“We’ve barely skimmed the surface and this initiaL exhibition should be a springboard to actually do more thorough research. we contacted as many of the builders as we couLd but found them quite hidden and even elusive. The often ‘misunderstood’ characters behind the bicycles are probably what fascinate us most. ”
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
PHOTOGRAPHY: NIC GROBLER
ILLUSTRATION: GABRIELLE RAAFF
WHAT WAS THE INITIAL SPARK THAT LED TO THE BEGINNING OF THE BICYCLE BUILDER PROJECT?
It’s one of those things that have been in our hearts for a long time – so no ‘initial’ spark, probably a series of smaller continuous sparks and pure serendipity. Over the years we’ve become more interested in steel framed bicycles as they are often built with a bit more of a disposition and personality than most mainstream mass produced bicycles. There has been resurgence around the world in ‘hand-made’ culture and returning to the craft of bespoke bicycles. When SAM (South African Market) approached us to do a bicycle related display for their space, the first thing Stan Engelbrecht, my friend who did the project with me thought of was this desire we’ve had for a long time, to celebrate South African built bicycles.
HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO RESEARCH ALL OF THE DIFFERENT LOCALLY MANUFACTURED BICYCLES, WAS IT MAINLY INFORMATION THAT CAME THROUGH WORD OF MOUTH?
We’ve barely skimmed the surface and this initial exhibition should be a springboard to actually do more thorough research. We contacted as many of the builders as we could but found them quite hidden and even elusive. The often ‘misunderstood’ characters behind the bicycles are probably what fascinate us most.
DID YOU FIND A FEW OTHER ENTHUSIASTS AND CHARACTERS WHO COLLECT, ALONG THE WAY?
I used to be slightly surprised to meet a person who was more obsessed with bicycles than we are, but I can honestly say that I feel more like a novice than ever before. You get people who like bicycles and then you get some that are entirely bicycle crazy – and ones that have been crazy for many years. Ron Thompson, an obsessive collector in Johannesburg even has a name for people like him ‘Cyc-Ous’ – that is also a club for old bicycle nuts. I also met up with a science fiction writer, Tom Learmont. He wrote a book in 1982 called ‘Cycling in South Africa’. Even though the book is presented as a type of manual for cycling, it is possibly over rich with disposition and personality. Tom, who also told me that he helped to dub Brakanjan, the South African version of the animated three musketeers, wrote in the last chapter about his yearly ride in the Garden Route. It culminates with him describing the phosphorescence seen in the waves as he looked back over the bay, after his ride. He knows about the sublime side of cycling and still enjoys riding a steel Holdsworth bicycle that he bought in 1958, from time to time.
HAVE YOU COVERED ALL OF THE DIFFERENT LOCAL BRANDS OR DO YOU THINK THERE MIGHT BE ANY THAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED OUT THERE OR HAVE NOT HEARD ABOUT?
We had a few of the bicycle makes ourselves and then source more from friends – mostly from Nils Hansen at Woodstock Cycleworks. At the exhibition there were twelve different makes of South African built bicycles: Alpina, Cosmos, Diamant, Gemini, Hansom, De L ‘Ange, Du Toit, Le Jeune, Le Turbo, Peter Allan, Peugeot and Zini. Le Jeune, Peugeot and Zini are originally French and Italian but were built under license in South Africa. There are many more makes of frames that we know of and didn’t find good examples of in time for the exhibition: Avenue, DHC, Exocet, Griffin, Lotus, McIntosh, Petini and Victoria. Then there are makes that we have found traces of but are not sure about yet like Springbuck Cycles and Strasse.
WHEN WOULD YOU SAY WAS THE GOLDEN ERA OF SOUTH AFRICAN BICYCLE MANUFACTURING AND WHAT LEAD IT TO FINALLY FADE AWAY INTO THE TWILIGHT?
It looks like it peaked in the late 80s. Sadly, the cost and time of building custom steel frames compared to new imported brands that were cheaper and often lighter mass-produced aluminium and then carbon frames, that caused most builders to stop, change trades or only build for the love of it, from time to time.
WHICH MANUFACTURERS DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST RARE AND WHICH WERE THE MOST MASS-PRODUCED DURING THAT TIME?
Each bicycle is different in some way – there are some really collectable and rare ones also built by builders who were connected to mass-produced frames. Usually, you can tell something of the quality or level of the frame by looking at the tubing that it‘s made from. Most of the South African bicycles of that time were built with Reynolds tubing and there the entry level ones might have been Reynolds 500 and the more mass-produced high quality ones variations of Reynolds 531. If you ever see a higher number like Reynolds 653 or 753 you know you are dealing with a very high-end, usually lighter and more expensive frame. Just from our experience, some of the more rare or uncommon ones are Diamant, De L’Ange, Gemini and Petini. Francois du Toit built Diamant frames. He was synonymous with Le Jeune and that was mass-produced. De L’Ange are regarded to be very well built custom frames, built by Bill Lange in Pietermaritzburg, often using 753 tubing. Gemini and Petini models built by Duncan McIntyre or actually any frame built by Duncan McIntyre would be seen as very desirable and well built. The most common makes from that era still seen on the roads are Alpina, Hansom and Le Jeune. You will find some Alpinas built by someone like Duncan McIntyre though, who built for different bicycle companies through the years, so the quality and rarity can vary.
ARE ANY OF THESE BICYCLES PERSONAL FAVOURITES TO YOU AND WHY?
Sadly, my favourite bicycle of the exhibition, a black Hansom Prestige with golden lettering and star-like paint splatters on it, was stolen from the venue in the first week. I only bought it a few days before, from a friend and thought it to be just really special. Many of these custom bicycles, because of their individual paint treatments are truly one of a kind and even though the insurance paid out, it is irreplaceable. I really hope no one paints over the original paint.
ARE THERE STILL ANY BICYCLE MANUFACTURING FACTORIES GOING IN SOUTH AFRICA OR IS EVERYTHING IMPORTED NOW?
We know of some current mass-produced South African makes like Momsen and Silverback but even though they are designed in South Africa, many of their frames are probably built in Taiwan – as is the case with most large bicycle manufacturers around the world. They might be working on some special, locally built models though – as is the case with Morewood Bikes in Pietermaritzburg, who are known for their high-end, locally built mountain bike and downhill bicycles. There are only a handful of younger steel frame builders around that we know of, most notably are David Mercer, Toby Groenewald and Zahier Davids from Cape Town. Mercer bikes are known for their top quality custom cyclocross, touring and mountain bike frames, Toby Groenewald is well known for his Salvo BMXs and Zahier runs Flywheel bikes, they make all kinds of mind-blowing hand-crafted rides. There are surely many more talented artisans that have built one or a handful of bikes that we do not know of yet.
HOW MANY LOCALLY MANUFACTURED MODELS DO YOU OWN YOURSELF?
Too many and too few at the same time! There is a saying by Paulo Fatturuso, “To make a living, one must leave in the morning upon one’s bicycle, and return in the evening with two bicycles”. Currently, I have a beautiful dark grey Hansom that was very reluctantly sold to me by Leonard Stanford from Kimberley, a Le Turbo that looks a bit like Jackson Pollock borrowed it at some stage, a pink and blue Hansom tandem that was given to me by Henk Ackermann (my brother’s brother in law), a silver Le Jeune that Nils Hansen from Woodstock Cycleworks sold to me after I pleaded with him for months and then the refurbished De ‘L Ange that was a fake Colnago in its previous life.
DO YOU SEE THIS PROJECT EVOLVING INTO A BOOK, LIKE THE BICYCLE PORTRAITS THAT YOU WERE INVOLVED IN WITH STAN ENGELBRECHT?
I’m busy collecting one of each of the other makes of bicycles and wish to do a few more of the dismantled versions. There is also a commission I have for mounting and framing an actual bike in the dismantled view. I would of course also love to spend more time with the builders. Another book could be fantastic but we are also looking at different mediums and are open to see where the project leads us.
THE BICYCLE PORTRAITS SERIES MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE AN EXPERIENCE – HOW MUCH OF THE COUNTRY DID YOU TOUR THROUGH WITH THIS PROJECT?
We’ve probably done over 10 000km by bicycle so far. Doing it mostly from a bicycle meant that we had an instant connection to people when we met them. Since finishing the book we’ve also returned to about 70% of the individuals documented inside, taking them each their own copy of the book – definitely the most rewarding part of the project.
HOW MANY OF THE BICYCLES HAVE YOU DISMANTLED AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY NOW, IT MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE A PROCESS TO PHOTOGRAPH?
Three so far, the De L’Ange, Le Jeune and Hansom. It was a back-breaking process, but I had some help from friends who took the bicycles apart and put them back together again. Initially, each part was photographed separately with studio lights, but afterwards I realised that it looked a lot better, just with natural light and everything laid down together. Taking only one photograph for each bicycle also meant less time in front of the computer, putting it all together. Stan had to take his bicycle apart twice because of this.
HOW HARD IS IT TO TRACK DOWN PARTS AND PIECES TO ENSURE YOUR MODEL IS 100% SOUTH AFRICAN AGAIN?
Most bicycles around the world (and the ones we had on display) use parts made either in Japan or Italy. The frames are usually the only pieces that are made locally – the bicycles are then built up using a selection of parts that work well together. Many bicycles have gone through some transformations so the most fail safe option would probably be to ask the builder about the bicycle himself – one can generally see if a bicycle still has its original paint and we often encourage people to not respray their bicycles – or if they do to keep them in the original colours and keep the name of the bicycle as it was.
WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF RIDING A BICYCLE AND WHEN DID YOU REALISE THAT IT WAS GOING TO BECOME PART OF YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE?
I was four years old when my parents bought me my first bicycle – a little brown Peugeot is what I remember. That afternoon, after learning to ride, I was coming down a rocky downhill probably trying to keep up with my two older brothers. The details are unclear, but what is certain is that I spectacularly flew over the handle bars and of course being barefoot at the time, somehow managed to get a very clean ‘surgical like’ cut in the middle of my right foot, it was not really painful and there was almost no blood – just sinew exposed in the shape of a perfect white smile. It needed about ten stitches so I’ve got the scar to prove it.
HOW MUCH DO THINK SOUTH AFRICA STILL HAS TO DEVELOP IN TERMS OF RIGHTS FOR CYCLISTS LIKE IN EUROPE AND WHERE DO YOU THINK CHANGE IS THE MOST URGENTLY NEEDED?
On most days in South Africa I still feel lucky if I see another person commuting on a bicycle – we have a very long way to go. A lot needs to be done in terms of creating bicycle infrastructure, but for me the more important change needs to happen in the altering of mindsets. Even though bicycle lanes are desperately needed, you don’t need them or blocked off roads in order to cycle. The more people get on their bikes, the more reason there will be to build bicycle lanes too – the one does not necessarily have to come before the other, it needs to happen together. If you can, move closer to work, leave your car if you have one and ride a bicycle. Just try it – if you can do it for a month and are still not totally hooked then perhaps try a different bicycle.
HOW CAN PEOPLE CONTACT YOU REGARDING THIS PROJECT?
Nic Grobler & Stan Engelbrecht – firstname.lastname@example.org