If the vision of a 'cycle' brought nostalgia to city slickers, 2020 was the year for a 'past forward'. Bicycles, from the elementary ones with pedals to flashy ones with gears and transmission and everything in between, suddenly became India's favourite 'recycled' trend of the year.
But, will it hold true in the new year as well?
On the eve of the nationwide lockdown, India was clocking 5 to 7 per cent growth in bicycle sales. Then, everything changed, as the prime minister announced 'the world's strictest lockdown' in end-March.
As movement became restricted, more and more Indians resorted to cycling for near-home moving around, fitness and maintaining social distance. Online shopping sites, then later, cycle and fitness stores once they were allowed to open, suddenly began reporting heavy demand. Many models and stores reported waiting periods running into several weeks.
“This year, the Indian bicycle industry hit a peak that it hadn’t reached in the past decade!” Yogendra Upadhyay, CEO (Bicycle division), Alpha Vector India, which recently launched KTM bicycles in India, told THE WEEK. “The COVID-19 effect played a major role in giving a boost to the industry. As per our data, the growth rate shot up to 15-20 per cent from the earlier 5-7 per cent a year,” he added.
For example, in May, 4.5 lakh cycles were sold, which doubled to 8.5 lakh the next month. By September, monthly sales figures had reached 11.2 lakh cycles a month! No wonder, K.B.Thakur, secretary general of the All India Cycle Manufacturer's Association exulted, “”Probably for the first time in history such a trend has been seen in this sector.”
However, there are plenty of problems. By late summer, it was clear that manufactures were not able to keep up with the demand. This was primarily due to the disruption in the supply chain, and the lack of availability of many components and parts due to this.
The problem, by latest accounts, has not still been sorted out. The logistics disruption due to lockdown has now been replaced by a logistics disruption due to the farmer's protest, since steel and other raw materials coming in from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand into Punjab, where a good chunk of India's cycles are made. The India-China tensions since the clashes in Ladakh has also caused hindrance to the import of gear and transmission systems needed for high-end and hybrid bikes. Reports indicate that leading exporters like Shimano and SRAM are looking at alternative options for their exports, like Taiwan.
Also worrying the cycle industry has been the reversal in its demographics. While Covid has made urban users increase, it is mostly in the high-end and recreational categories. The industry is worried whether the demand will taper off once the trend is over.
Meanwhile, demand for mass market category of cycles, that used to be the bread-and-butter of cycle makers for long and accounted for by rural buying, has been on the wane. The aspirational vehicle in Indian villages is now increasingly a motorbike, rather than a bicycle. Hero Cycles even called on the government recently for subsidies, loans and perhaps, a GST cut on lower-end cycles, to spur rural spending.
But Upadhyay remains optimistic, and believes 2021 will be the year of the Cycling Revolution. “With the necessary support from the government in terms of policy change for the bicycle and the e-bike market, the market will flourish.” The Ministry of Housing & Urban Development is presently running the “India Cycle 4 change" initiative, a sort of contest in which the Indian city with the best cycling-friendly infrastructure (like designated cycle tracks) will win a grant of Rs 1 crore to further augment the facilities.
"We believe that the year 2021 would be a substantial improvement for the industry in terms of overall growth,” asserts Upadhyay, adding, “The insights we have from our market research lead us into believing that the “bicycling trend” is here to stay.”