While taking his bicycle for a ride around town in Mumbai, Shashishekhar Pathak draws curious stares from onlookers at each traffic light. It’s earned him the tag of ‘the bamboo guy’ over the last few years.
“The eyes get wider when I tell them that my bicycle is made out of bamboo. Baas ki cycle bhi banti hai (Is it even possible to make a bicycle out of bamboo)? They then go on to tap it, feel it, before arriving at the satisfaction that it is indeed, made of bamboo,” Pathak says, smiling.
It’s been five years now that Pathak has been creating bicycles out of bamboo, a passion-driven enterprise he’s christened, ‘Bamboochi’.
“Bamboo chi, as in made of bamboo,” he explains.
It all started out when the Pathaks decided to invest in a piece of land in 2013 in the interiors of Bhor taluka, which lies south of Pune. Bamboo was omnipresent on the property, and Pathak and his wife, Devika, decided to put it to good use.
“The initial plan was to create furniture, but there is enough being made around India, especially in the north-east where you get bamboo of superior quality. While watching television one day, we stumbled upon the idea of bamboo bicycles and we had our next project,” Pathak recalls.
A former pilot with the Indian Air Force, Pathak used his time off the commercial flying he does these days to put the humble shoot in the limelight once again.
“For years, bamboo has been used for construction due to its strength and durability. In fact, bamboo bicycles were made as early as the 1890s, and really took off during World War II. But the era of steel and aluminium brought consistency in the raw materials, so manufacturers made the shift. The advancement in technology — carbon fiber and strong adhesive glues — makes it possible to create a sturdy product with bamboo today,” he says.
The trips back to his land brought in another perspective on the need to work with bamboo. The local populace, who are usually occupied with the paddy harvest for about five months, usually sit idle for the rest of the year. Time and again, they would ask if he could find them a job in Mumbai or Pune. Pathak instead decided to take the work to them.
“This area is so remote that they still don’t have mobile connectivity. Their bamboos are usually sold to contractors for scaffolding work. I offered them the choice of growing bamboo of a certain quality, which we could use to make bicycle frames, and also paid them slightly more to ensure that it was up to the standard I had in mind,” he says.
The duo started out by understanding how a bicycle works and the components needed to build one. Pathak realised that a few of the components would have to be fabricated and manufactured locally, while other parts such as the seat and gears could be sourced as per the choice of each customer. The idea was to create a world-class product, which would be customised as per the needs, as well as the body structure of the rider. It was akin to scientists at work, enduring long hours of trial and error to arrive at a functional, robust design. Whenever he encountered a hurdle, Pathak looked for help in the online world, besides consulting a local expert in Faisal Thakur, who was one of the few building custom bicycles at that time, though not with bamboo.
The first bicycle took over a year to make — a single-speed variant that had just one brake for the front wheel. Over the next few months, the second one was fine-tuned and equipped with gears, hydraulic brakes and shock absorbers — on par with similar products available in the market.
“But it was way lighter than the others and handcrafted — like creating embroidery on a dress. The learning continued at each step, though the idea was never to mass produce bicycles, nor make a profit. When we had our first customer, we figured that we had got it right,” he says.
There was this joy associated with creating a customised product — from designing a frame to suit a rider over six feet tall, to tweaking the design to solve the issue of a niggling back pain for another. It takes around a month and a half on average these days to put together a complete product, proudly stamped, ‘Made in India’.
“The pleasure of riding is the most important thing for us. For this, quality is critical, so we insist on good components to go with the frame. At the same time, the design should be such that you are not compromising on the natural strength of the bamboo. We don’t want to go the ‘China ka maal’ way, which is the reputation cheap Chinese products have in the market,” he quips.
Pathak makes the most of the knowledge of the locals when it comes to the bamboo. It is harvested around Diwali and is left to dry for a few weeks. It is then inspected to ensure that it meets standards, especially when it comes to the dimensions, before putting it to use. If harvested at the right time, it is naturally resistant to pests, with little work required on the frame beside the assembly.
Over the last few years, the Pathaks have created various geared variants, an electric bike and the latest, a tandem design that has drawn a lot of attention, especially when they decide to take it for a spin around town.
“They follow us on motorbikes with cameras. It’s surprising to see a tandem bike, only for them to realise that it’s also made of bamboo,” he says.
In five years, Bamboochi frames have been exported around the world and have even toured the rugged terrain of Ladakh. The basic, single speed bicycles start at Rs 1.05 lakh, while the tandem rides are the most expensive at Rs 2.5 lakh. Pathak encourages his riders to even assemble the bike on their own, while providing technical support over the internet.
“There’s a different joy in knowing that the bike you are riding has been made by you. In fact, there have been some customers whom I’ve never met in person, though I’ve helped them put together the bike from scratch,” he says.
Pathak wants to conduct workshops in the future where customers can gain the experience of putting together bikes, while eventually riding home on them. And he wants to further help the economy in Bhor by bringing value addition to the local bamboo.
“A lot of the locals have realised what I’m doing with their bamboo. I’ve suggested simple designs that they can make, such as a stand for gardening and bamboo speakers. If someone comes to me to learn how to build bicycles, I’ll be more than happy to help them,” he says.
All the hard work over the years has borne fruit in a product that Pathak believes can matchup with any bamboo bicycle in the world. Such is his confidence that he’s offered a five-year warranty on his frames for now, which is the number of years it has been since he created his first bicycle, and he hopes to extend the warranty each year.
“Since I still ride my first bicycle, I know how good this product is. Believe me, these bicycles can be handed down to the next generation,” he says.
Rest assured, the next generation of Pathaks will not be met with inquisitive bystanders in the years to come.
All images courtesy: Bamboochi
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Updated Date: Oct 02, 2018 13:43:21 IST