India’s big bicycle boom

With gyms and pools shut and health suddenly becoming priority, people around India turned to cycling during the coronavirus lockdown. How long will it last?

“Dasu Da asked me to go along, so I thought, ‘Chalo ghoom ke aa jate hai’ (Let me go along),” says Manoj Manna, 40, who is on a gearless “ladies’ cycle” from Hero, going across the country with Thakurdas Sasmal, who has a Facebook page under the name Dasu Da. Manoj cycles a kilometre or two and waits under a tree, with his 30-kilo backpack containing supplies and clothes, for Dasu Da, who is walking, to catch up.

Their plan is to hit Delhi-Mumbai-Chennai and then go back to Kolkata, from where they started. “Accha lag raha hai (It feels good),” says Manoj, as he rides Dasu Da’s daughter’s old cycle. He has never left Howrah, where he lives in Udaynarayanpur, and works on a farm. Dasu Da, a farmer, says he talks to people about the coronavirus and the importance of wearing a mask, as he walks along. He claims to have done the same route two years ago on a bicycle, but couldn’t do it fast enough for a record. “I was on a ₹6,000 cycle; there are those on ₹3 lakh cycles,” he says.

Manoj Manna, who is on a bicycle as his companion walks across India
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A move towards cycling

Manoj and Dasu Da are mirroring an openness to cycling, in what is now an all-India phenomenon, cutting across ages, livelihoods, and the rural-urban divide. In a post-lockdown world, with the COVID-19 pandemic still on, people are testing the waters with a commute, some are turning to it for adventure, while many are looking at it as a fitness activity that can also be done with family or a group of friends, while maintaining physical distance.

After the lockdown lifted somewhat, Diya John, from Kochi, got on her Decathlon bike and took to the relatively empty roads, always finishing her rides by 8 am. Through Instagram, her friends found out she had begun riding, and asked to come along. “I’ll find a bike for them to try out, whether they ride my husband’s on days he’s not riding, or hiring a bike,” she says, in her endeavour to get people onto the saddle. As more and more people joined, they formed a WhatsApp group and began to ride longer. “I prefer slow, long rides,” she says, adding that she is now considering upgrading to an endurance road bike.

Diya John has created a group of cycling enthusiasts in Kochi

Diya John has created a group of cycling enthusiasts in Kochi  
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Bicycling has boomed in India, with brands, stores, and manufacturers reporting a surge in demand. “High-end bikes (above ₹20,000) have reached a 300% demand, up from last year’s 5-10% hike around the same time,” says Gaurav Wadhwa, whose family has been in the cycle business in Delhi for 55 years, and now owns four shops across segments in Delhi, with a bike ‘clinic’ as well. His brother Vivek, who handles their mass market and mid-range (also called semi-premium) bikes, says in these segments, where about 70% of the business was from older teens (15-19), today it is about 50%.

The rest comes from across ages and genders, with overall demand upto 400%. Amidst fielding about 200 calls a day each, where earlier they had about 50, the Wadhwas says hybrids sell the most in the high and medium (₹10,000 to ₹20,000) category. In the top segment, people are open to spending ₹30,000 to ₹40,000.

Pankaj M Munjal, chairman and MD, HMC — a Hero Motors Company, says that cycles over ₹12,000 have seen a rise in his company, though this segment is also seeing higher demand that production, because of the lag in supply of parts from China. “While the imports have resumed now, manufacturers are consciously moving to limit their dependence on Chinese imports and strengthen self-reliance now in the wake of border tensions.”

Geared bikes are doing better than non-geared. In India, where a cycle is a social determinant of status, a geared bike that’s higher in price, is somewhat higher in the cycle hierarchy. It’s the reason Himanshu Shekhar is introducing a BYOB (bring your own bike) plan to his business Delhi by Cycle, which does heritage city tours on bicycles.

“Most of our business came from inbound tourists,” he says. “People here felt that 15-20 kilometres is a lot,,” says Himanshu, adding that people in India prefer geared bikes. With people’s newly discovered interest in Nature, he is looking at organising short idyllic trips, riding through villages — Corbett is on the cards.

Bumps and potholes

The downside to all this interest in cycling is that people are getting onto the roads often without helmets, not using basic hand gestures to signal in traffic, and riding sans lights, says Gareema Shankar, founder of Cycloon, a group of about 200 cycling enthusiasts in Delhi.

She herself has not ventured onto the road because she does not want to take a chance with speeding vehicles. For instance, on April 20, at the height of lockdown, five people were killed in three separate road accidents in Delhi alone. “I don’t want to land up in a hospital when Corona is still on,” she says. Instead, she has started using her indoor bike.

“Infrastructure was a challenge that existed even in pre-lockdown times,” says Jaymin Shah, who heads Scott Sports in India. But what has changed is that in non-metros, roads are still relatively not as crowded as they were in pre-lockdown times given that education institutions are still shut and many are working from home.

He says this is the inflection point. “Right now, sales are at 3x. I don’t expect them to continue this way, but I do expect them to stabilise at 2x,” he says. He points to towns like Coimbatore, Surat, Jalandhar, where the activity has picked up, but also to places like Gadhinglaj, Washim (both Maharashtra), and Kayamkulam (Kerala), where Scott has sold about 15 units a month over the past few months.

It is not just about gyms and other indoor workout areas now being considered unsafe, but also about wider implications on the environment, which is why he says the sale of electric bicycles are are going to pick up, especially for micromobility. In fact Hero has registered “an almost 100% jump in demand for E-cycles,” says Munjal.

Smarter choices

Prachi Bhargava, who leads communication at Decathlon, sees this trend as part of the wider leaning towards people setting up small home gyms. “It wasn’t just the beginner level equipment that was popular, but also the intermediate level,” she says.

This overall ‘higher education’ is something that Jaymin and Gaurav point to as well. Scott set up a helpline to help people choose a bike, and the questions were about frame sizes and the suitability of a bike to the type of activity and terrain of the place they are in. Guwahati, for instance, sees a preference for mountain bikes, confirms Paul Barua, who is a part of GCT (Guwahati Cycling Together). He is currently stationed in Haflong, Assam, as Deputy Commissioner, and feels that while people are using cycles for fitness, unless we see an infrastructure change, it will not become an easy commute option.

This change in people’s approach to riding is seen in Satinder M Bedi, from Gurugram, who at 68, cycles on the inner roads of Gurugram, about 20-25 kilometres, five times a week, up from a couple pre-lockdown, when he went to the gym as well. After lockdown, he has bought a Cube, because it was lighter than his previous, but is waiting for improved infrastructure that he says is often promised, but never fulfilled.

Satinder M Bedi, 68, from Gurugram, who recently purchased a new cycle

Satinder M Bedi, 68, from Gurugram, who recently purchased a new cycle
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Mostly though, what is needed, is a change in attitude, feels Balaji S, from Coimbatore, who uses his bike as a means of transport. The change has to come at different levels, he feels: at the policy level (“All we need to do is add a cycle lane each time a road is laid”); at a mindset level, so that other traffic respects cyclists and the lanes built for them; and at a safety level, so women and children can ride any place, any time.

Munjal is optimistic. He feels that the pandemic has induced a “behavioural change towards cycling” that will “now create an organic demand from local communities for safe roads and cycling infrastructure”. Paul agrees: “Our numbers should grow, then people will listen,” he says.

The Smart Cities Mission that recently launched the India Cycles4Change Challenge to introduce “quick interventions and promotional activities to encourage cycling”, must really listen to him and to so many who want to step out, but are simply too scared of the consequences.

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