Bicycles in India

3-minute read

I recently had the opportunity and good fortune of visiting India. While the trip included a vast number of experiences and resulted in an equally vast number of insights, I wanted to share something that is relevant to this blog and audience. In America, our affluent society typically views bicycles as a means of exercise - or worse - something you buy and leave in the garage to gather dust. Especially in suburbia, almost nobody actually uses the bike as legitimate transportation, and even fewer as a means to carry things or perform work.

India has a much lower standard of living than the US - at least in the traditional sense of dollars and cents (I didn’t spend enough time there to really get a feel for other factors such as average happiness). As such, their equipment gets used heavily. And I mean USED. Most cars and trucks are overloaded. You’ll see 3, 4, or 5 people on a single motorcycle. Bicycles are everywhere, often carrying hundreds of pounds of rice, chickens, and anything else you can imagine.

I found it interesting that there is a standard-issue bike that has near exclusive market share. I’m not sure who makes it or how much they cost, but they were all over the place. In the US, we’d call it a “touring” or “city” bike, with a heavy steel frame, upright position, fenders, rear rack, and heavy-duty tires.

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I saw this bike parked at a street market, with many more nearby. Nobody bothers to lock them up.

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The most interesting part to me is the brake design - they pull up. In other words, the pads contact the inside of the rim, instead of the sides.

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If you’re a serious triathlete or time trialist, you might think that brakes located underneath the bike are a modern technical revolution. You might be wrong.

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Everything about the bike is heavy duty and low-cost.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get many good photos of these bikes in use, but they were on every corner - ridden without helmets and sharing space on the chaotic streets among motorcycles, taxis, trucks, cows, and stray dogs.

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We also saw some three-wheel cargo and taxi bikes… sometimes carrying other bikes.

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The take-home for me was that anyone living in America or another first world country is extremely lucky. Having worked deep in the bicycle industry for 15 years, it was a shocking new perspective of what bicycles mean to other cultures. There’s no high-end. There’s no counting grams of weight or aerodynamic drag. There’s utility, transportation, and survival.