Ever noticed how people who ride bicycles are so trim and, well, disgustingly fit? That’s because their bodies are tuned to a regular and natural workout. Riding a bicycle improves your cardiovascular capability, increases your metabolic rate, lowers blood pressure and tones your muscles. With so much goodness thrown into something as simple as a bicycle, why avoid it?

Then there are those OMG facts: Cycling can burn off a bar of chocolate or a couple of alcoholic drinks (300 calories) in an hour. A short 15-minute ride every day, perhaps to work, around the neighbourhood or to the market, has the potential to vaporize 5kg of fat in a year. So what’s it going to be this evening? A quick visit to the bicycle store, surely?

Well-wheeled: (clockwise from top left) Samim Rizvi hard at work; Arvind Bhateja leads a professional cycling team in Bangalore; a good mountain bike will set you back by about Rs25,000; and (from left) Ramesh Palani, Pratvii Ponnappa, and Gayathri Chablani of the ‘Radio One’ BSA Tour of Nilgiris team.

Says Arvind Bhateja, 40, consultant neurosurgeon and spine surgeon, Sita Bhateja Speciality Hospital, Bangalore, who began cycling because a knee injury brought an end to his passion for running: “Cycling has given me fitness and fought my flab." Today, barely a few years after he began cycling, his fitness levels have improved to the extent that he now leads Spectrum, one of Bangalore’s three professional cycling teams.

Listen to the Lounge Podcast | Cycling whiz Arun Katiyar and India’s first participant to the ‘Race across America’, Samim Rizvi

Download here

But it’s not health and fitness that drives Dr Bhateja now; it is a savagely competitive aspect of the sport that has captured his imagination. Most cyclists fondly think Spectrum is made up of a bunch of animals—such as Gaurav Dwivedi, who is part of the nine-member team, and who recently cycled 63km in 1 hour and 42 minutes, averaging 36.8km per hour (kmph) for a podium finish in a race. But if you think that is jaw-dropping, read up. Samim Rizvi (www.samriz.com), a 42-year-old cycling demon from Bangalore, became the first Indian in 27 years to participate in the Race Across America (Raam), the world’s toughest bicycle race—one that began in Oceanside in California and ended at Annapolis on the East Coast after traversing 4,800km across the US, clocking a total elevation of 100,000ft, in less than 10 days. That’s an average of 480km a day. If you cycle round the clock, that’s 20 kmph for 10 days, no excuses. If that doesn’t rewrite the limits of human endurance, what could? On Day 3 of the race which began on 9 June, Rizvi did 616km. It can’t be just about physical fitness; that kind of ultra performance calls for neurotic mental focus and a determination beyond comprehension.

Unfortunately, on Day 4, while Rizvi was among the top 15 riders, he was hit by influenza and was advised by doctors to retire from the race. It is impossible to imagine how Rizvi must have felt. Disappointed, perhaps. Upset, maybe. But whatever else, he won’t have felt defeated. His spirit may have flagged, but he would combat it and be back next year. That’s one of the things endurance cycling does to you—it rearranges the mind to deal with a setback for what it is: another opportunity to overcome the impossible.

If you are planning to trot down to the neighbourhood bicycle store and think of a race like Raam, who knows, one day you too might be doing it.

I began cycling at the age of 45 after a parasailing accident tore away most of my posterior cruciate ligament in the left knee and brought my ability to do any outdoor physical activity to a grinding halt. Any more of that critical ligament goes and I will be in a wheelchair for life. But because the outdoors is irresistible, I picked up a second-hand Giant Iguana—it’s a bicycle, not an animal—from my neighbour who was returning to California. I told myself: “It’s only a bicycle. I will toodle around the neighbourhood." The bicycle cost me less than the metal brace I had to stick my knees into so that I could cycle with a reduced likelihood of further damage.

I am now 52. Most Sundays I cycle with friends, leaving home at 6am, clocking some 50km on off-roads. When I get back home, my wife hoses me down in the garden along with my bicycle—both of us having picked up tonnes of gunk on the farmland that we make our way through. Once in two months, we do rides that are 100-150km, pushing our physical limits in the hope of finding…what…nirvana? Herogiri? Mojo? My riding buddy Siva, who is in his 30s, has mapped out a 220km, day-long ride to the fabulous Sripuram Golden Mahalaxmi Temple in Vellore. We’ll recklessly plunge into that ride later this monsoon. I joke with him—for sure, God is guaranteed at the end of that ride.

I am not sure what it is that cycling these monster distances does for the human soul. I suspect it has a way of seeding the body with calm; for after the pain of doing some 100km on the saddle, the body recognizes pain, and in a moment of magic, comes to embrace it like an old friend. In that sweaty, searing, agonizingly numb body blooms—like a lotus in a dirt pond—a tranquillity that is inexplicable. Maybe this is what the Bhagavad Gita means when it says may you be blessed with God’s grace, transporting you from the unreal to the real, from darkness into light and from death to immortality. I’m not sure…

What I know is this: To the horror of my family, the number of bicycles in my backyard has been growing steadily. I now own five bicycles. And I won’t discuss the numerous helmets, gloves, tyre pressure gauges, pumps, cycle computers and bottles of silicon lube that litter our home—silent indicators of the insane cycling bug.

Those who are bitten by the bug quickly begin to do ambitious rides, in the range of 30-50km on weekends, going out of city limits, into the countryside and villages. Imagine cycling through paddy fields. Imagine the aroma of mango groves in summer as you zip through them. Imagine being in places that don’t have mobile signals. Don’t have ATMs. Don’t have pizza deliveries.

With a few months of regularly cycling 50km, leisure and recreational cyclists can do 60-100km rides on weekends. Let’s look at what this can do for you. Most off-road rides that require you to cycle through forested or farmlands, up mountains and hills, and on mud roads around the countryside, can burn 1,500-2,500 calories in about 4-5 hours of cycling.

“Coupled with the fact that you will be drawing in vast amounts of clean, high-oxygen air while riding in these places, your health gains will be unparalleled. Besides, cycling through the rural countryside can be invigorating and can become one of the reasons for a sense of calm and reduced stress," says Chandra Siddaiah, head and consultant doctor, department of sports medicine, Manipal Hospital, Bangalore. Notice how Dr Siddaiah and I don’t differ much on the outcome of cycling. He looks at it from a professional medical point of view. I like to believe it is a spiritual journey.

But cycling can become an obsessive activity. It can take you to unimaginable extremes. Like Rizvi’s ultra-cycling Raam effort—a race that is tougher than the celebrated Tour de France, because it is 30% longer. It has no rest days, with participants doing an average 400-560km per day. And most Raam solo riders finish it in half the time it takes to do the Tour de France. Rizvi’s advice for people who want to do extreme cycling (more than 200km a day): “Focus on the physical aspect of the sport. Endurance riding needs one to be extremely strong from the head to the toes. Don’t do junk miles. Junk miles are like junk food. Avoid them completely. It’s not about how much distance you ride, but how you ride it. Get out of the comfort zone. Make every mile count. Show no mercy to yourself".

The good news is that India now has many cycle brands— Cannondale, Bianchi, Trek, Raleigh, Merida, Kona, Colnago, Orbea, Rockrider, etc. These are performance bicycles that cost upwards of Rs25,000 (up to Rs2 lakh). They can help you ride further and longer—and bring you up close to rural India, which is in itself a rewarding experience. They can help you ride distances such as 150km a day to lift mental barriers, release legal opiates such as endorphins and keep you in the “zone" where others find it insanely frustrating to see you smile without much reason. And, truth be told, with your day glow spandex cycling shorts showcasing those bulging thighs, the cool cycling helmets and the colourful polycarbonate eyewear, you will feel like god flying in the wind.


The seat of a problem

Oops! Could cycling be bad for men?

Is it possible that while you have been trying to beat obesity, improve your cardiovascular capability and tone up, you could be taking a hit in bed?

Perhaps you’ve been on a bicycle and given up because of serious butt pain after an hour or so of riding—a numbness in the most embarrassing places that often leads to alarm for men. Cycling may be great for your carbon footprint, but is it bad for your sex life? Some studies have shown that men riding a bicycle may be prone to impotency.

Here is what is happening:

The area that makes contact with the bicycle seat is called the perineum, located between the external genitals and the anus. This part of the perineum called Alcock’s canal contains an artery and a nerve supplying the penis with blood and sensation. When blood flow to this part of the body is cut, it results in numbness, says a study by Steven Schrader in International Society for Sexual Medicine. But before you rush at your bicycle with a hacksaw and bloodshot eyes to total it, you may wish to think over the fact that China has no population problem, despite the bicycle being the most popular mode of transport.

So what’s the catch? The issue is your riding posture. If your posture is poor, you will go through the perineum-artery- nerve under pressure problem. Fix your posture and everything fixes itself. Just look at Samim Rizvi (see main story). He’s 40-plus, has children and just participated in the world’s toughest bicycle race. He doesn’t think it affects him.

— Arun Katiyar


The cycling start-up toolkit

Can cycling be such a big deal that you need to think about it? As children, we just rented a bicycle and were off, isn’t it? But today, you have better options. A look at what you need to consider when taking up cycling. Seriously

There are many kinds of bicycles available in the market. But the most popular ones are road bicycles, the sleek ones that come with those super-svelte bent handlebars, and MTBs or the thobby, built-like-monsters mountain bikes. You need to figure out the kind of cycling you want to do first. Road bikes are for hard, good tarmac, racing and strategy. MTBs are for off-roads, climbing and brutal strength. You get the picture.

Most good road bicycles will cost upwards of Rs40,000 and a decent MTB will cost upwards of Rs25,000. Budget another Rs4,000–5,000 for essential accessories and other cool road warrior stuff.

Make sure you learn how to repair punctures, and at the minimum buy a puncture repair kit, a spare tube, portable pump, helmet, gloves, a mini toolkit and a water bottle. You can always add on the accessories once you get ambitious—polycarbonate eyewear, high contrast lenses to go with them, carbon seats, saddle bags, lights, cadence meters, cycle computers, GPS…the list is endless. And don’t you forget those devastatingly revealing riding shorts and jersey.

— Arun Katiyar


Training for extreme cycling fitness

Samim Rizvi, the first Indian to qualify for the longest and toughest cycling race in the world, the Race Across America, follows a fitness programme that makes you think, ‘Is this guy made of steel? Does he eat bicycle spokes for breakfast?’ A look at the most demanding training programme that probably any cyclist has undertaken in the country


• Every Monday: One long ride of 450-plus km

• Tuesday: Off-day. Complete recuperation

• Wednesday-Sunday: Very high-intensity interval training workouts, body-weight strength training and hard-core conditioning

• Rizvi’s interval training is on a stationary trainer (spinning, as it is termed) on zone 4 and zone 5. This is an extremely high-intensity workout routine done at maximum heart rate or beyond the maximum heart rate. Rizvi’s resting heart rate is 37 and maximum heart rate is 196.

• High-altitude training: Wolfgang Fasching, three-time winner of the solo Raam, has also climbed Mt Everest. In his words, though climbing Everest is more dangerous, Raam is much harder. To ensure that Rizvi would be able to meet the rigour of extremes—physical exertion, climate changes, lack of sleep—he underwent three sets of high-altitude training in March.


Rizvi burns approximately 10,000 calories a day. This means that he takes in a lot of high-calorie carbohydrates along with quality calories (proteins and antioxidants) to make up for the deficit. On an average, he eats about 25 eggs a day and consumes high-quality natural protein drinks. The night before his long rides, he loads up on carbs by bingeing on biryani, which he insists releases energy slowly and surely the next day!

Mental fitness

Rizvi is a very optimistic and positive person. However, Raam and working towards Raam can be daunting even for the most upbeat person due to the severe physical strain they face on a daily basis. Rizvi worked with Ronnie Sehgal, CEO of Bulldog Sportz, and life coach Paul Robinson, who helped him put his mind over body, push the limits and dream big.

— Arun Katiyar


Get up and ride

Go online and look for cycling groups. There are plenty of them across India. And each of these groups announces rides to meet different cycling capabilities. But most groups try and organize weekend rides that go off road, into the countryside. Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai have the most active cycling communities. For extreme mountain biking opportunities, think about the three events listed below. Be sure, mountain biking is not for the lily-livered. So tread cautiously.

•The 10-day, 450-650km Hercules MTB Himachal begins from Shimla and makes its way through the western Himalayas. This is a spectacular, competitive ride that places you within arm’s distance of rain clouds and within skin-of-the-teeth distance with danger as tracks plunge up to 1,470m in just 19km. The event’s website at www.mtbhimachal.com is being updated. Visit it often to figure out the dates for the next Himachal MTB.

• The eight-day, approximately 1,000km Tour of Nilgiris goes through the high Nilgiri mountains and takes you through forests, game reserves and some of the most hairy climbs in the history of Indian cycling. It also takes riders through a vast variety of intriguing landscapes and cultures. The tour accommodates 100 and there isn’t a serious cyclist in the country who doesn’t want to test himself or herself on this non-competitive tour. Tour dates are for December. More details at www.tourofnilgiris.com

•The Great Malnad Challenge is a nine-day, 800-odd km cycling expedition through the rain-washed Western Ghats in Karnataka. Staying away from the highways, the route starts from Madikeri in Coorg and runs through Belur, Mullaingiri (the highest point in the state), the Kemmangundi and Bababudangiri hill stations and the forest trails of Kudremukh and Kodachadri before winding up at the Jog Falls in Shimoga, an average distance of 90-100km per day. To get the participants in shape for the gruelling ride, Tandem Trails has lined up seven practice rides. The Great Malnad Challenge is scheduled to be held from 23-31 October and costs Rs15,000 for the full ride. For details, visit http://tandemtrails.co.in/gmc

— Sumana Mukherjee

Arun Katiyar is addicted to cycling. He was part of the team that in 2008 started the country’s longest bicycle ride, the eight-day, 1,000-plus km Tour of Nilgiris. Today, in its third edition, it is a dream tour on the calendar of every serious cyclist in India. In his free time, Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins Publishers.

Write to lounge@livemint.com