Living dangerously: An outsider’s perspective on cycling in India

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I was less than a kilometre from my New Delhi home, weaving through the city’s chaotic morning ‘school traffic’ when the van full of children went to turn in front of me. The driver saw me at the last second and jabbed his brakes. I was close enough to see inside. The driver grimaced. The kiddy cargo lurched forward.

A fistful of brake. I skidded and bumped off the metal, wobbly, but upright.

Scared and angry, I punched at the wing mirror. Instead of folding inwards as I’d expected, it broke clean off, and clattered to the ground. I heard the tinkling of breaking glass behind me as I pedalled clear in an adrenaline-charged sprint. I’m not proud of that moment.

It wasn’t always like that, but cycling in Delhi did have its moments.

I recently spent two and a half years in India, as South Asia Correspondent for the ABC. Having lived previously in cycling havens Melbourne and Canberra, I’ll admit I was nervous (and realistic) about what moving to India would mean for my riding.

I’d arrived in India in autumn, and before long the dreaded winter pollution descended. The numbers are utterly, utterly terrifying.

Like fire danger warning signs, the Air Quality Index (AQI) is a colour-coded guide to health risk, based on the quantity of harmful particles in a city’s air. Anything above 300 is considered code-red ‘extreme’ – i.e do not go outside. The dial tops out at 500.

On November 7 last year, New Delhi recorded an AQI of 1,010 – off the scale, twice over.

Days like that are exceptional. But over the course of that first winter, I quickly came to learn that ‘extreme’ was sadly normal.

The toxic cocktail is a mix of of crop-stubble smoke from surrounding farms, power station emissions, the fumes from millions of trucks, cars and bikes, the dust those vehicles kick up … and even the smoke from the things poor people burn to keep warm. It all hangs in the very air everyone has no choice but to inhale.

I did numerous stories about the health impacts, selfishly grappling with the personal implications as I did. Other expats began wearing facemasks, earning them quizzical looks — even smirks — from the largely nonchalant Indians.

I researched the masks intently – which ones fit the closest? Had the best filters, valves, flow rate? I put the very best one I could find on my work credit card. The finance people wouldn’t quibble with me spending the money on protection, would they?

When the mask arrived, craving exercise, I ventured out into the sepia-toned smog for short runs, each time returning with scary tightness in my chest, a longing for home and nagging questions. What was I doing to myself? Was I doing permanent damage to my lungs? All for the glory of calling myself a foreign correspondent? Was it worth it?

As the winter gave way to spring, searingly hot winds began to break up the smoggy cloud. The air went from extreme to just plain bad. Delhi’s temperatures skyrocketed.

Finally, my bike arrived. I had no idea where to ride it. Then one evening I was introduced to a British guy. “Matt’s a cyclist too,” the party’s host ventured.

“Yeah mate, I’ll put you on the WhatsApp group,” Matt promised.

The Delhi Velo cycling club is a wonderful assortment of Indians and expatriates. Its a motley mash-up of fitness and fashion sense — a group of riders at once beholden to the Velominati rules, and an abomination to them.

Among the group were chef Tirath, lawyers Nameer, Chetan and Akshay, Pochi the engineer, Harsha, Himmat and sleepy Sumit, whose alarm seemed to fail with clockwork precision. Then there’s Gautam, whose passion pushed him to comb Google for street-racing routes, and devote hours to organising mountain bike races through the arid outskirts of Delhi.

The expats were Dutchman Johan, German Tobias and Briton Matt, who left for Dubai about the same time part-Kiwi/Aussie/Canadian Graham arrived. Later came another Aussie, Paul, and from Bangalore, Gaurav, perhaps the world’s most data-driven cyclist.

People came, people left. But the unifying thread? Passion. Passion for cycling. A shared recognition that we’d all prefer to be out there amongst it, than cooped up and cranky. That’s the thing about being outliers in a city of 20-odd million – birds of a feather tend to stick together.

cycling in india

Venturing onto Delhi’s roads in lycra is perhaps like taking to a battlefield wearing pajamas, a notion often reinforced by many drivers’ quizzical stares. The road rules are actually very simple. Biggest goes first. A bicycle is not biggest. Under no circumstances do you go first. The trucks and buses go first.

Unless of course you’re revved up midway through a group ride chasing a KOM, and the paceline leader decides that an outstretched ‘hand of god’ signalling ‘stop’ will persuade (or perplex) the surrounding traffic into yielding.

Although nerve-wracking, its hard to describe the joy I derived from finally returning to a routine so deeply ingrained, even if it now seemed wildly out of place. The first morning I got up, set forth into 30-degree heat at 5.30am, dodged death for an hour or so, then sat down to joke about it all in the one coffee shop actually open by 8am. I was so bloody happy I nearly forgot about the air I was breathing.

This welcome rediscovery of cycling’s unique camaraderie spawned a fresh sense of excitement about India.

Gautam touted riding trips into the Himalayas, and our morning spins around the ‘bowstring’ became a window into Delhi’s daily awakening. Against my fretting over the air quality, the quizzical stares of homeless and lowly paid labourers, uncomprehending of our frivolous exertion, provided a sense of perspective on life.

Roadside sights never failed to amuse, copulating monkeys chief among them. Dodging unblinking cattle, motor-pacing tuk-tuks, or slowing to skirt a loping elephant were semi-regular scenes from our morning outings. We’d occasionally find ourselves sharing the road with dozens of finely groomed horses trotting in perfect unison, each one bearing a regally attired soldier from the Presidential guard.

In the heat we’d stop for coconuts, pulling limp rupees from drenched jerseys as the streetside sellers hacked open the quenching fruit. Some scorching mornings, I’d pine for crisp fresh air, and yearn for a chill that might even warrant arm-warmers.

Cycling in India

But there was one aspect of riding at home I most certainly did not miss: the cars vs bikes debate. If there’s one major positive about riding in India, it’s that no motorist will try to run you off the road (deliberately).

Certainly, the roads are maddeningly chaotic. It certainly felt sketchy sometimes, amongst the weaving bikes, cars, trucks and buses. But I never felt unwelcome. However uncomprehending Indian drivers may be of lycra-clad cycling’s purpose, they do not dispute your right to practise it.

Unlike motorists in Australia, America or Europe, Indians are far more accustomed to vehicles, humans and animals all sharing the road, at their own speed. They’re more tolerant, because they have to be.

I’m generalising here, and yes, India does have an indisputably appalling road safety record. But that notwithstanding, the tolerant vibe is noticeable, and appreciated.

But what about cycling as a sport?

Bicycles are everywhere in India. Pedal-powered transport is central to hundreds of millions of Indians’ lives, and the country’s economy. But like most physical activity, it is predominantly practiced by the lower classes. Again I’m generalising, but with the exception of cricket, exertion is typically regarded as something endured by those lacking financial or mechanical means to avoid it.

Like many things in this developing behemoth, this is changing, albeit slowly.

Many CyclingTips readers will know of Naveen John, the first Indian cyclist to ride for a Continental team. In a piece about the 2017 Indian National Championships he wrote about how India’s system of quotas for coveted public servant jobs has been a curious driver of growth.

“The sport is seen as a potential ticket to upward social mobility,” John observed. But he also noted a rising appetite for cycling among India’s growing middle class. “The motivation for getting into the sport isn’t necessarily a sports quota job, but something more,” he wrote.

I agree — there are more and more people in India interested in the sport of cycling. It’s visible in participation and events too.

Stage races MTB Himalaya, and its little brother MTB Shimla are set in spectacular spots, each attract solid international participation and offer serious challenges in terms of vertical gain and elevation. Around Delhi in 2017, recreational and sportive events were flourishing, even if they did come with some growing pains.*

At every street or MTB race that Gautam organised, new faces appeared, eager for the opportunity to race and learn about a sport that remains novel, but is increasingly accessible to the digitally savvy Indian middle class. And this is what I think will propel Indian cycling further and faster: its appeal as a tech-driven sport, in a tech-mad country.

Remember Gaurav who I mentioned earlier? Gaurav couldn’t understand my desire to ride without a power meter, any more than I could comprehend his desperation for one. He’s studying to become a specialist electrical engineer. Initially he told me his academic and sporting pursuits were separate, but when I asked if he saw a link between them, he agreed that it tapped a professional curiosity which Indians are renowned for.

“Since I deal with the application of science on a daily basis, I also enjoy dabbling with the science of training on the bike, and the related technology,” he told me in a WhatsApp message.

I was initially surprised by this data-fixation, but I do think its worth tapping into as a way of fostering interest, and all-important family acceptance for younger riders. In a culture where academic success is prioritised above all else, demonstrating some educational value could make all the difference.

For those less excited by the melding of sport and technology, India’s nascent digitisation means anyone even mildly curious can now see and experience the sport in their home country. Check out this video (also featuring Naveen John) of the Kaladhungi epic race, held last month in the ‘lower’ Himalayas. The world’s biggest mountain range has plenty to offer the adventurous cyclist.

You want to climb? Put the Manali-Leh highway on your to-ride list.

A mixture of tarmac, broken pavement, gravel and mud, this 500km ‘highway’ through the Himalayas crosses some of the highest passes in the world. It culminates on Khardung-Lah pass outside Leh. This brute of high-altitude gravel suffering starts at 3,500 metres and rises to an ear-popping 5,349m over 37km.

My father and I rode and camped the route last year, and the experience was worth all the agony of being cooped up in Delhi. It took us eight days, across which my Garmin tallied 13,449 vertical metres. I’ve never ridden anything else like it.

Which pretty much sums up riding in India.

* The author may be slightly bitter about being misdirected while leading one such event.

About the author

James Bennett is a cycling mad video-journalist who has covered everything from sheep shearing to several Tours de France. He recently completed a posting to India as ABC Australia’s South Asia correspondent, and can currently be found riding up and down San Francisco’s hills. He’s on Twitter: @James_L_Bennett.

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