Who knew Holland had hills? Riding Eroica Limburg with BrooksCorrespondence Friends Events Heritage Stories
A sequel is never as good as the original (except in the case of Terminator 2) so Eroica Limburg was always going to have a hard time living up to the original, enormously loved Eroica that takes place annually in Italy.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Eroica at all, either the Italian version of any of the other ones, it’s hard to do it justice without making it sound a little bit daft because essentially, it’s a fancy dress bike ride. To expand a little, Eroica is a vintage cycle sportive where participants dress in itchy woolen jerseys and straddle creaky old pre ’87 steel frame bikes to ride routes that make use of the strade bianche, or gravel roads, that used to be part of the Giro D’Italia back in the days of Fausto Coppi. The enlightened amongst, of course know that it’s way more than the sum of its parts.
The event is such magnificent fun that it’s spawned a whole host of spin-offs in countries all over the world. These days you can join Eroicas in California (yes please!), Japan, (please, oh please!!!), Spain, South Africa and even Uruguay. Before my trip to Holland, I’d previously been to the original in Chianti as well as Eroica Britannia in the Peak District and knowing first hand how brilliant those events are made me keen to see how the Dutch would interpret the Eroica format.
I was a guest of Brooks; natural partners for Eroica seeing as an incredibly large number of the classic bicycles you see at the events are crowned with one of their saddles. As we’d all made our way to Holland from other European countries the team decided to make a weekend of it by organising an additional bike ride the day before the main event, because no one likes the travel time to outweigh the saddle time!
Our base, Valkenburg (in the Limburg region of Holland) has a strong cycling heritage, being both the home of the Amstel Gold Race and several fun climbs such as the Cauberg, where Marianne Vos raced to glory in the road World Champs.
After fitting our hire bikes with brand new, featherweight carbon C13 saddles (as yet unreleased but soon available in three different widths, with or without a cut-out) we set off with local ex-pro Mark Lotz for a tour of the area.
We began with a sprint up Cauberg and at the top saw our names and times flash up on a huge LED board – it turned out that a network of timing systems on the best climbs in and around Valkenburg link to timing chips available at local cycling café Amstel Gold Race Experience. From then on, every climb was a race amongst ourselves and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours trying to outdo each other before rain halted play and rendered coffee and Rijstevlaii (rice tart) an urgent necessity.
The following day we switched carbon for steel Glory Days bikes and slipped on our woolen Brooks jerseys and shorts. Numbers carefully pinned, we lined up in the centre of historic Valkenburg for the traditional team photo. With a fairly tiny 600 riders registered (compared to Eroica Italy’s 5000 and Britannia’s 4500) we were small in number but made up for that in enthusiasm - the start of any Eroica ride is a cheerful occasion and this was no exception.
After a bizarre ride through a series of huge caves decked out with disco lights and an Abba soundtrack we rolled out into the countryside and it’s vast cornfields sprinkled with poppies. It wasn’t long before we hit the first of many climbs. Obviously we’d found out the day before that Holland does in fact have hills despite previously believing otherwise, but riding weighty steel machines up gravel tracks added a whole new level of intensity to them. The 32km or so to the first feed stop were pretty much nonstop climbing and descent, almost comedically so – it was almost as though the organisers were trying to prove a point!
At the food stop we had our official route cards stamped and made a beeline for the refreshments – soft rolls, soup and coffee. The much-anticipated rain made its first appearance but undeterred we hopped back on for leg two of our journey.
With our route card showing there’d be little respite from the hills, we rolled out at a slightly slower pace and enjoyed views of castles, golden fields and picture perfect villages. We saw numerous (non Eroica) cyclists and many Dutch tourists making use of the plentiful campsites – it looked like a lovely place for a holiday! After Epen, we enjoyed cakes and banter at food stop two in a forest then skirted the border of Holland and Belgium. Reaching the tri-country point, where Belgium, Holland and Germany meet felt especially poignant following the referendum.
Nearing our 100km target we pulled in for a beer; a Brooks ritual and absolute necessity. The swift half went straight to our heads so we gently rolled the final kilometre reaching the Eroica showground with a strong thirst for more as well as a crazed appetite for fries with mayonnaise. After receiving our finishers medals (slightly odd – it’s not like we ran the London Marathon) we basked in the sun, made good use of the bar and enjoyed the live music. It’s a hard life, eh?