Riders starting out with today's latest bikes have an immense amount to take for granted that's for sure. Nowadays, there’s an entire generation of riders, perhaps even two generations of riders, that simply do not know just how good they’ve got it — I was one of them.
- Modern bikes can't touch the timeless elegance of this vintage custom Riva
- Retro bike tech — our favourite bikes and kit from yesteryear
Born in 1991, my millennial privilege meant that I grew up with bikes that looked a lot like the bikes we ride today. Things such as quill stems and friction shifters had passed me by. Just the idea that shifters were once placed on a frame’s down tube seemed hard to fathom.
So how would I fare taking out a road bike that was assembled long before I was even born? I joined one of Britain’s best bike rides to find out.
- The course: Eroica Britannia medium loop, 60-mile ‘sportsman route’, 4,560ft / 1,390m elevation, mostly gravel paths and closed roads. Route can be downloaded here
- The horse: Graham Weigh Reynolds 531 frame and fork, Shimano 600 groupset in friction shift with 52/42 and 13-28, Mavic MA40 rims with Continental 23mm Gatorskins
- The goal: Don’t fall off, consume many calories, keep smiling
For those who don’t know, the Eroica Brittania is a prestigious celebration of bikes from yesteryear. Situated in the sleepy hamlet of Newhaven, Derbyshire, the event combines a weekend festival with a classic ride for bicycles built before 1987.
The event’s format has been successfully exported from L’Eroica, an annual ride intended to celebrate cycling’s history that has taken riders and their vintage bikes through the gravel roads of Tuscany since 1997.
The series has now been replicated in several locations across the globe, with a calendar that spans April to October and no fewer than 10 countries in 2018. To be eligible to join the classic ride you must first have a bicycle built before 1987, modern bikes are strictly forbidden, as are SPDs or anything that clearly would not be in keeping with the aesthetic the event curates.
Of course there are exceptions, many riders choose to ride with modern helmets, for example.
Sourcing my vintage ride
Rather than taking the brave (and expensive) eBay route to source a bike, I instead chose to hire a bike from one of three of Eroica’s recommended vendors. A couple of emails back and forth with Andy from the Vintage Bike Shed later and I’d been fixed with a period correct machine that should have been ideal for the 60-mile route I’d chosen. And here it is.
I’m unsure exactly when the 24in Reynolds 531 Graham Weigh frame and matching fork was built, but it was certainly before I was born. Finished in a handsome shade of blue, the bike stands out massively from machines of today, but remained unexceptional among the sea of vintage bikes this event attracts.
It quickly became affectionately known as ‘the Weigh machine’.
I was also curious about Shimano’s 600 groupset with its chunky down tube shifters and simplistic engraved components, but had spared little consideration for the gear ratios offered by the combination of its 13-26t 6-speed cassette and 42t/52t chainring. On reflection, perhaps that was for the best.
Before the ride I did little more than adjust my saddle height and pumped 90psi in both of the 23mm Continental Gator Hardshell tyres.
The suitably ugly saddle bag held a single tube and some old-school steel tyre levers. Bad previous experiences with toe clips meant I requested Andy swap the pedals on the bike for some regular flats.
I didn’t have my scales to hand, but with my well-calibrated arm this did feel like a sub-12kg bike. Maybe.
It isn’t only the bikes that dress up for Eroica Britannia, every rider that I saw had made a considerable effort to look the part. Caught short by nothing other than my own woeful organisation skills, I’d managed to blag an official Eroica Brittania wool jersey from my colleague Jack Luke.
A subtle pair of Pearl Izumi bibs and the X-Alp Launch flat shoes, also from Pearl Izumi, finished my attire. Though many riders choose to go it without a lid I equipped myself with the Brooks Harrier, which hardly looked correct but should offer real protection should I have a spill, which is probably more than can be said for the leather banana style helmets I’d seen so much of.
The route would take us through some blissfully picturesque British countryside on a combination of mostly closed roads and gravel paths. Despite everyone being assigned a number, the Eroica is anything but a race.
Participants are encouraged to take their time, absorb the views, enjoy their precious bicycles and the plentiful food stops. I was joined by former colleague and Road.cc journalist Jack Sexty who was riding a bike he was formerly acquainted with during last year’s Eroica Britannia.
I was actually pretty nervous before we set off. I had never ridden a road bike with down tube shifters before, and the last time I had experienced friction shifting was on my first ever mountain bike some 20 years back.
I’m unsure as to exactly how many riders rode that day, but I was really taken aback by the packed out start grid. It didn’t matter where you looked, we were only ever a few helmets and some Lycra away from looking like riders from the past.
On the start line I spotted everything from a couple on a pair of Raleigh Choppers to dapper chaps on vintage town bikes, but the vast majority were on classic road bikes, such as the one beneath me.
Now Andy, the bike’s owner, had reassured me that the Weigh machine had an exceptionally smooth ride, and as we entered the first gravel section it was clear he was right. Except I’d not really noticed yet as I was too busy trying to acquaint myself with the down tube shifters I’d very much feared.
It turns out I was worrying about nothing and operating the 600 shifters required nothing more than a little patience. In truth they were actually enjoyable to use, but now I was starting to realise that my bike’s gear range wasn’t quite what I was used to.
Dropping from the big (52t) to the little (42t) ring at the front felt almost not worth doing, and the bike’s lowest 26t gear felt a world away from the 28t or 30t compact-driven transmission that my legs recognise. Still, it was all smiles as we lifted white dust from the gravel paths of Newhaven.
Soon I was feeling a whole lot more comfortable on the bike, I started to notice major differences from this and the machines I’d normally ride. The frame’s head tube, for instance, was minuscule compared the endurance geometry I'm used to. The hoods were almost non-existent and what was there certainly was not ergonomic, but the position in the drops felt sublime.
It was the aforementioned comfort that truly shocked me though, because despite the 23mm tyres, this thing was smoother than any gravel or modern road bike I’d ridden to date.
So this was the realness that the 'steel is real' crew had been blurting on about for so long. It wasn’t difficult to see where the comfort was coming from either, just peering over the narrow SR Suntour handlebar I could see the slender Shimano 600 front hub flicking backwards and forwards like a yo-yo at the business end of the fork.
Presumably something similar was happening at the 24in double diamond beneath me too as minimal road buzz was transferred to my rump. Some credit must also go to the classic Selle San Marco Rolls saddle.
Another big surprise was the Weigh machine’s brakes, and not in a bad way. The stopping power on the Shimano 600 calipers definitely wasn’t lacking, but the action at the skinny Weinmann levers was fairly physical and resulted in a grabby feel that was tricky to master. Still, the power and control was greater than I’d imagined.
Conditions were bone dry though, in fact we lucked out with the weather. The day remained the sort of warm yet overcast conditions that are ideal for a bike ride and thank goodness that the humidity stayed down too, because as pretty as my wool Eroica jersey was it was not doing me any favours.
At this point we’d been truly spoiled with several lengthy descents, some more gravel sections and plenty of closed tarmac. I was really starting to like this bike, I made a mental note to make sure I’d ask Andy how much he wanted for it as I knew that some of his stock was for sale.
With a couple of hours of Peak District adventure now under our belts it was time for the first proper food stop, and it turned out to be something that no cycling event I’ve attended can equal. Locally produced sausage rolls, Bakewell tarts and an ale brewed specifically for the event were all on the menu. If one thing was sure it was that nobody left with a calorie deficit.
The next 23 miles of the route involved a lot more leg work, including three pretty chunky climbs. While this bike was delivering an exceptional ride quality most of the time it wasn’t such a pleasure to climb with. There certainly was no problem with the stiffness of the 32 hole Mavic wheels, but efforts out the saddle seemed to nearly always end up with the derailleur pushing the drivetrain from its lowest gear.
Perhaps this was simply an adjustment or alignment issue, or maybe flex was a factor here, but my only real work around was to physically hold the shift lever every few seconds. Though to be honest that was actually a fairly pleasant distraction from the 42x26t flavour punishment going on at my legs.
At times I felt like I was a winch, stomping my way through cadences that made balancing a challenge. The exceptionally low cadence actually became a real advantage during the final two climbs of the ride, which took place on loose gravel and dirt, causing most riders to have traction problems.
The last feed stop of the medium route was quintessentially British, with tea and biscuits being served alongside a canal. Crossing the finishing line completed what has to be one of the best events I've ever taken part in. The 60-mile route struck the perfect balance between enjoyment and exertion, but I'd like to take on the 100 miler in 2019.
If you get the chance to do the Eroica Britannia, then make sure do. It’s expensive, but make a weekend out of it and I can’t imagine you’d regret it. Also, these classic race bikes are a whole lot of fun. Much like classic cars, they offer an experience that their modern equivalents have somehow lost, for better or worse.
I find it staggering that serviceable bikes such as this Graham Weigh can be had for as little as £300, although not this one (I did try), which has earned a special place in its owner’s heart for its exceptionally smooth ride.
Now back to eBay to find a tidy 24in 531 racer...