Srinivas Gokulnath (Photo: courtesy Srinivas / Facebook page)

Article on cyclist Srinivas Gokulnath, the first Indian to complete Race Across America (RAAM) in the solo category 

The car slowed down, took a second to assess safety and then continued on.

It was a move that reminded of railway level crossings. Except, this was a runway and hovering some distance from the car, to this side and that, were helicopters. It is not always that you drive across a runway in India. Where Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas Gokulnath lived and worked, it was daily ritual. We were at the army’s Combat Aviation Training School, built around Nashik’s old airport and runway. Meeting Srinivas had been on the agenda for some time.

On June 13, 2017, three Indian cyclists had been among those assembled at Oceanside, California. They were registered to compete in the solo category of the Race Across America (RAAM), one of the most grueling endurance events on the planet. RAAM requires participants to ride some 4800 km from the US west coast to the east (it ends in Annapolis, Maryland) within a cut-off period of 12 days. It is a single stage race and riders could be on the saddle for as much as 22 hours a day, repeating it day after day in a merciless grind all the way to the finish line. The race features a mix of terrain. It starts at sea level, crosses mountains and zips across the flats of the North American prairie. It also tackles varying weather conditions typical of the country side it is passing through. Simply put the race gifts the rider a battering and tests his / her determination like few events do. That day in June, Samim Rizvi attempting his fourth RAAM, Srinivas on his second outing at RAAM and Amit Samarth were all on a quest to be the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category.

Cycling at The Deccan Cliffhanger (TDC), which served as qualifier for RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas / Facebook page)

Although working in Nashik, Srinivas hails from Bengaluru. He was born in November 1980 and raised in that city. His father who was a metallurgist owned a bicycle. An active youngster who took part in games and athletics at school, Srinivas was attached to that cycle and it played host to many early outings. However there was nothing to indicate a serious interest in cycling, brewing. Srinivas went on to attend medical school and become a doctor. He worked for two years in Bengaluru; then he joined the Indian Army. The early years of an army officer’s posting are typically in areas that stretch his professional ability on the field. Srinivas was posted to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) for four years. He also served on Siachen Glacier, known as the world’s highest battle field. Following this stint, he returned to Bengaluru to do his post-graduation in aerospace medicine. He had bought himself a single speed Hercules MTB and trips on it brought him in touch with members of Bengaluru’s cycling community. One of his friends suggested that he invest in a road bike. Then, in a twist of the sort seen in the lives of interesting people, that friend – Vijay – got Srinivas a road bike and told him that he can pay him back later. The bike was a Giant TCR 3. It is a model much respected by riders; the Internet has reviews in praise of it. Srinivas felt he should do justice to the road bike. He started riding long distance, sometimes touching 200-300 km. It was during this phase from 2009-2011, spent studying aerospace medicine in Bengaluru and taking the Giant TCR 3 out on spins, that Srinivas realized he had a fondness for endurance cycling. It was also at this point in his life that he got to hear of RAAM. He heard of Samim Rizvi attempting it. The idea of RAAM attracted Srinivas. But before RAAM, he wanted a domestic challenge. For that, he picked a cycle trip from Leh to Kanyakumari. It connected India’s north tucked beyond the main axis of the Himalaya to the southern tip of the peninsula. In 2012, Srinivas was posted back to J&K.

A troubled region, army postings to J&K can be restrictive. For doctor and emergent cyclist with road bike in tow, space to practice was limited. “ I couldn’t go out and train on the road. But there was a 2.8 km-perimeter loop of the garrison which was possible and I kept doing that,’’ Srinivas said. Meanwhile the planned expedition from Leh to Kanyakumari simmered at the back of his mind. Then and later, Srinivas would struggle with a paradigm problem in endurance cycling. Endurance based-activities typically take person out of the crowd and away into solitary existence. In army and economically resurgent India with its bank of potential sponsors of sport, `solitary’ and ` solo’ attract much less than `team.’ There is plenty of buzz these days about corporate team building and team based pursuits. Attempting something that is the stuff of lone battle fetches no support.

From TDC (Photo: courtesy Srinivas / Facebook page)

Assembling the building blocks of the Leh-Kanyakumari cycle expedition was Srinivas’s first tryst with the real paradigm challenge of what he had embarked upon. He understood that nobody was going to support him. So he largely invested his own funds. Being a multi-day trip he needed a support vehicle. Help came in the form of an enterprising villager from Sharifabad. This person hadn’t ventured beyond the Kashmir valley and wanted to see India. Owner of a Mahindra utility vehicle, he agreed to bring that along as support vehicle and pitched in to assist Srinivas. On September 2, 2014, the expedition commenced from Leh. Weather in the initial phase was bad; there was rain and snow. Back in Srinagar, there was flooding; they got news of this at Manali. The expedition pushed on. Two weeks later, on September 16, cyclist and support crew reached Kanyakumari. The trip was formally recognized by the Limca Book of Records as the fastest passage yet from Leh to Kanyakumari on a bicycle. One project done, the next one – RAAM – took hold.

Shortly after the Leh-Kanyakumari expedition, the army dispatched Srinivas to do a course in Pune. There he came to know of The Deccan Cliffhanger (TDC), scheduled for November 2014. On its Facebook page, TDC describes itself as a 400 mile ultra-cycling race from Pune to Goa. According to Srinivas, if you cycled 647 km at TDC in 32 hours, then you qualified for participation in RAAM. This was an excellent opportunity to move towards attempting RAAM. Unfortunately he was in Pune to do a course; he had no cycle with him. A friend in Bengaluru sent him a BMC road bike. Additionally, he asked around in the Pune cycling community and they responded loaning him a Merida road bike. He now had two bikes for TDC; one to ride at any given time in the race, the other for back up. A bunch of college students volunteered to be his support crew. Participating in TDC, Srinivas covered the required 647 km in 31 hours. He qualified for RAAM. “ For me, that TDC is special,’’ Srinivas said. From December 2014 onward, Srinivas’s RAAM phase officially commenced. It became an obsession. To train and prepare, he requested the army for posting to a peaceful area. His choice was Pune where the Army Sports Institute with its excellent training facilities is located. In July 2015, as sought, Srinivas was transferred from J&K. The army moved him to Nashik and the Combat Aviation Training School there.

At the start of 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

Maharashtra’s geography is essentially a study of two main features – a relatively narrow coast sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the hills of the Western Ghats, and the sprawling Deccan Plateau, which lay beyond the hills. Nashik, located 167 km north east of Mumbai, is an ancient pilgrimage center and in the present times, a major center of industry and agricultural produce. It is at a higher elevation than Mumbai next to the sea. Kasara, which is one of main outlying stations of Mumbai’s suburban railway network, is at an elevation of 915 feet. The next major halt from here, en route to Nashik, is Igatpuri by which time you would have climbed over the edge of the Western Ghats and reached 2000 feet in overall elevation. Igatpuri, now famous as a center for Vipasana meditation, has always been a favorite with trekkers in Maharashtra. One of the state’s classic treks connecting the hill forts of Alang, Kulang and Madangad, is staged here. The region is also home to the state’s highest peak, Kalsubai (5400 feet). Nashik is 47 km away from Igatpuri. It has an elevation of 2300 feet and given the combination of hills and elevation, a fairly temperate climate year round.

Mid-August 2017, my train from Mumbai reached Nashik on time. On the three wheeler ride from the railway station to the area in town called CBS, three things were quickly apparent. The terrain around had a spread-out feel to it; there was a sense of space. The roads were broad and traffic, still manageable, compared to the grind and gridlock congested Mumbai tends to be. There were cycles on Nashik’s roads. With its roads, availability of space and hills in the neighborhood, Nashik looked ideal to train in cycling and running. In 2015, two brothers from Nashik, Hitendra Mahajan and Mahendra Mahajan – both of them doctors – had become the first Indians to complete RAAM in the team category. Race in mind, riding hunched down on his road bike with focus narrowed to road and cadence, Nashik’s geographical blessings appeared to have eluded Srinivas’s attention. He didn’t feel distance cyclists owe as much, to where they are from as to whether they wish to train and excel at what they do. As strange as that perspective may seem, one needs to identify that faith in self as coming from an individual who moves around the country on work. In such predicament, the stuff of roots is in oneself, not in any place.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

At the Combat Aviation Training School, work load was high for the army doctor. However he managed to find time for training and trained systematically. Srinivas is the type who likes having a goal. It helps him focus. RAAM was goal. He trained 5-6 hours daily, morning and evening. But there was a problem. It wasn’t a training regimen properly structured for the needs of RAAM. Aside from the Mahajan brothers who he spoke to and got some idea of RAAM thereby, there wasn’t anyone else to help him devise training schedules or prepare a race strategy. Besides the Mahajan brothers had participated in the team category; Srinivas had enrolled in the solo category. The two are different. Plus there was the question of raising the funds needed to go to the US, have a support crew, support vehicle and participate in the race. Attending to funds, distracts from training and preparation. Old paradigm problem haunting him, Srinivas had no sponsors. He invested his own money; he also borrowed. Given the nature and stature of the race, he acquired a new road bike – a NeilPryde Bura SL. “ It was expensive but when I saw it at a shop in Mumbai, I immediately felt a link to it,’’ Srinivas said. According to information available on the Internet, NeilPryde Bikes, based in UK, is part of a Hong Kong based sports group by the same name that had longstanding presence in windsurfing before it entered the bicycle business. The Bura SL was launched in 2012 and revamped in 2016. Made of carbon fiber, it features NeilPryde’s lightest frame weighing in at 750 gm. For back up, Srinivas had a Polygon road bike. Polygon is a bicycle manufacturer from Indonesia. Its dealer in India is Bengaluru-based Wheel Sports, whose owner Venkatesh Shivarama is a former state level cyclist and a nodal figure in Bengaluru’s cycling community.

Amid the struggle to make it to RAAM, Srinivas had one significant help. His wife, Prafulla, also works as a doctor at the army base in Nashik. She decided to be part of his support crew. Prafulla had her own reasons for joining the crew. Like Srinivas, she hailed from Bengaluru. Unlike him, she had no background in sports in her growing up years. She does not cycle. When they met for the first time, Srinivas told her of his interest in cycling. She accepted cycling as part of the overall person, Srinivas is. “ One thing I was worried about was his safety,’’ she said. In J&K, Srinivas’s cycling happened within the garrison complex and army bases are well managed. Then he briefly took leave of that environment to cycle from Leh to Kanyakumari, a trip Prafulla wasn’t part of. By the time RAAM set in as obsession, Srinivas was training regularly on the highway. This worried Prafulla. Besides, races in ultra-cycling tend to push a person to the limits of what he / she can do. She felt that rather than worry about his safety from far, it made sense to be with him on his races. That’s what prompted her to join the support crew for RAAM. A doctor – that too someone who knows you well – in the support crew, is a definite asset. Srinivas had seven people in his support crew; six who travelled from India plus an old friend from school who was based in the US.  “ My focus in 2016 was to get to RAAM’s starting line. That I did. I was relieved when the race got underway,’’ he said.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

The 2016 RAAM was an eye opener. “ My focus, which had been on reaching the starting line, wasn’t strong towards the finish. I was riding strong but not to race expectations. I didn’t have a strategy, no solid plan. I learnt by participating. In the thick of the race, I realized this is what RAAM is all about. I pushed myself to just 450 miles short of the finish. There was 26 hours remaining. But my mind started acting up and I succumbed to it,’’ Srinivas said. One of those unhappy with the outcome was Prafulla. She didn’t like the fact that they had thrown away 26 hours. She suggested that they take a look at the finish line, attend the post-race banquet and learn more. The team also decided that they would attempt RAAM again, the following year.

Gearing up for the 2017 RAAM, Srinivas and Prafulla began connecting with people who had completed the race before. One of them was Alberto Blanco, a former RAAM finisher. Back in 2011, riding a NeilPryde he had completed the race in fourth position earning the RAAM Rookie of the Year title. During this race Alberto had suffered a severe case of `Shermer’s Neck’ (complete shutdown of tired neck muscles). He cycled with a neck brace his crew fashioned from available materials, following onset of the problem. Incidentally, the history of Shermer’s Neck – a condition unique to ultra-cyclists – is strongly linked to RAAM. Michael Shermer after whom the condition is named was a finisher in the very first RAAM held in 1982 (at that time it was called Great American Bike Race). He returned for the 1983 edition and in that race, at about 2000 miles he discovered he was unable to keep his head up. He was forced to prop his chin up with the palm of his hand and keep cycling. He finished the race so. Despite enduring a great deal of pain till he finished the race, Shermer is said to have recovered fully within two days. Articles on the Internet say that Shermer’s Neck is usually reported within 300 miles to 1000 miles of a race and once it sets in, there is no way out except to cope with it. The brace Alberto’s crew fashioned, after he developed Shermer’s Neck, was meant to hold his head up because his exhausted neck muscles simply couldn’t do the job. In photos from the race, you see what appears to be a metal rod harnessed to cyclist’s waist and travelling up his spine and over his helmet, with a sling at its end to support the head. Alberto became Srinivas’s coach for the 2017 RAAM. Another finisher, Chris O’Keefe, took charge as crew chief. Chris had been a finisher in the 2016 RAAM, which he completed second in his age category. This time, Srinivas’s training had direction and a race strategy was being devised. There was analysis of the 2016 race to find out what had gone wrong.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

What remained unchanged however was sponsorship. Some brands supported but the bulk of the expense was met using Srinivas’s own money and loans provided by friends. Chris and others members of the support crew allowed Srinivas to borrow cycling accessories he needed. They also didn’t hesitate to extend financial assistance. Hired expertise is integral to many endurance events. For instance, runners going for the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley often avail the guidance of those who have successfully completed the race or crewed in it, for a fee. Srinivas described his relation with Alberto and Chris as more of an emotional-connect than a formal arrangement; it is a description which reveals the comfort he felt. The support crew was 11-strong, including four persons retained from the 2016 attempt. “ This time we had a strong team. I felt strong and my focus was sharp,’’ Srinivas said.

A punishing race like RAAM takes a toll on bicycle. Typically, there is a lot of wear and tear that happens in bicycle racing. Bottom brackets, chain and cassette – they have to be replaced as required in the course of the race. You have to have at least two bikes for RAAM. Some participants go in with three. Srinivas decided to acquire a new NeilPryde to use as back-up for the earlier one. He got in touch with the CEO of the company, who provided it at reduced price; the bike was again a Bura SL. The team’s bike mechanic in 2016 and 2017 was Venkatesh Shivarama. Venkatesh a former state level cyclist and manager of the national cycling team, met Srinivas during the latter’s days in Bengaluru, spent getting a hang of distance cycling. Races brought them together; Venkatesh is deeply involved in races. He is not as much a fan of endurance cycling as he is of racing. Venkatesh also owns and operates Wheel Sports, among Bengaluru’s best known bicycle shops. Committed to cycling, it was his affection and respect for Srinivas as a person and faith in his ability that made him volunteer to be Srinivas’s bike mechanic for RAAM in 2016 and 2017. According to Venkatesh, when it comes to the bicycle, RAAM is not as punishing a race as say – the Tour de France, where multiple stages with tight cut-off times, repeated day after day, take a considerable toll on a bike.  Given RAAM is a single stage race, the challenge is to cycle with very little rest and make it across the USA within the cut-off time of 12 days for solo cyclists. Further, what really inflicts damage on bicycles is riding off-road. RAAM is a road race and American roads are good. “ My daily task was to check the bike’s tyres and tyre pressure; ensure the tyres are in good condition. I had to make sure all the gear combinations and the Garmin GPS were working. Then there are the bike’s lights. When you are riding on the road, lights are very important. I used to replace them every 6-8 hours,” he said.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

The 2017 race was a roller coaster. Although he started strong, somewhere past the 90 mile-mark Srinivas vomited three to four times. From thereon, his intake of food and fluids started dropping. His plan had been to sleep three hours during the day, every 24 hours. He took his first break for sleep at Salome in Arizona. However from time station five onward, his average speed began to decline and he was soon at the point where he himself told his crew members that he needed IV fluids. From being in the top 10, he had by now dropped to 27th position. “ Thereafter, it took me seven time stations to recover and get back to a semblance of riding normally. I felt recovered only by time station 16,’’ Srinivas said. Recovering well was critical. In endurance races, rider and crew feed off each other’s optimism. A struggling Srinivas had ended up making his crew lose faith in him. He had to regain their confidence. Cranking up their efforts, the crew fed him 450-500 calories and a liter of fluids every hour. About 10,000 calories and 20 liters of water were consumed every day. Everything was meticulously recorded. The hard work paid off. Towards the latter half of the race, Srinivas began registering negative splits or better speed in the concluding portions of a race. That was tremendously motivating, coming as it did after a couple of thousand kilometers covered on the road. He kept his focus from time station to time station, never thinking beyond the next time station on the course. “ I knew I was getting stronger towards the finish line,’’ he said. At one point in time, Srinivas improved his position in the race to almost seventh; he also overcame challenges, among them – a crash, the result of a pothole on the road. Tricky weather notwithstanding, his strength was on the flats. He flew along the prairies of Kansas. Eleven days, 18 hours and 45 minutes after commencing the race in Oceanside, Srinivas completed the 2017 RAAM in Annapolis, the first Indian to do so within cut-off time in the solo category. That June, Amit Samarth followed Srinivas to the finish line, becoming the second Indian to earn a solo finish at RAAM. Samim had to withdraw from the race in its initial phase itself.

Most people betray a sense of themselves in how they communicate. I got my first sense of Srinivas when I texted and called him up seeking an appointment. His text messages never exceeded two or three words; the conversations on the phone were short and to the point. During the interview, conducted in his office, his recollection of his life and his association with the world of words bordered impatience, as though he needed to get down and do something. Endurance cycling is a mosaic of distance and timing. I asked Srinivas if he would be happy pushing himself merely on distance like a touring cyclist does. No – he replied firmly. He needed to be pushed. He needed to ride hard. Only then would his energy get channelized, find release. Pushing the envelope is a must for what he sought as experience. That’s why grueling endurance races attract. His family has been supportive; they endured sacrifices. His wife became part of his support crew and when she does so – as at RAAM – their child is left behind in the care of grandparents. Further his training and periodic obsession with races, robs the family of adequate time together. “ No doubt, there is an element of selfishness I carry along, pursuing projects in endurance cycling,’’ Srinivas said.

2017 RAAM; Srinivas at the finish line (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

RAAM done, Srinivas had set his sights on the solo category at the 2018 Race Across Europe (RACE). Prafulla was planning to be in the support crew. This race covers 4722 km across six countries. At the time of writing this article, it was scheduled to start at Boulogne sur Mer in France on June 30, 2018 and end at Tarifa in Spain on July 21. The 2017 RAAM had cost him around Rs 15 lakh as race expenses (many in the crew were self-funded), cost of training extra. RACE will cost around Rs 25 lakh; Europe is more expensive than America. As usual, Srinivas’s biggest worry in cycling even after finishing RAAM was sponsorship. It was eating his mind. He needed to be sure of his position by December 2017, if he is to feature at RACE the following year. “ I don’t know how some people manage to raise funds so well,’’ he said, pointing out alongside that a disadvantage he may have in this regard, is the transferable nature of his job. You are never long enough at any one place to socialize and network, build a community of friends. Supportive community and an ecosystem aware of sports, including endurance cycling, matter when it comes to finding resources for projects. As I took leave of him, these were the thoughts bothering India’s first solo RAAM finisher.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)                      


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

An updated bird’s eye view of the market for premium bicycles in India. This article is ideally read in conjunction with the earlier market overview posted on this blog in August 2013. 

The Indian market for bicycles, for long stuck in unappealing product lines and then nudged to change by the entry of Firefox and Trek, continues to evolve. The pace of change has been slowly picking up; according to those in the business, the biggest change has been the Indian customer. Disposable income has risen and many traditional bicycle retailers have moved up the value chain to selling premium bicycles. But the critical question is – how much share does cycling command in the customer’s growing disposable income? Given the worry over climate change and consequent relevance of environment friendly transport, cycling worldwide has a bright future. It is limited by inadequate infrastructure in developing markets and the continued low penetration of the bicycle as means of transport in very poor countries. In India, rising number of automobiles, unruly traffic and lack of roads with proper bicycle lanes has meant urban environments that are far from futuristic. Although news reports in 2016 said that 41 per cent of the country’s population is younger than 20 years of age and nearly half the population is aged between 20-59 years, the shortage of enjoyable space for cycling may affect the pace at which cycling grows. Till Indian life and urban planning appreciate physically active lifestyle and environment friendliness as core values, the true merit of cycling won’t be adequately experienced.

Globally, bicycles and products related to cycling are among biggest silos in sale of sports equipment. As per a market study done by Paris based-NPD Group, the global cycling market was worth 47.4 billion US dollars (including revenue lines like parts & accessories, footwear and cycling apparel) in 2014. The survey estimated that around the world roughly 133.1 million bicycles, including e-bikes, were sold. Another study by Persistence Market Research (PMR) – the main points of which are available on the Internet – said that the global market for bicycles is expected to expand by 37.5 per cent over 2016-2024, from 45.08 billion US dollars to 62 billion dollars. Asia-Pacific is forecast to be the most lucrative market. There are several such studies accessible online; period of study and forecasts vary but there seems to be general agreement on factors driving the market.

For the earlier overview posted in August 2013, please click on this link:

The categories

In India, the premium segment, where the bulk of the action has been, retains its fundamental segmentation into four product lines (segmentation as perceived by this blog for purpose of simplicity) – road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids and other varieties like folding bikes, touring bikes and electric bikes. Road bikes, also called racing cycles in India, are truly performance category products. They are meant for speed. To this end they possess rigid frames, are built light and given the rider sits with a forward stance, demand a certain amount of competence on the part of the cyclist to be handled well. Mountain bikes have more moving components on them to cushion passage over uneven terrain and are typically geared for climbing. Hybrids straddle a mix of properties drawn from road and mountain bikes. A blended package of speed and some ability to tackle uneven terrain, they are now a product line, many Indian cyclists are taking to. According to the PMR study, hybrids are expected to account for the major slice of bicycle sales worldwide, going ahead. The category of folding bikes and touring bikes is still quite niche in India as are electric bikes. E-bikes can be pretty expensive. Still, according to the website, 32.8 million e-bikes were sold in Asia Pacific in 2016 with Western Europe a distant second at 1.6 million units. China was the biggest market. In several market studies, the e-bike segment has been forecast as a significant driver for premium bike sales, globally. A new, promising sub-category, which opened up in India would be that of stylish commuter bikes. They are typically partial to road bike in frame design but sport a straight handle bar eliminating thus the need for a hunched-over position while cycling.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The brands

In terms of market, the Indian story is roughly so: as Firefox tapped the market with its products and those of the American bicycle manufacturer -Trek, longstanding players like Hero Cycles and TI Cycles were forced to respond. Hero launched its new line of bicycles called Urban Trail (UT) and then proceeded to acquire Firefox. TI on the other hand, commenced its now well-known Track and Trail outlets, feeding them with a distribution pipeline offering foreign brands like Cannondale, GT, Bianchi, Mongoose, Ridley and Schwinn. It also launched an in-house brand – Montra – for the emergent premium segment of the domestic market. Put together, UT and Montra span MTBs, hybrids and road bikes. TI has also introduced Mach City, a line of practical, elegant and more affordable bicycles that can be used for commuting. Over time, some of these brands have expanded their product line-up; some have become focused. Both Trek and Cannondale have grown the variety in their product line-up for India while Mongoose has narrowed its portfolio to focus on BMX cycles. Among major brands entering the market after Trek’s early arrival and Track and Trail’s bouquet of imported models, were Giant, Scott and Specialized. Giant – one of the world’s biggest bicycle companies – partnered Starkenn and opened a series of showrooms with Pune as base. Specialized tied up with Bengaluru based-Bums on the Saddle (BOTS); they opened a flagship store in that city. Scott appears happy to sell through multi-brand outlets. Other foreign brands like Merida (incidentally one of the early entrants into India), Ghost, Focus, Fuji, Polygon, Bergamont and KHS – plus high performance niche brands like Merckx, Colnago, Pinarello, Cervelo and NeilPryde, which can be ordered – are also available in the Indian market. Not to mention, Rockrider and Btwin, sold by the French sports goods major, Decathlon. Even touring bike specialist, Surly, has dealers in the country. The Indian market also features electric bikes. E-bikes have cornered much attention overseas. But the significant market development domestically, post-Firefox, would have to be the advent of brands like UT, Montra, Kross and Mach City and what these brands and their product portfolios speak by way of promise for large Indian manufacturers going ahead. It is still early days.

26, 27.5, 29: battle of the twenty somethings

Against the above market scenario, trends carried over from the international bicycle market, made their presence felt. One trend that kicked up plenty of conflicting views, dealt with wheel dimension. Internationally bicycle tyre sizes are many. Until recently the average customer of a premium bicycle in India had to contend with two tyre sizes in the main – 26 inches (with room for width and tread variations therein) for mountain bikes and similarly, the 700c for road bikes and hybrids. The longstanding 26 inch size was both the leading dimension in mountain bikes and a favorite with cyclists into technical riding as it made overall bicycle size compact and maneuverable. Over a span of maybe two years, this dimension was faulted by bicycle manufacturers for less distance covered for every rotation of the crank, besides less surface contact and greater difficulty in rolling over obstacles.

One leading manufacturer pushed for 29 inch wheels (at which point technically speaking, a 700c tyre should also fit that mountain bike) as new standard; another promoted 27.5 inch. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that this move – with no pressing demand from customers for it – caused confusion. YouTube videos exist in which industry representatives can be seen asking angrily, why customers can’t cope with change. Some manufacturers resorted to models that could accommodate more than one wheel size as though to hedge market risk. The problems were several. A bicycle is an aggregate of many parts, each connected to the next. When you alter the dimensions in one part, it cascades down the chain. Wheel size is a major change having immediate impact on a bicycle’s fork and the geometry of its frame. Given a big chunk of mountain bike users was running 26 inch wheels with matching fork and frame, what the manufacturers were pushing for had the capacity to leave existing users with outmoded designs they couldn’t easily modify to take on the new specifications. The transition to 27.5 inches and 29 inches caused anxiety with some chats on the Internet citing reduced fresh production of 26 inch tyres by reputed tyre manufacturers. Premium bicycles are not use and throw consumer products in India. Altering wheel size and potentially rendering an existing size obsolete affects users / customers in emerging markets like India because premium bicycles are still seen as an investment. In the premium segment of the Indian market, both 29 inch and 27.5 inch models are now on offer. The old 26 continues to be around.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The emergence of new generation bike builders

According to the NPD survey mentioned earlier, the composite of bicycle sales plus related revenue like parts & accessories, footwear and apparel would make cycling, the single biggest category in the global sports market. That’s a measure of the opportunity. Asia Pacific is portrayed as the market to look out for in the future and therein, India is a big market. Firefox’s biggest selling point when it debuted in the Indian market was how different its products were compared to the bicycles Indian manufacturers made. While big foreign brands followed and palpable difference by performance DNA set in, the next step – that of Indian cycling enthusiasts realizing in flesh and blood, the blue prints in their head, commenced. Pune based Psynyde Bikes – founded by committed cyclists – started out with custom built bikes. By 2017, they were in the market with a mountain bike called Furan,’ which they had designed themselves and got made overseas. Psynyde also makes bicycle components. Such developments are not to be discounted. If you trace the history of some of cycling’s iconic brands, you will find this is how their journey started. Are there more such stories brewing in India? Time will tell. Interestingly being a cyclist needn’t by itself make you good at the business of bicycles. One leading retailer described how he gets a lot of enquiries from people passionate about cycling, to join his team. Among the first things that can happen when a cyclist goes into business is that his / her personal time for cycling may go down as the business needs attending to. “ Cycling and managing a bicycle business are two different things. You have to be prepared to handle the difference,” he said. He thought Psynyde made the cut because Praveen Prabhakaran – one of its founders – had been at it for long. The Furan is the result of a long journey, patiently done. It wasn’t passion alone. It was also hard work, sustained for several years.

Aspiration grows but local environment limits

Finally, Indian cycling – as in what the cyclists are up to – has also evolved and come of age. There are people now travelling overseas to compete at races. Milestones coveted by the domestic cycling fraternity are being achieved. The first team-finish and the first solo finish by Indians at Race Across America (RAAM), one of the most grueling endurance races on the planet, have happened. A few years ago, Bengaluru based-Kynkyny Cycling Team was in the news for meriting sponsorship from Specialized (it is understood that sponsorship contract has since expired). Given aspiration is what pushes up benchmarks in any market, these developments will have an impact on what products / models can be sold in the Indian market or accessed from here. A good market also needs scale. Notwithstanding enterprising cycling groups and growth in available product line-up, cycling stays challenged by the lack of a proper bicycling environment in Indian cities given few to no bicycle tracks, growth in vehicular traffic and general contempt by motorists towards their non-motorized brethren on two wheels.

Try this for perspective: In February 2017, the media reported that as per figures released by International Data Corporation (IDC), the Indian market for smartphones registered shipment of 109.1 million units in 2016, a marginal annual growth of 5.2 per cent. Obviously smartphone manufacturers are not thrilled. This is the digital age and they would like stronger figures. Reports have indicated there is a migration issue in the market; smartphone prices are still high and Indians love value for money. Roughly two years earlier, in August 2015, media reports quoting IDC also forecast that by 2017 the Indian market for smartphones will be bigger than that of the US. This is the smartphone ecosystem in India. Not all digital technology is a blessing. Debating that or the growing specter of smartphone obsessed people isn’t the purpose of this article. What is clear is that cycling can work as an antidote for sedentary life. Theoretically, a problem and its solution should grow hand in hand, provided tax rates, infrastructure, policy – they don’t adulterate the market.

The Indian bicycle market has no sales figures of the sort comparable to the Indian smartphone market. Unlike the bicycle, the smartphone is an easy purchase, which once done, sits in your pocket. You don’t have to worry about storage space at home (although using it, you can cram your home with more consumables!) But the reason this comparison of two seemingly unrelated products, engages, is because their costs are near similar and the nature of lifestyle they inspire, contrasting. According to a news report in April 2017, the hot spot of the Indian smartphone market is in the Rs 10,000-20,000 price bracket (this roughly matches the lower strata of the Indian market for premium bicycles, where incidentally the bulk of the action for domestic manufacturers is). During 2015-2016, after four years of sluggishness, the average sale price of smartphones in India rose by four per cent. Two things strike you about the growing market for smartphones in India – the ability of wireless connectivity to overcome a physical world characterized by poor infrastructure, clutter and congestion; an exploding ecosystem of content and things to do using the smartphone. Juxtapose on this, what a committed cyclist and bike retailer I spoke to quipped, “ people spend up to a lakh of rupees on an iPhone.’’ What prevents them from spending so on bicycles, which are clearly products delivering good health and zero pollution? The biggest likely reason for this lay in the larger Indian ecosystem, still partial to sedentary life, unimaginative infrastructure, chaotic traffic and the rule of might is right. With a car or SUV, you can dominate. Unlike a smartphone, which opens doors to a virtual world, a bicycle is a refined way of living in what is still, the old physical world. If the bicycle has to have as much share in your disposable income as a smartphone, the attraction for cycling has to be that compelling. The cycling environment matters. “ Abroad also, there is a price you must pay to own the type of bicycle you want. But once you own it, you can cycle around, you can enjoy cycling,” the person I spoke to said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The best civic authorities are yet able to serve up are fads like shutting down roads to traffic for a few hours every month to host healthy recreational activities including cycling. Once or twice a year, these authorities, companies and other interested sponsors also get together to organize a group ride for publicity. Photos taken and splashed in the media, cycling is back to where it was. In 2012, the government hiked import duties on bicycles. Now under the new Goods & Services Tax (GST) regime, bicycles and components merit 12 per cent tax while accessories lay scattered across the 12 per cent, 18 per cent and 28 per cent tax slabs. “ A bicycle helmet attracts 18 per cent tax under GST. I wish we are able to acknowledge the fundamental merit in bicycles and position cycling solidly for the future instead of treating it like this. For sure, GST puts a structure in place and that is good. But I don’t think cycling deserves the tax slabs it has been cast in. Why not five per cent?” a leading retailer said. If its any comfort – a May 30, 2017 report in Times of India, said, smartphones fell in the 12 per cent GST slab. In comparison to this Indian predicament, countries like Germany are building roads exclusively for cycling. In end-2016, Germany opened its first stretch of a 100 km-bike autobahn. That’s the equivalent of rolling out telecom network, of which we saw much in India. Cycling’s relevance for the future is clear. Question is – when will India take notice of it?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)