In the early 1920s, young Asta Narayan Manandhar got to ride a bicycle that belonged to a Rana aristocrat, for the very first time. Bicycles were very rare at the time and only a handful of them were seen on the streets of Kathmandu, almost all belonging to the ruling class. In his excitement, Asta Narayan crashed the bicycle and broke his leg.
The accident did not quash Asta Narayan’s enthusiasm for bicycles though. They would definitely sell in Nepal, he thought and began exploring their import. When he learned that he could buy bicycles in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he left immediately, and returned with six units of British-made Hercules bicycles. Hence in 1925 began the “Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan” store on the ground floor of his own home at Ason Kamalachhi, making it the first-ever cycle shop in Nepal.
At around Rs 100 a piece, the bicycles he brought were quite expensive for the time. But Kathmandu’s government officials and merchant class soon took to riding, sparking a bicycle culture in Nepal. As business became brisk and imports more frequent, in 1934 the firm also started selling Raleigh bicycles. And bicycles became a family business for the Manandhars.
Asta Narayan’s son Tirtha Manandhar took over the firm in the 1950s, by which time bicycles had become an important mode of conveyance in the city. There was a major shift in ownership as commoners also started getting bicycles for regular use.
The “Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan” firm saw yet another generation at the helm of the business in the 1970s when Asta’s grandson, Tri Ratna Manandhar, took over the family business. He would see it flourish as in the capital as well as other parts of Nepal.
Tri Ratna, who had a degree in mechanical engineering from Poland, set about changing the business model. He first renamed the firm “Pancha Asta Narayan Cycle” as the previous name was too long. Tri Ratna was collaborating with India’s largest-selling Hero Bicycles and planned on setting up a factory to produce bicycles in Nepal. Unfortunately, his plans had to be shelved when he died in a motorbike accident in 1982. Other members of the family continued the business, but not with the same vision and enthusiasm of Tri Ratna.
Bikes to motorbikes
Then came the 1990s when the change in the political system also brought changes to the country’s socio-economic environment. With rapid infrastructure development and people’s growing need for faster mobility, bicycles gave way to motorbikes, cars, and public vehicles. The demand for bicycles started dwindling and Kathmandu’s streets were soon filled with motor-vehicles instead.
“The business was hit really hard then,” recalls Tirek Manandhar (37), the fourth-generation owner of the original “Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan” store who got into the business from 2000 and shortened the name to “Panc Bikes.” Tirek, also a mechanical engineering graduate from IOE, Pulchowk, was about to leave the country to pursue his career abroad before he decided to give the family business a chance.
“First, I thought of diversifying our imports,” Tirek says. “There are generally seven categories of bicycles and from 1925 to 1990, we were only importing category one, and had just about started importing category two.” The categories, Tirek explains, are city road bikes (Rs 7,000-20,000), hybrid offroad bikes (Rs 12,000-30,000), casual mountain bikes (Rs 25,000-30,000), cross-country bikes (Rs 50,000+), trail bikes (Rs 100,000+), enduro bikes (Rs 250,000+), and downhill bikes (Rs 350,000 and above.)
“Back then, only tourists bought a bike above category two. I started importing category three and four and that changed our market altogether,” Tirek says. From people using bicycles only to commute, the Panc Bikes had penetrated the market for recreational and fitness enthusiasts. Now the demand for casual mountain bikes, cross-country and trail bikes are extremely high, with many users also upgrading to higher categories.
The reformed store not only sold bicycles in wholesale and retail markets, but also started organizing bicycle tours around the city to promote bike culture. Tirek himself is a cycling activist and is associated with many organizations promoting it in Kathmandu. With many international cities now becoming more and more bicycle-friendly, Tirek and his fellow enthusiasts believe a strong bike culture in Kathmandu will greatly reduce the city’s traffic and pollution. Also, if bicycling is promoted all over the country, the country’s dependence on imported fuel will decrease.
Tirek understood changing customer demands and market dynamics, which he addressed by introducing new services besides import and sell. “We now have exchange schemes that let people upgrade their bicycles. They can bring their old bikes to us and go home with a brand new one,” he says. The exchange scheme has attracted a great number of customers already, he informs. Also, commercial banks have started issuing easy loans to purchase bicycles, payable through EMI, which in turn is motivating people to opt for higher-end bicycles.
Not just business
But even as bicycle culture tries to gain a foothold in Kathmandu, lack of infrastructure and policies hinder its growth, Tirek complains. “It’s not only about my business but about people and society as a whole. A city that cycles is healthy. Our government, as well as private organizations, need to address this.” Apart from infrastructure development, organizations can motivate more people to cycle to work by giving them incentives, Tirek suggests.
Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to maintain social distance and avoid public vehicles, as well as to exercise for greater immunity, resulting in a rocketing demand for bicycles. The same is true in Nepal, Tirek explains. “Many people have bought bicycles in this period to exercise, for recreational purposes, and to avoid public transport,” he says. “We are already in short supply, especially of categories three and four bikes. Our suppliers have put us on a waiting list of six to seven months.”
Despite the surge in demand, Tirek fears this might be a temporary phenomenon. “When full traffic resumes, the roads will be too crowded and people might have other things to do. But I sincerely hope that more and more people take up cycling, be it for commuting or recreation,” he says. He adds that the growth of his business is inextricably tied to the growth of a healthy Nepali society.