Discover the Nilgiris, this time on two wheels
Ethesh riding the curves
Riders atop the Chamundi Hill in Mysore
Nellie challenges Ravi to a race
Riders pass the Vidhan Soudha in Bangalore
Cuffee's Estate with the Satyamangalam range yonder
It was definitely the dishy guys that made the critical conceptual breakthrough. I had just returned from riding the Tour of the Nilgiris, a 900km cycle trip up to Ooty and back from Bangalore, and in the time-honoured manner of travel bores everywhere, I was bursting with stories that no one really got. Gorgeous scenery? They’d seen it everywhere from the Inca Trail to Kashmir. 5,000- calorie days? Such burn rates are meaningless in a culture that considers cricket a strenuous sport. Wonderful company? They reckoned they got that everywhere from the Gymkhana Club bar to their Art of Living sessions.
And then, a number of women friends pointed out more or less the same thing. These were people who crack their friends up because they are so hilariously vitriolic at describing the Indian male in all his flabby, sartorially inept glory. And here they were, ogling the flat abs and low, low body fat of some of my fellow riders, saying, “Ooo, where in India did you guys unearth these hotties from?”
Such reactions tend to happen whenever people first encounter India’s non-cricketing pockets of enthusiastic and physically fit sportspeople. Divers in Lakshadweep and the Andamans, rock climbers wherever there are great pitches and paragliders in Billing and Kamshet are just a few of the highly knowledgeable and skilled subcultures that have begun to thrive in India over the past decade. It can still take a little work to find them, though. This is just as true of cycling in both its main avatars, road biking (using what non-cyclists recognise as ‘racing bikes’) and MTB riding (off-road riding).
Offer the right enticements, and they will find you, though. When the non-profit Rideacycle Foundation and a group of bicycling fiends in Bangalore and the US first dreamed up the Tour of the Nilgiris, the idea was to get a few roadbikers of roughly comparable ability taking on a route that went from Bangalore through Mysore, the hilly country of Coorg and Kerala’s Wayanad district, and on to a challenging climb up to Ooty before returning to Bangalore. It would be a tour in the classic riding sense, not a race, taking in the Nilgiris and Coorg, among the prettiest regions in India.
They hadn’t reckoned on the response; news of the tour rapidly went viral on the Internet and the organisers were flooded with many more entries than they could handle. Even after a ruthless cull, there were still over 40 riders who set out from Bangalore on Christmas Day. Within a few kilometres outside the city I have a serious reality check. I can run 20km in a whisker over 90 minutes and can bench press more than my own weight; by the standards of 42-year-old Indian men, I’m super-fit. But here, for the first time in decades, I realise I’m not even close to the top two-thirds in terms of cycling ability. On the fast, sweeping highway to Mysore, the best road bikers are crossing 60kmph on their high-end machines. When they draft behind a vehicle (ride in its slipstream; taking the hard work of fighting wind resistance out of the equation), they will go much faster. Meanwhile, at the back of the pack, I’m struggling. But this is a tour organised by enthusiasts, and enthusiasts tend to have more than one mount and are also happy, in a pleasantly evangelical sort of way, to let other people ride their spare bikes. So within 25km of Bangalore, I’ve switched to a much better bike, a competition- level Merida with slick tyres that roll far more smoothly on the tarmac. And before long I’m flying.
A little too fast, because when a dog scampers into my path just before Bidadi, I’m not sufficiently used to the bike’s steering geometry to handle sharp evasive manoeuvres. The dog survives unscathed, but I crash and shred most of the skin on my right arm. But a support vehicle is on hand with first aid as is the ambulance from Bangalore’s Manipal Hospital that will accompany us through the tour. I’m a bit worried about the bike, as it’s a quality machine. But Ignatius, whose bike it is, gives it a once-over and pronounces it fit for further riding, to my enormous relief. Iggy himself is one of the beneficiaries of Venkatesh Shivarama’s generosity. Venky, a national- level rider and bike dealer, has five bikes on the tour. To put his remarkable largesse into more readily understandable terms, this is a bit like having someone turn up for a driving tour with three Ferraris and a couple of Range Rovers to loan his friends.
The Ferrari comparison isn’t an idle one. Venky’s Colnagos, along with the Specialized and CSK bikes ridden by the fastest roadbikers on the tour (Dipankar, Rajesh and Samim are all good enough to ride the semi-pro circuit worldwide; being among the several objects of my friends’ ineffectively disguised lust is presumably some sort of unrelated bonus) are works of precision engineering art.
Riders like these made the climb to Ooty look easy. Most of the ascent in the 95km ride comes in a 20km stretch immediately after Gudalur, where the gradient crosses 10 per cent on some stages. Even fit riders were struggling up that slope; most had to stop regularly, and several hopped on to a support vehicle when fatigue overtook them. It took me just over eight hours of cycling to make it, while the top riders stormed up in less than half that time. It can often take longer to drive up!
What is great about a tour, though, is that every ride becomes a personal achievement, not just the fastest ones. It isn’t just about stretching your physical limits to see where it can go. I had never crossed 80km in a day, and I rode almost twice that on the first day of the tour. It’s also about the surroundings, the company and what you do.
It’s hard to pick my favourite rides — I think I loved everything bar the last 10km into Bangalore — but four that stood out were riding on the fast sweeping highway out of Mysore en route to Coorg, climbing the mostly excellent road to Ooty, the wonderful ride through the wild country of Bandipur National Park on the Ooty-Mysore road, and much of the Mysore-Bangalore stretch, passing through places redolent with history and culture. They were all beautiful; the scenery in the hills and in Bandipur was just lovely. They all offered a mix of challenge and fun that kept both cycle and rider keenly engaged, both on fast highways and steep climbs. But best of all, on each one of them, I found a group of riders of at least comparable ability (yes, I had push myself hard, but bizarrely, when you’re in the company of such agreeable fellow masochists, it hurts a lot less to do so) who were as interested in eating up the kilometres in a fast pace line as they were in conversation and taking in the many compelling sights. I have driven on all these roads in the past 18 months, but absolutely nothing will compare with seeing it again by cycle, in this company.
The Tour of the Nilgiris is slowly fading in memory, as is the dramatic tan, and will almost certainly be replaced by other rides, many of which are already under planning by my new friends. But just as first loves stay special because they open up a completely unprecedented world, an experience like this will remain unique. Still, that’s not stopping me from plotting the next one. Ladakh, here we come!