for the day on his single speed 1914 Hirondelle. During the ride we realised that each of our bikes had their own strengths and weaknesses that left some riders feeling fresher than others at the finish. The choice of 22mm tubs proved particularly challenging on the off-road sections (and let’s not even mention the cobbled ford of six-inch deep water…)

The harshness of off-road descents on tired, claw-like hands was more than made up for by some sublime moments of genuine inspiration. At one point early in the ride we emerged from a long dark tunnel into brilliant sunshine and a choir singing – we thought we'd died and gone to heaven!

Surveying all that beautiful countryside and basking in the warm sunshine surrounded by beautiful old racing bikes, there were moments when it genuinely felt as though we were in Tuscany. But this illusion was shattered in the most wonderful way when we reached the food stops; Morris dancing, warm beer and pork and stilton sausages will never catch on in Italy!