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Society: Pedal all the way

Society: Pedal all the way

Every alternate Saturday, when most schools and colleges are closed and many parents are off from work, a group of cycling enthusiasts collect at a designated time and place to improve their cycling skills.

Armed with whatever cycles and gear they can buy, borrow or rent, they stand ready, waiting to ride their wheels. Some display their newly purchased top-of-the-line bikes with pride, some rattle resolutely on borrowed rickety frames and some wait impatiently in a supporting car awaiting their turn on a shared bike.

A group of people cycling on the street may be a mundane sight and even downright a pedestrian event, but in a city where public spaces have become no-go zones, it is a bold move to reclaim lost territory. It has provided a much-needed outlet to citizens, and is slowly rebuilding the community spirit.

Khawaja Zeeshan, a senior rider and one of the administrators, explains the philosophy, “When we were children, we used to happily cycle on the streets. Then times changed and those days were lost. People became afraid to venture out and expose themselves to dangers lurking outside like kidnappers, street crimes and random firing; becoming overprotective about their children. We want to give back that kind of environment to this generation so that they can pass it on to the next generation. We try to provide these children a safe, supervised setting to let them also experience the freedom of cycling on the streets. Maybe we will not be here in the coming years but we will have prepared a cycling community.”

The Critical Mass Karachi Junior (CMKJ) ride is an off-shoot of Critical Mass Karachi (CMK), a free-for-all cycling movement initiated to reclaim and promote Karachi’s public spaces. It started out when, in 2014, a group of active cyclists from the CMK started holding weekly training sessions to pass on their cycling skills to their children.

According to another senior rider and administrator, Ovais Lali, “This is a generation of techie kids who live a sedentary and unhealthy life glued to various screens. We wanted to give our children an avenue for physical activity. Since we are active cyclists ourselves, a handful of us, including Tauseef Islam and Taimur Amjad started teaching cycling to our own young children.

Word spread that there was a cycling training camp and soon more and more children and even adults joined us. Now there are at least 30 plus children under 10, a dozen teenagers and more than a dozen senior newbies. In each session we now have around 80 trainee riders.”

The Facebook page that announces the rides also reminds all cyclists to check that all bikes are road-worthy, with working brakes and full tyre pressure; safety helmets are a must. On the page you can post any relevant queries and sure enough you will receive experienced and friendly advice and assistance, including bike renting, buying and borrowing facilities.

When the cyclists assemble at the designated meeting point, there is a quick cursory check that everything is in order before the group takes off on the dot. The selected route is an easy one. It avoids challenges like headwinds, off-roading, slopes and traffic, to allow the children and newbies the comfort and safety of moving in a secure zone at their own pace, till they are ready for something more challenging.

The roads are properly tarmacked and often deserted, which lessens the chances of possible injury. The slow-paced ride of approximately 10km lasts about an hour, with short breaks for rehydration and regrouping after every two to three kilometres.

The administrators of the group — including Nader Cowasjee, Shoaib Nizami and Abbas Ali — rarely need megaphones to guide the pack. They are loud enough to call out to the riders to start or stop riding, to turn left or right, or to follow the leader.

Ahsan Qadir and Irfan Aslam are among the many selfless volunteers and guides. They show the new cyclists how to adjust their bike height and seat to fit their size and frame, and how to strap on their helmets properly. They encourage them to ride in a single file in a straight line, instead of zigzagging, for the safety and comfort of other riders; instil road sense and respect for traffic rules; remind the cyclists to stay on the left side of the road at all times for their own safety, and to allow traffic to pass easily.

They cheer on cyclists when they slow down or get tired and guide them with bike and gear selection, suitable food and rehydration suggestions along with teaching skills like balancing, gear changing, cycling and braking safely, and when to speed up or slow down. Besides personal back-up cars belonging to fellow cyclists, there is also a van in tow.

When the ride ends it’s heartening to see some children come up especially to thank volunteers for their assistance. Towards the end of the ride, they are bursting with energy and often overexcited, and have to be reminded to not go past the leader. If the route becomes longer, it’s mostly the children who don’t tire easily.

At five years of age, Zara might be the youngest rider. Her parents taught her to ride without the trainer wheels two months ago, and since then she has been cycling with the CMKJ. Her face is flushed with pride and joy as she pushes the pedals. She is so excited about cycling that her parents have to take her out for a daily ride. When her parents go to the senior ride without her, they have to compensate by taking her out for a ride in their neighbourhood.

Nine-year-old Dawood started cycling “a long time ago” — two months, to be precise. He races to the head of the pack, brimming with vigour and confidence.

The older riders love the adrenalin too. Many of them are old-time cyclists who have come back to cycling to relive the good old days.

Farah used to cycle with her siblings when she was younger. They lived in an officers’ mess, and they could bike at will inside the safe zone. Like many adults who had become cautious about using public spaces, she, too, was apprehensive. But thanks to the group, about 40 years later she is back on her bike, and loves the freedom of riding down the street.

The CMKJ was approached by two schools to introduce cycling to their students. The administrators went to the campus with bicycles and spoke to them about the basics and merits of cycling, then arranged helmets and bicycles for the recruits.

“The CMKJ’s aim is to convert more and more people to taking up cycling as a means of transport. There were 96 cyclists on the last ride. It was a great feeling,” enthused Nader.

It’s a great way to make new friends and meet old ones. Groups of families, neighbours, and school and college friends hang out for bonding and relaxing. When the ride ends, there is a critical mass of flushed, smiling faces.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2016

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