Motorcycle Diaries: There’s more to being a biker than owning aviators and fancy machines
For a passionate — and growing — tribe of riders in Mumbai, a weekend getaway means hundreds of kilometres on the highways. And a vacation means riding through half a dozen countriestravel Updated: Oct 01, 2015 21:18 IST
Have you ever entered in a ridiculous route in Google Maps just to laugh at the numbers, or the nonchalance with which it will tell you a journey will take 100 hours — “without traffic”? In March this year, it seems Mumbai-based businessman Debasish Ghosh did something similar. ‘OK Google, tell me the route from Mumbai to Malaysia’, he seems to have said. Nothing unusual. Except, Ghosh didn’t then shut Maps and go about life as usual, honking his way through traffic from home to work and back. He, along with four of his pals (from Mumbai, Pune and Indore), decided to actually ride on that route. They don’t ride 100cc bikes, or 1,000cc cars you see all around. As members of the Harley Owner’s India (an informal and private biking club of, well, Harley Davidson owners), they ride some of the most powerful engines ever fitted on to two wheels.
So, on March 19 this year, Ghosh fired up Harley Davidson and rode out from Bandra-Kurla Complex, for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They were given a massive send-off by 50 other Harley riders. A few even rode with them till Igatpuri, to cheer them on. The five-men group rode to the North East via Uttar Pradesh, before crossing the border to Myanmar. From there, they rode through Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. On the way back, they were greeted by Harley owners in Indore who put up a billboard to acknowledge their impressive feat — 20,000km in 50 days. It was a journey full of potholes, dust, heat and military surveillance (especially in Manipur and Myanmar). But the thrill of the open road is what they live for.
In the beginning
India is the biggest market in south east Asia for motorbikes, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Motor bikes account for 10 per cent of the total automobile sales (source: Auto Car Professional Journal), as of August, 2015. The fascination with bikes owes a lot to Royal Enfield, which set up shop in Chennai, with Madras Motors for The Bullet in 1955.
Forty years later, rising standards of living in metropolitan cities in the ’90s led to a rise in the sale of bikes. This, in turn, led to the emergence of biking clubs. “Initially, in 2000, cities like Delhi, Nagpur, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru had a budding biking culture,” says Karna Fulzele (30), a member of InddieThumpers, the oldest club in India.
Harley Davidson, the premium American motorcycle brand and the British company, Triumph, came to India in 2011 and 2013 respectively. As the number of owners grew, so did the need to find like-minded people for long-distance rides. Enthusiastic ones sought each other out and formed clubs.
But even as high-end cruiser bikes became popular, so did superbikes, which weren’t so much about long distances as about speed and the engineering of the bikes. In 2011, the racing world giant, Kawasaki, launched in India. Prasad Divadkar, is among the first to import superbikes in the city. “When I started out, I had to import them from Thailand. The superbike culture was non-existent, and popular culture had painted us as the ‘rash bikers’ on the roads,” he says.
At his biking apparel and spare parts store in Worli, called Performance Racing (opened in 2004), he is always willing to dish out advice on safety, to aspiring super-bikers. He hand-picked a group of 20 members to form the Superbike Club. If you’ve seen a bunch of bikers zipping through Worli Sea Face, he’s almost certain to be among them.
Boys and their toys
Over a decade or so, the enthusiasm, and the takers for high-end motorcycles, has grown. So has the obsession. “I keep my bike in my living room during the monsoon,” says Imran Merchant (28), a super-biker. He says, if he skids in the rain, he might damage his bike. What happens to him is the least of his concerns: “Bones can heal. A scratch on the bike, and it is going to cost me a lot,” he says, matter-of-factly.
While the thrill of speed and high-end machines seems like a young man’s sport, a majority of riders are actually middle-aged men — established professionals or entrepreneurs who can afford the expensive machines. But how do such busy people balance their passion?
Kamlesh Desai, 49, is a senior project manager in a construction company, and the president of the Seven Island Chapter, the official Harley Davidson biker group in Mumbai (not to be confused with Harley Owners India). Desai says hitting the road every weekend is a compulsion for him. It’s all a matter of planning and prioritising, he says.
The perseverance and planning are exemplary at times. Fulzele, a digital media executive, patiently waited seven years to plan a solo trip to Bhutan. “To take out 15 days for a tour is tough. Looking back, the time spent planning and waiting finally seems worth it,” he says.
And if the bikers’ families are concerned, or even a little annoyed with them zipping off for days, it seems like something they just have to live with. “My parents are concerned whenever I’m out on a ride. They tell me the sport is dangerous. But, in the end, my passion and confidence is what matters,” says Merchant.
Passion notwithstanding, just owning a bike and being able to ride does not assure you entry into these clubs. To be a member, one has to fulfil certain criteria the groups put forth. Merchant says rash or irresponsible riders “reflect poorly on the group,” so they are careful about who they let in.
The superbike club follows a recommendation process — no rider can join the group unless an existing member recommends him. InddieThumpers has a gradual selection process. As a beginner, you have to complete a journey of 500km (one way) to be eligible for the advanced batch. Then, a three-member committee of moderators evaluates the candidate. “We take into consideration the riders’ group dynamics, respect for traffic rules and consideration of safety mandates,” says Fulzele, one of the moderators.
You will never ride alone
Despite being picky, the community now has a country-wide reach. The riders make it a point to meet fellow riders from different states as they pass through. This network assures there is always help at hand in tough situations. “On my way back from a trip to Spiti, in Gujarat, my bike’s condition deteriorated. I called a friend who spent half a day riding to meet me, and helped fix the bike,” recollects Fulzele.
The cruiser riders also get together for annual events that see massive turnouts. Rider Mania, a riding event that is more than a decade old, attracts more than 20,000 participants. A meet is scheduled in October for the riders from the western Indian coastline (from Gujarat to Kanyakumari).
For the super-bikers, too, a lot has changed. Elite Octain, a motor sport infrastructure developer in India, organised the first drag race in December, 2012. In January this year, it attracted close to 2,000 participants, making it India’s largest drag racing event.
The biking culture in Mumbai is on the upswing too. The Harley Mumbai Chapter does an induction seminar every quarter, as an effort to bridge the gap between beginners and the experienced riders.
And despite being divided on their attitude towards bikes — on issues of engineering, design, and comfort — the superbikers and the cruise bikers all have the same drive (pardon the pun): to travel and to experience the road.
Best routes from Mumbai to go biking on
* Mumbai to Baroda (410km): Wide lanes and low congestion.
* Mumbai to Bengaluru (981km): One of the best highways. The road is smooth with stunning visual scenery.
* Mumbai to Igatpuri (116km): Lesser congestion compared to Mumbai-Pune highway. Also crosses the western ghats making it a scenic route.
* National Highway 17 (till Goa) (608km): Passing through the Sahyadris, the Mumbai Goa highway is a road trip delight.
* Mumbai to Lavasa (193km): A superbike-friendly road, it is almost always empty, making it perfect for an uninhibited high speed ride.
The Apparel Guide: Because safety (and style) are paramount
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First Published: Oct 01, 2015 00:00 IST