Heffalump Heroic(a)s

Heffalump Heroic(a)s.

Life is so full of questions, so wanting in answers… except sometimes when
the probe responds with almost absurd ofcourseness.

Words: Steve Shapiro
Photos: Eroica South Africa/Tyrone Bradley

This feature first appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Ride.

Question; why would a relatively intelligent, certainly kind-of-educated, human being who owns the latest, niftiest, lightest bicycle in creation, apparently choose to ride one of much more archaic vintage – a regular heffalump with absurdly uncharitable gear ratios? And, given that these come with skimpy wheels and tyres, ride them on indescribably bad gravel roads for which they were never intended?

Answer: because it is wonderful; a really enriching experience of pure joy. Enter Eroica.

In South Africa Stan Engelbrecht is Eroica and even if he may blush at this recognition, he will be hard-pressed to deny it. Actually Stan is more than that: with his Tour of Ara, in recent years he has become the undisputed doyen of genuine hard-core, which is not the sissy-boy stuff of clipless pedals, fat tyres and gears which will let you ride up the garden wall. Not that he’s against these things; it’s just that he really loves old-school steel-framed road bikes. And he wants to share the passion.

This he does with brass knobs on, by arranging the now annual Eroica festival in that ideal cycling setting, Montagu, in the Western Cape. In the past, I’ve missed out for various reasons but I won’t forego the privilege and the joy ever again, because I also love old bikes and the passionate company of others of this ilk. Hundreds of the latter mentioned, from South Africa and abroad, found generous accommodation in this jewel of a town and at the historic KWV distillery in the centre of town, sumptuous meals and never-ending cocktails ensured deeply satisfying camaraderie.

It seems very likely that in years to come there will be thousands…if they can find the bikes!

I rode a peach of Peugeot Classique, from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, unfortunately borrowed (and since reluctantly returned). It seemed uncharitably geared: 53/42 with a 24 cog as the most generous option on the five-speed block. Apparently I wasn’t “really” cheating when I put a 39 on the front (they were apparently available back in the day) and, on the hills, my muscle memory of riding with this sort of setup quickly kicked in and, but for the caged and strapped pedals (I fell off trying to “unclip” at the oasis-like brandy stop), I would and will go back to this level of technical generosity for most of my road riding. I loved the unpressured ride and had no punctures, although I must admit that the irregular stretches of tarmac were something of a relief. In the course of my outing I was honoured to share the gravel with accomplished riders and we all took leisure at the tastefully placed “refreshment” stops.

There are no prizes – other than being there.

Yes, the bikes are heavy but my growing incredulity about how heavy is heavy has for years been stimulated by my other steel bikes. I have acquired a despairing sense of stupidity in recollection of all the lovely old bikes I sold (for a song) to upgrade to various stages of expensive modernity offered by the industry. These were not necessary and, as always, I was merely succumbing to the fiendish wiles of the marketing boys. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! I’m not racing to become champion of the world and when I consider all the ordinary cyclists on 1980’s boycott bikes who had effortlessly steamed past me in the Argus I hang my head in shame. ›At least a dozen brand names were appended to steel bikes built here to overcome the European politicised export ban. The unpretentious constructions were of chunky, standard quality steel, but with occasional exceptions of artisanal excellence, individually created. They all look like “real” bicycles and carry the manufacturing aura of a real human being having passed this way.

Stan says Eroica is a “good way to educate people about beautiful old things” and that South Africa attracts the youngest rider profile on the worldwide Eroica (it means heroic) web. We also seem to attract younger enthusiasts – born in the age of mass-production – in contrast with the European associations with bearded toppies puffing up mountains with tubes or tubbies slung, wild-west style, round their woolen jerseys and curiously inefficient peak caps. But, here too, those historic pictures of yeoman cyclists eating bread and drinking wine have been an added inspiration. The founder of Eroica, Giancarlo Brocci was in Montagu for this year’s superbly organised festival. He speaks no English (why should he?) and a translator was no match for his exquisite smile.

In 1997 Giancarlo and a bunch of friends with a passion for old bikes and for the old days, started the movement with a “let’s do a little ride”, homage to Bartali, Coppi and more, on the white gravel roads of their home town Gaiole in the Chianti district of Italy. It wasn’t little but it became regular and when it popped up on the Internet, the idea was already popular; it quickly attracted sponsors and spread across the world.

Coming to South Africa they needed someone who knew about old bicycles, about gravel roads and who had also been inspired by photographs of cycling toppies drinking wine and eating bread! Locally, Stan’s the Man, but Giancarlo makes the strictly contemporaneous rules. Stan has pretty sensible ideas about promoting the spirit of Eroica among young cyclists’, with that multi-cultural emphasis which is vital in our country. Although he understands the reluctance of some collectors to use their treasures for this kind of riding, he thinks it is a shame. “Bikes” he says rather unsurprisingly, “are made to be ridden.” His success in inventing the multi-day Tour of Ara was also inspired by Eroica and, although different in many respects (certainly in terms of age and cultural background) was also part of the “old white dudes eating bread and drinking wine” inspiration. Today Ara is quickly over-subscribed with entries from around the cycling world.

For Eroica, bike availability is the biggest constraint and in SA, given the paucity of pre-1987 rigs, there has been a special dispensation to allow pre-1999 technology. That’s the last of the “old school” years. Companies in Europe are now re-issuing old school bikes to match the growing demand. Stan, understandably has some reservations about this license because he feels finding, researching and fixing the old bikes, before riding 135km on gravel, is part of the spirit behind Eroica.

There is another development which creates some controversy but which, in South Africa, is showing signs of taking off: Nova Eroica. The new “all road”, fat tyred adventure bikes for which big producers and hand-builders are almost overwhelmed by demand. In a country like ours it seems to make a lot of sense for touring and racing on countless thousands of picturesque gravel roads.

A Nova Eroica event was staged in Montagu simultaneously with the traditional ride and although it was clearly a success, the general consensus was that it should be run on a separate day to give the more passionate all-rounders a chance to ride in both events.

I have no difficulty in forecasting a brilliant future for both genres: and I want to be part of it.