Free-wheeling: Why Indian women are turning bikers

  • Joanna Lobo, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 10, 2016 12:26 IST
Maral Yazarloo, Amanda Brown Gupta and Seema Sharma Dora in Delhi. They are members of the two-month-old group Lady Riders of India. (Photo by Abhinav Saha/Hindustan Times)

Standing out, proving a point, revelling in the journey. These are some of the reasons women say they are taking to motorcycles. Meet India’s growing tribe of women bikers

When you put on a helmet, essentially, you disappear. That’s one of the key advantages, women bikers say — that they can finally enjoy the road in anonymity.

“I was once mistaken for a man,” says ad promo producer Kaizin Pooniwala, 31, laughing. It was at a traffic light and she was approached by a schoolboy, addressed as sir and asked for a lift. That’s the kind of unique experience you can have, they say, entering worlds you didn’t even know existed.

“On a bike, your gender doesn’t matter. All that matters is your confidence,” Pooniwala says. She had wanted to learn to ride since she was a teenager, but kept putting it off because she had a car. A road trip with Bikerni, a group of all-women riders, in 2014 gave her the final push.

She bought a Duke KTM 200 last May and got her brother-in-law to help her learn to ride it. “Riding for me is all about independence. It’s just you and the road. When you’re on a bike, you feel connected with the journey and the road and nature in a totally different way,” she says.

Bikerni, incidentally, is among a growing number of women bikers’ groups cropping up across the country, as more women take to bikes, in turn encouraging more roadies-at-heart to do so too. “When we started it in 2011, there wasn’t any proper guidance or platform for women who were interested in riding. We wanted to be that platform,” says co-founder Urvashi Patole, 27, a social media analyst.

The response to her group and others like it has been surprisingly hearty.

Read | Bikerni: women on wheels break barriers, stereotypes

While Bikerni started with 15 women and now has 700 members across India, Bengal Lady Bikers, founded in 2011 with two, now has 100. Hop on Gurls, launched in Bengaluru in 2010 to help women learn to ride, now has branches in Mysore and Pune. Vagabond Travel Ideas, launched in 2013, has seen registrations for their women-only bike tours go from about 6 per trip to an average of 14. Mumbai even has a 19-month-old riding school, First Gear, dedicated to teaching women how to ride a motorcycle.

Watch | Indian women live their biking dreams

“Women come to us saying they’ve been thinking about it for a while are now signing up, inspired by stories of other women bikers,” says Shubhangi Manjrekar, 39, founder of First Gear and an administrative assistant at an ad agency.

The growing numbers are reflected in events such as India Bike Week, which registered about 1,000 women riders each in 2013 and 2014, a number that jumped to 2,500 in the third edition, held last year.

Motorcycles brands say they are seeing this market grow too. US-based Triumph, which entered the India market in 2013, say 50 of the 3,000 bikes sold in India so far have been to women. Harley-Davidson India had a total of 12 women buyers between 2010 and 2013 and has had 38 women buyers since. “Last year we also organised two women-only Taste of Triumph rides, for the first time, tying up with motorcycling clubs such as Bikerni and Riderni in Pune,” says Vimal Sumbly, MD of Triumph Motorcycles, India.

The women’s reasons for picking a motorcycle vary. Some do it for the thrill of standing out in the crowd, others are looking to prove a point, still others are encouraged or inspired by the men in their lives.

In the case of Ahmedabad homemaker Shyla Rajan, it was her daughter Anjaly who taught her to ride, last year.

Ahmedabad-based Anjaly Rajan taught her mother Shyla how to ride. ‘My husband rode and I had always wanted to learn, but in our time society was different,’ Shyla says. Now, the mother and daughter go on jaunts to nearby destinations like Rajkot, or just to the highway for a cup of chai. (Photo by Siddharaj Solanki)

“When I married in 1985, my husband would take me out on his Yezdi and we would travel around Kerala, where we were based,” says the 49-year-old. “I have wanted to learn since then. I wasn’t able to, because our neighbourhood was very conservative, but I made sure my daughter did.”

Anjaly, a 27-year-old marketing consultant, began learning to ride as a teenager and took to it passionately in 2009, when she started working and bought her own bike. She then founded biking group Riderni, in 2012. “Every time I went on a ride, I would meet men who would tell me that their wives wanted to ride too, but the family wouldn’t let them go out with groups that were virtually all-male. So I thought of starting a group for girls,” she says.

It was Riderni that finally gave her mother the confidence to learn. The mother-daughter duo now goes on short trips around the city, to nearby destinations like Rajkot, or just to the highway for a cup of chai. “My daughter was very patient when teaching me. We never rode too far and if I got tired, she would take over,” Shyla says. “These little things made a huge difference when learning.”

Read: Gurgaon women all praises for Baxi’s free-ride offer on Tuesdays

‘Anywhere I want to go, I just set out’

Esha Gupta enjoys going on bike rides alone and wants to spread the message that India is safe for women travelling alone. (HT Photo: Vivek R Nair)

In 2013, during a trip to Ladakh, Esha Gupta met a group of bikers who impressed her with stories of places they visited because they were able to ride through rough terrain.

She returned home determined that her next trip to Ladakh would be on her own beast. In February 2014, she bought a Bajaj Avenger, named it Mike and learned to ride. “Now, if I want to go somewhere, I just set out,” says the Bengaluru-based 36-year-old, who quit her job as a senior facilities manager four years ago to travel. “It’s so helpful to have your own hassle-free transport in a new place.”

Gupta has done memorable solo rides since she got Mike, including one along the Golden Quadrilateral (a network of highways connecting Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai) to spread the message that India was safe for women travelling alone. “I rode for 40 days. One night, at a dhaba on my way to Jaipur, I met some truck drivers. They were impressed with my trip and we had a great conversation about women’s safety and travel,” she says.

She is currently travelling across 17 states over 110 days, a journey she began on January 26. Gupta is also part of a Bajaj bikers’ club. “Being part of a group teaches you discipline,” she says. Biking has become a mode of expression too. “When I’m sad, I take my bike out and go for a ride to cheer myself up. When I’m happy, I go for a thrill ride,” she says.

‘Riding for me is about independence’

Bike rider Kaizin Pooniwala poses for picture at Five Graden, Dadar in Mumbai, India, on Wednesday, February 3, 2016. (Photo by Kunal Patil/ Hindustan Times)

Kaizin Pooniwala, 31, a Mumbai-based ad promo producer, got her interest in cars and bikes from her father, a hydraulics engineer. But she never got around to getting her own bike because she had a car.

That was until she joined a group of women riders called Bikerni on a trip to Lonavla in 2014, riding pillion. Inspired, she bought a Duke KTM 200 last May and took riding lessons from her brother-in-law. “Riding for me is all about independence. It is just you and the road,” she says.

Pooniwala has since gone on five day trips with all-women groups, to places such as Lonavla and Karjat. She also uses the bike to get to and from work, a half-hour commute. “Riding has taught me much discipline,” she says. “I see to the maintenance of the bike myself. I always wear helmet, jacket and boots for safety. On long-distance trips I also put on elbow guards, knee guards and gloves.”

She could write a book on the reactions she gets on the road, she adds, laughing. “Often, it’s a thumbs-up from other riders. But there are those who will challenge you to a race just because you’re a woman. I usually ignore them.”

‘A stress-buster, an adrenaline high’

Seema Sharma Dora, 43, an advocate who runs two travel agencies, was taught to ride first by her father and then her husband. “I was eight months pregnant when I first rode a geared bike,” she says, laughing. “I decided to do something no one else had done because I was tired of people telling what I should and shouldn’t be doing.”

Two sons and five motorbikes later, Dora has completed the SaddleSore and BunBurner rides of the American Iron Butt Association. She is also the only woman in the 150-strong Group of Delhi Superbikers (GODS), whom she calls her ‘family’. Her other family, although they are scattered across the country, are the 24 women bikers who call themselves Lady Riders of India. This group was started last December, by Pune-based corporate executive and fashion designer Maral Yazarloo, 34, who owns four bikes, including a Harley.

“I created this group for women like me who were serious about biking and had a passion for travelling,” she says. “To be a member you have to have your own 650cc at least, and have ridden more than 10,000 km.”

So far, Lady Riders has 24 members across eight states, riding Harleys, Ducatis, Hondas, Kawasakis and Triumphs.

Among these is Delhi-based business-woman Amanda Brown Gupta, 39, who bought her Harley 18 months ago. “Riding is my stress-buster,” she says. “Despite working long nights through the week, I am excited to wake up at 4.45 am for Sunday group rides because being on the road makes me happy. It provides the adrenaline I need for daily life.”

‘Bike helped me reclaim my life after divorce’

‘After my divorce came through, I wanted to do something for myself. So I bought a Harley and, with my children away at college, every weekend is now spent riding to Delhi or to places around Jaipur,’ says restaurateur Veenu Paliwal. (Photo by Himanshu Vyas/ Hindustan Times)

Veenu Paliwal (above) and her bike are a familiar sight in the narrow bylanes of her native Jaipur. “I think I am the only woman Harley rider here, so people recognise me,” says the 44-year-old restaurateur, divorcee and mother of two.

The recognition is always followed by surprise. “I’m constantly asked ‘Aren’t you scared? How do you manage the weight? What does it cost?’” she says.

Paliwal first learned to ride in college, from friends, and found it thrilling. She couldn’t continue riding, though, because she didn’t have her own bike. And she later married a man who wouldn’t let her ride.

Last year was her second coming. “My divorce came through and I settled back into my life. I wanted to do something for myself. So I bought a Harley and, with my children away at college, every weekend is now spent riding to Delhi or to places around Jaipur,” she says.

Paliwal says she has clocked 17,000 km since November and aims to hit 50,000 km in a year, before upgrading to a Road King.

“Biking has also taught me about road safety,” she says. “In a car, there’s a sense of security and you tend to take more risks as a result. On the bike, you have no buffer, so all your senses are alert. Biking makes you look at things, even road safety, from a different perspective.”

‘i conduct motorcycle adventures for a living’

Pooja Dhabi rides her bike in Pune. (HT Photo)

Pooja Dabhi, 23, has her dream job — organising and leading motorcycle tours. “It combines both my passions, travel and biking,” she says.

Dabhi, a Puneite, graduated in travel and tourism last year. While still studying, she worked part-time with a company offering bike tours. “All my journeys were day trips because I was on a moped,” she says.

She realised she would need better wheels but it was only in December 2014, when she tried her hand at a friend’s bike, that she fell in love with the motorcycle. A few days later, she bought herself a KTM Duke 200. Now, she is constantly travelling, doing the kinds of road trips she had always dreamed of — a non-stop trip from Gokarna to Pune in pouring rain; 1,500 km in five days along the Konkan coast to Goa; 550 km in seven hours from Vadodara to Pune.

She typically organises tours for people who aren’t avid bikers but want to explore a place the way a biker would. On two trips to Ladakh last year, each group of 16 had four women. “It was exciting to see women coming out and riding,” she says. “Most of the customers look at my 4’9” frame and are amazed that I can ride a superbike. It gives them, especially the women riders, a lot of confidence. It is easier to convince and encourage them when I narrate my own travel stories.”

Dabhi credits her bike with increasing her own self-confidence too. “Because of my height, most people would tend to not take me seriously. Now they do,” she says.

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