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Pedaling in packs: With pandemic closing down gyms, cycling becomes activity of choice for fitness enthusiasts

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Chef Abhilasha Chandak, 33, has always believed good food and health go hand in hand. During the lockdown, with gyms being closed and running options limited, Chandak, an avid runner and marathoner, could do only so much to further her fitness journey. “I started tinkering with the idea of cycling. It made me so nostalgic of my growing up years in (West Bengal’s) Purulia district where I would cycle to school,” she says.

Kolkata-based Chandak, a contestant on Master Chef India in its fifth season, says she took up the hobby after researching for a month and speaking to more than a dozen people. She then ordered a Trek FX 3, a hybrid bike that costs upwards of Rs. 50,000, to start her cycling journey.

It’s been about three weeks since Chandak’s bike arrived and she is ecstatic with her progress. “I feel like a tourist in my own city. And since this is the year that everyone’s going back to basics, I thought I would too,” says the chef and consultant. She has joined a few groups and every so often, she takes off on solo rides around the Rajarhat area in Kolkata.

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In Mumbai, Pramod Sharda’s journey was along similar lines. He was in a fix once the lockdown hit. His usual exercise options — badminton and the gym — were out of the question. He knew that the gym was going to be a no-go even when the lockdown lifted and that he needed another plan to continue to stay fit.

Last month, a Facebook friend recommended the 46-year-old to try something he’d not done since he was a child: cycling. He scouted around online and found the MCE or Mumbai Cycling Enthusiasts group on Facebook, a free-for-all community of cyclists.

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Sharda, who is the CEO of an IT company, reached out to the cycling group’s president for some suggestions on how to start his journey. From there, it was as easy as pie. He bought a bike similar to Chandak’s, incidentally, added some blinkers and reflectors, and saddled up.

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Sharda’s group ride was to begin at 5:45 am the day after his bike arrived along with members of the MCE at Juhu. Seven riders greeted Sharda, including Chetan Shah, who is the president of the MCE. It has now been a couple of months since he first began and he’s already hit the milestone of 1,500 km.

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Cycling has received a massive boost around the country as fitness enthusiasts of all stripes — usually quite immersed in their activity of choice, be it Zumba, martial arts or aerobics — have en masse sought refuge in cycling, in the absence of gyms and other fitness venues. Researching gear ratios and acquiring the cycle that best suits your needs and budgets, adding the right accessories, learning all the dos and don’ts of the activity and watching for common rookie mistakes — all this is consuming the new entrants of this age-old religion.

Those who have been cycling for some time now find this a positive step in the growth of the activity but aren’t sure how long the fad will last. Most riders like Chandak and Sharda are looking for a weekday activity to keep them busy during their exercise hour while still observing the pandemic’s protocols of 6 ft. distancing. These folks tend to ride alone on the weekdays and find company for longer rides on the weekends.

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“The bike is my new toy. I started by learning how to use gears and have had at least three bad falls out of my own fault. But it’s not deterred me,” says Sharda. For him, seeing Mumbai in the early hours without much traffic is a surreal experience in itself.

Thanks to folks like Sharda, Mumbai’s biggest cycling community has got even bigger since the pandemic hit. Each week, the inflow of budding cyclists on its Facebook group is growing at four times the pace from before the lockdown. The club recently hit 19,000 members on Facebook, its primary networking space where users post about their upcoming rides.

With gyms closed and swimming pools shut, cycling is becoming an easy go-to activity for fitness enthusiasts like them across cities in India. Cycling clubs describe the new fad as an opportunity for people to meet and socialise “freely” while still following Covid-19 protocols.

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“There’s hardly any traffic on the roads now, cities have become much safer and many sports enthusiasts who were earlier doing other activities are now getting into this. We have recently got runners, cross-fit gym goers and swimmers on board,” says Kolkata’s Nishant Maheshwari who runs the cycling club Discover on Wheels. Maheshwari also helped Chandak to jump onto the cycling bandwagon.

In Mumbai, Shah, who heads MCE, says he’s now seeing a trend of new riders cycling in the city in the evenings and late at night in and around the Juhu area, something that he has never seen before. Shah now approves 500 members every month, up from 120 pre-pandemic.

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In Bengaluru, a lot of new riders are finding it comfortable to come onto the roads right now because the streets are less congested. “Riders who were earlier intimidated about coming onto main roads because of traffic are now finding it slightly easier. Plus they can still observe social distancing norms while being with people,” says Chidambaran Subramanian of Bangalore Brevets, a community of cyclists that has over 3k followers on Facebook.

He recommends that newer cyclists start small and join their local community or area wise groups (subgroups of a main group usually) since seasoned cyclists tend to ride at a much faster pace and don’t often have the time to guide new riders.

Cycling has become so popular of late that it has inspired some humor too. “Are you even cycling if you haven’t posted a picture of Rashtrapati Bhawan (in Delhi) with your cycle?” chides a stand-up comic, Vaibhav Arora, on Twitter. He’s referring to the wave of cyclists who head to the point every Sunday and snap Instagram-worthy photographs.

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In Delhi, discussions have been very active on the Delhi Cycling Group in recent weeks. Some members are inquiring about what routes to take, while others are seeking out other group members to join them on their rides. Another group, Delhi Elite Cyclists & Runners, have added 225 new members in the last one week, taking the group size to over 15,000 members.

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Fitness enthusiast and football facility owner Aasheesh Kapur formed a group of 40 friends last month in Delhi to ride with 38 first-time cyclists. Kapur himself had been cycling for some years now but wanted to start safely socialising with friends. They’ve called the group Gears & Beers and it often cycles in and around the scenic roads of Lutyens Delhi and as far as the Manger Trail around Gurgaon/Faridabad for their rides on Saturdays.

For now, the group only extends to immediate friends or friends of friends. On the weekdays, people from Gears & Beers either practice solo or with friends locally. But on the weekends, they make it a point to meet up. All their planning is done over Whatsapp and a meeting point is decided.

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Like this group, most new enthusiasts move in packs and tend to stick together in case of injuries or cycle breakdowns. Having no road rules or designated spaces for cyclists can be a bit daunting.

Kapur says he sees a lot of friends fall and require assistance. It takes some time to adjust to the bike and also road rules.

“As a new cyclist, I find bigger roads difficult to navigate because there are no designated cycle paths. Nobody stops for you. You just have to keep a lookout for yourself at all times. Indian roads are not designed for cyclists,” adds Chandak. Maheshwari says that the local police in Kolkata often tells riders to avoid flyovers since those can be very dangerous. But when they go on longer rides, of say 100 km over the weekend, they have to venture out towards the highway and other big roads.

It’s easy to spot a newcomer on the road, says Vidya Chandran, founder of cycling venture The HandleBars in Bengaluru. They’re usually not wearing helmets and tend not to have the correct gear. Most cyclists starting out need to look at their requirements first.

While Indian cycles also come with gears now, city bikes and mountain terrain bikes are what most people tend to opt for. Road bikes (distinctly narrow tyres) are the other choice. Hybrid bikes too, are a popular choice for those who aren’t sure what kind of terrain they want to hit. “People who are interested in long distances should go for road bikes,” adds Maheshwari.

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Typical budgets for Indian bikes usually start at Rs. 15,000 and above, while imported ones cost Rs. 25,000–30,000. Helmets, cycling shorts, blinkers and other products cost additional money. “But the life of a cycle can be your entire lifetime as well, if you maintain it well,” he adds. Sharda spent nearly Rs. 1 lakh on his bike, add-ons and outfits, while Chandak spent over Rs. 60,000 on hers.

Chandran says while it’s difficult to say right now what the total influx of new riders is in terms of numbers, but anecdotally she knows of bikes being sold out and back ordered for at least a month. She hopes a lot of such bikers won’t fall off the grid once “life goes back to normal”.

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