As road riding for fun has become acceptable again, the classic retro Eroica road ride/race concept is growing. Feeling tied to the explosion of gravel biking, and even the widening of the average road bike (maybe even driving both?), Eroica has started reaching out to modern road bike owners with special Nova Eroica events. Now you don’t need to channel your inner retro-grouch to get in on the good times.
With Nova Eroica events available now in England, Italy, and California, we decided to pit a modern disc brake road bike against a classic lugged steel road bike. I borrowed a couple of bikes and headed out to Brittain’s Peak District National Park to preview the Eroica Brittania routes. So which makes more sense for you: modern or classic?
2017 Kinesis GF_TI Disc disc brake titanium road bike
The modern road bike I rode was a current Kinesis GF_TI Disc. It hits almost all of the modern road bike trends with flat mount disc brakes, a tapered headtube, 30mm tire clearance, and modular internal routing that works with hydraulic lines and electronic drivetrains. The only thing it really lacks is 12mm thru-axles, instead still using QRs.
The drivetrain was fully modern, with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 11 speed group, a set of 46/36T compact gravel/cyclocross chainrings and a comfortably wide 11-32 cassette. A low gear of 36:32, and when paired with 30mm Challenge clinchers has a rollout of just 2.44m
Another key difference between modern & classic is the GF_TI’s hydraulic flat mount disc brakes with 140mm Freeza IceTech rotors and stock pads. Here, I also opted for a set of Crankbrothers eggbeater pedals. While they aren’t very ‘modern road’, they do work well for riding muddy roads, trails & tracks in the UK in winter. I put a foot in frozen & thawing mud on more than one occasion. And I have no regrets riding these pedals with a pair of Shimano’s affordable MW5 waterproof, insulated boots.
1988 Brian Rourke lugged 531 steel road bike
The classic lugged steel bike that I got ahold of was a Brian Rourke road bike. Rourke still is hand building bikes in the UK, having gotten started in 1972. This bike was lugged & brazed in the late 80s with a Reynolds 531 Competition tubeset and features none of the modern trappings we’ve come to love. Like the Kinesis though, both have eyelets to mount full coverage fenders for year round training on wet roads.
This Rourke’s Athena group was made in 1988 making it a year later that the official ethos of the Eroica. But it does hit the key points of Eroica’s bike requirements: downtube (& friction) shifters, toe clips, and externally routed braking cables. The 6 speed drivetrain was classic traditional road – a 52/42T chainset paired to a 13-26 freewheel. That gearing and the modern 28mm Conti tires gave the Rourke (with its low 42:26 gear) a minimum rear wheel rollout of 3.45m, 40% harder than the modern bike.
Braking on the Rourke were single pivot caliper rim brakes with original rubber pads.
Highlights of riding an Eroica route, irrespective of the bike
Eroica is about being a hero on the bike. That means that the events are usually a test of both will and skill. I’ve ridden the Eroica Limburg last summer, and now the Eroica Brittania courses this winter. The overarching theme is a mix of tarmac and classic dirt/gravel roads. The courses all seem to have a mix of killer steep climbs, together with scenic rolling hills, and a lot of exposure to potential wind and rain.
There are usually a range of routes of different lengths available. But the idea seems to be pushing your limits, and often that means pushing the limits of your classic bike too. These are not your easy, local Gran Fondo. But instead, they tend to have a much more friendly atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie. Almost everyone you meet out on the ride will be encouraging you up the hills, and will be hanging around at the food stops and finish to share a drink and to make new friends.
But, if you are going to ride an even whose name means ‘Heroic’ in Italian, you might as well go for one of the longer options with plenty of climbing, right?
Review: Modern vs Classic bikes
Riding the two bikes back-to-back in the Peak District, there is no argument that the modern bike performed better. Modern wide ranging gearing is much more friendly on your knees and back – not to mention that they just make it possible to climb much steeper gradients. Powerful, low lever pull, and well-modulated hydraulic disc brakes are much more reliable in sketchy conditions, in the wet, and on loose gravel roads with unfamiliar turns. And fatter tires are just inherently more comfortable, with the ability to run lower tire pressures. Looking to the frames, the larger modern ti tubing was noticeably stiffer than the skinny old steel tubes. The Kinesis felt quicker climbing or out of the saddle, while the Rourke seemed to soak up some of the power put to the pedals. But both offered balance rides and a comfortable overall feel.
The Eroica Brittania course especially has a really steep off-road climb that is difficult to ride with hard gearing (many will walk it, I’m sure.) The Eroica Limburg course had a couple, even steeper paved climbs that were brutal with traditional road gearing.
The little differences are there too. We’ve generally all moved towards handlebars with a much more comfortable shape. Our modern integrated shift/brake levers are also much more ergonomic and don’t require reaching down to the downtube to change gears. And clipless pedals. I am personally fine with riding toe clips on occasion, but they are significantly less safe and nowhere near as efficient as even my mountain bike eggbeaters.
With that all said, there is a special feeling of accomplishment when you finish a ride on an old bike. Whether you are surprised that you made it back without crashing or breaking down, you realize that without all the modern comforts of a new bike you can still have just as much fun on a bike.
The question might come back to something simple: Did you feel proud of yourself after riding the last 100km on your modern road bike? If so, we’re genuinely proud of you too. If that was just a normal ride for you, then maybe you should try it on an old bike without all those modern creature comforts. And then throw in at least 20km of gravel to get the full heroic feeling.
Thoughts on maybe Classic vs. Retro road bikes
The Eroica concept is about simplifying the bike to it’s pre-1987 state. Back to the days of downtube shifters, non integrated brake levers (or even routing brake cables under the bar tape) and traditional brakes, toe clips, and high spoke count box section wheels. But while that sounds like some extreme curmudgeon-ry, they are still relatively open-minded. New, or more modern bike builds are acceptable if they meet those requirements. Bianchi even makes an Eroica-approved modern steel bike with 10 speed gravel compact gearing.
Even though the bike I rode didn’t include such friendly gearing – that old Athena group could actually run as big as a 30 tooth cog on the freewheel and an 18 tooth spread between the front chainrings – that was pretty revolutionary at the time and is essential the same as the modern compact gearing many of us ride today. Unfortunately very few classic bikes got wide gearing, but it can often be possible to update an old bike.
Final Impressions, classic Eroica or modern Nova Eroica
The question remains whether I would go back and ride another traditional Eroica on an old classic bike. Both times I’ve ridden Eroica routes, I’ve done it on a period-correct old bike that someone else had carefully restored/maintained. I won’t repeat that. I like the idea of a classic bike, and I’ve owned a few over the years. My next Eroica (I’m thinking about doing the original in Italy) will be on a classic steel bike that I set up. It will meet the Eroica concept, but it will have compact gearing and an 11-32 cassette. It will have padded cork bar tape, new 30mm tires on a wheelset I have built myself, and a set of high quality pedals with new steel & leather toe clips that I can trust.
As for a Nova Eroica event – I do that kind of road ride almost once a month, year round. If I can fit one into my busy schedule, I would be happy to do it too. And for anyone looking to get inspired to mixing more dirt & gravel into their regular road rides, I would surely recommend giving a Nova a try.