Eroica: a vintage cycling celebration and ride that started in 1997 on the Strade Bianche in Tuscany, has many incarnations these days. California, Japan, South Africa and even Uruguay have their own version. Eroica Britannia in Derbyshire just celebrated its third year and has developed into a full on festival with dressing up competitions, food stalls and entertainment on a scale that caters for thousands, winning the award of best non-music festival last year. So, Ride Velo were very excited to be invited to Holland for the first edition of Eroica Limburg.
Starting in Valkenburg in the South of Holland, the route criss crosses the border with Belgium and Germany. Don’t be misled into thinking that a bike ride in Holland is going to be an easy affair. While the region of Limburg has its fair share of flat, straight roads, it also has plenty of hills, and some pretty short sharp ones at that. We’re not very far away from that tough old Classic Liege-Baston-Liege here and these northern Europeans love a brutal climb over cobbles and dirt roads. You get your fill of those on this ride!
Limburg has cycling running through its veins. Its local population are fiercely proud of their region and the sporting greats that it has spawned. At a Press evening dinner in the quaint city of Maastricht, all cobbled streets, Dutch sit-up-and-beg bikes, cargo bikes, bars and coffee shops, we were honoured to meet some home-bred heroes: former Team Time Trial Olympic medallist Jan Krekels, Leo Van Vliet who won a stage of the tour de France in 1979 as well as the fascinating Marc Lodz, former Rabobank Tour de France rider, who recently returned from an adventure crossing the entire continent of Africa, not on a bike, but in a vintage fire engine! They also love their football here, and on the same day that Wales were to meet Belgium in the Euros, we loved listening to stories from the former PSV Eindhoven keeper Ronald Waterreus as well as the former manager of the national team, Bert van Marwijk, who guided the Dutch to the final of the 2010 world cup final in South Africa.
The day before the Eroica ride Marc Lodz took us on a guided spin on some very classy Isaac bikes, a local brand not vintage at all, but top of the range carbon fibre that had me thinking there must be a hidden motor in the gearing somewhere. The hills were no problem at all on these fantastic bikes, but there was the lingering doubt about how we would cope on a pre 1987 steel frame the following day. Marc brought us back to the festival site in a bit of a hurry as he was due to be interviewed on TV on the eve of the great event itself so we said our farewells and set off to the stalls to find a suitable steed for the following day.
Eroica is so much more than just a vintage ride but a celebration of the style of days gone by. Old cars, classic racing jerseys in merino wool, vintage magazines, photographs and cards, old spare parts and, of course, hundreds of bikes. British company, Glory Days were there as well as the classy Steel Vintage from Berlin, a website that I’ve spent many a wasteful hour visiting and lusting after their beautifully refurbished Colnagos and De Rosas, way beyond my budget. But it was a local company called Depot Velo based in Ghent that enticed me to its stall with a huge range of machines that looked well cared for. I settled on a Moser with pink decals and a chunky white saddle. Not something I’d particularly like to buy, but a test ride confirmed its quality with smooth gear changes that my 70’s Bianchi back at home has never achieved! I was assured that I’d appreciate the thick tyres it came with the following morning.
Eroica Limburg is an intimate event where it’s possible to get up close and personal with cycling greats of the past. They all turned up at the start along with Eroica founder Giancarlo Brocci, Luciano Berruti the face of Eroica and Californian legend Wesley Hatakeyama, while Marc Lodz, himself, handed out cups of espresso to anyone who wanted one. With only 500 riders taking part you can mix freely with all these guys who welcome selfie photo opportunities, a chat or just a smile. The feelgood factor was high as we crossed over a bridge, dodged a religious procession of men in fake beards wielding axes and headed up the cobbled streets lined with cafes. Before we knew what was happening there was a sharp turn into the Valkenburg mine! I’ve ridden in some unusual places, but never through the tunnels of a mine lit up in blue and red, echoing piped music and flickering with video projections.
But soon we were on those dirt tracks that we had been told about the previous night. They vary from fine to thick gravel. Then there are rutted lanes strewn with rocks the size of a fist. You have to pick your line. Sometimes it was better to stick to the very edge of the track, sometimes the raised middle section, but more often than not you had to swerve to avoid obstacles, holes in the road and mud. Lots of mud. One farm track was literally just a mud path that I failed miserably to cycle through. Then we came over a crest of a hill, back onto a gravel path and there laid out before us a beautifully kept war cemetery: green lawns and thousands of symmetrically laid out white gravestones.
The countryside here is glorious. Rolling hills, woods, streams, and clouds scudding across blue skies. We took shelter under trees from the occasional shower giving us a chance to chat to fellow riders. The camaraderie from a ride like this is palpable. Dutch, Belgian, German, Italian: they had come from all over Europe and, aside from the occasional good natured dig about Brexit that we embarrassedly apologised for, it was our love of riding, vintage bikes and the stunning backdrop that we shared with each other. We swapped bicycle pumps to help fix punctures, snacks to keep each other going and tales of other great rides we had done.
If you want to reaffirm your faith in human nature you could do worse than riding Eroica Limburg.
There was time for a food stop in the grounds of a glorious old castle and manor house. Roast beef rolls, gazpacho, pate, fresh apple juice and hot coffee reinvigorated us for the final few kilometres and we rode with increased speed across winding tracks that cut through green and open fields. We’d only done 60km, it felt like more, but we were wishing that we’d gone for the longer 100km to fully appreciate it all. The really long route, 160km, well, I’d have to fit in quite a bit of training beforehand to complete that in a decent time. That, and get to bed a might earlier than I had the previous night!
I, for one, will certainly be signing up for Limburg 2017. The intimacy of this ride makes it special. It’s easy to meet people, chat and make friends. The ride itself is glorious, one of the best mornings on a bike I’ve ever had. I left feeling rather sad that recent political events have seen us grow a little further apart from our European cousins who showed us such welcoming hospitality and shared their rich cycling culture with us. Let’s hope we remain friends!