In July, 27-year-old Shannon Fernandes bought his very first bicycle, a non-geared Schnell that cost him just about Rs 10,000.
He did it, he says, not just to get some exercise, but also because it became the perfect way to get some hard-to-come-by private time during the Covid-induced lockdown, given that he’s been living with his family in Mumbai.
He’s not alone. India, which has never been known as a great cycling nation (for reasons ranging from potholed roads to traffic to pollution), has fallen in love with the activity during the pandemic.
In a country where the economy is tanking and many industries are staring at losses, the cycle business is booming. Several Delhi-based store owners tell ThePrint that they have observed a 300-600 per cent spike in the sale of cycles since strict lockdowns were lifted in the country, All India Cycle Manufacturers’ Association said that the sale of the wheels had increased by 25 per cent in June as compared to the same month last year.
Gaurav Wadhwa, who runs the popular store The Bike Shop in Delhi’s Yusuf Sarai, tells ThePrint that suppliers are now struggling to meet the surge in demand, because bike components are completely sold out and will take time to come into the market again.
“Companies that make parts like tires, gears, handles — they are all out of stock, and in their absence, brands are unable to make and assemble cycles. The brands need to export also, so there’s a scarcity of resources,” he explains. “Earlier people had abundant options to choose from. Now it’s more like take it or leave it.”
Biking to ward off Covid, claustrophobia, crushing loneliness
Due to the nationwide lockdown announced on 24 March, many urban Indians lost their motivation to stay fit, because gyms and yoga studios were shut. “If you’ve paid for a session or gym membership, you’re that much more motivated to go, but in the lockdown, it took real effort to feel that on my own,” says Naira Sarin, a 28-year-old based in Delhi. By June, she and a few friends decided enough was enough. They formed their own cycling group, which rides at least three times a week, from South Delhi to Gurugram, Greater Noida, North Campus and Tughlaqabad.
“It wasn’t easy — initially everyone was consumed with household chores in addition to extra hours on the job, because working from home blurred the work-life line,” she explains. “But it really works for us, because we go out at 6 am, before any traffic piles up, and these last six months, because everything’s been in lockdown, anyway there’s been less traffic and the air quality is the best we’ve had in ages!” Plus, she says, it gives her a healthy excuse to meet her friends and not go “stir-crazy sitting in the house all the time, it was getting so claustrophobic and lonely.”
The claustrophobia was also getting to Jasveen Singh Chawla. Once a regular at the gym, the Noida-based sales manager in his 30s has been cycling 160-170 km every week, and says this has helped him get through the lockdown. “I am a motorcyclist, and love being on the saddle. It helps one get rid of claustrophobia. Cycles are the same, you maintain distance and spend time with yourself. Doing that early in the morning helps you feel positive.”
Apart from the convenience of maintaining distance, riders don’t have to deal with the suffocating restriction of wearing a face mask, says Mumbai-based Aman Deshpande, who has long been a cycling advocate, and has persuaded a few cousins to get into it during the pandemic, too. He adds that he feels vindicated, now that so many studies have linked Vitamin D deficiency to Covid, because “I kept telling my cousins that we all need to keep our immunity up and the best way to do that is to exercise, get some sun.”
Cyclop, a Facebook community of cyclists with more than 55,000 members, has been especially active since June, “Our rate of new members has gone up about five times since June,” founder Malvika Jain tells ThePrint. She adds “Many new, first-time cyclists of all ages, 16 to 50 years old, are joining the group looking for ways other than gyms to stay fit during the Covid crisis. Families are now cycling together instead of going for movies!”
“We’ve seen brevets (long cycling tours that cover a distance of more than 200 km, popular in amateur long-distance cycling), gain more and more popularity, and mostly people joining these tours are the newer guys,” says Greater Noida-based Anupam Gupta, founder of the 10,000-member strong, pan-India cycling platform Cycloholics.
Wadhwa concedes that this may be a pandemic fad, and that a year down the line, there might be a huge second hand market of cycles in India. But, he says, while “30-40 per cent people might give up the sport and put their bikes on sale, I am confident the rest of them will keep cycling.”
How to make India more bicycle-friendly
Wadhwa’s worry isn’t his alone — many worry this enthusiasm for two-wheeled exercise will die out once there is a vaccine, perhaps. Indian cities aren’t made for cycling, rues Sarin, who worries that when bosses start expecting their employees back in the office, their commute and general daily grind will relegate cycling to the status of a Sunday morning hobby at best.
Authorities in European cities have already started plans to make more bike-friendly — while Milan has plans to provide more road space to pedestrians and cyclists, London has decided to reserve a few central thoroughfares for bikes.
But these can’t be compared to India’s congested urban spaces. Sarin remembers how Delhi’s BRT project was promoted as bicycle-friendly but ended up “completely useless”. Mumbai’s Bicycle Mayor Firoza Suresh certainly thinks that this is the right time to approach the government to get the ball rolling.
Bicycle Mayors is an initiative by a Dutch NGO Bycs.org, which has appointed leaders in major cities across the world to work towards accelerating the acceptance of cycling in cities. Their goal is ’50 by 30′ — that is, 50 per cent of city trips to be made on bikes by 2030.
“Since lockdown there’s been a 25 per cent surge in interest in recreational and fitness purposes. We’re now seeing women cycling with kids sitting behind them in Mumbai — I have never seen something like this,” Suresh tells ThePrint.
She adds that cycling is a more socially inclusive mode of transport. “If we have more ridership, then infrastructure will also come up. That would mean more space for those for whom cycling to work is not a question of choice.”
Suresh also says we don’t need to jump the gun and look for comprehensive mobility plans like in Europe just yet — rather, we need to first get the basics right. “Just having cycle stands, near hospitals, offices, railway stations will increase access and convenience. Tree plantation will also help cycles as they’d work like cycle stands and provide shade to the vehicle. All these little steps will build a visible momentum.”
Deshpande, too, has the environment on his mind. “Experts keep saying we will have another pandemic in the near future, and it’s because of our environmentally unfriendly lifestyles that we have even reached this stage. So I look at it as the only way to go ahead — we have to swap cars for cycles and make it part of our daily life. It’s good for us, good for the planet.”