I was born and raised in the Little Karoo town of Robertson. Lying at the foot of the Langeberg, it is a pretty place with wide, shaded streets and, to the south, the Breede River winds its languid way through a lush and fertile valley. In summer, the days would be feverish with relentless heat and in winter, with snow on the mountains, it would be so cold that frosts would turn lawns into iridescent fields of brittle ice crystals. It was here, at the age of six, I was given my first bicycle.
At that time, in the early 1950s, every household had bicycles, as did most businesses in town. Twice a day, the butcher’s bicycle would come round, firstly to collect the meat order for the day (very few households had refrigerators) and later to deliver the meat, neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, which was known as winkeltou (shop string). By mid-morning, the postman would arrive on his bicycle with a substantial amount of mail, which consisted mainly of advertisements for patent medicines, the next circus visit and some or other gadgetry. Post was our link to the outside world, as was the radio, crackling through storms of static. Life was slow.
Except for the farmers’ children, everyone, including teachers, would cycle to school. But it was after school that the bicycle would come into its own. Depending on the season, we would cycle down to the tepid swimming pools in the river or to the shadowy kloofs of the Langeberg, where we would fish for jewel-like minnows or pick fynbos flowers for our mothers.
Bicycles in those times were robust and inevitably single speed with balloon tyres. Mainly British made, they had names like Hercules, Phillips, Armstrong and Raleigh and their saddles were handmade by Brooks. If your dad was rich, your bike had a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub. My grandfather, Oupa Boy, who worked as a clerk at the railway station, had a 1911 Rudge ‘back pedal’ and he used it all his life. Bicycles were the mainstay of personal transport in a town where a private car was considered a luxury and to this day, I consider cycling an integral part of my life.
The current pandemic has changed our lives fundamentally. Not only do we have to critically reconsider our relationship with the living world, we also now have to think searchingly about how we conduct our daily lives. All over the world, especially in cities, the bicycle has taken on a new and crucial role. In places such as Amsterdam, already the most bicycle-friendly capital on Earth, and also Paris, Brussels and Milan, major schemes are afoot to open transport systems to bicycles. The advantages of taking pressure off highly polluting public transport, not to mention the patent health benefits of cycling, have seen a swathe of innovations, including dedicated paths, free repairs and cycling lessons. The age of the corona cycleway has arrived.
And Stellenbosch? Like the curate’s egg, it is good in parts. Gradually we have seen dedicated bicycle lanes appearing on main routes, while the university should be commended for its ‘Matie Bike’ initiative, a highly successful plan to reduce motor parking on campus. And at weekends families can be seen enjoying myriad trails that wind through the surrounding countryside.
But still, there is trouble in our little paradise. Bicycle theft is rife, so you’re never sure your bike will still be there when you return to the fastening rack. Even worse, our motor traffic is reckless, even chaotic, to say the least. Vehicle drivers tend to jump stop streets, have little idea of sufficient berth when passing a bicycle and tend to see cyclists as annoying obstructions.
Let us, as a community, reconsider the bicycle. When I was a student at Cambridge University, my office was in the Austin Building, which housed the Cavendish Laboratory. Every morning at 8.30 the pro-vice-chancellor, in full regalia, would park his bicycle under my window and walk to his office. This is how a culture is initiated. Our lovely town has a golden opportunity to lead the way in this initiative by providing safe lanes and routes; it could even grant rates concessions to persons and families who use bicycles instead of cars.
As the bicycle salesman in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid proclaims, “Meet the future; the future mode of transportation for this weary Western world. Now I’m not gonna make a lot of extravagant claims for this little machine. Sure, it’ll change your whole life for the better, but that’s all.”
What’s good enough for Butch is good enough for me.