Cycling India, My Way

Before riding my bike in India I read a bunch and did tons of preparation. I carefully created cue sheets and GPS tracks, doing my best to avoid busy highways. I packed tools, food, and other supplies and planned this trip within an inch of its life! And still, I was nervous. Before I left I worried about everything, food, water, washrooms, safety, traffic, and on and on. But worrying is usually not a good reason to avoid doing something and so off I went.

The details of the trip are in previous entries so this time I will tell about some of the more routine aspects that some may be curious about.

Cycling in India traffic: This was the biggest worry for me. From outside it looks terribly chaotic, loud, and downright dangerous. Did I find this to be the case? Actually not. I found I felt safer and more secure here than on Toronto streets? How can that be? In my case, I found that the majority of drivers were practical and not aggressive. We all worked together to flow like a river with the idea that no one of us is more important than the other. That said, bigger is more powerful and dangerous so moving out of the way of trucks and buses is a must. Still, if everyone stays steady and predictable for the most part, it flows well. The best analogy for a busy India road is that it is like walking in a busy shopping mall. We’re all moving, most of us in the same general direction on each side but sometimes there are exceptions. None of us speeds up to prevent someone who is leaving a store from walking in front of us. We just watch where everyone is going and react accordingly. If someone is walking and talking on their phone, we might say “Excuse me, I’m coming on your right.” That’s a horn honk. If three people are walking slowly abreast and we have places to go we might say “Excuse me.” and that’s another horn honk. A long insistent horn honk means that someone is coming and not going to give way. You don’t need to worry, you just need to make room for them to go where they’re going. If it’s slow going in our side of the corridor we may go to the other side that is typically going in the opposite direction. People on the opposite side don’t freak out, they just pay attention to what is happening.

I thought cycling on the highway would feel like I would imagine cycling on the interstate in the US or the QEW in Ontario with cars flying by at great speed would feel like. But the reality was that the speed limits were slower, there were curb lanes, and space was always given when it was available. When it wasn’t…Well, just hold on tight, most of these drivers are pretty good and buses seem to have a ‘co-pilot’ on the opposite side to help. But even better than that, most of the highways I traveled along had a service road, sometimes one on each side, that had very little traffic on it. Like service roads in North America, there could be a bit more traffic near gas stations and truck stops as trucks and cars made their way in and out.

Sometimes, maybe 2-3 times on the trip, there was just no room on the road. A bus was in the oncoming lane passing cars and so the only choice is to leave the road. Don’t sweat it. This is no white-knuckled, panicked bailing out of the street. The bus isn’t coming at breakneck speed, it’s just not likely to move back in to their lane before passing you. You’ve got ample time to react: Simply pull to the side, take a bit of a drink from your water bottle and let them pass. You’re cycling, after all. No need to rush. This is your reminder to take it slow and enjoy.

One aspect of cycling we rarely have in North America is the person who drives their car or motorcycle a little ahead of you, pulls over and gets out. You might think that this is a sign of upcoming danger. However, it is usually only the sign of someone wanting to take a selfie with you. I took this opportunity to meet people, practice a bit of Hindi, and take a selfie of my own.

One thing you don’t often have to do back home is share the road with animals. In Rajasthan, cows, dogs, camels and goats are very common to encounter on the way.

Cows: Cows are big and don’t typically move fast or out of the way. When I was in Jhunjhunun with Jerry he remarked how good the traffic was here because there are fewer wandering cows. They generally won’t bother you, but they also won’t move out of your way. Toronto cyclists should treat them like a FedEx truck in the bike lane. Carefully merge in to traffic and pass them.

Dogs: One of the most common animals you’ll see on the streets of India are dogs. That said, they’re generally harmless. Most ignore people unless the people are bringing food or acting aggressive. In cities, some dogs do bark at strangers in the neighbourhood at night as well. So while cyclists in other areas need to worry a lot about dogs chasing and biting them, it’s relatively uncommon here. There’s a caveat, however. Rabies is still an issue here. If you’re going to be out in remote areas, pay a little extra before you go and get a vaccine. It doesn’t make you immune but buys you time to get yourself to a doctor for treatment. My own doctor told me that if I did get bitten by a dog even with the vaccine, that I should immediately end my trip and go straight home for treatment.

Camels: Camel carts are common in Rajasthan. You will generally ride faster than they do. Give them space when you pass, ring your bell as you go to let the driver know you’re coming and merge back in. Easy peasy.

Goats: I saw several herds of goats all over Rajasthan. Goatherds move them from place to place to find fresh fodder to eat. They’ll take up one or sometimes both lanes of the road when the travel. However, this is no problem. Once they know you want to pass they’ll take one of their nearly 10 foot long bamboo poles and gently encourage the goats to one side. Then pass with care.

Monkeys: Though I never encountered them on this trip I do see them in some of the cities. They can be a challenge. Are you carrying a banana in your jersey pocket? Don’t count on it staying there. What else is loose on your rack? You might lose it. They may be curious about your glasses too. Don’t worry, though, they’re not particularly aggressive. However, see the rabies warning above. They, also, can be rabid and can run, jump, and climb.

Overall verdict: Cycling here was more enjoyable and felt safer than cycling on most roads in North America.

Personal Safety: Before coming on this trip many people in Canada and in India voiced their concerns: There are lots of bad people who may try to take advantage of you, rob you or mug you. Maybe they will trick you in to giving them money. Be wary of everyone. Cyclists in India were a bit more pragmatic in this sense giving a bit of this advice tempered with a more realistic “Most people are wonderful, just be sensible.” That is also what worked for me. For example, unless it was really obvious where my destination was (as in, there is only one town – the next one), I would give one of two answers to “Where are you going?” – Sometimes I would simply say “Here and there, and when I get tired, I will stop.” If they persisted I would say, simply “Jaipur”. Never mind that Jaipur was several day’s ride away and I wasn’t even riding directly there. I don’t believe anyone I encountered was asking for nefarious reasons. They wanted to know what I was up to. Once they got that answer they were happy.

Another question that was common was: “Are you riding alone?” This one was tricky. Mostly it was obvious, I had no partners cycling with me. On my last day I mentioned that I was meeting a friend and we would cycle together (which was true), but generally I would say I was cycling alone also. I felt OK with this for a couple of reasons. First off, my rule was to get off the road well before dark when it could be more dangerous just as a road user in traffic, but also more vulnerable. Second, nearly everywhere I went there were always people. Sometimes only 1-2, sometimes dozens or more. I was never alone. Usually the only reaction that admitting I was alone would get was either admiration for my bravery at being alone, or advice to be careful of all of the bad people I may meet.

Good advice I got from my sister in Raipur was to never eat food from strangers. You’d think this would not even need to be said as at least in North America, people rarely offer strangers food. But here there were so many offers of food. You never know the hygiene level of the food being offered and there’s always a slight chance of someone putting something in it.

On the other hand, there were a lot of things that happened on the trip that made me feel more safe, not less. Every single day of the ride there was someone offering help. My first day a man stopped his car, took a selfie and then advised me that if I ran in to any problems, call him as his dad was in the Rajasthan police. He came back five minutes later to give me a bag of fruit. (See previous paragraph). The next day’s ride from the farm started with the farm’s caretaker telling me to call if I ran in to any trouble. When I got to my destination my phone rang. He wanted to make sure I got there OK. The day after that, I met a man in a village in the morning. That night he called me at my hotel to make sure I made it there OK. The next day my friend from the village made sure I found my way there.

On the way I also had great support from the local police. The first day of my ride, I spent a fun hour or so drinking chai and talking with several of them about my ride, my country and their country and lives. Then they gave me their personal mobile numbers to use both in case of difficulty but also to give them a call if I happen to be in their city so they could host me and show me around. In both cases they also offered me food but though I was pretty sure the food the police were offering me would be more than safe, I was already quite full. I did have some cookies and sweets that they offered, though.

Of course there are different considerations and more challenges for women. I really can’t speak to that at all. If you are looking for information on this, check in with my friend Ishwarya. She is in the middle of cycling the length of India and visiting Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan as well. Actually no matter what you should follow her journey as it is fascinating and amazing. You can find her here on Instagram.

Food: This brings me to food. One of my coworkers from India was concerned about how I was going to manage eating food on the road in India. Would I be able to handle the cuisine? Would I be able to avoid getting sick? The answer is absolutely, yes.

Mornings I would have breakfast wherever I was staying – a hotel or farm. Breakfasts here are often ideal for cyclists. Lots of bread, sometimes bread and potatoes in the form of aloo parathas – bread stuffed with potato served with yogurt and pickle. Lunch was a little trickier but not impossible.

Generally I would stop at a restaurant or snack bar on the side of the road and eat something there – a samosa or more parathas or both. I don’t know if it is the cuisine or what, but I found that unlike other rides in North America where I’d eat 2-3 energy bars along with a meal on a long ride, I didn’t need much of anything. Maybe an energy bar, a light lunch, and then breakfast and dinner. I never felt hungry.

I generally felt the food I was eating was safe. Depending on the guidebook or blog entry you read, it may seem like every piece of food you eat is suspect and could kill you from all of the bacteria in it. The reality is that it’s not a whole lot different from eating back home. Make sure your food is fresh cooked, not standing warm for who knows how long. Avoid salads or things that could’ve been washed in water that wasn’t filtered, and make sure the place you’re eating is clean. The nice thing about many of the places you see on the road in India is that the kitchen is completely visible. Often the person you order from will cook it right in front of you.

In the parts of India I was in, there were many restaurants and snack bars small and large all along the way. I never was worried I’d starve and, in fact, didn’t really use the energy bars I brought with me.

Water: If guidebooks tell you to be worried about food they tell you to really worry about water. Yes, well water and city water is not treated at the source. However, most homes and restaurants have filters to remove impurities and bacteria. When I go to restaurants I ask if they have a filter. If they do, I take the water provided. If not, I’ll take a bottle. However, as I’ve said before, the bottled water industry really negatively impacts people here so spend your money wisely.

I’ve been told to check bottles for signs of tampering/reuse (broken seals, or sealed holes used for filling refilling water bottles. I do, but I don’t obsess about it.

I got in to a routine when riding of having a cold drink – Sprite or Coke in the afternoon when I nearly reach my destination. The sugar and caffeine were nice pick-me-ups.

I did bring Nuun electrolyte tablets for my water. I used about three of them. I did sweat a lot and for sure needed to replenish my electrolytes, but I found the food itself was good enough to do the job and it was just one more thing to remember to bring. If I come again I won’t bring those.

I did bring a unique cycling water bottle with me – one with a built-in microbial / charcoal filter. Between the filter and bottle (bought separately), I spent about $60, thinking that I might run in to a situation where water was questionable. In the end, while I was glad to have another bottle for capacity, I don’t think I needed this. There are so many drink stands, and places to get things to drink – either bottled or filtered, that I was never worried about finding a safe source of water to drink.

While I was on the farm, they did not have a filter. However, they did have a well in the ground and all of that water was boiled before being given to guests. As for the village, they didn’t have a filter and I’m not sure if they boiled or not. However this water was recaptured rainwater stored in an underground tank, not well water, and I felt safe drinking that. Your mileage may vary so you may feel that bringing a filter or other treatment options is for you.

Bike Security: When I was packing the bike I also bought a long cable that I could use with my U-Lock to secure my bike to just about anything. I never even unwrapped this cable from its packaging. I used my U-lock a total of once. This was a bit of wasted money for me.

In Delhi I kept my bike in my room. No issue. I did have to bring it up several flights of stairs, but if I’m not able to carry my bike up a few stairs, I am unlikely to be able to ride it for a few hundred kilometres.

In the farm at Sare Khurd, I just parked it outside. The farm was big and had huge, barbed wire covered fences surrounding it. It was going nowhere.

In Neemrana, the hotel just “valet parked” it in the basement. And in Narnaul, I just brought it in to my room.

Finally, in the village, I parked it in the courtyard of the family home. But of course, in the end I left my bike there.

On the road, other than the one stop at McDonalds just outside of Delhi where I locked it to a fence, I didn’t ever lock it. I could ride up to stalls to buy bananas or cold drinks. At restaurants with longer stops I was always able to park it within sight of where I was. Often there were so few people around there was no worries anyway.

In the end, though there were so many people worried about my safety, I now am firmly on the side of all of the local cyclists who encouraged me. I found that cycling in India felt as safe if not more safe than cycling in North America and that what little threat there might be could be addressed with just a little sensible behaviour and caution – often the same sensibility and caution that a touring cyclist might use back home.

12 thoughts on “Cycling India, My Way

    1. I could tell you were worried. That’s why I posted so often – so everyone knew I was ok. I admit, at first, especially in the Delhi outskirts, I was a little worried. Once I got in to a routine even the small worries fell away and I was like a child, fascinated with everything and everyone around me.

      It really is a country to be proud of. I don’t even feel this welcome or safe in my own country sometimes.

  1. You are quite the adventurer. Good for you. Sounds like you were careful and didn’t take chances. It’s people who aren’t aware of their surroundings that get into trouble.

    1. Thanks – and yes, no chances were taken. That said, I feel there’s a perception that one is taking chances just getting on a bicycle here when in fact, I feel my life is much more at risk riding in Mississauga or Scarborough than it was in the most stressful traffic I rode in here – which would probably be the Delhi suburbs.

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