International Reporting

Village Moharli During Alexandria’s junior year at the University of Montana she was one of 23 students to take part in the journalism school’s first study abroad programs over winter session. They went to India and spent a month reporting. The first week they went to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and created a group creatavist piece. Then, they split into smaller groups and wrote a story about different enviornmental issues Pune is dealing with. Here is the piece Alexandria produced for class about cycling and a link to the tiger reserve stories her classmates produced.

Creatavist: Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve Stories

Everything is a Competition: Pune woman among few female cyclists in city

Photo by Kylie Richter
Photo by Kylie Richter

Many women in India shy away from sports and other recreational activities. But Smita Patil does not. In fact she thrives off the competitive high of cycling.

“Everything is a competition, everything is about winning,” Patil said. “It’s not just about taking part even though we all say ‘Oh we take part for fun,’ but it’s not. The mind doesn’t allow you to take part for fun.”

In Pune, a city of 9.4 million, Patil is one of the few women to engage in recreational cycling.

It’s difficult to believe that Pune was once known as the bicycling capital of India. When traveling through the smog filled city in one of the 100,000 or so small green and yellow rickshaws in this city there is more than one occasion where passengers feel like it might crash into a bus. Since they’re so nimble, rickshaws always take short cuts down alleyways.

Traffic in India puts Los Angeles to shame. It’s a courtesy for cars to honk their horns to warn people they are coming, so on top of smog there is noise pollution. Somehow the cars, rickshaws and motorcycles have all learned how to dance in the streets without crashing into each other.

But, cyclists say that this chaotic scene doesn’t bother them. One biker, 68-year-old Surajbhan Mehrulia doesn’t even know how to drive a car. The closest he came to motorized travel was when he had a bus pass.

For Mehrulia, the decision to bike is economical.
“I am a poor man,” Mehrulia said. “Where will I get 1 to 2 lahks rupees ($1,600 to $3200) for getting myself a car? When I’m using a cycle I don’t need to get any petrol, any oil or any water. My cycle will just keep running, all I need to do is ride my cycle.”

According to a report done last year by Parisar, a group in Pune that studies transportation issues, the people who cycle has dropped to 5-6 percent of the resident population. The report also found that there were 256 deaths between 2012-2013. About half of the deaths were motorcycle related and one third were pedestrians.

Patil also grew up cycling in order to get places in Mumbai. She was always conscious about her health but when she moved to Pune she found her competitive fire in a different kind of competition.

The Enduro3 is a competitive adventure race that tests participants in biking, rope grappling and other athletic skills. Patil heard about the race and when she moved to Pune began asking around about it. Enduro3 is Indian’s first and only adventure race that began in 2003.

People told Patil that they didn’t do the Enduro, that is was dangerous. The sports genes in her didn’t let that stop her and she continued to look for people to do the race with.
After she started training for it, Patil rented cycles from India’s largest cycle shop, LifeCycle. It opened in 2010 and was one of the first to offer a geared recreational bike. It’s filled with three floors of merchandise with a maintenance shop in the basement.

LifeCycle is just as passionate about cycling as Patil. The store puts on many cycling tours around Pune and the area. In December 2013, LifeCycle serviced 180 bikes and sells between 12-15 bikes a day. Depending on the brand, a cycle from LifeCycle is about $200 less than one from the U.S.
Many of LifeCycle’s customers want a bike for one reason initially.

“Fitness and the chance to meet new people and make new friends,” said Nachiket Joshi, co-owner of LifeCycle. “The first tour that I went to there was a boy and a girl who met in the tour for the first time and they’re married now. We’ve seen two of the best of friends form a really good friendship.”

Soon Patil found herself coming to more of the bike tours LifeCycle put on. She even ventured on a tour herself, one with religious purpose.

Patil is a follower of Ganesha, the Hindu deity known as the remover of obstacles. In 2013 Patil and a friend cycled on a pilgrimage to eight different places where Ganesha was seen or has a significance to the deity. She said if someone visits all eight they will have success in life. So the duo cycled to all eight over a year’s span, sometimes going 200 kilometers from Pune.

As one of the few women active in cycling, Patil said people are always asking her to join their teams. She said there are only 10 women in Pune who are consistently involved in competitive cycling events. They are all close Patil said and the competition between them is healthy.

Over the past 10-15 years, Patil said India has become more accepting of women participating in recreational activities and sports. She said they not looked down upon but are encouraged to participate.

“Sports brings out the honest part of your personality it doubles up your personality and the right full manner it should be,” Patil said. “It teaches you not to cheat, not to be dishonest and these are the good values that sports brings out in you.”

Many women are worried about getting hurt, Patil said, and that’s why they don’t cycle. So she offers to take people on bicycle trips and they fall in love with it again. Cycling is also a low-impact sport and easy way for people to work out when they don’t have time to go to the doctor. The people choosing to cycle now are setting an example for the future, Patil said.

The 55-year-old is also setting an example for women around Pune.

“If you feel you want to do something, do it,” Patil said. “Your body is such a marvel. If it can conceive, if it can dream, if it can desire, if it can have a passion, it also will achieve it. So don’t have an if, ‘If I can…If this happens…Do you think…’ don’t have these questions, just do it.”

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