Commuter Cycling deserves its time in the sun

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It’s full moon on Beach Road, Cape Town. Restaurant patrons gawp at the glowing orb hanging over the ocean, its reflection on the water a finish line for race clouds.

On the dark street in front of them a group of cyclists crosses the line adding an eddy of lights. They draw more cyclists in their wake until the road is a glittering stream of cheerful pedal pushers. This is Moonlight Mass, the brain child of Daniel Graham and Elad Kirshenbaum. It started as a social experiment supported by Future Cape Town, to draw attention to urban cycling and has been gaining popularity month after month with an eclectic crowd: commuters, kids, sports cyclists and hipsters pedaling every bike imaginable. The municipality even gets behind it: wardens stop traffic to ensure moonlight riders can negotiate the streets unharmed, something that wouldn’t be necessary in a city like Amsterdam. Despite a growing network of dedicated bicycle lanes Cape Town cyclists are wary of drivers who aren’t accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists. Whereas attendance of Moonlight Mass is growing (full moon shines down on over 800 cyclists) the conversion is much slower to commuter cycling and the great majority still consider it a leisure or sporting activity.

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During a daytime week there are few bikes to be seen on Beach Road other than in John O’ Connor’s cycle shop opposite Newport Cafe. But come the weekend and a different set of rider pulls into cafés like pit stops; folk who stuff their pink bits into tight sheaths of brand emblazoned lycra. Clip-on shoes click-clack on the pavement as they depart expensive tangles of carbon and ultra light alloy that vie with flash cars for prestige. Sport cycling has become something of a cult with the middle-aged, middle-income man who is focusing on health and a less ostentatious image. Sport cycling is a fitter, more endorphin charged alternative to golf yet it’s cheaper than buying a sports car. Besides an early morning assault on Chapman’s Peak, another incentive is the chance to show off gear harvested from a variety of competitive cycling brands and accessories. Cycling technology focuses on reducing weight and increasing speed. On the competitive circuit, this counts. On the weekend roads around Cape Town, this seems to count just as much. Gram for gram, sports cycling can be more expensive than a buying a sports car.

John O’ Connor stocks a range of mountain bikes and road cycles but his focus is on the competitive road cyclist.

The mountain bike initial buyer is the recreational rider who is not really interested in competition,” says O Conner. “The road market is a bit of both but with more emphasis on the competition cyclist.”

Average spend in O’ Connor’s store is R18 000 on a bike. The truly competitive rider will set their sights higher and they’re in the game with Italian flair on a Pinarello Dogma for about R42 000 – that’s just for the frame. A complete bike that will give them a competitive edge and have their contemporaries drooling on the circuit, and in the cafe, is the Cannondale Super Six Evo team – the bike Team Liquigas-Cannondale rode in the 2012 Tour de France – costing R92 500.

During the week, most of these cyclists will commute by car, probably dreaming of their weekend carbon fling while they sit, alone, in a heavy metal cocoon taking up far more road space than they need, edging ever so slowly forward. A young cyclist might whizz by on a scrappy bike and perhaps they’ll be surprised by its iron frame and then consider that the same cyclist could be getting his or her thrills twice a day just by cycling to work; that they could have a quicker commute; that they could be fitter than them.

One of these commuters is Jonathan Cherry who lives in Blouberg and commutes to Woodstock. He rides 40km a day on a folding bike with tiny wheels.

There’s nothing better than riding to work and avoiding the traffic jams,” he says. “But on a Saturday morning the bike track will be jam-packed with guys in Lycra and on Carbon. Then on Monday I’ll be the only guy.”

Cherry was taken with the counter culture of cycling, the people on single speed bikes who were taking back the streets at night, filming and sharing their experiences online. It inspired him to start his own cycling brand, Camissa, importing Tern folding bicycles as well as cool riding gear that belongs on the street, not the track. He looks at cycle commuting holistically: A bike that you can fold up and fit in your small apartment cupboard; your cubicle at work; the bus; train or even your car boot. It’s also affordable with Tern models starting at R4 500.

One of the counter culture proponents is Woodstock Cycleworks where you can pick up the epitome of cycling cool for around R3 600. A purist might go for a revived Peugeot from the 80′s with perfectly tuned gears, or a completely stripped down single speed the sum of who’s parts have been rescued from scrap heaps and revamped. When hipsters aren’t instagramming these bikes, they’ll ride them down to coffee shops in the city center where the caffeine is dealt with half the aplomb of beach road cafes and double the caffeine. Most people are using bikes to pose, get fit, take in the scenery and compete. The last thing people are using bikes for is to get to the office.

I think if more bike paths were laid out around the city, similar to the bus lanes, then more people would commute,” says O Conner. “Also, an education campaign to encourage motorists and cyclists to have respect for each other as road users. Motorists need to be more patient, and cyclists need to respect the rules of the road.”

Cherry’s view is enhanced by his experiences while commuting:

Every morning there’s an opportunity for an hour long adventure. Why would you choose to sit behind a steering wheel for hours so you can go to work and sit behind a desk for hours? The beauty of a bike is that you are more in tune with your environment – the smells, the noise, the birdlife, the rubbish. You’re more aware of it. We don’t interact with our cities. On a bicycle, you become part of it. You are in direct contact with other citizens, pedestrians, bikers. And you’re all equal.”

A commuter cycling convert is Isabeau Joubert, a 30 something designer who had never ridden a bike until a little over a year ago. She doesn’t even have a lock for her bike – it’s a folding Tern she takes everywhere she goes.

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Previously, Joubert had been driving to work every day, but after sitting in traffic, struggling to find parking and then having to pay for it she tried cycling and found she was soon having fun making detours on the way to work. “Sometimes I take a side road because its quiet and you see stuff you’ve never seen before. You can afford to get lost on a bicycle. You won’t get stuck like you might in a car.” Her favourite route is via the aviary in the Company Gardens. And she doesn’t just commute – both Joubert and Cherry completed the Argus on their folding bikes.

– Article by Anton Crone