Accidental Tourist

I traded my car for a bicycle & I'll never look back

After a bit of a learning curve, Sarah Groves, her hubby and their five children have discovered the joys of going everywhere by bike

03 September 2017 - 00:00 By Sarah Groves
Image: Piet Grobler

Three years ago, Sam came home with a set of panniers.

"I think we should sell our car," he said, "and use bicycles instead."

"How would we shop for groceries?" I asked.

Sam pointed to the panniers.

"And how would we go on holiday?"

Sam pointed to the panniers.

"And how would we dump our garden refuse?"

You get the idea.

I negotiated a four-month trial. We disconnected our VW Kombi's battery, and Sam serviced six bicycles.

The seventh family member would travel by baby seat.

The first challenge was to bring in enough food, on bicycles, to feed five children. On our first shop, I came out of Checkers with a trolley full of groceries, forgetting there was no boot.

"Where are you going to fit all this?" Sam asked as he balanced the 10kg of flour and 12l of milk between his two panniers, the nappies and toilet rolls on his rack.

On our second shop, I worked on picturing the panniers as I walked the aisles. But I forgot to picture the rack. Or, at least, I forgot to realistically picture the rack. It was an open surface; its potential seemed boundless.

On the third shop I gave a backpack to my daughter and brought one for myself.

A year later, Sam built a 2m-long bicycle trailer, using Thule Chariot parts from Sweden, an old roof-rack and a broken JDBug's wheels. He now uses it to carry everything from groceries to his double bass.

The next challenge was how to arrive at lessons or meetings looking and smelling how one would like to look and smell.

My sister once said, "Since you've started your experiment, your style has ummm ..."

"Gone?" I offered.

"In Amsterdam," she went on, "people ride everywhere but they ." I can't remember her exact words but the gist was, "still look nice."

So I took lessons from the Dutch. If they want to wear a suit at work, then that's what they ride in. I've learnt to ride wearing smart jeans and leather pumps.

My daughters can ride in skirts. Sam prefers to take a change of clothes wherever he goes and my sons are struggling to relate to the terms of the challenge: "Huh? This is how we want to look and smell."

When the four months were up we sold our Kombi. We had been using it for holidays but had decided, after calculating the annual costs of petrol, insurance, and services vs the annual cost of bicycle maintenance, that we should allocate some savings for car hire.

We have also done a number of holidays by bike, the ones without a support vehicle within a 50km radius of our home.

In that first year of biking, I was conscious of many benefits. Bicycles save money. Cycling makes exercise a natural part of your day. Cycling slows life down. We rarely ride at night so our evenings are free.

I tend to ride assuming everyone is trying to kill me, and so far I've been safe

Almost three years on, the biggest challenge remains what we thought it might be - safety. Car drivers assume we should be on the pavement, pedestrians assume the road. Some drivers give so wide a berth they clip oncoming traffic; others clip us, handlebars to side mirrors, hustling us like cattle.

I tend to ride assuming everyone is trying to kill me, and so far I've been safe.

There is one group of road users, though, who are always on our side: other cyclists. They can tell from our mismatched helmets and clothes that we are also just trying to get home, and they greet us with waves.

At least one politician thinks riding is a rich man's hobby, but the people we pass on bikes are mostly on their way to work. Some are from rural areas, some from townships, most don't have helmets, none wear Lycra.

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