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Critical Mass JHB

Best of 2012 | White Rider

by Nicky Falkof / Images by Laura Burocco / 29.12.2012

Originally published 04 September 2012

One of the things that’s struck me the most since I moved back to Joburg is the recognisable presence of a global middle class. Sometimes this is amusing – hipsters in Braamfontein are indistinguishable from hipsters in Hackney, Berlin or Williamsburg, and oh look, is that a Lomo shop? – and sometimes it’s disturbing: Sandton is expanding like ectoplasm out of a ‘50s B-movie. The arrival of Critical Mass in SA, while very different, suggests something similar: this is a global place with global concerns.

The idea started out in San Francisco in 1992. It involves a loose group of cyclists getting together on the first Friday of every month and riding through the streets of their city en masse to make various points about bikes having a right to the roads, about our dependence on fossil fuels, about cyclists’ physical vulnerability, about people rather than corporate interests taking ownership of the city, or even just about the joy of being on a bicycle. They generally ignore traffic information, piss off motorists, wear stupid outfits and cause at least a little bit of havoc. It’s a cycling protest that comes out of radical green and squatting culture, and whether or not you dismiss the whole idea because you hate hippies, it makes a valuable point about the way societies and cities work. The arrest of a group of Critical Mass cyclists in London on the night of the Olympic opening ceremony is a good indicator of the oppositional, counter-cultural tone of these events.

Critical Mass JHB

Like a lot of other things that arrive here, though, Critical Mass has been through a bizarre process of Joburgification. My first thought on turning up at the starting point on Friday night was that it looks nothing like the rides I’ve seen and been on elsewhere. While I realise there are legitimate concerns about distance and safety, it’s still jarring to see people arrive at what’s often an environmental protest driving enormous SUVs with top-of-the range bikes strapped to the back. The lycra-clad significantly outnumbered the non-lycra-clad. Maybe I’m missing a trick here but I don’t think you really need high priced branded sports gear for a gentle three-hour pedal. There were plenty of weirdos – my own bike gang was enlivened by a hi-vis Evil Knievel, fairy lights, some star-spangled leggings, a disco ball and a fuckload of glitter – but a lot of people seemed to view Critical Mass as a sporting event rather than as cycling activism.

Critical Mass JHB

Nonetheless it’s hard to be cynical about something that lets you ride through the inner city at night, even when being cynical is what you do best. The ride starts in Braamfontein (another contingent comes in from Illovo, probably because this is Joburg and if you’re doing something active you want it to hurt) and goes through Fordsburg, Selby, Newtown, down to Main Street, and then into Hillbrow, which I missed after getting distracted by the mid-point lager break. Once I’d gotten over my shock at the fact that Critical Mass was full of Serious Cyclists rather than dreadlocked loons, and that there seemed to be only one sound system and it wasn’t playing reggae, I quickly realised that the best bit of this ride isn’t the people you’re doing it with; it’s the people watching. All the way through town folks were standing on the side of the road or popping out of shebeens to watch, heckle, cheer, high five and otherwise show their amusement at the apparently astonishing sight of hundreds of people on bikes zooming around after dark. My personal highlight was the Muslim woman in full hijab taking photos of the white riders, a marvellous reversal of the usual arrangement of who looks at who.

I think this is what the Joburg ride does best. It gives (largely white) suburban tourists a chance to feel that they can legitimately be in the city, that they’re not at risk or out of place, and concurrently it deghettoises those spaces, makes them, even if only slightly, less threatening and less foreign to the cyclists. I’m not as sure what benefit it has for people who live or spend their leisure time in town, other than a moment’s amusement; I’d like to think that it suggests the possibilities of riding bikes and adds some cultural diversity to areas that are still largely defined by race. (I can’t be sure though because, constrained by my own middle class-ness, I don’t know who to ask.) But it gets people out of their cars/houses/estates and onto the streets, it changes the ways in which spaces are used and moved through, it makes people see other sorts of people, it allows individuals to feel like they have access to their city, it’s new and different, all of which can only be good.

Critical Mass JHB

My reservation is that the majority of riders seem to view cycling as a hobby or a sport rather than as a mode of transport, which is where its radical potential for changing cities and empowering citizens lies. I don’t think bikes are the answer to Joburg’s transport problems – for people living in Soweto and working in town, the distances are too great and it would take impossible amounts of infrastructural money to make the roads safe for commuters – but for people in or near the city cycling could minimise the danger, expense and environmental consequences of the taxis’ stranglehold on transport. The Joburg ride, while definitely a mass, is not yet critical enough to suggest these possibilities.

We ended our night full of whiskey and enthusiasm at a hipster joint off Juta Street and then rode home which, without the protection of hundreds of other cyclists, felt like a very edgy way of being on the streets. This is the main reason why the ride is valuable: the more people cycle, the more used to it we all get, the more possible it’ll become to stay out of cars, taxis and buses and to take over the streets we live in. And, I am both pleased and surprised to report, the streets we live in are beautiful.

Critical Mass JHB

Critical Mass JHB

Critical Mass JHB

Critical Mass JHB

Critical Mass JHB

Critical Mass JHB

Critical Mass JHB

*Get on your bike (preferably not in spandex), explore your city and tell us about it. Check out the Cape Town Levi’s Commuter Map for some hints ‘n tips. And watch this space for the Joburg Levi’s Commuter Map… dropping soon!

**All images © Laura Burocco.

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  1. Mehita says:

    Check out http://www.juca.org.za/ for downloadable commuter cycling maps of Jozi-town!

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  2. Gentleman Villain says:

    Like most good things in JHB, it came from (or in this case via) Cape Town. The lycra-clad douche bags tend to stay away from the CT ride.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Amazingly well articulated! Brilliant post.

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  4. Shaun says:

    Nicky you think to much. For me its just a nice way to spend a Friday night. Not giving a shit about making a statement or whatever.

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  5. Edgar says:

    This is the intro for people to get into commuting. The more the Lycra clad racing snakes get involved in a very social aspect of cycling the more likely they will start looking at their bike differently. One spoon at a time.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    You end the post by punting a marketing tie-in with a big brand /corporation? I don’t get it.

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  7. The Dude says:

    Were you born in Cuba? It’s quite simple Anonymous, check the Levi’s banners on the site? They’re throwing their weight behind commuter culture – using bicycles as transport – and have even made some comfy jeans to cycle to work in. It’s an add-on by the editors of the site, not strickly part of the story, but a relevant way of bringing in their sponsors so they can continue to bring us cool stories like this…

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  8. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think we should be sold something at every turn, and I feel we rely to heavily on big brands to supply us with what we ‘need’.
    And then I’m subjected to McCarthy type slander?
    “here comes the cabriolet edition of capitalism”

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  9. Andy says:

    Anonymous, take a look at the Levi’s Commuter Map, yes it’s got a logo on it (Gen X recoils), but it’s actually full of useful information for someone who wants to cycle around Cape Town, instead of drive. I, me, Andy, the editor of Mahala, took the decision to include the link. It has nothing to do with Nicky’s excellent piece on Critical Mass JHB. I’m sorry you feel you’re being sold something. Did you even click on the link and check it out (in the name of research) or did your pre-programmed anti-capitalist smous-radar kick in and you simply jumped to that default setting?

    I think, thankfully, a lot of marketing has come a long way from the hard sell.

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  10. Tommy says:

    So white capetownian critise’s white joburger’s…

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  11. The Flash says:

    Stop whining…. get on your bikes and just ride…. 😀

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  12. Daily Bike says:

    Sheesh but SA’s a long way behind. I ride an Xtracycle. Car drivers look at me like a flying saucer flew out my bum. That doesn’t help them concetrate on their driving skills. Maybe a I should get a dog. Ah, but then some NIMBY would report me for taking a dog on a bicycle.

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  13. Alexis says:

    I wore, wear and will wear lycra because its comfortable, warm and I dont particularly give a damn what image/sub-culture I’m giving off. I also rode to work and then I rode to dunkeld to braamfontein – because its quite a cool opp to get some riding in and cos I just dig it really….and I ride to work most days.

    I know this article wouldn’t be here if it didn’t have some highly generalised ubiquitous ascerbic value judgement….but just take it for what it is man……we want to ride our bicycles, safely, where ever we want to, (and if you’re a woman – unaccompanied by another cyclist)……

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  14. Louise says:

    Rad article 🙂 A couple of other groups/ campaigns have come from the mass. Here’s a group campaigning for bikes to be allowed on the Guatrain https://www.facebook.com/groups/364658973602294/ and another looking at bicycle lanes in Jozi https://www.facebook.com/groups/300131376728098/ These guys have been in contact with Joburg City, who have their own plans for bike lanes.

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  15. Rae says:

    Nice article, but is it really necessary to hate on the spandex wearers? When building a movement radical inclusion should be the order of the day. You may have just been trying to be cute or funny, but it just comes off sounding immature and provincial IMO. Who gives a rats ass what people choose to wear while riding?

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  16. 1.6 Citi Baby says:

    If you’re a cyclist, fuck you.

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  17. Brad says:

    Cool post. And well done for keeping your balance even when hyped up on whiskey.

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