Threatened with extinction, the recreational cyclist has returned to India. Bicycle sales are booming, cycling events more frequent and cycling clubs buzz with excitement. In the Mumbai metropolitan region, for instance, there are active cyclist groups in nearly every neighbourhood, from posh Bandra to the more humble Kalyan. These new riders are passionate: 5.30 am rides through the city can easily attract two dozen people.

Cycling as class conflict

What is the significance of all this? The numbers are still small, so it is not necessarily an index of a fundamental shift in commuting from one place to another. What it does represent is the opening of a new conversation over the meaning of the bicycle and the place of cycling in Indian cities. To the sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, however, the new cycling culture reflects something quite different: it is class conflict.

In a recent piece, “Why the sports bicycle should not be a symbol of urban renewal”, a scathing attack on what he considers the celebration of the “elite-class bicycle” and cyclists as “icons of an urban renewal movement” and “a symbol of a desirable form of urban life,” Srivastava argues that rather than offer an alternative to destructive urban development processes, the new helmet-wearing recreational cyclist is part of the problem.

To him, events like Delhi’s Car-Free day, and the cycle rallies that accompany them, enable the consumerist-automobile culture they supposedly counter because they neglect inequality. The new cyclists, he argues, are “part of the same cycle of consumption that includes the SUV [Sport utility vehicle]. [While having] little connection either with genuine environmental concern or with comfortable and economical transportation.” So, he concludes, rather than elevate them as “a symbol of mass welfare,” we should instead see them as the latest strategy of urban “exclusivism.”

Apart for the question of who considers cyclists “icons” or “symbols” (as Rutul Joshi, professor of planning at CEPT University has exhaustively documented, cyclists of all classes are still largely ignored in urban policy and planning decisions in India) and what is the role of cycling in what Srivastava calls “urban renewal movement[s]” like Delhi’s car-free days or Mumbai’s Equal Streets, it is unfortunate that Srivastava did not speak to any actual cyclists before drawing his conclusions about who they are and what the bicycle means to them.

Getting the cyclists right

For the past few months I’ve been talking, cycling and hanging out with recreational cyclists in Mumbai. They are not the working-class cyclists – such as the bread, newspaper and laundry delivery men that Srivastava is concerned about. Instead, they are people who work in media, run small businesses, are administrative assistants, and have IT jobs; they are also more well-off stock brokers, consultants and bankers; they are college students, young men in between jobs and, quite often, women who have spent much of their adult lives raising children.

What does the bicycle mean to them? It means pleasure, fitness and well-being. It means not polluting, even if just for a day. It means making friends outside of your immediate social circle. It means giving back to the city rather than taking from it. And to many, it means freedom. It means freedom from the office cubicle, the long commutes and the shackles of the automobile. For many women, the bicycle means that and more. It also means freedom from the ceaseless cycle of housework and childrearing, freedom to be out in public, to wander, and to explore the city and all the challenges it offers.

Social scientists like to talk about “cultural capital”, the idea that distinction, or one’s merit, is established through symbols as much as by money. If you make this the lens through which you interpret consumption – as Srivastava does – the bicycle (like stinky-cheese or fine wines) is not simply a recreational object but a tool to demonstrate and justify one’s class-based superiority.

The problem with this idea is that it assumes what objects mean to those who consume it, and that these meanings are fixed over time. When I talk with people about the bicycle, a common theme is that it changed them. People typically buy a bicycle after their first ride with a cycling group. That purchase happens after they’ve overcome their fears – often a combination of fear of traffic, poor roads, failing (or falling) and subverting social norms that say women should stay at home or men should stay in their office.

The change happens when you discover the unexpected pleasures of the city in its physical form; the rush of warm air hitting your face, the surprising smells and sights. So cycling changes how you understand the city. People say that when you cycle, you feel the roads like never before. You feel its bumps, varying textures, and idiosyncrasies. Some say this feeling is so profound that, back in their car, they feel a sense of loss. So, they might still drive to work on most days, but yearn to return to the saddle (although many cyclists do not own cars).

Politics of possibility

This is not about revolutionary change but the emergence of a new way to think about transportation and mobility. If it is a politics, it is a politics of possibility. If you interpret recreational (although clearly for many people it means something more than recreation) cycling – as Srivastava does – as inevitably linked with class conflict, then we lose out on these possibilities.

The clearest possibility is an alliance between the two groups of people Srivastava portrays as fundamentally at odds – the livelihood and the recreational cyclists. Why preclude this from the outset? Right now there is no mass movement connecting the two groups of riders (although in 2013, Smart Commute and Cycle 2 Work organised a rush-hour rally with Mumbai’s dabbawalas) but there is no reason it can not happen in the future. Most recreational cyclists have great respect, and even admiration, for livelihood cyclists. They share light-hearted stories about unexpected encounters, such as being overtaken on a flyover by a deliveryman on a simple single speed bicycle (on that occasion, the livelihood and recreational cyclist had a friendly chat and brief bicycle swap). But more often, everyday recreational and livelihood cyclists interact silently – a head nod here, a smile there or, simply sharing the road for a kilometre or two in silent companionship. And so, bit by bit, the stigma of the bicycle as the “poor man’s vehicle,” as Rutul Joshi writes, slowly crumbles.

If car-drivers are ever going to shed their most-favoured-citizen status, it will happen when they are shown the possibility of different transportation futures. In Mumbai, a group of people are doing just that by cycling to their offices despite the intense heat and humidity, the traffic conditions and lack of cycling amenities. They tell me that on nearly every ride they receive encouraging smiles, thumbs-up or words of support from people sitting in private cars. These cyclists are not only doing it for fun, they are normalising cycling as a way of life.

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University who writes the blog CycleSheher: Chronicling India’s Cycling Cultures.