The Bicycles of Ethiopia – From a Bike-Obsessed Traveler

On a work trip to Ethiopia in May, I took these bike photos. Ethiopia is a warm and friendly country, and asking people about their bikes was an easy way to open conversations (though a white guy with a Nikon taking pictures also often attracted a crowd, laughing and talking in Amharic all around me).

This guy has a little sidewalk shop in Dessie doing repairs, with very limited tools and a lot of pals hanging around laughing and chewing khat.

In Ethiopia, bikes are just a tool for getting from A to B more quickly than walking and more comfortably than being jammed in a crowded minibus. Still, I think there is a joy of riding that’s universal. This kid was making lazy loops on a borrowed bike in the street by my hotel early one morning.

Most of the bikes I saw on this trip are the cheap Chinese Phoenix brand. Phoenix bikes (and some Indian bikes) have been ubiquitous in Africa for a long time. With the influx of Chinese investment in Africa (there are Chinese-engineered and -financed road projects underway everywhere you drive), there have been a wave of these newer bikes arriving in the “general merchandise” stores.

The newer “mountain bikes” are very cheaply made, and on balance, are probably not an improvement over the heavy old black bikes I’d seen on previous trips (with few parts, the tough old one-speed black bikes are indestructible, whereas the newer Phoenix bikes offer lots of cheaply made “extras” that quickly start rattling and falling apart).

Wandering around Mekele, a small city in the north of the country, I came to this little bike shop selling new Phoenix cycles and spare parts. I’d seen plenty of dirty little mechanics’ huts and bikes for sale in “general merchandise” shops alongside plumbing and roofing supplies and plastic buckets, but finding a dedicated storefront bike shop like this was unusual. The man in the store was assembling a Phoenix named Mebrah Tukiros, and told me the Phoenix bikes retail for between $75 and $125 depending on components.

Ethiopia is a vast rural country where the average per-capita income is somewhere just short of $1000, though in the small cities where I found these bikes, income is probably higher than that, with service employees, merchants, government workers, and other wage earners able to afford a bike. But most places we went there were almost no cars on the road, and in many places, there were horse carts and even, in some areas, camels.

Wandering around the city of Dessie, I came across a stand of bikes and started talking to the proprietors in the few common words of English and Amharic we shared (as a crowd gathered round to gawk at me and offer comments). The bikes were for rent, for five birr (or about fifty cents) an hour, though I am certain there is a high degree of price variability and barter available, depending on your relationship to the stand’s proprietors.

Teshome, the “pump man,” took care of charging customers, many of whom were returning bikes in the twilight hour after having run errands, pumping tires, and parking the bikes in a neat row. He suggested his friend Abush Hailu, and I take two of the bikes for a short ride. I jumped at the chance (their surprise, I think), rolled up a pant leg, and off we went down the urban obstacle course of rutted roads and throngs of people, staring at me as I passed on my rattling bike.

The bike was in terrible shape, with a non-functional front brake, a rear brake that barely functioned, nonfunctioning gears, and loose handlebars slightly misaligned. Still, it felt great to be back in the saddle after more than a week off bikes of any kind and to be hauling around Dessie, Ethiopia, with my new friend Abush. Until, after about 5 minutes, his chain came off.

We got that fixed (again, a “helpful” crowd had gathered), and Abush and I returned the bikes to the rental guys (they graciously refused my offer of ten cents rental fee). Then I took my new friend out for a little thank you, doing the thing Ethiopians do together, at dusk, in the city: a sidewalk cafe, the world walking by, and two perfectly-made macchiatos. You gotta love traveling in the birthplace of coffee. Mmmm.

Brazil Critical Mass Attack – Dozens of Cyclists Mowed Down by Motorist

This is a truly horrific story from Brazil, made all the more terrible by the fact that it is so well documented, and you can watch it unfold close-up, and by the fact that I haven’t been able to find any English-language coverage of it at all. Given the footage below, which shows a close-up of the accident attempted murder as it occurs, it is extremely fortunate that no cyclists or bystanders were killed.

The video below is very, very hard to watch- it shows a peaceful, pleasant-looking dusk ride, with a hundred or more cyclists of all kinds (fewer than half of whom are wearing helmets) riding through a medium-sized street in Puerto Alegre. Young and old riding together on a warm evening: a friendly-looking woman on a trike with her dog on the back, a guy in Red Bull kit, people on cruisers, some hipsters. It looks like a really fun, friendly evening ride.

And then, at 1:00 into the video, a black car literally mows through the cyclists from behind, carrying several cyclists on the hood and windshield, and the rest of the video is of shocked cyclists, twisted bikes, the injured being comforted on the pavement, and finally ambulances, and twisted bikes being carried away. Click below to play the video.

Added: Here is a better video that edits together footage from multiple cameras to provide a complete narrative, with English subtitles, including witness testimony and outrage at the end.

The Puerto Alegre Critical Mass blog has links to more videos and reflections on the incident.

The local news site Zero Hour says police have identified the driver and are waiting for him to turn himself in voluntarily (apparently, as of yesterday, he is not at his home address). It also has a video of the accident from a different perspective, shot from high above out an apartment window. The same video appears in this TV news report.

In the words of our friend Cabelo, who alerted me to this story, “Much light and energy to all who lived through this horrible experience.”

How Do Rod Brakes Work? A Visual Primer

It is probably not an overstatement when saying most bicycles in the world have rod brakes. They are a staple component on millions of roadster bicycles pumped out each year by venerable (and huge) Asian manufacturers like Flying Pigeon, Phoenix, Avon, Neelam, and Hero.

The Chinese manufacturers are starting to switch to mountain bikes, but the black rod brake roadsters are still for sale next to the mountain bikes in many places.

In the US today it’s extremely rare that you run across a bicycle with rod brakes. In fact, until I recently looked more closely at some rod brakes, I did not even fully understand how they work. I’m still no expert, but I took some photos as I looked at old Indian roadsters in Mozambique and thought I’d share them. There is a big chance I’m getting the exact terminology wrong (is there a name for the various pivoting joints?).

Let’s start at the rider’s hands. The rod brake levers connect at the handlebars center with a few pivots that are spring loaded. They connect with a sleeve-like joint, which allows the rod length to adjust and create tension in the brakes.

Rod brakes are often called “stirrup brakes” because of their shape. The front brake pulls up against the underside of the front rim, necessitating a different rim design than we are used to, called a Westwood rim, with room beside the spokes for the brake pads to make contact on the rim.

Meanwhile, as you can see, the rod for the rear brake engages a pivot at the top of the downtube. These Indian bikes have the rear brake rod coming down from the handlebars in front of the head tube; however, some Chinese models like Phoenix move it to the side of the head tube and engage a different design of pivot. Here’s my photo of the pivot on an old Indian bike compared to a new Chinese Flying Pigeon I found on Flickr.

The rear brake rod continues along under the downtube and pulls another pivot in front of the bottom bracket.

That pivot pulls the rear brake forward against the rim of the back wheel, parallel to the chainstays, to which it is attached.

Rod brakes are simple, bombproof parts, and you see them still working on old rusty Asian bikes (“black mambas”) through many countries in Africa. I’ve never ridden more than a short distance on a roadster with rod brakes, and I hear their stopping power is so-so, but they are easy to adjust and maintain, and they work.

I have been on several new-ish Chinese mountain bikes in Ethiopia (see my short video) where the caliper brakes were completely shot, as were the shifters, making them effectively brakeless one-speed bikes with lots of rattling parts hanging off them (as well as nine or ten unused cogs).

I’ll take brakes that work so-so over brakes that don’t work at all, any day of the week, and especially on the day, I’m riding a 50-pound bag of charcoal to market.