“No more running or squash. Switch to swimming or cycling,” Dr. J said to me examining my knee. I was aghast and felt like I had just been read a death sentence. I was 38 years old. I had been running for ten years and playing squash since I was 15. This couldn’t be happening to me. After a few days of moping, I decided to pick myself up, dust off negative feelings, and move on. The writing on the wall was clear, the choices were limited, I had to go out and buy a bicycle.
As I aimlessly pedalled the streets of Mumbai at 5 a.m., familiarizing myself with every pothole, I watched my friends running and chatting. I cursed my luck. But with each passing sunrise, the runners faded a bit from my horizon and cyclists I had never noticed before began to emerge. At first my cycle rides were slow and the weekend rides tended to eat into family time, which was at a premium.
But slowly I began to get absorbed into the culture of cycling. I met more and more cyclists; everyone with a different agenda and fitness level, until I eventually became good friends with a small group of avid cycling enthusiasts. All of us had a common thread, we were looking to push ourselves in ways we hadn’t before. We were people who liked to travel on bicycles and cycled wherever we travelled. Before I knew it, I had joined a growing band of people around the world called MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra).
The group I became a part of was called Wurlee 545, named after the morning starting time and location in Mumbai, and was fabulous. Aged 30-60, we came in all shapes and sizes, everyone looking to be fitter and faster, with interesting personalities, fascinating stories, and wanderlust. And, of course, we all had families we needed to get back to after our workdays. My first trip with them, that stretched beyond a three-hour ride, was an expedition to do the Tour of the Nilgiris. There is something incredibly simple about a bicycle and the experience was phenomenal; it set the tone for more aggressive annual cycling trips.
Our next expedition saw us riding from Manali to Leh. Exploring the Himalayas on a bicycle is not something I had ever imagined I would do. The wide expanse of clear sky above, the wind in my face, and not a sound of a motorised vehicle around me—it was exhilarating. As we all huffed and puffed up the 17,500-foot-high Tanglang La pass, my friends slowed down to help me keep up with the group. Words of encouragement, bottles of water, electrolytes, and nuts were shared. When we reached the top, we all felt exultant at our achievement and darted down the mountain to our campsite at 15,000 feet, where a hearty meal and smiles of the rest of the group awaited us. It was hard work and a tremendous achievement, which was followed by collective laughter. It was on this trip that I felt that my travel companions had started to become a kind of family.
Next, our group decided to use the love for bicycling and wanderlust to do a charity ride from Delhi to Mumbai. We worked like a well-oiled machine. Logistics, training, and fundraising were all handled with aplomb. Besides our own enjoyment of the journey, we also raised a significant corpus for a great charity. As we rode into Mumbai at the end of that trip, I could hardly believe what we had achieved. The magnitude of the physical achievement faded in comparison to the companionship and camaraderie that the team had further built.
Every once in a while, someone in the group travels and comes back with stories of renting a bicycle or taking one along to explore their destination on two wheels. We share pictures with the group and discuss where our next ride should be. As the WhatsApp group buzzes to life almost daily with new suggestions, ideas, technical tips and tricks, my wife sees the smile creep across my face and knows I will be off on a new adventure very soon.
Little did I realize that my “death sentence” would mark the beginning of some wonderful travel adventures with a riding group that’s like a second family to me.
Appeared in the December 2016 issue as “The Other Family”.