Spinning Bicycles in Soweto

by | Sep 8, 2022 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Soweto, Townships/Informal Settlements | 13 comments

Last Saturday afternoon I stood on Mbolekwa Street in Dlamini, Soweto, with a couple of hundred other spectators, watching teenage boys spinning around on super-long, low-slung bicycles. Most of the bikes didn’t have brakes, or even seats in some cases. The bikes were almost double the length of normal bicycles and their back tires were wrapped in cut-up plastic bottles.

Guy on spinning bike in Soweto
One of the spinning bikes — called a double bike — that I saw in Dlamini. These bikes are made by stripping two bike bodies down, cutting them apart, and welding them back together to make a single, longer bike.
Pink low-rider bike
So low that the pedal is also a kickstand.

The performers took turns riding their bikes about half a block down the street, then looped back and pedaled toward the spectators, picking up speed and balancing forward on the handlebars. Then they abruptly stopped pedaling, turned their front wheels, and posed as the back wheels arced slowly around behind them, plastic crackling on the dry pavement.

As the wheels spun, the riders jauntily tipped and flipped their hats, gestured and waved, or extended one arm forward in a graceful, reverse C.

A cyclist spinning in Dlamini, Soweto
Spinning on a residential street in Dlamini, Soweto. You can see the plastic on the back tire; apparently some riders also wrap their tires with chains, which makes sparks fly up from the street.
Spinner posing
Posing.
Spinning
He even stopped the fruit-and-vegetable seller in his tracks.
Rider goes for a spin
A rider picks up speed before a spin.
I love how the long shadows of the spectators mimicked the cyclists’ stances.
Spinner and spectators
Spinning on a yellow bike
This guy made great use of the primary colors.
Kid doing hat tricks
Hat tricks.

Eventually pairs of cones were set up and the riders began to spin in tighter loops, jerking the back of the bike around quickly and slipping between the cones in reverse — a trick called “kitchen”.

In the kitchen on a bike
In the kitchen.

At one point a minibus taxi tried to pull through the spinning circle. A couple of cyclists made eye contact with the driver and he smiled at them through the windshield, presumably putting the taxi into neutral. The cyclists approached the front of the taxi and pedaled madly, rear wheels spinning, as the taxi drifted slowly backward.

Spinners pushing a taxi backward
Pushing the taxi.

Everyone in the crowd — including me — was mesmerized, intermittently cheering and falling silent with awe.

Kids watching spinning
These expressions sum it up.

But spinning was only half the fun at this Dlamini event. The other half was the dozens, maybe hundreds, of shiny, souped-up bikes that were there not for spinning but for showing off. The bikes were painted in a kaleidoscope of colors, gleamed with polished chrome, and had little stuffed toys and signs hanging off the back with sayings like, “Eish nice ne!” and “Hate me see if I care.” Many of the bikes had custom spokes, outlandishly tall handlebars, and fat speakers mounted on the back, some of which pumped out kwaito tunes.

Bike lineup
Part of the lineup.
Bikes lined up
There were so many bikes.
Guys on bikes
Bike with tall handlebars
One of my favorites.
Cycling in great light
Eish nice ne
Only the South Africans will understand.

This culture of transforming normal bicycles into low-riding works of art is called “stance”. There are several different kinds of competition involved in stance, including racing, speaker contests, and a rating process in which a random spectator is chosen to score each bike based on its craftsmanship and looks.

Rating the stance bikes
Rating the stance bikes in Dlamini.
Sketch of stance bike
Thorsten (a.k.a. @thethinking_hand) made some amazing sketches of the bikes.
Bike sketch
Bike sketch by Thorsten
These are my favorites but there are more on Thorsten’s Instagram.
Girl cyclist
I don’t know if this is an actual stance bike, but I’m including the picture because this was the only girl cyclist I saw on Saturday and I think she’s a badass.

This event was hosted by the Soweto Street Fighters, a crew of young cyclists in Soweto who are pioneers in the subculture of spinning. I don’t feel at all qualified to explain this complex subculture after attending one event but I’m doing my best. For more information and great photos, check out this 2021 Daily Maverick article by Oupa Nkosi. There are also tons of videos on YouTube and Tiktok.

What Are Spinning and Stance?

On Sunday I spent some time talking to Percy Zimuto and Navan Kamodzi, members of a new bicycle crew in Brixton called the Sentech Croozers. They did their best to teach me about spinning and stance, and I’m doing my best to briefly explain what they taught me without sounding like a Gen-X grandma.

This subculture, which developed in Soweto at some point over the past decade or so, emerged from another spinning subculture called gusheshe. (I have never properly blogged about gusheshe but there are some photos in this 2018 2Summers post.) Gusheshe, which translates literally to “panty dropper”, refers to an underground sport in which a driver spins a BMW 325i around in crazy circles, creating huge amounts of smoke, and climbs out of the car while it’s spinning (yes, you read correctly) to stand on the window frame, hood, roof, etc.

Bicycle spinning evolved when kids who are too young to own cars wanted to spin, too. “Since we’re young, we can’t drive, so we’re gonna go and make our own bikes and make them souped up,” explained Percy, who is 17. Percy bought and transformed his first stance bike a year or two ago and has been working on it ever since.

Percy and his stance bike
Percy at Shade in Brixton this past June.

This phenomenon began in Soweto, as many of South Africa’s coolest trends tend to do, but it’s spreading to other townships like Tembisa and Katlehong. Percy also sent me a really cool video from India, where kids extend their bikes with scrap metal and spin them in a similar way.

Perpetual transformation is a big part of owning a stance bike. The original change-over involves stripping the bike down to its basic frame, without gears, brakes, or any other mechanisms, so you can mold it into exactly what you want. Every time Percy wants to change the color of his bike, he burns it over a fire until the paint melts off, then sprays it again. A lot of barter goes on between stance bike owners, who trade various parts and decorations to keep their bikes evolving.

About the Sentech Croozers

I’m really excited about the Sentech Croozers, the crew that Percy and his friends have started in my home suburb of Brixton. They have a brand-new Instagram channel — please follow it. Also they are planning an event in Brixton at some point in the near future — please keep an eye out my social media and theirs for announcements about that.

Two Sentech Croozers
Navan and Ayanda, two of the Sentech Croozers.

One last call to action: If you live in the Joburg area and have a bike you’re not using, please get in touch with me or send a message via the Sentech Croozers Instagram. These guys are bike repair wizards and they will take any bike, no matter the size or condition it’s in. Let’s help them build their fleet.

Also, please check out my reel. That’s all!

13 Comments

  1. Margaret Urban

    I hate to be a ‘downer’ but one has to wonder where all the bikes come from given the economic situation is most sections of SA society. Many ordinary folks, myself included, have stopped cycling because the risk of theft/robbery is so high. The guy who works in my building’s garden once a week has had to fight for his bicycle, his only mode of transport, at least thrice that I know of – once needing several stitches.
    Perhaps some of the spinners can earn money by actually fixing day-to-day bikes, as repair shops are scarce.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Well…There is a thriving phone theft trade in SA too but that doesn’t stop all of us from using phones. And it doesn’t mean that every person using a smartphone is capitalizing on the stolen phone market — it’s not fair to assume that for bikes or anything else. Bikes are going to be stolen prolifically no matter what — here in Joburg, in New York City, in Amsterdam, in Washington DC, and everywhere else where cycling is an important form of transport. I don’t see what this culture has to do with that at all.

      I do think a lot of these guys are probably making money from all kinds of bike repair, day-to-day and otherwise, as they can build bikes out of almost nothing. And as far as I’m concerned, every youth hobby/sport that involves going outside and making things, rather than sitting around on phones or gaming on computers, is a positive thing.

      Reply
      • Margaret Urban

        I agree with the going outside etc as a generally good thing and for sure some guys are earning money. Hope they have good role models… It’s a great spectacle and requires skill both in building the bike and the riding.

        Maybe I’m just in a down mood about this stuff; two weeks ago the person I was walking with meekly gave up his phone when we were threatened; I didn’t have mine with me.

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Ugh, I’m sorry that happened to you!

          Reply
  2. AutumnAshbough

    That is fascinating and so cool to watch on your Instagram account!. The spinning did remind me of drifting with cars, so interesting to see how it evolved to the young, creative set.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yep, these guys are innovators. The video from India is also amazing! They’ve got crazy lights on their bikes and the bikes are soooooo long.

      Reply
    • 2summers

      I think many will graduate to that 😂 There are similar versions in other places (check the India video!) but SA definitely has its own ‘spin’ (haha).

      Reply
  3. dizzylexa

    I need to attend one of these meet ups. It looks like such awesome fun. Great blog and photos I think you did them proud.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks! We will definitely let you know before the next one.

      Reply
  4. Dylne

    This was such a cool event! I wish me or any of our guests could have attended, hopefully I can hear about the next event. I like the fact that it showcase the different side of these neighborhoods. It’s not all doom and gloom, am actually smiling now thinking about all those kids with their smiling faces doing their thing! As a parent myself it is so good to see.

    Thank you for this. Keep it up!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Dylne! I’ll let you know the next time I hear about one of these events.

      Reply

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