Eroica: The Feel Of Steel

Writer and editor STEVE SMITH on why he rides a vintage steel road bike and will once again be heading to Montagu for Eroica South Africa.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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8 Comments

DJR, Feb 06 2019 06:15

Great article Steve! I also see some of team DJR in the pictures! Cool! 

Shebeen, Feb 06 2019 11:00

nova eroica - ENTERED!

camping - booked!

 

now to go to Nils to go find a qualifying bike!

Headshot, Feb 06 2019 12:39

Friend of mine had the perfect bike - Reynolds 531 Le Jeune circa 1992, unridden for years. His wife gave it away before I could lay claim to it...

rk ranger, Feb 06 2019 02:31

A great read! thanks old friend!

AlexSouth, Feb 06 2019 05:04

Thanks, Steve, accommodation check, Nova Eroica also check!!

Nick, Feb 06 2019 05:31

nova eroica - ENTERED!

camping - booked!

 

now to go to Nils to go find a qualifying bike!

 

Have you tried: https://www.bikehub....kes-components/

 

But ya, Nils is the expert.

Stan Engelbrecht, Mar 09 2019 05:28

Hi vintage steel riders! Eroica South Africa is a week away, and I hope you are all prepared for a great weekend. Entries will be closing this Wednesday 6 March 2019, so if there are still family and friends who you know want to join us, please get them to register as soon as possible. 

 
Here is some important information you need to know for the weekend of the event.

 

PROGRAM

 
  Friday 15 March 2019
 
Registration : You can pick up your riders numbers from the MMACC from 16:00 until 20:00.
 
Concourse : We will host a vintage bicycle concourse at 18:00. The best and rarest and most beautiful will be judged and awarded. Please get in touch with me at info@eroicasouthafrica.com if you are wanting to enter some bicycles for display and judging. You can enter as many as you like, and entry is free. 
 
Dinner (not our official dinner) : There are not many options for dinner in Montagu, so in addition to old favourites like Ye Olde Tavern (+2723 614 2398) and 22 Church Street Restaurant (+27236141200), we've arranged for Rambling Rose to be open for dinner too. You can book by chatting to Cay or Sergio on +27834014503 or at ramblingrosemontagu@gmail.com
 
  Saturday 16 March 2019
 
Late registration : For those of you who cannot collect your numbers etc. on Friday, you can do so between 06:30 and 07:30 on Saturday morning.
 
Start times : At 07:30 the 135km group will start, followed by the NOVA riders at 08:00. The 90km riders will set off at 08:30 and the 45km group at 09:00.
 
Routes : Each rider will receive a map, and the routes will be clearly marked. But remember, people do get lost. Don’t simply follow the riders in front of you - pay attention to the route markers. Please report to a marshal and get your map stamped at each of the rest stops so we can keep track of you all. Important - carry enough water with you, and some extra food if you eat a lot. Especially on the 135km and NOVA routes.
 
Massages : For those of you who would like to pre-book a massage from Susan Retief of Montagu, get in touch with her at completehealthandbody@gmail.com. Susan will be set up at the Festival venue, so you’ll be able to find her without straying too far. She’s really good!
 
Official dinner : Please book your tickets for the official dinner on Saturday at 19:00 as soon as possible. Remember that you cannot attend this dinner if you do not pre-book. Tickets for the 3-course Italian-style dinner are R200 each, and you can book here - https://eroicasouthafrica.com/about
 
   Sunday 17 March 2019
 
Unofficial breakfast ride : On Sunday morning we will meet at the old church at the top of Kerk street and have our official/unofficial jaunt around Montagu to take in a few sights, have the chance to check out each other’s bikes one last time, and divide ourselves amongst the 3 or 4 breakfasts spots to eat something and say out goodbyes. 
 
See you in Montagu!
 
Stan.

Stan Engelbrecht, Mar 25 2019 01:44

Hello dear Eroica riders! What a wonderful weekend it was. I would like to thank each and every one of you - you have made our fourth Eroica South Africa an even bigger and better experience than imagined. The atmosphere was great, the food fantastic, and while the riding was very tough in temperatures soaring over 40 degrees Celsius, I’m sure you’ll agree that it made the adventure all the more memorable. After four years I think it is safe to say that Eroica South Africa has found its own identity as an Italian-South African event, and I’m confident that together we can grow it into a true celebration of vintage Italian cycling culture as seen through our own storied local cycling past. Together we need to work to get South Africa’s greats to come out of retirement again, dust of those historic bicycles, and come ride with us! But at the same time we need to foster and instil an appreciation of vintage bicycles in the younger generations. We need to get riders of all ages out to Montagu to celebrate our great history and the love of our sport. I can proudly say that my vision for Eroica is taking shape - each year we’ve had a more multicultural field, more women riders, and a range of ages participating.

 

Here are a few images, more to follow soon - https://eroicasoutha...ca.com/gallery 

 
A special thanks to the town of Montagu, Mimosa Lodge for our great dinner, our sponsors, all the marshals and volunteers, and all the friends Eroica South Africa has made. Our great weekend would not have been possible without you. I hope that we can continue to work together in future. And thank you riders! Without you there would be no event. Your enthusiasm for Eroica South Africa and taking on the challenging dirt roads around Montagu is well appreciated.
 
Congratulations again to Imraan Ho-Yee, who won the NOVA under some trying circumstances. In the heat only about 6 of the almost 30 racers completed the course. And even though the gruelling Eroica Classic 135km was not a race, Sipho Mejini from the fantastic Tsiba Business School (https://www.tsiba.ac.za) made it his goal to finish first again this year, and he did! Another Tsiba rider, Simiso Manatha, refused to let the mean 135km route and the extreme heat stand in the way of him finishing, and after many hours in the saddle and refusing to get picked up by the sweepers he rolled over the finish line as the very last rider. Simz, that is the true Eroica spirit! Well done. 
 
It was a very tough day out there. In light of extreme conditions like this, we are looking at adding a couple of water stops out on the long 135km and NOVA routes. However, we would like to hear from all of you what you think will improve the event. Whether it’s about the routes, venue, dinner, or any other aspect, we would like you to share your opinion on how we can make Eroica 2020 event better. Get in touch at info@eroicasouthafrica.com
 
See you then friends.
 
Stan.