I have a love-hate relationship with cycling in Joburg.

A couple of years ago, before I had a car, I bought a bike and planned to use it to get around. (Read the post about my bike purchase.) I liked the idea of riding a bike around town, but it turns out I didn’t actually like doing it. I used the bike about five times before deciding that cycling in Joburg is too hard (hills, traffic, minibus taxis, etc.).

Perhaps this is why I resisted Critical Mass for so long. Critical Mass is a worldwide phenomenon — an event on the last Friday of every month when hoards of cyclists get together and ride through big cities as a way of “reclaiming” the streets from cars and trucks. Critical Mass has been happening in Joburg for a couple of years, and a few of my friends have been trying to convince me to ride with them for months.

I finally caved last Friday.

Bikes in Braamfontein

Bikes await the start of Critical Mass in Braamfontein.

Heather Braamfontein

Ready to ride, in my cheap but awesome turquoise cycling helmet. (Photo: Roy Potterill)


My hip friend Gareth, wearing a onesie. I was unaware of this until recently but onesies have become a fashion statement. Not just for infants but also for grown-ups. I teased Gareth mercilessly about his onesie but I must admit he looked very cute.

I suppose it will come as no surprise to anyone that I loved Critical Mass. I’m ashamed of myself for waiting so long to do it. The crowd of riders — which was apparently smaller than normal but still a few hundred strong — was quirky and weird, in a good way. The route — which was about 16 kilometers (10 miles) and wound from Braamfontein to Fordsburg/Mayfair, through Ferreirasdorp and the CBD, to Maboneng, and back across Mandela Bridge to Braamfontein — had almost no hills. Traffic was light, and we had a team of bad-ass motorbike marshals to protect us from aggressive taxis.

And of course, best of all, we rode through my favorite city at night.

Before the start

Critical Massers amass in front of Kitcheners, the second-oldest bar in Joburg.

Blurry bikers

I enjoyed experimenting with blurry night photography while waiting for the ride to start.

Big crowd

Big crowd.

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I love downtown Joburg at night. In April 2012 I participated in Run Jozi, a 10k-race through the city at night, which was the most fun I’ve ever had while running. For the same reasons, Critical Mass was the most fun I’ve ever had while cycling.

Guys in stripes

Prison-striped cycling chain-gang.

We rode past so many of my favorite Jozi places: the Fordsburg market, the Carlton Centre, Chancellor House, the Gauteng Legislature and the Barbican Building, the Maboneng Precinct (where we stopped for drinks and snacks), and many more. Bystanders cheered and honked for us. Prostitutes whistled at us.

Unfortunately I was only able to take a couple of photos during the ride — I didn’t want to ruin the experience for myself by constantly stopping and starting. This is sad because I saw many things I wanted to photograph. I’m especially sorry that I didn’t get a shot of the guy riding with a giant naked blow-up doll on his back, or of all the cyclists pouring over Nelson Mandela Bridge at the end of the ride.

But I don’t think photos could do the experience justice, anyway. I don’t think words can, either. I can’t describe how it felt to coast down a dark Mayfair street, with hundreds of people around me but still perfectly alone, smiling at the kids who waved at us from crumbling two-story tenements. I can’t describe how it felt to stop my bike at a traffic light, look up, and see the tallest building in Africa looming in the night sky above.

One guy rode with a big stereo on a trailer behind his bike. As I pedaled behind him, singing along to “Here’s to Never Growing Up” at the top of my lungs (I love Avril Lavigne — don’t hate), I must confess that I cried a little. Participating in events like Critical Mass always reminds me of what an unbelievable life I have.

Heather ready to ride

I was happy. (Photo: Gareth Pon)

Thanks to my Instagram friends — Tim, Gareth, Roy, Fig and Alexi — for finally convincing me to join them on Critical Mass. Y’all were right, of course.

If you’re interested in Critical Mass Johannesburg and want to learn more, join the group on Facebook.

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