How Wandile Msomi wants to go the extra mile in more ways than one
Words: Buntu Ngcuka | Photography: Samora Chapman
If you’re a regular around the Jo’burg CBD, you’ve probably seen Wandile Msomi zooming past you. He’s an avid cycler, so much so that his love for it led to the short film, Pls Do Not Count This. “I started riding a track bicycle a few years ago with my friend Jonathan Pinkhard, and Adam McConnachie who works with him at [creative collective and production agency] Band A Part, started riding with us,” he says of the clip’s conception.
“I spoke about the idea for a long time and Jonathan was amped to film it. We love riding track bicycles and we knew we had to film it in Johannesburg because it’s unlike any other city in the world. Our film would result in a video unlike anything that’s ever been done before. We started filming on weekends, then that progressed into weekdays. I mean, we have over 40 hours of footage of me cycling on a hard drive somewhere. We took our time with refining and editing it, and the final product was this 6-minute video.”
The 6-minute film, which dropped last month, shows Wandile making his way through the city streets, including rush hour traffic in Hillbrow. What may have been a panic-inducing situation for some turned out to be a labour of love for the three of them. “I’ve spent years driving and skating around the city, so the whole thing came together really easily.” Adam drove the motorcycle while Jonathan filmed the piece and Wandile says their enthusiasm for the project was infectious and motivating. “As an entrepreneur, I love working with people who see failure as a lesson and not the end. The three of us made magic every time we went out filming.”
As romantic as that makes cycling sounds, doing it in the big city, especially in Johannesburg, it’s anything but. Wandile describes it as tough but people have no other option but to do it anyway. He’s incredibly aware that it takes a bit more confidence than, say, just driving around in your car. His reasons are also for a much bigger case though. “Western countries kill millions of people for oil, they turn oil into petroleum and we buy it from their agents. That makes us the motivation force for them to kill more innocent people, which leads to the suffering of those living in poverty and the rich getting richer.”
As a result, Wandile drives his car much less and when he has to, he fills it up with Sasol petrol (a local company, plus they make their petrol from coal). “You get less mileage per tank, but that’s a small price to pay.” With regards to crime, it helps being street savvy, although the theft stats will surprise you. “In Europe a bicycle is stolen every 2 seconds, so we’re better off here. Just get a good lock and you’ll be fine. But I’m an urban cyclist, so I have to act that way. Sometimes I’ll ride at 2am on my way back from a friend’s place, so I have to keep my gear to a minimum. And it’s nothing too expensive either — in Jo’burg, if you flash something valuable around, it means you don’t want it.
And when it comes to something as valuable as a bike, it’s important to do your investigation in order to make a wise investment. Take into account how often you’ll be riding it, where you’ll be riding it and how long your commutes will be.
“I try to balance what I like and how the streets are going to react. I hate standing out and being loud - I find that just attracts the wrong energy in Johannesburg. So, I went to Whippet Cycles, and got something that was old school and classic.” His frame was part of a build for a training bicycle used by Sean Bloch, a South African track cyclist who represented South Africa in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It only has a single gear ratio and has neither a freewheel or brakes, which doesn’t make it the easiest bicycle to ride on the road, but, by Wandile’s standards, the most fun.
This same disciplined, considered approach can be applied to his style, particularly when to comes to what he wears while cycling, from the clothing fabric right down to the accessories he carries. When buying pants or shorts, he only considers industrial-grade material. “The bike’s saddle can cause them to tear around the crotch area because of the friction when pedaling.”
With T-shirts, Wandile specifically looks for regular fit. “The fit is more aerodynamic, which means there’s less drag from air moving past you. I look for fabrics that are breathable and light, which come in handy if you sweating.” So light in fact, that his shirts are always around 145 to 165 grams. He chooses shoes with a durable gum sole. “Sometimes when I’m bombing a hill, I have to use the sole of my shoe as a brake because my bike doesn’t have one.” He also carries a moonbag to contain all of this tools, spares and lights when riding at night. His phone has a whole bunch of songs for amping him up, Google Maps for directions and Strava for recording his rides and the distance.
Still, given how technical cycling is when it comes to the gear, it’s still marvelous to see how much the culture has grown. Wandile is also an avid skater and owns his own line of skateboards, Funisu Skateboards. It’s pretty well-documented that the current wave of menswear is heavily influenced by the sport and while relaxed fits and heavy-duty wear might seem new to someone who, say, only owns Vans because of their aesthetic appeal as opposed to their grip and cushioned insoles, Wandile says the influence has always been there and never left.
“Skateboarding has never lost its appeal since the 70s. The youth-charged energy has always made it easy to sell and buy. The demand for it sees no end, and while it may go up or down, as all trends do, there’ll always be a pocket of kids enjoying the vibe of rebellion. What’s also helped keep it presence is its marriage to the arts: through photography, magazines, illustration (board graphics) and cinematography (skate videos).”
Funisu Skateboards has been Wandile’s passion project since its inception. On whether he’ll move into cycling equipment or even bikes in the future, he says it’s on the cards — as a South African entrepreneur, he’s aware it’s probably going to be a slow progression but he wants to do it right, with the love it deserves most importantly, it must happen on his terms.
“First we have to build a name people can trust, and Pls Do Not Count This is our first step. We’re working on our formulas and I hope we make a lot more videos like this. Our growth will be slow, but steady. I really respect cycling, and I just don’t want to have a cycling brand without context and meaning. Now I only release work when it’s 100% ready. Take our film for example: we filmed for 3 or 4 months, collected over 40 hours of footage and edited the video for 7 months. It was important for us to release something that we weren’t only really proud of, but also represented Johannesburg in the best possible way.”
If it was up to him, more people would use bikes as their mode of transport. “It’s healthier than driving and you get to engage with your environment on a more intimate level. It helps with your endurance and everyone needs that in the workplace. I run my own company, and the ups and downs need your mind and body to be in the best space at all times to be ready for whatever comes your way.” Wandile also thinks it’s a way of doing away with the socioeconomic divides and issues of access in our country, much like inner city running clubs and hiking squads for people of colour. “I’ve learnt over the years that urban planners in the past literally built South Africa to be a place of division.”
Msomi is an optimist with a passion for his craft and it’s clear that the freedom he feels when he’s on a bike has given him the permission to go after what’s his and making the streets an easy place for all, hopefully with less traffic congestion too. He’s toying with the idea of commuter wear designed specifically for the South African context. “Our weather, our traffic, our priorities, art and outlook in general is different. Our product should be to.”