As Bengaluru goes into lockdown to check the spread of Covid-19, I contemplate the fate of my morning cycling routine. It’s the only mode of travel, or physical activity for that matter, which makes me sit up and admire my surroundings.
The city’s traffic manners aren’t anything to boast about. The exhaust fumes of the motor vehicles and dust from the incessant construction also make my throat scruffy. So, I tend to cycle on smaller, country roads on the city’s outskirts instead, or ride my mountain bike (with its fat, shock-absorbing tyres and suspensions) on off-road trails — away from the traffic and into the cradle of nature.
I’m fortunate to live close to Avalahalli State Forest in North Bengaluru, a place I’ve grown deeply familiar with over the past seven years, a place that is comforting to me. There’s the predictable: a hard-packed mud path lined by silver oaks splintering into a network of trails running through a ‘forest’ of mostly eucalyptus trees, peeking granitic rocks that create tricky descents and gruelling climbs, and thorns of shrubs that hook onto my exposed skin — sometimes drawing blood. Then there’s the unpredictable: changing conditions that alter my tyres’ traction, darting hares or skulking mongooses that startle me, and gliding peacocks that distract me from the trail.
Usually, the only time Avalahalli attracts a ‘crowd’ of more than five people is on Sundays. In the past two weeks, though, after companies instructed their employees to work from home, I’ve seen a surge of activity. There are a lot more runners, cyclists, walkers and people sitting idly. And I’ve also seen a lot more women riding their cycles for leisure, both on the road and inside the forest.
These sightings make me wonder. If there were fewer vehicles plying our roads, even past the lockdown, would more people be willing to ride? Would more women feel encouraged to reclaim public spaces and bring their cycles out, perhaps to get fitter, perhaps to have a lower carbon footprint, or perhaps just because they once enjoyed the feeling of being on a cycle?
For Payoshni Saraf, the call for social distancing was also a call back to cycling, something she’d given up after being diagnosed with a health issue. The gym in her building shut down and so did the group fitness classes. So, she got her old cycle repaired in order to go on a 30-minute ride every morning, now that she is cured of her ailments. She needs that time alone to think and reflect on things. “Walking wasn’t doing it for me,” she explains. “We have two dogs who we have to walk, so I wanted to do something else.”
Saraf, now in Bengaluru, grew up in Kanpur, where she would regularly cycle around her colony. “I always liked cycling. I think that just the sense of being able to slowly get to somewhere is very precious.”
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Growing up, I would ride my cycle around my house, round and round, nearly every single day until a neighbour told my mother that I was making her dizzy. I rode to stores, friends’ homes and to school. Cycling allowed me to move around the city independently, away from my parents’ watchful eyes. Cycling gave me time to think, to create fictional worlds and to witness the real one change every year. Cycling was a way of life: it’s what everyone my age seemed to be doing.
But as childhood transitioned to adulthood, so did our choices in modes of transport. It wasn’t just because it was no longer “cool” to cycle, or because we no longer had a community of friends to give us company on our rides. But it was also because the cities we now work and live in aren’t very kind to most pedestrians and cyclists, given how they are frequently pushed to the road edges.
Studies suggest, that for a large part of the populations based in big Indian cities, and particularly for those from economically weaker backgrounds, cycling (and walking) continues to be the more affordable choice of transport. Even then, more men cycle to work than women; the latter prefer to walk. This, researchers say, is partly because of both — women’s concern for their safety as well as lower ownership of cycles among them. For those who do have higher incomes, motor vehicles are now more affordable and preferable. Over the last decade, the total number of registered motor vehicles in India grew from 89 million in 2006 to 253 million in 2017. Roads are now more congested than ever.
But increased motorisation comes at a cost surging vehicular emissions, greater dependence on fossil fuels and higher greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, the rise in air pollution affects people’s health, raising the risk of lung and respiratory diseases.
Cycling, which neither burns fuel nor emits noxious fumes, offers a way out. Yet, for people from higher-income homes who can afford to ‘choose’ cycling for their own or the planet’s health, it takes a backseat. Among those who do ride, there are again more men than women — even though there’s now a growing community of women riders in cities like Bengaluru.
Some of the challenges for female cyclists are the same as those for men. Motorists rarely treat cyclists with respect, and, with roads designed specifically to accommodate more cars, cycling in big cities can be intimidating. But as women in India, our perception of safety is further heightened: we’re used to hearing about how we shouldn’t walk alone on the streets, how we shouldn’t be out after a certain time in the evening, or how we shouldn’t do things that would attract men to us. This extends to cycling. But what if a woman wants to be environmentally conscious and ride a bike to work? What if a woman wants to reduce petrol bills and have more financial bandwidth?
It’s still possible in smaller cities. Vaishali Rathore, an environmental journalist, who rode regularly while growing up in cantonments, stopped cycling when she moved to Delhi and later Bengaluru for higher education. It was only when she shifted to Anand in Gujarat for work that she bought herself a cycle again.
“Anand felt like a cycle-able city,” Rathore recalls. “There were straight roads and less traffic, and the atmosphere felt safer for a woman to be out. I remember cycling back from a friend’s place at midnight, and it still felt safe.”
For Rathore, cycling wasn’t just a way to commute to work but also a fun activity she looked forward to when she wasn’t working. The environment was a consideration too, but not a primary one. “I work in the environment sector, so the thought of cycling made me feel better as I was using lesser carbon on an everyday basis.” That changed when she moved back to Delhi. “I still have my cycle with me, but the roads are really intimidating.”
It’s not just the roads. It’s the uncomfortable staring too. When Saraf had been commuting to work on her cycle in Bengaluru in 2016, one stretch was particularly disconcerting. “I think, health-wise, you’re filled with endorphins — that is very good about cycling,” she says. “But I was very uncomfortable with all the stares, even though I wasn’t eve-teased or cat-called. You’re on a cycle, so you’re not even going fast enough to avoid those stares.”
She learned to ignore the staring, but not everyone can. Swati Gupta, a financial analyst, quit cycling at the age of 12 after she was eve-teased while riding in Kolkata. She now lives in part of Bengaluru where she doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore. “I feel like I’m a part of the crowd here. Nobody stares, nobody cares.”
Gupta doesn’t own a cycle but instead uses Yulu (a bicycle sharing service) to commute to work every day. “Bangalore has an infrastructure problem. I don’t know how to ride a scooty, and I never learned how to drive, but cycling is the on thing I do know how to do,” she says.
Bengaluru, with its vibrant cycling community, has made others feel welcome too. Lena Robra, a researcher who came here from Germany in 2012, believes that cycling makes her independent. This was back at a time when biking in Bengaluru traffic wasn’t very different from that in Germany, she says.
“Over the years, the traffic did increase in Bengaluru, but I was so used to it that I didn’t feel the change much,” she says. “Of course, we had [dedicated] cycling lanes in Germany, and the air is also generally cleaner there. There are also several options available for parking your bicycle, whereas here, you most often don’t find a space to lock your cycle in a decent place.”
Robra not only commutes on her bike but also actively races in Bengaluru. To be race-ready, she sometimes goes on long, solo training rides, but these experiences have mostly been positive according to her. “I get a lot of people giving me a thumbs up. Maybe two or three times someone’s tried to chat me up on the bike — not in a dangerous way, but just an annoying way. That used to happen to me even when I would be walking, so I think it’s not just with cycling.”
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Last year, I participated in my first cross-country mountain biking race in the Avalahalli forest. There were three women, but three was more than what I had been used to. Instead of struggling to keep up with my husband or the other men on trails, I was now pushing myself to stay at another female rider’s wheels or keeping her off mine. It was a local race, nothing big, without any glamorous prize money, and one that you pay to be a part of. Yet, it opened me up to this community of off-road cyclists, the kind that cheers you on as you pedal harder and your lungs and quads burn.
Joysna Narzary, one of the three women at that race, recently won a bronze medal at the 2020 National Mountain Bike Championship jointly organised by The Cycling Federation of India and the Cycling Association of Uttarakhand. Growing up in Patkijuli in Assam, cycling was again her preferred means of transport while commuting to school, to the market, and even to fetch water several kilometres away. But it was at a local biking race in Bengaluru that she first got encouraged to start participating.
Today, Narzary is a serious, competitive cyclist. While it keeps her fit and takes her from one place to another, it also gives purpose to her life. Mountain biking lets her be in nature, which is something she loves to do, and she wants to be a national champion in the sport.
This means hours of training on trails with her male training partners. “It’s just safer,” she feels. If you’re out off-roading, away from people, it is certainly better to have a companion or two — someone to take care of you in case of a fall or injury.
But wherever your calling lies, whether on the road or on a forest trail, go out and ride your cycle. “Men occupy so much room in our public spaces, but please don’t let it stop you from being fiscally and environmentally conscious,” Saraf pleads. “If you feel cycling is ticking all the boxes — you’re saving money, you’re taking care of your health, you’re being kinder to the earth — then I say, please go do it. Don’t let your gender come in the way.”
WHEELS IN MOTION
- Get a bike that fits you well — one that won’t give you knee or back pain in the long term. There’s lots of advice online about finding the right fit, so do your research.
- Stay safe — wear a helmet, use reflector patches on your cycle to increase your visibility in traffic, install a rear-view mirror if it feels reassuring, carry enough drinking water, and wear comfortable clothes.
- Don’t stop cycling if you get stared at. Harassment is another issue. At first, it may feel uncomfortable, but the road is as much yours as it is anyone else’s.
- If what’s holding you back from cycling to work is the need to carry a change of clothes, or the lack of a shower at the workplace, try to push for those things with your employer.
- If you’re hesitant to ride alone, reach out to a local cycling community in your city. In Bengaluru, for instance, Spokes-Women is an all-women riding club.
- Another way to meet fellow cyclists is by attending local races. Register for the next race in your city, and find riding partners.