Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Biking Nations: The Delhi and Gurgaon Adventure, Part III

If you live in the U.S. you can't just jump on a bike on ride in Gurgaon and Delhi if the mood strikes: you have to train for it. This was my third trip in six years to India (I was actually hit by a bicyclist in Mumbai at the conclusion of the first one), I had done an organized tour with Delhi by Cycle, and on this trip two short rides (one bringing the bike back and another up and back along National Highway 8) prepared me for a 'mission based' ride. 

The mission I wanted was to do with my now three-day-old Atlas ride to the heart of Delhi: India Gate, but it wasn't going to be easy since I wanted to watch what I ate: The day after my bike tour of old Delhi two years ago with Delhi by Cycle I was hit with what can best be described as gastrointestinal vandalism that stayed with me the rest of that trip. Knowing it was probably something I had eaten I was taking great caution and eating meals at the Ambience Mall food court each day thus far. 

But now I wanted to take a ride so long there'd be no chance of returning to the relatively safe digestive haven of the mall by lunchtime. Foolishly not packing anything other than bottled water, I set off early on Wednesday morning…and quickly came to understand another distinct characteristic of India traffic: right turns are terrifying. 

This is me getting ready to make a right turn onto Mehrauli Road. It's not the motorcycles massing next to me that I found unsettling (in fact, a pleasant fellow with a turban and a thick mustache on a motorcycle commended me on my bravery of cycling here right around when this photo was taken) but the volume of traffic in this part of the world does things like cram six vehicles on what looks like four lanes. I constantly had to guess where on the road I needed to be in order to turn right without being flattened by vehicles going straight. Not since the infamous 'ugly turn' success of Sandra Bullock's character in 'Speed' has a safe right turn been so satisfying. 

This stretch was even busier and more bustling than the return trips on Gurgaon road I had made the day before. The concrete median found in the middle of parts of Mehrauli Rd. made certain stretches quite narrow, and that gave every vehicle few options when passing. 

For some odd reason, I came to enjoy this stretch. Yes, the honking was nearly continuous. Yes, the rising temperature was making the back of my shirt stick to me. Yes, the dust from the road (as well as exhaust fumes and the stench from the occasional garbage pile) was making my nose collapse and fold in on itself, but I liked checking out the different vehicles and watching people move to and fro as they got about their day. 

And a lot of them were working with pedal-powered vehicles. At one point, every small truck, tuk-tuk and car near me slowed to a crawl so they could pass a slow-moving vehicle. It took me a few minutes to realize what it was - and I was so busy messing with the camera I nearly rear-ended it. 

It was not the first pedal-powered trike I had seen that had a lot of metal strapped to it, and it wasn't the last. Later, when I managed to find the turn that I knew led to Qutab Minar (because the intersection was so hard to identify I snapped a picture of an orange billboard that read 'YET ANOTHER MILESTONE' to help me remember where to turn when coming back) I saw another.

Soon, I came within sight of Qutab Minar - a beautiful attraction I visited with my wife two years previously (she made some beautiful sketches of our 2012 visit that can be seen here). I was now pretty sure where I needed to go to get to India Gate. 

But as I headed up Aurobindo Road, the traffic got even worse. 

In Stamford, Connecticut I am at least comforted by the fact that there is usually enough shoulder for me to ride on when the traffic builds up. But in India, there are often no marks to show where the shoulder is, and even if there was the vehicles - which, on a good day, move like a herd of automotive buffalo stampeding - would ignore it. With motorcycles sharing the 'shoulder' with me, I was forced to paddle myself along, Fred Flintstone-style, to continue up toward the center of Delhi. 

I continued on and thought I recognized a street from my previous visit where I had unsuccessfully tried to find a bike to buy two years before. I didn't have time to dwell on it too much because I had to choose the lane toward India Gate.

I pushed on, passing a sign pointing the way to Khan Market. By this time I was getting hungry but didn't see any obvious places to get food, and even if I did, I was in no mood to stop. By now it was past one in the afternoon and I had already pedaled the hulking, single-speed Atlas more than 15 miles. 

Twice I was forced to use a traffic circle. I don't like traffic circles. Not in any country. But I passed through both of these unscathed. 

And just when I was beginning to wonder whether I had gotten lost, I came to my payoff. 

I had arrived at India Gate, but my lack of planning caught up with me in a big way as I had no food on me and saw no obvious restaurants nearby. Lunch on this day consisted of three popsicles purchased from three different vendors in various battered, three-wheeled scooters. 

I paid 20 Rupees (about $0.33 U.S.) for the first popsicle. I pedaled back and forth along the very pleasant Rajpath and had just finished eating it when I came across another vendor. 

"How much for the orange-flavored kind?" I asked.

"Twenty-five Rupees," he said.

I knew the first guy was only a quarter of a mile or so away at this point, so I said: "How about twenty Rupees?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Twenty-five."

I gave in. There are times in India to haggle but this wasn't one of them. But I made a counteroffer anyway: "How about thirty Rupees and you take a picture of me sitting on my bike with my camera?"

The man smiled and said, "Okay!"

He also took the empty wooden stick and wrapper from my first popsicle and put it in a small trash receptacle on his scooter.

After the third popsicle (a mango-flavored one) I did an about-face and headed back to Gurgaon. I had a yoga class to attend and didn't want to miss it. Even though my legs were beginning to feel as though they were carved out of oak at this point, I couldn't believe the numbers of people carrying heavier loads than half a bottle of water in an REI backpack.

Closing in on the "YET ANOTHER MILESTONE" billboard, I realized I was still very hungry and bought some Parle-G biscuits from a roadside vendor for five Rupees. These biscuits, which are available at every Indian store in the U.S. I have ever been to, fit perfectly in the Topeak bag I had attached to the Atlas frame that morning. 

I couldn't resist a picture of the tuk-tuk graveyard - positioned within sight of Qutab Minar - on the other side of the road. Some didn't look much worse than the working ones I had seen and ridden in.

I made surprisingly good time pedaling back to the hotel, and managed a grin when I saw the "YET ANOTHER MILESTONE" billboard, which reminded me to turn right. Occasionally, if I was waiting for a red light or something, I'd dip in to my Parle-G biscuit stash and eat a biscuit. I still got stared at, but I shrugged it off as if to say to them: I'm riding a bike like yours and eating Parle-G biscuits. I'm blending in.

So comfortable was I with making it back to the Leela in time for the yoga class, I stopped at another local bike shop en route.

As I pointed out already, the bell that came with the bike is loud, commands respect, and I wanted to bring one back home with me. I managed to find one at this shop and happily paid 100 Rupees (about $1.66 U.S.) for it. 

Still later, I came to another shop that I absolutely adored.

You know those independent shops you visit and you have to buy something even though you don't need anything and just want to support them? This was one of those shops. I noticed the green handgrips (visible in the photo, in the plastic bag) and even though I have no use for green handgrips I asked him how much. The price he gave me was identical to what I paid for my first popsicle, so I agreed. But when he showed me, to his dismay, that one of the green handgrips were torn, I bought the pink ones instead. I have even less use for pink handgrips than I have for green ones, but I felt good about handing this guy some money for something. 

I pressed on through the section of Mehrauli Road I had moved through before, and like before, I somehow enjoyed it. 

I finished my ride and had gone 36 miles. I parked the bike at the Leela, headed to the mall for a smoothie and an oatmeal cookie, and returned to my room to shower and change before going to yoga. The whole time I was hoping someone would ask me how my day was because I wanted to respond with the word "epic."

The following day was broken up into a morning and afternoon ride to avoid a repeat of the popsicle incident. This was notable because I was able to find another route out of Gurgaon: up Anuvrat Road. Like any other road in these parts, this stretch was not without its hazards.

This was the third or fourth encounter I had with hamburgers on the hoof during this week in India. I will now use five words I didn't expect to write at the start of this adventure: you get used to it. 

What made the stretch nice was a good chunk of it followed the yellow Metro line, which is a visible elevated track you can see just to the upper right of the walking steaks. The map I had made it difficult to get lost (as I had already proven), and if anything happened to the bike, I could easily get back.

But the bike worked perfectly even though the chain sounded as it was protesting the massive amount of dust and grime I had already exposed it to, and the frame was covered in a fine layer of the stuff as well. Still, I wasn't carrying car tires. 

Shortly after this photo was taken, I glanced to the other side of the street and had the good fortune to see Cyclofit, which can be found at 842 M.G. Road at Ghitorni, New Delhi.

I walked the bike in and browsed the selection and talked to the staff. I learned the shop had been open for about a year and a half and decided that I should get them to clean the chain of my Atlas - which had seen nearly 80 miles at this point. I rolled it into their work area and was immediately impressed: a couple of guys went to work on it like a Formula 1 pit crew, and in minutes I left with a bike that was even cleaner than when I purchased it four days before. 

Continuing on with a sparkling bike, I came to the "YET ANOTHER MILESTONE" billboard, this time from another direction, and managed a laugh as I turned left. I had done this road a few times at this point but couldn't resist doing it again: after all, it was an entertaining loop back to the hotel and, best of all, I didn't have to make any right turns. 

It was during this period my thoughts on cycling in India began to change. I thought less about what I was doing on my bike and more about what everyone else seemed to be doing with theirs.

Everyone else was working. Carrying rugs, food, massive quantities of steel, or CNG canisters, people were working - and working very hard. The next morning I'd wrap up an early morning ride and pass 100 miles in five days with legs I could barely stand up in, but over that whole distance I was the only person I saw who appeared to be riding an Atlas for fun. 

Over the miles I traveled I had come to admire and truly love the bike I had bought, but later, when I went through my photographs of my first India trip I made six years earlier, I noticed that the cell phones everyone was holding have gotten lighter and more powerful. The bikes pretty much stayed the same. 

I would like very much for the leaders of Atlas and Hero to ride their own bikes for a week, and after that, if they can look me in the eye and tell me that this design - with all of its heft - is the very best product they can sell the hard working people I saw riding them, I will gladly shake their hand. If they finish the ride and say to their colleagues: "You know, if we swap this component for that component we can sell a lighter, more efficient and more powerful bike for the same price, and that means people who buy them will be able to make more trips in less time and make more money for themselves."…I will shake their hands then, too. 

Still, with that thought aside, I was sitting on a great bike that I decided needed to stay in India. The more people who ride bicycles in the country, the better. 

Now I did actually have the option of bringing the bike home with me to Connecticut. Since my wife and I were flying Virgin, which has a sporting goods exemption, I could take the bike on the plane without paying a baggage fee. But this bike needed a more fitting future than occasional use and long stretches of hanging on a hook in my already-crowded basement. 

I wanted to donate the bike to charity, and I spoke about this with my classmates in the Leela's free yoga class. As it happened, Yvonne, one of my classmates, was connected with one called Sunshine Project Delhi. At the end of our second class, she emailed me a web site and more information about them.

Following my 'epic' ride on Wednesday, I told Yvonne I definitely wanted the bike to go there, but due to both of our schedules and the opening hours of Sunshine Project, I couldn't drop the bike off myself. Yvonne also couldn't attend Thursday's class, which meant we had to figure something out soon. Thankfully it didn't take long for me to hatch a plan: I'd ride early Friday morning as a bit of a 'farewell' trip and park the bike in the usual spot and leave Yvonne the keys at the concierge desk. She agreed. 

So on Friday morning, I took a final ride through the organized mayhem that is India's roads. 

On the way back, I came to find a slow-moving three-wheeled truck in what passed for a bike lane. The 'Horn Please' sign on the back made the situation look quite ridiculous.

But I returned safely with 100 miles under my belt and gave the bike a final wipe down before giving the bell a last, affectionate ring. The keys went in an envelope with Yvonne's name on it, and inside I also left a note thanking her for agreeing to bring the bike to the Sunshine Project.

A few days later, back in the U.S. and struggling through jet lag, she emailed me this link:

It made me smile, and I decided that the next time I'd visit India I'd do this all over again. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Biking Nations: The Delhi and Gurgaon Adventure, Part II

I apologize for not adding this post sooner: I was traveling yet again last week and had to unexpectedly stay an extra night at my location where I was forced to wash underpants in a sink at a Holiday Inn and leave from a different time, day and place that I planned. More details in another post.

But now, for those of you who tuned in to the most recent post: I had landed in Delhi and was prepared to stay five days in Gurgaon at the Leela Kempinski. On the afternoon of day one I did something I had wanted to do for a long time and I bought one of the most popular bikes in India: an Atlas with one speed, a heavy-duty rear rack, a loud bell, an integrated lock and 28 and a half inch tires. I paid 3,750 rupees for it (about $62.50 U.S.) and was prepared to get my money's worth.

Of course, I had to outfit myself and the bike with key pieces of equipment before I started: for my first ride I brought along my GoPro HD Hero 2 and the entire time I traveled my Garmin Edge was fastened to the handlebars. 

There are countless bikes like this one in India. Mine was the only one I saw that had state-of-the-art satellite navigation. 

I was also the only bicycle rider I saw the entire five days I was there who wore a helmet. I was stared at quite a lot of the time. A pedestrian at a Delhi intersection once pulled out his cell phone to take a picture of me while laughing…possibly to post on his Facebook page. 

Day one of this adventure was just getting a feel for how things worked. I was too busy the day before just getting used to the handling and quirks of my new bike to pay much attention to how traffic flowed. But I did observe, while riding out of Gurgaon, that traveling on the wrong side of the road isn't uncommon. 

At the first underpass, I moved to the correct side of the road (like the UK they drive on the left) and pedaled along National Highway 8.

If the Merritt Parkway was running alongside of I-95, it would look a lot like this, I thought. 

I didn't go far the first day. Still addled from the jet lag from the first leg of the journey (more on that in another post) and simply treating this day like a recon mission, I rode up NH8 until I came to a pedestrian overpass not far from the Delhi airport - which thoughtfully contains a ramp to make it easy to push bikes up the steps.

When I crossed over to get the other side I paused in the middle to observe the traffic. I was struck not only by the number of vehicles, but by their variety. They have vehicles in India they don't have in the U.S. I'm not just talking about the brands, but I'm talking about stuff that has a distinct 'Mad Max' flavor.

I cannot settle on a caption for this photo. The best I could come up with was: "Lord Humungus called. He wants his truck back."

You just don't see that in the U.S. You just don't. And I saw vehicles stranger and more dangerous looking than this. I'd be willing to bet that if Steve Martin and John Candy drove through in the burned-out Chryler LeBaron convertible from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, nobody would pay that much attention. 

It was on the way back toward Gurgaon I came upon another common site in India. 

This is a little three-wheeled truck, and that is very common. But I'm also talking about the hand-painted 'horn please' sign on the back. Horns are heard a lot. People honk when they pass you. They honk when they aren't going anywhere near you. They honk nine times before getting into the car that morning. In some places it is nothing short of an ear-ringing din. 

However, it isn't like the honking that happens in the U.S. India is 
the only country I've been to where everybody honks yet nobody seems angry. The attitude on the road seems to be: 'This is what the state of traffic is. Don't take it personally.'

The honking did remind me of an important safety recommendation for riding anywhere, which is ride predictably. Cars, trucks, tuk-tuks move fast, and even with a helmet-mounted rearview mirror (which I brought with me) they show up out of nowhere. It is no time to weave, rock, swerve, meander or otherwise move in a manner that can bring you in the path of another vehicle. 

As intimidated as I was at first, I noticed nobody looked particularly scared. Not the other cyclists, not the pedestrians who'd cross insanely busy roads, no one. It just looked as though the everydayness of chaos was just background noise everyone was used to but the guy with the bicycle helmet and the Garmin on his handlebars. 

Back at the Leela I parked the bike and once again had lunch at the Ambience Mall. The afternoon I spent planning my route for the next day (I wanted to ride all the way to India Gate), enjoying the yoga class and telling the attendees what I had done that day, and also did some thinking on what I should do with the bike at the end of the challenge. To be concluded later this week, for now, for those of you in Stamford, I will see you at Lorca at noon today for the first Bike Stamford ride of the season. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

(click here for part III)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Biking Nations: The Delhi and Gurgaon Adventure, Part I

You know you're biking in a strange place when the safest place to be is behind the cyclists hauling canisters of compressed natural gas. 

Let me back up a second.

Now, for those of you who may remember: I've been to Delhi and Gurgaon before where I joined a tour group called Delhi by Cycle to ride through Old Delhi and see some sights. Since then, I began plotting what I wanted to do next time I visited: buy a bike and ride it through the streets of India without the guidance or safety that comes with pedaling with an organized group. Last week, in India, I had my shot. 

I figured this would be like one of those 'Top Gear' challenges, where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May would buy a cheap car in an unfamiliar land and drive it an improbable distance while accumulating humiliation and laugher along the way. After all, I didn't have the budget or inclination to buy anything remotely state-of-the-art; I had already seen that the bikes on the road mostly shared four characteristics: they were big, they were study-looking, they had one speed and the brakes were set up with a series of metal rods and levers rather than cables - something that I imagine made them very reliable even if they contributed to what I was sure was tremendous weight.

That picture was taken on my first visit to Delhi six years ago. It's one bike but I saw hundreds more like it on the street. That was the kind of bike I wanted. 

For this trip, we once again stayed at the remarkably comfortable hotel Leela Kempinski in Gurgaon, just beyond the toll plaza on National Highway 8. This trip, we discovered the hotel offered an hour long yoga class every day at 5:30pm, and I decided to take advantage of it as often as I could since I was missing Exhale in Stamford.  Our visit was to be five days, and I decided to try my luck the first full one to find a bike I could buy and use for the rest of my visit.

After dining on Indian food at the food court at the Ambience Mall (I always steer clear of American chains when I go abroad) I rode in the back of a tuk-tuk through dusty streets to the Sikandarpur train station, reasoning that the busy area could yield me a place to buy a bike. The whole time I walked I studied the traffic as best I could, and my initial assessment was that if I did choose to ride here, it would, at best, be an organized free-for-all.

As it happened, I was very lucky to find a cycle shop almost right away: after wandering through several stalls of metal fabricators, with my fascination bordering on envy, I turned right on a street that ran under the elevated track and entered Pedal Up Studio

I met the owner and spent some time in his very nice shop, which, unlike most American bike stores, contained a well-curated selection of road, hybrid and mountain bikes rather than scores of them jammed together. But none of these were the 'working class' variety of bikes I was looking for, so I instead bought a healthy snack, thanked him, and continued on my way. 

Barely ten minutes later, when I had dodged tuk-tuks and motorcycles to cross the street, I couldn't believe my luck.

A few minutes with one of the employees here made me realize I was in the right place: the shop sold both the Hercules and the Atlas, the latter of which was listed at 3,750 Rupees, or about $62.50 U.S. Because it was late Monday and the shop would be closed the next day, I decided it was now or never and told the man I wanted to buy the Atlas.

It was exciting to watch them unwrap the bike from its cardboard and plastic confines, fit a seat, and accept my money (all of which had been sitting in a desk drawer in my house for the past two years since my first attempt to buy a bike during my 2012 visit was unsuccessful) and send me on my way. 

I drew stares from the group when I pulled out my own helmet. As you know, I almost never travel without it and was sure that the busy streets of the area would make me appreciate a little cranial protection - and the helmet-mounted rearview mirror.

I mounted up and the excitement of owning a new bike in an interesting place was immediately tempered by my realization of just how heavy the bike was: 28.5" wheels, steel frame, steel fenders, steel chaingaurd, steel rear rack and steel motorcycle-style kickstand. The bell was steel, too, and it was loud enough to knock the earth from its axis.

I pedaled off. The acceleration was slow to say the least and the cruising speed didn't feel fast, but for whatever reason it blended in to the Gurgaon traffic. I couldn't say the same for me, since I tended to draw occasional stares. It may have been the helmet.

That first day, I went at least three miles just working my way (often incorrectly) back to the hotel. So focused on not being hit by various vehicles, I realized that upon my return I was still not 100% sure what side of the road people drove on in India. It wasn't uncommon to see tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws and bicycles riding the wrong way along the edge of the road that feeds out from the mall. Since at the time I wasn't sure how to ride with traffic and turn right into the hotel, I elected to ride along the edge as well. This, believe it or not, was the only time this first day I pulled out the camera to take a picture. The rest of the time I was too busy gripping the handlebars.

The hotel staffer who controlled access to one of the gates leading into the hotel recognized me from earlier and, clearly not expecting me to return with a bicycle, stopped me from entering and spoke for a minute or two into a walkie-talkie before directing me to the other side of the ramp, where two other employees (always the nicest people) told me to park the bike among the cars under the ramp, and they assured me it would be safe there. It was only then I was able to take a good look at what I had paid $62.50 for.

As heavy as it was, I had bought myself a thing of beauty. How could I not admire the way it was made? 

The linkage for the brakes was by far the most fascinating bit. As I had written before, this isn't found on U.S. bikes, and my most intelligent guess is the design is decades old. 

The three mile trip back to the hotel told me the brakes were reliable, and I never got tired looking at the levers and rods that made it all work. 

This bike also came with its own integrated wheel lock. Every bike I had seen in India had one of these, and I couldn't remember ever seeing any bike locked to anything. So here was a lock, and I had my own keys, which made the realization of ownership really sink in. 

As I said, the people who were working the main entrance to the hotel were among the nicest people I met and were sincere in their assurance the bike would be safe, but just to make it a little more difficult for the bike to be stolen I wove the cable lock I brought with me through the frame, and I had it there each day the bike was locked up while the keys were in my pocket. 

I showered and changed for yoga class, where I met my fellow students - Yvonne and Debbie, who were both interested in how my cycling adventures would turn out - before bending my unbendable body into poses that helped me cope with jet lag. I did have trouble focusing since my mind was on the bike parked outside - and the fact that I'd be able to ride it for the next four days in Gurgaon and Delhi and really experience how this area bikes. 

Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

(click here for Part II)