Inside Eroica: South Africa’s Most Stylish Cycle Tour
I’ve often heard people say that they were born in the wrong era. And even though I was born in the late 80s—when everything started going fluorescent yellow and comically oversized, with massive logos on clothing and ridiculous hairstyles—I never really wished for something else.
Until I had the opportunity to take part in the South African edition of the Eroica festival of vintage cycling. It left me with an intense yearning to have been alive in—and experienced the cycling scene of—the 20s, 30s and 40s.
My Eroica entry came via a last minute call from the good folks at Deus ex Machina Africa—inviting me to ride for them as part of their launch into the South African cycling market. I obviously didn’t hesitate to say yes, and eagerly resurrected my classic, South African-built LeJeune steel frame racing bike.
With a bit of chain lube, a serious wheel truing session and a quick test-ride up to Chapmans Peak, I packed it all up and headed to the quaint town of Montagu, for two days of vintage cycling bliss.
I met up with Eroica South Africa organiser, Stan Engelbrecht, and the Deus team on arrival. That night, we had an incredible dinner with founder Giancarlo Brocci, and a very passionate team of both local and international organisers and support staff.
Even though language was sometimes a bit of a barrier, good food and wine—and a common interest in the history, and future, of classic cycling—stood out as the great communicator.
The morning of the ride saw a line-up of incredible classic bicycles, with attire to match—something very hard to come by in South Africa. Yet there we were, admiring each other’s bicycles and components like excited children. We had the opportunity to visit a classic bicycle museum, and sample some of the finest local produce at the small stalls that had formed part of the festival village.
After sincere messages from both Giancarlo and Stan, the different groups set off—escorted by a few beautifully restored classic cars, and to the cheers of the local children running along the roadside. With high spirits (and even a harmonica playing somewhere in the group) we soon exchanged tar for gravel; the hum of our gears replaced by the hypnotising crunch of dirt under our skinny, road-bike tyres.
Although Eroica is not a race, it is in your nature as a cyclist to try and push a little harder than the rider next to you. Soon the eagerness to go faster ended in the majority of the 90 km group missing a crucial turn-off, and heading almost 10km in the wrong direction.
After realising our mistake we headed back to the (clearly marked) turn-off, wondering how so many of us had missed it in the first place. I found myself in the middle of the pack, sitting in no-mans-land somewhere between the leaders and the second group on the road. Racing or not, this is never a great place to be.
I was really enjoying the scenery and serenity of the mountainous region, but was pushing to catch up to the leading group. The idea was to meet up with them before the halfway point—and make sure I had someone to work with for the second half of the ride, which would be much tougher than the first.
About 15 km from the halfway point, I met up with good friend and photographer Dan Walsh. He delivered the message that I was way out in front, on my own, as the leading group had stopped for snacks and brandy shots at one of the local distilleries. Clearly this was no race.
After this revelation, I drastically changed my approach and decided to spend some time at the halfway point. I had some coffee and snacks, chatted to some of the locals and vendors in the race village and eventually left with a group of riders, feeling relaxed and refreshed.
So relaxed, actually, that I saw an empty dam on the side of the road as the perfect dirt velodrome—something I just had to try. It turned out to be good fun until I got a puncture. I hate punctures, but I suppose it’s all part of the experience, and to be expected when you take a bicycle and tyres made for tar roads onto dirt roads and off-road velodromes.
A shady spot under a tree made for a decent workshop, and I proceeded to fix my wheel with a few friendly waves and words of encouragement from fellow riders as they rode past. Wheel fixed and back on the road, it was time to get a move-on as the sun was now starting to heat up the surroundings. With a predicted 40 degrees, I’d rather be off the road before the hottest part of the day.
Only a few kilometres later and it happened again; another puncture brought a definite drop in my mood. But hey, look at how beautiful the mountains are! With more than an hour spent fooling around and fixing punctures, it looked like my ‘done-before-the-heat-of-the-day’ goal was going to be a bit harder to achieve.
Then I hit the climb of the day: 5 km of gravel that felt like it went straight up until, finally, the Pietersfontein dam was in sight. This was all well and good, up to the point where we had to carry our bikes down 250 of the most uneven stairs on earth, made harder by wobbly legs and old-school cycling shoes with rock-hard soles.
I somehow managed not to fall, and was greeted by the best jam and cheese sandwiches prepared by local volunteers—all the energy we needed to make it back home, in the heat of the day that turned out to be not as bad as I thought.
At the finish there was music and festivities, dirty faces and tired legs, and beautiful vintage bicycles parked everywhere, covered in dust. But most of all, there was a great feeling of happiness to be part of such a great experience.
Donning a classically styled wool jersey, borrowing leather cycling shoes and pedals with toe clips, riding a bicycle with no suspension somewhere it was never meant to go, seeing the beauty of roads less traveled, and sharing the experience with such a big group of friendly and like-minded people, all makes Eroica South Africa a cycling event I’d highly recommend.
Especially to anyone looking to get away from the weight saving, watt-counting, carbon fibre world that cycling has become—even if only for a day or two.