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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Women who go va-va-vroom

Women who go va-va-vroom

Women who go va-va-vroom

One of a kind: Biking is not popular among women in India, yet. Premium

One of a kind: Biking is not popular among women in India, yet.

Urvashi Patole, 23, rode her first motorbike, a Bajaj Pulsar 180 Classic belonging to her cousin, when she was 14. The first motorcycle she owned was a Bajaj XCD.

Today, Patole lives in Bangalore, works for Bosch, a global supplier of technology and services, and has founded Bikerni, a Facebook site and portal that connects women motorcyclists across India. Their first expedition together was to Khardung La, part of every biker’s bucket list. Eleven women aged 21-53 (the eldest was from Rajkot, Gujarat) made it to what is believed (incorrectly by some estimates) to be the highest motorable pass in the world.

I contacted Patole to answer a question: Why don’t women ride motorbikes? Some do. Just a year old, Bikerni has already racked up 80 members. But relative to the thousands of male riders, the number of female riders is “disappointingly low—less than 1-2%", according to Sunil Gupta, 31, content manager at xBhp, India’s biggest motorcycling portal. Bangalore and Pune have the greatest number of bike enthusiasts, followed by Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai, says Gupta. Delhi has several motorcycle clubs, including the Sikh Motorcycle Club, in which members wearing Hermès orange turbans pose in front of their bikes. Not many women though. “Women, at least in India, are not that adventure-loving and there is hardly any incentive for them to break that image," says Gupta.

One of a kind: Biking is not popular among women in India, yet.

Why? I called Siddhartha Lal, managing director and CEO of Eicher Motors, Royal Enfield’s parent company, to explore this chicken and egg question. Why don’t motorcycle companies market to women, I asked. Is it because women don’t ride bikes? Or do women not ride bikes because motorcycle companies don’t market to them? “It’s a self-perpetuating stereotype," said the Delhi-based Lal. “Motorcycle companies don’t market to women because they form such a small percentage of our customer base; less than 1%. And those women are going to buy our bikes anyway, even if we don’t market to them. But if that 1% rises to 10% women riders, maybe all of us will sit up and take notice, although, frankly, I don’t think the number of women riders is going to go up significantly."

Patole and her cohorts are trying to break that image. They get inquiries from rural women who want to ride a bike; they are pushing for gender-based customization—shorter bikes for women—although they don’t think that is about to happen. And most of all, they are combating gender stereotypes and the perceived social stigma associated with women riding bikes. It has to do with male ego, says Patole; but also social conditioning that prevents women from thinking of the motorcycle as a viable vehicle option.

It isn’t just women. My metrosexual male friends rue ad campaigns for conditioner and body lotion that are marketed just towards women when, in fact, they buy just as many, if not more, skin products than their female friends. Slowly spas, beauty parlours and cosmetics companies are waking up to the male market with ads customized for men who want to look good. Will the same thing happen to motorcycles, admittedly a very different and more expensive product, but one that could follow the same marketing trajectory?

Why not, says Patole. After all, riding a bike is about body coordination, and when to shift gears. “A lot of our women riders are very ladylike, very pretty. But once they put on their helmets and get on the bike, they ride like demons. But that’s the other thing," she continues hastily. “People think that we bikers are rash when in fact we are the ones who follow safety disciplines the most."

So I got on her matt black, 350cc Royal Enfield. It was 6.30pm when we headed out of Trinity Circle; peak traffic all around. Once I got over the initial exhilaration of riding pillion with a woman on a motorbike—a first for me, once we got over the stop-and-go traffic and on the gurudwara side of Ulsoor Lake, we began cruising. I exhaled and shut my eyes, enjoying the strength and speed of these magnificent machines, for exactly 2 minutes till we came to a traffic light. You know what? With your eyes closed, a woman rider didn’t feel any different from a male rider, at least from the vantage point of the pillion. Was it inventor Ben Franklin who said that all cats are grey in the dark? Similarly, good riders are the same. Sex doesn’t matter (and I mean gender here). Patole is a fabulous biker; no different from a Sunil Gupta, Malvinder Singh or any of those bikers who are part of India’s male motorcycle clubs.

When I asked for her price-no-object bike, Patole gave me a bike junkie’s answer. “I would buy lots of vintage bikes and work on them," said this stuntwoman who can do all the Dhoom riding-on-one-wheel tricks. She likes Triumph, Norton and Honda Karizma.

Bikers can talk about their Bullet’s torque and suspension; about the Harley-Davidson Roadster’s performance and attitude. But in the end, and I can say this as a non-rider, it is only a friggin’ bike. Doesn’t matter if a man or woman rides it.

Visionary bike companies should market motorcycles to women. Not only would it be a distinctive, memorable, brand-building exercise; it would also increase the number of female riders in this country. In us, you bike companies have a captive market. What are you going to do about it?

Shoba Narayan would like to buy a Suzuki Hayabusa but “gentlemen", she will probably start her engine with a TVS Apache because she likes the name and its Indian pedigree. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 17 May 2012, 01:15 AM IST
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