Portraits of India on Two-Wheels - Images by Gregg Bleakney
Five years ago I made a choice to go car-free in favor of using a bicycle as my primary source of mobility. Since then, every time I saddle up, I’m 100 percent thrilled to be living this two-wheeled lifestyle. But…what if I didn’t have this choice?
Earlier this year, I spent two and a half months on photojournalism assignments in India and discovered there are an estimated 300 million Indian people who ride bicycles because they have no other option. This made me wonder: If cycling was not something I did by choice, but was designated by the caste I was born into, would I still love it the same?
To explore that question, I rented one of India’s finest single-speed steeds, an Atlas Redline Super, and spent several days commuting with milkmen and day laborers in rural Rajasthan. I also made 16,000 photos (most of them portraits) of Indian cyclists—brick makers from the untouchable caste, paper boys, homeless children, farmers, mystics, popsicle salesmen, slum dwellers, and more.
I asked many of these people if they really liked cycling. The old guys all said yes...they loved the pace of it, they loved the fitness element, and they loved their quiet early morning and sunset commutes. However, the younger Indians were not as enthusiastic about pedal pushing. Most told me that they would happily trade their bicycles for a motorcycle—if they could afford the $700 to $1,000 price tag.
These coveted motorcycles are largely being produced by a partnership forged between the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, India’s Hero, and Japan’s Honda. Due to the subcontinent’s booming economy, a chunk of cyclists earned enough rupees to swap into combustion powered haulers. Last year, HeroHonda sold 3.2 million motorcycles and garnered bragging rights to the first million-plus selling moto, the Splendor. In comparison, India’s cycling companies produced 15 million units.
As a bicycle lover, I’m saddened to think that I may have witnessed the peak of India’s cycling generation. Considering the petrol fueled dreams of India’s youth, ten years from now, I doubt that I could go to India and make portraits of cyclists like I did earlier this year. But who am I to pass sentiment? I’ve always had a choice. When I asked my translator to tell some of these cyclists that I traded my car in for a bicycle, it was often taken as simply a ridiculous concept or a joke. I crossed the subject off my conversation list after several people offered to buy me lunch/dinner/etc. because they assumed I was in a financial bind. In one instance, things got seriously awkward after I refused a cup of sweet-milk from a cycling, door-to-door pressure cooker repairman. He called in his gang of buddies to help enforce the gift. One glass of sweet milk, two teas, and a plate of Gulab Jamun sweets later, I was allowed to exit the back-alley street stall.
So, did I ever find the answer to my question, “would I still love cycling if it wasn’t something I did by choice?” Well, at the risk of classifying myself as an “old guy”…my answer is a hesitant, fortunate, and thankful…Yes.
Please enjoy this slideshow of 40 of my favorite portraits and keep in mind the one thing these people all have in common—cycling is still their only choice.