I was huddled in the back of an early morning tuk-tuk from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport to the seaside town of Negombo when I saw them: a couple of local cyclists.
We kept driving. Soon there were hundreds of them riding in strung-out small groups, blazing through the busy morning chaos of Colombo’s suburbs towards the railway station.
This was no ordinary morning workout. These cyclists were nearly all hammering along on ancient steel roadsters, known locally as standard bikes. They’re weighty, rusty single speeders with wheelbases longer than the tuk-tuk.
That evening a tuk-tuk driver showed up at my guesthouse in Negombo to take me to the house of Babi, a local standard bike racing legend. Turning into a small side street, we came across a general store where Babi and his cycling family lived. A keen cyclist myself, I was here to join them on the roads.
Babi and his brothers, all pushing 50, are lifelong devotees to cycling. It was obvious from the classic 1950s Rudge and Raleigh roadsters outside their house. ‘These are about 50 years old. They belonged to my father,’ Lakshman De Silva, Babi’s older brother, told me.
All over Sri Lanka you’ll find thousands of bikes, usually carrying a family or laden with goods just bought or ready to sell. But these heavyweight single speeders are designed for sport, not commerce. A good, old, race-ready bike can be found for around 5,000 rupees (HK$255).
‘We all grew up cycling as our father was a racer,’ says De Silva. ‘Babi was a big rider here – in 1984 he was Sri Lankan Champion on a regular road bike.’
Thousands of races happen throughout the year, all organised by word of mouth. The most intense are around the Sinhalese New Year (April, along with the Buddhist New Year).
Given the intense heat of the Sri Lankan flatlands it’s hard to imagine riding any serious distance on these hefty things. ‘Last week the race was about 80 kilometres; next week it’s 130 kilometres, and there will be more than 100 riders there,’ says De Silva.
Which is tough to imagine on any single speeder, let alone a 17-kilogram 50-year-old bike with a regulation set standard gear ratio, with average speeds of 35 kilometres per hour. Let’s get some context here: today’s top-end road bikes weigh less than seven kilos.
With standard bikes rod brakes and heavy roadster tyres are necessary, and part-rusted steel handlebars with added aerobars and lighter components are also the norm. Many still use original steel cranks, but some have switched to aluminium, and most now come with clipless pedals, alloy seatposts and ageing saddles. A few riders have managed to procure alloy rims, hubs and even front wheel quick-release hubs.
The chances of any of these riders ever making it to Europe to race are slender. Making money from sponsorship is not much of an option. But these guys live to ride. They follow the Tour de France, scour glossy cycling magazines and skimp by with kit most of us would have thrown out a decade ago. On any given morning you’ll find these riders duelling it out with the rush hour traffic. Babi himself still rides between 60 and 80 kilometres a day on a standard bike – and still competes.
The next day I caught sight of three young riders who were just winding down from their daily training session. One was wearing the 2013 Sri Lankan National Champion jersey, and all three were lean-and-mean-looking.
Humbly, and with an air of confusion, we set off together: me hanging out of a tuk-tuk with a camera, and these riders thrashing it out for all they were worth behind us.
Without gears the cyclists can only ride on the flat, so they stick to roads along the coastal strip – a mix of urban roads with commuter traffic, peppered with semi-rural snapshots and narrow, twisty backroads lined with houses and trees.
Turning off the main road, they dismounted and entered a small garden. An old, bearded man with wild hair, wearing nothing but a grubby sarong, greeted us with a huge smile.
This place is the daily breakfast stop for many of the local riders: a true Sri Lankan cyclist café, with none of the frills – not even a name. A stack of standard bikes was perched against the wall where aged images of Jesus and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich covered the cracks. Roti and curry were served up along with a cup of sweet Ceylon tea. The owner emerged with a thumbnail-sized, hand carved bicycle, made from a coconut from his garden. It was my welcome present.
Beneath that jaded poster of Ullrich the café owner’s wife looked on. They had no real idea of who I was or why I was there, but they were so happy to see a foreigner as nuts about cycling as they were.
A rollercoaster ride in Asia
It’s the first thing veteran travellers say in Beijing or Bangkok, Hanoi or Mumbai: where have all the bikes gone?
As wealth and opportunity in Asia have grown, so has the use of first motorcycles and then cars.
The temperate cities of the Americas and Europe increasingly design their cities around the needs of two-wheeled, unmotorised commuters. In early-adopter Copenhagen, 36 per cent of commutes are by bicycle. But in ever-modernising Asia, where car ownership continues to rise, it might seem that the bicycle belongs to the era of black and white photos and big straw hats.
In fact, the picture is more complicated – and changing.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey showed that bikes are still more common than cars globally. And two of the countries with the highest percentage of bike owners are Asian: Japan (78 per cent) and Thailand (74 per cent), behind only Germany.
World bicycle production fell drastically in the 1970s as car prices fell and incomes rose. According to the Earth Policy Institute the trend reversed in the early 1980s: global bike production climbed to 108 million by 1988. Between 1989 to 2001, production slowed down again.
Now the figures are again rising fast. Despite growing car ownership in China, 65 per cent of households have a bicycle. And now, you don’t even need to own one: the increasingly pollution-phobic country has the world’s greatest number of bike sharing schemes.
Taiwan – a global leader in bike manufacturing – has over 4,000 kilometres of bike lanes. Singapore has launched a National Cycling Plan. Only about one per cent of journeys are made by bike in the Lion City now – but with a 700-kilometre-long bike lane network planned, that will change. All they need are a few Danish-style cool breezes. By John Burbage
Cathay Pacific flies to Colombo from Hong Kong seven times a week