Pedal On: India By Cycle

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY get their bums on the saddle to map out exciting cycling experiences across India

img_0387-pondy-cycle-tourThe location was perfect, the mellow morning set the right mood and our bicycles were the funkiest set of two wheels. Astride canary yellow and hot pink bicycles retrofitted by ‘My Vintage Bicyclette’, we set off at 7am on the ‘Wake Up Pondy Tour’. Our guide Manisha from SITA (South India Traditional Arts) led us through Puducherry’s less-explored Muslim Quarter – past Elliamman Koil temple, down Tippu Sahib, Mullah and Cazy Streets to the 19th century Kuthba Mosque, a blend of Mughal domes and French designs. Goubert Market, with its lively flower, vegetable and fish stalls, brought back memories of Life of Pi. After visiting the fishermen’s colony at the far end of the French Quarter, we ended at SITA’s garden cafeteria for a South Indian breakfast.

How Fiona Guerra and Idriss Madir, the duo behind My Vintage Bicyclette met in Aleppey and landed in Pondicherry, customizing bikes and creating cycle tours, is something even they cannot explain. They fell in love with India and the Atlas cycle on their first trip and decided to soup up vintage Indian cycles to brighten up mundane daily life. They revealed, “After settling in Pondicherry in 2012, such a creative and colorful city full of talented craftsmen and knowhow, we prototyped our first vintage custom hand-painted bikes for friends. It was difficult to ship the cycles to France and North India so we brainstormed to find a solution – ergo, the Pondy Cycle Tour!”

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With friend and partner Fleur Soumer, manager at SITA, a cultural center housed in the bright blue Villa Martine Marie Jacqueline, they crafted an authentic, local cycle tour. Since March 2014, they have welcomed over 1000 happy cyclists. Last November, a new afternoon tour was added to discover Pondy with ace photographer Gopinath Ram.

Fiona and Idriss admit, “For us, cycling is the perfect way to move around. Not too slow, not too fast, healthy, practical and eco-friendly. As urban cyclists, we don’t travel great distances by cycle in India, but do rent them in the cities we visit. We loved cycling in Hampi, Fort Kochi and Orchha. But we love it most in Pondicherry, a place we consider home. The city is human sized, to stroll along the Beach road is unique, as for the typical rides through the heritage streets and their bougainvillea…so cliché but unforgettable!”

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Cycling in India has taken off in leading metros with urban folk pedaling to work and weekday techies becoming rallyists over the weekend. Bengaluru is fast becoming India’s cycling capital. Till a few years ago, if someone flung terms like FTP and HRM, you knew he was referring to File Transfer Protocol and Human Resource Manager; today it could be Functional Threshold Power and Heart Rate Monitor!

Rohan Kini quit his IT job and founded Bums On The Saddle in 2006, a top-end bicycle service shop in Bengaluru where he’s the ‘Chief Wrench’. BOTS is the perfect place to geek out with Body Geometry Fit Specialists helping you find your unique riding position and intense training sessions to improve cadence, average speed and climb timings.

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It’s a busy calendar – from GMC (Great Malnad Challenge), BBC (Bengaluru Bicycle Challenge) to TFN (Tour of Nilgiris), the event that put India on the global cycling map. Started in 2008 by Bengaluru’s Ride a Cycle Foundation, TFN is India’s largest cycling event. Held between 16-23 December each year, the 7-day ride spans 800+ km, passing through three wildlife sanctuaries – Nagarahole (Karnataka), Wayanad (Kerala) and Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu).

Pankaj Mangal, founder of Bengaluru-based The Art of Bicycle Trips, says it all started when he and two friends went on a 100km bicycle ride to Cauvery Fishing Camp. After riding out 60km, they sat under a statue of Mahatma Gandhi when the penny dropped. This was it – being outdoors, getting out of comfort zones and enjoying the simple life of the countryside. In 2010, they launched their first tour the Bike & Hike day trip to Ramnagaram, the immortal setting for Sholay. Today, their wide repertoire stretches from Udaipur to Vietnam.

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The latest entrant on the scene is Bengaluru By Cycle, started by local boys Raghu and Nithya. Just a few months old, they offer a lovely Pete Tour in the heart of Bengaluru. Reporting early morning at Cubbonpet, it was uncanny to see the busy commercial quarter free from traffic. Raghu explained “Most tourists go to MG Road or Lalbagh, but this was where Bangalore started. We grew up here and know the backlanes inside out. Being fond of cycling and having done a DelhiByCycle tour in 2010, we thought of launching a cycling tour in Bengaluru. Unlike walking, you can cover a larger area on a cycle.”

Bengaluru Pete was established in 1537 around a mud fort built by Yelahanka chieftain Kempegowda. Originally spread over one square mile; today Bengaluru has expanded to 741 sq km! The 12km ride took us through the city’s oldest parts – a 250-year-old dargah linked to the local Karaga festival and Cubbonpet’s bylanes, where Bengaluru’s old culture thrived in garadimanes (wrestling akharas), temples and daily rituals.

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Sipping tea at the crossroads of Avenue Road, we smiled at the irony. At the spot where Kempegowda allegedly let loose four bullocks in the cardinal directions to mark his city’s boundaries, there was a ‘no entry’ sign for bullock carts! The highlight was Asia’s largest flower mart, set in the ground floor of KR Market. Established in 1928, it was formerly a water tank and a battlefield during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. We bit into crisp dosas at Udupi Krishna Bhavan as Raghu outlined plans for more tours in partnership with Jack Leenars of DelhiByCycle.

In 2009, while working as the South Asia correspondent for Dutch daily De Telegraaf, Jack was looking for a new challenge in life and began exploring Old Delhi on a bicycle. “It was a total blast! The best experience I ever had. So many impressions, colours, smells, beautiful faces, amazing architecture and great history. All clustered within the centuries-old city walls. After cycling for two months I finally designed the best possible route, gave up my journalism career and jumped into the deep called DelhiByCycle.”

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He started with the Shah Jahan Tour, a glimpse into the life and times of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his 1500-acre capital Shahjahanabad. Built in 17th century, it was regarded as the most prosperous and beautiful city in the world. Today, it is a 400-year-old web of alleys enmeshed with electric cables and infused with the smell of brewing tea and simmering curries. Pedalling past Chawri Bazar and Fatehpuri Masjid, the vibrant spice market, a chai break in Civil Lines, stops at Old Delhi railway station and Chandni Chowk, an outside darshan of Red Fort and Jama Masjid and you’ve truly earned your breakfast at Karim’s!

DBC has expanded operations with four other tours – the Haveli tour explores the lavish noblemen mansions or havelis in the 17th century metropolis of Shajahanabad, ‘a city of decadent Emirs, ruthless Persian invaders, woeful poets, mystical men, masterful artists and forgotten architects who wove dreams into the now crumbling contours of Old Delhi.’

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The Raj tour showcases the Imperial heart of New Delhi, taking in sights like Connaught Place, Parliament House, Presidential Palace, India Gate and Agrasen ki Baoli. The Sufi trail of Nizamuddin and the urban village of Kotla Mubarakpur took Jack the longest to develop (almost one year), integrating stunning rooftop views, Humayun’s Tomb and picnic on the Lodhi Garden lawns. But Jack’s favourite is the Yamuna tour, which includes a boat ride on the river! Recently, he designed cycle tours in Lucknow in partnership with UP Tourism.

Jack has inspired many to take up cycling as a hobby, if not a profession! After a cycling tour with him, Eleonore Gaspa and Ophélie Teyssandier returned to Jaipur to start their own company. Jaipur is packed with so many attractions, most tend to focus on the touristy sights. So the two French girls decided to create their own itinerary, showcasing lesser known aspects of this wonderful city. The thematic tours kick off early from Ramganj Chaupad leading guests through the City Palace district of the walled city, ending with a Rajasthani breakfast in Karnot Mahal, a 270-year-old heritage haveli.

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The Pink Inside Tour goes inside homes and workshops of marble carvers, jewellers and artisans, a wholesale vegetable and fruit market, cenotaphs, havelis, ancient temples, even the back kitchen of a sweetshop! The Pink Sensation tour covers everything from Ras Kapoor haveli (named after a courtesan, not the actor) to the local lassiwalla and a temple ceremony in an ancient Shiva shrine. On the Pink Royal tour see Jal Mahal, Gaitor cenotaphs, vegetable markets and a ceremony at the Govind Devji Royal Temple.

Jaipur-based Virasat Experiences, who started with walking tours in the walled city, also run an excellent Jaipur Cycle Tour. Ride through the streets and markets early morning, past Hawa Mahal to the city’s outskirts and 4km up the hill to Nahargarh Fort. Savour a panoramic view of the city from 700 m, before an exciting downhill journey. With local street food tasting and a Rajasthani breakfast in a heritage haveli, it’s a great way to get Jaipur’s local flavours. A more challenging excursion is the Nahargarh Cycling Expedition through the Aravalli forests to Nahargarh fort and stepwell, Man Sagar Lake, Nahargarh–Jaigarh tunnels and Jaigarh fort, built on a hill called Cheel Ka Teela (Mound of Eagles).

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Like Rajasthan, another classic cycling destination is Kerala where the topography changes every day – beach, winding ghats, steep hills. Kerala Bicycle Trips has been crafting thematic cycle tours for years. Starting off from Mattancherry near Jew Town, the Sunrise Beach Route has fishmongers, toddy tappers, milkmen and school kids for company.

The Old Kochi Bike Route explores a 3km radius of large warehouses exporting spices and tea, dhobiwallas and Christian, Hindu, Gujarati and Jain settlements. On the day-long Spice Coast Route, head to rustic Alappuzha or take the Hornbills Route along a canal bund road past lush paddy fields and coconut groves to the forests of Edamalayar and Thattekad. There’s a whole world to explore, if you get your bums on the saddle…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Jaipur and Cochin.

SITA Puducherry
Ph 0413-4200718 www.pondicherry-arts.com
Timings: Mon-Sat 9am-12:30pm, 2pm-8pm
Cost: Rs.1200/person (Rs.400 children), incl. breakfast

Kerala Bicycle Trips
Ph 97420 19837 www.keralabicycletrips.com
Cost: Rs.1500-4200/person

Delhi By Cycle
Ph 011-64645906, 98117 23720 www.delhibycycle.com
Timings: 6:30-10am
Cost: Rs.1850/person, incl. breakfast

Bengaluru By Cycle
Ph 95138 86305 www.bengalurubycycle.com
Timings: 6:30–9:30am
Cost: Rs.1500/person, incl. breakfast

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Cyclin Jaipur
Ph 77280 60956, 77280 60651 www.cyclinjaipur.com
Timings: 6:45-10am
Cost: Rs.2000/person, incl. breakfast

Virasat Experiences
Ph 0141-5109090/95, 96672 00797 www.virasatexperiences.com
Cost: Rs.1650-3500/person incl. refreshments

Art of Bicycle Trips
Ph 78294 86953 http://www.artofbicycletrips.com
Cost: Rs.1450-2500/person (½ day tours), $1695-3495/person (multi-day) incl. stay & food

My Vintage Bicyclette
Ph 84898 97427 Email my.vintage.bicyclette@gmail.com

Bums on the Saddle
Ph 080-41143064, 41505583, 73497 83178 www.bumsonthesaddle.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the December 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.

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