Meet my bicycle, Simon Nkoli. He’s sleek, rugged, and comes equipped with a saddle that makes everyone who has met him ask, “Is that going to be comfortable for 12,000 km?” I’ll report back with an answer to that question in a few months.
Simon is hard to classify, as he’s a bit of a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. He’s more road than anything, but he’s a road bike that goes where he wants, when he wants, and with whom he wants. Which could be anyone, really, because Simon brings all the boys to the yard.
Simon was built by Mikes Bikes, a great little bike shop in Greenside, Johannesburg. He’s specially designed to make it across Africa, which means he’s kind of old school. The brother of a friend of mine described Simon as “cute”, although he was clearly searching for the word “sexy”. Simon doesn’t have newfangled things, like disk brakes or a hydraulic fork, but that’s because if something fancy broke in the middle of Ethiopia it might be the end of me. Instead, Simon rocks it with sweet cantilever brakes and a fixed fork with no suspension.
That may sound a little uncomfortable for the bumpy roads, which make up a healthy percentage of the ride. While 70% of the race is classic tar, the other 30% is on some massively rough gravel. But Simon’s made of steel. Literally. His strength comes from his Cotic Roadrat steel core. Steel makes for a comfortable ride because the metal absorbs a lot of the shocks. It’s heavier than an aluminum frame, but for me the weight disadvantage is outweighed by the added comfort. Many professional cyclists opt for carbon because it’s both shock-absorbent and ultralight, but it’s also extremely expensive. Simon is more a man of the people.
Simon is named after a gay black South African who was a hero of both the anti-apartheid struggle and the gay rights movement. Simon Nkoli was born in Soweto in 1957 and grew up in the Free State and in Sebokeng, about an hour south of Johannesburg. He came of age during the 1976 Soweto uprising, a youth demonstration against new regulations that required all education to be conducted in Afrikaans. A number of children were brutally murdered by government forces, and the events demonstrated to the world the ruthlessness of the apartheid regime. The uprising was also one of the defining moments that marked the reemergence of open resistance to apartheid, as the anti-apartheid movement had been forced mostly underground and into exile after Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
After 1976, the country grew increasingly unmanageable until ultimately the government was forced into negotiations with the ANC. Simon took part in many of the events in the decade leading up to the end of apartheid, and in 1984 he was put on trial for his life with 21 other members of the United Democratic Party in the Delmas Treason Trial. Simon was imprisoned until 1988. Incredibly, and bravely, he came out to his fellow prisoners and was instrumental in changing the attitudes of many other anti-apartheid activists towards gay people. As co-trialist and former chair of the ANC Terror Lekota asked, “How could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against?”
In 1990, Simon founded the Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), which organized the first Pride Parade in South Africa. Due to the efforts of Simon and a number of other gay rights activists, including Justice Edwin Cameron, the South African Constitution now prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, making it one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world. Simon died of AIDS in 1998, at the same time that South Africa repealed its sodomy laws. He did not live to see a number of important court cases, such as the Treatment Action Campaign case in 2002 that ordered the South African government to provide antiretroviral treatment to HIV patients, or the Fourie case in 2005 that declared gay marriage to be legal.
Simon is an inspiration to me because he represents and relates two different types of oppression, one with which I am personally familiar and one with which I am not. Many of Simon’s contemporaries also related to only one of the ways in which Simon was oppressed, although for them it was the racial prejudice that they faced together. Through his charming personality, Simon was able to create relationships in which people were able to see how those two types of oppression were related. Simon fought for a dignified existence in which his worth was not measured by the color of his skin or the gender of the people he loved. For me, his activism symbolizes the importance of understanding and linking the multiple ways in which people may face discrimination. To fight against one form of prejudice we must be vigilant to end all forms.