Timeless Bikes and Travails at Eroica South Africa 2023

As an ode to the artistry of vintage bikes and simple adventure, Eroica events present riders the opportunity to embrace personal challenge on world class routes. Nick McIntyre traveled to Cape Town to ride the Eroica South Africa on a Hansom Track frame where is 25c rubber and single speed setup certainly made for a memorable day…

I didn’t doubt my ability to finish the Hero route of Eroica South Africa until my 25c road tires hit the gravel, roughly 2km outside of the town of Montagu in the Western Cape. Up until this point, I had convinced myself that taking the fixed gear would be enough to get me through 170km of dirt roads. Rain was coming down and the medic car which we had followed until this point was about to drive off and leave us to our own devices. Our own devices being a jol over Ouberg Pass (twice) and the rest of the way that followed.

While spending some time in Cape Town for a couple of months last year, I was introduced to quite a special bike scene, one that functions off the back of some truly creative individuals. Some of the events that happen down here seem to have a completely different atmosphere to many bike events I’ve seen before, whether they are a quick morning hill dash or an ultra around some mid-country oasis. Eroica was one event in particular that had me hooked, so much so that I knew I would have to commit to making a special trip back down for it.

When I left Cape Town in December of 2022, I returned to Ireland with a frame built by Gotti Hansen: a sharp blue 53cm Hansom Track frame practically landed at my feet and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to represent some South African steel in Dublin. Since bringing it back, there’ve been many conversations about South Africa’s unique frame-building industry, which still carries on today with Mercer Bikes.

With its roots in vintage steel bikes, Eroica was a perfect opportunity to tick a one-of-a-kind box and experience one of South Africa’s great gravel races on a frame built by one of South Africa’s great frame builders. I paired the frame with a 47t Sugino Zen Chainring and a 16t rear Cog. The Pista Navigator wheels that I have commuted on for the last few years were mounted with pair of 25c Panaracer Ribmos, which I deemed sufficient seeing as some of the vintage steel racers would have them on, too.

Eroica has a somewhat strict criteria of what you can and can’t run on a vintage bike; I only got a pass on my lack of down tube shifters and the pedal cages because I was riding fixed. In the end though, after a stern warning from Stan Englebrecht, I did add a front brake and ran drop bars with the brake cable routed outside the bar tape. Finishing this thing on a track bike would have to be enough for me. I didn’t do anything crazy to prepare this bike for 170km of gravel, I just wanted to get as far on the route as possible.

Not long after the 5am start, I began to feel some of the effects of the rough roads paired with a steel fixed gear. My bottle cage rattled loose and had me stopped at the side of the road after only about 30 minutes. After tightening it back up in the dark, I was back on the road, eagerly waiting to see some glimpse of this climb that every rider undertaking the longer route fears. Ouberg Pass is a mean one, even more so when you don’t have gears to fall back on. Climbing and trying to concentrate on keeping some traction in the loose sand heated me up fairly quickly and I needed to stop to take my jacket off (i.e., really just an excuse to take a breather).

A creeping front light from the rider behind me kept me moving up the climb with a few more breaks and some walking to boot. I had two thoughts on my mind for the majority of the way up Ouberg: How my chain hadn’t snapped with the amount of force being put through itl and, how sore the blister that was forming on the palm of my right hand was going to be for the remainder of the 100-odd kilometers to go. I crested the top of the pass just after the light came up, listening to a Rodriguez album. I had put in a shift to make it up Ouberg in one gear and I was relieved to be at the top. It wasn’t lost on me how much effort Ouberg had taken and how little freewheeling was ahead of me.

I rolled into Hoek-Om after taking two hours to cover the first 35km. I went straight into the medic tent to get the blister on my hand wrapped up. It looked like I had been to hell and back already and that was not too far off. The fire pit and coffee at this rest stop were very warmly welcomed and it was even nicer to hear about others’ experience over Ouberg Pass. The rest stops are the real highlight of Eroica, not just for the reason of giving your legs a chance to stop. Each stop has such an intimate atmosphere which is a credit to the farmers and local families that man them. Although when I reached Hoek-Om, I couldn’t stomach much more than a few bananas at that hour, I know the array of foods and drinks was appreciated by all, and the pancakes further down the road at Letta’s Kraal were more a saving grace than anything else, especially for myself.

People started to filter out onto the road again for the big loop and I followed soon after. I wanted to stay near as much of the pack as possible to catch sight of some familiar faces through the valley outside of Montagu. From Hoek-Om, there were about 110km of long stretches before we came back around to face Ouberg again. I rambled along with the Basson Brothers for a bit, completely stumped by the sights around me. The remoteness of this place is astonishing and makes for some surreal highs and also some frantic lows.

The 60km from Hoek-Om was where some of that doubt that I experienced at the start of the race started to creep back in. Gravel roads are fairly unforgiving on a fixie, and the climb up Ouberg was starting to come back around to bite me. My energy levels were zapped and the long stretches of flat road were killing me. Everything would get a bit dreary for a spell and then we would hit another pass, where mountains would practically pop up out of the ground, and I would come around for another bit. At this stage, it didn’t feel like any gels or food was working, and the coffee at Nouga farm almost made me feel worse, although the friendly faces did help. You take what you can from anything on a day like this, and seeing what other people were going through also gave me some relief. I was also very grateful at this stage that my legs were holding up alright, probably due to the lengthy commutes I’ve had to do each day in the past few years. A blessing in disguise. I rolled out of the Locarno snack stop with my pal Mostert, whose legs weren’t feeling as good.

Lettas Kraal is right in the heart of the little Karoo, and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer at this stage. Despite Mostert’s legs cramping, it was still nearly impossible for me to stay with him on the gravel. Although I was telling myself that I was going at my own pace, subconsciously I must have been trying to keep up with him. The thought of having to come back around to Ouberg was making me nervous, and these nerves were getting to my head. With 90km done out of a total of 170, it’s hard to keep your head in it when this doubt takes over. I had to let Mostert go on and took a few minutes walking to compose myself. If I made it to Lettas Kraal, at least there would be some coca cola to settle me. Anyone who has ever been on a bike knows the effect of that drink mid-ride!

I was in an interesting, albeit self-inflicted, position with 15km to go to Letta’s Kraal, one that anyone who’s done such a challenging ride knows well. I wanted to drop. I’m not sure if it was the single gear on the track bike that caught up with me, or just the stout nature of the course in general. I really couldn’t see how I could finish, seeing as I was just over the halfway mark. I knew if I made it to the rest stop, I would feel somewhat accomplished and would be relatively happy to call it a day. Getting picked up on the road was a no-go for me although I was going through some bouts of dizziness and wasn’t sure how much longer I could cope with that. There’s a certain stubbornness that comes with even attempting a race like this on a fixed gear, and luckily that same stubbornness can carry through to moments like this. I’m not sure what time I made it to that rest stop, but I rolled into an amazing little house and went straight for the couch. I wasn’t thinking much further than that at this stage.

My favorite few moments of the entire day came in the 70km that followed my rough patch. After an extended stay and some much-needed pancakes, I got back on the bike and rode through some of the most beautiful sections on the whole course. I passed through some sandy sections that almost seemed to be like dried-up river beds. One in particular still had some water and was backed onto this mass of rocks that wouldn’t go amiss in an Indiana Jones movie. I was stopping and starting, and the Olympus XA2 that had been with me along the way was finally seeing some use. It had been disregarded for a good 50/60km until I realized it might be quite a while before I had the chance to see a landscape like this again—the finish line could wait for me to take a few photos. I had told myself that I would go at whatever pace was needed to make it to Ouberg, and if it came down to it, I would walk up.

On the return to Hoek-Om, I checked in and grabbed a quick banana, but was feeling good enough to keep moving. I felt the real spirit of this event when Thiery Deniel rolled up on a Standert Bike with a Chris King headset, despite having started the day on a Pinarello with a quill stem. He had been having issues with his tubular tires all day and was thrown a lifeline when another rider pulled out of the race and offered his bike for Thierry to finish on. He even had to borrow the shoes, too good! We both moved on to hit the last few climbs, leaving this insane landscape behind us.

I was faced again with the pass that had taken a lot out of me a few hours earlier, but it was so good to see it in the light of day. I had nearly convinced myself that I was going to walk back up the pass just to conserve energy for the tricky descent on the other side, but as I rolled up to one of the hills Tyrone Bradley appeared at the top, brandishing a camera. After all that back and forth in my head over the last 40km, walking was now—all of a sudden—not an option for fear of it being caught on camera, no less

We laughed about it at the top, and it was just another small story that was added to the list of things to talk about over a beer later that night. I descended Ouberg with that thought on my mind, skidding about and exercising use of the front brake that I had so nearly left off. It leaves the brakeless debate open for another year, and possibly another person. I rode into the finish of the Eroica Hero Route on a vintage track frame, hand built in South Africa. This event is a celebration of all vintage bikes, but in Montagu that weekend, there was definitely extra homage paid to that rich frame-building history, and so doing it on my Hansom just felt right.

I rolled into De Bos Campsite after 9 hours and 8 Minutes of pedaling. The hugs and the catch-ups with everyone else who had finished, along with tales from the 70km booze cruise route made light of what had been by far my toughest day on a bike. I was more than glad to see my stamp book filled up, but ultimately, I was more grateful to have experienced Eroica South Africa, a truly special event.