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Reaching critical mass

Nechama Brodie

All cyclists are definitely not equal, as their attire, their bikes and their reasons for riding attest to.

Even bicycle riders find other cyclists annoying.

This is mostly the fault of spandex, also known by the brand name Lycra, which seems to have developed an uncanny symbiosis with ground coffee beans in that it can frequently be spotted in close proximity to either a cappuccino or a flat white.

There is the cleats clique: suburban males of all ages—but mostly 40-plus—who, with daring disregard for the quality of their sperm, squish themselves into stretchy shorts presumably to use an early morning bike ride as a form of foreplay before publicly exposing ­themselves at their nearest Vida e Caffé or Mugg and Bean.

Then there are the organic, single-origin, carbon tip-toe cool kids, unaware, perhaps, of how skinny jeans get their stretch. They are brilliantly lampooned by the likes of New York blogger Bike Snob, who invented, among others, the phrase “smugness ­flotilla” for a bike with multiple ­attachments such as a child seat and covered ­carriage behind the bike, used for transporting small children and other vegetables. 

Somewhere in between the tyranny of this weekend’s 94.7 cycling race and the ecoconscious commuters is a growing group of bike riders who do it mostly for fun and coffee.

And they would like everyone to just get along.

“The spandex guys think they’re not welcome—they presume we’re a bunch of fixed-gear hipsters. But it’s not like that,” says Nils Hansen, owner of Woodstock Cycleworks in Cape Town.

Hansen, a designer who turned his love of bikes into a business, specialises in custom and “old” bicycles. “The quality is better; you get more bang for your buck. I like bikes with a bit of history. I hardly ever work on new bikes.”

On the last Friday of each month Hansen and as many as 80 other cyclists take part in a “Critical Mass” ride through the city. Similar rides take place in Johannesburg and hundreds of cities around the world.

Next Friday, Johannesburg’s largest ever Critical Mass event will take place, leaving from the parking lot of the Dunkeld West Shopping Centre at 6.30pm. Route organisers are hoping to attract about 500 participants. As an incentive, riders will get free entry to the nearby FoodWineDesign Fair in Hyde Park and people arriving at the fair on their bicycles will get discounted entry. 

Urban gathering
The global Critical Mass movement, which has been in existence for almost 20 years, has been called part protest, part social movement: informal pelotons co-opting the city grid, demanding dedicated bike lanes, raising awareness about riders’ rights. For others it is simply a celebration of urban spaces on two wheels in the company of like-minded people.

“It’s not about taking back the streets,” says designer Heather Moore of Skinny laMinx.

“There’s no central organising; you don’t have to ‘join’.” (Most Critical Mass rides are loosely organised using reminders on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter).

“It’s just lots of fun. When there are enough people we ride along chatting; everyone’s in a good mood. If a car hoots, we all just wave back.”

According to Moore, car drivers often do not notice cyclists and ­Critical Mass literally provides the numbers that make the riders more visible and safer.

She also rides to and from work when she can.

“It’s a privilege. For me it’s a treat because my work is close to home and it’s a breezy ride down the hill. Riding a bike is also a lot more fun than driving a car. You can nip in and out of traffic, go up the ­pavement. There’s pleasure in overtaking a string of cars. Although, on a bicycle you have to be, not aggressive, but assertive. Make people notice you’re there.

“When I ride I make a bit of an effort. I always put on lipstick and dress nicely—I cycle in clogs or heels. I want people to see cycling isn’t just about sport and it doesn’t have to be dowdy.”

Practical prettiness
Moore rides a bike that her ­husband, artist and keen cyclist Paul Edmunds, made for her “from bits and pieces”. “It has a nice steel frame and a black ­powder finish, whitewall tyres. It’s a lean ­little city bike.”

Moore also has a bike rack and a canvas bag that clips into the rack, which she got from the United States.

“Ladies always love a basket,” says Hansen, who has baskets specially woven for him by the Society for the Blind in Cape Town.

Jabu Ngunga, salesman at Linden Cycles, says baskets are slow ­sellers in Johannesburg, but all a rider really needs is a helmet (“a priority”) and gloves to ­protect the head and hands while riding and in the event of a fall. He also recommends a toolbox that fits under the saddle for basic repairs on the road, as well as rear and front lights for visibility when you are ­riding at night.

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