City City Bang Bang, Columns

The return of the bicycle

Recently, a colleague bought a bicycle. Not just a bicycle, but a helmet, knee-pads, new clothes including shorts that hugged his thighs an awful lot, and in all probability new shoes too , made no doubt with the latest aerospace technology to withstand the damage that pedals are known to inflict on shoes. He is part of a new movement that we see in many parts of India, where groups of people, young and old, have rediscovered bicycling and go for many rides across improbably large distances. The bicycles too are things of technology, and come at prices that are suitably impressive; after all they have to go with the new clothes that one has bought. In its new avatar, bicycling has been imagined as an exciting adventure sport, full of lurking danger to one’s head and knees and needing streamlined attire to cut the drag from the wind.

All of which feels faintly ridiculous to a generation brought up depending on the bicycle for basic transportation. Cycling was an extension of one’s body, one spent most of one’s days in communion with it, not in a Zen-like state of post-adrenaline bliss, but a practical backside-grinding-on-narrow-seat sort of a way. The equipment at one’s disposal was the robust black Hercules/Atlas/Hero bicycle, available in ladies and gents versions. There was the other more exotic ‘sports’ version, with its fancy colours, streamlined shape and flimsier framework, but that was not regarded as being solid enough by most. Owning a bicycle converted one’s status on the road; the ability to move at three to four times the speed of walking meant that in a small town, nothing was more than half an hour away. That meant freedom as well as the burden of many more household chores that one could be relied upon easily for.

The bicycle itself is in some ways, a great advertisement for the idea of a machine in that it serves back the physical force we apply in a multiplied form, by using some rudimentary principles of physics. The bicycle produces speed largely through knowledge; it has no ‘black box’ where any magical technological transformation takes place. You push at something, a wheel transfers the motion to another through a chain, and the bicycle moves. The bicycle represents technology at its flattest and most self-evident, like a lever or a wheel, it is barely more than a scientific principle brought to life in a surprisingly useful way.

For equipment that has such few elements, a surprising number of things could go wrong with the bicycle. Apart from the regular need to fill air in the tyres, a pursuit that took a considerable amount of effort, ‘panchers’ were frequent and needed a primitive combination of a trough of water in which an inflated tube was immersed to locate the leak, and a crude rubber patch that was melted on to the puncture, so as to cover up the leak. The chain was another source of frequent trouble, with a distressing tendency to come off, just as greater force was applied to the pedals. The pedals themselves could dismantle themselves quite frequently and the brakes too could be temperamental, losing traction, particularly in the rains. Owning a bicycle meant that one needed to be at least a little comfortable with the mechanical- there was no escaping working with the hands and getting them dirty when using a cycle. There wasn’t enough distance between the rider and the machine, not enough by way of a veil of knowledge that could legitimately excuse shying away from dealing with the bicycle oneself.

But for all that, cycling gave a sense of oneness with the road that other vehicles could not really match. The machine responded totally and only to the riders actions, and this gave one a sense of control that was enjoyable. Riding downhill, with one’s hands off the handlebars or taking a curve at a fast clip while ringing the metallic bell furiously were full-bodied pleasures that were easy to revel in. The feeling of exhilaration felt when the weather was glorious, the road open and one’s body was fresh, was difficult to replicate. On the flip side, riding uphill on a hot summer’s afternoon carrying a younger sibling ‘doubles’ for a few kilometres evened up the slate quite well. After all, the bicycle did not promise escape from reality, it only helped navigate it a little faster.

The idea of accessible mobility has always been a deeply empowering one in India. Personal transportation frees up the individual from the collective both in thought and action, and allows for new imaginations to get unlocked. The role of the bicycle in Hindi cinema underlines this sense of openness and freedom that the lowly bicycle brought to us. The idea of a group of young girls off on cycles on wide open vistas for a picnic only to encounter a group of personable young men (often also on bicycles) while singing a happy ditty, was part of the imagined world of freedom that bicycles gave one access to. That the bicycle was used as a vehicle to escape the city and its oppressive familiarity was a sign that the idea of being in control of one’s own movements had intrinsic value and that for all its functional uses, the bicycle opened a door in the minds of its users.

As times have changed, the middle class has no need for the bicycle in its quest for personal mobility. As a thing of recreation, it needs news bells and whistles. After all, it must help us consume a vision of ourselves as beings transformed visibly by our new passions. Hitherto routine activities are being reinvented as exotic new pursuits; running needs equipment and mobile apps that one tweets about, eating out becomes an occupation involving specialised experts, knowing what wine to drink with what has an exotic French name, and in order to get on to a bicycle, one must look like an athlete in tights.

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