Sunday, 15 June 2014

Riding the wind--on wheels of change

A lifestyle statement, or a lifetime commitment?
L to R--Greg, Wendy Barreto and Rohit Sudharshan during their B'lore-Goa riding trip

A rider doing the Tour of Nilgiris last year
When Gregory Barreto (now 31) told his wife Wendy (now 29) that he wanted to cycle from Bengaluru to Goa, her first thought was: “Are you out of your mind!”

Then she warmed to the idea and the incredible challenge it offered. The couple knew they must train to test their endurance for the 560 km distance they plannned to cover. “But we really didn't practice regularly. Once, we cycled to Nandi Hills (about 60 kms from Bengaluru city), came back home, and basically collapsed,” recalled Wendy Barreto.

Did they really have it in them to do the Goa trip?

In January last year, the couple, accompanied by close friend Rohit Sudharshan, achieved what they thought would be near-impossible--cycle from Bengaluru to Palolem in south Goa, with a stopover at Gokarna (Karnataka-Goa border). They took five days to reach Palolem, rested for a couple of days and then bused it back to Bengaluru. “We rode on borrowed bikes and our budget was tight, we slept in roadside hotels/lodges every night. But the journey was absolutely amazing, we learnt a lot, about ourselves,” is how the couple, who run Riprap, a landscaping/fabrication/carpentary business, describe the experience.

The Barretos and Sudharshan (a chef) are part of a growing breed of cyclists in Bengaluru, who are rediscovering and re-learning the joys of riding the world on a bicycle. So popular is biking that the city has a 'Cycle Day' on the last Sunday of every month, organised by the Department of Urban Land Transport along with cycling communities. Bengaluru is also home to everything cycling related--from cycling tours, conducted holidays and pub-visits (by Red Spokes Cycling), to bicycle stores the customise your ride for you (Bums on the saddle, Cyclists for Life, Track and Trail), to bicycle sharing initatives such as the Namma Cycle project underway on the Indian Institute of Science campus. And then of course there is the Tour of Nilgiris (TfN), India's longest and toughest cyclosportive event, conducted from and based in Bengaluru.

Bengaluru on a bike
The city has always had a cycling culture, said Sridhar Pabbisetty, co-founder TfN. “In the '80s and '90s, cycles were our primary means of transport. Motorbikes were acquired only when you started working,” he explained. Bengaluru's weather played a huge role too, “...it is (or rather used to be), suitable for cycling through the year. The city's tree-lined streets and many lakes inherently enouraged cycling,” he said.

Rohan Kini, founder of the evocatively-named BumsOnTheSaddle (BOTS), a bike store, marketplace and biking community hub, concurred. Having set up BOTS in 2006, Kini has seen the biking culture revive and well, take off. The former techie loves cycling and aims to spread the love across India. “It is a misconception that biking is unsafe. As a techie, I biked 25 kms every day for five years and never had an accident,” he said. Kini, through BOTS, organises night rides across the city and conducts the monthly Bangalore Biking Championships. And the BOTS blog regularly features people who live and love cycling. Similarly, brother-sister duo Zubin and Shaina Jagtiani, believe everything is so much more fun on a bicycle, including holidays. So they launched Red Spokes Cycling, an eco tour company in January-February this year. The Jagtianis kicked off their venture with a biking trip to a vineyard near Mysore. Now they hold regular Pub Crawls within Bengaluru where they tie up with pubs in Bengaluru for rides that include dinner, 'light' drinks, and fun. A safe taxi ride back home is part of the programme. Post the monsoon, the Jagtianis hope to expand their eco tours to other parts of India, and even, go international.

Zest for life, zero pollution, and the zen of giving back....
For bikers, the bicycle represents freewheeling, free spirited living, and a fitness-oriented, fuel-free experience. But why this resurgence in biking? Zubin Jagtiani reckons that being in the rat race is taking its toll. “People yearn for a time when the journey was more important than the destination. Cycling gives you that opportunity. Because, on a cycle, you have no choice but to go slow. And when you go slow, you have no choice but to look around and enjoy the surroundings.”

Apart from those who commute on a cycle or bike for fitness, Pabbisetty estimates that Bengaluru is home to around 5,000-6,000 hardcore bikers. These are the people who live to ride, and who take part in TfN. Pabbisetty and three partners started TfN six years ago. The event covers a distance of nearly 900 kms and is held every December. Last year, over a 100 riders went on a route criss crossing Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu through the Bandipur, Wayanad and Mudumalai wildlife sanctuaries. What makes TfN even more special is that the riders also raise money for five-six organisations across India. “We aim to rekindle the sporting spirit and groom future Olympic-level cyclists by providing tribal children with the means and the opportunity to develop their skill and talent,” Pabbisetty explained.

From simple to sophisticated
Naturally, the bike is no longer a simple, self--propelled two-wheeler. Bikes now come with carbon frames, titanium alloys and all kinds of new age space tech materials. There are different kinds of bikes--mountain, road, hybrid, touring and folding; and many brands--from Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Kona, Dahon, Bianchi, Bergamont, Schwinn, GT, Mongoose and Montra, to the more familiar Hercules, Hero, BSA and Firefox. Prices range from Rs 3,000-5,000 to Rs 7 lakh or more. There are sophisticated add-ons too, from ergonomic helmets and saddles to riding-friendly water bottles and the appropriate riding gear.

So is cycling out of reach for the common man? Not at all, stressed Kini, Jagtiani and others in the cycling community. “You don't have to buy an expensive bike, rent one, and give cycling a shot,” said Kini. Jagtiani added: “Unlike running, you can cycle in shorts, pants, jeans, wearing sandals, slippers, formal shoes or sports shoes. Unless you are cycling professionally or long distance, special attire is not required.”

And those who cycle, term it a special kind of high. Wendy and Greg Barreto, in fact, loved their long-distance trip to Goa so much that they now plan a riding trip to Mudumalai. 
 
The open road, your ride and a riding partner. What more do you need?