• Sri Lanka's thriving race scene (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
Driven by a cocktail of pure passion and necessity, the colonial era roadster bikes of Sri Lanka fuel a thriving race scene.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
14 Aug 2017 - 12:25 PM 

More by half-anticipated luck than judgement I found myself huddled in the back of an early morning tuk-tuk ride between Colombo Airport and the seaside town of Negombo in Sri Lanka. Not far into the cramped and sweaty ride I caught sight of a few local cyclists, exactly what I was hoping for. 

They were all hammering along on fifty-year old steel roadsters, known locally as “standard bikes”. These steel beasts are weighty 17kg+ single speeds, garnished with rust and with wheelbases longer than the tuk-tuk.

Just over a year earlier I’d been pedalling along a busy southern coastal road in Sri Lanka shortly after daybreak. Rounding a corner and shimmering between a bus and a tuk-tuk I caught a glimpse of a lone “standard rider” passing in the opposite direction.

I tried in vein to track down more of these elusive dawn riders, but had drawn blanks. Eventually (a year later), through a lot of digging around I managed to track down these dawn riders, and in profusion. Most of the bikes are remnants of the former colonial era; hence the British made Raleigh, Rudge and BSA dominate. Indian made Hero bikes can also be found, but they tend to be in the minority.

On the streets of Sri Lanka you see thousands of these classic old bikes, usually carrying a family or laden with wares to sell. Bikes are a way of life, a necessity, and cars are just too expensive for most Sri Lankans.

Although many local cyclists now also have regular road bikes, they still ride standard bikes too and have a real attachment to them. They are by far the most common rides here. And, of course many of the riders can only afford to use these bikes.

Pure passion is clearly the driving force behind this retro-essential race scene, which is somewhat ignored by official cycling bodies (for whatever reasons…) yet they remain at the very core of the local cycling scene. Rod brakes, regulation gears, and heavy roadster tyres are obligatory, and part rusted steel handlebars with added “Spinaci style bars” and lighter components are also commonplace.

Many riders still use the original steel cranks, but some have switched to aluminium, and most bikes now come pimped with clipless pedals, alloy seat posts and aging saddles – all seemingly from the 1980’s. A few riders have even managed to procure alloy rims, and even front quick release hubs.

Make no mistake about it, these guys are serious about their cycling; they just do not have the funds and resources to sharpen their game with ultra modern bikes and bits, and it doesn’t seem to bother them one bit.

The chances of any one of these riders ever making it to Europe to race are even more slender that the roads they ride, and making money from sponsorship is a negligible option here.

On any given morning you’ll find masses of these riders duelling it out between themselves and the rush hour traffic. Over the course of my stay I spent a few very early mornings hanging out of a tuk tuk with my cameras, chasing these riders through the rush hour traffic.

One group of riders invited me to join them for a breakfast roti after their ride. Turning off the main road they dismounted and entered a non-descript garden. An old bearded man with wild hair and wearing nothing but a grubby sarong greeted us with a huge smile.

It was open plan and basic, with jaded and ragged images of Jesus and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ulrich adorning the wall. This was a surreal moment, and I’d never seen anything quite like it.

This was a whole different world – and yet the stack of standard bikes perched against the wall made it a real home from home for me, as a cyclist.