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Pedal power

Updated November 09, 2014


Critical  Mass Karachi celebrated their 100th ride last year in which over 140 cyclists participated, Photos courtesy: Critical Mass Karachi
Critical Mass Karachi celebrated their 100th ride last year in which over 140 cyclists participated, Photos courtesy: Critical Mass Karachi

You can often spot them in the wee hours of the morning in select parts of the city. They wear colourful helmets that are vastly different from the ones worn by motorcyclists and they sport spandex shorts or tights, as they whizz past, often trying to avoid colliding into frantic parents driving their children to school in the morning rush. Cycling as a sport has witnessed a global rise in popularity in the past 10 years and the trend has caught on in Pakistan as well.

Where Islamabad and Lahore both have their lone cycling groups, Karachi has over four to five spread throughout the city — each characterised by the kind of rides they do, the level of difficulty and the area they cover. Some of the more known ones include Critical Mass Karachi, Cyclopaths and Chain Reaction.

Reaching Critical Mass

Originally founded in San Francisco in 1992, this cycling movement, often dubbed as ‘political-protest rides’, began as a move to “reclaim the streets”. Within a decade of its initiation, Critical Mass rides were being organised in over 300 cities and it is one of cycling’s most popular social movements globally.

This global movement has a small but firm footing in Pakistan as well. Critical Mass rides are organised in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Owing to the fluid and organic nature of how these rides are organised each city conducts its rides independent of each other. Cyclists from one city, however, will often coordinate with the group in the other city and ride with them whenever they are visiting.

Most importantly, anyone interested in joining these groups need only apply for membership on their Facebook page and simply show up at the allotted time and destination with a bicycle on the day of the ride. There is no membership fee, paper work or red tape.

“I joined Critical Mass Karachi (CMK) in 2010. In my first ride there were only five of us,” laughed Arif Belgaumi, 50, a well-known architect based in Karachi. He is also one of the senior admins/organisers of group.

We need to create cycling-friendly corridors
We need to create cycling-friendly corridors

Much has changed in the four years since he joined. The Karachi chapter celebrated their 100th ride last year in which over 140 cyclists participated — men, women and children belonging to pretty much every age group.

The global cycling movement has gained momentum over the past few years. We examine how the cycling germ has ‘infected’ Pakistanis

Is it safe?

Considering how kidnappings and incidents of mugging are common in Karachi, is it even safe to cycle around the city? “Yes. If you are a competent cyclist,” responded Belgaumi. “It’s as safe as riding any other vehicle. As long as you’re not moving faster than you should and follow traffic rules you should be fine.

“We come from a part of society that believes cycling used to be a part of the Karachi culture 30 years ago,” he related, “but there is a very large community that cycles to work and home and anywhere else they need to get to. We just stopped noticing that they were even there.”

But has anyone ever been mugged or harassed? “No. I don’t recall anyone in our group ever being mugged or harassed,” he said and then as an afterthought he added that, “Recently there was an incident in which a couple of people on a motorcycle had pushed Daniel [one of their regular cyclists] off a motorcycle and he had gotten badly injured.” But such incidents are an exception, not the norm.

“It’s not like we take our lives into our own hands,” stated Belgaumi. “That’s what life in a big city is like. We love our gadgets and our smartphones and we keep them with us but I don’t think anyone expects us to. Maybe that’s why nobody comes after us.”

Some rides aren’t for everyone

Some cyclists decide to venture beyond their regular haunts
Some cyclists decide to venture beyond their regular haunts

At some point this posse of cyclists got tired of cycling around the city and sometime in 2011, they decided to venture beyond their regular haunts. “The first ride we did outside Karachi was the ride to Mubarak Village,” related Belgaumi. “It was a real adventure. Before we knew it, we had 60 people who wanted to come. In those days it was only three of us who did the organisation — Nader Cowasjee, Kamila Marvi and I.” The event soon turned into a family outing with people bringing their children with them to ride the stretch between Hawkesbay and Mubarak Village.

“We realised it wasn’t very safe,” said Belgaumi. How so? “When you have 60 people spread out over a 25km track, it’s hard to keep track and ensure the safety of all of them. There were parents who would bring their kids and would forget about them. There have been so many reports of kidnapping and robberies on that road. It just didn’t make sense.”

The admins of CMK continue to do rides outside the city but they’re usually referred to as ‘casual’ rides. “These are more strenuous rides,” Belgaumi explained, “You only get in by invitation and if you’re strong enough to do the ride. Sometimes we get people who just show up uninvited.”

They make it a point to stick together throughout the ride. “You’re going as a group and you stay together as a group. We try to insist that they stay together. Then, if something happens, you’re not alone in the middle of nowhere.”

Finding the right wheels

One of the most commonly asked questions is: where do you get a good bike for adults? In Karachi you have Lighthouse, an area that is virtually flooded with substandard Chinese bicycles that are difficult to ride and fall apart soon after you start using them.

“Unfortunately I don’t think the local cycling industry has done any development or improvement in their design since 1947,” said Belgaumi referring to our ‘national’ bicycle, the Sohrab, “Whatever imported bikes are coming in from China target the very bottom of the chain or are for kids.”

That leaves cycling enthusiasts with very limited options and they soon find themselves making their way to Jackson market, or for the truly adventurous, Lyari. “Finding the right bike is a fairly complicated process,” said Belgaumi, “You have to do some research into the types, varieties, components, value etc. Sometimes you get lucky.” You have to look long and hard before you’ll be able to find anything that’s worth riding.

Because of the sudden popularity of cycling in Karachi, the sellers at Jackson market have jacked up their prices — bicycles that previously sold for Rs13,000 now sell for Rs18-20,000, etc.

One of the more popular bicycle sellers in Jackson Market, Ghaffar, talked about how preferences changed according to where the client was coming from. “People from Gulshan and adjoining areas usually prefer buying mountain bikes,” he said. “No one used to buy road bikes but suddenly, in the past two years their demand has risen. People from Defence and Clifton prefer this type.”

He pointed to a shiny, polished, red bicycle hanging in all its glory in his shop. “I’m not going to sell that one for less than Rs70,000,” he says firmly, “I know its value.” It later occurred that the bicycle in its original form is properly worth more but the version hanging in Ghaffar’s shop has been stripped of all of its valuable parts, which have been replaced by cheaper components. It looks pretty but that’s where its ‘real’ value ends. This also shows how important it is to have someone who is well versed in bicycles to accompany you to these markets.

Reclaiming the streets

“In Pakistan, graduating from bicycles to motorcycles and then to cars is considered a matter of great prestige,” said Belgaumi. “If you tell people that you think they should ride to work, they’ll immediately think that it’s beneath them to do so. There is strict socio-economic hierarchy where vehicles used to commute are concerned that is hard to break.”

That’s surprising considering that the global cycling movement around the world has gained a lot of momentum. In London alone, the number of people who commute to work on bicycles has more than doubled in the past several years. Today, over 170,000 Londoners cycle to work. The United States has the most number of dedicated cycling lanes on their roads in the world. The number of people cycling to work there has increased by over 80 per cent. Such is the impact of this increasing trend in cycling that Bike-friendly City (BFC) is now officially a term that is used and recognised worldwide. But then, Pakistan has always moved to its own beat.

A part of what Critical Mass movements around the world are hoping to achieve is reclaiming the streets for pedestrians and cyclists. “We haven’t really done anything proactive towards getting infrastructure improved for cycling,” confessed Belgaumi. “We realise there is a tremendous potential for it. Our problem is finding city administration that is sympathetic to it. There doesn’t seem to be the right mindset.

“The thing that makes it feasible in Karachi is that this city isn’t as spread out as other cities. For example, cycling from the airport to Saddar is only a matter of covering 15km. It’s the same going from North Nazimabad to Saddar. A person can easily do this at a leisurely pace in an hour at the most.

“One thing that we need to focus on is to develop cycling routes within areas — create a corridor in an area that is cycling friendly.” Let’s hope against hope that that actually happens someday.

The final stretch

“I think cycling in Karachi is a great way to rediscover your city,” said Belgaumi, “You map it differently. You’re aware of the topography. As the Hemingway quote goes, ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.’

“When you sit in the car, roll up the windows and turn the air conditioner on, you’re insulated and isolated from everyone else. You’ll never misbehave while you’re on a bicycle — you’re a part of the overall atmosphere of the city you’re in.”

The writer is a member of staff

Twitter: @madeehasyed

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014