Malvika Jain got “married” on the road, slept on a highway, and saw an Eskimo in Pune. All this because one day, two years ago, she got a link in her mailbox inviting her on a mountain-biking trip through Ladakh. She didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of an obsession.
“I’m an atheist, but going through the Ladakh moonscape on a bicycle was a spiritual experience,” Jain says, “On just the second day of the trip, we were among such high mountain peaks that the only thing we interacted with was the vast sky. There was no one around us. We stopped our bikes wherever we felt like and napped on the roadside like desert reptiles.” By the time she was back from the trip, Jain knew mountain biking had taken a firm grip on her, and she wasted no time in getting herself a proper bike.
At 23, Jain is one of the growing numbers of biking enthusiasts in India who get their kicks travelling on pedal power, covering little-known trails and routes throughout the country. “Sometimes cycling can be hypnotic,” she says, “I wake up in the morning and see visions of wheels running in front of me.”
In the last two years, Jain has made a 900km trip through the Nilgiris, a 200km trip through the Western Ghats (where she was so tired she thought she saw an Eskimo on the road, before flopping down and sleeping on the highway), and innumerable trails in the Aravalli hills around Delhi. “The Nilgiris had some beautiful downhill runs,” Jain says, “they were so hard core that we had to stop every half an hour to cool down our tires. We threw water on the rims and watched it sizzle! We went through a tiger reserve, natural sanctuaries, dams, tea plantations. On the way, a small party of locals stopped and garlanded me, followed by a round of applause, smiles, and flying kisses all around. According to my friends, that was my ‘marriage’ ceremony!”
Wheeled in: (above) A biker tackles the Leh-Pangong Tso route (Courtesy Rajesh Kalra); and Shubham Basu with his favourite bike (Rudraneil Sengupta/Mint ).
The BSA Tour of Nilgiris, organized by the Bangalore-based RideACycle Foundation, is a good indicator of just how popular biking has become in India. “When we started in 2008, 48 people registered for the tour,” says Ravi Ranjan, founding member of RideACycle. “In 2009, we got 350 entrants, but could only accommodate 70. This year, we are expecting over 1,000 applications.”
Ranjan, a 33-year-old engineer, started trail and mountain biking in 2004. “I knew only four or five other people who were riding back then,” he says. “Now, biking is so big in Bangalore that there’s a bicycle championship held every week, and between 80-100 participants turn up for it.”
Easy rider: Jain gets her thrills on challenging trails. Rudraneil Sengupta/Mint
With numerous trail-biking clubs scattered around the city, Bangalore has a vibrant biking scene, with bikers heading for the Nilgiris, Coorg or Ooty. Shubham Basu, a former investment banker in New York, was on the lookout for just such a group in Delhi when he found Pedal Yatris, a group founded by Rajesh Kalra, a senior journalist based in New Delhi. “Every weekend, I go out with Pedal Yatris to do trail biking around the Aravallis,” says Basu. “We go through little villages, ashrams, broken roads—all hidden away in the lush green forested area.”
The 31-year-old management consultant came back to India in 1997 looking to break away from his 9-5 banking job, and went headlong into adventure. “I started working with Great Indian Outdoors and introduced mountain biking,” Basu says. “We explored and mapped a lot of new trails in Uttarakhand—but there weren’t too many takers back then.”
Basu feels that he was just a bit ahead of the times, because adventure tour operators in the Himalayas are increasingly adding trail biking to their mix. “Mountain biking can be a calm, beautiful experience; travelling at a slow pace to really feel the scenic beauty,” says Basu. “But I love the adrenalin rush of a downhill run. You are on a rocky surface and there are trees and boulders everywhere, so a fall is guaranteed to hurt. It needs a very high level of focus, very quick and sure decision making—and that’s what I love most.”
Basu gets a dose of that adrenalin every weekend courtesy Pedal Yatris. In 2008, Kalra joined an off-road biking group in Delhi, but soon found it too amateur for his tastes. So a few months later, with the help of a couple of friends, Kalra started his own trail-biking group—and the response was immediate. “On any given day, we are rejecting more people than we admit,” Kalra says. “People are interested just because of the seriousness with which we do it. We ride every morning, and on weekends we do challenging trails, we explore, we do recces after identifying trails on Google Earth. Some of our members can fix punctures faster than any cycle mechanic!”
Kalra feels that biking is an addiction; in 2008, he was riding on the perfect asphalt around India Gate; by May 2009, he was doing one of the toughest mountain-biking trails in the world— Leh to Pangong Tso. “You stay fit. You help the environment. You don’t need to spend on fuel—it’s fantastic,” Kalra says.