The steel & the tread

When I was thirteen I learned a hard lesson and discovered two new loves that would resonate throughout my life. I was on the back of my best friend’s dirt bike and luckily wearing the only helmet. Jamie pointed at a ridge he wanted to ride up. I shook my head in complete and total disagreement. Sitting on a bed in Varanasi, India over 30 years later and I can vividly recall the moment. I decided to just put my feet down and stand up, which I did. Wow! So my first love became physics and the second…motorcycles. I also grew up watching Steve McQueen movies and vividly recall the motorcycle he rode in the movie “The Great Escape” from which my affinity for classic and retro bikes originated. McQueen also said that riding motorcycles was second only to breathing. I wholeheartedly agree. Strangely I didn’t ride again for twenty five years. It seemed to be a case of wrong place at the wrong time although I pined for a motorcycle like a lost love.

I get great enjoyment from India as a country of motorcycles. It has the third largest motorcycle company in the world and the second most riders. The developing world has had a large demand for small, cheap motorcycles. Historically the motorcycle has been utilized as a tool in stark contrast to the West where motorcycles are a lifestyle accessory. In our travels we have watched as heavily ladened motorbikes have carried multiple propane tanks, several 5 gallon milk jugs, two guys and an eight foot ladder, a family of four and a goat, and countless textile packages. For the majority of Indians motorbikes are an affordable form of transportation. Small displacement motorcycles (in the 125cc range) are the most popular. The most common brands that we have seen are the Hero (formerly the Honda Hero), Bajaj, and TVS. My favorites are the older Japanese models like Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki which I see occasionally. The motorcycle industry in Indian is moving as fast as the rest of the country.

1966 Yamaha Rajdoot

Affluent urban Indians are expanding into the leisure market and motorcycles as status symbols. At the forefront is the Harry Davidson of India – Royal Enfield. This motorcycle manufacturer is as old as the country itself. The Enfield, currently available in a 350cc and 500cc displacement. As a motorcycle enthusiast I find that a 350 is too big for the average commute. In the largest cities we’ve visited like Jaipur, Agra, Jodhpur and Kolkata traffic is clogged like an atherosclerotic artery. It is significantly more helpful to zip in and out of traffic with a small motorcycle. There just isn’t an opportunity to shift into the higher gears with the stop and go traffic of Indian cities. A tour into the Himalayas or a leisure ride outside of the city seems like the best option for the Enfield rider. That being said the Enfield as status symbol is a completely different subject. I may not speak Hindi however I can speak in the language of motorcycling. Most Enfield owners want photos taken with their bikes.

Rider with Royal Enfield 350 Classic
Royal Enfield 500cc Bullet

Overwhelmingly utilitarian, the entry level Hero (or Bajaj), the simplicity demanded and the high volume of sales makes them profitable and appealing to the manufacturers. The price for a new entry level motorcycle is approximately 39,000 Rupees which is a shade under $600 US. The entry level Royal Enfield 350cc Classic costs 1.31 lakh or 131,000 Rupees ($2000 USD). Considering that the average Indian monthly salary (based on 2012 data from the UN) is 18,000 Rupee ($295 USD) low end bikes make the most sense for regular folks. For wealthy Indians who are searching for status symbols super sport bikes like Ducati, KTM and BMW are entering the market. Prices reaching are 5 lakh Rupee ($7500). A price that will purchase an entry level motorcycle in the US. 

Motorcycles in India date back to 1955 when the government required strong, tough and rugged motorbikes for the Indian army and police patrolling the western portion of the country which had very difficult terrain. The enduring legacy of motorcycles continues today whether it is a milkman, a family of commuters, vendors or law enforcement. I continue to photograph interesting bikes along the way. We’re heading to Darjeeling next and I might have to get on a motorbike soon before I start going through withdrawal symptoms. There is a Yamaha SR400 back in the US patiently waiting for it’s rider.

Yamaha FZ, traffic in Jodhpur

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