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They're not big on bikes

Two authors delve into South Africa's cycling culture -- small, but full of spirit -- wondering why more people aren't pedaling around

December 29, 2012|Robyn Dixon
  • Cyclists prepare for the monthly Critical Mass ride in Johannesburg, South Africa. The mass ride aims to bring awareness of the bicycle as a form of transportation and also to make motorists more aware of bicycles on the roads.
Cyclists prepare for the monthly Critical Mass ride in Johannesburg, South… (Kim Ludbrook, European…)

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — When Mickey Mampe needs to charge her cellphone, she jumps on her bicycle and rides 25 miles in the dry, shimmering heat from her non-electrified home on a deserted farm road.

Mampe, whose children are grown, is a rare figure in the rural northern Cape region, the only woman with a bike in her remote village. The men in town tease her. But she ignores them and figures she has little choice because she prefers cycling to riding in a bumpy horse cart.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, December 31, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
South Africa bicyclists: An article in the Dec. 29 Section A about biking enthusiasts in South Africa included an incorrect spelling of a bicyclist's first name. He is Mabutsetsa Mpeete, not Mabusetsa.

"You don't struggle; you just get on," Mampe told a pair of authors. "You just ride, and if it gets a puncture, you patch it and then you can go."

The authors are animator Nic Grobler and photographer Stan Engelbrecht, who wanted to find out why so few people ride bikes in a country that has so much poverty, often unwalkable commuter distances, and poor public transportation.

What they found, after about 4,000 miles of cycling, 500 interviews and countless punctures, was that South African bicyclists are like those in many nations without a strong bike commuting culture: fearless, adventurous, thick-skinned and, often, more than a little eccentric.

Thulani Papa, a young man who lives in Langa, a black township near Cape Town, personifies the type. He modified his bicycle to make it nearly unrideable, with small wheels, high handlebars, no back brake and such a sharp front brake that anyone who borrowed it would be bucked off the moment they tried to stop.

Grobler and Engelbrecht also reaffirmed their belief that bicycles could change the lives of threadbare South Africans like Mampe, especially in rural areas. The cyclists they met often expressed a quiet joy that they could go where they liked, whenever they wanted to, while others were anchored in their villages and townships.

"We both believe that bicycles could really empower people in South Africa, where so many people rely on poor public transport infrastructure," Engelbrecht said. "People have to travel great distances to work. People really struggle with movement here."

Unfortunately, they said, there is a stigma attached to bicycles that may have originated in the apartheid era of racial segregation, when companies issued free bicycles to miners and other lowly black workers.

"The reasons are complex," Grobler said. "People think cycling is only for the poor so they don't want to be seen on a bicycle. They would rather take a taxi [commuter mini-bus] or a bus."

The country's dangerous roads don't help. Bicycle lanes are unheard of and drivers are so unused to cyclists that they forget to look out for them.

"People say it can't be done. In their minds, you can't ride on the roads because it's too dangerous," Grobler said.

The pair rode around South Africa, seeking out wild, remote places, stopping every cyclist they met, and riding part of the road with them.

When they didn't find a cyclist, they asked people to help them track one down. They collected hundreds of stories and portraits of bicyclists, gathered on a website, www.bicycleportraits.co.za, and in three photo books, all simply called "Bicycle Portraits."

Like most Western countries, South Africa has an army of spandex-clad upscale recreational cyclists, who usually drive to a reserve to ride bikes worth thousands of dollars. Grobler and Engelbrecht weren't interested in them. They were looking for genuine bicycle commuters.

In the sprawling township of Alexandra, near the upscale neighborhood of Sandton, they found only one cyclist.

"As we went around the entire country, we found that cyclists are often eccentric, or a little bit outsiders. They're often flamboyant. They embrace eccentricity. They love their bikes. They're really proud of them," Engelbrecht said. "We felt we really wanted to celebrate these people."

The pair photographed bicycle modifications and vanities: a seat covered with kudu hide, bikes with colorful lights, flags or horns, and many with no brakes. (The riders just used their shoe on the tire instead).

They ran into Mabusetsa Mpeete, riding along with a clumsy-looking, handmade metal cabin mounted on the frame. He dreamed of it one night, got up the next morning and built it.

"Every time I ride this bicycle, people look at me and acknowledge my work. I don't get sunburned. I don't get wet," he proudly told Grobler and Engelbrecht.

One of the most colorful characters they met was John Jacobs, from George in the Eastern Cape, using his bicycle to rebuild a broken life. Jacobs, who grew up in a poor family with 21 children, most of them now dead, has an infectious laugh and a wide toothy grin. He's covered with tattoos and has a scar from a stabbing on his belly after being in and out of 14 jails in 13 years, rising to power in one of South Africa's notorious prison gangs.

He cycles to work as a golf caddy. And every winter, he has to pawn his bicycle when there's no work.

Grobler and Engelbrecht were inspired by Stephanie Baker, an 83-year-old white woman in Pretoria, with flat shoes, a prim dress and an old-fashioned basket on her bicycle handlebars, who rides out with dignified grandeur every day. "A lot of people in the old age home where she lives don't even walk out the front gate," Grobler said.

Baker waves happily to each gardener, street sweeper and security guard she passes.

"Cycling is awfully good public relations. Most people have good will," she told the pair. "At least I can get around -- and see the beauty of the place, too."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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