Datta Patil: The barefoot biker
Experience is everything when it comes to MTB Himalaya, one of the most gruelling mountain biking races in the world that traverses 650km of unpredictable backcountry in Himachal Pradesh over eight days. Datta Patil knows a thing or two about what it takes to survive the onslaught.
For 11 years, the 45-year-old has been coming back to the race, which is now in its 12th edition. All that experience counts for even more given that Patil has been riding barefoot ever since he first got on a bike. He has pedalled without shoes through mud, river crossings, rain and stony, thorny switchbacks.
But it’s not just the odd choice of shunning footwear that makes Patil stand out; it’s also where he comes from. Adventure biking or bike racing is usually seen as a very urban phenomenon—professional racing or mountain bikes can cost as much as a small car, and then there’s the expensive gear to consider—for rural India, a cycle is for work, not play.
Patil breaks this stereotype. He is a small-time farmer from Sangli, Maharashtra, and one of India’s most active endurance bikers. Patil competed in his first bike race when he was just 11.
“I always wanted to cycle as a kid, but never owned a bicycle,” Patil says. “Where I live, there’s a race organized on the birthday of wrestler Khashaba Jadhav (who won India’s first individual Olympic medal, a bronze at Helsinki 1952). That year (1982), I managed to borrow one and won the race in the under-15 category. I won it for the next six years.”
His fascination with cycling was so consuming that Patil soon started lagging behind in school, choosing to deal with the wrath of his parents rather than the complexity of math problems. A typical day saw him help out with grape cultivation on the family’s 3-acre farm—the rest of the day was spent on the cycle. He worked barefoot in the fields, and that’s what felt most comfortable when he started racing seriously.
“My farm is 3km from my home, and the land is right in the middle of two rivers. There was never a road to get there, the ground was mucky most times. So I’m simply not used to wearing shoes. It’s no different when it comes to cycling,” he says.
It allows him to handle any terrain; stony paths where gravel flies off the wheels, cold river crossings or slushy downhills where putting a foot down for balance is inevitable. After all these years of riding through different parts of the country, he’s not had any major injuries.
“I have that advantage over others when it comes to terrain because I can feel it better than the other riders,” he says.
In 2003, Patil got married. “There were bets doing the rounds that I would finally be forced to quit cycling,” he says, laughing. “Just a week after I got married, I took some 14-year-old girls with me on an expedition from Sangli to Kanyakumari (around 1,300km). That’s when my wife, Surekha, realized how crazy I was about cycling, and that there was nothing that would make me quit.” In fact, while Patil is out for bike races most of the year, Surekha handles the family’s farm. But she has been bitten by the cycling bug too. One of Patil’s most memorable rides was alongside her, from Sangli to Ujjain, roughly 850km, a few years after their marriage.
“I customized a bicycle for her and was glad when she was at ease on it. She’s good company at times, you know!” He laughs.
Now the children have joined in the family pursuit. They didn’t need any prodding to get on a bicycle. In April, Patil and Surekha’s son Prithviraj, 12, joined his father alongside two other boys on a marathon expedition from Jammu to Kanyakumari (around 3,390km). Their daughter Vaishnavi, 13, is into bike races as well.
While competing at various races at the district and state levels, Patil learned about mountain biking competitions in 2006. With a bike that cost Rs5,000 at the time, the relatively inexperienced Patil decided to take on the most brutal races in India.
“I didn’t know much then and neither did the organizers of MTB Himalaya. It was a time for learning for everyone. The route used to be from Shimla to Manali. There were barely any roads to ride on,” he says.
After realizing how driven Patil was, the organizers waived off the hefty participation fee for good, which Patil says he would never be able to afford. Despite continuing with his basic bike and meagre gear, Patil managed to finish sixth and seventh in the Masters Solo category in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
“We have no hills in Sangli, so gearing up for these rides is difficult. But it gets quite cold here, especially in the morning hours, so that helps,” he says.
Patil’s training routine is one that he has religiously followed for the last 30 years. After a light dinner, he goes to bed at 8:30. He wakes up at 1.30am and rides from 2-5am. He then turns coach for a group of young bikers who train under him. After that, it’s off to his farm to take care of work. The routes he takes have no lights and neither does his bicycle; he usually banks on moonlight and manages a mileage of about 150km in a week.
“It’s only during amavasya when I have some problems. On the other hand, there’s nothing more gorgeous than riding during full moon nights,” he says.
Patil, who had just one bike four years ago, now has 14 in his collection, some of which have been gifted to him, and gives them out to his young students to allow them to explore cycling. Patil was also given 3 acres of land near his home by the local administration, where he built a 14km cycling track open to anyone who wishes to use it.
“I don’t think they should be denied what I was as a kid,” he says. “We had no idea what a coach was or what gear was available back then. All I knew was that I had to ride as fast as possible at a race. I want to help them in any way possible,” he says.
At the 2016 edition of MTB Himalaya in September, which featured a new route from Shimla to Dharamsala and tested the abilities of the best of the riders, Patil didn’t make the cutoff on three stages (2, 3 and 7). Failures are all a part of his tryst with cycling and he wants to come back stronger next year.