When Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler initiated this project, they aimed for it to be a study of South African bicycle commuter culture. They wanted to find out who rides bicycles, why they ride them, if and why they love them, and of course why so few South Africans choose the bicycle as an alternative means of transport. Stan’s fascination with the mechanics of the bicycle and his background in photography, and Nic’s interest in the role the bicycle plays in a community, brought them together to collaborate on a bicycle-related project. They imagined finding classic ’70s Italian-built racers that had become hand-me-down commuter bikes, and photographing their weathered riders.
What started as a short ride around the area where they both live became a 10,000km journey over three years, taking them clear across the country. They traversed the Maluti mountains, sweated through Durban’s humid climes, braved the blustery West Coast winds, got sunburnt outside Addo, and built up trashed bicycles in Maputo and cycled them to Johannesburg. They cycled everywhere to meet the bold individuals photographed for this project – people who choose to ride a bicycle in the face of cultural and social stigma, crime and dangerous roads.
Bicycle Portraits gives people a glimpse into each other’s lives through a well-known object of movement, practicality and joy – and also perhaps brings strangers together in their love of a simple thing…
Since the publication of the three Bicycle Portraits volumes, Stan and Nic have been returning to each and every cyclist who feature in the books to give them a copy of the volume they appear in. For them, enabling these ordinary South Africans to see themselves as part of a growing culture in the pages of a book, has been the most rewarding part of the project.
The blue book
The blue book features essays by Nobel Prize laureate JM Coetzee and Cape Town based writer, journalist and commuter, Sean O’Toole.
The yellow book
In the yellow book there are pieces by the godfather of mountain biking, Gary Fisher, and the bicycle-obsessed President of Tumi’s Cycling Club, Tumisang Taabe, from Lesotho.
The green book
And the green book contains writing by Leonard Stanford, a totally unknown corner-café and bicycle-repair-shop owner from Kimberly, and Cape Town based artist and professional commuter, Paul Edmunds.