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From "ladies cycles" to e-bikes: My bicycle diaries

Through the lens, lightly


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 24 Feb 2022, 8:55 PM

Two memories come to mind when I hear of cycles… or cycling. One is of me being a total disaster the couple of times I tried to learn the art of pedalling. There was a “ladies cycle” bought for me with money given by my grandparents on my 12th or 13th birthday (of course, I never got to see or feel the cash that was rightfully mine — but that’s another story). I clumsily got on to it, kept falling down each time I put my foot on a pedal, kept getting yelled at by my father (he had zero skills as a coach), and then I finally had enough of the clumsiness, the falling and the yelling — and gave it all up to nurse my bruised knees and elbows. The “ladies cycle” was handed over to my brother who clearly had no issues with the vehicle’s gender.

The second memory is far more interesting. When I was in high school, a slightly older college-going cousin sister fell in love with a boy (about to be a man) who was known in her neighbourhood as being “no good” (unless you’ve lived in personal-boundary-less north Calcutta neighbourhoods where “no good” begets synonyms by the hour, you wouldn’t really know what kind of a social setting it lends itself to). He’s going to be a colossal loser, my cousin sister used to be routinely told by her farsighted parents and anybody else who cared to comment. Once, when I was over at her place, she started having a massive argument with her parents over this boy, who she was going to meet in the evening for a movie outing.

“I will NOT stop seeing him,” she yelled, while I felt her passion admiringly, sitting on the sofa next to her. “We will run away, just you wait and watch.”

And that’s when her father — my uncle — said: “He’ll never be able to afford a car, so how do you plan to run away? On a CYCLE?”

Somehow, that, for me, set the bar. In one push of the pedal, the bicycle, for me, was reduced to a mobility means for losers: if you rode a cycle, no good can be expected from you. For the next couple of decades, I never looked at a cycle — other than with a sneer. In the early 2000s, a friend told me he used to often cycle from his apartment to the university when he was in the US (where, unlike the highways of Delhi, there were demarcated cycling tracks), and I immediately felt bad for him. “Weren’t there car pools or buses available — or were you that hand-to-mouth?” I wanted to know.

“Well, I was sort of poor, but that wasn’t the reason why I cycled. I cycled because it’s the greatest feeling in the world — plus, it’s a sustainable mode of transport.”

At that time, nobody gave a toss about sustainable transport — especially in India — so I remained unimpressed.

Today, heads of state cycle to office. CEOs pedal push all the way to the workplace. Celebrities endorse the health benefits of cycling. Environmentalists talk about its green perks. Tour operators promote tourist spots as cycling trails. In short, cycling has become a lifestyle, an aspirational one, where you can become a better person — not just a sportier, fitter one.

I reconnected with an old friend after almost two decades. He’s taken up cycling, he told me, and now cycles from one part of town to another — and this is in Kolkata, where (unlike in Dubai) the roads aren’t exactly cycling-friendly — and rarely uses his car. “I feel soooo good,” he gushed on WhatsApp while sending me a picture of him on his preferred mode of transport.

In Dubai, I see cyclists everywhere. There are also e-bikes parked next to metro stations, so you can use them as feeder service; I have to admit I get a little frazzled when they creep up behind me suddenly — or lunge towards me — but also a little envious. These days, I’ve started believing in what Arthur Conan Doyle said way back in 1896: “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Maybe I should have applied Dettol on my bruises and gotten right back on my “ladies cycle” when I had the chance to.


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