Mumbai-based Ashutosh Palep has a medical degree and runs a successful pharmaceutical business. But his passion is superbikes. He'd rather be known as a 'Ducatisti' - as fans of Italian luxury bike maker Ducati's products are called - rather than as a doctor or an entrepreneur. He is the moving spirit in India of the Desmo Owners Club (named after the desmodromic valve used in Ducati bikes) a global association of Ducati bike lovers, who travelled in July this year to Misano, Italy, to meet other Ducati aficionados and participate in the World Ducati Week, held at the Marco Simoncelli World Circuit racing track there.
"It was a test of steel where we took part in several competitions over three fun-filled days," he says. "The journey to Misano was also an experience, especially the ride from Rome to the Stelvio Pass across the snowy Alps. I also got a sneak peek at the new model Ducati will be launching in 2017." Though Ducati entered India only in 2015, long after its global peers, it has already sold over 100 of its high-end brands here. Palep's current favourite is Ducati's 1,200-cc Diavel Carbon, which cost him a cool `18 lakh. Nor is it the costliest model available in India - that honour goes to the Panigale 1299R, with an ex-showroom price of `49 lakh.
Ducati's success is not isolated. Around 10,000 superbikes have been sold in India so far, with the market growing at 25 per cent, twice that of regular two-wheelers. Almost all the leading global superbike makers sell in India as well: Ducati, Triumph, Indian, BMW, Moto Guzzi and Harley-Davidson. Indeed there are more brands of luxury bikes available in the country than the run-of-the-mill commuter ones, making India one of the hottest emerging markets for superbikes. From sports bikes to roadsters to adventure and cruiser superbikes for long distance rides - all are available in India across brands.
Clearly, growing affluence in India has given rise to a new class of enthusiasts like Palep, for whom bikes are not just a means of transport but of self realisation. "Indians are looking for adventure and freedom and riding a superbike gives them a sense of both," says Vimal Sumbly, Managing Director, Triumph Motorcycles India. "Our buyers in India are the youngest in the world. With road connectivity rapidly growing, the craze for these super machines is bound to rise." Ravi Avalur, Managing Director, Ducati India, believes his success is due to Indians' innate curiosity. "Indians are psychologically experimental," he says. "This urge is prevalent in the brand conscious young achiever. Our bikes score because they are sporty and safe with technical refinement for great speeds."
Superbike lovers span a wide spectrum of achievers. There is Gurupratab Boparai, Fiat India Autormobile's CEO, who may sell cars for a living, but prefers two-wheelers for pleasure. "I discovered my passion while riding a lot in Italy,' he says. "Returning to India, I have grown to love Triumph's products - I started with the 800-cc Bonneville and have moved on to the 1,200-cc Thruxton." There is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Captain of the Indian cricket team, who owns an array of superbikes; Sanjeev Mohanty, ex-CEO of Jabong, who uses a Triumph Explorer XC; there is George Muthoot, Chairman of the Muthoot Group, who rides Triumph's 800-cc Tiger; there are Bollywood celebrities like John Abraham and Ranbir Kapoor, whose passion for biking is known to all.
An icon among riders is Vir Nikai, the only Indian among the seven selected for Ducati's 'Round-the-World' trip to celebrate its 90th anniversary this year, each rider covering a different stretch. Under the supervision of former racer Beppe Gualini, Nikai kick-started the relay, biking from Bologna, Italy to Moscow, Russia on his new Multistrada 1,200-cc Enduro. "It was more than an experience," he says. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity using one of the best machines in the world."
Biking together has even become a means of networking for some among the young and wealthy, much the way golf has been for decades. Superbike manufacturers, too, encourage the growth of biking communities using their products - if Ducati has its Desmo Owners Club, Truimph has Riders Association of Triumph (RAT) while BMW has Motorrad. Harley-Davidson leads the pack with 22 groups across the country. These bands of brothers organise rallies, bike nights, food sojourns, charity rides and concerts, providing superbike owners increasing opportunities to meet others of their kind.
But wouldn't superbikes be tough to ride on Indian roads amid Indian traffic? Their manufacturers insist they have enough and more safeguards, including customised technology options, which make them perfectly manoeuvrable even at low speeds. "Our bikes can be ridden everywhere from Chandni Chowk to Cochin," says Sumbly of Triumph. "The high level of customisation they provide makes them appealing to even the most demanding customers. Safety features, such as an anti-lock braking system, are standard across all our models." Truimph also has a Tiger Training Academy, which conducts safe riding workshops in Indian cities. "For the inexperienced, superbikes can be quite nasty," says Avalur of Ducati. "We need to teach the finer aspects of riding such bikes."
Superbikes made their first entry into India in the mid-1990s when BMW teamed up with Hero Motors (leader in mass market bikes). But the effort had to be abandoned because of inadequate after-sales service. In their second coming, most superbike makers have taken care of this lacuna, setting up extensive service networks on par with those available anywhere else - Milan, New York, Shanghai or Tokyo. "All our superbikes are supported by highly-trained technical staff to provide the best of service," says Pankaj Dubey, Managing Director of Polaris India, selling agent for the Indian brand.
The superbike market is also being helped by the growing appetite for motor sports. Brands such as Moto Guzzi and Aprilia, which are predominantly racing bikes and hold the most biking competitions, have all reached India. Indeed, as the age profile of wealthy buyers keeps dropping, more and more of them are likely to turn from buying fancy four-wheelers to fancy two-wheelers.