Eric Basson and his History with Old Bikes, and Where They Have Taken Him
Stan Engelbrecht of Eroica South Africa visits Capetonian bicycle collector and vintage rider Eric Basson, to talk about how he got into vintage bike racing, Karoo dirt roads, and maintaining a fine collection.
SE: What's with the old bikes? Where did it all start? What's your story?
EB: I was never really a cyclist. But when I was still in the police, there was a colleague of mine that wanted to buy a wetsuit, and so he asked me to buy his bike. It was a Le Jeune. I reluctantly bought it and thought, ‘What am I going to do with this bike’. Ha ha. And that's how I started cycling.
SE: At the time did you know your Le Jeune was a South African built bike?
EB: I had no idea. But I had it - and 2 weeks later I did my first Argus. I got a sub from a buddy of mine. It took me 5 hours 38 minutes. I stopped everywhere, rode in my tekkies and t-shirt and Ray Bans.
SE: But why on earth did you decide to do the Argus, just because your friend had this sub?
EB: Yah. I had the bike. I thought why not try it. My dad told me I wouldn’t be able to do it without training. That was in 2000. And the next year I did it again on the same old bike.
But then I bought a Trek 1000 aluminium road bike, and gave my one brother the Le Jeune. At the time he was a long distance runner, and he did his first Argus on that bike too. He then gave it to our younger brother. But he never even did the Argus, he just swapped it for a bloody lawnmower! And the guy that he swapped it with moved to New Zealand. I tried to track that bike down, but I never found it.
SE: No man, he broke the family tradition.
EB: I had some ‘fancy’ aluminium bikes for a while there, Treks and Orbeas. But I used to go into Cash Crusaders and those types of shops often, to look for furniture to restore. That was my hobby at the time.
One day I went to this one here in Parklands, and there was this green bike. And immediately my attention was drawn to this bike. It was for there for R999. I looked at it, and asked the manager for a better price. And he sold it to me for R920. I brought it home and cleaned it up, and then I Googled this ‘Bianchi’ bike. There was a lot of information on it. And I found a guy in Australia who does a history on Bianchi bikes, and I sent him an email and photos. He replied with a catalogue, and he identified that as a 1988 Bianchi Mondo. And that's really how I started with vintage bikes.
SE: That's the one in the corner there.
EB: Yes. But it came with old cheap Shimano Sora components. One day I was driving, and saw another guy who was riding a Bianchi. His had full Campagnolo parts. I offered to buy the bike from him then and there, but he didn't want to sell it. So I left it. But then he contacted me a while later, when he was ready to sell. He needed another bike to ride though, so I traded my Orbea, and some cash. I took the components from that bike and put them all on my Bianchi. I sold the other frame to make a bit of money back.
SE: That’s your first real collector’s bike. And it’s your size.
EB: I didn't even have a clue about Bianchis, but it was that ‘Celeste’ colour that drew me to it. I researched the colour. And you know, you get all these different stories. Like it was paint supplied to the army, which they over-supplied and Mr Bianchi bought it from them for cheap. All those stories. And suddenly you’re on forums, and Bike Hub, and you discover there's actually a vintage fraternity out there. And then you just get hooked on it.
SE: When did you get this first Bianchi?
EB: Only in about 2006.
SE: What happened from there?
EB: I was looking on the Bike Hub for some bikes. At the time there were a lot of vintage frames on there. And there was this guy, you know… called ‘Mint Sauce’. He was selling this bike for R5000. That was a lot of money. But it had these Campagnolo parts, oval tubing. It was an Eddy Merckx. I thought about it a lot. But I ended up buying it and that became my road bike.
SE: So that was the start of your collection?
EB: In the beginning I used to buy all kinds of things. Because you don't know what you’re looking at. I used to buy big bikes, and small bikes. All kinds of stuff. Eventually I thought, I have to buy bikes that I can actually ride - the right size and so on.
SE: What's interesting about your collection is that you do ride all your bikes. I always see you out on a different bike.
EB: I try to ride each of my bikes at least once a year. It's hard, it's quite a commitment. Even though all the bikes are more or less the same size, they could be out by 1cm or more, and the set up is always different, the saddles are different, handlebars are different. But you know, I always say, I’m not a hoarder. I collect bikes. Because if you don’t show the bikes off and ride them, then you’re just hoarding. And I don’t see the point of that. I'm a collector.
SE: How many bikes on the floor?
EB: 25 at the moment. But there’s another couple bikes in the back here, a couple at Nils’ shop and a few at my friend Glen. In total, maybe 30 bikes. I don’t have a big collection.
SE: Some people might disagree! That’s a lot of bikes to ride. But, talk to me more about the kinds of distances that you do, and the events that you get into. How did you transition into that?
EB: It was definitely the Tour of Ara that got me into that. I was talking about it, and Nils said I should just do it. But I didn't think that I could, I would never think of riding an old steel road bike for long distances on gravel roads.
Then, in 2016 I saw a slideshow and some short films at a talk at Woodstock Cycleworks one evening and I thought to myself, maybe I can do this. So I entered. And the first time I got onto that gravel road with the guys, I was hooked. I was hooked on steel frames and riding long distances.
SE: Before you saw the Tour of Ara photos and heard the stories, what did you think of the idea?
EB: I just thought it was crazy. Those distances for 6 days. I thought it would be very uncomfortable. I didn't even think I would ever make it past the first day. But I’m not the kind to give up either. My son asked me one day, ‘Dad, do you start hearing voices? Do you start seeing things?’ And I told him it's not like you start hearing things, you're just very aware of your surroundings. You can hear each bird, and the power lines going ‘click click click’. You’re out in nature. And a lot of those times I rode on my own, I was often the last one in. And you realise that you always have that little bit of extra to give. For me the enjoyment is in finishing. Only then do I take stock of the day, and all things that happened along the way.
SE: And Ara got you into Eroica?
EB: There was a group of us that entered that first year. The long route, then 135km. But I don’t think people were ready for it. I had small gears on. And I had problems, my BB kept coming out. So the next year we all entered the shorter distance. Ha ha ha.
SE: I think it’s important for Eroica to have a long route, a true tribute to the cycling heroes of old. But riding big distances is really about a mindset, especially riding an old steel bike on gravel.
EB: Exactly. I’ve entered the HERO route for Eroica 2022 again, and I’ve entered my brother too. He always says to me, ‘We didn’t come all this way to only ride a short route’.
SE: What do you think of Eroica, as an experience, outside of the riding?
EB: We always make a weekend of it, my brother and I. It's a break-away from your usual kind of riding. For me it's about the atmosphere, the food, and the people. And then there is the vintage aspect of it - the guys dressing up.
And of course there is also the history of Eroica itself, which you then feel a part of. I would love to go to the big L’Eroica event in Italy. You know Bob Minsky, who rode Eroica South Africa and Tour of Ara, he was saying he is riding Eroica California this year, and he was asking who was joining him. I would love to do that. So it shows, the people that you meet are important. You make strong connections with like-minded riders.
SE: What advice would you have for someone who has a passing interest in old bikes and wants to start collecting?
EB: It's dangerous, hey. Ha ha ha. I like to see young guys interested in old bikes though. But I think it's like an addiction. For me, I try to hold off for a bit when I see something good come up. Let it sit for a bit, cool off. And if the thing is still there, then I know I have some room for negotiation. I will spend a bit of money on bikes. But I’ve also made a bit of money on bikes. Once you’ve become an experienced collector, then you know what to look for.
Like I bought this bike from a guy called Koos. It was the ugliest bike in the world. But it had Campagnolo downtube shifters, a Nuovo Record rear derailleur, and old Super Record brake callipers on it - a full house of Campagnolo stuff. And Shimano Tri-color 600 wheels. He told me he had done just one Argus on the bike 27-years ago, and that it had just been hanging in the garage since then. I bought that bike just for the parts. And I made some money off of it, selling just the wheels and the frame. But collecting has only become popular in the last few years.
Before that sometimes you could get stuff for free. Now, if you’re selling it's good because you can get some money. But if you’re buying, then… Well, we have pushed the prices up now that we have created a hype around collecting.
SE: So you think there are still a lot of gems out there, stuck in garages?
EB: I think so. I bought a bike from a guy who had a lot of bikes and parts in his garage, but he wouldn't let me come in. Ha ha. I was trying to get into that garage but he was not inviting me in! But, sometimes people come to you, if they get to know you. What I am still looking for is an old Cinelli road bike. But it must be a special bike. I feel like that is the only thing that is really missing from my collection. So if something like that comes up at a good price I won’t let it get away.
SE: Out of your collection, what is the one bike you would hold onto?
EB: That Bianchi. My first bike, the one I started the collection with.
SE: You’re telling me that you will sell this Du Toit?
EB: No. I won’t sell that bike either. Ha ha ha. At one stage I made a list of bikes that I would keep. But I ended up with a list of only ‘keeps’. There were no bikes on the list to sell. I couldn’t do it. Like that Peter Alan, it's not a special bike, but I did Tour of Ara on it though. It's got a history.