Reflections: The rise and glory of the bicycle

Every time I look at a bicycle, I’m catapulted back to 1817. That’s the year a man in Europe first dreamt about moving on wheels.

Every time I look at a bicycle, I’m catapulted back to 1817. That’s the year a man in Europe first dreamt about moving on wheels. But by the 1860s no one had managed to cobble together a wooden device that could propel a man any faster than his legs could carry him.

In 1963 The Boneshaker made its appearance, with pedals mounted to the front wheel hub but, still, apart from rattling the bones, these metallic wheels could not achieve any spectacular speed. The Penny-farthing’s effort, when it came hot on the heels of The Boneshaker’s, did not bring any noticeable improvement either.

Nor did The High-wheel when it hit the scene in the 1870s. To achieve higher speed, the contraption had been given a very high front wheel that was joined to a tiny rear one. But imagine perching and balancing on a high wheel with pedals and hoping to achieve record speeds. Besides scaring off those afraid of heights, it did not make an impression, either. Men went back to the drawing boards and from there came up with something.

And that something, for the first time, could now move fast. When a chain drive and pneumatic tyres were invented, it was possible to mount pedals to the wheel hub and drag the rear wheel with feet on pedals and use the front wheel to steer the whole thing. The wheels had come of age now and what remained was to refine the contrivance.

In the 1890s, the refined contrivance became known as a bicycle. The Safety bicycle lifted the contraption from a dangerous toy and placed it at the pedestal of a sought–after transport tool for men and, yes, women. Even the pneumatic tyres were improved to remove the jarring effect it had on bones, with the introduction of inflatable tyres.

With these inflatable tyres and easy steering, improved safety, relative comfort and higher speed, the bicycle became a treasured possession of the elite and an important means of transportation and recreation in Europe and North America.

Now freeze.

And, in your hibernation, travel across the Atlantic Ocean and into the heart of Africa. There, at the slopes of Mount Muhabura, over half a century later, the bicycle had just become the craze.

In the 1950s, only a handful of chiefs owned bicycles. But our excitement over them was beginning to fade as we watched these perspiring, aging chiefs panting over their bicycles. At the sight of a rising foot path, they’d thrust their bicycles in the hands of any of their subjects to push uphill.

The few chiefs who owned bicycles could only ride them on level pathways or dirt roads. It was common to see their subjects pushing the bicycles downhill, as some chiefs feared riding downhill, especially if the slope was a bit steep. No, our interest was dying.

Then Munyamashati exploded on the scene. Apart from the few chiefs, Munyamashati was the only young man in the region around the slopes of Mount Muhabura to own a bicycle.

But he was as rare to sight as a home-bound gorilla in the mist. Knowing that he could only be seen when it was a market day in Kisoro, Bufumbira in Uganda, and knowing that no one could tell the exact time he would pass, on his way to or from Kisoro, we used to keep vigil by the roadside in our Canika entirety, young and old. We stood or sat in silent bated-breath anticipation, only allowing one voice to recount Munamashati’s exploits on the previous market day, and waited.

When we heard a thin voice cry out “Munya…….!”, the whole crowd burst out in frenzied excitement. In recognition of our honour to him he’d also rise, remove his hands from the handlebars and sit straight, waving with both hands to his adoring fans. Ceremoniously, he’d remove his handkerchief from his pocket and wipe his brow. Then, as if unwittingly, he’d let the handkerchief slip from his fingers and drop onto the dirt road and the crowd’d holler: “Umuswaro wawe! Your ’kerchief!”

Making as if he’d not heard, he’d put his hands back on the handlebars and lift his bottom from the seat – doing what we called ‘gosolina’ – and race off. Then he’d sit back and suddenly brake, slowly turn round and then rise and race back to again suddenly brake when he reached his handkerchief. Then the climax:  he’d slowly turn round, his bicycle slanting on a dangerously acute angle but mange to pick his handkerchief. Then he’d rise again and race off, to thunderous applause.

We’d clap and shout “Munya……, Munya……!!” till long after he’d gone over the hill. Then we went back home to our different chores, with the buzz still going on about Munyamashati’s exploits. The chores were done quickly, however, so that we could again catch up with his antics on his way back.

And so it goes…….Today, you get your excitement from a new invention (ipod, ipad, iphone, whatever) a few days after it has rolled off the production line. In our time, you waited for half a century – if you could!

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