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The wheel deal: South African saddle stories

It was the time of the cannibal. In 1968, the year I was born in a Pretoria hospital, Belgian cyclist Eddy “Cannibal” Merckx recorded his first major win, clinching the Giro d’Italia. A year later he triumphed in the Tour de France, the first of five victories in this iconic stage race.

His dominance of professional cycling over the next few years was as thorough as it was unrelenting, hence the nickname.

By 1976, when Merckx won his ­seventh and final Milan-San Remo day race, the same year television, newly introduced to South Africa, showed Soweto students unanimously saying no to Afrikaans-­language instruction, Merckx was all but spent. He would try his luck one more year, in 1977, riding his final Tour de France. He performed dismally. Two months later, black consciousness activist Steve Biko died in police detention.

All these disconnected things — Merckx, Biko, Soweto — existed beyond my knowledge of the world. Home, at least for the first six years of my life, was a small cottage at the back of my paternal grandparent’s large house in Lynnwood, an affluent suburb in the east of Pretoria. My grandmother, a pharmacist who watched Gone with the Wind every Christmas, would often compare our road, King’s Highway, to Harley Street, that famous London road populated by medical specialists and surgeons.

Having come from nothing, a small Eastern Cape town with a municipal furrow system for domestic irrigation and a chicken coop out back, ­producer David O Selznick’s monumental southern epic with its rich technicolour scenes portraying struggle and success in an uncomplicated world of masters and servants, resonated with my grandmother. Her King’s Highway home reflected this.

The large property had a live-in gardener, Johannes, a lady who ironed once a week, Anna, an ever-changing staff of domestic cleaners and a ­butler, Boytjie. This man, whose name was the diminutive of boy, wore a neatly pressed white dust coat that he later swapped for a tie when he left King’s Highway. He also pedalled every­where on a sturdy black bicycle with a rack mounted over the front wheel. Every afternoon Boytjie would collect me from kindergarten, riding the undulating route between Water-kloof and Lynnwood with me seated upfront in a cardboard box.

One afternoon the symmetry of the predictable and the routine was interrupted by a fall.

Scars and memories

Just as there is always your first bicycle, so there is also your first accident. The two don’t always necessarily coincide. We fell on 13th Street in the suburb of Menlo Park. I was “doin’ the mess around”, to borrow from a line by Ray Charles. The asphalt was hard. I cried. A lady emerged out of a front door. It was no more embellished than that. The memory endures.

I can list the many bicycles I’ve owned through falls. At age six I fell off my Chipper, a junior version of the Raleigh Chopper, the latter a nonsensical design icon from the Seventies with asymmetrical wheels, which I also managed to fall off, aged nine. The Eighties, whose legacy looms large in this book, was no better to me. I fell off a white Giant BMX on a gravel track we built on a vacant plot in Faerie Glen, the new suburb my parents moved to on the far eastern edge of town. All the roads here are named after American states. I grew up in Arkansas, birthplace of Bill Clinton and home to Iver Johnson, the defunct United States bicycle-maker known for its smart, utilitarian creations that resembled the bicycle owned by Boytjie.

I got to know the US on my bicycle. I permanently scarred my left arm on Arizona Crescent, joyously freewheeled down Wyoming Street and raced our dogs innumerable times down Mississippi Street, where Ertjies Bezuidenhout, winner of the Rapport Tour in 1984, lived. Born Ernst Bezuidenhout, this tall, gangly man from Vanderbijlpark, who retired from professional cycling in 1989, was a bewildering figure to us ­BMXers. His tall, suntanned physique was strange, the speed with which he powered up Wyoming unnatural, and his racing bicycle simply uncool.

Cool is important, especially if you’re a white South African cyclist for whom cycling has always been a performance as much as a pastime. I came of age in the era of the Easy Rider-inspired Raleigh Chopper and ET-popularised BMX; in the Nineties I naturally matured to MTB, another California invention. This version of cycling is far removed from the utilitarian necessity of commuting, which I learned while living in Japan and London (and intermittently practise in Cape Town). In the cool schema of things, bicycles are commodity fetishes. It is perhaps telling that I first knew Merckx as a bicycle brand, belatedly as a legend.

Cool, which is a practice actively cultivated by white South Africans, be they weekend warriors on expensive racers or fixed-gear hipsters emulating urban practices somewhere else, is both a marker of race privilege and an alibi to deflect the reality of class.

The history of cycling is inextricably linked to class. When the first commercially viable bicycles emerged out of small English factories in the late 19th century, the working class enjoyed a new privilege: extended mobility. In Italy, where the class argument is even more explicit, a Milanese tyre manufacturer once produced a Karl Marx tyre, which it marketed as the “great red brand” for “comrades and cyclists”.

Practical values

This fervour never reached South Africa; the wheel in the national trade union’s logo is one of industry, not mobility. And yet, as the photographs in this book show, to be down and out in South Africa, to be poor, to staff the lower ranks of industry, invariably implies bicycle ownership.

It is a habit in some cases marked by pride, but more often than not dogged by abandonment. Boytjie’s tie coincided with his new job as a driver.

“After World War II,” writes JM Coetzee in a 1994 diary entry while touring France by bicycle, “black men began to acquire bicycles, and for a while the bicycle took on a new signification in black society: riding a bicycle was modern, it placed one above those who had to walk. This was very likely the moment when white opinion, linking the bicycle to black social aspirations, concluded that whites who rode bicycles were letting the side down.”

There is truth in Coetzee’s statement, just as there is truth in Stan and Nic’s photographs, which come paired with enlightening interviews.

Reading through these interviews, testing them against my own memory of things and in turn testing this memory against the material reality shown in these photographs, other possibilities for narrating why we, South Africans, ride bubbled to the surface.

It is a complicated story, marked by unusual juxtapositions and familiar proportions. One story in particular lingers. Told by Regina Smith from Willowmore, it goes back to the basics of cycling. “Fall and get up, fall and get up,” says Regina, explaining how she and her sister learned to ride. It is likely how most of us started riding and, I would venture, how this place, South Africa, a fast-moving peloton intermittently negotiating accidents, continues to function. Fall and get up, fall and get up.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and journalist living in Cape Town. He cycles the steep mountain roads behind his home almost every day

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Sean Otoole
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