Kathmandu sees many cycle rallies and there was yet another last month. This one was special – it marked the launch of the first-ever Nepali bicycle company, Chain.
Behind the giant glass window of the store in Ekantakuna, rows of cycles are lined up dutifully, awaiting new owners. On closer inspection, one sees many have little green 'Sold' stickers on them. Over 125 of the BMX and mountain bikes available have been sold in the last couple of weeks.
Rupesh Man Shrestha of Epic bikes, a partner in Chain, says, "There was an obvious gap in the market between high-priced models and the cheap but low-quality bikes. We're aiming to fill that gap." Imported cycles can set you back a minimum of Rs 38,000, while it's likely the pedals will drop off the Rs 6,000-10,000 Chinese models in a few months.
Shrestha has 13 partners, including outdoor sports instructors, long-time bike enthusiasts, a dental surgeon, an exporter of traditional handicrafts, a socially responsible travel agent, an architect, and a rock star – 1974 AD's Nirakar Yakthumba. The common thread is entrepreneurship, and wanting to make a difference.
The architect, Prabal Thapa, explains how the idea was born. "We often go out cycling and after a number of rides together, we thought we'd try to see if we could make a living out of this." Like so many good ideas, "it's a way of combining business and pleasure."
The BMX is aimed at kids but it's standard competition size and good for adult kids too. Neson Bajracharya, 16, is considering being Nepal's first BMX bike champion, and approves of Chain's cycles: "They look cool." He's from Gyanodaya School, where Chain's not-for-profit, pro-cyclist sister organisation Chain Inc. has built a pump track. A girl next to Neson says she can do "endos and jumps". When asked if she has ever gone to ground while attempting stunts, she scowls, "No, I don't fall off!"
Chain's 'Jomsom' mountain bike does all it's meant to do; I take it out for a short ride and try my best to break it, and fail. The gears (and other critical components) are all trustworthy Shimano from Japan and a gear change is just a single click of the trigger. The V-brakes feel solid, something especially necessary in Kathmandu. The bike weighs a total of 14.5kg, just half a kilo more than my much pricier bike – I am resentful. The front suspension is perhaps a bit soft, but if you have never ridden a bike with proper front suspension, you won't complain – it smoothes out the potholes and leaves your eyeballs level in your head. At Rs 22,000, Jomsom is very good value.
It means freedom from most jams, from being manhandled into public transport, from petrol shortages, and from paying good money to bad taxi drivers. A personal urban favourite is the fast downhill from Pulchok to Bagmati Pul, and holding on to a tempo for the ride back up, but best is heading beyond the Ring Road onto small tracks and discovering greenery, fresh air, and great views. The Kathmandu Valley has world-class trails in abundance.
But riding in Kathmandu has an obvious dark side. While cycling is environmentally friendly, for the cyclist, the main roads of Kathmandu are far from being a friendly environment. Cyclists here have to tolerate being run off the road by pushy microbuses and impatient motorbikes. Chain Inc. means to push a pro-cycle agenda. "We're trying to get it to schools, encourage going to work by cycle, and be a voice for cyclists and non-motorists," says Prabal Thapa of Chain Inc's mission. And in light of the city's fixation with monstrous looking motorcycles, Raj Gyawali may have a crucial point when he says: "We want to make cycling sexy …that's why we have a rock star in the Chain team!"