Bicycle Portraits


Written by Yusuf Laher
04 Monday 04th April 2011

So... what’s so great about bicycles?

Stan: What’s not to love – every time you get on and fly down a hill you feel like a kid with a brand new, blood-red Western Flyer Scorpion BMX! Well... that and the fact that owning and riding a bicycle in an economically poor country like South Africa can be very empowering. What's so great about driving in a car?

Nic: Ride one and you’ll see. I read somewhere last week that, "my bicycle is my ticket to the city".

Have you uncovered any true love stories? Are people really attached to their rides?

Stan: We've found that almost everyone we've interviewed is locked in some kind of love affair with their bicycle. From the cheapest, crappiest, no-brakes supermarket bikes to bicycles that have been owned and ridden by the same guy for 50 years. People are proud of their bicycles. In South Africa there is hardly any 'bicycle culture' and very few people commute. So the few that have made the choice to ride are seen as outsiders, in a way.


Most inspiring tale from the road?

Stan: Tumisang Taabe (above) of the Lesotho Cycling Federation and Tumi's Bicycle Club. Check out his crazy website. I’ve never met someone so driven. We spent two nights with him in his family home, where he was brought up by his single, HIV+ mother. Besides dreaming of bicycles, doing bicycle stunts, owning a bicycle shop, building his own bicycles, building his own house and laying out a national mountain biking route, this father of  two's also the national cycling champion.

Nic: Stephanie Baker (below), a lady of 82 years that cycles with a dress and a single speed in a neighborhood others see as too dangerous to walk in. She cycles because at least that way she can get out and “see the beauty of the place”.

Here in London, it’s quite hipster to ride a fixed gear bike. Is there any hip/cool stigma attached to bicycles in South Africa? If so, what do they ride?

Nic: There’s some of that happening here and it’s on the increase - relatively small in numbers, mostly Cape Town. I have some mixed feelings about the hipster/bicycle connection. It probably does some good in terms of advancing the image of bicycles, but we need to celebrate the every day cyclist, that doesn’t do it because it’s hip.

Whose idea was Bicycle Portraits?

Nic: People keep asking us how we came up with the idea. Sometimes I think it wasn’t so much an 'idea', just something that was bound to happen. We both wanted to do slightly different projects involving bicycles. Then one day we went for a ride together and Bicycle Portraits was born.

Koos Moos - Uniondale

What’s the whole message behind the project? What are you trying to achieve?

Stan: Besides spending every day riding our bicycles and meeting and photographing cool people? It would be nice to give people something when we shoot them – tubes, tires, lights, brakes, etc. But we hope the project will ultimately encourage more South Africans to just try commuting by bicycle.

You’re also raising money. What’s that all about? What/who’s it for?

Nic: We’re using an amazing social network platform called Kickstarter. We’re not necessarily ‘raising money’, as opposed to getting the project funded through pre-sales of the book. The funds we have so far from the first two Kickstarter campaigns and our third one, still in planning, will go towards the printing and production of the book. Ultimately, we would like to set up a fund that would give back to initiatives within the community from the sales of the book itself.

When’s the book due out?

Stan: We hope to have it out in five months. We're going to have a really hard time choosing which images and stories from the website will make it. We've photographed over 400 people and we'll only be able to include about 150  – and we still have a few trips to do! We could keep working on this project for years. It's really fascinating and a lot of fun.

Kleinbooi Tonies - Hofmeyr

How many bicycles do you both own? Or is being a cyclist a monogamous relationship?

Stan: Too many! I love bicycles: riding them, building them, fixing them... I have numerous projects on the go and I'm always buying some part here or some frame there. I'm sick.

Nic: Although I think I’ll probably ride my current bicycle forever I don’t see it as a monogamous relationship at all. Currently, I only have three bikes. But I often find myself coveting someone else's bike. I’m on the lookout for folding and cargo bikes.

What’s your take on training wheels?

Stan: They're crap - worst invention ever. The best way is to learn how to balance. The pedalling aspect should only come in later.

Nic: I've seen some easygoing old people in Hong Kong with umbrellas on their bikes that use some kind of training wheel setup – loved them. Otherwise, if you’re learning, just take the training wheels and pedals off to start with.

Tell me about Alfred Lodewyk (above). What’s his story? Are those doors on the side of his bike?

Stan: Alfred – or Prince Alfred as he likes to be called – from Prince Albert is a true eccentric. He built that bicycle up over the years and he basically sees it as a car. He enters it in classic car competitions! It's got doors, a roof, a sound system, lights… Even number plates! This bike actually got him cast in a film they were shooting in town. I think he played God, on his bicycle.

And the kid in the coffin shop? What’s going on there?

Nic: We met Tumi Tholwana just outside the SA Funeral Home in Thaba Nchu. He said that the coffins don’t bother or freak him out in any way – he’s used to it. In South Africa funeral business is big business.

Jacob Skhosana’s (above) bike looks pretty interesting. How the heck does he ride that thing?

Nic: He’s a man of many talents so I'm sure it’s not a problem. It doesn't look that safe or easy to take on the road though - at least he installed a seatbelt! He also walks with it from time to time, when traffic is a bit heavy.

Was he stoked when you took the photos?

Nic: Super stoked – he actually had a portrait of himself from a few years before with him on the bike as well. Many have asked him to build up their bikes but he declined, saying that they don’t understand how much dedication is required.

What's going on in the Asher Fatara shoot? Looks like he got arrested. Did that have something to do with the ‘herbs’ you mention in the gallery?

Nic: Last we heard he was spending some time in the local prison. Herbs were his downfall - he chooses to advertise his trade by his look though, so in a way he’s asking for it. But the police could've chosen other, more useful things to do than arrest him. Hopefully we'll see him out on the road with a better method for hiding his ‘herbs’ soon.

Have you discovered anything else that ties all these characters together, besides their bikes?

Stan: How proud people are of their bikes and the choice they made to cycle. Oh, and strong legs, strong hearts, strong lungs.

John Jacobs looks like quite a character as well. What’s up with his stomach? Is that a dick he’s got tattooed on his hip? What does he get out of riding?

Stan: Yes, that's a dick. He got it, and most of his other tattoos, in jail. But he's turned his life around – he's a caddy at some fancy golf estate in George! He rides to work every day. It's his preferred mode of transport, because he gets to enjoy the view and smell the fresh air. The scar is from an operation he had to have after getting stabbed…

Favorite bike in the collection?

Stan: Andries Toring's European-style tourer (above) - it's golden, has a trailer and a handy hand-carved stick for self-defense. Being a snappy dresser with some crazy hair, he looks incredible on it too.

Nic: Simon Swartz’s pink modified single speed Hardrock Escape (above). I love this one because of the massive bike rack and the fact that it’s gone through such hard use that it’s become a single speed. I also just love it because he loves it so much.

Any hairy tales from the road?

Stan: When Nic and I had to share a small double bed for three nights in a row on our last trip!

Nic: I’ve been slapped in the face by a taxi driver in Durban, had my wallet stolen in Pretoria and had to veer off the road a few times when large trucks charge by on narrow roads. The trucks are definitely the scariest. Cycling into Durban was also very scary - we were forced to use the highway.

Where are you off to next?   

Nic: We’re planning a few trips, haven’t really decided which one will come first. One thought we had is leaving our bikes at home and catching a lift with a small plane to a town in the North East, where we will build up bikes from local parts with a £40 budget.

Stan: Wherever our bikes take us! Keep an eye on our website.

Top: Johannes Ellis - Free State

For more info, check out the official website. And click here to pre-order a copy of the book (for $55). All images © Stan Engelbrecht, Nic Grobler & Bicycle Portraits.  

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  • Guest: georgetheohari
    Wed 06 - Apr - 2011, 10:55
    perhaps the editor could remove the errant apostrophe from the second word (South African's)