How did you get interested in bicycling?

The idea struck me during a solo motorbike ride to Leh in August 2008, when I met a cyclist on the same route. I found the idea of taking on inhospitable terrain on a bicycle inspiring. With a friend from work, I did a Chandigarh-Kasauli ride and realized I’d need a lot of conditioning before taking on Ladakh. Cycling became a hobby, but riding in and around Delhi got boring after a bit. That’s when I read about Mountain Biking Himachal (MTB Himachal), the toughest event in India: It ignited an old interest in off-roading, and I decided to take part.

Downhill: The Gumma-Rohru stretch in Himachal Pradesh is difficult cycling terrain.

Deciding to ride was probably the easiest step. What did the preparation involve?

I did a few distance cycling gigs, including one from Shimla to Narkanda, during which my riding buddy Chandresh met with a major crash; he eventually had to pull out of MTB Himachal. Besides, I gym regularly and also watch what I eat. But I underestimated the level of fitness and training MTB requires. One needs to train like a soldier and have the mental strength to channel the stamina. One also needs some off-roading experience, especially for the downhill sections.

Then there’s gear: A helmet is mandatory, as also good gel gloves, sunglasses, bibs/shorts, shoes with cleats for uphill sections and, yes, the ability to service the bike. I was riding a Trek 6000D.

Tell us about the logistics of the trip.

MTB Himachal is organized by the Himalayan Adventure Sports and Tourism Promotion Association (Hastpa) with Himachal Tourism. The registration fee of Rs15,000 included everything, the Delhi pick-up and drop-back. The routes were all mapped on GPS. Each day, we got complete briefings with the elevation and gradient details. The organizers did an impeccable job of handling 120-plus people. Support included medical backup and 16-odd vehicles with wireless radios for the emergency marshals. We also had bike marshals and sweeping trucks to pick up stragglers. We got ample hydration and food but it was essential to carry a survival kit: On Day 8, I got stranded in heavy rain without my jacket and food. It was extremely cold. I remember trying to light a fire with twigs and stones… I was picked up after 3 hours.

Cycle diaries: Saini finds the idea of cycling through inhospitable terrain inspiring.

How was the event structured?

Like a typical off-road rally, including a competitive section with a designated distance of 80-100km per day. A typical day began with a briefing around 8.30-9am, followed by a “free ride" section, usually 5-10km, leading into the first of the day’s competitive stages. At the end of the day, there would be another free ride to take us to the camp for the night. Then we’d clean bikes, repair any damage, shower, eat and crash, usually in twin-share tents.

That sounds demanding.

It was! As the days go by, the body gets used to the beating and one’s stamina increases but the muscles wear out. So my goal was to take it easy, not to push myself too much, and finish the stage in reasonable time. It helps to observe and pick out the riders of your class—not someone stronger or faster—and stay together. A few riders tried to cut time on the downhill stages, but they ended up crashing and breaking their bones: It’s in the uphill sections where you gain time. I think about 30 people dropped out.

Were there any really difficult moments on the trip?

Day 2 was a killer: The terrain was relentlessly uphill, the sun was strong, there was no tarmac and, at 27km, the stretch was one of the longest. It was tempting when the marshals offered me a ride, but I walked nearly 10km uphill and completed the stage. Once I’d finished, I became confident that unless I broke my bones or my bike, I would complete the race.

What, for you, was the most rewarding moment of the trip?

It came at the end of the fifth day, when I finished the stage last at 8pm, 2 hours after deadline. We’d crossed the highest elevation of the trip, the Jalori Pass. I was exhausted, my left knee was acting up, my bike chain kept breaking every few kilometres. It was getting dark and extremely cold and the jungle stretch was full of wild animals. But I sprayed an ointment on my knee, switched on the headlamps and finished the stage in pitch darkness.

Actually, I was a different person at the end of those 10 days: I realized it’s all in the head. Whenever you think that your body can’t take any more beating, you can’t cycle another 5km, you can take a call and push your body to achieve milestones you can’t otherwise.

As told to Sumana Mukherjee.

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Photographs courtesy Neeraj Saini