Cycling has been part of Chennai’s urban fabric since the colonial era, thanks to its wide roads and short commuting distances. The city is also home to TI Cycles, one of the biggest bicycle manufacturing companies in India, which started back in 1951. But it’s only in the last few years that the humble bike – once the poor man’s vehicle – has also become a style statement, with cycling groups mushrooming across the city.
While the local government has done very little to promote cycling as a viable option for commuters, there have been a few noteworthy changes. A new bike lane in KK Nagar in southern Chennai opened earlier this year; in July, the Chennai Metro started collaborating with a Kochi-based cycling club to provide bicycles at about seven metro stations.
However, due to inadequate infrastructure, most people still cycle in the early hours of the day, before traffic gets too heavy. Besides an upswell of amateur cycling groups, randonneuring (long-distance cycling covering 200–600km) is also gaining popularity with Chennaites young and old. Here are three aficionados who are helping to keep the wheels of this movement turning.
When the alarm goes off at 3.45am on a Sunday morning, Nina springs out of bed. Dressed in a colourful Lycra shirt and a pair of tights, she drives to the outskirts of the city, where she embarks on a 40km group bike ride in the cool morning air. The hotel director is one of the founders of BOB (Boyz on Wheels and Babes on Wheels), a cycling group that is currently 150 people strong. “We sometimes end our session with breakfast or coffee. We also organise cycling events like Pondy Polaam, when we cycled to Pondicherry and back,” she shares. “Cycling not only keeps us fit – it also bonds us together.”
Route: Madhya Kailash – Muttukadu – Madhya Kailash
Sights: The East Coast Road (ECR) highway is a smooth-sailing stretch, with scenic views of the ocean, palm trees and white-sand beaches.
Girija learnt how to ride a bicycle from her watchman’s son when she was 63. Today, the sprightly 65-year-old is part of an all-women’s cycling group called G3, comprising nearly 80 members. “In India, cycling alone for a woman is a no-no,” she declares. “Cycling with a group gives us safety and camaraderie.”
Route: Anna University – Marina Beach – Anna University
Sights: Enjoy the great views of British-era buildings and the second-longest stretch of beach in the world as you cycle along this popular route.
As the co-founder of popular cycling café Ciclo, Ashish has played a big role in promoting the sport in the city. An avid cyclist himself, he belongs to a cycling group called VeloAmici. He recently completed a five-day ride from London to Edinburgh and then back again. “Cycling is therapeutic – it’s the new golf. Making friends and getting a workout are the added benefits,” he reflects.
Route: Madhya Kailash – Pallikaranai – Madhya Kailash
Sights: The Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) offers wide lanes, while the Pallikaranai Marsh is home to flocks of migratory birds.
Fuelling The Craze
The rising interest in cycling can be partially attributed to Ciclo, the first bike café in the country. Opened two years ago in Chennai, it is run by Ashish and Nidhi Thadani, in partnership with TI Cycles. Today, it has expanded to Hyderabad and Gurgaon, with a Bangalore outlet in the works.
The flagship Chennai branch is a two-storey, glass-fronted eatery with walls festooned with bike parts and framed jerseys; bicycles even hang from the ceilings. Besides serving up comfort food like pastas and pizzas, the café also repairs and rents bikes, from local makes like TI Cycles to high-end brands like Bianchi and Cannondale. It also often organises major cycling events.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.