The Cycling Gods were smiling upon me. They could’ve been laughing; it was hard to tell. But there, among the hoard of bicycles at Woodstock Cycleworks was this beautiful blue Colnago Super. Nils Hansen, the establishment’s owner was smiling too. Possibly laughing as well. Like those deities above, he too knew there was no way I was going to resist it … my path to vintage bike ownership had been smoothed, prepared and practically ordained.
It began with the 2012 Singlespeed Mountain Bike World Champs held for the first time in South Africa. I was to do a piece for Red Bull’s mag on what this fringe element event in Winterton KZN was all about and needed a suitable bike. My carbon dual susser was clearly not eligible. Thanks to my good mate Matthew De Jongh, I was soon uncrating a black Cotic Simple – a steel-framed, fully rigid singlespeed 29er – that changed the way I approached cycling from that moment on.
I never rode that dual susser again – not once – and a series of steel Cotic singlespeeds and gravel bikes became my go-to off-road machines. A GT carbon road bike was also jettisoned, choosing the Cotic Escapade gravel bike for road use. Although heavier than their carbon cousins, these steel bikes were far more forgiving and comfortable; and tougher too. Compared to what my mates were forking out maintaining their fragile investments, my bills were minuscule. Oh, how they loved hearing me point that out.
Yes, by now I was a card-carrying steel-frame advocate. It’s a lot like being a vegan or a cross-fitter – a condition best illustrated by the joke: “How do you know if someone’s a vegan?” Answer: “They tell you.”
Then I did the inaugural 2016 Eroica South Africa … and my steel-frame advocacy morphed into the practically evangelical.
Again, a feature article was the motivation, this time for the UK’s Cyclist magazine. Nils loaned me an old brown Peugeot Rapport, I had a 1967 Team Peugeot replica jersey made (just like Eddy’s), left my helmet at home, fastened myself into old school toe-strap pedals … and completed the most memorable cycling race I’ve ever done.
It was like coming home. I’ve long had an appreciation for vintage, owning classic cars and collecting vintage watches, and here was cycling’s equivalent. I’d found my people. Milling about at race registration were a myriad cyclists in old woollen jerseys, leather-soled, lace-up cycling shoes and the most beautiful array of road bicycles you can imagine. Locally made vintage Peugeots, Le Jeunes, Alpinas, Du Toits and Zinis, alongside Bianchis, Cinellis, Gios, De Rosas, Tommasinis and, of course, Colnagos.
There’s something about a vintage steel frame road bike. That classic geometry – the horizontal top tube, quill stem, chrome detailing – just looks right. It’s a purity of design that makes modern bikes seem overly fussy and complicated … like those old frame builders had distilled the essence of what a racing bike was all about and modern brands are just dicking with the formula on instructions from the marketing department.
And then there’s the ride. Yes, there is more flex in the frame and wheels – especially when you’re out the saddle and upping the wattage – but if you’ve never ridden one before, you’ll be astounded by how much more comfortable they are. You learn to ride them in a different way too. Too much side force isn’t what you want – throwing the bike from side to side with out-the-saddle power pedalling is not what they like. Keep the bike up-right and exert force in a more straight-up-and down linear way gets the best result. Watch old videos of Eddy climbing – he’s rarely out the saddle, and when he is, the bike doesn’t sway about much.
On the descents, they can be just as quick as their modern equivalents, though they do require more of a sure hand. Like old sports cars, they get grumpy when unsettled mid corner. Sit up half-way through with your hand squeezing the brake lever and you’ll feel that flex wanting to high-side you out the saddle. Obviously, braking ability is nothing like modern rim brakes and an aeon away from discs, but again, brake a little earlier, commit to your line, turn in smoothly, and you’ll be just as quick. This isn’t point-and-squirt stuff. We’re talking finesse and feel here.
Vintage machinery aside, the Eroica event itself is something very special. There are three distances – 45km, 90km and 135km (plus a new 155 km race for modern gravel bikes) loops that use the Western Cape town of Montagu as a base. And it’s not a race, but more a celebration of cycling. There’s a stop at the Kingna Distillery to sample their craft brandy and water points where wine, toasted bruschetta and olives invite one to chill the hell out and take in the beautiful scenery you’re cycling through. This is where the Cycling Gods live. And it’s why I had no choice but to buy that old Colnago.