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Vintage bikes and Sir Chris Hoy on coffee duty — we ride Eroica Britannia's new route

With Eroica Britannia relocating to Goodwood, who better to send to try out the route (and pre-1987 bikes) than quite possibly the only Gen Z member of the team?

Sat in the same Goodwood race control building where many of motorsport's greats have heard their pre-race instructions over the years, I'm receiving a hair-raising briefing of my own from Brian Reid of vintage bicycle specialists Golden Age Cycles. 

"I'm not a very good salesman," he admits before hurtling into a dizzying deconstruction of defects... "The brakes are rubbish, don't find that out on your first steep descent. Gears are rubbish. I've got a few spanners for tweaking and a few incantations that might work but they are temperamental old beasts. Go at the bike's pace rather than your ego pace and you'll probably be about right." 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

With Brian's reassuring words ringing in my ears it's time to get acquainted with the lucky "temperamental old beast" with the dubious honour of carrying my wintered fitness around 50km of rolling South Downs countryside. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

On the menu: 600m of elevation, largely front-ended into the first half of the ride, and roads that come August 7th will be packed with pre-1987 bikes and vintage clothing as Eroica Britannia, the UK version of the retro cycling festival that has taken place in Tuscany since 1997, makes its Goodwood debut after a two-year coronavirus interval, moving down south from its previous Peak District home. 

> Eroica Britannia switches to Goodwood from next year and will include motor racing venue’s iconic hill climb

Eroica participants have the choice of three rides: a 20-mile 'Tourist Route', 60-mile 'Sporting Route' or 100-mile 'Heroic Route', all of which use the same roads I'm about to make my vintage bicycle debut on. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

My ride for the day is a wonderful-looking Holdsworth Cyclone, with considerably less wonderful-looking gearing — a single 46-tooth chainring at the front, 5-speed and an easiest gear offering of 46x24. "How steep did you say those climbs are?" 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

I'm pleased to see 23c tyres (I was expecting worse) but less pleased by the obligatory downtube shifters. I guess that's part of the fun. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

Following a quick dash to the car park to work those delights out, we hit the road, and despite one early dropped chain, the shifting isn't quite as bad as Brian promised...maybe that's the game plan? Tell us they'll be useless, and leave us pleasantly surprised... 

I am more than pleasantly surprised for first impressions as we tootle through the grounds of nearby Goodwood House. The brakes leave a little to be desired but given the sight of the road tilting upwards that's the least of my concerns, for now. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

More pressing is my rapidly slowing cadence as I frantically try to remember which way to shift...7 per cent slopes are an unforgiving terrain for pushing your chain down the block, I can say that from quad-grinding experience. The climb in question is dragging us up the same tarmac that plays host to the Goodwood Hill Climb each year, and my cadence can't have touched anything north of 70 for the past five minutes. At least the chatter, leisurely pace and stunning views over the Sussex Downs are making the effort enjoyable. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

In the world of horse racing, Goodwood is synonymous with the adjective glorious thanks to the five-day summer racing festival hosted at the racecourse we're now speeding past on our way over the top of the ridge. The March weather may be a touch short of glorious, but in a few months' time it's easy to see how the green slopes and blue-sky vistas would befit such a description.

Interrupting my yearning daydream is the all-too-sudden double-digit gradient my Holdsworth is now rapidly plummeting down. Brakes certainly have moved on a fair bit in recent years, and these require near-constant full effort forearm-burning grip just to stay on top of the speed. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

Thankfully for my forearms and fingers, unfortunately for everything else, the road soon turns upwards, at a similar gradient to what we've just come down. Once again, replace the monotonous grey morning with sunshine and you could easily be mistaken for thinking you're ascending one of Tuscany's stunning climbs made famous by Strade Bianche.

At the start, vintage bike expert Brian warned us there's a reason why all cyclists used to have thighs like event ambassador Sir Chris Hoy, and my 46x24 is doing a good job of showing why. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

Talking of Sir Chris' thighs (sorry I'm daydreaming again) shortly after the gradient mercifully eases, the famous quads are propping the retired track star up while he makes me a flat white. No, I'm not in an under-geared hallucination, the six-time Olympic gold medallist really is at the top of the hill dishing out coffees from the back of event partner Artisan Coffee Co's van.  

Eroica Britannia Media Day

All three Eroica Britannia routes begin with a lap of the Goodwood Motor Circuit before taking on the Goodwood Hill Climb, Knights Hill double-header I've just enjoyed. Those on the short route will promptly head back to the race track to continue all the food, drink and entertainment that is as much a part of the weekend as the cycling. 

> Retro vs modern: comparing a vintage steel racer with a modern machine on the Eroica Britannia route

For riders taking on the 60-mile 'Sporting Route' or 100-mile 'Heroic Route', the snippet I've described is just the beginning, with miles of winding West Sussex lanes, short gravel sectors, energy-sapping rises and energy-restoring 'experience stops' to enjoy. 

Eroica Britannia Media Day

"What's an experience stop?" I hear you ask. Well, you know at a 'normal' event when you clip-clop across a crowded car park to nab a few Jaffa Cakes from a pop-up tent? Basically, upgrade that by a multiple of ten. Riders on the century route are rewarded with four stops, including coffee and cake in the gardens of West Dean Estate, before lunch at Ashling Park — an award-winning vineyard and one of Britain's finest sparkling wine producers. Don't ask how I can vouch for that... that's an upgrade on the sportive classic of half a banana and a couple of fig rolls, if you ask me.

Eroica Britannia Media Day

But perhaps that's precisely the point — Eroica events are not a race, nor are they about setting a fast time, enjoyment of the ride and all things vintage cycling are all that matter here.  

Eroica Britannia Media Day

With that said, the festivities over the weekend of 6th-7th August will celebrate the 40-year anniversary of Goodwood hosting the 1982 World Championships, with the two-day festival making a weekend of the event before the Eroica rides form the showpiece Sunday attraction.

Over two days the Motor Circuit will open to more of that award-winning food and drink, music, family track rides, and see 1982 rainbow jersey-winners Giuseppe Saronni and Mandy Jones returning to reminisce about their great victories.  

Despite the niceties of the Festival and hospitality, 100 miles with 2,100m (6,922ft) of climbing on a pre-1987 machine is hardly an early August jolly, and while you might not be racing anyone else, my brief experience of the route was enough to tell me you'll certainly still be battling yourself (and bike) no matter how much artisan coffee and posh lunches are included on the way.

Eroica Britannia Media Day

In the words of Eroica's motto it's all about La Bellezza della Fatica e il Gusto dell'Impresa (the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of conquest).  By the end of the day, it's my hands that are struggling to find the beauty in fatigue, mainly thanks to heavy braking and the pre-1987 attitude to bar tape.

But as I roll a couple of miles back to the station on my modern-day steed, I can't help but feel it is a little too effective. One tap and the Shimano derailleur pings into place, a gentle fingertip and the brakes slow my momentum effortlessly.

Do I miss downtube shifting? Not really, even if it takes more of a skill than tapping a shifter. Am I glad of the ability to stop easily when I want? Absolutely. Maybe it's purely aesthetics that have turned my head, but I can't help but wish I was still riding the Holdsworth.  

Eroica Britannia Media Day

More information, including full route details and ticket prices, can be found on Goodwood's website. Golden Age Cycles also provides bike hire for the event if, like me, N+1 hasn't quite led you to pre-1987...yet.  

Dan joined in 2020, and spent most of his first year (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. At the start of 2022 he took on the role of news editor. Before joining, Dan wrote about various sports, including football and boxing for the Daily Express, and covered the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for The Non-League Paper. Part of the generation inspired by the 2012 Olympics, Dan has been 'enjoying' life on two wheels ever since and spends his weekends making bonk-induced trips to the petrol stations of the south of England.

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