How Sarika Mehta Took The Biking Queens From Surat To Singapore
Four years ago, if you had glanced through Dr Sarika Mehta’s bucket list, words like ‘bike’ or ‘ride’ wouldn’t have featured anywhere on it. Mehta, however, had always been an avid pursuer of adventures and regularly planned hiking trips to the mountains. On returning from one such trip, she invited all her friends over for brunch, and one of the men arrived on a spanking new sports bike. All of them ran out to appreciate it and Mehta casually requested him to click a picture of her with it. Having some trouble mounting the bike initially, it was a while before she could manage its bulk, provoking the friend to snarkily retort that a regular woman like her should be content with climbing mountains instead of aiming for the stars. That statement irked Mehta, and she took it upon herself to learn the intricacies of bike riding, not to prove anything to the friend but to rid herself of the humiliation and helplessness she felt at that point. Subsequently, she formed the women’s riding group Biking Queens in Gujarat and led like-minded women across the country where they addressed various social issues in both rural and urban areas. In case you were wondering, the patronising male friend continues to eat humble pie.
I come from a simple Gujarati background where women are not particularly encouraged to dabble in anything that is inherently masculine, so to speak. My in-laws were dead set against my riding a bike, but after a lot of convincing, they finally warmed up to the idea, and my husband started giving me riding lessons. Of course, there was a lot of spiteful talk behind my back, but the fact that I was representing every wife, mother, daughter or sister who wanted to ride a bike, but couldn’t, put my mind at ease. Seeing a traditional Gujarati woman on a bike roused the interest of my would-be ilk and I started receiving calls and messages from young girls who’d enquire about the nitty-gritty of biking. I had already been an advocate for many women’s issues, so I thought of using my bike as a tool to get people to really listen — nobody can shrug off the words of a woman on a bike in Gujarat!
As a mother, my first priority is to ensure that my riding schedule doesn’t clash with anything important on my family’s itinerary. Then, I have to convince and cajole the families of the riders and promise to take responsibility for their daughters/wives/mothers/sisters. After that comes research — I thoroughly study the route we are going to ride along and also contact locals in case they can give us some insights that are not found on the internet. Then comes the safety check — weather forecasts, road conditions, first aid kits, gas station stops, medical details of the riders and the works. I also make it a point to test the riding skills and techniques of the women before we embark on our journey besides giving them a 101 in acclimatisation because we often switch between different climates and altitudes. In case we are travelling to an international destination — we rode from Surat to Singapore two years ago — I also have to sort out the paperwork.
I think the most important item to carry on any trip is confidence and self-belief. Of course, that can’t be all of it, so I also carry a detailed map, a GPS unit, a Bluetooth helmet communicator, an extra set of bike keys, a puncture kit, water canteens, riding gear, an extra helmet and travel insurance papers. We also customise our bikes according to the route and always have a safety charm dangling from the handlebar, besides incorporating a social message via our helmets and riding gear. We’ve designed a special pink flag for the Biking Queens in addition to the Indian flag that we carry — they stand for empowerment and patriotism respectively.
World of our own
I’ve come such a long way since the time my husband taught me how to ride. Biking Queens covered 10 nations — India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore — in order to spread awareness about issues that we personally believed in. Last year, we travelled to various Indian states, finally ending our 10,000-km-long ride at Khardung La in Ladakh on August 15, where we hoisted the national flag on India’s highest motorable road. Another memorable trip would be the time I represented our country at the unveiling of the Global Road Safety Report by the World Health Organisation by riding across Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, South Africa and The Alps. However, nothing tops the time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted us at his residence to discuss various schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Swachh Bharat that we supported via Biking Queens.
Riders on the storm
I won’t say that riding comes without its fair share of problems but I’ve always looked at them as stepping stones. I’ve seen bike accidents happen in front of me that has left me quite shaken… I’ve been harassed by a few people… I’ve gotten stuck in a no man’s land many times… I’ve lost my way in a jungle in Kohima while crossing the Naxal areas. Despite these experiences, I love riding because the distance I travel on the road is only half the distance I travel within myself — I’ve unlocked my true potential because of it.
I have a whole schedule ready for the causes that Biking Queens would like to lend themselves to in 2018 which include training in self-defence for women, promoting health and hygiene in rural areas, educating the girl child and — this is a personal one — planning an international ride. For every woman who wants to ride a bike but keeps putting it off, I say this — our gender is already empowered, you only need to get out of your comfort zone to tap into all that talent.