A brief guide to cycle touring in India

Having cycled around 3000km in India I thought I would write a brief guide in order to get down what I learnt.  This is of course in no way exhaustive as one thing I learnt was that there are a lot of different areas to India and one can deliver a completely different riding experience to another.

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One of the main things to remember when riding in India is to try and be patient.  There are a lot of frustrating things that will occur and taking them with a pinch of salt is necessary for maintaining sanity. A lot of what goes on won’t make sense and will seem illogical, getting annoyed with it won’t help though.

  • Roads
  • Drivers
  • Internet
  • Accommodation
  • Police
  • Food
  • Water
  • Bicycle shops
  • Roads

The roads in India are unpredictable to say the least.  There are Expressways, national highways, state highways and local roads.  Their classification does offer some guide as to their quality but not always – I rode on some terrible national highways and some amazing local roads.  Generally though a national or state highway should be in better condition than local roads and you can attempt to plan accordingly.  If you want to be sure of making good time stay off local roads as they are the most likely to be awful.  And when I say awful I mean awful – some of them are barely passable with huge potholes and rocky surfaces.  You do not want to try and cycle in India without a tough bike, it is likely it would get shaken to pieces!

One thing I would say is that you seem to be able to ride on pretty much every road if you are on a bicycle.  There may be some of the major expressways that you cannot ride on but I wouldn’t work on the basis that you won’t be able to do so.  Toll roads are also not closed to cyclists and you can just go through the gate for scooters.  In fact I would recommend them, toll roads are often the smoothest and quickest roads.  While they may be a bit busy I never felt in more danger riding on them as there is usually a big hard shoulder that lets you keep out of the way of other traffic.

  • Drivers

Driving in India is awful.  It is every man for himself.  If you are going to cycle here it is important to ride aggressively and stand up for yourself.  You also need eyes in the back of your head and the side – traffic can come from any direction at almost any time.

That said, in some ways I felt safer cycling in India than in other countries.  India is not a country that has been given over to the car.  All manner of vehicles ply the roads there from huge articulated lorries down to pedestrians strolling the highways with everything in between including camels, elephants and rickshaws.  This means that drivers are used to unusual vehicles moving slowly or barely at all, so while a touring cyclist may be unusual, vehicles that move in a similar fashion to touring bicycles are not.  So it is possible just to blend in with the traffic.  Still India has very high accident rates so nobody is safe anyway!

In fact someone I toured with earlier on my trip got knocked off her bicycle by a truck when she was in India, luckily she was OK but quite easily might not have been.

  • Internet

Access to the internet in India is not great, which was surprising in some ways. WiFi is not standard in hotels in big cities, though they may have it, often the connection is slow anyway.  Outside of big cities finding WiFi in hotels is very rare and it is not readily accessible in restaurants or cafes.  Outside of big cities you don’t really get cafes anyway.

Internet cafes were rare as well and the ones I did find tended to just have a couple of run down computers.

The 3G network in India was pretty good and with Airtel I had coverage about 95% of the time, which given the size of the country was impressive.  It could be a bit intermittent though but I would certainly recommend getting a SIM card due to the paucity of other internet options.  Getting a SIM isn’t just a walk in walk out job though – you need to two passport photos and to wait for at least 24 hours for it to be activated.

  • Accommodation

In a country the size of India there is going to be a wide variety of accommodation. As a generalisation it is normally cheap but not cheerful.  Every town of any size will have at least one hotel and most will have more than one.

It is also possible to stay at temples if you really need to.

I did not try camping in India, mainly because of the heat. It is also a heavily populated country for the most part and finding somewhere quite to camp would be difficult I would imagine.

India also has a lot of couchsurfing options in the main towns if you don’t want to stay in a hotel.

One thing to note is that in the south of India hotels are not always called hotels.  Outside of major cities it is likely they will be called lodges or residencies, which is something to note if you are asking locals.  Also restaurants are sometimes called hotels which can be very confusing.

  • Police

I didn’t really have much to do with the police on my trip and didn’t have any problems with them.  They seemed more curious than anything when they spoke with me.

  • Food

There is a wide variety of food in India most of it very tasty.  The food also varies regionally.  Most of it is of course spicy which can take the stomach a while to get used to.  It is also quite easy to get sick in India as food hygiene is not always a priority.  I was lucky and managed to avoid getting ill but most people are not so fortunate.  Not eating meat out of restaurants is probably a good idea and eating at places where there are a lot of other people is normally also a good indicator.

When riding previously I had found that the snickers bar was a good way of getting energy quickly.  In India it is often too hot for chocolate and any snickers I bought were quickly a sticky mess.  I found that getting some India roti or flat breads the night before was a good snack solution.  They are a bit plain but they are filling and you can eat them with honey if desired.

  • Water

In India it is not advisable to drink the water at all.  Some sources would suggest you shouldn’t even brush your teeth with it.  Luckily bottled water is readily available though it is important to make sure that it is sealed when you purchase it.

  • Bicycle Shops

There are bicycle shops everywhere in India.  Unfortunately at most of them they are just going to look confused if you rock up on anything more complicated than a frame with two wheels and a chain.

Luckily in the major cities it is normally possible to find a bike shop with the expertise to help you if not the parts.  That said in the biggest cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad you may be able to find what you need.

I found that the Firefox bike station chain of shops were great and very helpful.  I had good experiences with them in Delhi, Chandigarh, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Chennai.  I have also heard good things about them in Mumbai.  Their website has a store locator which I found very useful.

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