Cars pull you apart socially, bicycles bond

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Oct 11 2014, 07:18am hrs
If you have been to any of the Raahgiri Day events, you must have seen a lot of people riding Firefox bicycles, says Shiv Inder Singh, managing director, Firefox Bikes Pvt Ltd, when I greet him at a hotel in central Delhi. I ride one to the Raahgiri Day in Gurgaon every Sunday, I reply in earnest. The ice breaks immediately.

As we take our seats, Singh takes me through the Firefox story. Today a leading player in the premium bicycle segment, Firefox began operations in April 2005, and sold just 1,200 units in its first year. Now we sell 6,000 units a month, says Singh. Based out of Greater Noida, Firefox caters to all segments of biking, from MTB, Road, Hybrid, BMX to Kids. It has tie-ups with accessory brands such as Trek, Tern, Shimano, Saris, Finish Line and Slime. The USP of Firefox is that it offers complete biking solutions of global standards to its customers under one roof, Singh tells me.

The Indian bicycle sector can be broadly classified into four segmentsstandard, fancy, premium and super-premium. The standard is the traditional black bicycle; tweak its frame and add some colours to it, and the black standard bicycle becomes a fancy bicycle; add shockers and a drivetrain system, and it can be classified as premium; add more paraphernalia and advanced materials, and you can call it as super-premium. While Firefox bikes fall in the premium segment, Trek falls in the super-premium segment, Singh explains.

Before I ask him the next question, he takes me through the Raahgiri Day event. Modelled after Ciclova, an event that began in Bogota, Colombia, in 1976, the Raahgiri Day now takes place at two locations in Gurgaon and one in Connaught Place, Delhi. The event closes streets to motorised vehicles and opens them for the exclusive use of people for running, cycling or other recreational activities. Its good to see such events getting popular, Singh smiles.

Coming back to Firefox, Singh shares with me how he got into this business. I was attending a wedding in New York in 2004, when my friend Pradip Mehrotra, who had a bicycle manufacturing facility in Taiwan, asked me to start my own business. I had little experience of entrepreneurship and the Indian bicycle segment, with strong entrenched players, didnt appear to be an encouraging foray. But there was a huge void in the market, a void that needed to be filledmotorcycles and cars in India were moving on from standard to premium segments, but not bicycles. Mehrotra agreed to pump in the money and handle the manufacturing. We set up later that year, he shares.

But those entrenched players also saw the opportunity. Hero, for example, entered the premium segment by launching its Urban Trail series a couple of years ago.

The Urban Trail, somehow, hasnt been able to establish itself in the Indian market, at least not as much as Hero expected. Rather brands such as Montra have been able to make their presence felt. Also, some imported brands such as Suncross and LA have found some success, but none have been able to challenge Firefox. In the super-premium segment, however, many brands such as Cannondale, Merida and Giant, which are comparable to the Trek, have entered India, Singh replies.

So, how did the Trek story happen I ask. Singh replies, Trek was keen to enter India and, in Firefox, they found a company that understood their high-end models. With Trek, our line of premium (above R7,000) and super-premium (above R18,000) segment was complete. The high-end Trek bikes can cost up to R1 lakh.

I wonder whether Firefox is just into selling bicycles or can it think of something biggerhow about being an agent of social change by promoting bicycling in India

We have tried but the governments response hasnt been forthcoming. Look at the bus rapid transit (BRT) in Delhi. There are dedicated bicycle tracks but you find motorcycles and even cars running on those tracks. Since its inception, there were no strict checks which could have brought about a change in driving manners of the Delhiites, at least on the BRT, he reasons. Initiatives such as BRT have to be taken up seriously. At the end of the day, urban mobility will get reduced to mass transit (buses, metro, etc) and cycling.

But then does the extreme climate of India promote bicycling, I wonder. Do you believe the climate of the Netherlands promotes bicycling, where it snows for four months of the year Singh asks me. People out there bicycle to work in a big way.

Singh further explains, You never bicycle to work if the distance is over 5-6 km. According to some studies, close to 60% of home-to-office journeys in many cities of India are less than 5 km. Now, for that 5-km trip, does the climate really matter No. But what does matter is infrastructure. You wont want to ride your bicycle with a truck or a bus dangerously zipping by. And Raahgiri is perhaps the best example of what urban Indians are ready to do or can do if you give them the infrastructure. The questions is, why cannot the concept of Barclays Cycle Hire that is so popular in London be replicated in Indian cities

Firefox is now branching itself into tier 2 and tier 3 towns. The companys network is spread across 75 cities with over 150 outlets. We plan to expand our retail presence with eight additional outlets in the next quarter and 30 new stores each successive year, Singh says. Our primary focus now is to create a bicycling culture in India through the expansion of our distribution network.

As I am about to take his leave, we go back to our Raahgiri Day conversation. Have you noticed that bicycling is best experienced as a team Singh asks me. I nod in the affirmative. Thats because cars pull you apart socially, bicycles bond, he says.