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Eroica South Africa sportive: African heroes

Steve Smith
7 Feb 2017

The Eroica cycling event has expanded beyond its Italian borders. Cyclist tackles the gravel trails on the first South African edition

There are plenty of bemused faces in the small town of Montagu.

It’s not that cycling is an unusual pastime in these parts – in fact quite the opposite.

South Africa has gone cycling-mad over the past decade and the Western Cape has become home to a slew of stage and single-day road and mountain biking events. They’ve just not seen this before. 

Instead of the usual shrink-wrapped Lycra peloton, the local people find themselves staring rather incredulously at a motley crew attired in old woollen cycling jerseys and little cotton casquettes, riding bicycles made of skinny steel tubing.

And unlike the jostling for position the start of a normal race entails, this lot are chatting amicably and turning their pedals at what can best be described as a leisurely pace.

What the onlookers don’t know is that this is a very sensible tactic given what the field will be facing. 

‘You’re going where on what?’ was the owner of our guesthouse’s genuinely astonished question the previous afternoon while eyeing my 1984 Peugeot Classique.

What I see as patina his eyes are very clearly registering as rust.

He’s a mountain biker. I can see his black carbon Specialized standing proudly on the verandah. ‘Up the Ouberg Pass.’

I restate the four words, although this time with a little less confidence.

Cautious start

It’s this pass that is the reason for our cautious cadence in the first 500m down Montagu’s main street. That and the fact that no one’s really sure where we’re supposed to be going.

Route marking, it turns out, is not the event’s strong point. Described as ‘gruesome’ on the Eroica South Africa website, Ouberg is the biggest climb on the 140km ‘Keisie’ route that will take us on a big, circular journey north and then east out of Montagu.

Of the 140km, roughly 100km is on gravel with the final 40km a blast down a couple of steep passes before a fast roll back into town.

The ‘us’ in question is 41 riders, with the rest of the 142 entrants taking on the shorter 90km ‘Kogman’ and 50km ‘Kingna’ route options that, like the Keisie, are all named after the three rivers that converge in Montagu.

Those numbers might sound underwhelming against the many thousands that take part in European Eroicas, but for a country with little cycling heritage, this is good going. 

There are some impressive vintage bicycles on display too. The stars of the show are Eroica celebrities – Luciano Berruti on his 1907 wooden-wheel rimmed Peugeot, and Paolo Cavazzuti on his 1935 Bianchi Bovet – but the locals also have some impressive machinery too and an array of vintage Italian, French, English and German bicycles have appeared out the woodwork, along with clothing of the era.

The first 20km are reasonably flat, but not without incident. The weather might be beautifully clear and crisp, but during the previous 24 hours the region was lashed by a storm that has left pockets of mud in what are fairly corrugated gravel roads.

Finding the smoothest line requires a keen eye and some forward planning but still our old bikes take a beating and many a water bottle is loosened from its cage.

It’s one rider’s foolish swerve to retrieve one of these that brings down another two right in front of me and blood mingles with the dark loam.

Up the ‘old mountain’

Ouberg is next. It’s 8km long with an average gradient of just over 5%, hitting 9% at the steepest part. On ancient bikes with tough gearing it’s a real knee-buster.

The previous night’s storm has scrambled the rutted surface and finding traction is a challenge.

Having ridden my single-speed mountain bike up some of these trails I’m used to pedalling out of the saddle while still keeping my weight over the rear wheel, but here even that technique has limited success.

There are no knobblies on my touring tyres and a 42/23 represents my easiest gear ratio.

Still, I make steady progress. More than that, actually, I’ve picked my way past several riders and even put on a little burst of speed over the top to the first water point at 30km.

There are three cyclists filling up their bottles and it appears we’re at the very sharp end of the field. One of them is Marcel Knecht, a Swiss national on an appropriately red-and-white 1981 Chesini.

He’s a friendly chap and we strike up a conversation over the next few kilometres. It turns out Marcel has twice done the Eroica in Gaiole, Italy – an envious experience for the rest of us who have only heard of this now legendary event – but what he says next is something of an eyebrow raiser.

‘I already know that, from an emotional point of view, these next six hours are going to be the best I’ve ever spent on a bicycle.

‘Eroica in Italy is great, but it’s too big now. But here, in this incredible scenery, under this African sky, there are only the four of us. For me that is really amazing.’ 

Perfect roads

He’s right. I guess living down at the very tip of Africa we take this stuff for granted, but here we are pedalling along on what are now the beautifully smooth, rolling gravel roads of the Rooikrans private nature reserve, the countryside freshly scrubbed by the previous day’s rain.

It feels like we are in the middle of a financial services advert, so perfect and aspirational is the scene.

Right on cue we cycle past five eland, the biggest of all the African antelope, who cautiously watch us pass.

Clearly vintage steel road bikes are as alien to them as they are to the townsfolk.

Shortly after that we cycle into a mud hole. It covers the entire width of the road, and the other three manage to get through, but as luck would have it, the line I choose happens to pass through the thickest gloop.

Sucking at my thin tyres, I’m forced to quickly get my feet out of the toe clips and end up dunking my brand new ‘old stock’ Le Coq Sportif shoes in thick mud.

Still in their box when I bought them a month earlier, this 1980s-era piece of cycling kit was my big find for the Eroica. Not ideal. 

Their cleats now clogged with mud, they require removal and a multitool to pick out the muck.

As friendly as my riding companions are, there is still a finish line to cross and they disappear off down the road. This is where my Eroica gets interesting.

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