Cycling in South Africa

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“Ride a bicycle: see interesting places, meet interesting people, then save the money you would have spent on a car and fly overseas.”

Everyone’s Guide to Cycling in South Africa, by David Bristow, who also co-authored the Riding the Dragon’s Spine guidebook with Steve Thomas.

A refreshingly complete look at cycling, with emphasis on “Business and pleasure”, “Touring for fun”, and “Bundu biking”, an apt yet mostly forgotten name for early mountain biking in South Africa.  Cycling in South Africa is still as great as it was in 1991.

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Shogun Prairie Breaker 2

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The Craigslist ad reads, “Draire Breaken 2: $100”.  Even through twisted English and a low-res cell phone photo, I know what I’m looking at.  Just to clarify, I inquire: “I am very interested in your mountain bike.  Do you know what the model name is?”  


Hi Nicholas,

The Model Name is Draire Breaken 2. It has Shamano Deore XT Derailer, Shifters & Tarney XT Crank. Cr-mo Steel Tange M+B Forks. I have had many people interested so, first come first served. I’m sorry.  Thanks.

 

Armed with $100, we arrange to meet at the seller’s house near the Tacoma Mall.  When I arrive, he is attempting to remove a square taper crank from a Trek hybrid bicycle with a blowtorch and a hammer.  I inform him that a simple $10 tool will easily remove the crankarm.  Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  “This damned thing is on her good”, he explains.  I nod in agreement, and refuse whichever service he has just offered to the bicycle I am hoping to buy.  “No, that’s ok.  I’ll manage”.  

The bike is, in fact,  a Shogun Prairie Breaker, c. 1984-86.  It is equipped with Shimano derailleurs and shifters, Takagi Tourney XT crank, and Tange MTB tubing.  He drives a hard sale, and takes my entire stack of twenties.  No deals today.  As he says, many others have been interested in this vintage Draire Breaken 2.  They must all be aware of the essential improvements over the original Draire Breaken.  Still, $100 is a good price for a bike that rides.   

I am giddy to have found such a neat old bicycle, and such a large frame, with mostly original components.  I am building a bike for Lael’s brother, who is well above 6 feet tall, so an inexpensive frame that fits his stature and a large tire is mandatory.  I also love old mountain bikes, and at the time, I hunted these things on regional Craigslist forums like a bloodhound.  These days, I have refocused my energy.  

I roll the bike over to 2nd Cycle, Tacoma’s local bike co-op.  After a few hours of Tri-Flow and tinkering, the bikes rides superbly, with only a few modifications.  A newer Deore LX rear derailleur replaces an old steel Suntour model, which was not original to the bike.  Sweeping Wald handlebars fit the ‘slingshot’ style stem, and make a comfortable vantage for city riding.  I find a suitable saddle out of the parts bin at the co-op.  Finally, a modern chain improves shifting and the overall efficiency of the drivetrain.  The bike retains all of the bearings, cables, and brake pads with which I received it.  Bikes like this are best given attention only when needed.  Preempting necessary maintenance usually results in more work than expected, with the possibility of only incremental improvements.  A complete overhaul or restoration would be another story; in this case, Tri-Flow and elbow grease are the best medicine.

The next day, I join a couple friends on the first leg of their bike tour, which allows me to transport the bike to Lael’s brother in Portland.  Over the next two days, I verify what a wonderful bicycle I have made, and as my legs warm, I discover that the bike presents a strong pedaling platform for me.  Stretching my legs, I push the pace for 10, 15, 20 miles.  Coming into town on Hwy 30, I catch a racing team, out for a weekend ride.  I leapfrog the team car several times, emblazoned with the SRAM logo.  This bike, by the age-old measure of quality, is fast!

Arriving in Portland, I deposit the bike with its new owner and board the train back to Tacoma.  Four years later, the bike is now in Alaska, and is wearing the only studded tires in the house.  As the city turns to ice, I put my other bikes aside to revisit this old friend.

Below: These old Deore XT cantilevers are some of my favorite.  I poached a pair off an ’84 Schwinn High Sierra to replace the Dia-Compe brakes on my ’85 High Sierra.  When set-up properly, with quality brake pads, braking power and modulation is exceptional.  Kenda Klondike studded tires are far from the best, but they are far better than tires without studs right now.

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Six in the back, three in the front.  The tall steel teeth on older freewheels last forever.

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The Takagi Tourney XT crank is more beautiful than most similar cranks of the era from Sugino and Shimano.  180mm crank arms are suitable for a 6’4″ rider.

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For mild freezing weather, these vintage pogies work well. Made of basic nylon (in the USA), they exhibit how simply one could make something similar.  I found these at the Bikeworks co-op in Silver City, NM while riding the Divide a few years ago.

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Rick Hunter Camouflage Dirt Tourer, AKA the Super Scrambler

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Standing at a distance of about six feet, I placidly gaze at the features of this bike, as in a museum.  Steve Potts approaches, now two of us standing shoulder to shoulder in appreciation.  Nothing to say in particular, although I stumble through a few words about the paint and drop bars and how this is probably my favorite bike at the show– “if I could take one bike home with me, this would be it”.  He kindly nods.  Pausing for a final moment to look, he walks away.  The bike receives the Steve Potts seal of approval, and that’s saying a lot.

Rick Hunter has been building bikes in Santa Cruz, CA for 20 years.  His featured dirt tourer at last year’s show was highly praised, complete with custom canvas framebags from Randi Jo Fabrications.  This year, he brought a showstopping custom longtail fatbike, built for Scott Felter of Porcelain Rocket.  But this drop bar 29er is the bike that stole my heart.  

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Vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars, Dura-Ace levers and Shimano XT shifters.  The bars are finished with a layer of Grab-On foam in the drops, wrapped in cotton tape.  This is still a really good way to mount shifters.  

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Custom Cunningham in-line barrel adjusters.

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Destined for Monkey Wrench Cycles in Lincoln, NE.

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Custom 6-speed cassette on a Chris King singlespeed hub, yielding a dishless rear wheel and a wide range of gears.

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Rick crafts beautiful and functional fork crowns and chainstay yokes.

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The build is completed with a NOS Avocet Touring saddle and Deore XT seatpost.

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Scott Felter says “Rick Hunter is a genius”.  I couldn’t agree more.  His bikes are highly functional, featuring a utilitarian aesthetic that is in itself, artistic.  He finds creative solutions to the specific needs of his customers, manufacturing custom racks, fork crowns and chainstay joinery.  While this bike is styled like an old Cunningham drop-bar mountain bike, painted like a Ritchey, it is designed and specced like a bike that is actually meant to ride.   

More images of the Super Scrambler and other bikes from Hunter Cycles on Rick’s photostream.

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Out the door: 1987 Raleigh Seneca Mountain Tour

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Another great bike out the door at Two Wheel Drive.

I am mesmerized with the chameleonic nature of vintage ATBs.  Able to swallow chunky rubber for off-pavement exploration, while still appearing balanced with a lean preparation for riding in-town or cross-country on a variety of surfaces, these bikes do it all.  Unlike the vintage road bikes and touring bikes of the era, most of these old klunkers have been under-appreciated in the used marketplace, keeping prices reasonable.  This 1987 “Northwest Salmon” colored Raleigh Seneca is a fine example of the kinds of bikes consumers were hungry to ride back in the day, even if they never found themselves “mountain touring”, or even mountain biking.  With copious mounting points for racks and fenders, as well as an integrated spare spoke holder and chainstay guard, this bike is a great platform for a modern commuting or touring bike, or even a casual cruiser.  Gearing is 6-speed Suntour XC Sport with thumb shifters, offering both a friction and index setting.  Brakes and levers are Shimano, and wheels are Shimano hubs to Araya rims.  This thing was a sweet ride back then, and is still a sweetie today.  At half the price of basic commuting bikes, this thing is steal, especially in this condition.

This bike has a unique story.  It was available on Craigslist when I first arrived in Albuquerque this fall, and I liked it– I wanted it– but I knew I didn’t need it.  Then, in January a customer entered Two Wheel Drive with the bike, claiming that she had been commuting on it but felt it was too heavy.  Too heavy?  Yes, too heavy to lift onto the bus racks.  We bought the bike from here and sold her an aluminum commuter frame with a lightweight wheelset.  The combination satisfied her.  Ironically, she was carrying an extremely hefty U-lock on her rear rack; the combination of rack and lock must have weighed over 4 lbs by itself.  Anyway, I have been staring at this bike for weeks.  Still, I don’t need it.

As the weather turns towards spring, friends have begun asking about “getting a bike”, which almost always means they want a good bike for cheap.  This is not always an easy task.  In this case, it was easy.  Jettie is tall and stylish, with a sense of utility and irony.  This bike is tall and stylish, with a sense of utility and a dose of irony.  She’s moving to Oakland soon with this bike, and I’m sure she’ll be the envy of bike-nerds wherever she goes.  It’s not mine, but this arrangement is even better.

She requested a basic cargo system, and we decided the Wald basket was most appropriate as it allows casual use of a handbag or backpack, and is also very inexpensive at just over $20.  As you know, Wald products are still made in the USA, in Kentucky.  The basket struts were left uncut to allow future adjustments to handlebar height.  I think Wald basket look “right” when mounted at an angle.  They’ve been attached to American bikes that way for almost a hundred years.

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More from the “Out the door” series at Two Wheel Drive here in Albuquerque, NM.

Oye Amigo!– Ensenada to San Felipe

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“…made me feel i had finally found what the hell it was i didn’t know i was looking for down in this godforsaken land.”

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hey buddy –

just got into san felipe yesterday (staying at costa azul hotel on the beach for two nights for a much needed descansa and holiday treat), camped last night in a weird rv/camping site called las playas del sol (6 km from town) where a bunch of retired old folks think it would be nice to have a home away from home amongst some nice dirt and propped up mobile homes.  we were recommended to stay there by an elderly couple from victoria, british columbia, and their description was much nicer than actuality.  we stayed under some palapas and had the place to ourselves, and no one was around in the evening to accept our 15 bucks, nor were they there in the morn.  the view was spectacular and the residents were more than nice, but the communal amenities were rather sparse and dirty.  glad it was free.

prior to that we stayed at cayote cal’s for two nights, one night camping and the second inside due to crazy winds that were about to rip my tent in half.  the hostel was great, but the owner rick was a total arrogant ass.  it’s too bad his manager lulu (whom we met just upon departure) wasn’t there while we were, for she would have made the stay infinitely nicer.  rick seemed to be much more impressed by cycles with motors than ones powered by bi-peds, though he doesn’t ride himself for the great fear of falling.

the ride from coyote cal’s along highway 1 to the turnoff for cañón la calentura was made quite difficult and slow by an incredible side wind.  we went two miles past the turnoff before asking a farmer for directions, turned around and went back to the military checkpoint where we had semi-nervously passed the unmarked farm road.  the soldiers laughed but were impressed with our endeavor and happily directed us on our loco path.  after making it about ten miles down the sandy road we dipped off and hid in the bushes of a little slot canyon.  only a few cars passed in the night and we fell asleep under stars and silence.

the next day proved to be one of the more beautiful, yet challenging riding days i’ve ever had – those thirty miles of dirt were even tougher than the ninety mile push from hollywood to laguna beach.  such a beautiful way to travel, biking in solitude and dirt (reminded me of edward abbey’s proclamation to allow only feet, bikes, and hooves as a means of travel through national parks).  we only encountered two trucks passing, and a few men on horseback, nothing more but swirling sand and gusts of wind in the high desert.  the climbs were intense but the views were more than rewarding, made me feel i had finally found what the hell it was i didn’t know i was looking for down in this godforsaken land.

we finally reached the top of the pass and descended into a high, dried up lake bed where we started to run low on water.  close to the top of our last climb a truck came barreling down the road towards us and i stood with hand up, desperate to confirm our proximity to civilization.  the truck stopped and in confusion and awe, the four seemingly sketchy old fellows told me ten to fifteen more kilometers.  i waived them on and we immediately collapsed by the side of the road and stuffed our bellies with all the fats and sugars we had – even took big “nicholas carman” gulps of agave nectar, straight shot of glucose to the blood stream.  drinking the last of our water and high as kites we crested the final hill and could see lázaro cárdenas off in the distance.  the next eight miles or so were beautiful, slowly rolling down the washboard dodging frequent patches of what seemed like quicksand.  as we reached the ranchos outside of valle la trinidad, exhausted and parched, we had to evade quite a few packs of angry guard dogs – which proved rather difficult and frightening as we slid through the wash and repeatedly had to stop to throw rocks to ward them off.

finally, we reached valle la trinidad as the sun set and by luck rolled right into a nice, cheap hotel in the center of the quiet little pueblito of sand.  steaming hot showers, the best tacos of my life, a six pack of dos equis and twelve churros were my ultimate resolve for such a tedious day of pedaling.  the man and woman who ran the taquería asked if we were there just a year or two ago – was that you nick and lael?  I said no but told them of our recent adventure, and the man said we were ambitious fools for having ridden and camped on that road for only outlaws and bandits traveled through there, assaulting anyone else who tried to pass.  in retrospect maybe those men in the truck i stopped where crazy banditos who were too befuddled by my giant dirty bike and self to really think of assaulting me.  or maybe they wouldn’t have deemed any cyclist as worthy prey.  or maybe they were simply old cowboys headed to a dusty ranch and that taco man’s worries only reflected a universal fear that many have of remote places.  i take the latter.

rising early to thaw our milk for the morning’s coffee, we packed up and headed north of town where the sandy road finally met up with the pristine pavement of highway 3.  heading east we stopped at the last outpost for water and tortillas and by chance crossed paths with an ex-military man from fort louis washington passing through with his wife and father.  they had been coming down here for fifteen years, sailed around the entire peninsula and even done a three week cattle run in the area with a mexican cowboy friend of theirs.  he assured us of the safety of the region and insisted that we camp only twenty five miles or so in the valle santa clara on the southeastern foot of the sierra san felipe.  and that we did, after a relaxing, gradual drop down such a grade of road that would make any cyclist blush.  hardly ever needing to pedal, banking through mellow canyon turns and cruising along smooth highway in high gear, shooting off into great expanses of only more sand and cactus scattered in the bright light– this truly was the most beautiful ride so far.

we climbed off our bikes around 2pm and pushed them a quarter mile off the road through sand and mesquite, constantly evading the dreaded jumping cholla cactus – those little buggers gave us such annoyance they even haunted erin in her sleep that night.  we set up camp out of sight of the highway, dug a big fire pit and had infinite mesquite for fuel.  when the sun fell the heat turned immediately to a dry, piercing cold, perfectly illuminated by the extreme clarity of the desert moon.

waking with the coyotes and leaving erin cocooned in her bag i went on a two mile hike by my self through the changing darkness, black to blue, and gathered firewood for sunrise coffee and porridge.  i’m learning how to steal away from my companion for these brief moments of much needed solitude.  when she rose we packed up and continued our glorious decent.  after four days of riding alone on dirt roads and highway, we came to the military checkpoint where highway 3 meets highway 5.  the soldados asked to go through our bags and quickly realized we had nothing but dirty cloths, food and camp gear.  impressed by the preparedness of my surly big dummy bicycle and a gringo’s ability to speak spanish, they happily wished us luck along the way…

–we are gonna stay the next two days in san felipe, maybe leave on christmas but locals are warning us of drunks on the road so maybe we’ll wait till the 26th.  time to switch the tires from front to back – the rear is getting quite warn already and has some little tears from glass probably.  the front still looks brand new.

i’ll send photos tomorrow.

hearts from erin,
me too,

-a

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Baja California is traversed north to south by the main Transpeninsular Highway, which was unpaved until the mid 1970’s.  Today, it is trafficked by gringo tourists and locals.  Some long-range truck traffic is present, mainly serving the larger cities in the southern cape region such as La Paz and Cabo San Lucas.  South of Ensenada, a short paved road leads from the main highway to the town of San Isidro on the Pacific Coast.  This is a popular surfing hang, and is home to the aforementioned hostel with mixed reviews.

As secondary roads are paved at a rapid rate, now is the time to visit Baja. Plentiful backcountry riding opportunities abound.

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Returning to the main Transpeninsular Highway, or Carretera 1, a small dirt road crosses a low mountain range to connect with Hwy.  3, which eventually leads toward the Sea of Cortez.  This road can be found amidst farmland south of San Vincente along Hwy 1, and meets Hwy 3 at Lazaro Cardeñas.

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The road passes through farmland for a few miles, then narrows into the Cañon la Calentura and climbs nearly 1500ft to a pass.  It steadily descends the other side before settling onto an elevated plain near the town of Lazaro Cardeñas.  This is a great road, and a nice introduction to dirt road touring in Baja when approaching from the north.  From pavement to pavement it is a single day’s ride, although camping near the top of the pass is recommended.

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Highway 3 crosses the peninsula from Ensenada on the Pacific Coast to Hwy 5, near the salty marshes of the northern Gulf (Sea of Cortez).  Hwy 5 connects the California border near Mexicali (and Calexico) with San Felipe, a popular beach town to the south on the Gulf of California.  While San Felipe is a quick trip for many San Diegans and Arizonans, it is much more peaceful than Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada on the Pacific Coast.  It is one of many retirement/expatriate communities on the peninsula where Americans and Canadians seemingly outnumber Mexicans in winter.

Erin rides a vintage Specialized Stumpjumper, re-imagined with an more upright position and versatile 26×2.1″ Continental Town and Country tires.  She asked me how she might free some space in her panniers and balance her load toward the front of the bike.  Over the phone, I recommended she strap a drybag to the handlebars.  I was surprised to see it secured above the bars, presumably because it interfered with the exposed brake cable running to her front cantilever brake.  I like to think that it may provide a measure of safety in the event of a collision, like an airbag.

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Camping along the shallow waters of the northern Gulf near San Felipe.  South of San Felipe, past Puertecitos, the pavement ends once again…

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“…and that we did, after a relaxing, gradual drop down such a grade of road that would make any cyclist blush.  hardly ever needing to pedal, banking through mellow canyon turns and cruising along smooth highway in high gear, shooting off into great expanses of only more sand and cactus scattered in the bright light– this truly was the most beautiful ride so far.”  

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All images: Alex Dunn

Another ride revived; Josh’s winter commuter

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I can count on Josh to revive an old bicycle as something useful and stylish, at the right price.  He is also the owner of this handsome 1983 Univega touring bike, revived for fast commuting and touring.  Upon volunteering to fix a bike for a neighbor recently, he received “an old mountain bike” in trade.  Wary of acquiring an old clunker, he offered to take a look.  The heavily chromed Shogun had gathered dust, but a mix of parts suggested that the bike had been customized and upgraded over the years, but probably not since the mid-80’s.  Perfect.  From our estimation it is a 1985 Shogun Prairie Breaker.  In a world of Stumpjumpers and Rockhoppers, the Prairie Breaker sounds a bit… mid-western.

Josh sold his car several years ago and is committed to transporting himself and his things by bike, including family members, guitars and 50 lb. bags of chicken feed.  He has gathered a functional set of tools and skills to maintain a fleet of bikes for the family, and is always able to envision a new life for an old bike.

Spending money where it counts, Josh has made this old Shogun his own.  He fit a Surly Open bar with Ergon grips, some 26 x 2.35″ Schwalbe Fat Frank tires, and a Carradice Camper saddlebag.  The Brooks B17, fenders, dynamo hub and lighting are all parts from the workshop.  The SR MTS-100 slingshot-style stem is a personal favorite of mine; although less refined than other y-shaped stems of the time it has a more commanding, industrial look.  The stem is appropriately stiff, yet the steel quill provides a comfortable ride.  I spent many thousand miles on this exact stem last year on my High Sierra.  To mate this stem to my Nitto Randonneur drop bars I filed the clamp diameter from 22.2mm to 25.4mm.

The front bag is actually an old trunk bag from the parts bin, mounted sideways, and the platform pedals feature VO double-toe straps which are now discontinued.  Intended as a winter commuter in rainy Tacoma, a large VO mudflap helps keep the feet dry.

Note the VO Rando front rack.  On mounting the rack to the fork, Josh says: “I drilled out the fork for the rack and used self-tapping machine screws. I have the other rack (the VO Pass Hunter) to fit on the cantilever brake posts but that rack is on my Univega and I didn’t want to take it off that bike. I have drilled several steel bikes as such, and have never had a problem so I figure it’s okay. If I do end up running into rust issues I’ll braze some threaded bosses in but til then it seems fine to me.”

“Also I love the Fat Franks and I’ll see how they do this winter. I have been riding them all summer and a bit last winter and they seem to be wearing okay. Depending on the weather this winter I might have to go with something with a bit more tooth but I’ll see what happens. The Franks are great for just about everything other then ice. They even work okay in snow as long as it’s not too packed.”

This is a real bike that goes real places.  Every morning Josh commutes by bike to his job as a musical instrument repairman.  Josh’s other bikes include a custom long-tail made from an old Trek 8000 frame and the rear triangle of a mixte GT mountain bike, while his daughter rides a classy Cannondale 700c to 26″ conversion.

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I have another post on the Velo Orange Blog, entitled Packing the Campeur, Part 2.  It includes a nearly complete packing list and some photos.  This is the only place where you will find a list of the things I carry on my bike.  Enjoy!

Edit: Josh mounted the VO Rando rack onto the fork by drilling holes and using self-tapping machine screws.  He did not tap the frame and use a standard M5 bolt.