Some cyclists are born with a desire to rip up the earth, or a craving for the intensity of a nightmarish climb. Others, yearning for massive mileage, learn to live with exhaustion. For many cyclists, the satisfaction lies in the spatial freedom, or the camaraderie of a gentle, shared ride. “I love feeling fit and being outdoors, and cycling allows me to experience the best of our country,” says Patrick Lawson, an IT strategist. Lawson would appreciate what Hemingway wrote: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Whatever the individual motivation, there is a discipline and a bike to match.
Not too long ago, cycling was a niche sport, and the industry comprised a handful of retailers selling a narrow range of bike brands and specialist gear. Today, it’s the largest participation sport in South Africa. Events such as the Cape Town Cycle Tour and Johannesburg’s 94.7 draw a surfeit of entries — and the race calendar is expanding all over the country. This is partly due to the more recent surge in the popularity of mountain-biking and its spin-off adventure categories such as enduro, cross-biking, gravel-biking, and fat-biking. “Ten years ago, we had 40 bikes on the floor. Now we have 300,” says Chris Willemse, owner of Chris Willemse Cycles in Belville, Cape Town, one of the oldest bike shops in the country.
In business, cycling is the new golf. From giants such as Absa to small specialist legal firms such as STBB, corporations have become immersed in cycling culture, and sponsor events, riders and teams, and charity rides. Executives socialise on roads and trails rather than courses and greens. Many a previous golfing widow is probably delighted — cycling is more inclusive, time-flexible, and provides more genuine health and lifestyle benefits. But perish the thought that the activity is lighter on the wallet: as the sign hanging in proximity to the till-point at Revolution Cycles in central Cape Town says: “My biggest fear is that when I die my wife will sell my bicycles for what I told her they cost.”
OBJECTS OF DESIRE
Even people who own a bevy of bikes are always on a quest to upgrade, to tweak, and to source components that will add milliseconds of speed, boast manoeuvrability, or fractionally lighten the overall load.
Joburg-based media entrepreneur Errol Pretorius recalls the trigger for his first foray into the technology of mountain bikes: “Sixty-five kilometres of rugged terrain during which I thought a few teeth had rattled loose. I simply had to upgrade to my first proper mountain bike, a Giant Anthem 29er.” He admits to currently owning three mountain bikes, a road bike, and a time-trial bike. “Oh, and a stationary Wahoo Kickr trainer,” he adds. “But I really must also get a fat bike, and maybe a gravel bike.”
THE NEW WAVE
Concept bikes push the boundaries of bicycles as machines. The Cervélo P5X triathlon bike, one of the fastest road bikes ever made, has a space-age frame that excludes two-thirds of the rear triangle, making it so aerodynamic that it was banned by the sport’s governing body.
The experimental US company Fairwheel Bikes has taken lightweight to its furthest extreme, customising a 2.79kg bike made predominantly from aeronautic and Formula-1 carbons. No matter how much it is desired, this bike can’t be bought, but weight-weenies willing to pay about R245,000 can seek out the world’s lightest production-assembled road racer, theAX Lightness VIAL Evo Ultra, weighing just 4.4kg. Think two 2-litre soft-drink bottles!
Controversy may spawn the next generation of bicycle technology. E-bikes — any bicycle with a built-in electric motor — are viewed with disdain by cycling purists. Robin Spiel, a veteran of 34 Cape Town Cycle Tours and multiple biking trips around South Africa and Europe, loves bike technology. “It allows greater appreciation of cycling’s pleasures. On my mountain bike I can descend faster, easier, thanks to advances in suspension.” He pre-empts my question: “I’m 64 — too young for an e-bike.” He’s grinning — but I can see that he’s serious.
But change is precipitated in moments of crisis. Weekend warrior Barry Pearce, 56, had a flash of clarity during the Darling Brew DBX Bone Crusher: “It’s a brutal 75km one-day event, and I lost my sense of humour on one of the impossible vertical ascents. An e-bike will need to feature at some point as age creeps up on me,” he says.
Undoubtedly, e-bikes are fast developing a devoted following. Stirling Kotze, owner of Revolution Cycles, tested e-mountain-bike prototypes on European ski-slopes in 2015. He was hooked, and calls himself an “e-born” (not an “e-theist” — get it?). “E-bikes are also for serious riders. Cycling pros and other athletes use them on recovery days, and e-mountain-bike racing is a new category of cycling as a competitive sport.” Kotze shows me a new-series Specialized Turbo Levo. Its lithe but robust beauty makes me want to get on and ride.
But there’s always a price to pay. Even in the 1800s, the US writer Mark Twain captured the risks: “Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” Cyclists reel off a de rigueur list of injuries, including road-rash, saddle sores, sciatica, and chronic hip or knee pain. And a collarbone break is an infamously routine cycling injury. Allison Morton accepts injuries with the HTFU attitude. That’s harden the fuck up. “If you don’t crash, you’re not trying hard enough,” she says.
Therein lies the essence of cycling: a never-ending belief in the benefits of spinning the legs — a perpetual motion that keeps the body moving, the mind content, and the spirit soaring.
Clearly, for people of all ages, whether it’s a wind-whistling-through-the-helmet sense of freedom, the thrilling call of the open road, or the calmness of a solitary trail, cycling offers something for the soul.
Whatever the price tag, it’s worth it.
THREE EVENTS TO THRILL, AND THE DREAM BIKES TO DO THEM ON
The three stages traverse majestic Drakensberg passes, undulating forest trails, and sugar-cane fields, ending at the KwaZulu-Natal coast. The event offers trail, adventure, and race options, providing scope for the full spectrum of riders from weekend warriors to racing die-hards. Do the adventure on Specialized’s S-Works Stumpjumper 29. With its lightweight carbon frame and top-notch handling and suspension, this bike is conceptualised for climbing resilience and designed for descending speed.
The One-Tonner (a seeding event for the Cape Town Cycle Tour) is 170km of high-intensity racing through the flats of historic Stellenbosch and neighbouring northern winelands, with two challenging climbs. Go like the wind on the Pinarello Dogma F10. Yes, it’s the most famous racing bike on the planet — and for good reason. Sleek aerodynamism is combined with high-tensile carbon for maximum power output and uncompromised handling.
Sure, everyone wants to try the Cape Epic. But it’s now the biggest multi-stage mountain-biking event in the world, and inordinately difficult and expensive to secure an entry. In any case, there might be a tougher South African mountain-bike race: The Munga. It’s a single-stage, but only because you’re on your own for five days — ride when you want, and when you can. Fastest rider across the 1,000km from Bloemfontein to Wellington wins. This sort of endurance needs rugged versatility: put yourself to the ultimate test on the Cannondale Scalpel Si World Cup 2019, one of the world’s best cross-country bikes, with everything engineered to eat up the kilometres.
• From the April edition of Wanted 2019.