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Power to the pedal

Power to the pedal

  • 31 Aug, 2014
  • The Telegraph

Cycling has never been this chic. High-income professionals in many cities are dumping their fancy sedans for souped up road bikes. Varuna Verma pedals to catch up with them.

They are known as the Mamils — Middle-aged Men in Lycra. Go to any cycle store and you'll find them — senior executives, all — peering intently at the mean machines they hope will help change their sedentary lives.

It was at one such store that Arvind Sinha, the Gurgaon-based senior programme manager of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found not just his road bike but two eager companions as well. Like him, they were professionals in their 40s who had been initiating into cycling for fitness reasons.

"We became a threesome, going on long Sunday cycling trips," says Sinha, who started cycling after his doctor advised him to exercise once he had turned 40. Soon other friends joined them. In 2008 the group gave itself a name, Pedalyatri. Today, Pedalyatri has 800 members. "We are more diverse, with women and young members. So we've started sub-groups to cater to all interests — such as hardcore trail riding and 400km extreme endurance rides," Sinha says.

In 2010, UK-based market research firm Mintel conducted a study on Britain's bicycle industry. It noted that a growing number of men in their 40s were buying expensive bicycles and hitting the road for fitness reasons. It was the study that named them Mamil.

Urban India, clearly, has a booming Mamil brigade as well — high-income professionals who are dumping their fancy sedans for souped up, carbon-fibre road bikes.

"Cycling is the new cool in corporate circles. With high-end bikes available off the shelf, a lot of working professionals are incorporating biking into their lifestyle," says Pavan Muthanna, founder, Crankmeister Bicycle Works, a Bangalore-based firm that customises high-end bikes and conducts do-it-yourself bike maintenance workshops. The company has notched a 60 per cent year-on-year growth in sales, he adds.

Some 15.5 million Indian bicycles are sold a year, the bulk of them being the standard, black Atlas, Avon and Hero cycles that middle-class India rides. But sales in the mid-premium segment increased from 34 per cent in 2007 to 44 per cent in 2011. "Brand names like Trek, Giant, Schwinn and Bianchi are now part of the urban lexicon," Muthanna says.

Prices of the bikes range from Rs 80,000 to Rs 8 lakh. Health and wellness consultant Saurabh Gupta considers it money well spent. "The benefits are big — wading through the Colaba traffic can't get smoother, it's free and I feel fit," says the 39-year-old Mumbai resident who has pedalled over 50,000 kilometres within the city in the last two years.

Like Pedalyatri, cycling groups have sprouted across Indian cities. When IT professional Sridhar Birlangi relocated to Hyderabad after a work stint in Germany, he imported its cycle-to-office culture. In 2009, he launched the Bike2Work Club to get people on to pedal power. The club currently has 200 members and an active Facebook group spreading the word further. "The social media are the best places to sell an idea," Birlangi says.

Corporate India is also promoting biking. In Bangalore's Electronic City everyone cycles to get around. Four-wheelers are banned in the Infosys campus. A few Gurgaon firms have set up showers and locker rooms for cycle-commuting employees, Sinha adds.

At The Fuller Life, a Bangalore-based sports management firm, employees get travel reimbursement for cycling to client meetings. "About 20 per cent of our workforce cycles to work," CEO Arvind Krishnan says.

Krishnan leads by example. He cycles six kilometres from home to his office daily. "The net impact of bad traffic is never more than five minutes, as I run on the pavement with my cycle during a jam," he says.

The CEO believes that with traffic on Indian city roads heading for logjam status, cycling will soon be the only sensible way to travel.

But bikers have to contend with the state of traffic and urban roads. In 2013, pedestrians and cyclists accounted for half of all deaths on Bangalore's roads.

"Urban planning in India does not take cyclists and other non-motorised factors like pedestrians into account. Roads are designed to move automobiles," rues G.V. Dasarathi, director, Cadem Technologies, Bangalore, who started cycling to office 15 years ago.

IT professional Rohan Kini, who opened his store Bums On The Saddle (BOTS) in 2006, however, believes that if all safety precautions are taken, cycling is as safe as riding any other vehicle. "Wear helmets, sport headlights and paste reflective stickers — you have to be visible on the road," he says.

Across the metros, a great many women are biking too. When Mehvash Arslan joined The Fuller Life, the first lifestyle change she made was cycling to work. "It's the fastest way to get around the city," the maritime archaeologist-turned-sports professional says.

Anita Roy, director at publishing house, Zubaan, found driving in Delhi — with its road rage and parking hassles — depressing. "Cycling is far better. I am as fast as a car without the stress," says the strictly utilitarian cycle-commuter.

As the numbers of cycling converts grows, an industry is developing around the sport. When Gauri Jayaram turned 40, she sold her sedan and gifted herself a new commute vehicle, a Trek 7.1 road bike. The bicycle gave the Bangalore-based travel professional a new business idea.

Last year, she launched The Active Holiday Company, offering international and domestic cycling-based tours. "We've taken clients on cycling tours in Siem Reap, Cambodia, from Pisa to Florence in Italy and organised cycling trips along the Danube," Jayaram says.

More and more cycle shops — exciting new avatars of the old cycle stores — are springing up too. "Besides selling bikes, we build excitement around the sport — by organising cycling events and celebrating global competitions like the Tour de France," says Kini.

Kini started his own store after an unpleasant retail experience — he was in a shop that was essentially a godown; the salesperson was rude; and he was overcharged. So he launched BOTS — now present in Bangalore and Pune — to plug this retail gap. "In 2006, ours was the only bike store in Bangalore. Today, there are 15."

Pedalling has never been this chic. As the old ad says, it's boom shaka laka boom time.

Two-wheel saga

Who's pedalling?

• Mostly Mamils — middle-aged men in lycra

How much do high-end bikes cost?

• Rs 80,000 to Rs 8 lakh

How many cycling groups are there?

• Pedalyatri, Bangalore Biker's Club in Bangalore

• Bike2Work Club, the Great Hyderabad Bicycling Club in Hyderabad

• Delhi Cycling Club in Delhi

• Everyday Short Night Rides, Lakecity Pedalers in Mumbai

• Goa Cycle Club

• Indian Cyclists Network, BikesZone (both are online networks for cyclists)