Esther Elias finds that the decade-old rent-a-bicycle culture in Kochi faces smooth patches as well as pot holes

About 10 years ago, Mikko Zenger, a journalist and tourist from Finland visited Kerala and met A. Mohamad Ali at his antique and handicraft shop just by the Customs Jetty in Fort Kochi. They became friends over time and before Mikko left, he gifted Ali a cycle that he had brought with him. A photograph of Mikko and Ali hangs off the dusty sunlit wall of Adams Handicrafts even today. That was the beginning of Ali’s side endeavour —‘Rent-a-bicycle’ — a trend that spread across the city’s tourist hubs and has survived a decade now.

Pollution free transport

Opposite Santa Cruz Basilica, Fort Kochi, Victor Benson has run his tourism agency and internet cafe, with stacks of cycles for rent piled outside, for as long as Ali has. “We began this rather cautiously at first, to see how tourists would take to it. Soon we realised that cycle safaris were popular abroad, so European and American tourists preferred to go around Kochi this way too,” says Victor. Tourists were free to explore the city at the pace they chose; they didn’t have to haggle with taxi drivers or bother with public transport. “This was a pollution-free, and exercise-included answer to their travel problems.”

As the inflow of tourists grew each year, the number of ‘rent-a-bicycle’ outlets rose too. “There was a sort of boom in the business in 2008,” says Victor. However, as many homestays began offering their customers this service, the bustle in business has slowed observes Ali. The more problematic hit has shown itself this year, with the marked fall in tourists this season. “Normally the tourist season begins in early December and extends to late February. Now all our cycles go on some days, and on others, none are taken,” says Victor. He adds that several tourists who’ve made repeated visits to Kochi in the past, have opted for Sri Lanka this year and among the ones who do come here, fewer opt to cycle given the bad roads they must battle.

Cycling groups such as Cochin Biker’s Club and Athi’s Bicycle Club have been founded in the city, and the streets often see helmeted riders cycling to work. Yet Kochi isn’t cycle-friendly with the absence of a designated cycle track on main roads and traffic’s impatience with cyclists. “When foreigners come, they find the potholes difficult to navigate and even our Indian make of bicycles different to use,” says Victor. Even so, his clients are known to cycle up to Cherai Beach, Alappuzha and beyond. “We also have clients who rent the cycles for several days together for long tours.”

Maintaining his cycles have been Mohammad Arafat’s biggest hurdle since when he began in 2005. He functions from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. off the pavement at Quiero’s Street in Park Avenue, and chains his cycles together at night, protecting them with a tarpaulin sheet. “I’ve never had a closed space to store these cycles. Many of them have even been stolen because of this. Since tourists enjoy cycling so much, I wish the government helped all of us who rent cycles, with a common space to keep them.” Others echo his sentiments, saying rusting in the rain and few repair shops have plagued them too. “I’ve had to change my cycles every two years because of this,” says Antony Biju, who runs Ocean’s Pride tourism agency.

Side business

Most owners have since diversified to renting scooters and bikes, or running other enterprises alongside. In the off-season, business comes from the locals too, says Ali. “I have children who come regularly to take the cycles to the beach. Locals from Ernakulam, who come to Fort Kochi for a few hours, take them too.” He says he prefers lending to known customers after several sour instances of theft. With increased awareness of cycling’s health benefits, tourists from Bangalore and Mumbai have opted also to cycle here, adds Antony.

Across the board, most owners say the experience of running rent-a-bicycle outlets have connected them to cultures across the world. Victor, who runs a homestay as well, says he’s met many of his clients on his trips abroad. He fondly remembers an American tourist who appreciated his work as he was a professional cyclist touring India on two wheels. “Kerala really is God’s Own Country; if we could develop tourism further here, our cycling culture could go far.”

Penny wise

Most rent-a-bicycle outlets own between 10 and 15 cycles which they rent at approximately Rs. 100 for a day. Those who lend by the hour charge Rs. 10 for each hour. Foreigners must usually submit a photocopy of their passport and locals give in a working phone number. While most owners stock cycles built for both men and women, they say the popular ones are the ‘full Indian cycle’ (with a cross-bar) or the mountain bikes for long distances. Cycles specifically for children are rare to come by.

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