08 July 2017

Eroica Limburg 2017

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As a spectator last year, I vowed that I would participate in this year’s Eroica Limburg, so I registered as soon as I could and began the hunt for an appropriate vintage bicycle—pre-1987, downtube shifters, cables over the handlebars, etc. The bike I found was a 650b 1973 Liberia Randonneur, built in Grenoble, France and posted for sale on a Maastricht classifieds page. The seller was moving and willing to let it go for €80. The saddle was no good, but it otherwise only needed some tuning up. I loved the color, styling, the fenders and the racks, and the tires were pretty much brand new. Luckily, I had a Brooks Cambium saddle that didn’t have a home and, while not period-correct, matched the bike pretty well. I had my Eroica bike.

Fast-forward to a rain-soaked Saturday in July, it was the day of the event and my first time really riding the Liberia. I was a little concerned about how well it would stop in wet conditions, and I wasn’t even really sure if the wheels were steel or aluminum. (They are steel, and stopping is surprisingly not terrible). Also, having a set of full fenders was much appreciated as most bikes on the ride were fenderless and their riders were paying the price. I stopped into the registration tent and gave my name, the attendants gave me my number, and I was officially a participant. I opted for the 100km route, and proceeded on to the glorious start.

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On my way, I noticed the front brakes were a bit spongey, something I definitely wanted to be dialed in before starting on the ride. I found a spot under an umbrella outside a cafĂ© and attempted to tighten the cable and adjust the cantilevers. My hands were wet and I didn’t have any pliers to grip the brake cable, so it kept slipping out before I could get it adjusted properly. One of the race officials saw me struggling and offered the assistance of the on-site mechanic, to which I appreciatively accepted. I walked the bike over to his mobile toolbox, an appropriately vintage car with tools and spare bike bits in the trunk. I quickly found, however, that my issue was being overlooked in favor of every other rider that walked up to him—a guy without a seatpost clamp bolt, a lady with wobbly wheel… as I waited there in the rain, I managed to fix the brake myself and gave a half-sarcastic thanks to the mechanic that wasn’t much help after all.

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I didn’t let that get me down, though. I was excited to embark on what is heralded as “the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of the conquest.” After the an exciting start through the Valkenburg centrum and a one-of-a-kind ride through the famous caves however, the fatigue soon turned to frustration and conquest became confusion: I was lost.

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I suppose that if I was in a pack of other riders it wouldn’t have been a problem. But somewhere along the way there was a waypoint marker that was missing, obscured, or maybe just not placed somewhere obvious, because I ended up riding for several kilometers with no signs I was headed in the right direction. I should have been riding through the American cemetery and boarding a ferry across the Meuse into Belgium, but instead I found myself on the Amstel Gold route and then, when I did pick up signs for the Eroica route again, it was the final portion of the circuit. I was headed to the finish just over an hour after I had started. Riding through town, I noticed the smoke stacks of the Brand brewery and stopped by there to hopefully catch some other riders and get back on track. “How many other people have come by?”, I asked the staffers. “You’re the first!” they said enthusiastically. I wasn’t quite as enthused.

They gave me some directions to get to another one of the waypoints, Margraten, where the American cemetery was, and where I should have been at that point. But as I was following the directions they gave, I saw an Eroica route marker and decided to follow that instead, which turned out to be a big mistake. That brought me back into Valkenburg and I actually crossed the finish line; though I was far from being done riding that day. As I politely declined the finishing medal I was being handed, I explained that I got off track and wanted to start again, but was concerned that by the time I got to the ferry, the waypoints would be closed down. So they pointed me in the direction of the Belgian Cycling House (not actually in Belgium), where I could pick up the route again.

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There, I was happy to get some refreshments and see some fellow riders again, though I felt like I must have been pretty careless if they all made it there successfully and I ran in to so many navigational problems. As I would find out soon, however, it wasn’t just me. In fact, I came across a dozen different riders that had no idea which route they were on, or if they were headed in the right direction, including an American couple from California and an Italian who really wanted his asparagus soup. I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one that ended up getting sent to the Belgian Cycling House to be put back on track—some didn’t even make it that far.

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Finding solace in the shared sense of confusion, I was able to put it behind me and enjoy riding the route again. I also enjoyed some asparagus soup, and surprisingly, asparagus ice cream (I thought it was vanilla, but it definitely wasn’t). For a while, I was riding with the American couple and the Italian, but our group splintered as we got closer to the finish. We met again at the brewery, which was my second visit, but thankfully I wasn’t alone this time. The staff gave me a congratulatory “welcome back!” and several beers to try as an old-timey swing record played and conversations in four different languages were being carried on.

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Crossing the finish line a second time, I was a little disappointed that I missed out on some of the parts I was most excited about, namely Rijckholt Castle, the American cemetery, and the ferry ride across the Meuse, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the parts I did get to experience and the camaraderie of being an Eroica rider, even if it was often a shared feeling of being lost. The rain never really stopped either, but it just added to the dramatic experience and thrill of the conquest that embodies the Eroica experience.

- Bicyclist Abroad

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