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Faisal Thakur with cyclist friends on Carter Road. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Faisal Thakur with cyclist friends on Carter Road. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Bandra’s unstoppable biker

The bearded messiah of cycling in Mumbai

They dot the landscape more often now. They can be seen on Bandra roads, with their fitted bikes and gear: a helmet, padded cycling shorts, a fitted tee, glasses to protect the eyes, a bottle perched on the pedalling pole of the cycle. As they spot each other, they pump fists in greeting.

Cycling is no longer a passing fad in Mumbai. It’s still not a patch on Bengaluru, which has more open spaces, better weather and neighbourhoods conducive to two-wheeler travel, but data from the city’s half-a-dozen online cycling forums shows that the number of cycling groups has grown from 300 in 2005 to 1,400 today. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of both recreational and commuter cyclists has increased.

The catalyst for change seems to be one man—Faisal Thakur, who runs a cycling shop, the Pro9 Bicycle Studio, on Carter Road in Bandra (West).

In 2007, when Matunga resident Puja Kashyap’s US-made cycle broke in transit, she found it difficult to get her hybrid wheels back on track—the part she needed was not available. That’s when she met Thakur. He managed to source it for her. She has continued with her cycling—she uses it to travel to her office in the Bandra-Kurla Complex, a distance of around 6km.

Thakur, in fact, is willing to create bikes that not only meet your specifications, but are also aerodynamically efficient. His formula: height, weight, age, usage and budget. Once he gets these parameters from a customer, he gets down to matching or making the perfect machine. His customers include actors Arshad Warsi and John Abraham. Customization can cost anything from 15,000-30,000.

As part of a pilot project this year, the 40-something Thakur has customized eight beach bikes and 16 street bikes for Mumbai’s police constables. Early this year, he worked with researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay to customize a bike they had designed.

“I’ve been cycling since my seventh grade," says Nishant Radhakrishnan, a film editor who cycles daily in his Chembur neighbourhood, and rides out of Mumbai with groups on weekends. “I found Faisal after I returned from my studies in the US. He asked me five questions about myself, after which he gave me a bike which I rode on Carter Road, near his cycle studio. I was home."

Thakur started on this journey in the early 1990s. Today he is a cycle designer, customizer, restorer and upgrader, as well as a hands-on cycle maintenance man who organizes different kinds of rides—leisure rides, rides for causes, rides to encourage people to take to cycling to commute and shop. On night cycling trips, 20-30 of them get together to ride from the suburbs to south Mumbai.

He is also a road-safety and personal-safety activist.

Radhakrishnan says, “Faisal Thakur and Anil Uchil (an entrepreneur and cycling enthusiast) are the guys you can call any time of any day and they will pick up their phone and help."

Born into a family of ship repairers, Thakur knows what to do with a cycle the minute he holds a bit of metal in his hand. Watching his father and uncles work on metal fabrication units tirelessly, he says he learnt one fundamental truth: Metal is malleable. Indeed, it is this principle that comes to mind when you watch him assemble a bike.

“A bike, in the end, is made by a human being," says Thakur. “If anything can be fabricated, I can do it too."

“You can go to him and you know he responds to you not as a businessman with an agenda to give you what he has, but as a man who will find solutions to your cycling query or problem and who will give you what you require," says Vikram Seth, a chartered accountant and cycling enthusiast. Walking into Thakur’s studio, says Seth, is like being part of a cycling community—you will bump into an assortment of people who are in some way connected to cycling.

“If you need technical advice, or if a part you want is unavailable, it is Faisal you can go to," says Manu Trivedi, another enthusiast. “What will take weeks to receive after ordering can be fabricated at his shop in hours."

Some years ago, Thakur briefly joined Critical Mass, a global movement started in 1992 that saw cyclists pedalling slowly in pairs on the left side of the road in peak hours, attempting to drive home the message that they too have a right to city roads. The movement arrived in Mumbai in November 2007; Thakur joined it in 2008, leaving it 11 months later, when the number of cyclists plunged from a maximum of 100 to just 8.

Thakur believes the movement fizzled out because no one made it fun; the idea was just to create awareness. That, he says, is when he understood that if you want to sustain an activity like biking, it is important to sync it with leisure. He tries to build that in whenever he organizes a biking activity or rally.

Thakur also hosts free workshops on cycling at his shop—generally, once a month. He has been instrumental in getting cycle parking space on Bandra roads—not easy in a city that is strapped for space. Unlike Bengaluru, even Navi Mumbai, a planned satellite city, does not have a bike-only route; nor does the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link.

“If the authorities could talk to cyclists while making roads, safety standards on the road will only get better," argues Thakur. “If a biker is comfortable on the road, all other vehicles will only be more comfortable." Social worker Anil Joseph, a cyclist himself, has certainly seen some change: Manhole covers, which used to be 3 inches above the ground, are now either tapered off or aligned to the road, leaving bikers on an even keel. And, of course, Bandra’s roads now allow cycle parking.

All in all, Bandra, which still has lanes and bylanes untouched by time and long stretches of sea face, seems to have arrived as a cycle-sensitive suburb.

Much more needs to be done. The community of cyclists now hopes to convince schoolchildren to take to the activity.

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