My Sunday in Hell – Eroica Limburg 2016
I’m always up for a cycling challenge. I like pushing myself to try something new… but when a challenge comes along that unexpectedly makes you question your ability on a bike, that’s a whole new feeling indeed. And one that I’ve discovered I rather like… even if a few tantrums play a part in it. Doing Eroica Limburg last month was the nugget of that revelation, and I’m still laughing at two things I assumed I knew:
1) What to expect while riding the shorter course.
2) Assuming the Netherlands are very flat. Nope smart-arse Velo, they are not.
The lovely folks over at Brooks England invited VCG to ride the newest edition to the Eroica series. As it continues to expand around the globe, the chance of doing it on brand new ground was a huge appeal. That and the fact I’m clearly addicted to the event. As with each Eroica I’ve been on, the ethos of the Sunday ride was the same: to celebrate the old school beauty of cycling and for it to be damned hard in places. Described as “the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of the conquest”, Limburg was putting itself out there as a ride to be reckoned with – and of course this was a hint of what was to come on the day.
Going out for a ride on the Saturday was an ace opportunity to see Limburg and get a feel of what the big event would have in store. A modern bike ride organised by Brooks kicked off the day: the retro Bianchi stayed in the hotel while I hopped on a Giant bike and hit the road! The beauty of the scenery was breathtaking – blue skies (before the burst of rain caught us towards the end) vast fields, a few climbs and descents (with the odd herd of cows and coffee stops along the way) and seeming reasonably flat, it was a joy to cycle through. Part of the ride incorporated some of the Amstel Gold Race route, and was lead by ex pro-cyclist Marc Lotz. Now I’m not gonna lie: I couldn’t keep up with with him for dust, but it was still nice to ride alongside him for a bit and pretend to be of that standard… for a few minutes at least.
Taking a leisurely pace that morning was my plan, knowing that Sunday would be a long day on the saddle. I saw hints of what was to come on the Eroica route – official sign posts were appearing along the roadside that were not part of paths we were on… some of them lead towards gnarly looking gravel roads and pools of mud. It was certainly worth keeping that in mind as I cycled back to Valkenburg, to enjoy the rest of the relaxed vibes. Festival fun and a hero’s feast was the order for the rest of the day. The vintage cycling market and live entertainment which has now become a part of Eroica was also transported to Limburg. I still love this part of the weekend, as it gives a welcoming and friendly vibe to everyone, regardless if you’re taking part in the Sunday action or not… inclusivity is always key and very welcome when it comes to cycling events like this.
Ride day arrived, and as our wave of B1866 clad cyclists made its way to the start line, those gravel roads and rough terrain I’d spotted the day before were on my mind. The sky looked like it wasn’t going to hold up forever, and at some point I suspected that plenty of mud + rocky roads would be on the agenda. Distracting myself from the thought of a rather bumpy ride, I knocked back a couple of Espressos, gathered for the group photos and lost myself in laughter catching up with friends and hanging around with some of the very appropriate cycling legends who were riding the course that day.
The start of the route took us through Lourdes Grotto… accompanied by a light show and videos of The Muppets singing “Mah Nà Mah Nà” projected onto the cave walls. I’m not kidding. This was already shaping up to be unlike any Eroica route I’d been on before, and also had me in stitches on the saddle! Starting the route off with laugher was a tonic, as a few minutes later, this Lady was not laughing. On the other side of the grotto was the Cauberg. This was a climb that took me and my legs by surprise. Thankful for the extra gears on the Bianchi, I gave it a go, but DAMN were my legs screaming at me… and this was only the first climb of the route. Unlike Marianne Vos, I didn’t smash Cauberg in one thrilling go. There was plenty of panting, a whole lot of pushing and some serious walking to get to the top.
Beyond that climb (which I thought was already the end of my legs) came the stunning countryside and fields I’d had a taster of the day before. Rolling fields of green, with bursts of wheat, corn and poppies lined the route… and gave me another big education: with great beauty comes great pain. Those gravel roads and mud baths that I had clocked on Saturday were waiting for me. It was almost unrelenting taking them on, time after time – with every twist in the course came a new climb and descent on them. There were points where I swear they were morphing into boulders and sink holes underneath the skinny wheels of my bike. I’ve no idea how, but I managed to stay upright and not get floored by them.
By the time I’d reached the first and only food stop on this course, the 32km it took to get there started to feel like a cruel joke. There was no let-up as I struggled to cycle towards it: I was getting increasingly irritable, feeling dizzy and at the point where I couldn’t cycle in a straight line, I got off the bike and walked for my own (and everyone else’s) safety. For the first time in six years of cycling, I had Bonked. After being told that’s what was happening to me (or rather having it drilled into my head as I wasn’t quite ‘all there’) I got seated and knocked back more food than I thought possible at the stop. Despite having breakfast and taking on fluids along the way, it wasn’t enough for my body to deal with how brutal that first leg of the route was. That incredible hunger hit me like a wall, and I carb loaded and downed glasses of orange juice like never before. There was no rush, so I allowed myself time to recover and get my energy levels back up… and back on the Bianchi I went. Although there still wasn’t much let-up on the roads, the food (and the extra portions stashed away in my jersey like a pro) I’d taken on board gave me a boost, and allowed me to ride the remaining 28km of Eroica Limburg.
When I’d looped back to Valkenburg at the end of a very long day, that finish line looked like heaven. For every moment where I felt like I was about to lose my shit because of amount of tyre ending gravel, steep climbs and bike-swallowing mud I cycled though, I remembered the beautiful descents I let myself loose on, and the amazing people I encountered on the ride. Then of course, I realised me and my aching body had made it through all the gnarly stuff I was moaning about. That was something to be celebrated and be proud of, and even if it was “just the 60km” course, no one can take away the absolutely glorious feeling of riding something so brutal, bonking and coming out the other side of it… smiling.
Heading back to base covered in mud, and wearing my Eroica Limburg medal with pride, both me and the Bianchi needed a good shower, wine and yet another good feed. I can look back at that day and laugh at some of the epic mood swings I pulled. Telling myself I wasn’t cut out for this kind of cycling isn’t true… and the fact I fancy returning and going a longer distance next year is one of the best things I’ve taken out of it. Thanks Limburg… I think I’ve had my very own Sunday in Hell. And loved it.
Huge thanks to Brooks England + Eroica for hosting VCG. More photography from the day by Ian James can be viewed right here on Flickr.