I moved to Cape Town in February this year, my 30 year old 2nd hand Murray Spectre bicycle, bought at the Brooklyn Bike Jumble, in tow. The story of how I’ve now ended up as a bike commuter in Cape Town, teaching adults how to ride bicycles through my Learn2Cycle initiative, starts in Brighton, England a decade ago…
While living in the UK in 2007, it occurred to me that there was a basic life skill that no one had ever thought to encourage me to acquire. Seeing young and old people whizzing about on bicycles to work, school, or play had me feeling like I was left out from a simple daily practice that could have a profound impact on my l life, particularly where my finances were concerned. Although I lived on the University campus where I was studying, there were at least weekly trips into town that were necessary for socialising and grocery-buying. Although the bus and the train were within easy access, it was their cost that made you think a few times over about the necessity of a trip into town. So, there I was feeling a little silly that I had never learned how to ride a bicycle but also not being able to find an easy, discreet way of learning how to ride. And although there were countless (usually drunken) promises by friends to teach me how to ride, none ever materialised partly because no one actually had a clue of how to teach an adult how to cycle.
Upon returning to SA, I enlisted my nephews into this mission and so, on one family weekend in Durban, off we went to the promenade, a bicycle was rented out and the 10 year old and his side-kick cousin, the 5 year old, got to work, balancing 25 year old aunty Lebo on the two-wheeler. It didn’t take too long before an exasperated, very vocal, and by this time immensely knackered 5 year old informed his beloved aunt that she really would need to find a way to balance herself. Thus stomping off to the water for a much deserved swim.
It was not until yet another educational move to a different country in 2014 – this time during the blistering heat and damp humidity of a Washington D.C. summer – that my bicycle woes caught up with me once more. Seeing the workings of a bike-share scheme and realising how much further and faster I could get through the streets of DC with a bicycle, I experienced yet another deep sense of despair – this time made worse by the fact that no progress towards the simple bike goal had been made in the 7 years since feeling like having no bicycle skills to speak of was a personal disaster.
In August of that year I was in New York City starting graduate school and while searching for free things to do in the City, I came across Bike New York: a non-profit organisation whose core mandate is to teach adults and children how to ride a bicycle. In 2-hour lessons during which bikes and helmets were provided, Bike New York promised to teach me how to ride the streets of New York City safely and confidently and so off I went to Roosevelt Island on a pretty cold morning to learn how to ride. In a class of approximately 15 people, within an hour most were riding around in circles in the gym hall while I struggled to sort out my balance. I returned home a little despondent but determined to get this cycling thing right at my next lesson, which happened to be a whole two weeks later.
Upon my return to the bike class, it was immediately clear that something magical had happened between the bike and my core (physically and psychically). Not only did I feel less afraid of gliding across the floor but I could lift my feet off the ground for about ten second without wobbling and falling over. It was time to put the pedals on my bicycle. A few missed-starts later, and there I was riding about on my own. It felt magical and so easy.
A few weeks later, my partner bought me a bicycle for my birthday and he and I started doing short trips through our neighborhood, slowly working our way further out of Queens to Brooklyn and Manhattan. As the summer came around the corner, having registered to ride Bike New York’s 40mile course through all 5 boroughs of New York, a bike commuter was born: cycling 20kms a day from Sunnyside, Queens, to Greenwich Village, Manhattan, as part preparation for New York City’s 4-decade old streets’ takeover. I then joined Bike New York as a volunteer on the adult’s classes and have found an opportunity to teach adults how to ride a bicycle for the past two years: first in New York City and now here in Cape Town.
Across the Atlantic and back home to Mzansi, I have carried that initial excitement and zeal back with me and through the help of Pedal Power Association and Open Streets Cape Town, Learn2Cycle has emerged. I learned how to ride a bicycle for free and cannot imagine making others pay for this gift. I would like to take the lessons into townships and what’s been beautiful to see is how each new ‘bike graduate’ also becomes a volunteer – showing others what they recently perfected. In this way, and as Bike New York has consistently demonstrated, we all #PedalitForward and I am certain our foray into Gugs, Khayelitsha, Langa, Masiphumelele is imminent!
Lebo shares the story of how she learned to cycle as an adult – a journey of sheer determination and self realization that took her from the streets of New York city, to Cape Town where she passes on her knowledge and love for cycling by teaching adults how to ride.