Sometimes I cheat on my bike and grab a cheap, empty thrill in the saddle of a rental. I go home and whimper apologies. My bike says fuck you.
The author and his obsession. Photograph: Firdose Moonda
TELFORD VICE in Florence
MY bicycle saves my life every day. It’s my only bike and my only vehicle. Gears? They’re for people who want too much to think about. Hills? Bring it; I know them well. Hipster? I’m hip (at least, I like to think so) and I have hips that will need replacing from too much running and riding if I don’t do enough yoga, but I’m too bloody old by half to fake hipsterhood.
My bicycle is a roadster the colour of freshly oxygenated blood. A thing of brilliance called a VanMoof Bambooman carrier is fixed to its North Road handlebars by the hack job of two bits of a leather belt, nuts, bolts and cable ties. A Brooks — which cost me more than the bike — is where my bum goes.
I love my bicycle. If some meteorological madness were to hit my home it would be the only thing I would save on my out. And save it I would.
What brand is my bike? Haven’t a clue. Once, someone who knows about these things took a look at the brazing and said it might be an old Raleigh. I think it’s as an old bastard, like me: my father was a drug dealer, my mother a fortune teller. They were too busy trying, and failing, to stay out of trouble to get hitched.
My bike was rescued from a fate worse than rust by Emile Kotze — then of Starling & Hero in Woodstock, now of Whippet in Joburg — and resurrected and trucked to Jozi, where I used to live. Four-and-a-half years ago I moved to Cape Town. My bike was happy to go home. It told me so.
My bike has never felt the luridness of lycra. At least, never in our relationship. Cleats? I’ve had a pair since I was a kid. But they’re the kind you wear to play the gods’ own game: baseball.
My bike and I are on the road every day we’re together. But I travel a lot for work and after about a week away I start pining. I try to resist but sometimes the moments of weakness weigh up and I cheat on my bike and grab a cheap, empty thrill in the saddle of a rental. I go home and whimper apologies as abject as they are pathetic. My bike says fuck you.
Before my bike and I got together I was just another frustrated driver stuck in traffic. Bullshit. I, like every other, also frustrated driver around me, wasn’t stuck in traffic — we were the traffic. Now traffic is just something that I used to know.
If you read this magazine regularly and you’ve read this story this far, you know where this is going. I could get on with it and throw all the stats and facts at you: why cycling beats driving on every scorecard you can think of, why humankind’s future will happen on a bike if humankind is to have a future at all, why we’re all going to die horrible, smoggy deaths, our arteries clogged with capitalism, our joints congealed with modern life, our minds mushed by mindlessness delivered on screens, if we don’t get the hell out there and pedal.
And, if I did that and I were you, I would turn the page.
Because you know all that already. Because you believe all that already, which is different from knowing it. Because probably you are not, like me, car-free having sold the cursed hunk and with it all those petrol, parking, maintenance and licence bills and the daily drudgery of being a motorised hamster on a macadamised wheel going nowhere slowly. Because, even if you want to free yourself from your car, thanks to South Africa’s all but barren public transport landscape you cannot. Because, unless you have the money, Uber isn’t the answer.
So why do I think this article is worth your trouble?
Because I want to share how stoked I am. Because, like any zealot, I want to spread the good news. Because nothing would make make me happier if there were more stoked zealots spreading the good news. Because just a few years ago I didn’t pay bicycles much heed. Because now I couldn’t imagine my life without one. Because together we can change the world. Yes, really.
I realise I’m preaching to the converted, or at least to the quasi-converted. You do, after all, ride a bike — either on a road or off it, in races against other riders or against your own sagging fitness, and maybe sometimes, if the weather’s wonderful and the distance is decent, even to go from A to B to C and back to A.
Sorry if I’ve left any sub-sub-culture of the sub-culture off that list, and sorry also to those who worship their bikes like I do. Thing is, my own conversion has been so complete I find it difficult to understand why everyone doesn’t ride a bike everywhere all the time. So I run out of ideas quickly when I try and think of reasons not to. But I’ll have a go.
Don’t be stupid when you’re out there but be assertive, which is a fine balance. I’ve been doored a few times, with spectacular results, at least partly because I was riding too close to the line of parked cars. Happily, all I have to show for my troubles are a slightly dinged Bambooman, a brake lever that looks like it might have been designed by Salvador Dali and redesigned by Uri Geller, and what I suspect was a broken finger.
Now I ride a touch further into the lane, keep a vigilant eye for occupied drivers’ seats, and ignore the occasional idiot hooting behind me.
If only our drivers were taught the Dutch reach. In the Netherlands you fail your driver’s test if you don’t reach for the latch to open your door using the hand furthest from the door. That way, you naturally turn your head and look down the road before opening the door.
Being assertive rests on the bulletproof truth that you, the cyclist, belong on the road as much as anyone and anything else. Those who do not want to share the road should stay off it, or go to hell. You won’t get many chances to debate these neanderthals, but when you do here’s your killer blow — this road was here a long time before cars arrived, buddy; so learn to share.
A keen sense of anticipation is crucial. If you ride behind a minibus taxi know that it will stop frequently and often not where, lawfully, it should. Know that it will lurch into traffic without warning. Know that you can do nothing to change that. But, above all, know that without minibus taxis there would be a lot more motorised morons on our roads. And that minibus taxi drivers tend to be more skilled — and once you get to know those on your routes, respectful of you and your bike and downright chatty at the robots — than the average entitled oaf behind the wheel of an obese 4×4.
Something else that sets Dutch drivers apart is that almost all of them grew up on a bike. That means they have an innate sense of what the cyclist in front of them is going to do. Anticipation works both ways.
You don’t want to wear a helmet?
I won’t wear a helmet until every driver, passenger, skateboarder, rollerblader and pedestrian does also. There is no logic in requiring people on bikes to be helmeted when people in vehicles that travel exponentially faster are not. And since when are the heads of skateboarders, rollerbladers and pedestrians harder than those of cyclists?
There are not enough bike lanes?
Bike lanes are nice to have but they are not must haves. And they’re dangerous because to separate cyclists from drivers is to allow drivers to regard as truth the nonsense that they own the road. Besides, depressingly often bike lanes are hijacked by cars for parking.
It’s raining. Or too cold, too hot or too windy.
You’ve heard of rain gear. And jackets. Heat? Wind? You’re a cyclist, for fixie’s sake.
I could go on. And on and on. But I’m never going to convince myself that bikes are not the answer and the future and all things wonderful. So go, you good thing. Get out on your road. All of them. All the time.
That’s only the practicalities. The broader point is that my wellbeing is closely tied to my relationship with my bicycle. A while ago, we had to drive for the first time in six months. For an hour. Then, after several hours of work, we would have to drive back. I was keen on taking a train but my wife, also a cyclist but less gung-ho, wasn’t. So we drove.
Less than five minutes in, I felt a hollow, crushing numbness behind my eyes. Our conversation dried up as I constrained my focus to the road. I arrived with a headache, sore knees and a bad attitude. Our drive back was crippled by traffic, and our evening ended in a stupid argument.
I hoped I never had to drive again. Fat chance. We live in a world colonised by cars. So much of our public space has been swallowed by them that we walk what amounts to a tightrope just to cross the road. And we keep adding to the problem: planners think they can solve traffic challenges by widening roads. That’s like thinking you can lose weight by loosening your belt.
My bike agrees with all of the above. We’ve had conversations like these so often that sometimes I think we’re in danger of boring each other. Which somehow never happens. There’s always a hill to get up, or a headwind to tackle, or some oke in lycra trying to walk in cleats to laugh at, or always another poor bike bolted to a coffee shop wall — the not-so-secret handshake of the hipster hangout — to pity.
There’s always life, and we’re living it real. Every day.
Where should you ride a bike? Everywhere! But here are some of the best places to do so:
“Attenceeo!” That’s not how you spell attention in French, but it is what she said as she rattled across the Pont Notre-Dame yelling her warning – shrill and urgent, her flouncy skirt flouncing for all its worth – of a golden evening this European summer. I will never forget her. The pedestrians duly paid attention, and no untoward contact was made. As never seems to happen in a city where so many people are on bicycles that you wonder why anyone would downgrade to a car. And no-one rides an ugly bike, of course.
Yes, in India. But in India’s only planned city, way up north in the Punjab. That means the traffic makes sense even to comparatively mollycoddled, sheltered South Africans. So many vehicles of all descriptions, and then some, are on these clogged roads that a bike isn’t something weird. It’s just another vehicle on the road, and accorded the same respect as all the others.
London’s cyclists tend to be a grim bunch – they are miserable Poms, after all – but you won’t want for bike lanes, hiring options and fellow travellers. And it’s mostly flat. Watch out for black cab drivers, though: they respect nothing and no-one but their own sorry ilk.
Maybe it’s the cobblestones, or the fact that many of the streets are narrow capillaries, or the hordes of pedestrians, especially in tourist season. But even the most unpracticed urban cyclist is safe as a bet on the All Blacks to beat the Boks in the graceful ooze of movement on the roads of this painfully beautiful city.