Bicycling (South Africa)
The First Bike I Really Loved
THE OLD ROAD BIKE FELT FOREIGN, UNGAINLY, AND UNCOMFORTABLE. IT ALSO CHANGED MY LIFE.
THE SUMMER AFTER
I turned 15, I finally outgrew the sparkly pink and purple kid’s bike I’d been using to get around our small beach town. So my dad went to our garden shed and dug up a hand-me-down he had been saving in there, out of sight. When he wheeled the road bike up to me, I thought it looked dorky and old. It had a slender red frame. The drop bar, wrapped with white cloth tape, spread from the stem and curled downward in a shape that struck me as awkward. My dad held it beside me, leaning to one side and eyeing up the height. He lowered the seat for me, and twisted the handlebar upwards – so, I now realise, I could reach the brakes a little moere easily. I got on and toodled around the cul-de-sac, stopped, put my feet down, and squinted up at my dad in the summer sun. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. The ride had felt foreign, ungainly, uncomfortable, all forward-leaning and bumpy. My dad said I should give it a few rides, that I would get used to it. He explained that the two silver levers on the frame between my knees were for shifting gears. I don’t remember where I wanted to go that day – maybe the beach, or musical rehearsal, or swimming practice, but I do know that I didn’t touch the shifter levers (and wouldn’t, for about a year). I also know that eventually I rode that bike to all of those places. And I rode it to my friends’ houses, to youth group, to my boyfriend’s house when his parents weren’t home... wherever I wanted to go. And I arrived at all these places sweaty, because I loved making that bicycle go as fast as I could.
MY MOM USED
to ride that Nishiki alongside my dad as he ran, back when he was fresh out of the military and logging 3:45 kays. He’d bought it new for her, in 1988, when the delicate white tape and matching rubber brake hoods were snazzy, when the Shimano six-speed shifting and the chunky brake calipers and looping levers were state-of-the-art. She rode beside him, laughing and happy, making jokes and picking on my dad as he ran, going too fast to reply. Even when she became pregnant with my sister she kept up the rides – until her hips began hurting. She’d started to limp a little, and also had trouble eating more than a few bites of food, so riding seemed out of the question. And even though the weather was good, my dad hung up the bike for her. By October she started having back pain so badly, she was put on bed rest. She gave birth to my sister in November; then, four weeks later, was diagnosed with cancer that had metastasized from her stomach to her ovaries. By February, she was dead. She was 28. I was two.
I NEVER REALLY
knew my mom. I don’t remember her. I’ve been told plenty of stories, the earliest of which involve her taking me on runs with her in the baby jogger, and the last of which involve twoyear-old me in her hospital room, pulling at the tubes and cords attached to her and shouting, “I don’t like these!” I’d always searched for ways to get to know her. I saved pictures of her in a drawer, her driver’s licence and some wedding photos. I had a few tank tops she’d worn at varsity, and I cherished them like they were magical. I savoured tangible facts about her, like her favourite flower (gardenias) and favourite biscuits (chocolate chip). I could smell those and eat those, just like she did. Physically, I most resemble my dad; but when I looked at photos of my mother I saw curly dark hair like mine, and warm brown eyes, and the same crooked smile, slightly wider on the right side. I’m built like my dad – athletic but average where my mother was wispy and svelte, a gymnast and a dancer. But when she was riding, Dad told me, “she had legs like a racehorse.” Then he laughed and laughed, and said, “She really didn’t like it when I said that.”
THE FIRST TIME
Irodejustforthesakeofridingfast–nottoget anywhere – it was just my dad and me. I was on my mother’s Nishiki. I wrote my first Facebook status about it, in 2009: “Rode 34km with my dad today! Pretty much drafted the whole way :)” I was proud. And I’d fallen in love with zipping around. I decided I wanted to be a cyclist. Soon, I bought my first pair of bike shorts, a chocolatebrown pair, for R480. After a few rides my dad told me I shouldn’t wear underwear with them. He and I began riding together often enough that I memorised a little route and began going out on my own to practise getting that bike going as fast as I could, ticking my downtube shifter one gear at a time. One day I hit 39km/h. Soon after that, my dad took me to my first group ride. The bike shop was in a little shopping complex, with an Italian bike in the small window and a black cat wandering around the
parking lot. I felt out of place on my old bike with chipped paint, my brown shorts, sneakers with the laces tucked in, and a billowing cotton T-shirt. My dad and I followed the C-Group riders, who were supposed to average around 25km/h. I remember feeling panicky when the number on my speedometer stayed over 30 at the beginning – I’d never held that speed for so long. I also remember that I didn’t like being so close to other riders, so I ended up bobbing along in the back and catching up at red lights. By the end of the summer, I got up the guts (and, I thought, the fitness) to go with the B group. I was pedalling so hard my ribs hurt, and I didn’t take a single sip of water because I was too focused to take my hands off the bar. The riders in that group all wore cycling shoes and cleats, and told me I needed those. They also told me that – if I was serious, and it looked like I was – I should get a new bike. I didn’t want a new bike.
EVENTUALLY, OF COURSE,
I got a new bike. I picked out a powder-blue aluminium rocket from a catalogue at the shop. I got other bikes after that. I started racing. By my last year at university I’d raced all over the country, both road and MTB. And at one big race, I smiled at my dad from the top step of the podium. This thing that I’d used to become closer to my mom had become my way of feeling like myself, of knowing who I was and what I was capable of. The red bike hangs in the shed again. It gave me more than I ever could have imagined. And when I’m riding a lot, I have legs like a racehorse.
RACING NATIONALS IN 2016 (TOP); HANGING WITH MY MOM IN 1995.