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Cycling into the Heart of Johannesburg - Critical Mass Jozi 2022

On the first Thursday in March, I had the rare opportunity to careen wildly through the streets of the Central Business District of Johannesburg at night, en-masse with a group of sixty or more eclectic, hipster cyclists. Critical Mass Jozi is an offshoot of an international movement called Critical Mass which was started in San Francisco, California in the early 1990’s as an unofficial, unsanctioned gathering of people on non-motorized vehicles. The aim of Critical Mass is to socialize and mobilize in the vibrant and sometimes dangerous hearts of the world’s inner cities. Critical Mass Jozi took a hiatus through peak covid but is back on track with monthly group rides.

We gathered in the heart of the Braamfontein neighborhood on the edge of the Central Business District at Mangrove Restaurant, a meeting place for social activists, entrepreneurs and a cultural creatives. Mangrove is just across the street from Kitcheners’ Carvery Bar, one of the oldest drinking establishments in Johannesburg. Braamfontein clearly has a history of raucous behavior!

People of all walks of life and ages arrived with bicycles of all makes and models, including road, bmx, mountain and fixed gear. We chatted and laughed and like cyclists everywhere, checked out each others’ gear. One of my favorite bikes was a black single speed with gold chain and gold highlights. It looked like jewelry.

The organizers, Titi and Tebogo, corralled us away from blocking traffic. Already a festive mood enveloped the gathered cyclists. Tebogo climbed up on an electric box to welcome everyone and lay down the rules of the road.

From there we saddled up and headed out across the Nelson Mandela Suspension Bridge. Crossing the bridge felt like an appropriate gateway to initiate the ride. 28 years after Nelson Mandela’s election to the presidency of South Africa, a large group of rainbow nation residents led by dynamic, young black men, made a conscious choice to cycle through some of the worst areas of the inner city in a spirit of joy, freedom and inclusivity.

A couple of the guys on fixed gear bikes built up momentum and then proceeded to stand tall on their bike frames to cross the Nelson Mandela Bridge with exquisite balance and arms outstretched in a posture of absolute surrender. I asked what they call the pose. Unanimously the response came, “Jesus.” It was one of the most exciting moments in my cycling history to witness the skill and bravery.

We cycled through the inner-city neighborhoods. At the Ghandi Square we took multiple laps around the roundabout. From there we hit some pretty dark streets and called out “hello” and were met with many “hellos” from the local residents who welcomed our eclectic and unexpected parade of joy. We stopped along the way to regroup and to take photos. We were met with warm welcomes everywhere we went.

I saw two significant crashes along the way. In one crash, the guy bounced right back up as though he was made of rubber. I’m not sure of the outcome of the 2nd crash. Cyclists riding in groups are our own worst enemy! I didn’t feel threatened within the local inner-city community, but I did make sure to give other cyclists a wide berth!

Cycling through Johannesburg’s bCBD at night got me hooked and curious about the characters involved in making the ride a reality. A portal opened for me and I am exploring and connecting with the local cyclists to learn more about their experiences. I have since joined the Sunday morning ride from Mangrove and hope to participate in more outings with my new friends. I will keep you posted and hope to introduce you to some of these fabulous people!

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