Mumbai: Why cyclists face the daunting task of finding space in the city
As Mumbai wraps up its first cycling festival, we look at why BMX riders fight a battle not just for respect and acceptance but, most importantly, for space
Cars honk as they make their way through Bandra-Kurla Complex to get to offices or to the newest eatery that has set up shop in the swanky financial district, the people in them all but oblivious to a small park in the back lanes that acts as a haven for the city's youth.
Annul Pale from the Meteoric crew trains at City Park, BKC
You will find them all here - collegians skipping classes, teens on their skateboards, and a group of young men performing exhilarating tricks on their bicycles. These are the city's BMX riders, for whom cycles are not simply modes of transport, but a way to express themselves.
The Sharptune crew at the Cycling Festival of India, held last weekend at Nehru Centre, Worli. Pics/Ashish Raje
"There is a community of approximately 45 BMX riders in Mumbai. Many of us prac-tise here at City Park daily," says 22-year-old Manoj Jaiswal, a Sion resident who was introduced to the sport by his neighbour in 2011. "We used to train along Carter Road promenade and the streets of BKC, but cops would arrive and shoo us away. And no public park allowed us entry with our bicycles. We ran out of places, but eventually, this park's management allowed us to use it."
This struggle is not new to the BMXers, who often end up travelling to far-flung - and thus less crowded - locations like Kalyan and Navi Mumbai. After all, in a city starved of space for even pedestrians, it's hard to imagine people giving up their precious streets to a sport they view as - in Jaiswal's words - a circus act.
BMX racing took off in California back in the 1970s, inspired by motocross. It didn't take time for its popularity to rise among the youth, and soon, you could find them trying tricks on their own cycles across the world.
Bandra resident Rahul Mulani was among the first few to bring the BMX movement to Mumbai three decades ago. "When we started out around 1987, we used to practise at a parking lot near Scandal Point in Breach Candy. There were fewer cars in the city back then, so there was plenty of space for us," he says.
Not just empty parking lots; the seafront promenades used to be fair game, too. Thirty-year-old Dipak Panchal, who dropped out of college to pursue his passion for BMX and now runs a bicycle store in south Mumbai, shares that even as late as 2005, he could be found practising his moves at Marine Drive.
"Lately, whenever I have tried to practise there, policemen passing by have come and stopped me. They have even deflated my bicycle's tires, and there have been times they've threatened to throw me in the back of their van," he says, adding, "If there is a rule preventing people from cycling on promenades, they can tell us that without being rude. They allow elderly gentlemen to cycle peacefully, and even though we're not causing any damage to people or property, we are treated like criminals."
So, to avoid such conflicts, his crew, Sharptune, practises at a space they have rented out in Bandra. Last week, at the city's first cycling festival, amidst panel discussions and stores exhibiting the latest gear, they got a chance to show off their skills, but such events are few and far between. Though Panchal and Mulani try and organise jams and competitions, sponsors are hard to come by.
Need of the hour
Today, Mulani and Panchal, as well as the rest of the community, stick to a handful of spaces, including their own building compounds, that they know won't draw any unwanted attention.
"Even skateboarders are now getting recognition. In 2015, Khar Social set up a ramp, but it is too small for us to practise on, even though our requirements are not too different from a skateboarder's," says Jaiswal, whose crew, Meteoric, comprises skateboarders too. And because BMX is hidden away from the spotlight, the community is growing slower than it would have, had its members been given the chance to showcase their skills in public without any fear of repercussions.
The problem in India, Panchal believes, is that cricket overshadows every other sport. This leads to other sports, especially extreme sports like BMX, being ridiculed and even neglected by the public and the authorities. "The country's first pump track came up in Hyderabad this year, and it was built by a private body. We don't see the Cycling Federation of India [CFI] taking any interest in the BMX community," says Mulani.
VN Singh, assistant secretary, CFI, which is based in New Delhi, says they can't do anything for the sport until it is officially recognised. "I know it's an Olympic sport, but until there are enough practitioners of BMX in the country, we can't provide any support," he says. He follows this up by saying that a pump track in Delhi is in the offing, but quickly adds that he doesn't know how long it will take. "You see, we don't have the funds for it."
What is BMX?
The term is an abbreviation for bicycle motocross. After its meteoric rise from the 1980s onwards, BMXâÂÂracing made its Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Games. It is also on the programme for the 2020 Summer Olympics. BMX cycles are typically smaller and sturdier than regular bicycles, which allows riders to manoeuvre and manipulate them more easily while doing tricks.
The BMCâÂÂhas announced that from tomorrow, the 22km stretch from NCPA to the Worli end of the sea link would function as a cycling track every Sunday, from 7 am to 11 am. Will this help BMXers? "It's too early to say. Look at what happened to the track at BKC - it's used to park cars now. However, if this works, we will approach the authorities and ask them to help provide us with a dedicated space for BMX, too," says Dipak Panchal.