South Africa has some legendary “kanniedood” (can’t die) vehicles, famed for clocking up massive mileages on their odometers.
The old square-jawed Toyota Hilux comes to mind.
But meet a Cape Town man who has clocked up almost half a million kilometres – on his bike.
Andrew Wheeldon has already ridden the distance to the moon – and on Friday he wants to give away 500 bicycles in Cape Town’s most needy suburbs, to mark his 500 000th kilometre in the saddle.
Wheeldon surpassed the distance between Planet Earth and the moon – a distance of 384 403km – on 4 April, 2015.
And he didn’t stop.
Wheeldon has completed 35 Cape Town Cycle Tours – 27 of it in under three hours.
But the Capetonian’s most fervent passion is transforming his country into a “cycle-friendly” land.
Wheeldon has spent over 20 years at grassroots level, trying to enable children in many of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs to access bicycles, safe cycling routes, and cycling lanes on major arterial routes – in a city cruelly divided by apartheid.
Now, he believes, cycling has a unique opportunity to take its place among other modes of transport, in a post lockdown South Africa.
Wheeldon spoke to News24 from the saddle of his bike, a 32-year-old classic Italian Colnago, from his home in Rondebosch, where he was clocking up the last of his pre-500 000kms.
So how did it all begin?
“I was 14. My stepfather got a job in the applied maths department at a university in Edmonton, Canada – and I started cycling quite long distances to school and back, in all kinds of terrible Canadian weather – sub-zero, snow and ice and everything.
“There was a group of local kids – we started realising the fun, the joy of riding. It’s the perfect time and age… your freedom and independence are starting to grow. I found this sport that I could really fall in love with! I happened to see a wonderful movie called ‘Breaking Away’ about a young US cyclist, and I was hooked.
“I was fairly sick as a young child in Australia – I had epilepsy, between the age of two and seven, which I’d overcome – but I was still feeling slightly frail. We came back to Cape Town in 1979, and I pressurised my mom into buying me a bike. I did my first ‘Argus Tour’ (unofficially) in 1980 – and I haven’t looked back!” Wheeldon said.
But, more importantly, his love of cycling took him to the streets in support of his citizens. In 2002, he and a partner Louis de Waal founded an NGO, the “Bicycling Empowerment Network”.
“Basically, we would ship in containers of used bicycles from the around the world, and we set up bicycle empowerment centres, training locals in various townships and rural areas to become bicycle mechanics, and manage fleets of bicycles for locals’ healthy use,” he explained.
In this way, the pair and their teams helped put more than 25 000 kids/adults on to two wheels of their own.
Later, he would join other experts to write South Africa’s national policy on cycling, led by the late minister, Dullah Omar. To this day, this document serves as the blueprint for the expansion of cycling in South Africa.
Now, on the eve of his record achievement, he said his aim was simple: “To bring more people on to bikes. I think it makes for a healthier, friendlier, happier, more connected city, and province.”
Wheeldon hopes to commemorate his own personal milestone of 500 000km by enabling 500 new owners to receive bicycles.
“If we can get 500 new people on to bicycles, and dramatically improve their mobility, and access to opportunities – school, education, jobs, whatever it might be.”
Wheeldon hopes cycling will be central, “as we re-imagine our new city, as we open up again”.
“The bicycle needs to be a significant part of our future,” he argued.