EXPERIENCES WITH MY BICYCLE
Gandhiji recorded his Experiments With Truth as a classic autobiography. I am attempting to pen my experiences with my bicycle.
I learnt to ride a bicycle in my teens as is common with most. Of course, it was difficult in my young days of getting a bicycle for experimenting. I took my elder brother’s. The difficulty was it was a 26 inch high bicycle, a little too high for my age. But I practised what we call the korangu pedal, by not putting my leg over the bar but below it. Of course, there were a couple of inevitable falls, some bruises and I managed these bravely. I also observed my brother overhauling the bicycle by completely dismantling the entire machine, putting the parts into a basin for cleaning with kerosene and re-assembling these. When my brother left Chennai for a job in the railways at far off Lucknow, I got the opportunity to try this and learnt to dismantle and re-assemble the bicycle. It kindled a lot of interest in the mechanical aspects.
My classmate in the school Venkat was residing at Poonamalle. One day he invited me to accompany him to his house some 15 km away from my school. I took my bicycle and rode along the Poonamalle High Road till I reached his house. What a great experience it was! Road was broad and large bungalows dotted the highway with lots of gardens and not much traffic. In the late 1940s and early 1950s there were few vehicles on the road. It was my first great experience of enjoying a ride along a highway.
In 1954 my family shifted from Purasawakkam to Mambalam. Loyola College, where I studied intermediate, was some 4 km away and I used to ride to the college along the railway track. At Kodambakkam there was a railway gate. I had the option of riding through the sprawling garden of the college that extended right up to Kodambakkam High Road or along the railway line parallel to the rail track and cross over the college near the rear entrance. (The railway station at Nungambakkam was constructed a few decades later). The commute used to be a pleasant one.
Soon after shifting to Mambalam I had the opportunity to make a long trip by bicycle. My friend in Purasawakkam, V L Janakiraman and his six friends, all senior to me by three years and more had nice new bicycles. In contrast, I had an old 26 inch one. Still I decided to join them on a long, free-wheeling trip with no clear plan for covering places. We left early morning and pedalled through PH Road (now NH 4 to Bangalore). After about 2 hrs we reached Sriperumbudur, then a quiet village, the birth place of the Vaishnavite Saint Sri Ramanujar. We took bath in the temple tank, rested a while and continued our journey to Kancheepuram. I was the baby of the team and was struggling to keep pace with other riders. Janakiraman came to my rescue. He had me on the rear seat of his cycle and was simultaneously dragging my bicycle alongside! Of course, those days traffic was low and it permitted riding parallel. We reached Kancheepuram a couple of hours later. We had something to eat and rested on the terrace of a choultry. In the evening went around the town visiting a couple of temples. Next morning we left Kanchipuram for Tirukazhukundram via Chengalpatu, had darshan of the temple and continued the trip to Mamallapuram. Spent time there till evening looking at Pallavas’ magnificent creations and returned home around 8.30 p.m. We covered in 40 hrs, close to 140 miles or around 220 km.
When I joined Vivekananda College for my BA Hons degree I graduated to a newer bicycle. Along with three of my classmates, all in Mambalam, we used to ride in parallel from Mambalam to our college in Mylapore. There was little traffic on the road except for an odd bus or a car. This routine continued for three years.
After completing the degree course, even before the results were out, I got a job as an UDC in the Directorate of Industries and Commerce in Chepauk. Again my cycle was my lone companion. For the next few years I was commuting to work at Triplicane, later at Egmore and subsequently for a couple of years after I founded my first magazine Mobile.
My tryst with bicycles continued. I founded the magazine Trade Wheel devoted to bicycles and other two-wheelers. This gave me the opportunity to visit cycle factories spread across the country and in the U K. Visits to Punjab were regular, looking at the spectacular growth of Hero Cycles, Avon Cycles and Roadmaster Industries. Commuting inside Ludhiana by bicycle or cycle rickshaw, I enjoyed the ease and comfort of riding these at such low cost!
The cycle was the cheap and comfortable mode of travel for quite some time. Even for my visits to my village near Kumbakonam, some 10 miles away, it was convenient to hire a bicycle and finish the visit to the village in a day. Of course, there was no bus service or other mode of conveyance that I could afford in the 1960s.
In running Trade Wheel, the trade magazine devoted to bicycles, I had great opportunity to look closely at the industry, its markets, its margins and its practices. I had close interactions with (Birlas’) Hind Cycles, TI Cycles, Sen and Pandit and Atlas Cycle Industries, the four large bicycle companies of those times. My regular visits to Broadway in Chennai, the hub for bicycle trade and at Jhandewalan in Delhi, the flourishing wholesale market for bicycles, gave invaluable insights into the intricacies of the trade and the psyche of different communities. In Chennai, the trade was dominated by Gujaratis, Chettiars and a few Brahmins. They were happy selling 5-6 bicycles a day, but were very particular about the margins, Rs 40-Rs 50 per cycle; so on a day they were happy making Rs 200-250. Jhandewalan provided the contrast: a dealer used to sell about 100-500 bicycles a day and was content with a margin of Rs 5-10 per bicycle.
Simpson Group’s Wheel & Rim Company had an efficient team of managers with a lot of expertise in chromium plating. There was great demand for chromium plated spokes which commanded a high premium. I dabbled for a while trading these and also bicycles to good profit!
On visits to Ludhiana I was amazed at the just- in- time practices adopted by Hero Cycles which was making a huge impact on the bicycle market across the country. Large sack loads of components, hubs and cones, frames, seats … used to be delivered by the hour in cycle rickshaws and assembled with great efficiency. It was a sight to watch Managing Director Brij Mohan Munjal seated in one corner of the hall and his brother Om Prakash Munjal taking care of marketing at the other end of the hall. Their efficient, frugal management practices kept them way ahead of the other four manufacturers spread across the country – Sen and Pandit in Calcutta, TI Cycles in Chennai, Hind Cycles in Bombay and Atlas Cycle Industries at Sonepat near Delhi. Each was manufacturing around 200,000 bicycles a year. Hero Cycles was producing just around 50,000 per annum.. They also had Avon Cycles in Ludhiana and Roadmaster Industries in Rajpura with similar capacities. But their efficiency and cost economies were a big challenge to the big four.
Look at the make-up of a bicycle: the steel frames were supplied by the Tatas and Tube Products common to all; the rims, tyres and tubes were supplied by Dunlop; chains were again supplied by TI Diamond Chain. Thus most parts were common to all; but there was a price difference of around Rs 50-70 per bicycle because of the brand value. Of course, this was not sustainable and in quick time, Hero Cycles and the other Punjab manufacturers, rendered Sen& Pandit and Hind Cycles sick. Even TI Cycles was closed for ten long months.
Ludhiana had another brilliant entrepreneur Bhogal. His company Bhogal Sons was manufacturing high quality hubs and cones. When I met him he explained in Punjabi and broken Hindi that he used to take his sons to Japan to the trade fairs and purchased a few machines. These machines were reverse engineered, that is dismantled and copied part by part and new machines were fabricated at a fraction of the cost of the original machine. Same was true also of other manufacturers eg. Ralson Tyres, used to buy a couple of tyre making machines from L&T Mcneil, dismantle these and duplicate such machines in dozens. Dunlop and other manufacturers of bicycle tyres could not compete with Ralson which grew in tandem with the spectacular growth of Hero Cycles to which it was a major vendor!
M V Subbiah, then heading T I Cycles, phased out manufacture of bicycle parts by units under collaboration with Britain, set up promptly an office in Faridabad and started procuring components from Ludhiana. The practice had later spread to buying such products cheap from China.
Hero Cycles was making huge progress capturing market after market in the north, in UP, Bihar… and expanded these to other parts of India. Two of the leaders, Sen & Pandit and Hind Cycles, turned sick and were taken over by the government that battled with these for a few years before finally closing them down.
Wind down another 50 years to 2020: I had Mr Sivashankar and his colleagues visiting us at Economist House. They bought an interesting product: the Pedalease a bicycle, designed by Sivashankar and his team, a battery operated, geared bicycle with a lot of electronics built into this; it measures the rider’s heartbeat, pulse rate, blood pressure… and has easy communication facilities. Sivashankar and his colleague rode the bicycle from Adyar, some six km away from my office. It was on par with products widely in use in Europe, where people are switching to bicycles for commuting to their offices and other places on considerations of health and concern for environment..
Sivashankar has a yen for innovation. Seven years ago, he constructed for us a roof top solar power system, the first installed in Chennai. For seven years the 25kw system has been giving an average 85 units of power a day.
So I’ve been an admirer of Sivashankar and his team. I was impressed with his new innovation, the Pedaleze. He pointed to procuring things from South Korea, Taiwan and China for building his dream product. Why imports? I asked. Sivashankar explained that Indian manufacturers are not willing to supply in small quantities and it is far more economical to get 100 sets of any item from these countries that are price-wise and quality-wise, quite satisfactory, he said.
After a long discussion, I learnt of his efforts to combining in this product, vital health aspects and ease of commuting with commendable concern for environment.
So when Sivashankar rode the bike and demonstrated how easy it was, I was tempted to go for a ride. Like my early experience, the height was a little too much. I failed to adjust the height and started riding around my office. I felt the thrill; after a u-turn at the end of the motorway I picked up speed and suddenly applied the brake. Obviously the Pedaleze didn’t quite like this and I fell down with the cycle falling over me. My back hit a flower pot near my entrance and the steel pedal bruised my knee.
After an ATS shot and bandaging, it took some four weeks to get back to the new normal.
So for close to 70 years my experiments with bicycles continue.