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Bicycle bells and whistles

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on: Aug 01, 2014
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There is a booming market for premium and imported bicycles as high-earning professionals pick this eco-friendly transport to ride into a healthy way of life

He designs cars for India’s largest automaker, but when he’s not working he hits the road not in a fancy four-wheeler but a humble bicycle.

Okay, maybe not all that humble. Saurabh Singh, AGM (styling design) at Maruti Suzuki, takes off on weekends to the Aravalli Hills on the outskirts of Gurgaon on a mountain bike manufactured by the world’s leading bicyclemaker Giant.

Singh’s love affair with bicycles began in 2003 in Japan, during a training programme at Suzuki. For lack of an international driving licence, trainees like him had to bicycle to get around. Singh soon discovered the freedom and flexibility that came with it. So when a friend introduced him to the Pedal Yatri group in Gurgaon in 2010, Singh began to relive his Japanese dream. This love for cycling, combined with a passion for the outdoors saw him readily buy a bike priced ₹1 lakh.

Cut to Mumbai. Thrice a week, Nilesh Singh cycles to work at a gigantic mall in suburban Thane, about 7km from his residence. He took up cycling two years ago when he realised he had no time for regular exercise.

His mount? The Rockrider 5.2 mountain bike (MTB) priced at ₹22,000. Besides biking to office, on the weekends, the photography buff heads out, lunch and camera packed, to the nearby Butterfly Garden and birding sites in Thane and Bhandup.

In Pune, Jehangir HC Jehangir, founder and chairman of the multi-speciality Jehangir Hospital, cycles to work every day as it keeps him fit and is environment-friendly.

For long, the bicycle was looked down upon as the vehicle of choice for those who couldn’t afford scooters and motorbikes. It was synonymous with postmen and milkmen. Children rode them to school, the local grocery stores or to the playground. There was only black and blue for boys, and red and pink for girls to choose from.

Today, an emerging category of professionals in the uppermiddle and high-income groups is giving a fresh impetus to the ₹2,000-crore cycling industry in India. Their reasons range from health to hobby, and from ecofriendliness to stress-free commutes.

Nearly 15.5 million bicycles were sold last year in a market marked by rising disposable incomes and readily available imported high-end bikes.

Premium pedals

“We felt that when the Ambassador and Premier Padmini could make way for better cars and when Rajdoot (motorcycle) could be phased out, it made no sense to assume there was no demand for better quality cycles in India,” says Shiv Inder Singh, managing director of Firefox Bikes, which retails premium bicycles, including brands such as Trek and Tern.

Set up in 2004, Firefox introduced a range of 30 imported models, covering the full spectrum of mountain, all-terrain, road, racing and kids’ bikes. The company sold just 1,200 bikes in the first year, but today it sells 6,000 every month. And sales are increasing 35 to 40 per cent annually.

It is this galloping pace of growth that prompted Taiwanese speciality-bike maker Giant to enter India in October 2013. While its prices stretch from ₹25,000 to ₹10.6 lakh, the average selling price of a bike in India is ₹65,000. “Although the market for premium bikes is small in terms of numbers, it is big in value,” says Pravin V Patil, managing director of Starkenn Sports, which has exclusive distribution rights for Giant bikes in India and South Asia.

Techie love

The buyers are mainly IT professionals, followed by doctors and fitness enthusiasts. Other emerging categories include middle-aged professionals and children, who now want better designs and finish compared to what was available to them before.

The rise of the market for premium bicycles in India can be traced to the emergence of IT hubs in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune in the noughties. Young IT professionals on assignment in the US and Europe were exposed to the cycling culture there, not only for commuting but also as recreation. “They would want similar bikes when they were back in India. But because those were not available, they began to import them from Singapore, Thailand and Dubai,” says Patil.

Illegal imports soon gave rise to a thriving grey market. This was enough to convince anyone that the Indian market was ready for premium bike brands. And sure enough, the ₹150-crore premium bike market is set to touch the ₹500-crore mark over the next three years.

Missionary wheels

Rohan Kini has experienced this boom first-hand. In 2006, this computer engineer began building a community of bikers in Bangalore, a city choking with traffic and pollution. The chaos and hold-ups on the roads led to the birth of the ‘cycle to work’ movement. “We started with the aim of promoting cycling in Bangalore. We were already cycling to work. So the goal was to talk about it, to give people an experience of it and provide them with technical know-how,” says Kini, who founded BumsOnTheSaddle.com, an e-commerce site for bikes and accessories, alongside his job at ThoughtWorks, a software company.

By 2011, the business had grown so much that Kini had to give up his 10-year-old job to look after the site full time. He also moved the office from his friend’s rooftop to an outlet in Jayanagar. Today, he has buyers not only in the big cities of Mumbai and Pune, but also in smaller places such as Nashik, Nagpur and Surat.

Recently, he even sold a mountain bike in Aihol, Manipur.

A love for bikes is usually accompanied by an indulgence in accessories. “As your passion for biking grows, the need for accessories grows alongside,” says Saurabh Singh.

The market for helmets, neck covers, gloves, mirrors, lights and toolkits is currently dominated by unbranded players, but the international brands are equally available. And a large chunk of the sales takes place online.

Additionally, Kini and other Indian companies such as Firefox and Strakken import bicycle components and assemble them locally. This also allows them to customise the bikes according to individual requirements. Boasting not only better design and finish, premium bike brands are steadily taking centre stage in India.

Urban planning mix

According to industry estimates, more than half of the Indian market continues to be ruled by the basic, old-style black or green cycles manufactured by established players such as Hero Cycles, Atlas and TI India. The rest is taken up by fancy bikes, with premium bikes commanding merely 4 per cent or so of the market.

While the demand for fancy bikes is growing at about 30 per cent annually, it is falling for basic models. “The standard cycle segment is moving on to motorbikes, thanks to financing options,” explains Singh of Firefox.

But urban planners are eager to promote cycling to combat rising traffic and pollution woes. This includes the creation of dedicated bicycle lanes, already under way in cities such as Bangalore, Delhi and Pune, as well as ‘feeder’ bicycle renting and parking facilities near metro stations and bus stands in the Capital, for instance.

“As traffic increases, the need for cycling will only go up,” says Singh of Firefox. Moreover, urban planning is shifting away from sprawling horizontal cities to sky-high vertical ones, where one can cycle to workplaces located close to home. And premium bike makers are pedalling furiously towards this emerging opportunity.

Published on September 12, 2014

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