from the Guardian:
Chaotic traffic, no cycle lanes, smog, potholes … Cairo’s not known for its cycling for good reason, but the owners of the city’s first custom bike shop think it’s time for that to change
The city of Cairo and the hipster bicycle have not historically found common purpose. Due to Cairo’s gridlocked traffic, heat, potholes, smog, and a near-total absence of both lane discipline and cycling infrastructure, very few commute by bike here. Endemic harassment puts off female cyclists. In general, it’s probably the last place most people would want to sell stylish, custom-made bicycles.
Fortunately, Kareem Abdullah and Dirk Wanrooij are not most people. They’re the founders and sole mechanics of Ain Bicycles, a new shop that makes bespoke commuter bikes. They reckon they’re the first to do what they do in Egypt – “maybe even north-east Africa”, Wanrooij laughs – and no one’s yet told them they’re wrong.
“Other bicycle shops in Egypt are mainly just businesses,” argues Abdullah, whereas he and Wanrooij say they want to actively “enhance Egyptians’ perception of cycling”. To promote it as a means of transport.
Culturally, they know they may be several light-years ahead of the curve. Egypt is “a country where a bicycle is nothing more than a toy,” Abdullah explains, and where cycling has a social stigma. The cyclists who do brave the city’s messy streets tend to be deliverymen doing their neighbourhood rounds on flat-tyres and rusting frames. For the few middle-class Cairenes who do own a bike, cycling is mostly for leisure, early on a quiet weekend morning.
That mindset is what the pair want to change with their range of brightly-coloured, single-speed bicycles, which they hope will show that cycling can be a classy means of getting around town.
“In order to get people on a bike, they need to look good,” says Wanrooij, a Dutchman who moved to Cairo in 2009. “So we’ve basically combined the practicality of the bicycles with good-looking design, in order to get people to ride their bikes more often.”
Cycling is sometimes faster than driving, he tells people, particularly during traffic jams, and it’s not quite as dangerous as it might seem. Partly because the roads are so unpredictable, drivers are used to braking at short notice. And bit by bit, customers are increasingly convinced: orders have spiked from about three or four a month during the summer to 20 in October.
Ain Bicycles has an unusual workshop – a ground-floor flat with wooden floors that doubles as Abdullah’s brother’s art-studio. Their bikes share the space with various cardboard cut-outs, a budgie, and a slightly aggressive ginger cat called Caramiso.
But so far, the arrangement seems to work: the pair make 10 stock bikes a month, each designed differently, to give customers an idea of the range on offer. Individual clients (who, for full disclosure, include your correspondent) can then ask to customise each bike according to their needs, or get one made from scratch. The only constant is that all of Ain’s creations are single-speed, with Dutch-style coaster brakes. Prices start at 1,250 Egyptian pounds (just over £100) and end at around 2,650 (£235) – expensive for Egypt, but a bargain compared to what you’d pay elsewhere.
Some of the parts are ordered from the Netherlands and Germany, while the leather seats and handles are made at a tannery down by the pyramids. Their frames are mainly sourced locally, though when one unusually tall customer came knocking, they ordered an oversized version from Holland. “To my knowledge,” says Wanrooij, “it’s the only one this tall in Egypt.”
Both Wanrooij and Abdullah started off in other jobs. Abdullah originally worked in import-export, but took a mechanics course in Canada after realising that the city lacked “a proper decent bicycle shop where they do proper repairs”. Wanrooij always promised a friend he’d build them a bike, but as a journalist he never had the time.
“It never really happened until I met Kareem, and we made a bike for that friend. Then there was another friend who wanted a bike, and then another friend and from there it developed into a business.”
In one of his first acts as president, Egypt’s new strongman, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, made a show earlier this year of cycling through Cairo with hundreds of young army officers. He said it was a bid to discourage car usage, which is a huge drain on government resources because of the fuel subsidies provided to drivers.
But the spectacle was little more than a PR exercise, with nothing subsequently done to make life safer for cyclists. For now, Wanrooij says the only people who can really change the culture are the cyclists themselves.
“The challenges of cycling in Cairo are manyfold,” he says. “But the only solution for all these challenges is to dive right into them.”