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Home / Other Sports / Wheels of change: India slowly pedalling its way to a cycling culture

Wheels of change: India slowly pedalling its way to a cycling culture

Cycling has the power to transform not just the waistline but define that essence of life we call happiness. And India is fast catching up.

other-sports Updated: Oct 02, 2016, 11:40 IST
Leslie Xavier
Leslie Xavier
Hindustan Times
Cycling as a recreational or amateur activity is big in every country that dominates the sport.
Cycling as a recreational or amateur activity is big in every country that dominates the sport. (Photo: MTB Himalaya/HASTPA)

Brevets, adventure tours, criterium races, century rides, trail races… we are talking about amateur cycling races, tours and fun rides in India. The sport has seen an exponential growth in takers in the last three years.

Many have picked up cycling as part of their fitness routines, some to find adventure and a few to find their inner calling — the last being subjective, yet a very real quest. Ask anyone who completed the Manali to Leh ride and they will elaborate on the soul-enriching experience as they pushed their physical barriers crossing the high passes.

Cycling is clearly becoming popular in India and that implies many things: healthy citizens and developing a sporting culture in the country are the obvious by-products. Take for instance Brazil, Argentina, Germany or any great footballing nation. The game is part of their cultural fabric and is played, enjoyed and consumed across the populace.

Sport of the nation

The same goes for cycling. When we look at the countries which dominate the sport — England, Australia, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands or the US — cycling as a recreational or amateur sport is big there and that creates an ecosystem which facilitates nurturing of world beaters.

And you thought bicycles are for kids

Lightweight, fast and nimble, cross country mountain bikes, or XC bikes are the most common MTBs. They can blaze through moderately rough terrain and is one of the common bikes used in MTB Himalaya. Good for climbs and tight cornering, they have about 80-140mm of travel in front and rear shocks (if full suspension). They generally have a geometry that facilitates a forward riding position and are not meant for high impact jumps. The MTBs you find in stores (XC trail bikes) fall in this category.

1) CHAIN RINGS/CASSETTES The number of teeth in the ring is important with the MTBs generally having 11-32, 34 or 36 teeth count on the rings in the front with 8, 9 or 10 speed rear cassette. Compared to this, the roadbikes have 50 or 54t setup, which corresponds to bigger chainrings. The bigger the chainring the harder to pedal and so in climbs smaller chain rings are preferred.

2) WHEELSAND HUBS Carbon is the norm for raceready wheels and most are tubeless ready. Wheel sizes vary—the three standards being 29", 27.5" and 26.5". The hubs, on the other hand, ensure smooth transfer of energy to the wheels and the high-end ones comes with ceramic bearings. The basic MTBs come with steel bearings.

3) SEAT Synthetic cushion over carbon shell and titanuim/carbon rail are preferred, with customised contours on top to fit to the sit-bone structure. More cushioning needn’t translate to comfort.

4) FRAME The frame determines how much you can push the bike. Materials vary from steel, aluminium alloy and carbon fibre composites, in the increasing order of price. Race bikes are mostly carbon with the frame designed adding more stiffness in the drivetrain side and flexibility in areas which help in impact absorption, keeping the weight as light as possible.

5) SHOCKABSORBERS The XC bikes will have air or hydraulic suspension with a travel of 80-160mm, while the downhill bikes will have a travel of up to 254 mm (coil). That’s 10 inches of travel.

6) HANDLEBARSAND STEM The material is either alloy or carbon but the size varies with the type of bike. Pros and downhillers prefer wider handlebar with short stem that offers better high-speed control.

7) BRAKES Most high-end bikes come with hydraulic disc brakes on front and rear as standard. Good brakes are essential for mountain bikes, especially while doing downhills and most trust the disc brakes to do the job while some purists still stick to cantilever or V brakes with carbon fibre brake pads.

8) PEDALS & CLEATS The pros prefer clipless pedals and lock themselves in wearing cleats. But downhill riders prefer platform pedals and sticky rubbersoled shoes which helps them jump off in case things go over the edge.

9) GROUPSETS MTBs come with gears: lower for climbis and higher gears for downhill. Top bikes will either have a Shimano XTR or the Sram X01 Eagle derailleurs, with trigger shift (Sram) or rapid-fire plus (Shimano) for shifting.

10) DRIVETRAIN The chain, crank and the gear rings form the drivetrain. Cranks are made of alloy or carbon while the chains are alloy with the right balance of play and tension to ensure effective power transfer to the hubs.

In India, wrestling is a classic example with our champions coming out of pockets in the country where the sport is part of the social, religious and even political setup.

No, cycling is not up there in India yet. But having been part of an ever-growing community of club cyclists in the country, this reporter has had an inside view of how it is becoming a mass movement — be it road cycling or off-roading on Mountain Terrain Bikes (MTBs).

This growth was evident at the Hero MTB Himalaya, the eight-stage (650 km) cross-country race which began in Shimla on September 25 and will end in Dharamsala on October 3.

“I am shifting in a couple of months to Mysore where I would be preparing for tour events and Ironman triathlons,” said Delhi’s Yogesh Kumar (26), who has ridden in events such as the Tour of Nilgiris (road-biking).

Adding value to life

This writer had ridden with Yogesh in the Nilgiris, where he competed in 2014, and could sense a different rider in him this time at MTB Himalaya. “I have realised that cycling, beyond the pursuit as a sport, adds value to my life. I want to explore its possibilities and see where I reach with my physical and mental potential.”

Yogesh’s is a physical and spiritual quest and not everybody’s cup of tea. But all of us can aim to be fitter through cycling, as free-spirited an exertion as running.

Then there is a breed of young Indian riders such as Shiven and Devender Thakur, who nurture Olympic dreams. Thakur and Shiven are part of the Hero Cycles adventure team and they are the leading Indian riders at the MTB Himalaya this year, rubbing shoulders with former world champions — Jason English of Australia, Andreas Seewald of Germany (the men’s category leader) and Catherine Williamson of England, the leader in the women’s segment.

Marked improvement

Canadian Cory Wallace, a former champion at MTB Himalaya, said: “They (Indians) are catching up with us. They are right up there in the climbs (where physicality is key) but lose out during descends, where technical skills and equipment matter. Over the years, they have upgraded their equipment too but they need specialised MTB coaches to train them.”

Though many brands have come in, access to elite cycling equipment is difficult in India. One has to import them paying not just the price but a high import duty (49.5% of the MRP) as well. Expert coaching is another area which is lacking. But despite that, the sport is widening its base.

More than half of the 67 riders this year at the MTB Himalaya were Indians even after the Cycling Federation of India’s MTB national championships in Pune (October 4-6) forced some strong riders, including national champions from the Army team, to skip the event.

But beyond competitions, the fact that cycling is becoming part of the exercise culture in India is something that is heartening, observed Johan Labuschagne from South Africa. “Indian roads are still dangerous for cycling,” said Labuschagne, the front runner in the Masters category at Himalaya. “But things will get better as more people start cycling. In South Africa, cycling has become so big that we can push in our bikes into restaurants and malls and the waiters will come and take our bikes to keep it in a safe place. It is because cycling has become an integral part of our lifestyle.”

Lifestyle change

India is on the cusp of a similar lifestyle change even though dedicated bike lanes are lacking on most city roads and one has to think twice before pedalling to office.

A friend, who is based in Delhi and an avid off-road motorbike rider, recently took up mountain biking as part of his exercise routine. He revealed how at the end of each trail ride he finds cycling a much more raw and rewarding experience.

Cycling has that power — to transform not just the waistline but define that essence of life we call happiness. And that doesn’t require specialised imported bikes either. India is pedalling its way there!

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