It is 5 am on a cool morning in Goa. Eighty cyclists are pedalling through a rural area in the south of the state. They are surrounded by rolling rice fields, currently unplanted, the green shining against the first light of the day.
It is a sight far removed from the disco lights and beach shacks that most people associate with India’s smallest state. And, happily, the sight is not very rare. Goa is increasingly becoming home to bicycle tours that bring together hundreds of cyclists from around India and abroad. “Goa is blessed with natural beauty and its terrain is ideal for this sport,” said Kishore Kodolikar, who has been cycling in the state since 2015. “As compared to other states, the roads here are better, and there is less traffic and harmful pollution.”
The premier event for amateurs and professionals alike is the annual Tour de Goa, which is organised by Cycling Goa, a broad alliance of cycling enthusiasts. It is a combination of leisurely excursions in idyllic landscapes and highly competitive time trials, which pit the country’s best road racers against one another. The Tour, says Rainer Dias, co-founder of Cycling Goa, is a chance for visitors from around India and the world “to come experience the more rural parts of Goa, the quieter parts”. This year, the event was held on February 1-3.
The Tour was started three years ago. “We run it in a way [that] it’s not at all commercial,” said Dias, who is also a former champion bodybuilder and windsurfer. “It’s a passion activity centred on the community of cyclists who really like cycling.” Participants are charged a fee and their numbers are kept limited, so that they can be comfortably accommodated in the comparatively rustic accommodations set up for them across the countryside. All this, says Dias, adds up to a uniquely Goan experience that is authentically susegad (a local expression that means both laidback and content).
In a state that is known for its vibrant nightlife, such an experience, says Dias, may not be for everyone. Most of the cyclists who have been part of the event have been in their forties or older.
When Dias founded the group with his friends in 2011, he says there were 10 active cyclists in Panjim, where he lives, and “probably around 30” in the state. Now the city has over 300, with Goa’s cycling population at around “600 to 700”.
Twenty-year-old Sanresh Shedekar, one of the prominent faces in the country’s competitive Indian cycling space, didn’t think twice before moving from Mumbai to Goa with his family to hone his cycling skills. The road conditions in the state, access to the Western Ghat slopes, and the relatively clean air that help in his training were the factors that prompted his decision. “There is very good scope for cyclists in Goa, mainly because of the roads and active organisers,” said Shedekar. “My quest for trophies and medals has really begun here.”
Despite its natural advantages and proliferation of events, Goa has to cover some distance to catch up with the boom in Indian cycling. In New Delhi, for instance, 25 cycle-sharing stands with 3,000 bicycles were set up in 2018, and over 5,000 residents signed up on the SmartBikes app. Through the app, they can make payments (Rs 10 per hour) and use one-time passwords to unlock bikes at the stands through the touchpads on the back of each cycle. The New Delhi Municipal Committee has promised to add more cycling lanes and increase the number of bikes available for sharing.
Like Delhi, many Indian cities have pledged to re-engineer road systems to become more bicycle-friendly. In Pune, city planners have set aside Rs 350 crore for a comprehensive bicycle master plan, with a commitment to add 470 km of cycling paths to the existing network of 73 km. In Bengaluru, the cycle sharing app Yulu has recorded over 2.5 lakh downloads since it was introduced in 2018, and there are over 3,500 bicycles available for sharing at stands across the city. The local administration is also getting on board, with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike planning to build bike lanes on over 100 km of roads, with the first 46 km phase expected to be completed within a year.
According to a study by The Energy and Resources Institute, India would save Rs 1.8 trillion annually if bicycles replaced motor vehicles for short trips. In addition, the reduction in pollution and other health benefits associated with a more active lifestyle would prevent 4,756 premature deaths over the next 15 years. The study suggests imposing congestion taxes and steeper parking rates to discourage vehicular transport and influence people to take up cycling as a more financially-viable option.
One of the biggest concerns for cyclists across the country is the lack of safe infrastructure. Even in Goa, “there are instances of two-wheelers and cars driving on the wrong side of the road, endangering the lives of cyclists,” said Kodolokar, a Cycling Goa veteran. According to the Transport Research Wing of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 25,345 cyclists were killed on Indian roads between 2011 and 2015.
While cycling in India is still primarily for commutes or recreational purposes, competitive cycling is also on the rise, growing rapidly over the last three years. The most important among these is Tour de India, a three-city race, with the cities changing each year. Nationally, as well as globally, Indian competitive cyclists are making their presence felt. Shedekar was the champion in the state-level men’s cycling race in Goa in 2015. Twenty-year-old Vedangi Kulkarni cycled for 159 days in 14 countries, at up to 300 km a day, in 2018, becoming the fastest Asian to bicycle across the globe.
“What I would like to see [in Goa] is getting more of the younger generation involved,” said Dias. “I hope to see more infrastructure put in [by the government that allows people] to go out and cycle, and cycle safely.” Creation of “bike parks”, he says, could be an important step in this direction. Though Cycling Goa had mooted the idea to the authorities, its execution was “totally different” to the original plans.
Bryan Soares of Cycling Goa participated in Tour de Goa for the first time this year. “The experience was wonderful,” said Soares. “Witnessing the joy in the eyes of all the cyclists as they bonded over three days...was fascinating.” Small signs that suggest a cycling culture is slowly gaining a foothold in the state.