“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” As I sat savouring the “endorphin high” of a 40 km cycle ride, I could not have agreed more with John F Kennedy who said these words.
My ride had taken me through endless green wheat fields and 15 small villages. Being a familiar face, the children waved and the adults gave an acknowledging nod.
Thirty different birds and animals were spotted by me. Notable among them were the eagles soaring in the sky, the colourful peafowl family, the plump partridges, the quacking migratory ducks, the industrious weaver birds, the mooing cows and the elusive hares munching carrots.
The smell of fresh jaggery being made was still lingering as was that of the country liquor being consumed at the thekas (liquor outlets-cum-taverns) and illegal stills that dot the countryside. My Apple Watch showed that I had maintained an average speed of 18-20 kmph, my average heart rate had been 110 beats per minute and I had burnt 800 calories. As I dug into the plate of shakarkandi (sweet potato), my evening snack, I looked at my chequered association with the cycle spread over 54 years.
The basic design of the cycle has remained the same once it stabilised by 1885. More than a billion cycles have been manufactured, more than all other means of transportation, including cars and two-wheelers.
In the early 50s, the cycle was still a rare commodity in the Punjab countryside. Our village had only ten cycles including a BSA model, purchased secondhand by my grandfather for Rs 16 in 1910. Manufacturing of cycles in India had not taken off. All models with famous names like Hercules, Raleigh, Phillips, BSA, Rudge and Robin Hood etc, were imported in 1905 until import was banned in 1953. “Made in India” brands like Atlas, Avon, Hero etc, appeared in the mid-1950s.
In the rural areas, there were no roads of any kind. The winding inter-village tracks were churned into a six-inch layer of fine dust in most seasons and a quagmire like slush in the rainy season by the continuous traffic of bullock carts, the main mode of transportation, making them unfit for bicycles. The Persian wells that dotted the fields were connected by foot tracks which were one-and-a-half foot wide. These were used for plying the cycles, right up to the mid-1960s when land consolidation was done and better tracks came up.
In 1955, we were the envy of all children as we learnt cycling on my grandfather’s cycle. Being too tall for us to ride sitting on the saddle, we used the “kainchi” (scissor) style – putting the right leg through the triangular frame to reach the right pedal and leaning left at an angle of 45 degrees, with the left hand on the handle bar and the right hand on the horizontal frame bar or saddle.
This was indeed a very dangerous method and scars on the elbows, shins, knees and ankles are a constant reminder of the risks we took. But the euphoria of pedalling on one’s own without the steadying hand of the “helper” who used to run along holding the carrier can never be forgotten. In three months’ time, at the age of seven, I had mastered the art and so had my sister, senior by a year-and-a-half.
Having finished primary school, my sister had to go to the senior school in a small town 3 km away. So my father bought her a lady cycle – a Phillips model – costing Rs 216 which was 20 per cent of his monthly pay. It was the first lady cycle in the entire area.
The cycle was meant for under-teens and eminently suited for us. At her school, the cycle was kept locked in the principal’s office to prevent teachers and senior students from bullying my sister to ride it. Soon, we started riding to nearby towns for errands.
One popular errand was to ride 5 km to fetch ice for making ice cream in an old, hand-cranked ice cream machine with a wooden bucket. As much as 5-7 kg of ice was lugged on the carrier of the bike packed in gunny sacks and stored in “toodi” (wheat chaff fodder) to prevent from melting. Milk was reduced by 50-70 per cent by slow heating to thicken it. Sugar added, it was poured into the cistern which was placed in the ice cream machine. The bucket was packed with ice and shora (saltpeters) was added to lower the temperature.
The cranking of the handle was a laborious task. However, we found an easy way out. As our fascinated friends watched us make the “kulfi”, like Tom Sawyer, we let them crank the handle for a thrill and later reward with a spoon of ice cream. As the handle became harder to crank, there was a squeal of delight at the mission nearing accomplishment. In a few more minutes, the delicious ice cream was ready. No other ice cream that I have had since then has tasted better.
Whenever we joined our father in the cantonments, we came to terms with the “cycle age” making its progress in India. The cycle was the principal mode of conveyance and improvised load carriage. Tokens had to be obtained by payment of a licence fee of Rs 2. Reflectors and a light were a must in cycles and cycle-rickshaws. Accidents happened and chalans were done for reckless cycling. Cycle theft was also common. There were a host of accessories for cycles – fancy bells/mechanical horns, carriage baskets, chain covers, trouser rings and small dynamos for the head lamps.
All officers, ladies and children used cycles. Since they were expensive, some officers and most soldiers hired cycles for Rs 1/2 per day. My father, as a Commanding Officer with the rank of Lt Col, used to commute on a cycle. Picnics were organised on cycles. Travelling up to 15 km on a cycle was considered normal. A variety of competitive games were played, like slow cycling, trick cycling, tent-pegging, cycle polo and treasure hunt/paper chase.
Hunting enthusiasts even went for “shoots” on cycles. Most kept small hunting dogs like Cocker Spaniels and Beagles who could fit into the handle bar baskets. Larger hunting dogs had to be carried on a special extended carrier behind the saddle that could fit a dog and a companion who held him. For the carriage of game birds, shoulder bags or baskets were used.
Most children went to school on cycles. There were no school buses. As a day scholar, I cycled 10 km (round trip) twice a day for classes and games. This held me in good stead when I joined the National Defence Academy where cycle was the only means of conveyance. Distances were vast and an off-road cycle meant running, getting late and punishment.
Hence, cycles had to be maintained through organised parades. Cycling had to be done in squads with 20-30 cycles moving two abreast, with a leader in front and at the back. Salutations were shouted, with the leader saying “savdhan chal” (move at attention) when the squad stretched their arms looked right or left and stopped pedalling.
The rear leader would shout “vishram chal” (move at ease) to resume normal cycling once the officer being saluted had gone past or the column had crossed him. Lifting of bicycles like a necklace around the neck was a common mode of punishment for wrongs done. Many a times an angry Academy Cadet Adjutant (senior-most cadet appointment) would make the entire lot of juniors, 1,200 in all, march down the main driveway carrying cycles on their heads in a column stretching a couple of km. A spectacle worthy of getting into the Guinness Book of records.
As an officer I kept using the cycle up to 1970 when I bought myself a Bullet motor cycle. Gradually, the cycle disappeared from the Army, first with the officers, then with the JCOs and finally in the 21st century with all ranks. After 1970, I never used a cycle for the next 39 years despite noting that the cycle was making a big comeback in the western world as a tool of wellness. Compulsion made me rediscover the cycle in 2009 and I have done more cycling since then as compared to what I did up to 1970.
At 60 years, I retired with a severe knee problem because of wear and tear due to foot-slogging, particularly in the mountains and sports during my Army carrier. In mid-2009, I had to go to the orthopaedic. After an X-ray and MRI, he bluntly told me: “Sir, this is an age-related problem and there is little we can do to cure it. Physio exercises will help only up to a point. Sooner than later, you may have to take a call on knee replacement surgery.”
As the spectre of getting artificial knees hit me, he said: “Sir, if you can still do it, hard cycling may help.”
I searched the net and found that strengthening of the quadriceps and calf muscles and reduction of body weight can go a long way in delaying knee replacement.
After some research, I bought myself a Trek 3700 cycle for Rs 20,000 in August 2009. Thus began my second innings with the cycle and I have never looked back since then. I began with 10 km per day and graduated to minimum 30+ km per day. Bought a second cycle for the farm. Started using fitness band/watch to monitor my heart rate, timing, speed and distance. I have logged approximately 70,000 km in the last 8.5 years. Weight has been kept in check, the heart is in super condition with a resting rate of 60-62 beats per minute and the knee problem has been managed, if not cured.
Rediscovering cycling has been the best thing that has happened to me post-retirement. I look forward to my two hours of joy that give me a high every day and my two pegs of whiskey have never tasted better after a hard ride. But I have had my share of adventures too.
I started listening to music while cycling, a habit with both pros and cons. One day, in November 2015, I was listening to a peppy Gurdas Mann number while cycling fast at 25-30 kmph. The number was “dil hona chahida jawan, umaran wich ki rakhya (the heart should be young, age hardly matters).”
Since it reflected my current philosophy, I put the number on repeat and kept cycling hard. I was spurred to set a personal record of 35 km.
On one of the village roads there was a speed-breaker which I negotiated often at a relatively slow speed. That day, high on happiness, I continued at a high speed, avoided the speed-breaker by going on to the berm. As I crossed the breaker and tried to come back on to the road, disaster struck. I was using a road race cycle with very thin tyres meant for high speed. The berm was a little lower than the road surface. As I tried to come back on to the road, my front wheel skidded and the handle turned 180 degrees very sharply. I toppled over the handle and fell with a thud. The sharp twist of the handle had dislocated my right thumb and ring finger and I was bruised all over.
As I lay sprawled on the ground, Mann’s number had reached its crescendo, with the line “dil hona chahida jawan, umaran wich ki rakhya!” being repeated again and again. My right hand had to be put in a cast and recovery took three months. I am a bit more careful now and often remind myself, “dil toh jawan hai, par umar ka bhi takaza, hona chahiye!” (the heart is still young, but one must be wary of age.)