Bicycle Culture: The Facts

February 12th, 2013

Country/Day:      India/7

Bikes Fixed:                  9

Bikes/Day Avg:              1.3

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We start most days with wheelbuilding. So much wheelbuilding.

So as much as I enjoy talking about Indian culture in general, I am here for a reason besides general cultural exploration. That reason is exploration of bicycle culture, sentiment towards the bicycle, and the impact the bicycle has on the lower-income bracket of the population. And, of course, I’m here to fix bikes.

I want to start by promising (to my readers as much as to myself) never to bend information, intuition, or conversation to make this project sound more or less impactful than it actually is. Obviously it would be ideal for every bike I fix to magically rocket someone from the depths of poverty into the ranks of the well-off… obviously that’s implausible if not impossible. On the other hand, I believe it is better to set high goals and find you get most of the way there, than it is to set low goals and wish you’d set them higher. So regardless of the realities of the situation… I promise to fix 90 bikes during my 90 days in India.

Anyways.

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1. A bit about the shop where I work.

The shop where I work is called Fauji Cycles. It is located in Sikanderpur Market; in the city of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi; in the state of Haryana, India.

In 2012, of the 28 Indian states and 7 Indian territories, Haryana had the fifth highest median household income at Rs. 1.1 lakh ($2200/year), the 16th highest population at 25 million people, and the 11th highest population density at 573 persons per square kilometer.

To compare, here’s the average US state in 2011: Median household income $44k, population 6.3 million, population density 31 persons per square kilometer.

The bicycles sold here range anywhere from Rs. 2500-Rs. 10000 ($50-200) and most go for about Rs. 3500 ($60). The cheapest bikes are used or kids’; the most expensive ones are full suspension mountain bikes with mechanical disc brakes. The average bicycle is either a road or mountain bike about the quality of a Huffy (better quality than Target, but less than most private US bike shops) but a bit more robust, or what I’ve deemed the “India Special,” which is basically a commuting bike with cruiser geometry that could survive a thorough bombing.

To compare, the shop where I worked in the US sold bikes for $400-8000, most going for $5-800. The cheapest bikes were cruisers or kids’; the most expensive were high-end specialty bikes (eg triathlon bikes). The average bicycle was a road bike or mountain bike of the $600-1000 range. Nothing we sold would survive a bombing.

2. How it compares to other shops in India.

Compared to the other shops in India, this one is mid-range.

The vast majority of shops can best be described as one-car garages with bins full of spare parts. They have a garage-style door that opens to an area of about 10’x10′, usually less. They are focused entirely on repairs and do not (appear to) sell complete bicycles. Their customers are the lowest of the low income bracket. I have yet to determine their daily income as none speak any English.

The high-end shops are comparable to small private shops in the US. The vast majority sell Trek or Firefox brand bicycles (Firefox is Trek’s brand name in India). They are completely indoors, usually with no more than 300 sq. ft. I don’t have an estimate of their income yet. Keep in mind that while they sell only mid- to high-end bicycles, that they are catering to a small portion of the population — middle income bracket and up. They speak pretty good English.

From the very limited travel I’ve done, I would say that Fauji cycles seems to be of a rare breed. It has about 500 sq. ft. of indoor showroom space and about 500 sq. ft. of outdoor space (this is practically unheard of — I think the only reason this works is because we’re next to a parking lot). I don’t feel comfortable asking yet but from what I have observed daily income is anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 10000 ($10-200) depending on how busy it is and how many bikes we sell. Their customer base is the low to middle income bracket. The manager speaks limited English, the owner speaks a bit more.

To compare, the shop where I worked in the US had about 2400 sq. ft. of space, including a showroom, storage, and workshop with two stands and two sets of tools. Income was anywhere from a few hundred to the multiple thousands each day. And of course, we were all fluent in English.

3. Why I’m at this shop in particular and how it fits with 90 Bikes, 90 Days.

The short answer to why I’m here is “luck.” When entering a place you’ve never been to before you rely on your contacts and the internet to know what’s what. My contact happens to visit Fauji cycles from time to time so was able to introduce me and stand behind my reputation as a mechanic. There are plenty of bike shops in India; walking up to one cold turkey and asking to volunteer would likely be intimidating for them. I’m lucky to have met someone who has a relationship with the kind of shop I’m working for… who also speaks English and is willing to host me.

On the other hand, while I could probably have gotten a job at any Firefox Bikes in the country, they don’t cater to the income bracket I’m trying to work with.

The idea behind 90 Bikes, 90 Days is to help out those who rely on the bicycle for an increased income. Of the bicycle owners in India, 95% of them fit the description. More than half the population (56%) makes less than Rs. 1.5 lakh ($3000) every year. So you would think that if you work on a bike, you work on a bike belonging to someone in the low income bracket.

The problem with that sentiment (but a good thing for the people) is that the bicycles are designed to last forever. I said above that the India Special could last a thorough bombing, and I wasn’t joking. I’ll do a run through of the bike in some later post, but for now, take my word that it’s built like a tank.

This is not to say they don’t need maintenance from time to time. The most common need is air. Multiple times a day we get customers who just need to air up their tires. These range from commuters to cargo transporters to rickshaw drivers. The next most common need is tube and tire repair. Then comes general maintenance.

On top of that, most bicycle users here are very self-sufficient. It’s part of the culture, it seems, for the customer to butt in if they know a better way to do something (which is good from a learning standpoint for someone like me, who hadn’t seen an India Special up until a week ago). In the US, most customers are very hands-off. They give you the bike and leave, or watch, but they never butt in, and very few seem to want to learn how. So again — good for India.

In any case, we get plenty of customers from the low to middle income bracket, so essentially, I’m doing what I came here to do.

I think it could be more impactful to work at one of the single-car garage style shops. Here are concerns I have as I consider such an endeavor:

 I know no one who knows them. They speak minimal English and I speak minimal Hindi. So, arranging such an endeavor would be tricky at best.

– I have no connection to them, so I would likely be intimidating (imagine someone you’ve never seen before coming into your cubicle and saying, “Hello. I can volunteer?”)

– Space constraints are such that I might be hurting more than helping.

4. How they feel about me.

As best I can tell, I am being well received. There are lots of smiles and I am given plenty to do — usually bike builds (I imagine because I can’t speak much Hindi (yet), and as many of our customers are in the low income bracket, they don’t speak much English). Periodically I will be called over to a customer’s bike to adjust something; rarely I am called over to give an opinion in English (though once I had to answer the question “Is this bike better?”).

They really like my tools. I mentioned in an earlier post that they asked if Park Tool would give them a wholesale account (PT hasn’t gotten back to me). At the same time, they are hesitant to become reliant on them. This is, I believe, for two reasons:

– I am likely to take them back to the US with me when I return, so unless they buy their own, they won’t have them  forever (side note — I’m considering giving them some out of my pocket. We’ll see).

– Tradition. I was talking to an English-speaking customer who said,

“Indians traditionally work with their hands, only using tools when absolutely necessary. This is because tools break, and they get lost and stolen, and then where are you? You could maybe indoctrinate a younger mechanic into the world of tools, but his boss or father would be likely to take them away.”

Regardless, it’s obvious they would enjoy a fresh set of tools. There are a few I have that they didn’t even know existed — both tools essential to any mechanic’s tool bag.

The first is called a pin spanner. It’s a specialty tool used to adjust bottom brackets (the part where the pedals connect through the middle of the bike) on older bikes… or on every bike in India. Instead, Fauji cycles grips the threads directly with an expanding pliers (not good for the threads). The second is a cable cutter, which can be used to cut shift or brake cables, or cable housing. Fauji uses scissors (and no, scissors don’t work very well for this purpose, if at all).

Since all their wheels are hand-built, I also wish I had a nipple driver, a device used in the early stages of wheelbuilding that greatly reduces the time it takes to thread the wheel.

– – –

Whatever the case, I’m happy to be here. I’m having fun and fixing bikes.

More later.

4 thoughts on “Bicycle Culture: The Facts

  1. Jenna says:

    Great to read more about the bike culture there, can’t wait for more!!! I think Bicycling Magazine gives away a full set of Park Tools every so often to people with good stories… I will investigate!!

  2. Will says:

    Good read, Kyle. Looking forward to more.

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