Ah! Those Bicycles!

They used to have names like Hercules, Hero and Avon and they were the dreams of all young boys in the neighbourhood. Strong and sturdy, often black in colour, sometimes green, we all wished to possess them sooner rather than later. No, these were not the names of heroes in the latest in computer games. Nor even the wrestlers of WWF. But as desirable to us kids, even more so. These were brands of bicycles which all of us used to wonder when we will have one of our own!

Cycles those days used to signify coming of age! Not like these days when the sooner the baby is able to stand on her/ his feet she/ he is graduated through a series of cycles till at the age of 16 a scooty is bought for the “baby” to ferry itself to the school/ college. All kinds of fancy bikes, starting from the tricycle with a long guide sticking up at the back to enable the parent to manoeuver the vehicle across. Then followed the real tricycle which quickly gave way to a small bicycle with supporting wheelettes at either sides of the rear wheel. Very soon, when the kid got bored of the adjunct wheels, these would be pulled out and the kid would learn to balance itself on just two wheels. Then would follow a series of fancy new bikes, nearly all of them with gears for the kids to move smoothly around the paved pathways and the lawns around the house. Geared bikes in fluorescent blues, greens and yellows! And not to miss the cute helmet (like a mountain biker’s) the kid would wear should it tumble from the bike onto the lawns. And sometimes even a water bottle affixed to the bike frame should the kid feel dehydrated during its evening biking expeditions.

In our days, a bicycle had to be earned. Mostly by doing better in studies. Some lucky few would get a brand new bike bought for them, others like yours truly had to make do with hand-me-down cycles. What mattered was the ownership of a cycle. Besides academic excellence, one would even had to promise a host of chores one would do should a cycle were to be given. Mundane chores like carrying the bag of wheat on the cycle “carrier” to the local flour mill for milling. Or fetching supplies of groceries from the market. Or ferrying the younger sibling to school  Etc etc.

Kids would start preparing for their cycling careers pretty early. There were no cute versions to experiment with. So one would borrow whatever bikes available (often from a visitor to the household) and try riding the cycle. Of course it was not the age where you were tall enough to mount the saddle. So you would “ride” the cycle in what was called in Jamshedpur the “scissor-style” (“kainchi”) where one would place the right foot through the triangular space under the pillion rod, right hand gripping the pillion rod while the left hand and foot were precariously positioned on the handle and pedal respectively. It is tough for me to describe this position but all the old timers would have gone through this when they were kids. This was hardly a comfortable exercise, but was a great introduction to cycling. And this also helped us gain a sense of balance. Over time, one would learn how to mount the saddle by placing the bike near some raised surface (stump of a tree, a clay mound, whatever) and then getting some friends to push the bike (and the biker) till such time some traction was gained and one was “coasting” along. It was a bit of a strain on ones body to be able to place a toe-hold alternately on either pedal. Such is how one learnt how to cycle and to prepare for the D-day!

I got mine by making the aforementioned promises, but only when my elder brother left for higher studies outside Jamshedpur. And then I “inherited” his five year old Avon cycle! What a day of joy it was, the day he left. I set about cleaning the cycle with a washcloth, wiping away all the grease from each nook and corner. I even took it to the nearest cycle-repair wallah to get the tubes inflated to their maximum! And then a joyous ride around the neighbourhood, a few rounds all by myself and then another few carrying neighbourhood kids on the pillion. All the while jangling the cycle bell affixed to the right handle to announce my new found status!

And that reminds me, there was a social stratification among the humble cycles too. At the top of the ladder were the slender and fancy BSA bikes with a racing bike look. These used to come in a variety of colors beyond the regulation black or green.

And then there were the remaining bikes. Those sturdy faithfuls going by brand names mentioned earlier!

While all of these may look alike to a lay observer, each cycle had a mix of distinguishing features. Essentially via accessories and adornments. Take for example the bell. It was either the simple cacaphonous “tring-tring” bell or the the more melodious (and costlier) version which had a shriller and a more appealing sound. Or the lock. A plain-vanilla chain (sheathed in a section of an old cycle tube to avoid damaging the cycle frame) going around the rear wheel and secured with a padlock. Or an elegant ring-lock which would have its own customized key. Sometimes both. Or such baubles like fancy handle covers or frilly multi-colored decorations around the axle of either of the wheels. Or the brakes encased in a length of corrugated plastic tubing to enable a firm, non-slip grip. The cycle stands were differentiated too. One which held the cycle vertically up at the rear end affixed with a smart kick downwards as one was parking the cycle. Or the sissy way of reclining the cycle on a “leg” mounted on the rear axle which would position the bike at a tilted angle. (Most of us abhorred this version!). I could go on-and-on about the other differentiating features: the half or full chain guard (affixing an errant loose chain in a full-chain guard configuration was a near impossible job as one would have to negotiate the errant chain though the small cubby-hole of a window near the pedal) Or the cushioned saddle (often torn by envious friends) versus the leather ones which when wet were quite an ordeal. Actually an ordeal at non-wet times as well! Some advanced versions of cycles would have a dynamo attached to the rear wheel which would light up a lamp affixed to the handle. Some would even have a cushioned pillion rod for the comfort of the rider.

Talking about an errant loose chain, come to think of it that was the commonest problem faced by a cyclist. Some experience would help you learn the quickest way to fix the chain. (remove the chain from both ends and then fix the rear portion first). Another common problem was punctured tubes. Help was at hand at hand, however, at every street corner where the cycle-repair man sat under the shade of a tree with a wooden boxful of tools, a cycle pump and a bucket of water to check for the exact location of the puncture. He would pull out the inflated tube, pump it up, immerse it in the bucket and locate the puncture via the tell-tale signs of bubbles issuing form the puncture. A square piece of rubber was cut off an old tube with a rusty pair of scissors and the corners of the square snipped. The square rubber piece and the area around the puncture was sand-papered. A magical “solution” – branded Dhole’s if I remember right- was applied to either of the surfaces and soon the tube was back to near normal!

Cycling was not without frequent accidents. But what was an injury or two to diminish the unbridled joy of cycling!

Then there were varying levels of expertise among the cyclists. Some would be able to leap onto a moving cycle and sit on the carrier. Some would sit on the pillion rod and lend a helping leg to the cyclist. “Double-pedal”, this was called. Friends with this skill were particularly welcome in Jamshedpur with its sloping roads.

My Avon remained with me through my engineering college days. It used to ferry me the 2 km distance from my hostel to the department classrooms. It saw me through safely on my 6 day, 5 night expedition from Varanasi to Delhi and the 12 hours trip from Varanasi to Allahabad to be in time to watch the LA Olympics opening ceremony at a friend’s place there. (Varanasi did not have TV those days). And of course countless trips to cinema halls to watch movies.

It is a pity I sold off my Avon to the local postman at the University. The lure of some extra bucks to catch up on some movies after the final exam of engineering was a bit too over-powering then. Or maybe I was just plain bored with the cycle.

I should have retained the machine to help me negotiate the dreadful traffic in Bangalore. Or maybe I should stop regretting this, and get myself a new cycle now. Do they sell black Avon cycles these days?

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11 Responses to Ah! Those Bicycles!

  1. Dr.Seema says:

    Get a new one 🙂 :-)….with the traffic these days maybe you need a tough bike to navigate!!! 🙂 🙂

  2. Gullu says:

    have you ever tied inflated balloons to the thin rod holding the mudguard and inserting it (the balloon) against the spokes to get the motorcycle effect (phut, phut phut).

    or the stunts on the bike – riding without holding the handles, riding while sitting on the handlebad and pedalling backwards, or even standing on the seat!

    and the fancy plastic geegaws to decorate the spokes?

    do you remember folks used to carry a circular metal ring open at one end with which the lower end of the the right hand trouser leg used to be encased to prevent brushing against the chains?

    now the only cycles most upper mid class folks even in India use is in the Gym!

  3. santoshojha says:

    Seema: Come to think of it, I need an “Udan Khatola” to negotiate the Bangalore traffic!

    Gullu: Great points. Thanks. May I use them if I were to rewrite this piece?

  4. Sanjay Nadkarni says:

    Nicely put. I recall the excitement when I got my “Hero”. No kick stand for me. I think perhaps because of all that biking I have developed a passion. I now own two bikes. A mountain and a road bike…and this life style definitely fits in Boulder, Colorado.

  5. A K JANA says:

    Great description, particulary of “Kainchi”, “Double Pedal”, leaning cycling on guest’s Cycles. To add, “Injury marks” on your hands or legs may bring back the memory of few accidents. Even those marks might have been used as Identification mark.

    These Cycles are still being sold, but not in metro & big cities like Surat, there bikes has taken over. In town like Tamluk of Purbo Medinipur (WB) these are still in use.

  6. ajay vidyarthi says:

    I got my Hero cycle when i was in the 6th.It cost a scandalous Rs.300!And it took 3 months to learn just how to mount and dismount.But after it was as good as any ‘udan khatola’- it would get me home for lunch in 3 minutes flat!

  7. sanjay nadkarni says:

    Ajay Vidyarthi –
    Yup I remember you running to the bike stand at the school and rushing home!!!

  8. manik ghoshal says:

    Its wonderful how Santosh can get fond memories flooding in. I remember my Hero bike too. Partho Mukherjee and I had even made a Tandom with it putting my front fork on to his bike’s rear axle and rode it in Nildih colony for a few days with great pride.

    Then one Sunday after having a scrap at home I rode to the Golmuri Golf course where I sat on the huge rock in the middle, under a tree, brooding. Thats when two rough looking guys came and sat close to me. They asked me what I would do if they ran away with my cycle. I showed them a Tin Plate co. bunglow closest to us and said thats my house. ‘If I shout my servants are going to come running in one minute’ , I said. I don’t know if they beleived me but they left after a while. I must have been about 12 years old.

  9. santoshojha says:

    Sanjay: It must be great to have 2 bikes now. I am yet to get one for myself!
    Ajay: Dr Saheb! The 3 minute ride was a function not only of your new bicycle but also the distance between your home and school!!
    Manik: Maybe you should do a nice story on this episode using the colourful Jamshedpur Hindi one day! Would make for fantastic reading!!

  10. yayaver says:

    Sir, You must be joking about 6 days and 5 night trip to delhi with bicycle.. I want this reply as soon as possible..

    • santoshojha says:

      Well, if you must know, I am dead serious! First night halt being at Allahabad (the only big town we spent the night in) and the last night at a small village near Mathura. The stays between these were at Sikandara near Kanpur, Kalyanpur (i do not know where) and Shikohabad.

      By the way, do you think we took more time than normal?

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