Wiping off sweat from the forehead, you exert more pressure on the legs, pushing them forward. You stumble a little, but then balance yourself, blaming the uneasiness on the years lost on practise, that has built up this anxiety and nervousness. You keep on paddling, getting transported back to time when riding a bicycle was not a novelty. This might be sounding extremely unusual because bicycles, that too in Karachi? How out of the ordinary!
Critical Mass Karachi (CMK) welcomes riders from all over the city to come and join them on their bicycles. “You need to own two wheels and you should be fit enough,” says Manahel* who has been part of this organization since it began in 2009. She laughs at a childhood memory, when her father left her on a cycle expecting her to figure out a way to ride it and that is how she learnt this sport.
Reminiscing the 70s and 80s, Moiz* discusses the role a bicycle played in his life. Taught by his father, he smiles over the fond memories of cycling through the city of Karachi, admiring its rich beauty. “On my first ride, I was accompanied by very few people,” he shares, now part of the organizing team of CMK.
The idea of CMK was taken from a global movement in almost 300 cities around the world; called Critical Mass only, it promotes getting as many cyclists on the road as possible. The process of the movement is very simple, Moiz explains, “the riders meet at a certain point and ride together to another point and then everyone disperses.” The aim for all the rides has remained the same since its inception in San Francisco in 1992; to bring cyclists together and encourage the sport. It began as a rebellious organization in some countries, and is still looked upon as a social movement, in which cyclists reclaim the streets in a protest over something. However, in Karachi, it was introduced for a sole purpose – cycling. “Our agenda is to promote cycling and to make it more common in Pakistan. We want it to be restored the way it was when we were young,” explains Moiz, who is joined by Manahel, in describing the awe on people’s faces when they see a bunch of cyclists on the road.
“People love it, in fact, they salute us and stop in their tracks to make videos,’’ laughs Manahel at the reaction of Karachiites for whom people on bicycles is an astonishing sight.
Going back in time, Moiz talks about his mother’s college days where girls in saris used to ride bicycles throughout the city without feeling odd. It was a usual practise; nobody looked at them open-mouthed, like I was at the moment he revealed this, because such a sight in Karachi was beyond my imagination.
Due to the political upheaval in the city, cycling has declined and is a medium only used by the lower class. People view it as a medium of transport for the chowkidaars. This perception has led to the loss of a great sport. But “people are very positive about it. Nobody has ever hassled us. Everyone is taking it positively and are cooperative,’’ says Manahel, who explains that even women have come out to take part in it. She proudly declares that one of their best cyclists is a female. When enquired about the attire for women and everyone in general, both the members emphasized that the priority is cycling which can be done in any attire as long as it is safe. “There was a lady in a long abaya, so we asked her to wear a shorter one for her own safety. Safety is very important, we do not let them ride without a helmet,” discusses Manahel touching over the issue of safety.
Since, it is a sport, falls and tumbles are bound to happen but if you break your helmet while you are cycling, then your ride with CMK is done for the day. They don’t compromise the safety of their riders in anyway. Safety even includes stamina of the riders. If someone cannot ride their bicycle for too long, then he is welcome to bring his car along the route, and once he thinks he is done, he can go back home. There is no hard and fast rule that if you are on a route, you have to complete it. Health and safety are greater than none. One thing that Critical Mass is strict about is punctuality. If the ride is supposed to begin at 6:30 am, then it means they won’t wait for anyone.
CMK’s official rides are conducted every alternate Sunday of the month, and their members, majority of who are kept in the loop through their Facebook page, are informed through the social media website and through word of mouth. This movement has given a platform to other cyclists in the city to come out and create their own rides, shares Moiz who goes on to explain that, “People have a free hand to make their own groups. They coordinate through Facebook and make a smaller group.’’ These groups can be seen on the streets at any time of the day, the most popular one being the Ayesha Masjid group that rides bicycles to different routes every morning. “It has grown popular over the years and is very therapeutic,’’ mentions Manahel who talks about other activities happening on the road early in the morning. People, in groups, are doing different activities, like walking, jogging, or some other sports. “One purpose of this is to feel that we are living in a normal place and that you can find like-minded people,” points out Moiz stressing over the feeling of unity that results in this activity.
Around 150 to 200 people ride on Sundays and even more people join them on their special rides on days like August 14, March 23, and December 25. People feel overwhelmed by looking at such a mass and often cyclists are stopped and enquired whether this is a competition or a race. ‘’This is not a race. It is just people expressing their love for cycles,’’ Manahel repeats her ever-ready statement for anybody who enquires about the nature of the ride.
A common question popping up in many people’s mind is the issue of security at which both the members proudly beam at the power in mass numbers. “Our security is in numbers,” reveals Manahel, “we recommend our bikers not to travel alone.” The power in numbers is greater than any other security measure and you cannot enter any activity with fear in your mind, expresses Manahel, who believes that people who are passionate about it will come regardless of the situation. “'You have got a life to live. You can’t let things intimidate you,” reasons Moiz who shares a memorable incident of his son riding a bicycle to his school every day, in this day and time.
Next time you see a bunch of cyclists on the road, it is probably one of CMK rides. You can join it too; all you need is a pair of wheels, some stamina, zeal and you are good to go!
*All names have been changed to protect privacy •