As a cycling enthusiast, I like to watch the Tour de France as much for the glorious landscapes the riders pass through, as for the arduous race. My own cycling circuits are duller: Mumbai’s Worli Sea Face or, on particularly adventurous days, coughing through the exhaust smoke of trucks and buses on the highway to Lonavla or Pune.
About a year ago, my soon-to-be-60 cycling companion, an orthopaedic surgeon, asked me if I’d like to join him on the Tour of Nilgiris, a 700-odd-km bike ride from Bengaluru to Munnar. I’d never heard of it, but the eight-day trip sounded like just the challenge I needed in my fortieth year. Before long we roped in other colleagues and friends and became a motley crew that included a bank CEO, a super-fit but non-cyclist sports scientist, and a spine surgeon.
We soon realised that what we had signed up for was no easy task. The Tour of Nilgiris was in its seventh year and its organisers had set up a hard course. Each day involved pedalling more than 100 km, traversing the high points of the Nilgiri Hills. At least we had seven months to rally together to train, building strength and endurance.
Yet when we flagged off at Mysore on 16 December, I had not fully imagined what we were in for. The tour’s 65 riders came from all walks of life, with all kinds of bikes, some with their biker spouses and friends, some alone. While I had ridden long distances and run the occasional marathon, I wasn’t sure how my body would deal with the daily rigour of the long rides. For me, the toughest instalment was the route from Valparai to Munnar. It was long and extremely hot in parts, and the only leg of the eight-day trip during which I harboured the thought of giving up. Had it not been for the many friends along the way who continued to push themselves and encourage others, I might have buckled.
Everyone rode mostly at their own pace. Though there were short 10 to 15 km race sections each day, the tour is not really a race, and we had time enough to stop off for the occasional appam and stew, or coconut water, neera, and filter kaapi. Young children would run out to greet us at different points, high-fiving us as we struggled up or raced down vertical inclines.
One of the great rewards of this trip was the scenic routes. We passed villages, paddy fields, tea gardens and spectacular stretches of forest. My favourite section of the expedition was the 160-km section from Ooty to Palakkad. It began with a downhill zip through foggy Ooty, into the splendour of clear, green forests near Mettupalayam, and ended with a flat section through palm tree-laden green fields at Palakkad.
The companions riding with me changed often, but I experienced a sense of camaraderie throughout. On the long ride from Palakkad to Valparai, we had just scaled a steep climb, and stopped at a tiny tea stall in a small town called Waterfalls. One of my co-riders had a small speaker on his bike, which he used to get through the most fatiguing afternoons. Suddenly Celine Dion’s “I’m Alive” rang out of it, and all of us spontaneously started singing and dancing along. The moment captured the joy of collective suffering and sense of achievement that the tour brought out in all of us.
The group of dedicated volunteers who planned the tour, also travelled alongside on motorcycles or cars to ensure everyone was hydrated, fed, and in good spirits. An ambulance, mechanics, and regular well-stocked rest stops were all available for backup. The rest really was up to the cyclists, who formed a great support system for each other. I don’t think there was a single day that I got off my bike without a sore butt and aching legs, wondering how I would survive another day. But as we approached the hotel at the end of each day’s ride, riders still found the energy to gather around and laugh together, sharing the trials and tribulations of the day with a beer, no matter how dingy the bar. No one cared how fast you got there or how tired you were. What mattered was that you endured, as did everyone else.
The Tour of Nilgiris isn’t easy. For me, it was a nice way to achieve something spectacular in my life last year. I think anyone who sets their mind to the challenge and begins training early can do it. Registration for the December 2016 ride starts early, on 1st May and tends to fill out very fast. Once you’ve enrolled you’ve got eight months to get your act together.
Intensity: The Tour of Nilgiris is extremely demanding and requires cycling up steep slopes, often in the searing afternoon heat.
tourofnilgiris.com; 16-23 December 2016; registration opens 1 May 2016; route goes through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala; doubles ₹60,000 and triples ₹80,000 Bengaluru to Bengaluru;
Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “Dream Ride.”