On a bicycle, you connect with yourself

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Jun 25 2012, 21:55pm hrs
The managing director of Hero Cycles tells Vikram Chaudhary that the company is launching new products, talking to the govt for creating car-free zones and working on last-mile connectivity

Pankaj Munjal looks younger than the 50 he is about to complete this year. Part of the reason is that I have taken up bicycling of late, a smiling Munjal says as he greets me at Hero Cycles corporate office at Nehru Place in New Delhi. An hour of bicycling every morning is probably the best facial youll ever need, I add my two-pence worth of knowledge as we take our seats.

Munjal is the managing director of Hero Cycles Ltdamong the oldest bicycle manufacturers of India and the largest in the worldand aims to take the company to newer, unfamiliar markets. Realising the cash richness of this 55-year-old entity, Munjal sees a brighter future for the group.

I ride the Firefox Edge to gym every morning, I say, before he argues, Have you tried our new Urban Trail series I am sure you will like it. Recently these bikes were ridden extensively in the rugged terrain of Ladakh and we are impressed with the results. Urban Trail is Heros foray into high-end bicycles, a segment dominated by companies such as Firefox, Trek, Cannondale etc. Within just six months of launch, we are selling close to 3,000 Urban Trail bikes every month, he adds. This figure, which I confirm later, is quite close to what other high-end bike makers are recording after many years of being in India.

But manufacturing high-end bikes needs a lot of R&D. So I ask him since when is Hero involved in high-end R&D for bicycles We do a lot of benchmarking; our teams have travelled to R&D centres across the world to learn global best practices and products. And that learning reflects onto our products, Munjal says.

Coming to bicycling as a culture in our citiesand here I mean the urban middle class and the upper middle class using bicycles for short tripssomehow that is not developing. Even our well-designed cities dont necessarily have proper bicycling tracks at all the placed needed, I say. But he cuts me short: Its not that weve never had such a culture; before the motorised two-wheeler revolution, we all used bicycles. And this culture is developing again, albeit in the form of recreation and fitness. After all, on a bicycle, you bond with friends, nature and, above all, yourself. A kid belonging to a middle class family, as he grows up, can have as many as three different bicyclesat the ages of 5, 10 and 15. Now we are adding a new age group, that can be in the 20s, 30s, even 50s. Bicycling is a part of the lifecycle of a modern human being, Munjal adds.

How many bicycles does China produce I ask him as I look at the world map on his table. China produces 80 million bicycles and India only 15 million, he says, adding, But why Our populations are a billion-plus each. Our social strata is almost similar. But, unfortunately, our urban infrastructure isnt. Its the barrier we have created with the law; there is no safety for a bicyclist in India. You tell me, you buy a bicycle and ride it with a feel-good factor every morningbe it for fitness, be it to go to the nearby marketbut theres no dedicated cycling track; a speeding car or a bus just zips past you and you start losing your feel-good factor! I nod in the affirmative, remembering I face similar things quite often. Munjal says, We recently met the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, to discuss a car-free zone in Noida every Sunday morning. Similarly, Connaught Place in New Delhi can be a car-free zone from, say, 8am to 2pm every Sunday. Such things need to be promoted in almost every city in India. Get back to fitness, get back to recreation. And this is nothing new, it happens in various cities across the world. As he says this I try and figure out where did I read about this term called Ciclovia and I ask him the same. Ciclovia is a term that translates from Spanish into English as bike path and is now used at many places in the world to describe either a permanently-designated bicycle route or a temporary event, Munjal says. Did it originate somewhere in South America Colombia, he tells me. On each Sunday and during some holidays, a few main streets of Colombian cities Bogota, Medellin and Cali are blocked off for the exclusive use of runners, skaters and bicyclists. In fact, Bogotas weekly Ciclovias are used by close to 2 million people on over 120 km of car-free streets. Why cant we do the same in India Munjal adds. Remember, cars pull you apart socially, bicycles bond!

Coming back to the Indian market, our penetration is only 80 bicycles to a 1,000 people, Chinas is 115 to a 1,000, Germanys is 500 to a 1,000! You know if you use the Delhi Metro and you come on a bicycle to the metro station, you get free parking. Even that hasnt taken off. The reason: infrastructure. Our last-mile connectivity is not in place. This has to change, Munjal says.

As I look out through the window, I see the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium that was refurbished for the Commonwealth Games two years ago. And now, since London Olympics are round the corner, I ask whether Hero has any plans to promote bicycling as a sport in the country. We will definitely look at promoting bicycling as a sport in India, but we are focusing on one thing at a time. Right now we have a three-pronged focus: we are working on launching new products as well as new company-owned, company-operated showrooms where bicycling as an experience will be given to the consumers; then we are in talks with the government to create car-free zones; and we are working on last-mile connectivity, Munjal answers. On new products, other than the Urban Trail, Munjal tells me, Heros come up with a series called the Red Dot, which is made of carbon fibre and it is the most affordable carbon bike available in India. So although weve over 45% market share and have been the market leader throughout in the mass market segment, with the changing social-economic scenario in India, the future clearly lies in the premium and luxury segment, he says.

On growth, he adds that the world produces 130 million bicycles a year, and Hero produces only 5% of that, so even though we are worlds largest in number, there is a huge scope for growth.

Are you enjoying this business I ask. I am in love with the business. My phones screensaver is a bicycle! But talk of business reminds me of the challenges, and one of the major challenges we are facing is that to buy a motorcycle you need only a 1,000 rupees in your pocket, while a poor man who wants to buy a bicycle needs 3,000 rupees in his pocket. So we are working on microfinance in this field. Once it works out, the bicycle market will see even more growth, Munjal says, adding, As the president of the All India Cycles Manufacturers Association, we demand the withdrawal of current duties, which stand at around 12%, to promote the common mans transport. Bicycles should also not be included in the GST.

As I leave, he stops me and gives me his full-rupee worth of knowledge: Do you know, young man, that the invention of the bicycle impacted society both in terms of culture and advancing modern industry. Components that eventually played a key role in the development of the automobileincluding ball bearings, pneumatic tires, chain-driven sprockets and spoke-tensioned wheelswere first invented for the bicycle. The bicycle is the most efficient human-powered means of transportation and, unlike most other inventions for mans convenience, the more he uses it, the fitter his body becomes.