Free wheeling10 min read . Updated: 01 Dec 2007, 12:07 AM IST
At 5.30am on select Sunday mornings, solitary cyclists make their way through the half-light to Bangalore’s Mekhri Circle or the Central Silk Board flyover or a suburban mall. By 6am, the hellos are out of the way and muscles are getting warmed up for the long grind ahead. A few minutes later, they’re cruising down Hosur or Kanakapura Road towards Yogavana Hills, or heading down Bannerghatta Road to Nandi Hills—a 140km round trip. “Cycling is not about just one thing," says software designer and dedicated bicyclist Abhijith Rao, 29, who is a regular on these Sunday morning rides out of Bangalore. “It’s about endurance and relaxation, about bonding and building a community and, most of all, about freedom and having fun. It can be whatever you want it to be."
“I want to cycle as young kids do, for the love of it, not necessarily from Point A to Point B," says G.V. Dasarathi, director, applications, of Bangalore-based Cadem Technologies Pvt. Ltd. The 48-year-old went back to cycling five years ago—almost 30 years after the two-wheeler ceased to be his main mode of transport—at the urging of a friend campaigning for better air quality on Bangalore’s infamously polluted roads.
Many thousands of bike miles down the line, Dasarathi’s focus has changed slightly. “Initially, I used to bike from home to the local gym or use it to run errands. After a few months, I began taking the bike to work maybe a couple of days a week. Then I began to dread those days when carry-home files or client meetings forced me to use the car," he says. “Now, it’s an addiction, part of my integrated exercise routine. I use my Ford Fusion perhaps once in 10 days; I prefer to cycle the 15km distance between home in Sadashivnagar and office in Jayanagar, twice a day."
Cycling to work is a trend which is gradually catching up in traffic-congested Bangalore, especially in the desk-work dominated software sector: It is not unusual to see sweaty engineers pedalling to work and heading straight for the shower and a change of clothes once they get to the office. While Dasarathi has inspired a few colleagues with his environment spiel, Balasubramanya Ramananda, 35, a software engineer with a leading multinational, cycles to work every day because “I like it, though I am concerned enough about the environment to take the bus on days I can’t cycle."
Not just home-to-work commutes, techies prefer the bicycle for intra-campus rides as well. There are some 690 basic-model bicycles on Infosys Technologies’ 80-acre Bangalore campus, which any employee can pick up from Point A to ride to Point B and drop off at a designated parking spot. “We can’t put a figure on their daily use, but let’s just say they are very popular," says a company spokesperson. “In the Mysore campus, which is even larger, at 335 acres, we have 1,000 bikes."
Ironically, the effects of pollution are a major worry with many cyclists, prompting blog posts about face masks and suggestions of alternative routes and off-peak hour commutes. So is road safety. “You have to play it cool," says Pramod Kumar, a 27-year-old systems architect who started biking to work a few months ago, and has since convinced at least five of his workmates at Varista Technologies to follow suit. “I always wear a helmet and rig up my Trek 3700 with a torch after dark. And though it’s very tough at times, one has to resist sledging and worse from passing fuel guzzlers."
The white-helmeted, fluorescent-jacketed, biking-gloved Dasarathi is now a familiar sight on his daily route. He rubbishes the idea, though, of being run off the road by motorists. “That’s the beauty of cycling in India," he exclaims. “The cyclist is such a common sight on our roads, no one gives a damn. If I am noticed, it’s because of my gear and also my Dahon 6-speed folding bike, which I can tuck into my car boot when necessary."
In India’s most congested city, that is precisely the routine Rafeeq Ellias follows. While shopping for another car early this year, the 57-year-old photographer realized that the four wheel type of mobility would not do anything for his ticker or his muscles. Ellias surfed the Internet and “in one of those good spiritual moments, a folding bike revealed itself".
It was quite a few wheel spokes ahead of the Re1 per hour cycles he used to hire as a child. The two-geared S2L-X, with Kevlar brake cables, Stelvio tyres and titanium parts, is the lightest bike in UK-based company Brompton’s catalogue. But it is not this state-of-the-art bicycle technology or its Kew Green colour that has Ellias hooked. It is the fact that in three easy steps his Brompton folds up into a perfectly engineered bundle, measuring 1.9ft in height, 1.8ft in length and 0.8ft in width.
It occupies a modest amount of space in the boot of Ellias’ car, and he travels with it everywhere. “It’s acceptable as hand baggage in some airlines and even the Metropolitan Museum in New York accepts it at the coat check," he smiles.
From the mobility must-have of adolescence to the cool wheels of adulthood, the bicycle’s reason to be is evolving, as is the bike itself. From the ubiquitous basic model with a chain, a sprocket driving rear wheel and equal-sized wheels, to the top-end brands with variable suspensions, alloy metal pedals and multiple rear gears, the emphasis has shifted from functionality to a combination of form and comfort in “young" cities such as Pune and Bangalore, certainly, but also in overcrowded Mumbai and Kolkata.
“We sell around 200 high-end bikes a month," says Shiv Inder Singh, managing director of Firefox Bikes, India, which has exclusive showrooms in New Delhi, Gurgaon, Chandigarh and Mumbai and 18 dealers across the South and West. “In Bangalore alone, our sales have gone up by 80% over last year. Elsewhere in the country, we surpassed last year’s sales in the first six months of 2007." The firm also deals in the popular Trek bikes.
Mumbai’s HyperCity hypermarket has a tie-up with the century-old British cycle maker, Raleigh. The bikes, costing between Rs2,499 and Rs1 lakh, were launched in May 2006; a spokesperson for HyperCity says around 8,000 cycles had been sold till October from HyperCity’s Malad outlet.
Most cyclists, such as writer and film-maker Adi Pocha, upgrade their cycles often. The 45-year-old started cycling a few years ago, from his home in suburban Mumbai to Aarey Milk Colony, a distance of less than a kilometre. “I would be totally pooped by the end of the ride," he says. He abandoned his fixed-gear cycle for an 18-speed Atlas and, after weeks of daily practice, he was pedalling 12km a day.
Then, one day, he ran into a pair of cyclists who had made a trip to Madh Island. Pocha was intrigued enough to try the 50km round trip from Marol to Madh. “I was completely exhausted at the end, but loved it, so I would cycle to Madh Island every weekend and increased my Aarey ride to 20km every day," he says.
Last year, Pocha challenged himself—not to mention his quads and glutes—with a trip to Dahanu, a small beach town near the border of Maharashtra. “Before the excursion, I took my car and drove almost all of the 140km, looking for puncture repair shops, petrol pumps and hospitals," he says. He also got himself an all-aluminium Hero Octane worth Rs9,000 before the excursion.
Many ‘bike-aficionados’ prefer to save their passion for the weekends. At 40, businessman Diwakar Vashisht monikers himself “Old Man" on the online bike forum he frequents, but sportingly gives competition to much younger group mates on their regular forays out of the city.
“I’ve never cycled in Bangalore, I can’t take the pollution and traffic," he says. “Even when we go out of town, I like to stay off the highways and use the little roads. These are usually planted with trees and have much less traffic, so they’re cyclist-friendly."
Like most bikers, Vashisht confesses to preferring solitary rides, though his eight-year-old son, too, is keen on bicycles. Biking alone to Mysore on 30 December last year—a seven-hour sojourn—he discovered the equivalent of a major mental workout. “The solitude is conducive to contemplation. It helps me de-stress, be more aware of my surroundings," says the man who rediscovered bicycles when the scales tipped at 80kg a couple of years ago. “Besides, it reaffirms my belief that endurance is a skill you develop with age."
Age, in fact, has little to do with the challenges distance cycling can throw up. Technical consultant Harish Shivaram, 31, developed a taste for biking as a way of life while working in the US. Back in Bangalore, he consciously made it part of his life with the aim of hitting the Manali-Ladakh trail—considered one of the dream routes in India—in August this year. “The first thing I did was to quit smoking," says Shivaram. “Then, I began building up my endurance, going from cycling 50km a week to 200km a week. Even then, by the time I managed to reach Marhi, a small town on the way to the Rohtang Pass, I was certain I had made a big mistake and was almost ready to throw my Trek 3500 on top of a bus and come back."
Interestingly, while most bikers like solitary rides, each insists the community is a huge bonding force, so much so that biking groups are almost exclusively male preserves. “We have some women members, too," Abhijith Rao tries to defend Bikeszone, the Web forum he administers, but he admits none of them has ever joined them on their Sunday morning rides. “But we’re always open to newbies and different agendas. We plan our rides on discussion forums online and if a new rider is joining us, we’ll plan an easier route or a shorter ride. We have scheduled regroup points along the route, too, to help weaker riders catch up with us, drink some coconut water or have breakfast. Everyone cycles at their own pace, irrespective of whether they’re doing it for the first time or if they’re into endurance-building for a racing or sporting event."
Mumbai has an option for cyclists who may not want to make a commitment to a group, but still want to have an occasional fling with two wheels. Every month, Odati Adventures organizes a cycling tour through Mumbai’s heritage district. Jayesh Moravankar, proprietor of the adventure sports company, started the Mumbai cycling tour two years ago when he heard about a friend who had done a similar trip in Europe. The company provides participants with a 21-gear Hero cycle if they are unable to arrange for one, there’s a bun-maska breakfast break at an Irani restaurant and lunch at an atmospheric eatery, such as Colaba’s Cafe Mondegar, after the 25km are covered.
Odati also arranges weekend, overnight cycling trips to places outside the city, such as Karjat, Khopoli and Shahapur. The procession of about six to eight cyclists sticks to the smaller roads, which are not crowded, when heading out of the city, and reserves its in-city excursions for Sunday mornings, when Mumbai’s heritage-cum-business district is deserted. “The Mumbai rides are more popular with residents and tourists as it is only a few hours on a Sunday," says Moravankar.
But, hopefully, many participants at such rides will soon bring their own bikes, because the community is pushing the common agenda. Deepak Majipatil, a recent convert, for instance, is working to get insurance cover for high-end bikes at the point of sale in association with Rohan Kini and Nikhil Eldurkar, an enterprising duo dealing in Trek and Firefox cycles at www.bumsonthesaddle.com while balancing five-day software jobs.
“While the onus for road safety lies with me, it is not fair that I can’t get insurance for my bike, a Trek 4300, which cost me Rs23,000," points out Majipatil. “I am in talks with Oriental Insurance for security against theft and accident repairs. They were quite shocked when I told them how much my bike cost—they had no idea bicycles could be so expensive."
A little awareness, bicyclists believe, would make the world a better place for muscle-powered two-wheelers. Simple things—such as 24/7 access to Mumbai’s streets and designated parking space in malls—would, they believe, encourage more people to take to the eco-friendly two-wheeler. Who knows, one day, they may save the world.