Last year, Greater Kailash resident Sumeet Nath discovered the outdoors. The 39-year-old architect-interior designer used to go for spinning classes at a gym and was introduced to outdoor cycling by Robert Vadra.
“Robert is a fitness enthusiast and regularly cycles in central Delhi. He suggested I try it once and I got hooked. I introduced my friends and soon we became a group of 10 biking addicts.”
Today, Nath and his friends have named themselves Freewheelers (FW), and do their 50-km a week, having beer at the end of a trail on days they feel they’ve burnt enough calories.
The last two years have seen a spurt in bicycling groups such as the FW in Indian metropolises. The reason, says Nalin Sinha, co-founder of Delhi Bicycling Club (DCC), a non-profit group launched in 2006, is increased awareness about the environment and the health benefits of cycling.
There’s been a shift in mindsets, too, says Sinha. “Four years ago, both the people and the government wondered where the space for cyclists was. Today they know cycling will help reduce
congestion. The approval of bicycle lanes in Master Plan 2021 is a big victory.” It comes as no surprise then that the DCC has grown to more than 1,000 members that includes 13
sub-groups in Delhi’s four districts.
In case you are too lazy to join a formal cycling group and still fancy exploring the city at your own pace, take a cycling tour. It’s a hit with tourists and expats visiting the Capital. Launched in 2009 by Dutch national Jack Leenaars, Delhibycycle offers cycle tours for a fee. “Jack thought the best way to explore a city was on two wheels. He started with two cycles and today has 40,” says team member Arpita, a documentary filmmaker.
Most groups use two kinds of bikes. Road bikes, with thinner tyres, lightweight bodies and little resistance are suitable for city roads, while mountain bikes have thicker tyres with greater resistance needed to tame rougher terrain. Nath owns both, and once in a while, takes off with his photographer wife to the hills on a cycling trek.
The safety question
Is it safe to venture out on bicycles in a city known for road rage? “We ride early morning, when there’s less traffic, gear and helmets in place. Also, we steer clear of rash motorcycle and autorickshaw drivers,” says Nath.
Unlike the Freewheelers, who cycle for fun and fitness, the Pedalyatris (PY), a bunch of serious cyclists, think nothing of wandering deep into the woods around Faridabad and Gurgaon.
From 2008, when PY began with just three people, their tribe has grown to 150, mostly residents of Gurgaon, Dwarka and Noida. Co-founder Anand Sinha, 41, a public health professional, says ‘testing the limits’ is the PY credo. They weed out inactive members every six months. “For many people, cycling is a fad. They want to be a part of the online discussions but don’t turn up for the rides. We don’t want to make it a picnic group,” he says.
Most members are professionals in the age group of 30-45, working with MNCs. How do they find time for their pursuit? “We strike a ‘work-life-cycling’ balance and our wives are the cycling widows,” says Anand with a smile. To make up to their loved ones, once in three months, the group organises events where members’ children join in for the 4-km rides. “It’s a large social network. When one cycles long
distances, cut off from civilisation, we form lifelong bonds,” adds Anand.
Often cycling groups are likened to golf as a sport for the well heeled. “People in upwardly mobile cities like Gurgaon and Pune, spend lakhs on their cycles only to talk about it, just like they do in golf even though may not be good cyclists/golfers,” says Anand.
With brands like Firefox in the market, ‘affordable glam bicycles’ are gaining popularity. Enthusiasts don’t mind investing between Rs 30, 000 and Rs 2 lakh on a bike. “They put in fancy milo-metres, an Apple GPS application, even an iPod... I have a heart rate monitor,” says Nath.
According to government figures, 60 million road trips take place in Delhi every day. Half of these are for distances of less than four km. If even 10 per cent of Delhi shifts to cycles, the air quality will improve significantly, says Sinha.
When author HG Wells wrote: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race,” he must have had the ‘pedal-yatris’ in mind.