Above Relief Road, jet planes from the nearby Santa Cruz airport surged like unstoppable arrows.
Beyond the adjacent wall, at Juhu’s helicopter base servicing offshore oil platforms, the slower choppers hovered and took their time to decide direction before heading seaward at casual pace.
On the road a large collection of exotic cycles were parked – road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, folding bikes, children’s bikes and bikes with digital gizmos and gadgets that begged the brand name of cycle to be changed from classic cycle company to cell phone or computer brand.
Disinterested in that crowd were the BMX lot. Absorbed in their own stunts, they waited for the cycling community to finish its socializing and focus attention on the simplest, barest bikes around.
Ten minutes later as they performed, the crowd seemed enthralled. What none realized and which outlined the character of BMX was that few of those BMX addicts considered themselves cyclists in the popular sense of the word.
A couple of them owned commuting cycles.
All lived at the deep end of an obsession for BMX.
Whatever else cycling meant, didn’t interest them.
They were BMX riders.
Starting in the US in the 1970s, BMX was a full medal discipline at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Mumbai has a small but dedicated BMX group.
The lot I met in mid-February 2012 included Dipak Panchal, Ronald Chudasama, Rajas Naik, Bharat Manjrekar, Shailesh Sawant, Hasmukh Parmar and Shahbaaz Khan. The youngest was 17; the oldest around 26-27. The oldest had taken time to mature in the sport. The youngest was maturing faster. They were among the city’s second wave of BMX bikers. The pioneers rode in the eighties. Rahul Mulani, respected by the new generation bikers for his continued commitment to the sport, was one of them. He started a cycle store, subsequently well known in Bandra, called Gear. It wasn’t his choice of business but there wasn’t another way to survive in a sport that consistently thrashed bikes amidst poor availability of spare parts. For some years, Rahul also organized an event called Gear Hang Five Series, which drew bikers from other regions – Pune, Chandigarh and Manipur – to compete.
The Mumbai competition was usually followed by a jam session permitting bikers to share their skills, ride and just enjoy BMX.
If you ask around in the extended Indian cycling community, Mumbai is remembered for its BMX groups.
However despite their interest the city’s BMX bikers had no place to practice. Some missed social acceptance. “ We are treated like clowns,’’ Dipak said. Several years ago his attempt at college education had ended as college drop-out and emergent BMX biker. Television with its programmes on extreme sports and X-Games played a role in shaping his passion.
After a stint working at a cycle store, he now advised the wealthy on what cycles to buy, how to maintain them and waited for someone to offer space for stunts.
“ Our biggest problem is space to practise,’’ Ronald said.
At his housing society, he was used to hard found space usurped by car come back to park and owner insisting that his vehicle on four wheels was more important than the youngster on two wheels.
“ Why can’t they convert one of the many cricket grounds into a BMX park?’’ Rajas, who specialized in stunts on flat surfaces, quipped.
“ No need for that,’’ Ronald intervened, “ an old dance hall or one of those unused basket ball courts would do. Can’t they allow us a few hours every day?’’
Not having a place to do stunts hurt.
Not having a place in society because they do BMX stunts hurt more.
At least two or three in the group had been picked up by the police and spent time in lock-up for doing stunts on the road.
“ The police think we are akin to those motorcyclists racing in traffic. We are not,’’ Dipak said.
Further, when foreigners performed stunts on BMX cycles in the city, people watched and clapped. “ We don’t receive such support from the same citizens,’’ Ronald said. Ask Rahul and he would tell you that right from his days as pioneer, space to practise had been genuine challenge. Even roads with less traffic are few in Mumbai. “ The Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) is good on Sunday. But that’s just one day,’’ he said of the city’s new financial district.
The contrast amused.
Money minded-Mumbai prayed for busy BKC bustling with people and money.
The BMX bikers liked it as built-up space bereft of people.
Different things fascinate different people.
Where did all this place Mumbai’s BMX community when compared to foreign bikers of the same age?
“ They are a thousand times better,’’ Ronald said ruefully.
After all, practice makes perfect.
Elsewhere in India changes were happening.
Chandigarh apparently had a dirt park now. But Mumbai – the city of abject congestion and severe population pressure – simply had no space to spare for irrelevant pursuits like BMX although it didn’t mind legions of new cars further congesting its streets. And where nothing but survival, rat race and success dominated, empathy for irrelevant pursuits withered.
Dipak said he cannot convincingly articulate his fascination for BMX.
BMX is what BMX does.
How can a practitioner communicate the intensity of engagement?
That also appeared to be what limited this community in interactions with resident cycle companies and new ones entering India. Talking to companies for support was a challenge because as Dipak put it, “ I am only a biker. I understand BMX, I don’t understand marketing.’’
Conversation over, I left them to their search for space.
Above, jet planes soared to meet limitless sky.
Below, those young men, their BMX cycles and Relief Road – all merged into crowded Mumbai.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An edited version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in July 2012.)