x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Bangalore’s Bullet bikers at the forefront of India’s riding boom

Growth of the Royal Knights club is in direct proportion to renewed interest in the revered Royal Enfield Bullet – and the number of rupees available for leisure spending, writes Samanth Subramanian, foreign correspondent

The Royal Knights Motorcycle Club boasts 700 members, highlighting the continuing — and growing — popularity of the Enfield Bullet. Amirtharaj Stephen for The National
The Royal Knights Motorcycle Club boasts 700 members, highlighting the continuing — and growing — popularity of the Enfield Bullet. Amirtharaj Stephen for The National

NEW DELHI // When Debraj Banerjee founded the Royal Knights Motorcycle Club eight years ago, it consisted of himself and a friend — two men who wanted to ride their motorbikes together on the roads surrounding Bangalore.

Now its membership of Royal Enfield owners exceeds 700 and even Mr Banerji is astonished by the growth of the club, which has extended its excursions as far as the Himalayas.

“Last year, we had a ride with 100 Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles, going 300 kilometres — a group ride, just as they do with Harley-Davidsons in the US,” Mr Banerjee, 33, said. “Imagine that!”

India’s leisure motorcycling boom over the past five years has been built on the rise of a middle class but also on the Enfield, the country’s most iconic motorcycling brand.

Royal Enfield sold 175,000 motorbikes in 2013, up from 50,000 in 2010. In India, they range in price from US$1,500 (Dh5,510) to $2,500 (Dh9,183).

The expanding market has also lured foreign companies to Indian shores. When Harley-Davidson first came into the country five years ago, Anoop Prakash, the company’s managing director in India, spotted an aspirational middle class that had more money to spend on leisure activities.

“There was also a broadening sense that the infrastructure was improving, so that people could enjoy travel and adventure activities,” Mr Prakash said. Roads got better, transforming the average motorcycle ride from a spine-jangling experience to a smooth one.

Travel agencies, like Vintage Rides in New Delhi, have begun to specialise in motorcycle holidays while Mr Banerji, who runs his own software company, has been encouraged enough to start another business that sells biking gear and accessories.

Last year, the first India bike week, held in Goa, attracted 6,500 motorcycle enthusiasts to a festival that featured race tracks, food stalls, live music and stunt zones. This year, the same event held last week, drew more than 10,000 bikers.

“The culture is growing so fast,” said David Courbon, a French executive at Vintage Rides. “In a way, it’s a reverse of what’s happening in the West. In Europe and the United States, there used to be a real bike culture, but that’s fading, and people are buying two-wheelers only to go to work and come back. In India, it’s the exact opposite.”

Vintage Rides was established in 2006 by two Frenchmen, Alexander Zurcher and Alexander Le Beuan, who pitched their motorcycle-themed package tours to French tourists visiting India.

The company’s clients still come primarily from France. But Mr Courbon increasingly handles Indian customers who wish to explore not only their own country but even Europe and the United States.

His Indian clients always own leisure motorcycles of their own, Mr Courbon said, and in almost every case it is a Royal Enfield Bullet, India’s classic leisure motorcycle.

The mid-size category — to which the Bullet and Royal Enfield’s other motorcycles belong — is a good position to occupy, said Siddhartha Lal, the chief executive of Eicher Motors, which builds Enfields in India. “A motorcycle isn’t functional anymore,” he said, and the simpler, lighter commuter bikes do not provide the visceral thrill of biking.

On the other hand, heavier and more complicated motorcycles, Mr Lal said, “are extravagant and unmanageable. They have more poser value than true riding value. The guys are basically just putting them in their garage, coming out occasionally, wearing their fancy gear, and not even actually riding them that much”.

Royal Enfield’s sharp growth has been entirely in the mid-size category, and Mr Lal expects it to continue. The company predicts that it will manufacture and sell 250,000 motorcycles this year, growing that figure to an annual 500,000 in the near future.

Last year, the Royal Knights Motorcycle Club organised 20 trips, Mr Banerjee said. He credits social media for helping to generate interest in motorcycling.

“Motorcycling is essentially a group activity, but earlier there was no platform by which to meet other people who had the same passion,” he said. “Now there are these ways by which we can reach out and find each other.”

“And there are plenty of us out there,” he added. “After all, everybody looks for a little adventure in their lives.”