Dust and Elegance: Eroica South Africa
I rolled over the concrete crossing of the Kogmanskloof River, splashing the water from the steady stream upward, and onto my candy apple red Hansom Super Prestige.
It felt like a good start to the day.
Riding through the quaintly quiet streets of early morning Montagu, it was clearly going to be a perfect day for cycling. The madness of wind and rain from the night before had me wondering at one point. I turned into Kerk Street; further down the road were flags in the classic Molteni orange and white. As I got closer, I could see the discernible cursive logo: Eroica was here!
Giancarlo Brocci envisioned an event with the values and tradition of classic cycling races, held on dusty gravel roads and aiming to reconnect people to the honest and amicable history of cycling. As he eloquently states: “We want people to rediscover the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of the conquest”. In 1997, these sentiments transformed into L’Eroica.
According to the Eroica rules, everyone has to ride a classic steel racing bicycle with drop handlebars, aero brake levers, down tube shifters, and pedals with toe clips and straps. Appearances also have to be kept appropriately vintage.
I have been lucky enough to deal with plenty of classic steel racing bicycles, and vintage cycling equipment, over the last few years. But it would not prepare me for the ocean I was about to drown in. Classic wool jerseys, strip helmets, crochet gloves and cycling caps boasting forgotten names of Italian cycling legends. Steel framed bicycles of almost every make, size, colour and age. Gumwall tyres, steel toe clips with worn leather toe straps and handlebar-mounted bottle cages.
I was in awe—and the ride had not even started yet.
The inaugural Eroica South Africa offered three distance categories; 50km, 90km and the mighty 140km. I decided to be a ‘participating spectator’ in the 90km, and equipped myself with some snacks, my trusty Pentax ES and two rolls of 35mm film.
Before long, the 140km riders were lined up. Race director Stan Engelbrecht said a few words and then allowed Giancarlo (who joined for the first South African edition) to signal the start. I took some photos as they rolled away and quietly wished them good luck, knowing very well they would soon have to deal with the gruesome Ouberg Pass.
Then it was our turn. We set off, riding out of town, and soon found ourselves leaving the tarmac behind for more exciting gravel roads, while everybody settled in to their own steady pace. The thrum of wheels turning on dirt and friendly chatter was mesmerizing, and we quickly arrived at our first ‘water point’: the Kingna Distillery.
A quick tour of the distillery, some photos, a sip of brandy, a cranberry snack and I was off again. I rode alone for a few kilometers, caught up to some riders, and together rode back into town toward the traguardo banner. For the 90km riders, however, this was not the finish yet.
Just before setting off on the second part of the 90 km route, I noticed Stan riding into town without a seat post or saddle. It seems another rider’s post had broken and Stan offered his, riding 30km (if not more) back into town standing up. A sign of a man hand-crafted from true, quality steel.
With this newfound esteem I set out again, and very quickly found myself on yet another stretch of gravel road with a bunch of bicycle nerds and aficionados. It was amazing! Spirits were high, and our pace quickened as we rode into the beautiful hills of Baden, only to be slowed down by our first seriously steep climb of the day.
I decided I would take lots of rest breaks on the ascent, quietly observing other riders through the lens of my camera. This strategy paid off—I made it to the top, and over the ensuing hills.
By now, the midday sun was beating down on all of us, but I knew the Pietersfontein Dam could not be far away, and started dreaming of wonderfully cool waters. A few kilometers and a short portage section later, my dreams came true and I climbed down to the water’s edge for a much deserved cool down. Some riders joined for a swim, whilst others sat on the rocks at the top and had lunch—but it was clear that everyone was content.
By the time I climbed back up to my bicycle and finished my lunch, all the other riders had moved on and I was alone on the massive dam wall. I still had 15 or 20km to ride back to town, but this did not matter.
The view was majestic, and in this moment, I felt what I think Giancarlo Brocci intended when he imagined L’Eroica years ago; a grandeur of prevailing with simplistic elegance.
I contemplated this, took a photo and I rode onward to the finish line.
All photos by Emile Kotze. Framed limited edition photographic prints from the first Eroica South Africa are available to purchase. There are three prints, in limited runs of ten each, at R900 pre print (including framing, packaging and delivery). Send a mail to email@example.com to order, or find out more here.