The new wheel barons17 min read . Updated: 01 Jul 2011, 09:43 PM IST
The new wheel barons
The new wheel barons
At 7 on a slightly nippy Sunday morning in March, shopkeepers at the eggs-and-bread and fruit juice shacks near Gurgaon have their eyes glued to NH8. Nearby, at a gas station, the attendants are watching the road as well. Soon, you can hear the rumble. The next second, they have zipped past in a Doppler scream, receding in little flashes of bold reds, greens and black along the white lines of the highway.
“I’ve got a bike just like those ones," jokes a shopkeeper, grinning widely at the empty road on which a dozen or so super-brawny bikes just went past in a blur.
“That’s right, he gets these eggs on that bike every morning," the eggs-and-bread guy comments, pointing to the large stack of eggs piled up neatly outside the shop.
It’s a sight that’s become a bit of a ritual for the shopkeepers here, this fraction of a second of sound and fury every Sunday morning, as Delhi’s “superbikers" lovingly coax their racing machines out of the garage for their weekly run on the near-empty stretch of road that snakes its way to Jaipur.
Arun Theraja, 50, is at the front of this group, riding a blue 1200cc Ninja ZX12R, arguably the world’s most coveted superbike. Theraja, an ENT and head, neck cancer surgeon who heads the unit at Maharaja Agrasen Hospital in New Delhi, is hopelessly in love with the fastest street-legal production vehicles that money can buy. He is the founder-member of the Group of Delhi Superbikers—smugly shortened to “Gods"—a mixed bunch of doctors, CEOs, bankers, pilots and real estate consultants with a common passion: superbikes.
Loosely defined as street replicas of motorcycles used for track racing, superbikes usually feature engines between 750cc and 1200cc, cranking out anything between 150-180 horsepower—andthey are increasingly becoming an obsession with well-heeled urban Indians with alove for speed and sophisticated machines.
Dr Theraja’s passion for these bikes began in 1989, when he went to Thailand for his honeymoon. Superbikes are widely available in Thailand for hire, and he succumbed to the temptation.
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“They turned me upside down," says Theraja. “Every day, I hired a different bike."
His wife literally took a backseat.
Once back in India, Theraja started saving money for “project superbike". In 1994, he bought his first one—a black Kawasaki Ninja, imported from Singapore, with more than 100% paid as import duty. Since then, he has bought and sold 15 superbikes, and now owns, besides the ZX12R, a Honda CBR1000RR, and a “naked" Suzuki Hayabusa—so called because it has an exposed engine.
“The main excitement, of course, is acceleration and speed," says Theraja. “The torque! The litre bikes (1,000 cc) are instantaneous—the moment you twist the throttle, they take off. And they are drop-dead gorgeous."
Theraja hit 270km per hour (kmph) on his Ninja, on a beautiful stretch of empty desert highway in Rajasthan, with fellow bikers stationed as “spotters" to avoid accidents. “The moment you cross 200 kmph it’s a tunnel vision—your periphery is just a blur," he says. “You feel invincible."
Though the market for superbikes in India was opened up by Yamaha in December 2007, when it launched the MT-01 and the R1 purely as a public relations exercise, it’s only now that these machines are gaining proper traction on Indian roads.
“We just wanted to communicate to people in India that Yamaha makes sophisticated, advanced, and aggressive bikes like these," says Roy Kurian, national business head at India Yamaha Motor. “We had no sales expectations."
The response, though, was unexpected. Yamaha sold 107 of these bikes in 2008. Ducati, Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki soon joined the fray. By the end of 2010, more than 3,000 superbikers were taking their machines out for Sunday morning rides on Indian highways.
“Ducati has grown at more than 100% year-on-year," says Ashish Chordia, CEO, Precision Motor India Pvt. Ltd, the sole distributors for Ducati in India. It launched its latest superbike, the Diavel, in India in April, a month after its global launch.
Despite the thrill of speed, superbike owners in India are usually not reckless young bikers careening murderously through traffic. They are more likely to be bespectacled, soft-spoken, and successful professionals such as Gulshan Rishabh, 32, a partner and managing director with the Boston Consulting Group in Delhi, and the owner of a 1,100 cc Ducati Streetfighter and a 1,360 cc Ninja ZX-14—“the biggest, baddest Ninja".
Rishabh, who describes himself as a “conservative rider", bought his first superbike three years ago, and when he is not talking business strategy, biker language flows from his tongue effortlessly—inline engines, L-twin engines, torque, race filters, traction control.
“You have to be passionate and involved," says Rishabh. “It’s not just the thrill of speed or the adrenalin rush. It’s a long-term love. You want to be able to savour it and enjoy it for years to come."
Theraja adds: “You are nothing without control, patience and focus on these bikes. These bikes can take you down any time. Pulling the throttle is the easiest thing to do. It’s also the most dangerous."
Most superbikers are not just passionate riders, but also make the time and effort to understand these sophisticated and highly advanced machines inside out. Theraja has modified his bikes himself, patiently scouring the Internet for parts, and then changing the exhaust, adding a computer module for increased fuel delivery, race filters and carbon-fibre trimmings, among other things.
“The first modification a biker will typically do is change the exhaust," says Rishabh. “The stock exhaust is quite muted, so you want to make it more peppy, get more engine sound, better airflow. But basically it’s for the noise—you want to hear a superbike!"
The noise of a superbike is unlike any other. Start the engine, and it sparks to life with a warm, throaty growl that’s muted, but bassy enough to make you feel the awesome power purring underneath. Release the throttle a bit more, and a wall of sound hits you—a visceral, unfettered roar that somehow still retains a rich, clean timbre, held together with an almost supersonic whine running beneath the bass notes.
Ambica Sharma, the 32-year-old chief operations officer of Jagran Solutions, a part of Jagran Prakashan Ltd, bought her Honda CBR1000RR in May 2010 for ₹ 14 lakh. She added a K&N racing filter and a True Brothers Racing exhaust. Sharma, who took her baby steps in learning how to ride a bike at the age of 5 on her father’s Enfield Bullet, comes from a family of bikers, and is one of the few women with a superbike in the country.
“Any guy on the street wants to race me," she says, “even if he’s on a 100 cc bike or a Santro. Usually, I don’t engage in these races, but sometimes, if the setting is just right, it’s great to just zoom away and leave these guys in a complete daze."
Sharma loves speed, but she loves spending time on “the little things" even more. “On an advanced machine like this, even changing the filter takes a lot of learning and precision, and that’s something I love," she says.
Sharma spends 6-7 hours every weekend on her bike, performing all the maintenance and cleaning work herself. “A superbike is actually maintenance free," she says. “The involvement is only out of passion."
From practical to passionate
A burgeoning middle class, the lack of a reliable public transport system, and narrow, potholed roads mean two-wheelers are the perfect vehicular choice just about anywhere in India. The incredible mileage on Indian bikes, often close to 100km per litre (in test conditions), makes them affordable too. Sales figures back that—India is the second largest market for motorcycles in the world, behind China. In fiscal 2011, India’s most successful bike manufacturer, Hero Honda, posted best-ever sales, more than five million bikes. In the same fiscal, both Bajaj and TVS, India’s other major bike makers, reported record sales.
It was only a matter of time before India’s love affair with the motorcycle crossed the realm of the practical and began making inroads into the domain of passion. A few celebrities are the most visible examples of this phenomena—the Indian cricket team’s World Cup-winning captain M.S. Dhoni has a stable of 22 bikes, including Harleys, superbikes, dirt bikes and custom choppers. Actor John Abraham owns two superbikes and a custom chopper. Rahul Gandhi has an unspecified number of superbikes. Actor Gul Panag rode up to her wedding in March at a gurdwara near Chandigarh on a Royal Enfield bike with her husband-to-be.
This year has seen and continues to see the launch of a stunning line-up of bikes from most Indian and foreign bike manufacturers in the country, and none of them are the 100 cc or 150 cc bikes that you ride to office. Yamaha will introduce two more superbikes, BMW will make its debut with two superbikes, Harley-Davidson has two versions of its iconic Sportster cruiser ready for launch, Hyosung will re-enter the Indian market with a superbike and a cruiser, Bajaj-KTM has two futuristic bikes in the pipeline that look like a cross between a street racer and a dirt bike, and car manufacturer Mahindra and Mahindra will introduce its second bike—a 300 cc with a radical design.
“It’s a huge step in a country where, just three years ago, buying a high-performance bike meant importing it from a foreign country and paying more than 100% duty," says Kurien. In 2007, the government legalized the import and sale of bikes with engine specifications of 800 cc and above, relaxing emission norms for these machines.
“Bike makers around the world realized that a massive potential market had opened up," says Kurien.
But to experience the whackiest manifestation of India’s newly maturing love for high-performance bikes, you have to enter a tight knot of streets in Mayapuri, an industrial area in west Delhi. Hidden behind high stacks of greasy metal scrap, a basic two-storeyed building houses a workshop that turns the Royal Enfield Bullet into monstrous custom choppers—handcrafted bikes, in which everything except the engine is created from scratch. These machines can be up to 9ft long, with handlebars that are 3ft wide. The man behind the operations is a 72-year-old former air force officer with thinning silver hair, a gravelly voice, an eye which was damaged by cancer and reconstructed, and an upright gait.
In 2007, Air Commodore A. K. Mehta, along with his son Manu Mehta, an IIT and IIM graduate, started Dream Riders, one of the first shops to offer full customization of bikes in India.
“We were the first in India to fit a 300mm tyre on a bike—that’s 1.5 times the size of a Gypsy tyre," says Mehta.
The former test pilot, who served for 33 years in the force and flew in all three of India’s wars, began his affair with bikes in 1955, when he bought a Sunbeam, a classic British post-war bike. Manu acquired this love for motorcycles, and in 2007, Mehta decided he had enough money saved up to turn this collective obsession in to a profession.
“We scoured Delhi to find the best mechanics and metalworkers, searching for months for the right people," Mehta says.
All their metalwork is done by 38-year-old Javed Khan, whom Mehta found working at an ordinary roadside shack. “He was making beautiful precision parts for bikes sitting on the pavement with minimal tools. We doubled his salary and gave him a place to stay. You just can’t find someone like him."
Khan now creates the signature stylings of a custom chopper—the teardrop-shaped fuel tanks, the massive handlebars, and the monstrous exhausts.
Mehta’s team of five mechanics, who have remained unchanged till now, began by modifying one bike every three months.
“Till the beginning of 2009 we made around 10 bikes in a year," says Mehta. “Now we make close to 20. I got 300 inquiries between June and December 2010. We have a waiting list right now."
Jassi Singh, the chief mechanic, has been working on bikes for 43 years. He started in a street-side shack when he was just 15, and he specializes in recreating or restoring vintage bikes. “I’ve made three of them since I joined Dream Riders," Singh says, “A Triumph, a BSA and an Indian. The oldest bike I’ve restored is a 1942 Triumph."
Mehta boasts that his men can take apart an engine and put it back together in 3 hours—“Like a pitstop crew at a race."
“It is a high-creativity game," says Mehta. “Our work is as intricate as that of a goldsmith. It takes us weeks to make a tank. It might take months to make a special hub, or a special rim for the fat tyres. Everything is based on precision. You are going to drive these machines on the road and your safety depends on the precision of our work."
Dream Riders charge anything between ₹ 1 lakh and ₹ 4.5 lakh for a bike, depending on the kind of modifications needed.
Only the nuttiest would want to road-race custom choppers though. These machines are about self-presentation, about the metaphor; to dial up the design to its extravagant extreme, yet keep the motorcycle roadworthy.
That’s exactly what Mumbai-based custom bike builder Akshai Varde had in mind when he made the “Skeletor" for actor Jackie Shroff in 2009. Built on a Bullet, this is possibly the whackiest custom chopper in the country.
“It took us almost five months to create the bike," says the 30-year-old, whose shop is called Vardenchi Motorcycles (Vardenchi means “belonging to Varde" in Marathi).
“The first layer of the Skeletor is actually metal wires and plates. This was then wrapped with cloth for bulk, which was then layered with plaster of Paris. Then we curved out the details on the plaster, and then that was coated with a fibreglass hardening compound, which was again ground down for details. But the real challenge was to make this bike actually run on the road."
Varde, who started with just one other mechanic in 2005, now employs 16 people at his workshop, and creates four bikes a month on an average. He rides a “Stealth", one of his own creations—a beautiful black, vintage-looking cruiser that is far removed from the hammer-horror aesthetics of the Skeletor.
The ultimate cruise
Custom choppers were born in post-World War II America, when American GIs returning from war, and with a knowledge of bikes, began modifying Harley-Davidsons. In the 1960s, the modified Harley-Davidson became as much a part of Americana as Coca-Cola or the hot dog with the release of the cult movie Easy Rider, which followed Peter Fonda, the late Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson as they traversed American highways on modified Harleys in search of “freedom".
Vikram Bhalla, 36, was bitten by the biking bug when he saw Easy Rider as a teenager. An obsession with Harleys was insidiously ingrained in him as he was exposed to more such movies—Marlon Brando in The Wild One at one end of the spectrum, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator at the other.
So when he found out the Harley was coming to India in mid-2010, he began chasing them for a booking. “I knew I had to get one, there was no other option," he says.
Bhalla, who runs an event management company in Delhi and has been an avid biker since his college days, regularly goes on long, cross-country rides. In December, he rode from Guwahati to Bhutan on a Bullet. The Harley, built for easy and long cruising on highways, is the perfect bike for him.
“The Harley is me," he says. “I’m never going to sell it. I’d rather be riding it in the heat than be inside an AC car. My wife, most of my friends, don’t understand this obsession, and I don’t expect them to. We bikers are fucking mad. “
Bhalla, who owns a 1200 cc H-D Nightster, is one of the 250 people who bought Harleys in the first six months of its launch in India in June 2010.
Bangalore-based Vijay Bhardwaj was another. “Order No. 001 in Bangalore," he says proudly. Bhardwaj, who is the vice-president, human resources, at a multinational firm, bought a VRSC Nightrod, a powerful all-black cruiser with a 1250 cc engine.
“For bikers, the motorcycle is an emotional bond that’s impossible for a non-biker to understand," Bhardwaj says. He started riding on a Yezdi when he was in college 20 years ago, and though he gave up riding the Yezdi a decade ago, he has kept it in perfect running condition.
UK-based Triumph, the oldest bike manufacturer in the world (its first bike was made in 1902), also announced its India launch this month. Its flagship Rocket III cruiser is expected to make its debut on Indian roads by mid-2012.
Bhardwaj points out that owning a classic bike is not about material possession.
“It was unbelievable when I got my Harley," he says. “We did not allow imports of these bikes for so long in India that it felt unreal to get my hands on one."
“You don’t own these bikes you know," he says.
“The bikes own you."
MY MOTORCYCLE DIARY
A simplified look at the laborious stages involved in building a bespoke bike
1. The client comes in with an idea or design in mind and the technical details of the bike he or she wants changed. Over multiple meetings, the custom builders and the client give shape to the final design of the bike, keeping in mind that it has to be roadworthy.
2. Illustrations of the final design of the custom bike are drawn up, and a technical specification sheet for all the required parts is filled.
3. The illustrations, along with the technical specs, are run through a computer program to check the feasibility of building the bike, and its roadworthiness.
4. The old bike is stripped completely, and a new frame is made according to the custom design.
5. The various metal parts—the fuel tank, the shock absorbers, the handlebar, the rim, etc.—are handcrafted.
6. The old bike’s engine is loaded on to the frame, and the various parts are fitted according to a strict sequence, starting with the wheels.
7. The entire wiring of the bike is done.
8. All the systems—the engine, the clutches, the drivetrain, brakes, etc.—are tuned and checked.
9. The raw bike is test-driven for around 80km, and then fine-tuned.
10. The customer is called in to test-drive the raw bike.
11. The bike is stripped apart again, the various parts are electroplated and then painted, and the final custom bike is reassembled.
HIGHWAYS TO HEAVEN
Though Indian roads have a terrible reputation, there are a surprisingly large number of driving routes which feature pristine tarmac and dazzling scenic beauty. Here are a few:
The Manali-Leh road
India’s top biking route for decades now, the Manali to Leh road trip is de rigueur for every serious biker in India. Usually spread over four days, the route goes through some of the highest passes in the world, including Lachung La (16,300ft), and cuts through the surreal cold desert and high mountain landscape of Ladakh. Great roads through most of the trip, but the altitude demands tough, cruiser-type bikes. The Royal Enfield Bullet is by far the most popular choice for this almost 480km trip.
Delhi to Bikaner
Some of the best roads in India, a mix of hard concrete highways and soft black tarmac through desert landscapes, ancient forts, and stopovers at beautiful heritage hotels. The route follows the Delhi-Jaipur NH8 for about 200km, and then the fantastic six-lane Jaipur-Ajmer bypass till Samode, a small village with an old palace that is now a heritage hotel. Then the narrow but pristine highway to Bikaner, which is mostly traffic-free, and a perfect place for hitting the kind of speeds you wouldn’t dream about anywhere else. This 500km trip can be done in two days on any kind of bike, including superbikes.
Bangalore to Dharamsthala
A 275km trip following NH4 (the Pune-Bangalore highway) and then NH48 (Bangalore-Mangalore highway) before hitting the back roads through Hassan and the temple town of Belur. Though the highways have rough patches, the back roads are superb, with thick forests on either side. There are sinuous trails that cut through the Western Ghats, with misty, densely forested hills, waterfalls and coffee plantations. Dharamsthala is a quaint temple town in Karnataka with, believe it or not, a vintage car museum filled with classic cars in excellent condition.
Guwahati to Tawang
The new destination of choice for the adventurous biker, the approximately 500km trip from Assam to the monastery town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh features some of the best high-altitude roads in India. The route passes through spectacular rainforest-covered mountains, waterfalls and high-altitude passes, crosses the Brahmaputra, and runs along the Kaziranga National Park for some distance. The trip can be done in three days, and Indians need an inner-line permit to enter Tawang.