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

We recently attended the launch for Eroica Britannia’s new Eroica Nova, a separate ride over the Eroica weekend which allows the use of modern bikes; so we tried out some of the course on modern and retro rides to see what the difference was...

Recently I was lucky enough to head out to the Peak District and preview some of the new route for the Eroica Britannia. The Classic routes have been altered to omit some of the more hair-raising descents and improve safety, and they've also added the new Eroica Nova sportive which allows the use of modern bikes.  

For those of you unfamiliar with the L’Eroica, it began in the Tuscan region of Italy 21 years ago now and is a true celebration of cycling vintage. Today there are events in the USA, Spain, Uruguay and here in Britain, where it’s took place in Derbyshire's Peak District since 2013. L'Eroica is also pretty unique because it actually spawned its own pro event in 2007, the Strade Bianche, a prestigious world tour race that's been won three times by none other than Fabian Cancellara.  

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The Eroica Britannia rides are pretty non-competitive sportives, with 100 mile, 55 mile or 30 mile options. There’s plenty of elevation and a mix of gravel and tarmac which is pretty tough going on a steel frame with skinny tyres, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. Your bike has to be from pre-1987 primarily - that means downtube shifters only, toe clips, rickety old handlebars with little to no grip and painfully skinny tyres considering the treacherous terrain the Eroica is run over. Of course retro kit is highly encouraged, meaning lycra is out and wool is very much in. 
The event runs over a whole weekend and retains a festival feel, taking place over three days with plenty to see and do in the event village. On route you can indulge in the local Derbyshire delicacies such as the famous Bakewell Pudding, and even have a cheeky beer or two at one of the feed stations so I'm told (not that we’d condone that).

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Our press trip consisted of two days of riding. On the first day we did a 50 mile ride which took in plenty of the Eroica route highlights, and for this we were using modern bikes. Given the terrain and the fact it was late January, I opted for what I thought would be the most appropriate bike for the job, and that happened to be a Mason Definition2 that I've just reviewed. It's got a sturdy triple-butted aluminium frame handbuilt in Italy, grippy 30mm Schwalbe tyres and hydraulic disc brakes, basically everything you'd want for a mixed terrain ride over the Peak District. 

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For the vintage day we rode a shorter and less gnarly route, which was welcomed by me especially because I think I’ve only ever rode a bike with downtube shifters maybe twice, and both times this was just a quick spin. All of us on the trip were assigned a retro bike each, hired out by The Vintage Bike Shed. The owner Andy is based in Stoke-on-Trent and gave us a bit of history about the bikes, one of which Chris Boardman rode at last year’s Eroica Britannia, and each bike had a little bit of a unique story behind it. The one I was riding was a handsome purple steel racer from Dave Quinn, who we didn’t know a great deal about until my colleague Pat mentioned that he actually used to deal with him years ago while working for a distributor. We know he had a bike shop in Chester under his own name and believe he now runs a shop called The Bike Factory. (If we're mistaken, do tell us more in the comments!)

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The bike had loads of classic features, like Reynolds 531 steel tubes, old school Mavic rims and Weimann brakes, the latter of which I'm told are pretty sought after by hipsters in Shoreditch nowadays. They really flared out at the front and I found them pretty difficult to access, however if you're unhappy with the position they can apparently just be bent into shape! I lucked out with tyres as I had 23mm’s, some of the others were on 19’s or 20’s which I'm told were pretty horrendous on some of the more gravelly tracks we rode on. The Quinn was 7-speed (Shimano 105 80's styley) and had 52-42 chainrings with a 28 cassette. For me, being used to compacts and quite a lot of choice when it comes to gear ratios, I’m just perplexed as to why you’d have a 52/42. It basically means you've got a massive smallest gear and a not very big biggest  gear. On the plus side though, when you change the front mech you barely notice anything as it’s not really much of a drop...

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One of the more intriguing features was the Shimano Biopace chainrings. If you don’t know about these, they’re some of the first asymmetric oval chainrings, launched by Shimano in 1983. They’re supposed to eliminate deadspots in your pedalling stroke and seemed like a good idea at the time, but they were quietly discontinued in the early 90’s as there wasn’t really any evidence they were beneficial. Some riders reported knee problems and a bit of a drop through the pedal stroke, which I concur feels a bit weird to begin with (read John's guide to Shimano and Campag's biggest design blunders for more info and similar vintage fails). That said, there are still plenty of oval rings out there now and even Chris Froome uses monster-sized ones on his time trial bike, so the idea wasn’t totally consigned to history.

After a wobbly start I got used to the shifting a mile or so down the road, but some of the bumpier sections were just savage and I felt every vibration. Bikes like this one just aren’t really equipped to ride on anything but tarmac, and I definitely felt every jolt when the ride route went off the beaten track.
As you’d expect the braking was just nothing compared to the disc rotors I’m used to, even though the levers looked nice which is what counts I suppose. I also just could not get used to how skinny the handlebars and brake hoods were and my hands were killing me after about 20 minutes, I’ve definitely been spoiled with modern oversized bars and plush bar tape.
Despite the minor moans and although the ride experience was markedly different on the retro bike, I did enjoy it a lot. It was just different and not necessarily a whole lot worse. Obviously things like the brakes and the shifting aren’t nearly as good, but when you’re on a nice stretch of flat road or even climbing, after a while it’s just like… well... riding a bike!

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So what conclusions can I draw from this if any? Well first off, hats off to all the hardy cyclists of an era before my time who were fiddling down by their knees to change gears! Based off my experience I’d also have had permanent bruising on the inside of my palms. And of course, chapeau to everyone who’s conquered an Eroica, because based off the test rides we did on that couple of days, it’s bloody tough going and definitely not to be sniffed at: this is a proper challenge.

Inspired by the all the retro goodness I’ve already got myself signed up for the Eroica Brittania this summer, and have even pre-booked the Dave Quinn purple Biopace beauty – although I have requested a bit of extra bar tape! As someone who got a pretty late start to road cycling I’m kind of learning about bikes backwards in a way, and I guess this really is the spirit of Eroica events. It allows relative newbies like me to learn a bit about the history of cycling, the fashion, the bikes of yesteryear, and for everyone who was there to celebrate the bygone eras of our sport...

We’re also running a special Eroica Britannia comp at the moment, giving away two ride passes, festival and camping tickets plus all the kit you’ll need to look the part during the ride. Click here to get your entry in!

Arriving at road.cc in 2017 via 220 Triathlon Magazine, Jack dipped his toe in most jobs on the site and over at eBikeTips before being named the new editor of road.cc in 2020, much to his surprise. His cycling life began during his students days, when he cobbled together a few hundred quid off the back of a hard winter selling hats (long story) and bought his first road bike - a Trek 1.1 that was quickly relegated to winter steed, before it was sadly pinched a few years later. Creatively replacing it with a Trek 1.2, Jack mostly rides this bike around local cycle paths nowadays, but when he wants to get the racer out and be competitive his preferred events are time trials, sportives, triathlons and pogo sticking - the latter being another long story.  

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16 comments

Avatar
kil0ran | 5 years ago
2 likes

I stopped riding in the late '80s when my ten speed downtube shifter chocolate braked hi-ten racer got nicked. 25 years later I couldn't believe how comfy the Triban 3 was that I rode as my first modern road bike. Carbon fork, Microshift brifters, 24-speed triple, modern saddle, and 23mm tyres. It stopped on a sixpence compared to the '80s bike and cost less in relative terms. Everything worked efficiently. OK so it needed less bike handling skills to ride but such is progress

Avatar
Sadoldsamurai | 6 years ago
1 like

My ancient Orrel wth it's 531comp tubing and relaxed early cyclocross geometry biopace rings and 26" wheels is still the most comfortable and over distance the most efficient bike in my quiver.
Handbuilt steel can still be the next best thing to Ti when everything comes together...but there's an element of luck in getting one where all the builder's design and construction skills come together

Avatar
Giles Pargiter | 6 years ago
2 likes

Unfortunately this is just the account of an il-informed idiot who knows about nothing of "retro" bikes and is not comparing like with like anyway.

My Carlton Corsair - which would be a better comparison with your "modern" bike, is fitted with 32mm tyres and mudguards - it does now have a modern cassette but its original wheels - which I have, - aluminium wieman pattern rims, a lot lighter than modern double wall rims, but also more delicate,- are fitted with a 28 tooth large sprocket and 27/1and1/4" (aka 700/32mm) Michelin tyres which is what we always used to ride on in the 70's - so at least as comfortable as your "modern" bike, probably more so as it is what was known as a "clubman, tourer" frame with a slightly longer wheel base than a racing frame and 72deg parallel angles IFIRC. although not by any means at a disadvantage against a "racing" frame (the mudguards are neutral for aero drag - the front better the rear fractionally worse). It is of course all 531, including the forks- not just the main triangle which would mean it can be badged as 531.

I find the down tube shifters - which I mount on the stem and have done since the early 70's better than modern indexed systems particularly when making big multi gear changes such as happens in the dip of steep switchbacks. Handlebar end gear levers have been around since the 60's - my mother (in her late eighties now) I think I'am correct to say, still uses the ones she had in the 60's.

Although I nowadays take advantage of the wider range gears a modern derailleur can give and a triple, I always used to use double chain rings of 52/32 thus having a gear range of 31" to 108". So did'nt have the really low gears available - or not the highest ones. However it was generally thought at the time, and by many still is, that a top gear over 100" is of little practical use, it is fun to have sometimes though!

The handle bars are wrapped with leather, which I find very comfortable thankyou.

It is the main bike I ride for distance commuting (over 60 miles), light touring and for fun. I take it to places many MTBikers won't go.

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Miller | 6 years ago
2 likes

Rickety old handlebars with no grip seems fair enough to me and I'm old enough to have spent decades riding bikes like that. Which is why I have little desire to ride l'Eroica - I had enough of those bikes back in day. Modern ones are incomparably better.

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CrispedWheel | 6 years ago
1 like

Does anybody edit these articles before they are published?

"it’s took place in Derbyshire's Peak District since 2013"

" l’Eroica is also pretty unique"

"The event runs over a whole weekend and retains a festival feel, taking place over three days"

etc., etc.

Also, "rickety old handlebars with little to no grip" - how do handlebars suffer from lack of grip or otherwise? Isn't that a question of bar tape and/or gloves?

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alansmurphy | 6 years ago
5 likes

Next you'll be saying you rode it, in my day we carried the bike across glass fragmented cobbles  3

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BehindTheBikesheds replied to alansmurphy | 6 years ago
4 likes
alansmurphy wrote:

Next you'll be saying you rode it, in my day we carried the bike across glass fragmented cobbles  3

lol, you had cobbles and broken glass, you were lucky ...

Avatar
FrankH replied to BehindTheBikesheds | 6 years ago
3 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:
alansmurphy wrote:

Next you'll be saying you rode it, in my day we carried the bike across glass fragmented cobbles  3

lol, you had cobbles and broken glass, you were lucky ...

When I were a lad we only had Monty Python to laugh at. You tell that t the kids today and they don't believe you.

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alansmurphy | 6 years ago
2 likes

42-26?

Girl!

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BehindTheBikesheds replied to alansmurphy | 6 years ago
0 likes
alansmurphy wrote:

42-26? Girl!

Yeah IKR, well it was for touring and even at 21 I was 90kg so I needed all the help I could get, I didn't even know there were lower gears to be had back thenyes

Avatar
BehindTheBikesheds | 6 years ago
3 likes

My first tour around France (700miles over 10 days) had a bottom gear of 42-26 (it could have been a 24 though), many will have done the same and longer and over tougher terrain. Oh and you moaning about the top gear, 7 speed 'cassette' (thought you had to have freewheels?) so probably a 13T starting sprocket with a 52T you've got a 105" top and 28mph at a reasonably comfortable 90rpm and that isn't big enough for you, on a retro ride, really?

Basically stop being a whining fadge and get on with it.  and be thankful you had the chance to have a nice ride out on a decent retro machine.

God some people can't help but have a "minor" moanyes Seems pretty obvious you should stay well clear of riding retro bikes and rides, it aint for you sonshine!

Avatar
Jack Sexty replied to BehindTheBikesheds | 6 years ago
2 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

My first tour around France (700miles over 10 days) had a bottom gear of 42-26 (it could have been a 24 though), many will have done the same and longer and over tougher terrain. Oh and you moaning about the top gear, 7 speed 'cassette' (thought you had to have freewheels?) so probably a 13T starting sprocket with a 52T you've got a 105" top and 28mph at a reasonably comfortable 90rpm and that isn't big enough for you, on a retro ride, really?

Basically stop being a whining fadge and get on with it.  and be thankful you had the chance to have a nice ride out on a decent retro machine.

God some people can't help but have a "minor" moanyes Seems pretty obvious you should stay well clear of riding retro bikes and rides, it aint for you sonshine!

I think that's the most vitriolic way I've ever been likened to female anatomy, chainring-related or otherwise. I don't know whether to be offended, grateful or proud...

Avatar
Sniffer replied to Jack Sexty | 6 years ago
2 likes
Jack Sexty wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

My first tour around France (700miles over 10 days) had a bottom gear of 42-26 (it could have been a 24 though), many will have done the same and longer and over tougher terrain. Oh and you moaning about the top gear, 7 speed 'cassette' (thought you had to have freewheels?) so probably a 13T starting sprocket with a 52T you've got a 105" top and 28mph at a reasonably comfortable 90rpm and that isn't big enough for you, on a retro ride, really?

Basically stop being a whining fadge and get on with it.  and be thankful you had the chance to have a nice ride out on a decent retro machine.

God some people can't help but have a "minor" moanyes Seems pretty obvious you should stay well clear of riding retro bikes and rides, it aint for you sonshine!

I think that's the most vitriolic way I've ever been likened to female anatomy, chainring-related or otherwise. I don't know whether to be offended, grateful or proud...

Jack, I would take it as a compliment.  I have only achieved a patronising 'sonshine' from this source so far, but there is time yet.

I do enjoy a rant from someone complaining that somebody else complains!

I did enjoy the 'back in my day' references though. 

Avatar
BehindTheBikesheds replied to Sniffer | 6 years ago
0 likes
Jack Sexty wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

My first tour around France (700miles over 10 days) had a bottom gear of 42-26 (it could have been a 24 though), many will have done the same and longer and over tougher terrain. Oh and you moaning about the top gear, 7 speed 'cassette' (thought you had to have freewheels?) so probably a 13T starting sprocket with a 52T you've got a 105" top and 28mph at a reasonably comfortable 90rpm and that isn't big enough for you, on a retro ride, really?

Basically stop being a whining fadge and get on with it.  and be thankful you had the chance to have a nice ride out on a decent retro machine.

God some people can't help but have a "minor" moanyes Seems pretty obvious you should stay well clear of riding retro bikes and rides, it aint for you sonshine!

I think that's the most vitriolic way I've ever been likened to female anatomy, chainring-related or otherwise. I don't know whether to be offended, grateful or proud...

A fadge is a flatbread, see you are clueless to all things from 10 or more years ago. You whined over the top gear which wasn't really a problem was it, you whined about the bottom gear, you kept on being a whining fadge about comfort and pretty much everything else.

Really, why did you bother? Stick to modern bikes because articles like yours stink!

Avatar
Jack Sexty replied to BehindTheBikesheds | 6 years ago
2 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Jack Sexty wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

My first tour around France (700miles over 10 days) had a bottom gear of 42-26 (it could have been a 24 though), many will have done the same and longer and over tougher terrain. Oh and you moaning about the top gear, 7 speed 'cassette' (thought you had to have freewheels?) so probably a 13T starting sprocket with a 52T you've got a 105" top and 28mph at a reasonably comfortable 90rpm and that isn't big enough for you, on a retro ride, really?

Basically stop being a whining fadge and get on with it.  and be thankful you had the chance to have a nice ride out on a decent retro machine.

God some people can't help but have a "minor" moanyes Seems pretty obvious you should stay well clear of riding retro bikes and rides, it aint for you sonshine!

I think that's the most vitriolic way I've ever been likened to female anatomy, chainring-related or otherwise. I don't know whether to be offended, grateful or proud...

A fadge is a flatbread, see you are clueless to all things from 10 or more years ago. You whined over the top gear which wasn't really a problem was it, you whined about the bottom gear, you kept on being a whining fadge about comfort and pretty much everything else.

Really, why did you bother? Stick to modern bikes because articles like yours stink!

I've no desire to carry this on any further because I think you're going to think me a moron anyhow, but for the purposes of anyone else reading this... can I just inform them that Irish potato fadge doesn't qualify as a flatbread, it should be around two inches thick (like me just to cover that one off), one of my good friends from Dublin makes it regularly!

I didn't personally have an issue with the gearing, merely stating that for a two mile climb averaging 11% on a muddy off-road trail (the toughest hill on the British Eroica route), a 42 inner ring like the one on the bike I was using is going to be much tougher going than a 34 or smaller like you can get on modern groupsets for a lot of riders.

Avatar
bob_c | 6 years ago
3 likes

I'm a bit confused - where's the bit where you compare the Quinn to the Mason?
"comparing a vintage steel racer with a modern machine"

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