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12 Mar, 2015

Charlie buys first of many

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When he first set eyes on the 26” Kuwahara back in 1981, he couldn’t help buying what is probably the first production mountain bike bought in this country. And now, 34 years later, 76-year-old Charlie Crowther rides this bike virtually every day. We tracked him down at his local bike shop.

“When I walked into Kim’s old shop that Saturday, I took one look at it and I thought ‘Hell, now somebody has invented something that makes sense’. I saw the gears and bought it immediately.”

Charlie paid R550 for the Kuwahara, which Kim Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Cycles in Edenvale, believes to be the first of its kind in South Africa.

“You could see it was class,” qualifies Charlie, “it was different. It was light and since then its only cost me punctures, a new set of tyres, brake pads and a couple of ball bearings.”

With its chrome moly frame, rigid fork, centre-pull Dia-compe brakes and Shimano 18 speed drive train, the Kuwahara must have caused quite a stir when it first appeared in the Johnson’s Cycles showroom back in 1981.

“In the early days of the business, my major supplier for any of the pro stuff was a company called Deale & Huth, which was owned by the late Basil Cohen. At that time, we were very big into BMX which had just started then and had built Corobrick, the first BMX track,” recalled Kim.

At around that time, Deale & Huth got the agency rights to sell the Kuwahara brand into South Africa and were bringing in that company’s BMXs and the famous “ET” bike, as used in the smash Steven Spielberg movie.

“This particular bike arrived and I asked what it was,” Kim said, “and I was told it was a mountain bike. They opened the box in front of me and I told them I’d take it. And it wasn’t on my floor for a day before Charlie came in and bought it, on the spot!”

Realising this new “kind” of bike was a winner, Kim went back to Deale & Huth and persuaded that company to bring in more of these new bikes.

“And that sort of stimulated the market,” he explained, “because at that time who would have thought to take a bicycle and go ride it in the veld?”

According to Kim, the next big brand of mountain bike to come into the country was Bridgestone which, because of the fact that it was effectively the “next generation” and was available in bright colours and better specs, they were sold in very large numbers.

Since buying the bike, Charlie has added a light, a bicycle computer which he affectionately calls “the speedo”, a new saddle – because the original wore out – and a set of road “slick” tyres because he doesn’t really go off road.

“It is my pride and joy,” commented Charlie, “I don’t take any chances that it is pinched so I don’t leave it lying around. I try and clean it on a regular basis. I really like this bike, it’s a bloody good bike!”

Charlie rides for an hour every day on his Kuwahara.

“I’ve ridden some bikes where I’ve wondered how they built them, you know, one wheel goes one way and the other goes another way. But when I saw this bike … Sold! You don’t battle the bike, you just ride it. I enjoy it and the ride is good.”

Born and bred in what was then called Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Charlie rides the Kuwahara every day and likes nothing more than taking his German shepherds for a run, holding the dog’s leashes on his handlebars.

“If I run with them, I can’t keep up but I ride the bike I can easily keep up. And they go for a good four or five kilometres without stopping, at a pace of around 17 kilometres per hour. That is quite a pace for a dog hey? And when we get back home, they both jump into the pool,” he explained.

Although now retired, Charlie used his bike to commute to his work as a surveyor “until I was about 30” and would ride every morning, getting up at 04:30 and riding until 06:00, so that he could be in time for his crew who would get to his house at around 06:30. He did this until the day he retired.

Nowadays, he still rides often, but he takes it a little more casually.

“Why go to the café around the corner by car when you can ride a bike there?” he questions.

Although he is worried about bike “jackings” and other crimes, Charlie sticks to the safer roads he knows and, in particular, the roads around the “boomed” residential area where he lives.

“I use my bike for exercising,” explains Charlie, “but what I also like about it is that you switch off. You don’t suffer from stress and you can have all your ‘mind thoughts’ while riding, like ‘oh I should have done that’, or ‘is that going to happen today?’ so it keeps your mind alert too.”

And Charlie has a very creative way of dealing with the various hills on his regular cycling routes.

“When I hit a hill, and there are a couple of nasty ones in our area, I know that it takes 130 pedal strokes to get up there. So I count: one, two, three, and four. And, for example, when I ride past Kim’s house, he is pedal number 49. And I say ‘morning Kim Johnson’ and then keep going.”

When Charlie rides past the houses of his old friends from Northern Rhodesia, he will also greet each one with a ‘Hi George’ or ‘Hi Albert’, even if they are long dead, so it brings back good memories for him too.

“When we grew up, there were five towns. We were in Kitu in the middle, like a spoke. And we used to think nothing of riding down to Ndala, which was 39 miles away (63 kilometres). We would go and see a girl there and then come back. On the way home, if you saw a bakkie, you’d never refuse a lift,” he smiled.

Charlie did all these long rides when he was aged between eight and 14 years old, and the daily temperature would go “well into the 40s”.

“But we didn’t worry, because we were young and we enjoyed it,” he explained.

An old friend of Charlie’s, Jannie Pieterse, even rode his bicycle from Zambia to Stellenbosch where he went to university.

“He was really tough, but was the nicest guy you could meet. He rode all the way on a bicycle! I mean we never had decent roads in those days and he rode the whole way. I thought he was mal!

“He became a doctor in the end. And he has probably still got his bike. It was a Humber, I remember that. We liked the Humber because they had a split down the middle of the fork whereas the Raleighs and other bikes we had before that weren’t like that,” Charlie explained.

Charlie first memories of riding bicycles was very early in his life.

“Whenever I got onto a bike, I fell off it. So it must have been when I was about three. And I’ve had a lot of prangs in the interim,” he concluded.

His other pride and joy is a 1970 BMW 2002 which his wife bought for him which he still lovingly owns and cherishes to this day.

And, according to him, he wants to be buried with his beloved Kuwahara and his special BMW.

Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |

Editor