It is a great time to be a biker in India. Motorcyclists can pick from an incredible array of choices, including homegrown makes and thundering steeds from foreign shores. There is also a rising tide of motorcycling culture, promoted by annual bike events and social media groups. All of which looks hopeful for the nascent world of Indian female bikers.
At the 2016 India Bike Week in Goa this week, women made up a minuscule but formidable section of the otherwise male-centric event, some riding all the way from Chandigarh, Surat, Chennai, Indore and one who rode her bike from Delhi, after having it shipped from Dubai.
Only ten women at the event rode motorcycles above the 650 cc mark (and all of them belonged to an elite club called the Lady Riders of India), but the ladies created a far bigger stir than any of the hundreds of male bikers present.
For most people, financial and societal constraints make biking a difficult lifestyle to attain. Vehicles that give better mileage are favoured over horsepower or custom modifications, because most motorcyclists use their bikes to get to work or to transport goods. For women, money is a constraint, but biking is harder because of the taboo associated with female independence and self-expression.
Women in small towns or villages, apart from being unable to afford a motorcycle, have to cow down to societal norms of marriage, housekeeping and child-rearing, leaving little room for “solo time” on a bike. They also face more doubts and criticism than men about their riding abilities, not unlike the false and degrading stereotype of bad women drivers. They have to dispel concerns raised by friends and family about personal safety, since being on a bike means being physically exposed without lockable doors and seat belts. This means women riders often conceal their gender by wearing bulky outfits and use helmets.
The number of women who ride motorcycles in India varies from state to state, and Goa, where two high-profile bike events (the Royal Enfield RiderMania and India Bike Week) are organised annually, has a high number of female motorcycle enthusiasts.
Freeda Saldanha, a graphic designer from Margao, has been riding motorcycles for twelve years, which is four years longer than her younger brother, Clayton. The siblings live in a large home that they share with eight other family members.
“I am questioned more about my whereabouts than my brother every time I take my bike out,” she said. However, she understands that being a woman on a Royal Enfield makes her more vulnerable to negative and discouraging attention than usual. “When I take my helmet off there are invariably catcalls directed at me and if I am dressed in vaguely feminine attire, I am sure to get stared at more than usual.” Regardless, she doesn’t let the pressure of conformity restrict the pleasure she feels when riding.
Joanne Fernandes, 32, a Goan musician and singer, has been riding since she was 19.
“I bought a Yamaha Crux with my first earnings and that bike became like my baby,” she said. Fernandes loves riding because it affords her independence – her best memories are of times spent biking around the state. She has tried selling the Yamaha online on a few occasions, but takes the post down each time, because she cannot bear the thought of being separated from it, even though she rarely rides it anymore and has since bought a car, which is easier to transport her music equipment in.
“I‘ve only ever faced problems with seat height,” said the diminutive artist. “I was determined to ride, so I took the seat off which helped me reach the ground with the tips of my toes. I practiced on the quiet roads around my neighbourhood, sitting on a folded sheet for cushioning before I began riding longer distances.” The self-assurance Fernandes said she gained during those initial years, has made her comfortable on almost any bike.
“My feet hardly ever reach the ground on most bikes but I’ve developed a hop-skip technique to get on and off while the bike is still rolling!”
Live to ride, ride to live
What is so great about riding a bike anyway? For most people, it is the unadulterated sensation of freedom. One only needs to look back at the last 50 years of advertising, or the iconic advertisement for the Kawasaki Bajaj Avenger to understand the appeal of bikes and bikers – rebellious, yet earthy, the vehicle lending an undeniable sex appeal to its owner.
Over the decades, advertising has convinced consumers that to long for a motorcycle is to yearn for the feeling of thundering down highways, “making your own path”, and “turning heads”. With women gaining more financial independence, it is natural they want to experience the same freedoms. On November 27, A bike rally, organised by Breakthrough India, a non-profit, human rights organisation and led by The Bikerni, an all-women motorcycle association with chapters across the country, flags off the #StandWithMe campaign on the streets of Delhi, reclaiming long lost public spaces for women.
Still, despite this shift, very little in biker culture in India has paid attention to the specifications and customisation of motorcycles for women riders. Biking enthusiasts have nevertheless learnt to adapt their rides to best suit their lifestyles – for some, a light, zippy or sporty motorcycle is the best option to navigate highways, others prefer the powerful presence of a classic Enfield.
Sangita Vyas, a researcher who studies health and sanitation, and recently relocated to Goa from the US, gets around on a Hero Passion Pro, a popular bike on Indian roads thanks to its ease of handling and good mileage.
“I much prefer the comfort of riding a two wheeler with good suspension and bigger tyres,” she said, adding that navigating down narrow lanes and serpentine roads that Goa is famous for was far easier on a bike. Without the option of frequent and affordable public transport, she felt a motorcycle would give her the freedom to plan her day on her own terms, get work done and explore the city at the pace she wanted without the hassle of searching for parking spots or negotiating the narrow roads.
Betsy Miranda, 32, grew up in Mumbai where she learned to ride as a young teenager. After an older friend from her neighbourhood taught her the basics, she found herself hooked: Miranda soon bought her own Royal Enfield and learned how to open it up and put it back together down to the last tiny bolt.
Miranda currently lives in Goa, where with her partner, she runs a spiffy biker themed café at the heart of Vagator, called CaféB3.
“Being a woman rider for so long has permanently put me in the mindset of never having to depend on anyone for a single thing,” she said. The mouth-watering barbecues and Miranda’s own love for bikes have turned CaféB3 into a hub for bikers. Despite her hectic social schedule, work days and happy partnership, Miranda still makes time for the solitude of long bike rides.
How to choose your ride
The preliminary questions new bikers have are usually about the time it takes one to become a proficient rider, and whether the bike has an electric start or not. (Bikes that have a kick start usually take less than a minute to start, provided they have been maintained well, whereas the up side of having an electric start is a bike that fires up almost instantly without having to physically exert yourself by kicking the foot starter.) Another question often asked is whether or not one’s feet will reach the ground and yet another about the easiest way to pick up a bike if you fall off it.
Taking into consideration these concerns here are 11 motorcycles available in India that most women find easy to ride.
Hero Passion Pro
A sturdy, and dependable bike with a 97cc engine. The Passion Pro, weighing in at 112 kg, gives excellent mileage – almost 80 km to the litre. With a maximum power of 8.2 bhp and a 4 speed gearbox, this bike is one of the easiest bikes to begin learning on.
Hero Splendor Pro Classic
Similar in its specifications to the Passion Pro, though distinct in appearance and design, this bike looks like a classic single seater. With an engine capacity of 97 cc, four gears and a weight of 109 kg, this bike handles Indian roads well, and gives decent mileage too.
One of Bajaj’s newest offerings, this motorcycle, touted as being made from metal taken from the retired Indian warship INS Vikrant, is a favourite among patriotic women riders. With a sturdy front design and catchy paint jobs, the Bajaj V does more than just offer eye candy – a 150 cc engine with an output of nearly 12 bhp and mileage above 50 kmpl makes for a sweet deal.
This beautifully sporty-looking bike comes with a 160 cc engine, mileage of 64 kmpl, top speed at 120 kmph and is quite light too at 135 kg. The bike handles and perform incredibly well and looks stunning. It comes in a version that is slightly more expensive but far more sporty.
TVS Apache RTR 160
This is a five-speed motorcycle with a 160 cc engine capable of producing 15 bhp. It’s slightly heavier than the bikes above, weighing in at 137 kg but with a seat height of 79 cm, is still comfortable enough to be ridden without balancing issues.
This bike also comes with upgraded engine capacity from 180 cc to 200 cc and additional features such as ABS.
The Avenger is a cruiser, and this style of bike is most preferred by women the world over because it has a lower seat and can accommodate shorter riders more comfortably. The Avenger has a 150 cc engine that generates 14.30 bhp. It weighs 148 kg but this is hardly a concern given how easy it is for your legs to reach the ground on this bike. The bike gives a mileage of 50 kmpl.
Also comes in a 220 cc version.
Bajaj Pulsar AS200
Bajaj bikes are very easy to maintain and service, spare parts are available everywhere and you will rarely run into trouble with this bike. That said, the AS200 is quite powerful and fast and the front end can be a bit sluggish at slower speeds. Weighing in at 153 kg, giving a mileage of 42 kmpl and with maximum power at 23.20 bhp, the Pulsar is a stylish and sleek looking bike that is all in all enjoyable to ride.
Bajaj Pulsar RS 200
This model of the Pulsar has pretty much the same specs going for it as the AS 200. The main differences being seat height, which is significantly lower, thus making it easier for shorter riders; and horsepower, which is higher, making for a slightly faster bike. The design is far more racy and the price is an estimated Rs 30,000 more than the AS model.
Some female motorcyclists may have a budget that can stretch to Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. The price tag, however, does not buy you a pretty bike – instead you are paying more for handling, safety and performance that is strikingly better.
KTM Duke 200
The product of an Austrian brand and major shareholder Bajaj, this bike is big on performance and does not consider fuel efficiency as much as a few of the bikes mentioned above. That said, the Duke 200 is incredibly light, agile and supremely fast, going from 0 to 100 kmph in 9.3 seconds. It has a six-speed gear box and a 200 cc engine. It weighs 136 kg but puts out a whopping 25 bhp so be careful when opening up that throttle.
The Duke 390 is the more powerful and expensive variant by the same brand.
With its extremely sporty design and trademark blue and white paint-job, the Yamaha R15 is a head turner. Its 150 cc engine performs well with a top speed of 131 kmph. It is fairly light weight – 136 kg despite the muscled appearance that the fairing lends to the overall design.
Benelli TNT 25
Since motorcycles from international companies are now available in India, a 250 cc engine on this beast puts out nearly 30 bhp and a top speed of 145 kmph. It is a dream to ride and the Italian finesse in design is mouthwatering,