Unlike many of my classmates, I learnt to cycle at what must be considered the ripe old age of 11. Unlike them again, the cycle is still serving as my primary personal mode of transport at twice that age. It has been an enriching experience and I have had many thrills along the way.
I shall write about some of the thrills another day. Today, I would compare the cycle friendliness of the three Indian cities I have cycled in: Bhopal, Delhi and Bangalore, placed in descending order of frequency.
Bhopal does not have the traffic problems of either of the two other cities. Logically, it should be the most comfortable to cycle in. In practice, this is not so. Not because of the traffic which is benign by metro standards though. It is because of road quality. I believe that the best judge of the quality of a road surface is the cyclist. Even a slight reduction in the friction on a surface is grasped by his keen senses. I have my personal favourite stretches of road on all the roads which are my cycling haunts. It is magical how without any change in inclination of the road, the cycle gathers speed at these stretches and suddenly outracing those Marutis does not seem that difficult anymore.
The biggest problem for a cyclist is not traffic, it is bad roads. A couple of stretches of bad road converts your smooth, soundless, efficient machine into a loose, screechy mass of metal that only seems to be held by a few remaining nuts and bolts, a good number of them having fallen along the way . In this respect, I have, jointly with my cycles, suffered tremendously; more so on the Hero Hawk whose thin tyres give it seductive speed but also make it treacherous and injury prone on bad roads.
Bhopal provides ultimate variety in terms of cycling terrain ranging from village dirt tracks to wide world class roads. The hill stretches are extremely challenging
Some roads in Bhopal have improved in recent years but some others which used to be good became awful resulting in no net change in the last seven years. Combined with higher traffic, the equation has slightly worsened for the cyclist. Nonetheless, among the three cities Bhopal is definitely the safest for a cyclist.
South and Central Delhi
I have not cycled in the entire city of Delhi and would not dare attempting the same. I salute the average Delhi cyclewallah who, as far as I am concerned, has the heart of a mountain lion and the doggedness of a Hercules. I am amazed to see people cycling nonchalantly on the busiest of roads In Delhi on the simplest and the cheapest of cycles. They do not think twice about entering lanes with vehicles plying at 60-80 kmph.
Delhi roads, in general, are very good. The roads in south and central Delhi have the additional advantage of being less crowded. Central Delhi, in particular feels like a cyclist’s paradise with broad, beautiful and sparsely populated roads. The ride through The Ridge Road which passes through the Pusa forest and central Ridge Reserve forests is picturesque though the high speed traffic does freak you out.On this route, just like in the rest of Delhi, there are lots of landmarks to visit and gardens to relax in after a hard ride.
I have not cycled very much in Bangalore being restricted in general to Varthur Road, Whitefield and the Old Airport Road. However, I do remember my agonizing uphill climbs on flyovers with bumper to bumper traffic. Bangalore’s roads are not as spotless as south and Central Delhi’s but they are undoubtedly quite good. Firefoxes are quite the rage in the city and Bangalore was one of the first Indian cities to take to the premium cycle segment. However, the city cannot really be termed cycle-friendly. Many roads have large open drains by the side of the road. In case of a traffic snarl the traditional patli gali exit through the sides is not possible.
Fresh coconut water along the road acts as a great morale booster.
Getting a cycle repaired or getting air filled could prove quite a pain as not as many cycle repair shops are available as in Bhopal or Delhi.
In Bangalore the cycling helmet does not draw as many stares as in Delhi and Bhopal. However, Indians still do not grasp the concept of a cycling helmet. I feel this is rather stupid because the cyclist is perhaps at the greatest risk and any accident in his case has much greater chances of being fatal.
In both Delhi and Bangalore, the main roads cannot really be termed cycleable. Cars and buses could not care less about the cyclist. Buses or cars irritate by suddenly and routinely pulling into the left lane which used by cyclists. The cyclist has no choice but to wait for the bus to move. Moving into the lane to the right of the bus is rarely a choice as the high speed traffic in that lane does not give a chance. A fast car passing close by a cycle sends shivers not just down the spine of the cyclist but down the entire body of the cycle temporarily unbalancing the vehicle. There is always an undercurrent of fear that makes it hard to concentrate.
Given a choice, I would choose Chanakyapuri, Delhi as the ideal place to cycle in.