KAMPALA, UGANDA – I am not a cyclist. Not a real cyclist. My hands are not cyclist’s hands. They’re the hands of a writer. Sensitive. Not mechanically-inclined. They’ve rarely held a torque wrench. Never bled when it’s slipped.
They’re not calloused from hard rides. Not gnarled, or red from the cold. The rest of me is equally non-cyclist. Get out the levelling plumb. I’m a half-bubble shy of straight. My bicycle frames are smaller than for other riders my height. But I need an extra long seat-post. Raise the handlebars and bring them closer, high but tight. That gets me by.
Yet, I am a cyclist. I easily recall learning to ride on that small backyard hill, by myself. I can measure my life by bikes I’ve owned. I can feel myself crouching low, flying down Mountain Road like a pilot, every morning to school, for years. I’d later ride to the beach on Lake Erie to watch the sun rise. I’ve carried bikes up stairs to newsrooms in both Canada and Yemen. I’ll soon bring my Yemen bike to Africa.
Yes, I am a cyclist. Because I know a bicycle is never just a bicycle. It’s an extension of who we are. It’s that big Christmas wish.
It’s why last summer I came home from Freewheel Cycle in Dundas to proudly tell my wife I just bought a “bad-assed bike.”
“What is that?” Jean asked.
It’s a bike that puts fire under your backside.
Full suspension. Special geometry. Aluminum-carbon frame. Fire red. It’s my Canadian bike, awaiting my return to go through the gears on the escarpment that makes Hamilton such a special bike place.
I am not African. Not a real African. In fact, I’m as un-African as imaginable. In grade school they called me Whitey. Hair. Eyebrows. Lashes. Everything. I’d be voted the kid least-likely to ever live in Africa.
No, I am not African. I’ll likely never know the loss of a loved one from AIDS, or see the savagery of civil war. I’ll never personally feel the cold grip of Third World poverty, or the deadly hand of preventable disease. As a westerner, alas Canadian, I feel more like a citizen of ancient Rome, going anywhere, anytime, with clout.
Yet, I am African. Because in Africa, the bicycle rules. It not only returns life to its natural pace, but the bicycle is the great leveller. This is the type of truth that hits like when the ground rushes up to meet you.
Regardless of who you are or where you’re from, when you’re out there pedalling as hard as the guy, or gal, beside you, you’re reminded how we all have the same need for, if nothing else, oxygen.
Yes, I’m African to the extent I can, in a small way, connect with Africans. Or their bikes, which are like our granddads’ tall, single-geared uprights. Besides passengers (usually gals sitting side-saddle), they carry everything from bananas to beds. A new one costs 90,000 shillings. That’s about $80, two months pay for the average Ugandan.
With spare parts, it can last decades. And save gas, now $1.31 a litre in Uganda. I am not a boy. Not a real boy. Father of Elizabeth-Katherine and a soon-to-beborn son, I turn 40 this bike season. Have had arthritis in my back for 20 years now.
It’s getting tiring. So for longer trips, despite Jean’s worries, I’ll have to get a motorcycle. Just picked out my machine from Kampala’s motorcycle alley. It’s for the rough stuff as much as anything. Same type I had as a teen. Soon it joins our growing family.
No, I am not a boy. Yet, I am a boy. The same one who used to rise early with the morning mist and, with that red Honda, explore Niagara. I wonder if it will be the same here along these red-dirt roads, in the lush countryside, on the Equator. I wonder if I’ll feel like the African kids I’ve seen, who, with their own two-wheelers, look so bright-eyed and full of wonder.
If so, I think I’ll be very happy. And free.