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Riding Bikes in India – A Beginner’s Overview

It was day 3, we had been riding for three solid days and were exhausted.

To make matters worse, it was after dark. We had been warned on a number of occasions not to drive after dark in India. But we thought we could do it. We were experienced. How bad could it get?

Now I will take this from the average Westerner’s perspective. Just imagine the busiest roads, then without street lighting, then with some of the vehicles without lights, then some driving on the wrong side of the road, at you.

And fast!

And I was on a motorcycle, loaded with gear and my visor was down, because of dust and bugs. The visor streaks the light so it was confusing. We didn’t know where to go and, weary, sweaty and hungry as we were, we only wanted to get to bed, and in my ear the psychotic female voice of Google Maps was again telling us to turn left where there was no turn left.

Of most concern was we had also spotted two accidents, where unfortunate motorcyclists had met a grizzly fate as they were surrounded by crowds of onlookers. Kyle identified the limp hand of one as they lay on the broken streets.

It was a classic tale. We always book through Booking.com, but in this case we were rejected because the hotel had shut down. Things were beginning to get desperate. We searched and booked another hotel from the side of the road and finally survived the gauntlet. That Indian $6 Vodofone SIM is worth its weight in gold – a must-have for any traveller. Yes, miracle of miracles, the hotel was finally found.

Now it lay across from us, past a teeming roundabout. It was a lawless, fearful place where vehicles flew relentlessly. One needed nerves of steel and a razor concentration.

Alas for me, my concentration faltered for just a moment and I was hit.

Being struck by traffic was or nightmare. Luckily it was just a clip that glanced off my handlebar, a centimeter from my hand. It was enough to fling my bike one way and me another. As I fell I caught a glimpse of the driver of the mini van and he didn’t even pause.

Kyle dropped his bike and, with others, raced to help. “Sir, are you alright? are you alright sir?” called one man as they helped me to my feet.

I must have been dazed. “Yes thanks,” I replied, “Is the bike okay?”

Dodging traffic, we wheeled the bike off the road and tried to start it but there was nothing. Oh no!

An impressive, yogi-looking young fellow offered his help. “Let me try,” he asked. Closing is eyes, he calmly gripped the handle of the bike’s accelerator and then turned the key and gently pressed the starter. The poor bike sputtered and roared, seemingly unaffected.

There were grateful thank yous all round and the wonderful helpers wished us well. Yes, we then crossed the gauntlet, checked the bikes to find them unaffected and then to carried our dusty bags to our room before what happened really sunk in. I felt strangely calm. After all, the worse didn’t happen, but Kyle was freaking out.

Naturally I phoned Deb, my partner, and of course told her nothing. It was simply great to hear her voice.

So, what is my take on this?

If someone suggests riding motorbikes across India, what can I advise? Naturally my initial response is, “Don’t be so bloody stupid!”
but then again, my son and I have wanted to explore the great continent of India by motorcycle for some time and it is an amazing adventure I will always treasure. Sure, I don’t want to die and lessons have to be learned fast!

Think of it like the game of Crash Bandicoot. My kids used to play the popular video game and I recall one place where Crash is on a motorbike and the bad guys are rolling barrels at him trying to knock him off. That is kind of what India’s streets are like. The population is so vast and the roads so busy, that compared to Australia, Europe and the USA, it’s the wild west!

Before you come to India to ride, which I would recommend for the experienced riders, you have to have your talent razor sharp. I didn’t. I might have thought I was a motorcycle hero once, but that was long ago. In riding in India, I’m not talking about cruising a Harley with your IT mates, or flying along at sub-sonic speeds on the Autoban on your Kawasaki. The skills here require seeing 360 degrees at all times and anticipating shit you just would not believe!

There re no drivers’ rights. No give way. No such thing as, “Oh, no no. After you!”

How to survive India Roads
Indian Roads are crazy!

Let’s play the game and see what India throws at you as a rider.

First – let’s look at the roads.

India is a rapidly developing nation with a massive population and it is a huge country crisscrossed by many roads. Some are highways – after a fashion. Imagine hurtling down the highway and suddenly, for no logical reason and without warning, there is a speed-bump, or even three in a row, or a patch of eroded road, or potholes about the size of a suburban swimming pool.

Welcome to India!

As any driver, this would be a concern, but on a motorbike there is a moment of panic and disbelief as you must do anything not to hit it. Sphincters tighten, eyes wide and you scream, “Aaaah! What the F***!!”, which sounds really impressive in the confines of your helmet.

Yep, welcome to my world.

I can’t complain, for the roads are quite good and have been affected by heavy rains. In India you might achieve the stellar speeds of 80 or 90 kph, but that is not universal.

But there are other hazards.

Let’s look at loose gravel on mountain road corners, or patches of unsealed, badly corrugated road because of floods in the summer monsoon.

And now let’s add animals. On Indian roads there are a lot of animals.

First there are dogs, who seem immune to frantic honking on the horn. They sometimes lie on the road and too often pay the ultimate price as their remains are often left on the road, sometimes being chewed on by their more fortunate cousins.

And then there are the cows. Cows are sacred to the Hindu religion of which India is largely composed. So, don’t kill cows, don’t hurt cows, don’t treat them badly. Sometimes in ones and twos, cows also occur in herds that seem to cluster on the roads. They can be found snoozing, sometimes just standing. I saw a van beeping loudly at big old bull as he walked nonchalantly down a busy road. Even when the van bumped him on the rump, he refused to be disturbed from his bovine meditation.

Rob Shacklefod - Author - India Road Obstacles
Dreaded road obstacles – Cows and a silver LWS.

Water buffaloes are common. Bigger, blacker and heavier than cows, they are also frequently on the road. I avoided one big bull as he lead his herd up a main road as he walked the centre line and tossed his head at the traffic. Once we followed a herd of water buffalo through a toll booth pathway, forced as we were to slow to their pace.

Camels are always under the care of owners, though they will crowd a busy road, while goats gather in sizable herds. We also see elephants, though they aren’t of any harm.

Now we get to the real risk to motorcyclists.

People.

Oh my God! If we only had to worry only about the above mentioned, things would be easy.

Now I want to emphasis that the Indians we have met are the most hospitable, friendly and helpful people you will ever meet. Their sense of care is boundless.

Until they get onto the road. Then they are the devil incarnate.

For those who have spent time in Asia, you would have noticed the noise, how beeping a horn is not generally abuse but is often a courtesy. Beep, “I am here, don’t hit me. Beep, “I am passing.” So, in India, there are a lot of beeps and honks of all kinds which can be intimidating at first. I beep a lot. My Royal Enfield has been especially fitted to sound like a big car, and loud. It has impact.

For bike riders, the least trouble are pedestrians. Some dawdle across a busy road like there is not a care. They don’t even look. Sometimes kids or families decide to cross a busy highway when you have finally get speed. That happens, a lot.

Then there are cyclists, though there aren’t so many of those. A cyclist on such a busy, lawless road has a death-wish. Like the pedestrians, they are the minnows in our ocean and at the bottom of the food chain.

Next up are the swarms of motorbikes. Royal Enfields are part of that, though we are bigger and heavier and probably at the top of that tree. A toot on the horn says we are there, that we are passing. What irritates are those who weave the busy streets while talking on mobile phones while riding without a helmet.

Next up in size is that creature which we loathe as it is definitely the most dangerous. The Little White Car, or LWS as we call it, (Little White Shit-Box) is aggressive, unpredictable and the most likely to run a biker off the road. On the open-road these are to be watched and avoided as they don’t beep, don’t stop, and treat the biker as if they aren’t even there. You have to be in the left lane as far left as humanly possible to avoid these maniacs. Expect trouble, whether it be to move into your lane without reason, a sudden left hand turn without indicators, maybe just a pull over and stop or drive into the flow of traffic – right at you! I’m sure there’s something Freudian in their behaviour, but they are terrifying.

We also experience the big white cars, sometimes 4 wheel drives. generally operated by the wealthy. They are not as aggressive but seem even more entitled.

Riding India - Kyle and BFTs
Kyle with a couple of trucks we call BFT’s

Then there are the vans and tuk tuks, all low on the food chain, but they can be nuts.

Next are the bigger vans and trucks, up go the gigantic BFT’s, the top of the food chain. These gaily decorated big trucks have a noisy doodle-addle-doodle-addle horn and generally take up a whole road or break down on mountain roads. Getting around them can be very heavy going indeed. It’s not uncommon to see one BFT trying to overtake another, so you pretty well have to get off the entire road and let them slowly lumber past.

All exist in a balance, like nature, except the LWS and Buses. Buses are the most insane vehicle on the road. With a horn like an angry bee, the bus stops for none. Get the hell out of the way! If you hear that angry bee sound over your shoulder, move – fast! Buses also don’t seem to drive straight are on a slight diagonal. Red buses are by far the worse.

So, look at huge distances, the habit for many of these vehicles to drive astride the centre line or into the opposite lane, and you have the reason why driving in India takes patience and concentration. I believe not checking review mirrors and talking on phones makes this worse. Especially if you are on an Aussie exploring magnificent India by motorbike.

So biking is not a casual backpacker pursuit. It’s not a scooter on Bali or Phuket. This is Deathrace India.

Fortunately we have learned harsh lessons and understand not to take anything for granted. Rarely can we travel faster than 80kph, and I find I watch mt mirrors and do shoulder checks constantly, because even on the highways a LWS can bear down on you fron behind.

It’s an adventure I am grateful for, exploring the great land of India.

Travelling in India
Author Rob Shackleford with his son, Kyle, in Jodhpur, India

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