How cycling is becoming an increasingly popular recreational fitness activity in India

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The last two years, in particular, have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of people from urban India signing up for cycling

The last two years, in particular, have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of people from urban India signing up for cycling

Photographer Kunal Daswani and his friends were regulars at the Chennai Presidential Club. Clutching pool cues, they chatted around the pool table, the snaps of the colored balls punctuating the conversation. When the pandemic forced almost every place in India to close for several months since March 2020, Kunal missed two things: a sport he loved to play and a social circle. Both, during lockdowns, were essential – for physical and mental health – but difficult to practice. That’s when he did something that changed his life: he rode a bike with his brother.

“My brother had a cycle. He said it was a good sport but he didn’t really like it. So, I took the bike out once or twice. I started to like it a lot,” he says. Cycling was one of the few outdoor activities allowed throughout the confinement. Soon his snooker gang started meeting for early morning walks.

Kunal, 39, calls it a life-changing activity because it has helped him wake up early, get rid of excess weight, optimize his heart rate, improve his mood, and more. , think of creative ideas and make new friends. The traffic-free rides also allowed him to explore the city more extensively than before.

He is one of many people across India who have taken up cycling, especially for recreation, during the pandemic. Although exact figures are not available, cycling enthusiasts and industry analysts attest to this increase. On Strava Metro, the city data service of fitness and networking app Strava, the number of recreational bike users increased from 21,673 in July 2019 to 37,529 in July 2020 and 51,685 in July 2021.

According to industry trackers CRISIL Ratings, India, which is the world’s second largest bicycle maker, saw a decade of 20% demand growth last year. “Pandemic-induced constraints on fitness and leisure options have increased the demand for bicycles, especially in the premium and children’s segments,” its director, Nitesh Jain, said in the report.

Rohan Kini, founder of Bums On The Saddle, a premium bike and bike accessories brand in Bengaluru, says his company’s sales figures over the past two years have been four times higher than habit. “There is no doubt that more people have jumped on the cycling bandwagon. It was one of the few good things that happened because of Covid,” he says.

Why ride a bike?

Even if we disregard the Covid-induced increase in recreational cyclists, this community in India has grown steadily over the past few years. Actor Arya, for example, has been cycling since his school days. “It has been part of my life almost forever. But I started doing long-distance hikes seven years ago,” he says.

Although for recreation, Arya takes cycling seriously. He is now busy training with his group of cyclists for the London Edinburgh London Challenge, from August 7, a grueling 1,500 kilometer endurance test that must be completed in 125 hours. To acclimatize to the cold climates of London and Edinburgh, Arya and company plan to transfer their training to Ooty.

The actor, known for his fitness, devotes a lot of time to cycling amidst an active acting career. Because, he says, cycling is akin to meditation. “When you go on long hikes, in particular, you are alone with your thoughts. You can look at your life and analyze it better. It also makes you believe that you can do a lot of things that you thought you couldn’t.

Bhagyashree Sawant, a former psychology professor in Bengaluru, agrees with the mental benefits of cycling. “To me, it’s one of the most powerful tools for happiness,” she says. “I notice a marked improvement in my mood when I start my day on the bike. [As we ride,] our body releases endorphins, which can keep us happy all day.

Now a sports health professional, Bhagyashree, 30, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest journey (19,400.83 kilometres) by bicycle in a country. Two years ago, she and fellow cyclist from Bengaluru, MJ Pavan, visited about 400 public schools in 18 states and five union territories to raise awareness about polio.

Cycling can instill a sense of social responsibility, believes Vijay Malhotra, a Mumbai-based cyclist whose blog, Pedal And Tring Tring, covers India’s cycling community. “The West Coast Riders in Bandra, for example, recently went on a tandem bike ride with blind and partially blind people,” he says.

Bengaluru’s “cycling mayor”, Sathya Sankaran, offered Relief Riders during the second wave of Covid, during which cyclists in several towns delivered essentials to those in need. Chennai too, under its cycling mayor Felix John, has been an active participant. In fact, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin is a cycling enthusiast.

Most cyclists are part of a community. The group, in most cases, is supportive and inclusive. “When I did a patent of 600 kilometers [where riders attempt distances of over 200 kilometres] this year, after recovering from ACL surgery, I was struggling a bit. It was very difficult for me to sit in the saddle for 40 hours straight. But whenever I slowed down or was low, my fellow riders kept cheering me on,” says Bhagyashree.

This camaraderie is not limited to endurance events. Even coffee break conversations can foster a sense of belonging, Kunal says.

Beginner’s Guide

With many members of the urban upper class getting into bicycling, the options are widening. Bikes, once considered a ride for the poor, now cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, the most expensive bike (BMC Roadmachine Two) on Bums On The Saddle’s is ₹5,75,000. Although it’s not the store’s best-selling price category, some customers are willing to shell out that much for a bike. Of course, you can also find popular bikes that cost less than ₹5,000 in the market.

Essential support

According to Kini, in addition to the bike, beginners should also invest in these additional accessories:-

Helmet: A lot of people think it’s not necessary because you’re not going to go too fast like you do on a motorcycle. But even slow collisions can be dangerous. So, be sure to buy a good quality helmet that has safety ratings (cheap quality ones don’t have these ratings). A good helmet will be light and well ventilated.

Lights: The front light and the rear light are very important. People end up using them only when it’s completely dark. But they’re effective enough in the daytime, too, to get motorists to notice you. Look for lights that are waterproof, USB rechargeable, and have good battery life.

Bottle: This is generally underestimated. You need a good water bottle and a water bottle cage to hold it. Especially on long journeys you will spend energy. It is therefore better to refuel during the journey than later. Many people just buy bottles of mineral water and throw them away, which is not good for the environment.

Pump: A well-filled tire reduces wear, lessens the chance of a flat, and makes overall driving much more efficient. For that, you need to invest in a good bicycle pump, something that can also be easily transported.

Bike computer: It’s something you can lock onto your bike that can give you feedback on your rides – speed, distance, cadence and more. It helps you ride more efficiently. And, it’s not crazy expensive. You can buy basic ones for ₹1500. The more expensive ones can give you more complex data like heart rates and all that.

Rohan, who is an avid cyclist himself, says having the right bike is important for beginners. “There are three main categories: mountain bikes, road bikes and hybrid bikes. If you are going to do a lot of off-road riding, you can opt for mountain bikes. If you’re doing city trips, hybrids are good. If you want to increase your mileage and your speed is important, road bikes are a good choice. But within these three categories, there are hundreds of choices. It is therefore important to get the right type and size of bikes – wrong size bikes can lead to injuries. Talk to a local bike shop you trust.

Once you have the right bike, Vijay gives you some tips on what to do and what not to do. “First, join a local cycling club. It’s easy to create and join groups these days with WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Don’t immediately go on 100 kilometer hikes or participate in competitive rides. First try to explore your neighborhood. Maintain a good diet. Food is very important. Often people don’t drink water. Do not miss sleep, especially if you are a morning cyclist.

Leisure to move

The potential of cycling, especially in India, goes beyond just being a great recreational activity. According to the latest national survey on family health, no less than 54% of rural families and 43% of urban families own a bicycle. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) 2018 report, Benefits of Cycling in India, estimates that the country can save ₹27 billion in fuel and ₹241 billion due to reduced pollution air if 50% of journeys on two and four wheels (less than eight kilometres) are replaced by journeys by bicycle.

That’s why organizations like BYCS India, an offshoot of a Dutch social enterprise, focus on increasing bike commuters. Cycling mayors under BYCS work with government, business and other parties to pave the way – literally and figuratively – for cyclists in a city. Sathya, for example, has fostered a vibrant cycling community in Bengaluru over the past few years. The city has even equipped itself with an artificial intelligence and sensor-based bicycle counter, an electronic device (built by 18-year-old cyclist Nihar Thakkar) that counts cycles at a location during a certain period of time.

Despite all this, Sathya believes there is insufficient infrastructure in Indian cities to persuade recreational cyclists to use bikes to get around. Kunal, for example, considered the idea post-lockdown. “But the traffic is terrible. It’s not the safest way to get around. That said, I try to use my bike as much as possible. Opposite, for a year, I have traveled 10,000 kilometers by bike and only 2,300 kilometers by car. If only our cities had better cycling infrastructure…” he says.

If only.

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