Here’s a story from 2013.
It has been updated to include developments till January 2014.
Vinay is rarely on the ground.
In photographs, he is usually cyclist airborne.
Either that or, he is a streak of dust gathering speed as he rolls down an inclined hillside, probably prelude to a launch. When I met him in early 2013, Vinay Menon’s reputation could be summed up as – he is forever jumping off things. That’s how he described himself, “ I am always jumping off something or the other.’’ On the Internet he had a following. He was considered to be the best `free rider’ in India. Mountain biking has several disciplines under it – Dirt Jumping, Slope Style, Trials, Cross Country, Four X, All Mountain, Endurance, Street and Free Riding among them. Of these, free riding values self expression and creativity, being a demonstration of what the rider can do with his bicycle, skills and terrain. Although he respects all disciplines and indulges in several, Vinay’s forte is free riding. As yet there didn’t seem to be anyone around in India who was pushing the sport as Vinay did. Driven, his efforts had got him travelling overseas, meeting and interacting with international cyclists that he looked up to – names like Brett Tippie and Dan Cowan. Closer to my world of writing, Vinay was also Deputy Editor of the Indian cycling magazine `Free Rider.’ I first met him in Mumbai, when he was passing through town, part of a long, north-south ride with clients.
During the brief chat, I heard of Praveen.
Welcome to the story of Psynyde.
We shift to Pune, western India’s adventure capital. Like Bangalore further south, it has that change effecting-matrix of educational institutions with students from all over and a young mobile workforce at engineering companies and IT outfits, exposed to trends elsewhere and open to trying out new things. Praveen picked me up around lunch time. He drove his car slowly to a Subway outlet. We found ourselves a table. Then, Praveen sat nervously, his eyes on the bicycle mounted on the car’s back, the car visible through the eatery’s glass doors. That bicycle was seriously precious. It was the reason for our conversation. The road outside was busy. It doesn’t take much to flick a light road bike off a car’s back or do something to damage it. Praveen’s nervousness was understandable. A little later, if I remember correctly, he managed to keep the bicycle in safer territory, near a security guard. That done, he relaxed.
Vinay got interested in mountain biking in the mid-1990s. By then, Praveen Prabhakaran, was already an established addict of the sport in Pune. Both mentioned Sameer Dharmadhikari, then at Mumbai IIT, who was committed to mountain biking and was a pioneer of sorts. A complete idea of the sport was yet evolving. The youngsters used Indian cycles and existing trails on nearby hills. They banked on overseas mountain biking magazines, the occasional video and TV program for a sense of what to do. But as Praveen and company rode hard, jumped and abused their bikes in an effort to be like the foreign riders, one constant prevailed – they frequently damaged their cycles which were not designed for such riding or such levels of abuse. Needing spare parts frequently, Praveen sold old newspapers to raise funds. Naturally, there was a limit to such funding. On the other hand, there seemed to be no end to how much a dedicated cyclist could push his cycle to repair. Slowly Praveen’s interest drifted from pushing the ante in his chosen sport to tinkering with cycles. How do you make them suited for the sport; how can they stand up to abuse?
In his first experiment, Praveen took a rigid frame Indian mountain bike (MTB) and made it into a dual suspension cycle, subsequently named (perhaps aptly) `Frankenstein.’ Then, the story gets wilder. In his second such modification – this time a friend’s Indian dual suspension-MTB that wasn’t compressing properly – he outfitted the cycle with Bajaj M80 suspensions altering the whole cycle in the process. “ It worked!’’ he said. And as things got wilder like this, he understood the interdependence of bicycle dimensions, engineering and components. A bicycle is a wholesome organic unit; you don’t simply take one element out and stick another in. A commerce graduate into 3D animation but no backdrop in engineering, Praveen steadily moved to making bicycles – in the literal sense of making; that is, manufacturing them – his life’s aim. When in his animation career, he got laid off at one of the biggest companies around, he said enough is enough and launched headlong into what he always wanted to do – make performance bicycles.
The Subway was now busy with office goers come to eat. Vinay had joined us. We seemed misfits in the suddenly emergent purposeful corporate-ambiance of the restaurant – the restless dreamer who makes cycles, the long haired-cyclist whose sense of career may puzzle regular office goers and freelance journalist, who may be fashionably free but is forever short of money. Back to the story – Vinay’s trajectory had progressed differently from Praveen’s. He was hard core mountain biker, very much into riding and skills. Unlike Praveen he hadn’t shifted focus to obsessing with the mechanics of bikes although that day in 2013 he owned nine cycles, some of them top notch. But having pushed bikes to the limit, he too had a feeling of what they were and could be. Praveen’s craze to craft performance bikes appeared synergic with Vinay’s hard riding. They seemed an ideal combination of designer-craftsman and tester.
Enter `Psynyde’ – that’s what the two named their fledgling enterprise. To start with, Praveen underwent customized training in Computer Aided Design (CAD) and focussed his initial manufacturing efforts on bicycle components like stems, seat clamps and bash rings. Vinay tested it. He also gave it to his cyclist friends overseas for testing. Feedback was encouraging. While this was on, Praveen began designing a bicycle. The two friends agreed that their first hand built-Psynyde bike should be a road bike because mountain biking was yet in its infancy in India. Not to mention, MTBs are more complicated to make. Praveen did considerable homework. There was the research on materials, sourcing the materials (triple butted niobium steel alloy from Italy), selecting tubes of the right strength, relating tubes to preferred ride quality, learning frame geometry, adapting the geometry to suit rider dimensions and mastering the art of joining tubes to make the frame. If required, the erstwhile 3D animator also makes the cycle’s fork from 4130 chromoly (chromium molybdenum alloy) steel. The bike debuted in July 2012. Two cycles made so far and two underway it had found customers in Pune, Bangalore and Andaman and Nicobar islands. Save some specialized tasks like brazing, Praveen did most of the work. Home doubled up as workshop. And in case you hadn’t guessed it yet – that was a Psynyde mounted to the back of Pravin’s car. The specific model, which he had chosen to retain for personal use, was called `Caffeine.’
The typical customer in this niche category is a serious cyclist, who knows the difference that right sized frame, correct geometry and good quality materials bring to performance. “ I believe we are the first in India to custom-build high performance bikes using high quality materials,’’ Praveen said. The Psynyde bike costs more than a similar looking off-the-shelf bike but is cheaper than comparable custom built cycles overseas. If all goes well, from measuring the customer for optimum frame size to delivering the bicycle, it takes approximately 1-2 months. The ` performance’ segment that Praveen referred to was his chosen differentiator’ there were others also building bikes. A March 2010 news report mentioned Zubair Lodhi and Faisal Thakur in Mumbai, who made customized, sometimes theme based-bicycles. In 2011 and 2012 The Hindu reported about Bangalore based-Vijay Sharma who made eco-friendly cycles using bamboo. Psynyde, Praveen said, customized for high performance. That’s the underlying philosophy. Vinay as tester, emphasized the intended direction.
Traditionally in India, the bicycle models produced by a handful of mass manufacturers have been staple diet. The companies making these cycles owed their DNA to controlled economy, not DNA in performance biking. It was mass manufacturing. Simply put, it meant – they made, you bought unquestioningly. Slowly – and perhaps one should say: reluctantly, for portions of the market were far ahead of the companies in terms of imagining cycling – that has changed. The leading bicycle companies have introduced new indigenous models besides importing cycles from overseas (please see the story: Cycling’s Second Youth posted in August 2013 on Outrigger, for an overview of the Indian bicycle market / industry). Still, a company can rarely match the deep end experience that enthusiasts cobble together. At Psynyde, you have two young cyclists using their knowledge and field experience to build performance cycles. Overseas such teams have birthed strong brands. Dig into bicycling history and you will stumble on brands whose genesis can be traced back to small enterprises, often founded by cycling enthusiasts. However small these early Indian attempts in the niche maybe it’s hard to ignore the passion. Before me was a young man, old enough to be as well employed as anyone in Pune’s corporate crowd. He could have been one of those breezing into the Subway outlet and eating a meal over corporate gossip or plotting next move in corporate career. Yet he had made cycling his life. The other person had chucked up his last job and walked into a crazy dream of making bicycles that had somehow lingered eternal in the head. I repeatedly asked Praveen how he, a 3D animator, learnt about materials, fabrication and welding techniques, normally seen as the turf of bicycle factories. He said if you are determined, you learn. Perhaps I also overlooked the nature of the bicycle – it is technology and simplicity at once. Years ago, the first bikes pedalled by these two Pune cyclists had been Indian makes. Those cycles are the guinea pigs that triggered a journey, which from another perspective is a measure of how different the new market is, compared to the old one. Not surprisingly, a news report from April 2012 said that the two dominant domestic players – Hero and TI – planned to introduce customization. But no matter what big companies do, the beauty I found in this story of two cyclists was quite simply that they did what they liked. They pursued it diligently, seriously.
Praveen and I met in Pune for an update on the old story. As said, the first bike model – a road bike – was called Caffeine. I remember it as precious strapped to car’s back. The second model was a cyclocross (looks like a road bike but can go off road too) called `Hammerhead’ and sold to the client in Andaman & Nicobar. The new models due – thanks to orders received – included the track bike `Alchemist,’ fashioned from stainless steel. There is the planned touring MTB named `Jaisalmer,’ which will be a mix of MTB frame in steel and touring essentials like rack mounts at the front and back for luggage. Also planned is a rather ambitious dual suspension MTB, which Praveen reckons will be his toughest assignment yet. It will be partly made of aluminium, the first time Praveen will work with that material. The designer and builder of cycles had also got himself a new job as photographer; something he said was necessary for income even as he kept building cycles.
That’s the story of Psynyde.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is the expanded version of an article previously carried in The Hindu and Man’s World. The photos used herein were provided by Vinay and Praveen.)