The Commuters

Connected by a love of two-wheeled wonders bicyclists are taking back their city

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

There’s a new wave of people taking to two wheels instead of boxing themselves into the more traditional motorised forms of transport, and even though they’re not exactly wheelying down the mainstream, enough people are looking at the humble bicycle as a viable form of transport for it to have become something of a thing. 

While just a few years back bicycling was all about the spandex and a cheaper way to enter your mid-life crises than, say, golf or an extra-marital affair, now, thanks to the fixie and custom bike-building movements, more and more young people are thinking bike.

Think Bike can actually be edited down to just “Think”, because why wouldn’t you want to ride something that uses no fuel and is immune to traffic jams?

Now one of the great joys in life is connecting with inspiring, creative and intelligent people, and the crew that our photographer, Nick Gordon, put together for this story are a pretty fast crowd. So fast, in fact, that The Way of Us initially misses them at our meeting point and we only manage to catch up with them while they’re refueling on scrambled eggs and coffees at Clarke’s. Brett Petzer, a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, gets straight in to it.

“There’s this whole thing about masculinity, bikes and power that’s very interesting. Like when you first get on a bike, and have driven a car before, you feel an incredible loss of power. People in cars tend to forget that they’re piloting a vehicle that weighs tons and kills thousands of people a year.” 

Brett started riding out of necessity, after his car needed to be serviced, and immediately felt a sense of powerlessness that he wasn’t familiar with.

“Everywhere else in my life there’s a lot of structural privilege happening for me, but when I get on the road on my bike suddenly all of that changes. As a white male, you don’t often get to know what it’s like to be on the other side of the power divide.”

Bicycle activist Bridgett Stanford from Bicycle Cape Town rides for the camaraderie, dopamine and endorphins. She thrives on the freedom of whizzing past cars stuck in traffic and believes that more people would get to experience this rush if our cities were designed better.

“If we could design our cities for bicycles – and not just cars – then more people would ride and enjoy cycling. The city is actually looking at these very real issues and we’re currently devising ways to come up with South Africa’s very first cycling strategy.” 

Having worked with the City of Cape Town for just under a year, Bridgett has been part of ensuring that the first draft of the above-mentioned cycling strategy is now nearing completion and will focus not only on things like infrastructure, but key points that will address things from multiple perspectives in order to transform Cape Town into a much more bicycle friendly city.

Arriving on an e-bike complete with saddle bags, as she’ll do some shopping at the market later, founder, director and online editor of Bicycle Cape Town, Leonie Mervis, is on a mission to activate the urban area, link up bike friendly places and teach people commuter routes and basic bike maintenance in order to encourage them to ride their bicycles every day.

Having commuted to town from Hout Bay, Leonie considers this as normal, and when she’s looking for a bit of a challenge will participate in what she calls “micro-adventures”.

“S240 is a sub 24-hour adventure on a bicycle where we leave after work and then cycle back the next morning. We pack our bikes with all of our camping gear, meet up at Woodstock Cycleworks and then ride out across the Atlantic Seaboard, up Chapman’s Peak and camp at Noordehoek. Next we’ll catch the train to Wellington, cycle up Bainskloof and camp on the other side.”

If that’s considered a ‘micro’ adventure, what’s on the opposite end of the scale? Clayton Petersen, founder of Revolution Skateboard Supply, who distribute Globe, Brixton, Obey and Stüssy, got into cycling after a back injury made it impossible for him to even get out of bed on some mornings, let alone skate. He was always going to take things to the extreme though – case in point the 700km off-road ride through the Karoo.

“I didn’t do the Tour of Ara on this,” says Clayton picking up his bronzed beauty. “The electroplating thins the metal out, so it looks good, but you really want something sturdier for when you’re going down those rutted roads at 60 km.”

Rules for what’s an era ride in the vein of a vintage Italian tour stipulate that only South African bikes made prior to 1990 may be ridden, and there’s no road support, no assistance and no water points.

“It’s all off-road riding on road bikes where they only allow 35 people. It’s small enough not to be a logistical nightmare and so that you can bond with everyone else who rides it.”

Married couple Cara and Pete Reynolds share a blog Never Settle, which they populate with their adventures. Having recently returned from a seven month backpacking trip through the Americas, the couple had to sell everything they own in order to realise their dream trip and now that they’re done are looking at the next adventure instead of putting down roots, a deposit on a new place or buying a car.

“On the 25th of April we’ll ride from Upington to Cape Town,” says Karen. “Project 1000 is a challenge where the aim is to do 1000 human-powered kilometres dedicated to raising awareness for endangered species. People around the world will be doing it and we’re looking at cycling around 60km a day.”

“It’s a big challenge,” adds Piet. “We did some full-day rides in South America, but nothing consecutive and mostly city commuting. We don’t have to carry too much food, but still we’ll need a cooker, our tent, sleeping bags… that kind of stuff.”

Philippus Johan Schutte is a creative who “designs stuff and takes photographs for a living” and loves to ride because there are no defined rules when it comes to riding a bicycle, saying: “You can choose when you want to be a pedestrian and when you’d like to be a car. Red lights are green. You know? I actually got shouted at by the cops to get off the pavement the other day.”

Sharief Edwards, who used to work as a business analyst, agrees that in bicycling there are a lot of guidelines as to what you should or shouldn’t do, but everything is vague. “I once had a police ring his siren and shout out the window at me ‘hands, hands, hands…’ because I had my hands off the bars?” 

And while most would agree that a helmet is a minimum requirement, albeit poorly enforced, this is the one rule that Brad flouts, despite calling himself “the Ted Cruz of cycling.”

“I’m very conservative and will always stop at a red light, but by not wearing a helmet that’s only a danger to me, which is why I can do that. Still, at end of the day cycling forces you to be a more concerned citizen. If you drive a car through the city the lights don’t have to be working, there can be potholes, there can be crime, whatever, you’re fine if you’re in a car because you’re in your own little fortress. However, on a bike you need the whole city to work and so you end up caring about everything. In a car you leave your garage, control the climate, nobody can talk to you, everything is just a movie, and then you show up at wherever you were going to. Everything that happened in-between was not your problem. But if you’re on a bike then everything is your problem.”

According to Brad in the past decade the City of Cape Town has spent an estimated 350 million rand on non-motorised transport. It’s exciting to think what the next ten years hold, what with more people “Thinking Bike”, becoming concerned citizens and actively helping in the shaping of the cities they live in. And it’s good to know that if you want to contribute it’s as easy as riding a bike.