By Stefan Naude’
Photography: Stan Engelbrecht
I don’t consider myself a cyclist at all. Those gleaming “Power Rangers” with their shiny helmets smuggling energy syrup have never made an impression on me. Yet a bicycle has always been a part of my life. Since my father first pushed me down the slight decline in the front garden, I realized that by rotating that circular crank with peddles attached. I could keep this ship moving. So, at a very young age, I realised that I could explore the neighbourhood and beyond. The world was my oyster.
Besides being a source of freedom, it also became my first source of income as I took over my older brother’s Newspaper route at the age of twelve when he went off to boarding school in the Magaliesberg. Vivid memories of my father waking me up at five-thirty in the morning come to mind (I am still not much of a morning person) and helping me fold and secure the papers with rubber bands. When the rains thundered in the sky, we would bag them in clear plastic bags. I set off in my raincoat with two bulging bags, one over each shoulder that would unbalance my skinny frame as it swayed from side to side while I was dripping in the rain like a fisherman fighting the storm to make his daily catch. There were many dangers in this ocean of streets. Dodging busses was one of them, cursing husbands yelling at me in their underpants if my aiming skills towards their front doors were not as they would have desired. And then my endless anxiety of chasing dogs that would escape their yards and race after me at top speed.
As I became older and started ‘sidewalk surfing’ it became my only means of transport to different terrains and “spots” that we heard about in other neighbourhoods and Malls on the distant horizons. So with a skateboard strapped to my backpack, I explored the unknown urban jungles of Randburg and its surrounding areas. Along with sneaking out at night, cycling to nightclubs, and chaining my bike to the fence outside while the other boys arrived on their fancy metallic motorized steeds.
Since then, I have always owned or had access to a bicycle and the freedom that goes along with it. But for some reason, the competitive side of the machine never really grabbed my attention because, like my skateboard, it was a symbol of individuality to me. Something that I can do and enjoy by myself. Along with following rules, competing in sports and being a team player was never my forte’.
Forward to my forties, I moved to Cape Town and sold my car (out of necessity). A friend offered me an old racing bike that was standing around their art studio that seemed to have belonged to no one. I immediately jumped at the opportunity and a new phase of cycling in my life was reignited by an old red late eighties Bridgestone racer. For the past five years, we have had many adventures and a few injuries too. It has been my main form of transport and one of the few joys that I have left on this planet. The thrill of zipping through the traffic as I once did on my skateboard, cursing a taxi, or the meditation on long rides to small towns along the coast is priceless to my mental health.
So this year I finally decided to take on a type “conformist” event and enter Eroica. Eroica (L’Eroica) is an annual non-competitive cycling event that has taken place since 1997 in the province of Siena, Italy. Since then the event has spread to multiple continents, including to the Montagu valley in the Western Cape.
The original theme of the event is vintage cycling, with participants using vintage (pre-1987) bikes, accessories, and clothing, and the route often includes unpaved roads. The event is open to anybody, but cyclists participating with a vintage bike are honoured with a certificate certifying their participation. Vintage bikes are defined by characteristics typical of racing bikes used until the 1980s. These include a Steel frame, gear levers mounted on the down tube of the frame, external wires, pedals with toe straps, wheels with at least 32 spokes, and low-profile rims.
(In the South African version only pre-1999 steel road bicycles with traditional pedals and toe clips; downtube shifters; and drop handlebars will be allowed on the route. No mountain bikes or modern carbon/aluminium road bikes allowed)
Even though my street bike, as I am considered an “Urban cyclist” did not tick all the boxes, it was still respected enough to take part in this titanic challenge. The Friday night before the event there was an exhibition and judging of the most classic steeds in the stable. I found this very fascinating as I have always been an admirer of classic cars and their preservation. Some of these classic rides were in mint condition. They seemed to have been meticulously cared for since they were unpacked in the early seventies.
The event is divided into three sections the “Classic”, “Hero” and the “Nova”. The “Classic” event (which included me) takes place on the Saturday and riders are encouraged to spend a day out on their bikes as they wish. Breakfast, lunch, and drinks are all served along the route while enjoying the majestic scenery of the mountainous region. The ride has a casual start between 08:00 - 11:00, with a detailed map marked with routes and viewpoints. Glühwein, beer, and a few cheeky Gins and tonic plus snacks ranging from breakfast wraps to fresh Salmon sandwiches are served at the 3 stops along the way. The gin makes the event even more challenging and getting stuck at these “watering holes” along the way is very tempting. A good thing about the event is that you can make your day as laid back, or as challenging as you would like while choosing to ride any distance from forty to ninety kilometers.
I ended up riding fifty kilometers, or so I thought, until I was later informed that I did seventy kilometers. I blame this misjudgement of distance entirely on the beverages along the way. Frivolity aside, this ride is not a simple walk in the park. Riding a steel-framed racing bike on a mostly dirt road does take its toll on the human frame. My shivering wrists battled the corrugated dirt roads and shook my kidneys and liver loose until they roamed around my rib cage, never to return to their former locations again. I also decided to walk half of a hill that seemed to have no end in sight. A slight incline that unfolds itself like Jacobs ladder into an abyss with no Heaven in sight. But despite these challenges, you are boosted onwards by the sheer beauty of your surroundings, and encouragement from other cyclists on the path.
This annual event brings the old legends back on the road and there were multiple South African champions from different age groups (some in their late 70s) taking part in the challenge. Needless to say, most of these elderly gentlemen glided past me with ease on this hellish path of destruction.
On Sunday most of the serious racers arrived for the “Hero” and the “Nova” routes which follow a spectacular 170km path into the Bloutoring region. Only gravel bikes with drop handlebars and no suspension are allowed on the route. After the event, I felt that I had achieved more than I had ever expected of myself. A sense of euphoria and calm had come over me and for the first time in ages I slept like a log. Next year I plan to do this epic journey of adventure, beauty, and personal progress again. If you are up for the challenge, pump up your wheels and tighten your brakes. The road to Eroica is open to everyone.
Special thanks to Stan Engelbrecht and Donnet Dumas for organising Eroica South Africa. Next years event will be taking place from the 21-23 April 2023 so mark your calendars for another weekend of bicycle celebrations.