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I was curious. I love startup stories and the inspiration behind it. I know Art of Bicycle Trips has been in existence since 2011 organising many cycling tours in Asia. So, it was but natural to probe Pankaj a bit and satiate my curious soul on how Art of Bicycle Trips actually began. What followed was a Q&A with Pankaj Mangal and rediscovering old images. Here is the excerpt.

 

Q. What was your aha moment that led to the beginning of ABT? And what followed next?

Around 10 years back, I went on a bicycle ride with a couple of friends from Bangalore to Kaveri Fishing Camp. I was more into motor biking but one of my friends who came from Sweden insisted we do a cycling trip. We zeroed down on Kaveri Fishing Camp and along the way we sat down under the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. I felt cycling was the only way to see the world. It slows you down and allows you to see the world at the right pace. You could stop and appreciate the surroundings, converse with the locals and take a detour. More than that it also brings alive your five senses. So, while sitting under the statue I realised there is something in this and that was my aha moment.

After the trip I came back to Bangalore and was still thinking about it. I researched cycling and how it could be combined with travelling. As a part of my research, I came across the concept “cycling holidays” which is well-known in European market. I went on researching for a while and finally when I felt ready, I decided to launch a cycling holiday in India.

Bicycle Trips in Asia

Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced on the ground? 

It was not easy to make people believe it was possible in India. Cycling was thought of as a utility in India and not something out of choice. Why ride a cycle when you can drive a car? Secondly people thought the whole of India is as chaotic as the cities and hence it is not safe to go on a cycling tour. However, we all know it’s quite safe to ride around the countryside. It is actually safer to ride a cycle than a motorbike in cities. So perhaps the biggest challenges have been those around mindsets.

Q. Was it easy to leave your well-defined career and become an entrepreneur?

I was not the sort of a guy who would confine from a nine to five pm job. Travelling was always my hobby. And I got into cycling . So it was easy to visualise this is the life I wanted to live for myself. Once I knew how clear my mind was to put myself into this unknown journey, it was quite a straightforward decision to leave the job and start this.

Cycling Tours in Asia

Q. Has the growth been organic? Though you operate in many countries you did n’t scale up through funding?

I completed my business studies and was paying my education loan, so I did n’t have any disposable income in my bank. Post my aha moment and research, I knew this was what I wanted to do. One fine day I just went and bought seven bikes through my credit card. After that things moved pretty well with cycling tours, and we grew the company organically. Apart from me buying the initial set of bikes, everything came through the business itself.

Initial number of years we were confined to India. We had by now built a strong customer base and through them we could now launch in other countries. The first country was Sri Lanka and then it followed with South East Asia. Our current cycling tours in Asia can be viewed here.

Q One of the biggest strengths of ABT I have seen is its community. It is rare to see such a strong base of folks who like organisation. Please tell us a bit more about it?

A strong community can only be built with time. I am a firm believer in that. It also teaches you a lot of things. You might have  competition coming your way, and they may do a lot of things. But fundamentally If you always have a good product it always sells by itself. Once that happens you will always get loyal customers no matter how big the competition is. They will always stay with you.

Cycling Tours in Asia

Q. Do you still remember your first customer? What was it like?

Yes, Indeed I do remember. The first customer we got was from a bike festival we organised in Bangalore. They were two friends. One of them was from Canada and the other person ’s name was Fenny. They took the Victorian Bangalore Safari. It was a three hour tour built around the heritage of the city.

What are the ingredients of a great cycling tour?

Excellent bikes, rolling terrain, during cycling breaks – tea or coffee with cake, No hurry to reach a destination. Cycling tours in Asia is also about meeting people along the way and get into casual conversations during tea breaks and learn more about their life.

Art of Bicycle Trips conducts Cycling tours in Asia. 

It’s been more than a decade since we started Art of Bicycle Trips. From our first bike trip to now covering many countries across Asia, it has been a grateful journey. Nostalgically, India got its first cycle in the 19thcentury. According to historian David Arnold around 35,000 bicycles were imported by India in 1910. Though meant for Europeans, the cycle which initially was a transport vehicle for the few, found its way through many Indian cities. And was quickly embraced.  The first cycling club came up in Calcutta. With the help of industrialization and a few entrepreneurial Indians, cycling in India became popular. The popular Black Cycle became ubiquitous with hardworking Indian. It offered more freedom.

An Old BSA ad, from the book, Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam by David Arnold and Erich DeWald

An Old BSA ad, from the book, Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam by David Arnold and Erich DeWald

Inspirations followed and the cycle could be seen as a source of inspiration in Bollywood. Indian actor Dev Anand cycled to perfection in an air of romance. Indian classic movie Paying Guestis a testimony to the same. Picnics in the reel and life happened around the cycle. In Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, a movie hinged around cycling, the entire town and audience watching the movie were kept on the edge till the very last frame. A coming of age movie the annual cycling race was the crescendo of three-hour epic

Cycling in India

A screen grab of Dev Anand ‘s Paying Guest

However, the cycle did not stop at Bollywood. Cycling in India was introduced as a sport by mid 1930s. In Indian politics, it became a symbol of progressiveness and simplicity. Political party such as Samajwadi Party used the cycle as its party symbol. The government encouraged Indians to make use of the cycle. Most recently in 2015, cycles were distributed by state governments to girls in rural areas to improve their participation in schools.

Commemorative stamps on Asiad Games and Women Empowerment showing cycling in India.

Commemorative stamps on Asiad Games and Women Empowerment in India.

Back to the times of Hybrid bikes, E-Bikes and health, cycling has become even more important. WHO is constantly reminding us to stay active and healthy during a pandemic. Cycling is one of the ways out. Our own STRAVA Cycling Club logs daily activity of solo cycling rides.  Cycling trips in Asia offered by us past decade has only made us surer the popularity of the cycle has only risen.

More power to the pedal.

Cycling Trips in Asia