As biking picks up momentum in India, two youngsters who build performance cycles for mountain biking.
Vinay is rarely on the ground. In photographs, he is usually cyclist airborne. Either that or he is a streak of dust gathering speed as he rolls down an inclined hillside, probably prelude to a launch. For, Vinay’s reputation can be summed up as: he is forever jumping off things. On the Internet he has a following. He is considered to be the best ‘free rider’ in India.
Mountain biking has several disciplines: Dirt Jumping, Slope Style, Trials, Cross Country, Four X, All Mountain, Endurance, Street and Free Riding among them. Of these, free riding values self-expression and creativity, being a demonstration of what the rider can do with his bicycle, skills and terrain. Although he respects all disciplines and indulges in several, Vinay’s forte is free riding.
As yet there doesn’t seem to be anyone around in India who is pushing the sport as 29-year-old Vinay Menon does. His efforts have now got him travelling overseas, meeting and interacting with international cyclists that he looks up to — names like Brett Tippie and Dan Cowan.
This year, provided authorities approve, Vinay, who is also Deputy Editor of the Indian cycling magazine Free Rider, hopes to participate in the Asian championships for downhill racing.
Vinay got interested in mountain biking in the mid-1990s. By then, Praveen Prabhakaran, now 35 years old, was already an established addict of the sport in Pune. Both mentioned Sameer Dharmadhikari, then at Mumbai IIT, who was committed to mountain biking and was a pioneer of sorts. A complete idea of the sport was yet evolving. The youngsters used Indian cycles and existing trails on nearby hills. They banked on overseas mountain biking magazines, the occasional video and TV programme for a sense of what to do.
But as Praveen and company rode hard, jumped and abused their bikes in an effort to be like the foreign riders, one constant prevailed; they frequently damaged their cycles, which were not designed for such riding or such levels of abuse.
Needing spare parts frequently, Praveen sold old newspapers to raise funds. But there was a limit to such funding. Slowly his interest drifted from pushing the ante in his sport to tinkering with cycles. How do you make them suited for the sport; how can they stand up to abuse?
In his first experiment, Praveen took a rigid frame Indian mountain bike (MTB) and made it into a dual suspension cycle, subsequently named ‘Frankenstein’.
Then, the story gets wilder. In his second such modification — this time a friend’s Indian dual suspension MTB that wasn’t compressing properly — he outfitted the cycle with Bajaj M80 suspensions altering the whole cycle in the process. “It worked!” he said.
As things got wilder like this, he understood the interdependence of bicycle dimensions, engineering and components. A bicycle is a wholesome organic unit; you don’t simply take one element out and stick another in. A commerce graduate into 3D animation but no backdrop in engineering, Praveen steadily moved to making bicycles his life’s aim. When, in his animation career, he got laid off at one of the biggest companies around, he said enough is enough and launched headlong into what he always wanted to do: make performance bicycles.
Meanwhile Vinay’s trajectory had progressed differently from Praveen’s. He was a hard core mountain biker, very much into riding and skills. Unlike Praveen he hadn’t shifted focus to obsessing with bikes although today he owns nine cycles, some of them top notch.
But having pushed bikes to the limit, he too had a feeling of what they were and could be. Praveen’s craze to craft performance bikes appeared synergic with Vinay’s hard riding. They seemed an ideal combination of designer-craftsman and tester. What next?
Enter ‘Psynyde’, as the two have named their fledgling enterprise. To start with, Praveen underwent customised training in Computer Aided Design (CAD) and focussed his initial manufacturing efforts on bicycle components like stems, seat clamps and bash rings. Vinay tested it. He also gave it to his cyclist friends overseas for testing. Feedback was encouraging.
While this was on, Praveen began designing a bicycle. The two friends agreed that their first hand built-Psynyde bike should be a road bike because mountain biking is yet in its infancy in India. Not to mention, MTBs are more complicated to make.
Praveen did considerable homework. There was the research on materials, sourcing the materials (triple butted niobium steel alloy from Italy), selecting tubes of the right strength, relating tubes to preferred ride quality, learning frame geometry, adapting the geometry to suit rider dimensions and mastering the art of joining tubes to make the frame. If required, the erstwhile 3D animator also makes the cycle’s fork from 4130 chromoly (chromium molybdenum alloy) steel. The bike debuted in July 2012.
Two cycles made so far and two underway it has found customers in Pune, Bangalore and Andaman and Nicobar islands. Save some specialised tasks like brazing, Praveen does most of the work. Home doubles up as workshop.
The typical customer in this niche category is a serious cyclist who knows the difference that right-sized frame, correct geometry and good quality materials bring to performance.
“I believe we are the first in India to custom-build high performance bikes using high quality materials,” Praveen said.
The Psynyde bike costs more than a similar looking off-the-shelf bike but is cheaper than comparable custom-built cycles overseas. If all goes well, from measuring the customer for optimum frame size to delivering the bicycle, it takes approximately 1-2 months. The performance segment that Praveen refers to is his chosen differentiator because there are others building bikes.
A March 2010 news report mentioned Zubair Lodhi and Faisal Thakur in Mumbai who make customised, sometimes theme-based, bicycles. In 2011 and 2012 The Hindu reported about Bangalore-based Vijay Sharma who makes eco-friendly cycles using bamboo.
Psynyde, Praveen said, customises for high performance. That’s the underlying philosophy. Vinay as tester, emphasises the intended direction.
Traditionally in India, the bicycle models produced by a handful of mass manufacturers have been staple diet. At Psynyde, you have two young cyclists using their knowledge and field experience to build a performance cycle.
Overseas such teams have birthed strong brands. However small these early Indian attempts in the niche maybe it’s hard to ignore the passion.
I repeatedly asked Praveen how he, a 3D animator, learnt about materials, fabrication and welding techniques, normally seen as the turf of bicycle factories. He said if you are determined, you learn.
Perhaps I also overlooked the nature of the bicycle — it is technology and simplicity at once. Years ago, the first bikes pedalled by these two Pune cyclists had been Indian makes. Those cycles are the guinea pigs that triggered a journey, which from another perspective is a measure of how different the new market is, compared to the old one. Not surprisingly, a news report from April 2012 said that the two dominant domestic players — Hero and TI — plan to introduce customisation.