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Pedal power

On a hot summer day, there’s a congregation of cyclists in the leafy bylanes of Delhi’s Lodhi Colony. They are part of a biking event called Critical Mass that’s being held, all over the world, on the last Friday of every month. And yes, they do take over the roads — their point being this that biking is a right, not a privilege.

As the wait for the other cyclists of the motley crew begins at a pre-decided spot — appropriately opposite a sports store — another bicyclist zips in on a fancy mountain bike sporting a turquoise blue Mohawk hairdo. In his late 20s, Marcus Santiago, a comic book illustration artist, catches up with his fervour for cycling when he meets complete strangers (usually) to go pedalling in groups.

The others in the group, all members of the Delhi Cycling Club and in vastly different age groups, are also passionate about their two-wheelers. For instance, there’s 56-year-old Ranmal Singh Jhala who insists on getting around in the city on his bicycle and then, there’s Vibhu Pandey, a 23-year-old recent graduate who occasionally rides his bike to work.

In other parts of the country, some 24-odd bicycling clubs are holding the same event — at about the same time on the last Friday of each month. Critical Mass has enthusiasts cycling furiously in Calcutta, Pune, Mysore, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kerala, Kochi, Hyderabad, Chennai and other cities.

The Go Green Initiators don their Go Green tees and cycle through the streets of Bangalore to spread awareness about economising on fuel consumption

As a bystander, you can count on sighting outfitted bikers on their fancy Cannondales, Meridas, Treks and Firefoxes (not your average-Joe bikes). Note: some of the bikes are priced over a lakh.

Says mountain biker Dhananjay Ahluwalia: “The cycling community has grown in the last five years. An indication is the increasing number of international cycling brands rolling out their products here.”

If you want to become a member of a bicycling club in your city, chances are you will find one easily. And if you happen to be in Pune, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai or Hyderabad, you will probably be spoilt for choice.

These clubs are turning out to be havens for bicycling lovers. For one, you can join them for nothing at all. Sometimes members offer free advice too when it comes to buying your own set of wheels. Like Rohan Kini and his friend, Nikhil Edlurkar, the 28-year-olds who are behind Bangalore’s Bums On the Saddle, a club with some 900 members.

Cyclists from Bums On the Saddle set off on biking trails out of Bangalore to places like the Nandi Hills and Savandurga
Pics courtesy: Rohan Kini

They offer consultation every Saturday at their store in Bangalore’s Jayanagar. “The absence of knowledgeable bike sellers pushed us to start our own club in early 2007,” says Kini who works with a software consulting firm.

Shay Mandel, organiser of the Hyderabad Cycling Club, doles out technical tips on cycling and takes members on rides around Gachhibowli, the high-tech hub of Hyderabad. The club’s inspiration is the Cophenhagenize Movement which has bikers in Copenhagen, Denmark, cycling around the city, even in rush hour.

The sport has taken off and how. There’s yet another group of enthusiasts in Shimla who call themselves the Himalayan Adventure Sports & Tourism Promotion Association. For the past five years, they’ve been annually organising the Hercules Mountain Biking Himachal, a mountain cycling adventure.

Says Dhananjay Ahluwalia of Himalayan Adventure: “From a meagre 33 riders in 2005 of which 60 per cent were foreign riders, our event has seen the participation numbers rising to 85 in 2008 with 70 per cent being Indian riders. This year we are expecting 120 people to turn up at the race.”

The East Coast Road that connects Chennai to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry is the favourite route of the Chennai Bikers

Cross-country races and duathlons (athletic events that combine cycling with running) are also being arranged by clubs like the Hyderabad Cycling Club and Bums On the Saddle.

These clubs offer much more than just the chance of spontaneous cycling escapades. They offer different options: long-distance tours, short-distance riding, off-road riding, day tours of heritage places. Weekend rides and early morning weekday rides are also common. In short, there’s something for everyone.

The Whitefield Bikers — a technology savvy group from Bangalore that makes reports on their rides — also uses GPS devices and GPS maps. The 12 bikers who belong to the ‘fast group’, ride at breakneck speeds while the rest of the 30 are part of the ‘slow group’ who set off on pleasure trips.

Once they hit the road (though they actually prefer biking off it), the slow Whitefielders bike through fields, skirt lakes and often take idli and chai breaks in the villages they pass. “We follow our own maps and sometimes take off into unknown paths that land us in the backyards of farms,” laughs Arun Katiyar who heads the ‘slow group’.

Members of the Delhi Cycling Club take off for spontaneous rides within the city
Jagan Negi

The Chennai Bikers, a comparatively new club that came into existence last year, too boasts of a fast group that speeds at 35km/hr, while the slow ones choose to straggle at 20km/hr.

The routes might be spontaneous within cities but usually they are carefully charted out for members heading out of the city.

The Pune Cycling Prathisthan, for instance, recently took a 600km, eight-day cycle trip from Leh to Srinagar. “We do our research in advance. That’s how we could undertake a trip even to Khardungla Pass, the highest motorable road in Ladakh,” says Nanda Kumar Bhatewra, secretary of the club.

The Goa Cycling Club and the Delhi Cycling Club both offer heritage trails within the cities. The Chennai gang, however, prefers the East Coast Road that connects Chennai to Mahabalipuram and further to Pondicherry.

Some of the clubs have gone eco-friendly in a big way. The Kolkata Cycling Club, which happens to be an initiative by SwitchOn.org, an NGO involved with studying the Indian climate, encourages ‘cycling as a healthy/cheaper/smarter/sustainable way of transport’. The Pune Cycle Pratishthan focuses on social work in villages around Pune.

Then there’s Bangalore’s Go Green Go Cycle club, members of which call themselves the Go Green Initiators. On a fuel-saving mission, they head out on the roads of Bangalore wearing Go Green tees.

Most bikers are advocating commuting to work on a bicycle. “Bangalore’s roads are crowded at most times, so I cycle to work,” says Kini.

Delhi’s Nalin Sinha, the man behind an NGO called Initiative for Transportation and Development India, is also the force behind the 600-member Delhi Cycling Club. He encourages employees who live within three to four kilometres of their offices to cycle to work at least thrice a week. He too cycles to work once a week.

The clubs are also actively working on campaigns to create bicycle lanes in their cities. “Pune was once known as the city of cycles complete with cycle tracks on major roads. We want to encourage a return to the bicycle culture,” says Bhatewra.

In Delhi, the 5.8-km BRT lane is making life easier for cycling enthusiasts with its dedicated cycling tracks. And for safety’s sake, clubs like Bums On the Saddle are urging cyclists to don reflective vests.

So, if you are lured, remember that the routes are there, the clubs are at hand and the bikes too. All you’ve got to do is hit the road — pedalling.

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