Cycle of change: Mumbai’s biking communities are making the bicycle popular again

  • Manali Shah, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Oct 08, 2015 19:37 IST
Apart from the environmental benefits, cycling is also an effective way to break away from a sedentary lifestyle.

In 1976, six-year-old Anil Uchil started cycling. Back then, he could rent a bicycle at 25 paise an hour in Bandra. He got his own road bike when he turned 13, and began riding it across Mumbai. He cycled everywhere: to school, college and even to work when he joined Exim Newsletter, a daily newspaper about imports and exports in the shipping industry, in 1993. He still cycles to work every day from Mulund to Andheri (that’s 15km one way).

The corporate communications executive says it offers freedom from the vagaries of public transport. “It’s healthy, environment-friendly and economical (you can thumb your nose at the rising fuel prices). But the real reason I cycle is because it’s sheer fun,” he says.

Uchil is not the only one. Cycling enthusiasts can be spotted in the wee hours along the Eastern Express Highway and areas like Worli Sea Face and Marine Drive. Earlier this year, PM Narendra Modi, in a speech on environmental crisis, said, “Why don’t we make Sunday cycle day? …I am saying that only one day a week, don’t use fuel-driven vehicles.”

Internationally, a lot has been done to encourage people to use the bicycle as a primary means of transport. UK’s Cycle to Work scheme offers tax-free bicycles to employees. A survey by the Danish Technical University revealed that 45 per cent of people in Copenhagen cycle to work/college. In Brussels (Belgium), Geneva (Switzerland), or San Francisco (USA), it is not uncommon to see top rung corporate executives in three-piece suits cycling their way to office. Amsterdam, famously, has more bicycles than people.

Cycling, though, has been a part of Indian culture for decades. Apart from people across strata in smaller towns and villages, in cities, mill workers, newspaper delivery boys, milk vendors and bread sellers have always used the bicycle. It was the aam aadmi’s way of getting about.

Today, the resurgent popularity of the bicycle isn’t so much as a practical mode of commuting as it is a way towards fitter lifestyles and eco-friendliness. We’ve seen the culture in the big cities of the west; and cyclists here are embracing it despite the fact that Mumbai hardly has the infrastructure for it.

Cycling has been a part of Indian culture for decades. Apart from people across strata in smaller towns and villages, in cities, mill workers, newspaper delivery boys, and vendors have always used the bicycle (Wide angle photography, Haybren Adventures )

Pay the price

The entry of high-end cycles also played a key role in making the poor man’s commute fashionable. In 2005, Mercedes Benz launched its MB range of bicycles in India. They were priced at an upward of Rs 75,000, going up to Rs 1,56,800 (compare this to the good old bent-handle Hero cycle that just costs Rs 3,600).

Firefox, launched in 2005, did its part in recognising and filling the void in the affordable bicycles segment (`5,000 to Rs 33,000) And in the following year, realising the market potential, bicycle giant Trek forayed into the Indian market in 2006, in partnership with Firefox. Then, Taiwan-based Merida came to India in 2007. Today, global brands like Giant, Cannondale, GT Bicycles are all available in India.

Now, Starkenn Sports, a premium bicycle store from Pune, launched its fourth store in the country, and their first in Mumbai, in Bandra this month. The 2,000sqft space houses a bike spa, shower rooms and a library containing books on cycling. Its Managing Director & CEO Pravin V Patil had initially decided to give Mumbai a miss, on account of it being a congested city. But he was forced to rethink his strategy. “Every week, we had two to three people from Mumbai visit our Pune store. Ten to 12 people a month would actually bring their bicycles all the way from Mumbai for us to service.”

The social media effect

Around the late 2000s, as the middle and affluent classes took to cycling, internet penetration also grew in India. Many made use of social media to create awareness. Numerous groups on Facebook today helps cyclists connect to fellow riders. The shared passion for cycling brings together absolute strangers, building friendships and a sense of community.

Jose George, an avid cycling enthusiast and the owner of the cycling store, Haybren Adventures, started Lakecity Pedalers (LCP), one of the first amateur cycling groups in the city, in 2008. George says, “Riding in a group is always more enjoyable. And you end up riding a lot more.” Usually, the ride distances range from 20 to 80km, and are held mostly on weekends.

Stand-up comedian Atul Khatri, an admin for the biggest Facebook group for cycling (over 7,000 members), Mumbai Cycling Enthusiasts, says that the groups act like open forums. People also write in for advice on which cycle to buy, and use it as a platform to buy and sell second-hand bicycles. Under the Cycling 4 Change outfit, Uchil’s initiative, Cycle to Work, helps people take the plunge and cycle to work through a Facebook group.

Apart from the environmental benefits, cycling is also an effective way to break away from a sedentary lifestyle. “It’s a low-impact exercise where you don’t carry your body weight. The machine does. It’s a great stress buster too,” George says.

Riders get to know more about Mumbai’s architectural icons while the city sleeps (Wide angle photography, Haybren Adventures)

Against all odds

But while there are eager riders, the lack of infrastructure is a deterrent. Dedicated cycling lanes are still a distant dream. Though Bandra Kurla Complex has them, they remain blocked by parked vehicles. And if the traffic and questionable driving skills of many don’t discourage you, the potholes and gaps between concrete segments might.

Another sore point is the derisive attitude of motorists and drivers. Banker and cycling enthusiast Ninad Waghule, 28, says, “Most drivers aren’t considerate towards cyclists. However, if you’re on an expensive cycle and wearing a helmet, you get more respect compared to a regular person commuting to work. It’s a pity.”

It’s not hard, then, to see why rides post midnight, when there are fewer vehicles, are popular. Mumbai Travellers organises midnight cycling heritage tour rides. Riders get to know more about Gateway of India, Rajabai Tower and Bombay High Court while the city sleeps. Uchil, who has been riding around the city by night for over two decades, says, “There’s also no smoke, dust or heat. It’s also quieter. Stray dogs chasing you can be an issue in some places, though,” he says.

The cycling culture has also given birth to adventure travel companies that organise cycling trips. From short weekend trips to longer and more arduous (but rewarding) journeys, cycling tours are gaining popularity. Life Away From Life, for instance, arranges cycling trips along the backwaters of Kerala and from Mumbai to Dudhani village, Panvel.

CEO Prateek Deo Gupta, a cycling enthusiast, says, “Travelling by cycle, as opposed to a car, shows you more of the local culture.” Nitin Yadav, co-founder of Delhi-based Cycle It, which focuses solely on cycling trips, says the past four to five months have particularly seen a rise in numbers. Three out of 10 queries they receive are from Mumbai. Launched last year, Cycle It offers trips on the picturesque Manali to Leh route, and Kumaon, Uttarakhand.

Generally, these companies arrange for support vehicles to carry your luggage, refreshments and water. A vehicle drives ahead, and one drives at the end of the convoy. A roving vehicle goes back and forth to keep a check on straying riders.

The cycling culture has also given birth to adventure travel companies that organise cycling trips. (Life away from life)

The road ahead

Uchil reckons, “The cycling revolution is already here. It may not be obvious because it is scattered. But it’s growing really fast.” American science educator Bill Nye famously said, “There’s something wrong with a society that drives a car to work out in a gym.” Thankfully, in spite of Mumbai’s potholed roads and our despicable habit of honking cyclists out of the way, things are changing.

Popular Routes for Cycling according to Atul Khatri, stand-up comedian and admin of the Facebook group, Mumbai Cycling Enthusiasts

Carter Road to Bandra bandstand, Bandra

Why: “Cycle on this stretch in the wee hours of the morning and you can feel the fresh ocean breeze. You can go to the nearby Mount Mary Road or Pali Hill if you want to work harder.”

Nariman Point via Worli Sea Face

Why: “Take the Malabar Hill route on your way back. It will build endurance and strength. Apart from being scenic, this route is popular with runners too, so the atmosphere is encouraging.”

Aarey Milk Colony, Goregaon

Why: “It’s green and beautiful. It’s one of the few places in Mumbai where there is actually fog during winter. One can feel a dip in temperature as soon as you enter. Plus, you can stop by Powai lake.”

Madh Island, Marve

Why: “If you want to test your endurance, you can go up to the Pagoda. If you are up for some adventure, you can take the ferry (along with your bicycle, of course) and visit Uttan beach.”

Palm Beach Road, Vashi

Why: “This is a great stretch of road. However, cyclists need to be careful of speeding motorists as it’s quite popular among bikers too.”

Dos and don’ts, according to Anil Uchil, endurance cyclist

* Always wear a helmet. Even if it’s a short distance, or a ‘safe’ place.

* Follow the traffic rules. Stay on the left, don’t cut lanes suddenly, and don’t jump red lights.

* Stay alert. Obstacles, potholes, pedestrians and animals can pop up on your path without warning.

* Give proper hand signals while taking a turn, changing lanes and coming to a stop.

* Be visible, especially in the dark. Use headlights and (red) taillights, wear a reflective vest, and put a small light on your helmet.

* For beginners, riding in groups or in pairs provides added safety.

Different Kinds of Cycles

Road bikes

These are made for speed. The design is such that the person riding will be in a posture which is aerodynamic. It cuts the wind easily and allows the person to use his full strength. These bicycles are lightweight, made of aluminium alloy, carbon fibre, steel or titanium. The tyres are thin — between 20-25mm. They don’t have any suspensions. Road bikes are to be used only on good roads.

Recommended: Firefox Mistral (Rs 33,000), Scott speedster (Rs 55,000), Trek Domane 4.3 (Rs 1,63,000)

Mountain bikes

These have a chunkier framework compared to a hybrid or road bike. It’s a bit heavier and stronger, and the tyres are 2-2.5 inch broad. You can use it in jungle trails and on loose soil. Mountain bikes (MTB) come with suspensions in the front and the rear. Hard-tails are MTBs with suspension only in the front, and more widely used.

Recommended: Firefox Target (Rs 19,000), Scott aspect series (Rs 26,000 onward), Trek X-calibers (Rs 55,000 onward)

Hybrid bikes

These are a cross between road and mountain bikes, and are ideal for urban riding. The ones with suspension are called mountain-focused hybrids, and the ones without suspension are road-focused hybrids. Considering the type of roads in Mumbai, mountain-focused bicycles are recommended. The tyre width of a hybrid bike is between 32-40mm. The frames is lighter than a mountain bike but heavier than a road bike.

Recommended: Firefox Roadrunner Pro-V (Rs 17,000), Scott sub cross 40 (Rs 46,000)

Cyclocross bikes

These look like road bikes but with hybrid bike-sized tyres. As the name suggests, these are meant for cross-country riding. They are ideal for roads in the city if the rider wants to be in an aerodynamic riding posture like in a road bike. It’s almost as light as a road bike, but stronger.

Recommended: Trek Crossrip (Rs 70,000), Scott CX (Rs 1,10,000 onward)

According to Jose George, Owner of Haybren Adventures and founder of the cycling group, Lakecity Pedalers

Take Your Pick

Mumbai Cycling Enthusiasts :

Lakecity Pedalers:

Cycling for Foodies:

Mumbai Randonneurs:

Mumbai Cycle Club:

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