|Cycles parked at the mid-way breakfast point.|
Kamat Lokaruchi, Janapada Loka, Ramanagara.
Bangalore has a fairly vibrant cycling community that has grown in strength (and craziness) over the past few years. Every weekend, hordes of cyclists religiously climb Nandi Hills, a modest hill located about 60km (38mi) outside Bangalore. I've never participated in those rides. I had once tried a 60-odd km ride, and had barely made it back home. Nowadays, my cycle was reserved for commuting to and from French class on weekends - a modest and manageable 8-10km (5-6 mi) from home.
So, when I was invited to a 100km+ ride out to Ramanagara (of Sholay fame), my initial reaction was to dismiss it. It wasn't for me. But the number of riders who confirmed participation kept rising. On Friday, the day before the ride, the confirmations were 200+ and the maybes were 100+. I imagined 200 riders stringing out in a single file on the state highway, and it was a beautiful sight. I wanted to be a part of it. Members of the group allayed my fears and assured me that I could do it. I reasoned this was my best chance to hit a hundred - I'd simply draft behind 200 cyclists. I decided to go for it.
The first warning signs appeared at 5:30am on Saturday morning, as I was riding to the start point - a Specialized bike store on Infantry Road. I didn't see a single rider until I hit the store, and even then, there were only about 20 riders milling about in the darkness with blinking lights on their bikes and helmets. After some instructions and celebratory whoops, we left in the pre-dawn darkness, walking our bikes up the wrong way of the one-way street up to the main road, where we started pedaling.
The initial miles were exhilarating. The cool dawn wind rushed past my ears. I followed instructions fastidiously. "On your right!" I would exclaim as I passed by another cyclist. There was something joyous about that small bunch of cyclists heading out of town as a group.
Quickly though, the group separated as cyclists negotiated bad roads and heavy truck traffic. Mysore Road leads out of Bangalore in a south-westerly direction, and it is a minefield of potholes. I became acutely aware of the rate of descent. Bangalore sits at a lordly 3,000 ft above sea-level, higher than every other place in its immediate vicinity. If you're leaving Bangalore, you're going down. But the rate of descent on Mysore Road was steep, and structured like a flight of stairs. At one cliff-like point, I could see the road stretch out in this step formation; the last step seemed a long way down. I flew down those stairs, like a barrel rolled out by the ape from Donkey Kong. It was fast and fun, and I was trying to ignore the voice in my head that reminded me I would have climb these same stairs on the way back.
I was making great progress, and was soon approaching Ramanagara having hardly broken a sweat. The official turn-around point was Kamat Lokaruchi, a highway restaurant on the other side of town. I was looking forward to breakfast, and to seeing all the other cyclists. I had seen but a few through my ride and had ridden alone most of the way.
The breakfast buffet was delicious. Tables were filled with cyclists (admittedly a fraction of the promised 200) all munching and swapping cycling stories. There was a great sense of camaraderie and of living a shared experience. There were also lots of newbies like me, identifiable by the nervous manner in which they gazed at all the cyclists, and timidly asked, "Have you done these rides before?" or "Is this your first?". Experienced pros joked that we might feel like hailing an auto on the return journey, but advised that we should keep going. (Indeed, I would see at least one auto go by with a cycle, and presumably its rider, packed inside.)
I felt the difference as soon as I started back. The April morning sun had come out in all its blazing glory, and temperatures were rising. When we had started the ride, it had been a pleasant 24C (75F). By the time I would finish the ride, it would be a scorching 35C (95F). The 60km (37.5mi) of descent that I had enjoyed looked very different when viewed from the opposite direction. The laborious ascents under the hot mid-day sun were made more trying by the highway traffic. Being precisely a dual carriageway (and not an inch more), I hugged the edge - and off-roaded frequently - as cars and, more frighteningly, buses whizzed by within a few inches with blaring horns. I knew I was running on empty when I began stopping every 20 minutes for a large swig of water laden with electrolytes.
Around Kengeri, still a good 15mi+ from home, the upward stairs began - and they were merciless. Taken together with the dust, the heat, the traffic, and the previous 60mi, I felt delirious. I thought of home and the bowl of salted curd rice that awaited me, and I forced my legs to just please keep rotating. I stopped for coconut water. I stopped for two glasses of sugarcane juice. I crawled in the lowest gear ratio, willing myself to move forward. Every foot forward was a foot closer to home. I hit the Mysore Road flyover and pulled myself through it. I cycled past the grand Jama Masjid, looking splendid and radiant in white. I descended the flyover into the more familiar surroundings of Town Hall. Then came Hudson Circle and Kanteerva Stadium, with Cubbon Park to my left. A right turn followed by a left brought me to Residency Road. I was now within striking distance of home. My brain switched to auto-pilot, and I rolled home eight hours after I had left it.
I expected to collapse when I got off the bike, but surprisingly, my legs felt strong and solid. My neck and shoulders hurt, though, from carrying my small satchel stuffed with water bottles, juice packets, energy bars, and bananas. I also had saddle sores from constantly rubbing up against the seat. What really hurt, however, was how empty I felt. There wasn't a sense of accomplishment or of having partaken in something extraordinary. I had ridden alone for most of the 120km and 7 hours, and it simply hadn't felt like fun. I was quite certain I wouldn't be doing this again in a hurry.
I slept deeply, expecting to be passed out for quite a while. Instead, I woke up the next morning at 7am. I cautiously checked my muscles. Except for some light soreness, I felt fine. As the morning progressed, something strange happened to me. I kept thinking about the previous day's ride. Then, I began to wonder what was 50km out to the east of Bangalore. And the south-east. Would I hit the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border? Maybe I could go explore the following Saturday morning. I opened up a map.