Michael Starr, a British national, turned 74 in the Himalayas. He wasn’t at a spa, yoga or meditation retreat. Instead, he was on a motorbike riding to the highest pass in Ladakh. In the absence of stores or bakeries at that altitude, his fellow bikers surprised him by holding up a birthday message written across a large white bed sheet.
For Atul Bharadwaj, who organised the tour, memorable moments like this are par for the course. Atul, who started AB Original Tours in 2009 in Solan (Himachal Pradesh), says, “Motorbike tours are on the bucket list of many travellers.” The pandemic has fuelled a definite rise in outdoor activities and fitness-oriented holidays — not surprisingly, operators like Atul are also seeing a spike in interest from both seasoned and amateur bikers.
“India has so much scope for motorcycle tours,” he says over a call from Solan, adding that he often gets contacted by young entrepreneurs who want to get into the business. He advises them to explore new routes. “There are so many options like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka,” he lists. In a bid to fulfil his own bucket list and seek new terrain, he rode through the whole country last year, covering 30 states in 108 days. “I saw such amazing roads in Chhattisgarh and Bihar, places I was originally biased against.”
Tamil Nadu to Thailand
Atul started his bike tours with itineraries to the Himalayas and Rajasthan, and now includes rides across Kerala, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Darjeeling in West Bengal. His company has completed more than a 100 tours. “Weather is a big factor when riding. We do not want to be in bad weather where it’s too hot or cold or raining. So I chose the best months for all these regions,” he explains.
He takes his travellers to Rajasthan in November-December, Kerala in December-January, Sikkim and Uttarakhand from April to October, and the Himalayas from July to September. Since his itineraries are long, often spanning 21 days, he gets a majority of foreign clientele who want that kind of time to explore a region apart from feeling the rush of adrenaline.
Budhi Singh who runs Motorcycle Expeditions out of Kullu (Himachal Pradesh), also gets most of his clients from overseas. In fact, his tours have been so popular with foreign riders that he has set up offices in Frankfurt, Ulaanbaatar and Perth. Post the lull of 2020, the tours are picking up again and “the Indian market is looking good now”, says Singh.
Motorcycle Expeditions’ itinerary also started out with Rajasthan and Ladakh and has, over the years, grown to include Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India, besides Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Laos, Mongolia, Thailand, Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland and Sri Lanka. The duration of trips start from seven days and go up to 14.
While all the travel companies take adequate safety measures and have a team that follows with first aid kits, mechanics, and spares, risks are a part of adventure. “There have been cases where riders have crushed a few ribs,” says Singh.
“We provide our riders with helmets, elbow and knee pads, and make sure they wear ankle-length boots and have their medical insurance,” says Deepak Chandrashekar, founder and CEO of Motorcycle Escapades. “We also carry portable cylinders and first aid kits. A lot can happen in Ladakh given the altitude. People who don’t listen to us and don’t acclimatise before heading to Pangong will feel altitude sickness. If it’s too severe, we shift to a lower base.”
Chandrashekar enjoys a 50-50 clientele of Indian and international riders. “But before Covid-19, it was 90% foreigners and 10% Indians,” he says. “For Indians, motorcycle holidays are a new thing. It started booming three years back.” He offers a host of destinations, but his “Himachal, Ladakh and Kashmir tours are running packed”. Ladakh has always been a dream destination for numerous riders because the terrain is adventurous; so people feel some sort of accomplishment when they complete it, he adds.
When it comes to biking holidays, SOTC, one of the oldest travel companies in the country, has witnessed a growth in demand by 50% when compared to 2019 (when these tours were introduced). “The pandemic has evolved how Indians travel and our customers are opting for distinctive travel experiences,” says Daniel D’Souza, president and country head - Holidays, SOTC Travel. “Biking tours have gained significant popularity among couples and groups of friends. These are primarily from customers ranging in the age group of 35-39 years,” he says adding that a significant 95% of their travellers are domestic customers while 5% is a mix of expats and NRIs. The company is also organising biking tours for customers in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Many of SOTC’s customers are first time bikers and new to the experience. “We recently had a father-daughter duo who joined us for their first biking adventure together,” he says. Clients can either bring their own bikes or rent one. “For customers who do not own their own bikes, we offer Royal Enfield’s 350cc, 500cc and Himalayan bikes (411cc). Additionally, our premium biking tours offer customers a selection of bikes ranging from 750cc to 1300cc on daily rental basis,” he adds. Each of the companies have different pricing depending on duration and destination. Some start at about ₹23,000 while some upwards of ₹2 lakh.
A lot of Indian riders travel with their clubs, which mostly permit only members. A number of riders travel with their friends, eschewing a guide, confident that they can navigate trips independently within India. But there are many who choose to travel with a company because they want everything to be taken care of. “If there is a breakdown, we have the support and logistics, and we know these regions like the back of our hand,” says Chandrashekar, explaining how small details can prove useful. “For example we know which is the last petrol bunk in Mandi,” .
During these motorbike tours, riders are on the road for five to six hours a day. “I don’t want to push them or fatigue them. I want to give them time to explore and see things. On a rare day, when there is no place to stop between two cities then we ride for seven hours,” says Atul.
Need for speed
For most operators, the size of groups varies from 10 to 15. A lot of solo riders and couples are part of these groups and, over the course of the trip, forge strong friendships. Pillion riding is allowed too, for many of the tours. While the age group is largely 30 to 40-years, Bharadwaj gets a lot of clients aged 50 and above.
Some of the companies like to keep a check on speed. “When we are on a six-lane highway, we go up to 90-100 kmph. But when we are on smaller roads, we do around 40 kmph,” says Bharadwaj, adding, “What makes India interesting is what is on the side of the roads: people doing things, festivals, animals... If they ride fast, they will miss out on these elements.”
Sometimes, he notes, treacherous terrain is not less challenging than riding through peak traffic and through narrow, busy lanes. “After riding in India, some of my European clients said they are going to find the roads back home boring,” he laughs.
Despite the adrenaline, thrill, and camaraderie, bike rides are undoubtedly more challeging than the comfort of a car, train or plane. What propels intrepid riders to embark on lengthy two-wheel vacations? Singh laughs, and after a thoughtful pause says, “There is a sense of liberty. We enjoy the gust of wind on our faces, the smell and taste of everything on the way. There is nothing between us and what is out there.”