It’s hard to believe that an injury led to Ajay Bakaya becoming an endurance and long-distance cyclist, but that’s how the seasoned hotelier got hooked to a life on two wheels. “Cycling is easy, no challenges; I just get up and ride," says the managing director of Sarovar Hotels and Resorts, who has been with the company for two decades and manages its 80 hotels across 50 destinations in India and Africa. He was a regular runner till 2015 when a knee injury took him off the road.

Bakaya (62) met Manas Arvind, a seasoned cyclist who had introduced competitive cycling as a sport to Gurugram, who suggested he take up cycling instead. “It’s much better than running as it doesn’t put stress on the joints and injuries are fewer. It’s great cardio too," he says. He enjoys it the most when he’s outdoors with a few other riders. “The breeze whispering in your face is exhilarating. Plus cycling is great for toning and weight loss," he says.

Bakaya’s first ride with Arvind was through the streets of Gurugram, and across the plush Galleria market. He became a regular and made friends in the cycling community. Bakaya then met Adil Nargowala, an HR head for a multinational and a long-distance runner, who was training for triathlons. He decided to challenge himself with a long ride, and he joined Nargowala on a 100km ride one Sunday, starting from Gurugram, and winding past the airport, India Gate and beyond. “It was exhilarating, though I hurt all over at the end of the day," he says.

His most memorable trips have been the Tour of Nilgiris (TfN) and a Dehradun-Mussoorie cycling trip. “I find I always learn something new on these long trips," he says. “You have to learn to pace yourself yet stay alert during a pull uphill and can’t relax while coasting downhill either. The mountains are unforgiving. You learn to endure with grit and a smile," he says.

In 2017, he did the TfN, covering 1,000km in seven days. “We were 130 riders. It was very well organized with an ambulance, doctors, physiotherapists, motorcycle patrols, hot food, cycle mechanics, everything was taken care of," says Bakaya. The tour included seven days of cycling, plus a rest day. It’s the longest, hardest race he’s done. “The route we followed was from Bengaluru to Mysuru then on to Coorg, to Kerala and then to Tamil Nadu. We passed through three wildlife reserves, it was very delightful but also tough. We averaged 140km a day," he says. The most gruelling part was the Kalhatti climb, where the gradient was 30 degrees for every 10km. “It’s enough to challenge the hardiest and bravest. A killer climb that takes the best out of any rider," he says.

To prepare for the TfN, he cycled from Dehrudun to Mussoorie and back in October 2017. “That was my first hill ride. It was daunting to see the road snake up and up, and disappear when you were still in the foothills," he says. During that ride, he learnt feathering, a pattern of applying and releasing the brakes in an alternating pattern while riding downhill. “If you don’t release the brakes correctly, the wheel rims heats up and the tyre could burst."

Hill climbs require stamina and the only way to build it is to spend more time in the saddle. “Stamina building includes hill repeat rides and a plan where you keep increasing your longest distance every week. In twelve weeks, you can go from 50km to 150km," he explains.

To ensure he is fit enough to take these trips, he sticks to a strict combination of diet and exercise. His food philosophy is simple: He is a vegetarian and ensures a daily intake that’s a healthy mix of protein, carbs and fat. A tablespoon of ghee, soaked peeled almonds, walnuts, a large bowl of fruit and oats is how he begins his day. Lunch is light, and dinner is carbohydrates-free.

He starts his day with an hour of meditation followed by yoga or a gym session. His workout always includes 20 minutes of stretching and 30 to 40 minutes of weight training, or cycling for an hour.

On Sundays, he cycles for three to four hours, which he describes as “fun and aimless". On weekdays, he makes sure to fit in 75 minutes of strenuous cycling at least twice a week. He says endurance cycling has made him a better leader as he’s had to be part of teams. “You help when another is down. You build patience. You plan serious rides. You learn to learn all the time," he says. A fit leader brings strength, control, self-esteem, positive energy, stamina, strength, all good leadership traits.

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