Riding a motorcycle in India

On the road to AhmedabadThe ride to Ahmedabad was a reminder why I love this life on the road. Just me and my wife Tanya, riding through what are often beautiful, unfamiliar lands, experiencing everything together – this has been a large part of our lives over the last three years. In many ways it is as romantic as some may think, but there is another side, one which is not so nice.
The beauty you see is sometimes matched by the horror (to me at least) – the amount of killed dogs on the roads is impossible to count, the scenery is not always ideal – ugly buildings and industrial, smoke belching areas really do not make for inspirational riding. And then there are the road users, who, well let’s just say they do not always act as one might expect, nor do the pedestrians – I’ve had much more close calls than I would have liked to, over the years. To top everything off there is the ‘pain in the butt factor’ (literally) – over a long journey a motorcycle seat becomes the least comfortable place in the world and even a roach-infested hotel starts to seem like a welcoming alternative.
Riding around India is not easy, but it is far from impossible and not as insane as many visitors to India may think. All that one needs is the knowledge of how the Indian roads work, once things begin to make sense everything starts to feel much less daunting.

Here are some simple tips for those who want to ride a motorcycle around India or simply want to know what it’s like.

Buy a motorcycle that will not keep breaking down
Buying a 20-year-old Enfield that has been ridden by every foreigner in Goa that ever wanted to ride a bike is not a good idea. I have used a Bajaj Pulsar and a Hero Honda CBZ. I prefer the first and this is the bike that I still have. Both are 150cc bikes, but they will get you through almost any tough roads. The Pulsar gives a better mileage per liter and from personal experience I can say that I have pushed it to the max and beyond and it survived. These bikes can be bought second hand; I wouldn’t go for anything that is more than 5 years old. To give an idea of a price – my 2003 Pulsar cost 33,000 Rupees in 2007. It was in great condition and didn’t have any breakdowns throughout the journey. Those who have more cash to fork out or prefer a bigger bike – go for one of the newer Enfields, from every single account I have heard that the old ones break down very often, but a wise young Indian man told me that his new Enfield hasn’t had so much as a flat tire, that sounds good to me.

Size Matters
On Indian roads whoever is bigger has the right of way. Do not try to play chicken with a truck; you may not like the results. The only exception to the rule is the cow; it roams the streets freely, at a leisurely pace, while everyone stops and gives way.

Volume Matters – The horn is your friend
Everyone on Indian roads uses the horn with no remorse. The louder your horn the more chances you have of being heard by the half-asleep truck driver who is listening to very loud music and blocking your lane to overtake him. The horn should be used in many situations. When you see a grandmother crossing the road with a pile of wood on her head without looking to either side – use the horn. When you approach a herd of cows or goats – use the horn; they will often part for you. When you want to overtake a vehicle – use the horn. When you go through a forested area, which potentially houses animals you should scare the crap out of them, so they do not come near the road – use the horn Basically any time you are in doubt – use the horn.

Expect the unexpected
Just because a one-way, two-lane road means one-way in your country doesn’t mean it is the same in India. You will see vehicles in the wrong lane all the time, but I was surprised the first time I saw a truck doing 80 km/h in the opposite direction of a one-way national highway. Indian road users seem to be very practical and rules are only obeyed if they serve a practical purpose. Petrol is relatively expensive in India and going 5km till the next U-Turn to get into the correct lane is seen as not practical. Other unexpected occurrences include animals and children running onto the middle of the road and then there are the tree thorns. Apparently the Indian government made the initiative to plant a certain type of tree along the roads, so as to make India greener and less polluted. It just so happens that the tree grows huge thorns and in the dry season, when some of the branches fall off, they inevitably end up on the roads. The thorns will puncture your tires; ask me, I spent a month recovering from an accident after puncturing the front tire of my bike and loosing control.

Flash your headlights
When a vehicle is speeding towards you at an insane speed in your lane and you have no place to give way, the signal to communicate your predicament is to flash your headlights. The more you flash them the more urgency you communicate. For the ultimate effect flash the lights and sound the horn.

Learn to read the road
This is kinda obvious, as we must learn to look for clues that could signal a potential hazard on the roads at home. However there are additional hazards in India as well as additional signals. For example – a turbaned man carrying a long stick over his shoulder is a shepherd and if you are seeing him, there is a good chance that his herd of cattle is soon to follow.

I’ve got your back
The reason why you may often see vehicles turning or doing maneuvers in the middle of the road without ever checking the mirrors or looking behind is because the vehicle coming from behind is expected to be aware that the one at the front can do anything at any time. This rule mostly applies to city/town roads with heavy traffic, however doing it like the locals is not really recommended, just be aware of things are.

Riding after dark is not a good idea
First there are the huge bugs that smash against the helmet screen, or take out your eyes if you don’t have protection. There are also the wonderful drivers/riders who only use high beam on roads outside well-lit areas. If you are heading in the opposite direction of a vehicle that is using the high beam you pretty much cannot see anything except for the light, considering that a cow could a few meters in front, this is not a very good situation to be in. Then there are those vehicles which are huge, but look like small vehicles because they only have one light working. A big truck can easily look like a motorcycle when one of its headlights is broken, but mistaking it for a motorcycle can lead to a very unhappy ending.

Yours truly tryuing to get the motorcycle across a monsoon flooded road

Yours truly trying to get the motorcycle across a monsoon flooded road

Well, that’s about it. I’ve probably missed a lot, but then a whole book can probably be written on the topic of motorcycle riding around India.

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19 Responses to “Riding a motorcycle in India”

  1. Jay Says:

    Hi,

    Good to hear that your journey is going well.

    If in Ahmedabad and need anything let me know. Shall try and help.

    Ride Safe…

    Have also replied to your post in India Mike..

  2. Neville Says:

    Hey Mitchell ,
    Nice travelogue ..I am planning to do the same. I plan to buy a enfield ( newer one ) and go around India sometime later this year or perhaps next ( this year is the year of the recession ) . How dangerous is it ?..I am a safety conscious person ,but cannot control the other around me,That notwithstanding I still have the urge to go out on those deathly highways. You can email me ..

  3. camilo bucelli Says:

    WHAT ARE ALL THOSE ACCESSORIES THE MOTORCYCLE HAS?…CAN YOU PLEASE POST MORE PICTURES OF IT?.

    I HAVE A COUPLE OF PULSARS (VERY POPULAR HERE IN COLOMBIA) AND I AM VERY INTERESTED I THOSE MODIFICATIONS…

    THANKS

  4. Karine Ardault Says:

    reminding me so much of driving in Tanzania…

  5. Motorcycle Parts Says:

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  9. reinaldo seco Says:

    hi man mi name is reinaldo and i and my girlfriend are travel in india with a royal enfield thunderbird we just drive from anjuna to hampi for 4 days and at the start was crazy i was nearly criying in the road then you get to a village or town and youre think you are safe but dont hundres cars bikes people and sound is grat driving a bike here gives you the freedom to go anywhere and so far it was an amazing xpirience ill will give you my email so you can give more tips we are in hampi in aour way to mysore well write me back adios. alfonsoseco@gmail.com

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  12. Jagdeep Singh ( JD ) Says:

    Hi Guys

    Thos of you who are NOT used to riding in India, it may not be a bad idea to contact the local HOG chapter, as we tend to go for long rides, so they may be able to give you guys a lil heads up on local conditions and most chapters are quite well networked.

    Feel free to email me shd anyone need any assistance.

    Ride Safe..Ride Hard

    JD Singh
    Sever Islands Chapter-Harley Davidson
    Mumbai

  13. Rahim Says:

    Great advice. Will definitely link to it.

    Visit us for more information on Motorcycle Touring in India

  14. Dhawal Makwana Says:

    As Indians, we rarely feel out of place when the above mentioned happens. But now since you mention it and while on a smoke break out of my office, I focused and saw somethings usually unusual:

    A car taking an illegal U-turn in front of a cop
    @ motorcyclists chatting up in the secong lane of the road.
    A dog waiting for the pedestrian signal to turn green as a man running across the street to make it up for a meeting he is probably late for.
    A Evil Kneivel fan who fly-by’d a couple of people on a motorcycle.
    Illlegally parked vehicles and numerous jay walkers.

  15. Two wheeler in India Says:

    You are absolutely right riding around India is really not easy and that too on motorcycles really very tough. Riding a two wheeler in India after dark is Very bad idea.

  16. self balancing vehicle Says:

    In India some of the cities are very beautiful for riding motorcycles but some where it is not so easy if you are traveling in rural areas you will find the roads are not save to drive.

  17. Yogesh Kumar Says:

    Thanks for sharing useful information with us.

  18. XTorque Says:

    Get your motorcycle serviced before you start your journey.
    For a more secure and impeccable riding it is vital to get the bike running easily.
    Get an appointment now. Make your motorcycle run smoothly.
    For more information visit http://Xtorque.com

  19. avemfly619 Says:

    Visit us http://www.royalbikeriders.com/
    for more information on Motorcycle trip India

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