Shachi Somani, an architect and a cyclist, has recently been seeing colours in an otherwise grim Mumbai. Because of the pandemic, she says, the sea has cleared, sunsets are beautiful and when she cycles to Juhu beach, she can observe shades of lilac and purple in the sky, which, during another time, used to be grey.
It’s not always easy to gauge sentiment over a socially distant telephone line, but if one were to hazard a guess, Somani’s emotion could be described as surprise. She found locked-down Mumbai, the period from March till August, “magical”, during which birds replaced cars honking, emptiness took over from claustrophobia on roads and nature fought back for some space from humans.
When Chandni Advani got back on the saddle after many years and saw all the cool wheels on Bandra’s Carter Road, she felt like a child in a candy store. At the lakes in Chandigarh, Varun Dham delights in seeing groups of cyclists. Stand-up comedian Atul Khatri has been busy correcting people’s stances and their seat heights. For her birthday in July, Somani got a new watch, gloves, a water bottle and a tail light for her bike. Bengaluru-based Hemendra Upadhyay signed up with a coach in the UK for a structured programme that includes cycling 250-300km a week, 90 per cent of it indoors.
It’s all about bikes these days.
While MAMILS (middle-aged men in lycra) have been a common sight in India’s metros for some years now – driven by mid-life crises, a return from countries with stronger cultures of leisure riding, more spending power, a softening body and hardening arteries that crave fitness – the pandemic has catalysed these numbers. In the early days of the nationwide lockdown, cycles became the symbol of a different narrative, of migrant workers desperate to get back home hundreds of kilometres away.
But by the time the dust settled, and a seemingly unending wait began for the situation to change – meaning no gyms, swimming pools, IRL Tinder dates – cycling became the fallback option, for exercise, leisure, family/friend time and that rebellious outing against state-imposed stay-at-home orders.
The result: deep research into hybrids, MTBs and road bikes; pictures of riders in fluorescent tops and tights, aching thigh muscles, a few cuts and bruises, rocketing sales, an overwhelmed manufacturing industry, a depleted retail business and, perhaps, a healthier populace (at least among those who escaped the virus).
The 60 century
Challenge organised by BUMSONTHESADDLE
Some months ago, the Maharashtra government issued guidelines for the phased easing of the lockdown from the first week of June. Among them was the clause, “People are actively encouraged to use cycling as a form of physical exercise as it automatically ensures social distancing.” Those familiar with Mumbai’s roads and its road rage chuckled over the irony, but the message had wider implications.
Advani, a former jewellery designer, finally decided to join husband Vishal who had been cycling for a year. It was quite a task getting the right set of wheels because, as every prospective buyer now knows, everything is sold out. She settled for a cool neon alloy bike, but one of the disadvantages of cycling is also peer pressure – everyone seems to have better – so she wants to switch to a lighter ride.
“For me, cycling is leisure more than exercise. I don’t feel exhausted at the end of the ride; rather I feel fresh because the air quality is great these days,” she says.
Once aircraft stopped flying, factories shut down and cars started rusting in their garages, the air quality in cities like Mumbai improved. Data from the Central Pollution Control Board marked a 70 per cent drop in air pollutants in Delhi within a week of the lockdown. The absence of traffic made the roads safer for humans on foot and bicycles – there were fewer chances of being knocked down by a raging autorickshaw, so parents could brave getting their children out too.
Yulu e-bikes launched in Mumbai’s BKC on August 31
“Earlier, I used to find it difficult to navigate around cars in the evening. Now, there are hardly any. I see a lot of newcomers, with the plastic [packaging on the bike] still on, so it’s evident it’s a recent purchase,” says Somani, a passionate cyclist who’s competed in the eight-day 650km Hero MTB Himalaya in 2015.
With schools and offices closed, adults and juniors needed some kind of an outing, and cycling can be a more social activity than, say, running. With most stores shut, cycles provided an opportunity for consumerism, to buy something besides pulses and potatoes. Boredom has been a keen driver as well because, in cities like Mumbai, with beaches also off limits for some time, some runners and triathletes switched to cycling.
“It’s like hitting a refresh button,” adds Somani, who tries for a cumulative 100km a week, riding from Juhu to Nariman Point or to Panvel, Karjat, Airoli, finding patches of road off the highway without trucks. “Every time I’m back from a ride, I’m charged up for the day. The second purpose is also to work out – this is outdoors so it’s even better.” She tags with friends or goes solo at other times, picking her routes on a whim.
“You chat, unwind, release endorphins and feel more positive,” says Upadhyay, a partner at Deloitte, who picked up cycling while in the US in 2014, and has since dropped about 30 kilos. He is also some sort of a cycle evangelist, educating people, helping them buy, dishing out advice on maintenance – helping cyclists on “a journey that never ends”.
Over these months, new cycling groups have mushroomed and the existing ones have added more muscle. Riders of Storm (RoS) grew to about 800 active members, says Chandigarh’s Dham, while the Mumbai Cycling Enthusiasts gained 168 members in a single week in August.
“The idea of the group was collaboration,” says Khatri, one of the “founders” of the over-a-decade-old Enthusiasts, who recommends people ride in groups for security from accidents and punctures. “You need [to get] the right frame,” he adds, referring to people buying bikes in a hurry. “A good cycle shop can adjust the handle bar so you use the right muscles and your back does not hunch. Headphones are a big no-no because you won’t hear vehicles coming from behind. Always wear bright clothes, have a head or tail light flashing and first buy a helmet before a cycle.”
By August, the Decathlon store in Calangute, Goa had put up signs warning prospective buyers, saying “Limited stocks available” and “We are out of stock for bicycles, but we have it for you online.” Several other stores across the country had run out of supplies too.
Mihir Jadhav, whose family owns K2 Cycles in Thane, says, without intending to sound dramatic, “India has run out of stock. We have a few MTBs, no hybrids. Supply all over the world is short. We’ve ordered more, but distributors themselves don’t have any.”
K2 has had predominantly two kinds of customers – those intending to compete in the gruelling Ironman Triathlon, who desire an advanced range of bikes and others interested in basic entry level bikes, the “give me anything”, variety. Cycles in the range of `20,000-25,000 have moved the fastest from the store.
Over time, as the lockdown has dragged on, buyers have become desperate to hop on to anything. Newcomers have invested in fancier models worth thousands, when simpler ones would have sufficed. Sizes have been disregarded – bike size depends on the rider’s height and weight – as consumers went for the first thing they saw. As one shop owner, clearly having spent too much time on Netflix, said, “They were coming in like those zombies in World War Z.”
Bengaluru’s BOTS Cycling Pvt Ltd that runs the brand BUMSONTHESADDLE, has seen a four-time spike in sales, and the bikes it sells start at `30,000. “With the lockdown, we’ve seen a massive change. Our service centre is blocked off for days together,” says founder Rohan Kini.
Inside the BUMSONTHESADDLE store in Bengaluru
Though it’s not the kind of establishment that gets walk-ins, one Monday, when the store was closing, a customer came in and asked for any available bike. It didn’t matter if it was old, hybrid, or any other category, recounts Kini, whose store in Jayanagar reopened on May 6.
“Factories are not running properly around the world. An entire year-and-half worth of cycles have sold out in a few months,” says Biju Kunnappada, founder of the Cycling Boutique Inc in Bengaluru that did 60 per cent more volumes during lockdown. In the economic and mid-range segment, the waiting period is three to four months.
Mumbai’s VeloCrush India, a portal that covers cycling news, sells accessories and rents about 25 bikes, restarted in the first week of July. But the demand is such that it’s short by about two-dozen, says founder Abhishek Tarfe.
After the initial 50-day total shutdown, India’s largest manufacturer, Hero Cycles, saw an almost 50 per cent jump in demand for traditional bicycles and a nearly 100 per cent growth in electric cycles.
Gurgaon-based Navneet Banka, country manager for Trek Bicycles India Pvt Ltd, wrote over an email that the demand for its mountain, hybrid and fitness bikes went up by more than 200 per cent. “And in the past month, the demand for our performance bikes has increased by 100 per cent – these are for bikes starting at `1,50,000 and going all the way up to `10,00,000,” he says.
Hero is scaling up production and factories are running to their capacity, says Pankaj M Munjal, Chairman and Managing Director, HMC, a Hero Motors Company. Additional capacity is being added (though not planned specifically for a post-Covid era), and by March 2021, Hero Cycles’ manufacturing will rise to 10 million units per year.
For some years now, start-ups such as Pedal (by Ola), OFO (acquired by Bounce), Pedl (by Zoomcar), Yulu, Mobike and Mobycy (electric scooters) have been peddling along to catch up on an estimated $1.2 billion bicycle-sharing industry in India. The number of boutique shops and online ventures that support the cycling business only indicate that they know something we don’t. If there has been a blip to this cyclone of cycling commerce, it was Atlas shutting down (probably temporarily) its last manufacturing unit in June – on World Bicycle Day.
One of the major obstacles to bicycling has been – literally – bumps and holes in the roads. Infrastructure has never really supported it in major cities – nor have fellow countrymen on bigger, faster vehicles. The Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai, while it was being developed from a swamp years ago, promised and delivered on cycling tracks. But the concept crashed when there weren’t enough occupants for the lane, and soon enough, autorickshaws and motorbikes took over.
The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority has plans for a green corridor along the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link that connects the city to Navi Mumbai, which will include wetlands, mangroves, walking and bicycle trails. Its success, compared to the BKC track, will depend on whether this pandemic-inspired change in habit lasts beyond 2020.
Firoza Suresh, who has the delightful title of Bicycle Mayor of Mumbai as part of a global programme, says the mandate for her is 50/30 – 50 per cent of commuters should be converted to cycling by 2030. The director of Smart Commute Foundation says in Mumbai about 51 per cent of people walk or cycle, while 20 per cent commute for short distances of six to seven km. Even if they convert that 20 per cent to cycling, the city would have a good critical mass, which would prevent situations like the BKC track from being taken over by petrol guzzlers.
“Tracks are never a failed project,” says Suresh, “if you build up enough cyclists to use them, like in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. If there are tracks but no cyclists, then thelas will take over. Only painting green pathways does not qualify for it to be a cycle track – last-mile connectivity needs cycle stands.”
Munjal agrees, adding over an email, “A little policy push from the government to promote cycling through dedicated bicycle lanes can bring out a major change… We need greater democratisation of road space for all sections of travellers, which includes cycles as well as pedestrians.”
There’s much to be said about cycling, as an activity, and cyclists, as contributors to environmental balance. In Bengaluru, former Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao has considerably influenced how the police treats bikers. Upadhyay knows of cyclists who helped get groceries for the elderly during severe lockdowns. Cycling saves emissions equalling more than 16 million tons of carbon dioxide per year in the European Union, besides being a faster mode of transport in congested cities.
What the lockdown may have done yet is levelled the playing field, irrespective of social cadres, status, power or economic status.
To a large extent, adds Kunnappada, the upper class was worried about the lack of social life and access to fitness, the middle class about the consequences of travelling in public transport or shared spaces, and the economically backward classes, about moving around as affordable transport modes were cut off. Cycling fulfilled all those needs, but will it sustain?
“One sad part is humans have short-term memory,” he adds. “They would have sworn during lockdown that they would never go back to a bad lifestyle. But many might go back to square one, destroying the nature around them in the usual ways.”
Perhaps, after months of imprisonment, introspection and time-filling internet research, we would all appreciate an activity that many had picked up in childhood. And gave up because of work, cities and a lifestyle that did not have room for it. If it takes 21 days to change a habit, 2020 has given everyone ample time.