Taking back the streets, one saddle at a time
If you have to think of bicycle-unfriendly cities, Joburg is truly world class. But here we are, 500 of us - on bicycles - and we own the city, at least for the night.
A month ago, together with those 500 cyclists, I took back the streets of Joburg from the madness of motorists. These monthly Critical Mass bike rides have taken place over the past year, part of a global movement to encourage people to roll out their bikes, pull on their cycling kit, and reclaim their cities with bicycles.
The ride was one of the coolest things I've done in Joburg. Towards the back of the field, I looked ahead to the bobbing flickering red helmet and saddle lights stretching for several blocks, and it felt good to be a Jo'burger.
There were all kinds of get-ups. A lampshade as a helmet, flashing on and off; three dainty ballet dancers, in pink tutus; three Superman outfits; and a fair sprinkling of cyclists riding in jeans, caps and shirts, with bags slung over their backs. These are the bike hipsters, part of a global movement of "bike couriers", people who find it cool to imitate genuine bike couriers. There was an array of bikes - single speed, cyclocross, tandem, mountain, road.
The Critical Mass movement started in 1992 in San Francisco, and is now a monthly event in many cities around the world. Capetonians have been riding their streets for several years, says attorney Melvin Neale, the driver behind getting the Joburg ride off the ground. "They do all the cool stuff before us," he says. Their Critical Mass ride is relatively small, he says, taking place in the mornings. They do a much larger moonlight mass ride, towards the beginning of the month, when the moon is at its zenith.
"I have known about this ride forever," he says, "I really wanted to do it in Joburg."
The essence of the ride is that it has a slightly impromptu, slightly chaotic feel, and riders just turn up at the start point. The route is more or less worked out, but there is no entry fee, no rules, and riders just enjoy the freedom of riding the normally car-choked streets after hours. "It is organised chaos, which is part of making it fun," says Neale. There is a sweeper vehicle, for those who break down and can't fix their bikes. He has plans to get a loudhailer to make the ride safer, belting out precautions to cyclists and motorists.
We met at 6pm at the Dunkeld Shopping Centre, and then rode to Braamfontein, where the ride really begins, at 7pm. Neale says the ride is usually around 15 kilometres, and is generally a flat course, to cater for all levels of fitness. "You get professional bike racers, but others who borrow their neighbour's bike and do this once-a-month ride."
Neale says that the ride actually started in 2007 in Joburg as a once-off event, with four riders. It faded but last May half a dozen riders got together, and since then, numbers have doubled every month. He reckons that social media accounts for around 50% of getting the word out, but the rest is word of mouth.
We rode through Dunkeld, passing through the arcade outside The Zone in Rosebank, and enjoyed our first taste of the many stand-up cheers we'd get along our ride. Then on towards the zoo, and a left turn up towards Oxford Road, and our first hill up to Constitution Hill. Riding past the ghostly Awaiting Trial towers, we gathered before our big push into Braamfontein. A breather outside Kitchener's Bar in De Beer Street, and I dashed in to get something, anything to eat, this being my supper time. R24 bought two large bags of fresh chips, stuffed into my cycling shirt pockets, to munch on whenever there was a chance.
The bike bus got going again, heading west, going through Mayfair, where the taverns spilled out, offering us blurry cheers and raised arms. From here we headed down south, on the border of Turffontein - again the tavern patrons came out to spur us on. The chips also came out again, and were rapidly devoured. A bike came past me with a boom box attached, blasting out music to ride by. Young hot bloods zipped on and off pavements and around light poles, trying out their moves in a new setting.
Then back into town, past eery mine dumps and east to Main Street Life, where beers and grub were waiting. Bikes were stacked everywhere as riders took a break, piled into the restaurants, walking out piled high with half pints in plastic glasses.
Half an hour later cyclists swung a leg over their bikes and the bus was moving again, moving up Commissioner Street and turning right to take on the Nelson Mandela Bridge, a spectacular exit from the CBD. Now the bus broke up, with most peeling off into Juta Street for more beers and chilling.
So what if Cape Town has been doing the ride for longer than us. Our ride is great, and I'll be back next month.