Think of bicycles, and your first mental image could be something pretty fancy. Depending on which side of the sport you favor, you could end up thinking of a road bike or an MTB, maybe DH, CX, BMX, TT, tandem or recumbent.
But for people in most parts of the World such as Asia, Africa and South America, the bicycle conjures up a very different image – that of the humble roadster. And this simple, hardy machine has spawned innumerable hacks to extend its usefulness and functionality by enterprising people with limited means. For them, it is not as much a means of transport, as a means for livelihood and survival.
Mumbai’s population is estimated to be about 20 million with a density second only to Dhaka, Bangladesh. For scale, that’s about a third of the whole of UK, and half of all of Canada. Just delivering food to all these people is no mean feat. Enter the Dabbawallah, a uniquely Mumbai profession whose existence helps most Mumbaikars eat on time.
Late in the mornings, a Dabbawallah goes about house to house collecting the tiffin boxes (“dabbas”, essentially lunch boxes) on his roadster bicycle, and then delivers it at the nearest train station. The dabbas are then sorted, aggregated and taken to their destinations, where another Dabbawallah does a similar job of delivering them to their owners. Repeat in reverse in the late afternoon, and by evening all dabbas are back to their homes. Based on what I see every day when I bike commute to work, these folks carry anywhere between 40 to 50 dabbas on each bicycle. The bike rear rack, called a “carrier”, holds dozens of sturdy hooks, as does the front handlebar, for holding the dabbas. No other vehicle in Mumbai is capable of performing this task as well as the roadster can, and only very recently have some Dabbawallahs been able to “upgrade” to Mopeds. While a little bit quicker, these Mopeds can nowhere carry as many dabbas as the roadsters can.
The Knife Sharpener
I’m not sure if this is a common sight in other places, but out here, we used to have a lot of them cycling around the streets of towns and cities all over. Unfortunately, they are becoming increasingly rare, and I nowadays spot just one or two during a month in Mumbai. To do their job, they need to roam the streets and go house to house asking if people want to sharpen their kitchen knives. The roadster allows them to cover a much larger area compared to walking. But the roadster also doubles up as the sharpening machine. A bike stand over the rear wheel allows the bike to be propped up so it stays upright. The sharpener loops a piece of twine between a large pulley in the rear wheel and a small one fixed on the top tube. The small pulley drives the grinding wheel. The sharpener then sits on the rear rack, and pedals away while sharpening the knives over the grinding wheel.
roadsters are commonly used in many parts of the world for transportation, with local variations. For example, in my neck of the woods, plywood is a widely used material when people are furnishing their houses. The last mile delivery, from the plywood shop to the house, is done using a roadster. The sheets range in size from 8’x4’ down to 6’x3’ (yeah, the Imperial system still persists in Architecture related activities here). How do you get such large sheets on the bike? All you need is a small “J” hook attached to the chain stay of the bicycle. The sheets are then placed resting on the “J” hook and the drive side pedal. The delivery guy just walks the bicycle to his destination. With minor hacks to the bicycle, locals are able to move large volumes or weight of cargo – coconuts, loaves of bread, large stacks of eggs or bunches of (live) chickens, children’s toys and more. The Milkman and the Postman on roadster bicycles are a common sight, even in Mumbai. There’s nothing that can’t be moved on the roadster.
Gas Cylinder Delivery
This is by far, the scariest cargo bike hack I’ve ever seen. Not everyone here has piped cooking gas, and a large percentage of homes receive cooking gas cylinders. These are delivered on three-wheeled trikes. The rear triangle and drive train from a roadster is mated to a cargo cage officially designed to hold four or six cylinders. There’s just one brake, activated by pushing a foot lever on the seat tube, connected to the rear wheel. An empty cylinder weighs about 15 kg and a full cylinder is 30 kg. To reduce trips from the warehouse to the consumers, the delivery guys load anywhere from 12 to 16 cylinders on the trike. All told, they’re pushing a weight in excess of 400 kg, with just a puny pair of brake shoes to stop them. It’s always a sight to see these trikes being driven on the narrow, crowded streets of Mumbai. Sometimes, they use bicycles, loading five to six cylinders weighing almost 150 kg.
Everyone’s probably seen trike “Rickshaws” popular in Asia. Takes two or three adults or a large bunch of kids (ferrying them to/from school in small towns).
Every example here involves people struggling to eke out a living, so the bicycles don’t get any fancy gear drive trains to help make things easier. In most cases, it is just a rusty chain turning a dry sprocket, with a single brake if it’s a trike. But the roadster is such a hardy machine, that it takes a lot of abuse before it gives up the ghost.
The bicycle is likely one of humankind’s best inventions, and the simple roadster is not just a vehicle to get from one place to another, but a whole lot more to millions of people around the world. Check the video below on Burundi’s Biking Bananas. The situation is exactly the same across most of Asia and Africa as shown in the video.