Driving his car to work and back in Bangalore frustrated GV Dasarathi, the founder director of Cadem Technologies, for years. It’s a common problem given the city’s road and traffic conditions. It continued to frustrate him until he placed a “self-imposed limit of three days in a month” to use his car. Today, he pedals 26 km a day, a committed commuter and recreational cyclist. Dasarathi is among a growing breed of fanatics who live and breathe the road and saddle. “It’s like yoga on the road,” he says.
Commuters are just one among the many sub-tribes of Bangalore cyclophiles. One group, the Brevet specialists, is usually lithe, long-distance lovers who take pleasure in cycling between 200 and 1,000 km in a short and specified period of time. For this zen sect, trivialities like sleep and food scarcely matter.
Moments after finishing a 1,000-km brevet between Bangalore and Bellary, T Ashok, founder and CEO of Stag Software, is serene. He describes the experience of spending a thousand kilometres on a cycle, mostly alone: “It’s been three nights since I slept. I really wanted to know what it takes, whether I would hallucinate.” He laughs and adds, “After a long-distance ride, you become exceptionally calm. It’s not about finishing. Every part of your body is beautifully synchronized. Your muscles are completely relaxed. You’d think the opposite is true. It’s like pure mindfulness.”
Two years ago, IT professional Vikram Singh Jadav was riding the same 1,000-km brevet from Bangalore when he had a bad accident. He was on his own and lost his memory for almost five hours. Disoriented, injured and scared, he managed to stay alive till he was found by a scouting car. Three months later, he cycled in the challenging 1,200-km randonneur (endurance ride) called the Paris Brest. Now in 2013, after repeating the 1,000-km brevet that almost killed him in 2011, he is calm. “Cycling is my choice of drug,” he says.
Inner peace alone doesn’t quite cut it for everybody. For some, finishing isn’t enough. Racers are a hive of soldier bees, totally focused and insanely fit. They live to race. “Competitive racing is exploding right now. From not having any sponsored cyclists in India, today we have 40, and that’s definitely thanks to what we have done. Now the races are real races,” says Vivek Radhakrishnan, an avid racer, professional entrepreneur and team director of the Specialized Kynkyny Cycle Racing Team. This team is India’s first to be fully sponsored by a top-end international cycling giant, Specialized.
Vivek is quick to be self-deprecatory, “I’m like an old fart who wishes he had started when he was younger and turned pro and never will, so now he’s busy trying to make the other young guys happen.”
The truth is that Vivek is one of those rare people who have a deep personal involvement in the sport, while pushing it as an industry that needs competition to survive and thrive. He says, “Guys like Rohan Kini from Bums On The Saddle (BOTS, a pro cycling store and race organizer since 2006) have been instrumental in creating the racing scene. We’re partners in crime. He’s put in a heck of an effort in creating a scene and I’ve put in effort in creating a pro team to lead the way. Now, because of us there are other teams, and because of him there are racers to join those teams. There’s so much talent in this country but it’s not been supported. We were taking riders abroad and have been training people. Now the talent actually has places to go.”
For Naveen Thomas John, 27, the place to go was Bangalore. Naveen is a competitive road racer who grew up in Kuwait. He had been living in the US for six years when he “heard about a team in Bangalore.” Despite everybody telling him “he’s stupid”, he says, “I just booked my tickets and headed over here.” He now races for the Specialized Kynkyny Racing Team. He first got into cycling to drop some weight from his 110 kgs, but now embraces the competitive lifestyle of “not having time to hang out with friends and turning down social events. It means waking up at 5.30 am every morning.”
Vivek Radhakrishnan adds, “Right now, every cyclist’s dream is to be on our team because you get all the infrastructure. I think very soon it’s going to be, ‘Which team do I want to get on? What makes sense for me? Will I get more if I perform for them?’ That’s kind of what’s happening now and I think it’s awesome.”
For some, speed is overrated. “I like the idea of a slow commute,” says Shamala Subramanyan, 33, who has been a commuter cyclist for eight years and is now India’s first female pro bike mechanic, operating out of Rohan Kini’s BOTS. Kini was one of the primary factors behind the emergence of the sport in India and took to cycling when he realised how much fun and convenient it could be in Bangalore’s chaotic traffic. The otherwise understated Subramanyan’s eyes light up when talking about cycling. “It’s a great game when you’re trying to get past traffic. It’s also [about] mocking people who get stuck in traffic, I just love doing that,” she says with a giggle.
A certain sense of fun is definitely part of the game for downhillers. These cyclists specialise in riding heavy, strong bikes down steep, rough slopes. Once a month or so, Bangalore downhillers meet for these vertigo-inducing obstacle courses.
Bangalore’s cyclists are growing every day and everyone has their own reasons. From artists like Nilofer Suleman, who uses her cycle for short commutes, to IT professional Suntosh Kumar, who first took to cycling when his father died and was mourning the intimacy he had lost forever. Kumar decided to ride in a race to keep the memory of his father alive. Today, he looks blissful when he relives riding from Paris to London and along a wintry landscape at the Great Wall of China.
Then there are folks who are even more deeply immersed in the culture of cycling, like the young scientist Sreepathi Pai. In Pai’s pocket-sized hostel room at the Indian Institute of Science (where everyone cycles), three cycles of unusual shapes and sizes live alongside his work (and a stray copy of the Collected Works of Kim Jong-il). Pai is a sharp observer of cycling subcultures around the world. In his precise way he can describe the pleasures of everything from his endurance cycling to his ‘casual’ 20 km commutes.
When people get on a cycle in Bangalore, their motivations may be different but there’s a universal sense of escape and childlike enthusiasm. The kind you had riding to school, with the leaden bag as light as the wind blowing through your hair. The kind you had when all you had to worry about was balancing on your bike, while trying to race your friend round that impossible bend.
Bio: Hari Adivarekar is a photojournalist based in Bangalore. His areas of work include social issues and justice, music and culture, communities, oddities and personal histories. You can see more of his work here - adivarekar.in