“Yoh! It’s too cold,” a man said with that comfortable cyclist’s familiarity as he glided effortlessly past two runners chugging effortfully up a hill in Bulawayo. He left his words hanging, visible in the frigid morning air like a candyfloss ghost.
The runners, Capetonians who had been sent to Zimbabwe’s second city for two-and-a-half weeks on journalistic assignment, agreed in stoic silence broken only by their own laboured, smokey breathing.
Damn straight it was too cold. And too early. And not nearly as much fun as it would have been had we also been riding our bikes.
Happily, we had packed long sleeved tops and tights for these frigid forays. Unhappily, we had foregone gloves and beanies.
Our man on the bike was bundled up in long pants and a jacket, but he was as barehanded and as bareheaded as we were. Not that he seemed anywhere near as bothered by the cold. His hardiness did not surprise: Bulawayo by bike is strictly for the brave.
In Cape Town cyclists get het up about cars parked in bike lanes. In Bulawayo motorists don’t want cyclists anywhere near their precious roads.
So there was nothing unusual about a taxi driver yelling out of his window as he hurtled past, and way too close, to a cyclist riding firmly on the left of the Leopold Takawira Avenue, one of the arteries leading to and from the city: “Get onto the pavement!”
There was no pavement. At least, nothing that South African bicyclists of a commuter persuasion would recognise as a pavement. The edge of the tarmac, itself ragged with ruts, was abutted by an uneven sand track strewn with bits of trees, broken glass and stones the size, at least, of squash balls.
“Bike lane,” read a sign that stood on the other side of the track. Who knew Bulawayo’s city planners had a sense of humour.
By night the hazards of riding a bicycle here leap exponentially. Many streets are unlit, and even those that are graced by a glow that is more rumour than ray. Speed limits, treated as unsolicited advice in daylight hours, are ignored with impunity in the dark.
And yet Bulawayo isn’t short of people riding bikes. Of the scores seen in the course of two weeks, all but three were black and, by the look of them, on missions that had nothing to do with exercise. They were commuting or working.
Not so two of the white cyclists, who were intent on building up a decent sweat and dressed accordingly.
The other pale pedaller trundled down a quiet street in jeans and hipsterish shirt and would not have looked out of place in Copenhagen, Portland or, indeed, Cape Town.
Each of the above represents a subculture of a Bulawayo’s cycling scene. To generalise, here white people ride bikes because they want to and black people because they have to.
There’s another split among the latter. It is the difference between the aspirational and the arrived in a society where every facet of life is spiked with politics that can be too personal for comfort.
If you’re rich people wonder who you know and what wheeling and dealing you have done to get there. If you’re poor they see you as gullible and bullied, and will think little of trying to use those perceptions against you and to their own advantage.
There seems to be precious little between those two poles in a country that has been hurting for far longer than Robert Mugabe’s 36 years in power.
Zimbabwe is not alone in this. Much the same hierarchy applies on the Asian sub-continent, where there are many more people on many more bikes and in many more cars and trucks than in Africa.
One of those African cyclists is Bulawayo’s Nkosiyazi Sibanda, who runs his glazier’s business from the back of his bike.
“Drivers of cars don’t respect us at all but I’m not scared to ride on the roads,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that dangerous and I’ve never had a bad accident.”
Sibanda spoke as he took a roadside break from pedalling the streets looking for broken windows that might need mending, several panes of glass secured on his bike for that purpose.
“We are suffering in this country – there is no work and we are hungry,” he said. “And I’ve got a wife and three children to take care of.”
Sibanda was unusual in that he was willing to be named. Among those who, out of fear of reprisal from powerful figures known and unknown, preferred to remain anonymous was a landscape gardener in his 50s.
“I’ve been riding a bike since 2003 and it’s still my only means of transport,” he said. “I ride between five and 10 kilometres a day.
“It’s safe to ride in Bulawayo but I try to avoid busy roads, especially in the morning.
“I would buy a car if I had money, but I don’t have money.”
Some of what these cyclists said will be familiar to all of us; some of it – mercifully – not.
Their words and their circumstances were still on my mind days later as, happily returned home, I took a blissful ride along Beach Road in Sea Point.
The air was crisp under a sky spangled with clouds delicious with drizzle. There is comfort to be taken from the greyness of a wet winter morning in Cape Town, and I took it with deep satisfaction.
An old lady waiting at a bus stop broke into a warm smile as I approached. As I passed she said, “What a fine day for cycling! Good on you!”
She was right, of course: it was cold. But not too cold.