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Wed, 13 Nov 2019

Northeast Today

A TRYST WITH THE BICYCLE MAYOR OF GUWAHATI

A TRYST WITH THE BICYCLE MAYOR OF GUWAHATI
July 01
16:50 2019

Cycling as a sport, as a fitness activity, as a means of transpotation and as a device to promoting social messages and harmony has gained widespread acceptance among the common masses. Arshel Akhter – the Bicycle Mayor of Guwahati deserves due credit for being the catalyst in mobilizing cyclists and bringing bicycling into mainstream consciousness. Kaushik Deori of NET talks to the nibble-footed, amicable peddler and tries to delve into his life, experiences and future plans in a free-wheeling conversation.

 

KD: At the onset, tell us a little bit about yourself and how did your romance with bicycle begin.

AA: I was born and brought up in Guwahati. For a living I invest and trade in shares. I restarted cycling in 2016 after a gap of 16 years. Initially it was simply to explore the nearby places in Guwahati and later on when I started meeting people from all across, the love of cycling grew. Later on I started organizing small cycling rides and then went on to organize cycling events. In the end of 2017 I started a project called ‘Pedal for a Change’ through which I wrote about cyclists and cycling in the region. Taking the project forward, I went on to speak and write about benefits of cycling in schools and colleges. The love and passion has grown since then.

 

KD: You are christened as “The Bicycle Mayor of Guwahati”. Please share with us how you received that title.

AA: After I started my project ‘Pedal for a Change’, I took to visiting schools and colleges, requesting the administration to allow me to speak about the benefits of cycling. During this time most people were skeptical about my intentions. In the first part of 2018 I came of know about the Bicycle Mayor program by BYCS and found out they were looking for people to spread their message. I contacted them and we spoke about each other’s objectives. Both of our objectives matched and they were appreciative of the work I had done to organize events as well as my efforts to reach out to the young people to promote cycling. I found out that the association will help me get access to experts in the field and also to international best practices. After a series of telephonic interviews and getting endorsed by some eminent local people I was appointed as the first Bicycle Mayor of Guwahati on 22nd April 2018. At that time I was the 2nd one in India and the 10th worldwide.

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KD: What are the duties and responsibilities that entail being the bicycle mayor?

AA: We (BYCS and all the Bicycle Mayors) believe that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world. Together with this, BYCS has a global mission called 50×30 (50by30) which envisages that 50% of all trips in a city to be made by bicycles by 2030. To work on this global mission BYCS appoints bicycle mayors in cities around the world.

My job as a Bicycle Mayor is to promote cycling mainly as a mode of transport. To do this I write about benefits of cycling, I speak to young people in schools and colleges; I meet people in the administration to drive home the importance of creating cycling friendly infrastructure and culture in the city. I organize different kinds of cycling events like rallies, rides and races to keep the people interested in cycling and grow the cycling community.

 

KD: What do you think is the current status of Cycling as a sport and a health activity in Guwahati?

AA: The good news is that a National Cycling Academy under Sports Authority of India has been set up at Laxmibai National Institute of Physical Education, Sonapur. This is the second NCA in the country and presently 25 seats with students from all parts of country together with many from the NE.

Cycling as a sport has many different categories and these are very different from each other and there are specialists in each category that require different types of cycles and also different tracks. Broadly speaking the following ones are a few of the well known category of races –

Road Cycle Races on plain roads, Track Cycle races inside velodromes, Cross Country MTB (Mountain Terrain Bike) races in offroad tracks, Downhill races on very difficult hill slopes, etc.

The state has produced some very good athletes who have earned accolades in national and international cycling events. A few of the current crop of cyclists are –

Track and Road Cycling events – Chayanika Gogoi, Gangotri Gogoi, Jayashree Gogoi

Downhill Cycling Races – Ismamul Howk, Abhishek Saikia

Cross Country MTB Races – Innus Ali

Special Mention of Abhishek Gogoi who won a Silver medal in the 2019 Summer Special Olympic Games held in Abu Dhabi.

The sports cycling scene in the city has lately seen some good traction with a couple of local groups regularly conducting well planned and managed competitive events. An organization named Pedalroads used to organize different types of races under the name Guwahati Bicycle Championships. Another major player is Spokehub Cycles who had conducted the biggest cycling races, till date, in the city. The first one was the first edition of Assam Downhill Championships in September 2018 participated by more than 50 downhill specialists from the region and also from Himanchal Pradesh. In June 2019, they had organized a cross country MTB race called “Guwahati XCO Mudfest”. This race saw participation of almost 70 cyclists from across the region and also from India Army. This event was important for one more reason – it was the first time that saw female participation. 6 women cyclists from the city participated and all of them completed the course which was considered by even the Army team to be a very difficult one.

 

KD: We know that you are involved in an initiative named “Pedal for a change”. Tell us more about it and run us through some of the major events/rallies that have been carried out in the past though this initiative.

AA: Pedal for a Change was started as a personal project to promote cycling, my writing about cyclists and cycling in the region. The project started only as a Facebook group by the same name. Later on I went to schools and colleges to speak about benefits of cycling. As time went by, more people got to know about my work and started getting in touch for organizing cycling events. I have been working together with a few like-minded people to organize different kinds of cycling events. In the first part of 2019, three of us – Pratibhu Dutta, Bikash Doley and myself decided to get together and form a non-profit organisation under the name ‘Pedal for a Change’. Even though we had been organizing cycling events since 2017 the first and only event that we have organized under Pedal for a Change was the ‘Cycling The City’ event. This was the biggest event in the region and was organized to celebrate World Bicycle Day on 3rd June 2019 at Shilpgram.

Cycling The City event was centered around a conclave that saw people from the Guwahati Development Department, Sports Authority of India, Assam Tourism Development Corporation as well as experts from Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru took part. The event was inaugurated by GDD Minister Sri Siddhartha Bhattacharyya.

 

KD: With the rapid increase in motor vehicles, the environment has clearly taken a severe beating. How do you look at that conundrum?

AA: India being a developing country, most people aspire to own a motor vehicle. Most people whenever they can afford, prefer to upgrade to a motorbike from a bicycle, a car from a motorbike and bigger car from a smaller car. The car makers have been given many incentives to manufacture and market their products in the country. Financial institutions have been very eager to provide loans to purchase these vehicles. Even though the growth of these sectors has boosted the county’s economy, the resultant crude oil import bill has dented the country’s profits. Apart from that, the rising air and noise pollution has affected the general health of the people in cities resulting in them spending a huge chunk of their income on medicines. The loss of life and limb due to road traffic accidents is another big cause of worry. We also need to understand the time we lose while commuting for our work while using our private vehicles. We are forever complaining about the rising traffic. The car is simply aspirational and is not an efficient or effective mode of transport. The world over most of the developed countries are switching to efficient public transport and cycling to ease urban mobility problems.

We will need to make a choice soon – whether we want short term personal benefits or long term solutions for themselves and our future generations.

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KD: What are your future plans and endeavours with regard to cycling? What larger goals have you envisioned?

AA: I have plans to engage more with the student community together with their teachers and parents in both schools and colleges to get them into cycling. They are the ones who need to be on the streets cycling and encourage more people. Engagements with the local government authorities is also important and one of my goals. They are ones who have the funds and make transformational changes.

 

KD: On a more technical level, what pointers should a budding cyclist keep in mind while choosing his/her bicycle?

AA: Anyone who decides to buy a cycle needs to understand that there are different types of cycles made specifically for different purposes. For example, a Road cycle with very slim tyres and curved down handle bars are mainly for going fast on good roads. The cycles called MTBs (Mountain Terrain Bikes) with broader tyres and straighter handles which may or may not have suspensions on the front are mainly used to ride on off road tracks but can also be ridden on good city roads. The hybrids having tyres that are broader then road cycles and narrower than MTB and with straighter handles that may or may not have suspensions are made mostly for regular rides on good and bad city roads. All these cycles may or may not come with gears and disk brakes. Regarding the cycle weight, Road cycles are mostly the lightest and MTBs comparatively heavier with the hybrids in between. The straight handle bars make the cycles easy to maneuver in difficult mountain terrain as well as in city traffic. Then again we have the roadster cycles that are the most common. These are comparatively inexpensive and are mostly preferred by the economically weaker sections for their work. These are made of steel are very durable but lack modern accessories like suspensions, disk brakes, gears, etc.

Road cycles are mostly preferred by people who want to go fast and are comparatively experienced. MTBs are very much preferred due to their looks and also the presence of suspensions and disk brakes makes them an attractive propositions for our city roads that are not very even and also because these cycles can be taken to nearby forest or hilly off-road trails. The hybrids with or without any gears, suspensions and disk brakes can be brought by people who want to only ride for their work as well as for fitness.

With regard to price, an entry level hybrid cycle without gears, suspension and disk brakes can start from 8k onwards. MTBs start from 15k onwards but a decent MTB with god specks would be priced upward of 25k. Entry level road bikes can cost around 5k but all those with striking great features start from 40k.

Whatever may be ones choice or budget my only suggestion would be take a few test rides to find the most comfortable cycle as per ones height and also compare different designs before buying the right one.

 

KD: How do you think cycling can gain mainstream acceptance? What do you think are the underlying benefits of cycling apart from health and pollution?

AA: Support from the government is definitely required. Construction of dedicated cycling tracks and their maintenance will attract a lot more people who are now worried about their safety and are apprehensive of riding their cycles in congested roads among other fast moving vehicles. More interactive and cooperative sensitization programs are required to get more people to cycle on the roads. Apart from that incentives for students and employees who regularly cycle can encourage more people to take it up. Our mass media – both news and entertainment (movies, TV serials, musicians, etc) can also play a big role by showcasing cycles, cyclists and cycling events.

Various studies have revealed that cycling helps in reducing the overall commute time. It helps in creating better social interactions. Studies have also shown that cycling lanes at major streets in a city tends to increase the sales of the business establishments in those streets.

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KD: Any word of advice for budding cyclists and youngsters in general?

AA: Yes, there are few do and don’ts that are always helpful. First and foremost is to always follow all traffic rules – like riding on the correct lane as the rest of the traffic, never riding on the wrong side of the traffic, obeying traffic signals, never riding on footpaths, never using headphones or mobile phones while cycling, never showing stunts on the busy street. It is also important to always wear bright and visible clothes while cycling anytime of the day, wearing helmet and use lights / reflective stickers or clothes while cycling at night. Another important aspect is to respect other users of the road. The road is for everyone and must be shared with everyone.

 

KD: Finally, how does one join you and your gang of cyclists and what are the prerequisites?

AA: Guwahati has seen a big growth of interest in cycling as a recreational activity. There are many groups formed among friends and most of these groups interact over WhatsApp. The biggest cycling group in the whole region is Guwahati Cycling Community (https://www.facebook.com/groups/963293673732484/?ref=bookmarks) and we have a Facebook group by the same name. We update this group about all our rides and events. Anyone interested can become a part of this group. Interested people can also become member of Pedal For a Change (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1242170879261770/?ref=bookmarks) Facebook group. The best way to get into different cycling Whatsapp groups is to meet other cyclists during events and getting to know them. Apart from that we also write about cycling and different cycling events on our Facebook group and page of Pedal for a Change.

 

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