Around The Block, Around The World
An ode: to why everyone should ride a bike – everywhere, all the time – and never stop, no matter where you go…
Why bikes can change the world; why you have no excuse not to ride; and the best cities around the world (barring Amsterdam) for cycling.
I WAS JUST ANOTHER FRUSTRATED DRIVER, ‘STUCK IN TRAFFIC’. BULLSHIT. LIKE EVERY OTHER DRIVER AROUND ME, I WASN’T ‘STUCK IN TRAFFIC’ – WE WERE THE TRAFFIC.
M y 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 am 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 more 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, plus 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 way 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 of it 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. Three- 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 add up, and I cheat on my bike and grab a cheap, empty thrill on the saddle of a rental. I go home and whimper apologies as abject as they are pathetic. My bike says #*@& you.
Before my bike and I got together, I was just another frustrated driver, ‘ stuck in traffic’. Bullshit. Like every other – also frustrated – driver around me, I 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 by 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, if 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 you’re probably not car- free; you haven’t 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 allbut- barren public transport landscape, you can’t. 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 me happier than the existence of 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. After all, you do 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 ride.
But I’ll have a go.
Don’t be stupid when you’re out there, but be assertive – it’s 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 out 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 completing the movement.
Being assertive rests on the bulletproof truth that you, the cyclist, belong on the road as much as anyone and anything else. Those who don’t 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 lawfully where 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 4x4.
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.
“i 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 aren’t enough bike lanes.”
Bike lanes are nice to have, but they’re 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.
All that is only the practicalities. The broader point is that my well- being is closely tied to my relationship with my bicycle.
A while ago, my wife and I had to drive somewhere, 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 would never have to drive again. Fat chance. We live in a world colonised by cars. So much of our public space has
…I FIND IT DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND WHY EVERYONE DOESN’T RIDE A BIKE EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME.
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 this so often, sometimes I think we’re in danger of boring each other.
But somehow, that 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 another poor bike bolted to a coffee shop wall – the not- sosecret handshake of the hipster hangout – to pity.
There’s always life, and we’re living it real. Every day.
WORLD VEHICLE: WHE THER YOU’RE IN INDIA ( ABOVE ) O R I TA LY ( RIGHT ) , THE B IC YCL E I S INT EGR A L TO WORK , L EISURE AND L I V ING A BE T T ER L IFE .