Body and spirit

Why 21 cyclists undertook a painful ride from India Gate to Gateway of India over five days

The answer came from a passerby: ‘Junoon’.

If it is hard to stomach the idea of swallowing a spoonful of black salt with water, imagine gulping down the stuff four to five times a day. Long-distance cyclist Reena Katyal, however, drank copious amounts of the mixture gratefully, as she cycled 1,450 km from Delhi to Mumbai.

“I was crying for the first 25 km,” Katyal said. “It was Day 3 of the ride, and I was dehydrated and pukish.” This was when her co-cyclist, Gagandeep Bhalla, told her to drink black salt and water – a natural remedy for nausea.

Katyal’s ride began from India Gate and ended at the Gateway of India. It was part of a cross-country journey with Delhi Randonneurs – a group of cyclists who routinely do brevets of 200 km (the minimum distance for a bike ride to qualify as a brevet), 300 km, 400 km and 600 km in a year.

Like her, many of the riders felt like throwing in the towel at some point or the other. Nevertheless, all 21 cyclists did complete the six nights-and-five days journey on December 22.

To put their ride in perspective, these cyclists covered 240 km per day on an average, riding through city and highway traffic, through jungles and villages. While covering 240 km a day wasn’t unusual for most of them – many of them are Super Randonneurs, a title earned when one completes at least one ride each of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km, and 600 km in a year – the 1,450 km journey still presented many new challenges.

Courtesy: Chiro Mitra
Courtesy: Chiro Mitra

Parts of the Randonneurs’ trail ran through spots which seemed scary at night. Bhalla, 43, who has been riding for four years, including on high-altitude terrain such as Manali-Leh, recalled one stretch on the highway near Udaipur, Rajasthan, which seemed endless.

“The road passed through forested terrain,” he said. “It was pitch dark. We called out to each other and joked, but really we wished more than anything to check in for the night at the nearest hotel.”

Bhalla spoke between sips of hot tea at The Bike Shop in Yusuf Sarai, where seven of the 21 cyclists had gathered to speak to Scroll.in.

For Katyal and the organisers, the safety of women riders was a matter of urgent concern. “Initially, I tried to stick with one of the boys,” said Katyal. “But it’s just not possible to pace yourself with another rider on such a long journey. You have to do your own thing.”

On certain occasions, they had to turn down pre-booked hotel rooms which didn’t seem safe for the three women (two riders and one organiser) on the trip. Unfortunately, this triggered another problem: when organiser Chiro Mitra decided to find another hotel that would be safer for the women, two of the riders baulked. To their mind, they were done for the day. They had started the countdown to their nightly ritual of foam roller massages and stretches, warm baths, a hot meal and a soft bed. To get on the saddle for another 5-10 km was as much a feat of the mind as of the body.

“You are looking for the smallest reason to give up the ride [at that moment],” explained Mitra. “I was firm and told them there was no way I was taking them in the car with me. ‘Walk to the hotel, if you must.’”

Mental preparation is a crucial element of how riders get through long-distance cycling expeditions. Some break the day’s work into smaller goals and reward themselves with pit-stops for tea and a quick call to check in at home or work. Others form strategies to cover a particular distance within four to five hours, then cycle at an easier pace for the rest of the way. Any toss-up in the plan, especially at the end of the day, can unsettle riders terribly.

The cyclists, however, had no choice but to pedal some more.

Courtesy: Chiro Mitra
Courtesy: Chiro Mitra

On their journey, the riders met a motley crew of people: curious passers-by, generous hosts, even malicious drivers.

“Someone got slapped on the back,” said Katyal.

Bhalla recalled that at some places, people offered them tea and snacks for free. “Others wanted to know why we were doing the ride. It was a mixed reaction.”

There were some accidents, too. “A car went zipping past just as I entered Mumbai and brushed my leg,” Hirdey Raina, 59, said. Raina swerved sharply to avoid collision with the car and rammed into the side of a flyover instead. “Having come 1,420 km with just 30 km to go, I thought ‘what if I get disqualified now?’”

Raina picked himself up, fixed the chain on his bike and completed the ride. He had maintained a steady pace of 20-21 kmph throughout the journey, getting by with just two hours of sleep each night. “I didn’t take any long breaks or amino acids,” he said. “Just boiled eggs, apples, bananas, lassi and chocolate – the chocolate really helps.”

Courtesy: Chiro Mitra
Courtesy: Chiro Mitra

Any injuries the bikers suffered had to be bandaged and swiftly forgotten. Discomfort mounted, as the riders spent up to 19 hours on the road each day. When bikes broke down, they were fixed by the riders themselves.

“Look at this,” said Anurag Sharma, 38, pointing to a close-up photograph of his neon green bike on his phone. The main frame of the carbon bike had a stress fracture about two inches long. The photo was simply labelled Aajam Dairy Colony, after the locality where the fracture occurred.

“I had 39 km and 5 hours to go, to finish the ride,” said Sharma. But even if he had to drag the cycle the rest of the way, he was determined to do it. In the end, he managed a patch-up job that took him to the finish line. “It wasn’t a race. Five hours is plenty of time to cover 39 km.” Sharma completed the ride with minutes to spare.

Courtesy: Chiro Mitra
Courtesy: Chiro Mitra

What kept these riders going?

Each of them developed their own way of dealing with the multitude of small and large crises that came their way. Sharma had trained at South Delhi’s Sport Etios gym for four months in the lead-up to the India Gate-to-Gateway of India ride. His instructors created a WhatsApp group to help and motivate him. Their messages kept him going, as did songs that inspired him, like the soundtrack of the Salman Khan-starrer Sultan. “On Day 4, I wore a Dhoni T-shirt,” he said.

Debashish Parida, 37, injured his knee on Day 3. For a moment, it looked as though he might have to call it quits, but he carried on, one stride length at a time. “I didn’t think about tomorrow,” he said. “All that mattered was that day’s ride.”

Bhalla and his friend Rajiv Chadha began each day thinking of the tea break that would come after they had finished their first 25 km for the day.

The camaraderie the riders shared made the distance easier. When Katyal had a breakdown and cried for several kilometers at length, Sharma came back around 7 km to where she was, to help and motivate her so she wouldn’t give up. While the others rode 1,450 km, Sharma rode a total of 1,464 km, just to help a fellow cyclist out.

This solidarity is why Mitra and Raina asked multiple times that all 21 cyclists be named in this article, not just the Delhi-based eight who were able to come to The Bike Shop for interviews. “There were 60-plus registrations, but we took only the 24 whom we thought could do this ride,” said Mitra. “Out of those, 21 were prepared on starting day.”

The 21 riders who completed the ride: Anurag Sharma, Astitva Bose, Anubhav Agarwal, Hirdey Raina, Gagandeep Bhalla, Debashish Parida, Rajiv Chadha, Gaurav Budhraja, Gaurav Wadhwa, Yash Budhraja, Amitabh Sharma, Sachin Palewar, Divyesh Gandhi, Manoj Narang, Maggan Benson, Reena Katyal, Devnath Pillai, Henry Parvez, Ketan Kambata, Tushar Trivedi, and Abhishek Singh. Image courtesy: Chiro Mitra
The 21 riders who completed the ride: Anurag Sharma, Astitva Bose, Anubhav Agarwal, Hirdey Raina, Gagandeep Bhalla, Debashish Parida, Rajiv Chadha, Gaurav Budhraja, Gaurav Wadhwa, Yash Budhraja, Amitabh Sharma, Sachin Palewar, Divyesh Gandhi, Manoj Narang, Maggan Benson, Reena Katyal, Devnath Pillai, Henry Parvez, Ketan Kambata, Tushar Trivedi, and Abhishek Singh. Image courtesy: Chiro Mitra

Through the ride, the one question posed to the cyclists in different ways, was – why do this at all?

“A news daily in Rajasthan had published an article about the G2G ride,” said Raina. “Many people we met en route knew we were riding a really long way. On Day 4, a motorcyclist kept pace with me on the highway for some time. I was getting annoyed – it can be really dangerous. He was so close that I could hear his conversation with the pillion rider, a lady. She was nudging him to ask me why I was doing this.”

Raina gave them a one-word answer without stopping: “Junoon”. Junoon translates to passion, but also something more. There’s a kind of immersion, which makes it possible to wake up at 3 am on most days before the ride and cycle till 7.30 am, as in Chadha’s case. Or push a business and career out of your mind for as long as the trip takes. These riders talk, sleep, eat cycling: they share notes and tips, like the one about gulping black salt and Gatorade to replace the salts the body loses while sweating, about wearing two biking shorts instead of one when the rear hurts from sitting in the saddle too long. Cycling consumes them. On rides such as these, the cyclists know that the ride is long, but never lonely.

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