Last October, Preeti Chaudhary and a group of riders started on a 600km endurance bicycle ride from New Delhi’s Green Park neighbourhood, heading for Rajpura on the Ambala-Ludhiana route before turning back. It was more about “controlling the mind” than anything else, says Chaudhary, a resident of Noida, adjoining Delhi. “We rode for 39 hours continuously with only one 2-hour sleeping break near the Karnal Haveli (eatery). On our way back, we left in the early hours of the morning... I was tired, sleep deprived and probably hallucinating. I have no memories of the ride and no idea how I completed it either.”
Chaudhary is the first woman “super randonneur” from Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR)—one of just 20 women from across the country. Till the 2013-14 season, the only 10 women in the super randonneur category hailed from the south and west. Now, more women across the country are taking it up. In the current season, around five women in Delhi-NCR and two women from Vadodara have completed the four brevets, or courses.
Randonneuring is a form of long-distance and non-competitive endurance cycling in which riders attempt brevets of 200km or more. To become a super randonneur, one has to successfully finish brevets of 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km in one season (November-October). The rides are time-bound. For instance, the qualifying time for the 200km course is 13 hours, 30 minutes and for 600km, it’s 40 hours.
Chaudhary, who became a super randonneur last year, cycles for about 200km every week. “I am happiest when I am cycling. It is my go-to for all problems in life,” says Chaudhary, a freelance HR professional who started recreational cycling as recently as in 2015. The two bikes she relies on for most of her rides are a Merida Scultura 300 and a Lapierre. “I started riding out of boredom. I had just returned from a work assignment in Bangladesh and the next assignment hadn’t come in yet. To kill time, I took up cycling,” she explains during a practice session at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Noida.
The 31-year-old is one of a growing tribe of endurance bicyclists in the country, says Deepender Sehajpal, the founder of Noida Randonneurs, a not-for-profit run by endurance cyclists. Sehajpal himself is a three-time super randonneur and was a successful participant in the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris Brevet in 2015.
The Noida Randonneurs, which was founded in November, has so far organized eight rides, with close to 100 participants. Sehajpal says the group will have more than 250 people completing brevets by the end of the season. The club is one of the 34 registered with India Randonneurs, the India chapter of Audax Club Parisien Randonneurs, France, the global body that has been conducting brevets since the 19th century.
“There are more than 100 cycling groups just in the NCR area today,” says Aman Puri, founder of the Noida Cycling Club, which organizes weekend rides. Puri started the club in 2011 when he was only 18, with just four members. Today, it has more than 4,800 members on a closed Facebook group. “There are about 10 fresh queries every week,” says Puri. “Every weekend, two new people join us. We have close to 30-40 cyclists participating in every weekend ride.”
One reason for the growing popularity of endurance cycling is that it’s less taxing on the knees than other endurance sports such as marathon running. “Cycling doesn’t impact your knees like running does and, hence, it is easier to ride for longer distances than run,” says Sehajpal, who has participated in brevets along the Western Ghats and in the northern plains. “And for that very reason, it is easier to take up endurance cycling,” adds Sehajpal, who has also done the Tour of Nilgiris and the Desert 500 in Rajasthan.
Studies have also shown that cycling, like several other sports, helps lower stress. A study by Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab concluded in 2015 that cyclists are 40% less likely to be stressed during and after their commutes compared to those who drive or take public transport. Researchers collected data from 20,000 commutes by 1,000 commuters on Spire, the breath and activity tracker, and found that those who cycled arrived at work in a calmer and more relaxed state of mind.
There have also been many efforts to popularize cycling in the country in the recent past. In November , Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav inaugurated what has been described as Asia’s first and longest cycle highway. The 207km stretch, which was constructed at a cost of nearly Rs134 crore, connects the cities of Agra and Etawah, passing through 92 villages.
In Delhi, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has started a Public Bicycle Sharing scheme to provide last-mile connectivity to passengers. Metro riders can rent bicycles for Rs10 an hour from Metro stations.
An important issue, however, is the safety of riders on traffic-heavy Indian roads. Unlike some cycle-friendly European countries, India doesn’t have dedicated cycling lanes, so bicyclists have to make their way through honking and speeding cars, trucks and buses. It is for this reason that sommelier and cycling enthusiast Magandeep Singh stays away from brevets. He says he is more into triathlons and is currently training to participate in the Ironman Triathlon.
“The thought of doing brevets on Indian roads is disconcerting because of the chaotic nature and the general lack of traffic sense of the population,” Singh rues, but admits he may have to give it a try soon. “I will have to do a 180km ride for the IRONMAN, so I am thinking of doing a 200km brevet,” he says.
“People in our country are not used to seeing (sports) cyclists on roads. Motorists don’t realize that they need to leave the left lane for cyclists,”adds Chaudhary. So, investing in protective cycling gear becomes critical. A helmet, a pair of cycling gloves, eyewear, reflective vests, padded cycling shorts or tights are essentials for long-distance cycling.
Being a female rider adds to the risks. Chaudhary says she is afraid to reveal her identity to random people on the road and never rides alone. “People start stalking you, so it’s important to ride in company,” she says.
As we talk, Chaudhary does a few more rounds of the bird sanctuary. She also has a Royal Enfield Classic 350 and a Toyota Etios car but the bicycle is her favourite companion. “I hardly ride the Bullet these days and the longest I have driven my car is till the Delhi airport and back,” she says.
As we call it a day and she loads her cycle into the car, ready to leave, the car gives up. Even pushing it back and forth several times doesn’t help.
“I don’t know what is wrong. The battery must have died,” says Chaudhary, tossing her arms in the air in desperation. An expletive crosses her lips. “This is why I prefer riding a bicycle.”