Finished my 5 days of TFN, and got back from Ooty day before - rested the stiff muscles yesterday, and caught up on mails - and its slowly starting to suck me back into life-as-usual.
What a ride that was!
Day 1: Flag off and ride to Chamundi Hills
Got up real early and Shubha and the kids came along to St. Joseph's grounds to see the riders off. We got there around 5:30 and there were a bunch of riders and a whole lot of logistical activity on already! Parked, put the wheel on, put the last bit of luggage in the van and had a carb-loaded breakfast as dawn broke. There were guys handing out free hugs (with posters announcing the same :) ) and lots of press, families and high levels of enthusiasm. A lot many people had decided to ride along for a few kilometres - and a couple of them did that all the way till Mysore!
We started off at 6:45 after some media soundbytes and a formal flag-off by KSTDC and other sponsors. There were cops riding along as pilots, and ensuring a clear path at intersections - it was soooo cool to see traffic being asked to pause for cyclists - hopefully the future ? We regrouped near the University entrance, and then started off again - the road bikes first and groups of MTBs, which spread out rather quickly based on varying speeds.
The first 70 kms were mostly downhill, and I averaged 27kmph on that leg! About halfway through, a white Safari flagged me down and I was pleasantly surprised to see Venkat (of AutoService fame) and his daughter Sounjanya inside - they'd driven down to wish me for the ride :) I'm sure I owed at least part of the enthusiasm to this surprise.
It was kind of a longish break at the Petrol Pump - got food, and water. Sukhdev soon joined us and everyone gave him a standing ovation - at 11 years his is an amazing feat.
The next leg got a little tougher - the roads went uphill more often, the sun was harsher and the mornings extra enthusiasm started to tell on most of us :) We crossed Mandya and lumbered up the Srirangapatna inclines, and hunger caught up with me - making the last few kilometres into Mysore somewhat tough. For the last bit, I'd been riding with Sudhir, who had a cramp and just as we got into Mysore, a small run-in with another local cyclist and hurt his hand a bit. He rode on. nevertheless.
We traced our way through the city to the Chamundi Hills base. The others carried on while I rested a bit and had a bun and juice that the support vehicle offered. The climb up was slooow, even though the gradient was mild. The sun was harsh, and the long day and traffic-caused stress was probably telling on me.
With a couple of breaks and a lot of egging on from the road bikers who were already on their way down, finally made it to the top, and had a bit to eat. Rested and chatted a bit with the other riders who were resting there as well.
The downhill was sweet, and the great snacks and tea courtesy the Wild Flower resort near the base even better. Most people were extremely tired by now, and the prospect of the local ride was not too appealing. Nevertheless, we rode to the Palace for a quick snap or two, then rode through Mysore to the YHAI hostel where we were to rest for the night. 170kms for the day.
Got to hear of Seema's accident later - a car had rear-ended her bike on the 37th km itself - taking the rear wheel and derailleur set out :( The helmet helped, and the brave soul switched to an MTB and carried on!
Got a bed only post dinner at around 8:30. Warm water has rarely felt that good :)
Day 2: Mysore to Madikeri
The next day started at 7:30 after breakfast and the day's briefing. I'd checked pressure in the tires - and it'd dropped to sub-40!
The weather was great early in the morning, and the slopes were gentle and rolling, though unrelenting. Down one, and up another. We made good progress, and for the first couple of hours I managed to stay not too far behind the second set of road-bikers. The tarmac was terrific and they were having a ball with petty much no traffic.
I took the first banana-break at the 30km, had water, made calls home and carried on. The legs felt just a tad stiffer after the break, and the climbs were a little slower. I was still averaging upwards of 24kmph, and feeling fine overall. Soon got hungry, took a break for a bun, banana, biscuits and tea, and gave my legs and neck - which was hurting a bit by now - a 20 minute rest.
Sudhir - who rides easy and consistent unlike my blow-hot- blow-cold style, passed me during the break, and I caught up with him over the next 9 kms and more or less rode along right till the end of the day.
The route was pretty, with palm groves, and lakes alongside, and a gentle breeze keeping things cool. After Kushalnagar things got serious - the climb started and the roads deteriorated around the same time. The road bikers - whom I'd caught up with for a cola break (thanks Dicky) - started to have a tough time. A few gave up and took the float option upto Madikeri. We lumbered on. The ascent right after Suntikoppa was a major one, but I'd made up my mind to not give-in to the nanny gears before the slopes up to Ooty, and did not. Took another cream-bun and juice break where Sudhir caught up again, and started off slowly.
A few kms before Madikeri both of us amazingly ran out of water, and at a particularly bad curve with lots of dust and broken roads with a climb looming ahead, decided to wait for a support car to provide succour. One came along in 15 minutes, and a refill later we started off again.
Soon the climb ended, and the road started flattening/descending towards Madikeri for the most part - and I zipped off. From Madikeri to the Kalpavriksha homestay about 6 kms away was a mindblowing downhill, though with intermittent broken surface, and I kept ahead of a car just rolling downhill and braking late and hard (I think I got a lot of rubber onto the rim doing that).
Lunch was welcome, though a little low on veggies, and cold coffee was wow. The homestay was in a very pretty setting, with lots of space in the parking area where folks spread out catching up on the days stories. Each rider coming in was cheered and served.
Got a bed only post dinner at around 8:30. Warm water has rarely felt that good :)
Washed the shorts and jersey and had a nice warm bath. Dinner was around a campfire that felt soooo great.
123 kms or so for the day.
Day 3: Madikeri to Sultan Bathery via the toughest sections of my trip
The dinner last evening was a bit of a letdown, and the egg in the morning was very welcome! I'd been up and starving since 4:30am, and the early morning tea around the fire helped lift spirits too.
The days ride was led by birthday boy Kaushik (the previous day was Sharath's bday and he'd done the honours). We started a trifle late because of the mist, and it was still quite chilly for the first half and hour or so. The road was in decent shape till Virajpet, and I again made rapid progress helped in part by Joshine's keep-at-it-forever riding style. The surface after Virajpet was broken every now and then, and the roadbikes had a tougher and tougher ride every few kilometres. My shoulders and neck started hurting as well, and after the first major break (at 56kms!) after Gonikoppal, I took it slow and easy, with breaks and Gatorade more often.
We'd been climbing up and down rolling hills all morning, but things got serious pretty soon en-route to Kutta. The gradients, quality of roads, dry and sunny (tho thankfully still cool in the shade) conditions did not help one bit, and it took all of one's effort to not get down and walk. On the steeper climbs, I even gave up and switched to 1-1 (and was disheartened when I wondered what I'd do for the Ooty climb). It felt especially frustrating to see the stronger bikers move ahead, especially when my chain slipped off halfway up a climb when I switched gears, and I actually just sat for a few minutes before I tried putting it back on.
Slowly, surely, with tons of mental effort and encouragement from the support guys and the bloggers-turned-support-guys - got closer to the Kerala border. Caught up with Avinash, who was having a horrible "flat" day (3 flats and the guy was still cheerful) and more or less stayed with him till Kattrikulam. The 15 kms or so through the wildlife sanctuary were fun - at one point a falling bamboo clumb and some movement behind it gave me new reserves of energy that did my acceleration through the stretch a lot of good :)
Lunch at kattrikulam was a local Porotta-Egg curry-Cola affair, and what might've otherwise tasted iffy felt great. Was charged up for a few kilometres after lunch and stayed with the flying Italian - lost him at a drink break and carried on alone asking the way to Bathery.
After Panamaram the climbs and the sun got nastier every few kilometres, and I started to wane, especially having forgotten to add electral to my water. I was also convinced I was on the wrong track, since no riders/vehicles crossed me! About 20 kilometres before Bathery, stopped to buy water, and some road bikers and the stronger MTB riders caught up! Amazingly, I'd managed to stay ahead so I guess the pace had dropped for everyone.
I carried on slowly, but the lack of the hydration pack saw me slowing down for more water breaks and I soon lost the bunch. My legs were also refusing to push up slopes and I was doing them at a much lowered pace.
About 7kms before the town, my arms started to cramp - took a break - had a RiteBite and started again. Crossed Iggy who had had another flat - and after a strenuous uphill, stopped again for water, and made calls home.
Within the next half a km I had a flat! This was about 4-5 kms before Sultan Bathery, and I was in no mood to learn how to fix a flat then. Didn't have a spare tube, so started walking. Within a few metres Rakesh Nair stopped by - he'd loaded his roadbike into an auto after some severe ache in his legs - and I was thankful to him, God, the auto guy and life in general seemed to have recovered from the low point of the days graph.
Found the hotel where we were to stay for the night. No warm water meant no bath - and let me just say the TFN organizers were apologetic about the lack of options they had when the recce happened :)
We tried our luck at a glitzier (any thing would be) place nearby but other riders had been quicker on the draw and the place was full! Dinner at the place's coffee bar was pizza, burgers, puffs - loaded with chicken and salads, a couple of rounds of tea, and juices. All of that for 201/- !!!!
Anyhow, slept not-too-well without a sheet, and got up early again.
Did 145kms of the ride this day, plus 5 in the auto :)
Day 4 : Sultan Bathery to Ooty - aka the Big One!
This was the ride many of us were waiting for.
Tea at a roadside place along with a sweet-tasting vadai (?) felt great early in the morning, and breakfast at the WindFlower was nice and nutritious. Iggy managed to find me a spare tube even as the briefing was on, and I started about 10 minutes after the first riders had left.
The slopes were easy and nice, and the weather fantastic. The locals were very friendly too, with one little guy in particular who ran alongside for the better part of a km making as much conversation as possible given my limited Tamil and his limited English and Hindi.
We were soon gaining elevation up climbs that took us higher and higher despite the odd downhill. And given the amazing sights all around, great weather and very decent road surface, we were soon at Devarsholai which was also the first food stop - though I'd had enough "support" that had found its way into my tummy by the time I got up there. Had yummy badam milk and yogurt, and carried on towards Gudalur. This started off with an amazing downhill and then a couple of climbs more.
A little before Gudalur things got a little hot with the noon sun shining bright, and the town was rather bare and the traffic didn't help either. But the climb started almost immediately, and within minutes of switching into lower and lower gears, "Ooty 49" showed up along with canopied, well tarred roads.
One of the support bikes asked me if I wanted lunch and water, and I gladly accepted. Took a 20 minute break to finish all the biriyani and chapatis - and generally stared at the amazing view in front of me. Kamesh passed me - totally focused on the excruciating ascent and working those pedals diligently. Watching another MTB rider grind up the slope put things in perspective - an amazing sight.
Started the climb again - the next 23 odd kms were the steadiest 7kmph ride I've done ever! Mostly in 1-2, and on the particularly nasty ones - 1-1. Did get into the higher gears at the hairpins, and once in a while to just break the monotony of the pace - but usually with not-very-thankful legs begging me to do the sane thing and keep pedalling at a sane cadence, low effort.
It was primarily a mental game - that climb.
Started off amidst pretty pretty pretty tea gardens, and promised to stop after 5 kms for a drink break and taking in the view (and catching my breath). It happened in a kilometre and a half instead :) A couple of road bikers - Dicky and Avinash - who'd started much later - caught up and took a break as well. They carried on quickly while I resumed at 7kmph.
From thereon the breaks became short, but frequent. It was a major effort to tell oneself to "no breaks before the next 1.2kms". Every gift from the support Gods was accepted with gratitude and genuine thankfulness. Reports of a "relative flat" a little ahead became a driving force. Only to become "a little further" ahead as the "end" of each bend in the climb revealed another ascent and another bend, and another higher mountain where a sure downhill had seemed (at least to my tired mind) to exist earlier.
For a while, rode with a couple of other MTB riders. Took a longish break for snaps amidst the tall eucalyptus where Nelly, Iggy seemed to be merrily picniking :)
The flat stretch did come, and lasted all of a half kilometre. Felt real tired after that and took a good 10 minute break just to stop fretting. The mind had started doing some calculations by now about what the speed was, how much time I had and when the sweep vehicles would come pick me up. So no scenery and nothing gained for about half an hour, except worry and tense muscles.
Then, magically, a nice rolling downhill, past a small town by the prettiest lake you've ever seen. Speeds went into double digits, and then upto 30+!
Past the lake, ran into a fellow rider - took a breather and took it easy for a while - with a few metres of walking and slow riding. Pradeep met us in between and injected a huge dose of optimism when he announced the main climb ended after about 2 kms, and the roads were rolling with generous downhills and flat sections included.
The average speed went up quite a bit, and thoughts of getting picked up by the sweep slowly ebbed. The shadows had grown longer by now and the air had a chill in it - so all the breaks were now in the sun!
It was amazingly pretty all around.
There were a few more climbs which I did real slow and easy, and maxed out on the downhills (with my brakes fading very quickly now). One Tourist spot after another passed by, though the beautiful everything-in-between was the even more glorious bit. Crossed a huge lake (dam?) and thick woods before being welcomed by a decrepit looking signboard announcing the "Queen of the Hills - Ooty".
Traffic and enthusiasm both increased, and caught up with a couple of riders who'd gotten "floated" to the 5 km mark and were riding the last bit. Reached Charing Cross eventually and asked around for the Youth Hostel - there are three and we inevitably landed at the wrong one. More enquiries ensued and we walked past the main market where someone suggested hot bhajjis and chai - much needed succour.
Getting back onto the saddle was ruled out by my suddenly-severely-in-protest-mode rear, as well as completely ineffective brakes - so walked the last couple of kms through Ooty to the YHAI hostel beyond the bus stand. A couple who were riding across India - the lady on a Merida! - greeted us and asked about the ride, some route suggestions and wished us the best.
The YHAI hostel was real pretty, and the food was great as well. There was a sense of accomplishment all around, and that showed when we gathered around the campfire and sang, danced (Seema's steps to the item numbers were awesome :) ) and generally bonhomied late into the night. There was also a somewhat candid feedback session that I hope both enthused the organizers as well as provided some useful feedback.
The night was brrrrr - and the huge holes in the blankets did not help :) The mercury apparently dipped below zero!
This was a 95km day, a couple more on foot.
Day 5 : Rest, Walk, Run and Adieu, riders ....
It sure was the rest day, but the cold ensured everyone kind of got up early - especially aided by a few early risers in the dorms :)
Avinash, Hari and I went for a cuppa, and a walk towards the Fern Hill Palace in the morning. Got back to another round of tea at the hostel, and headed out for another walk with a different group along the railway tracks. It was amazing to meet so many different people, their stories, yet bound by the single joy we were all revelling in.
Breakfast was a Nilgiris Idli-Vadai-Sambhar affair - and the piping hot stuff felt soooo good that pretty much everyone had a bit too much of it. The runners who'd decided to jog up to Dodda Betta decided to push the plan out by an hour, and I had a warm bath, changed and packed.
Thejesh was headed to Bangalore as well, and we headed towards the bus stand to make reservations. Got a bus to Mysore leaving at 1:30 - so decided to go buy some handmade "Ooty Chocolates" and tea, and made an early lunch of some nice heavy dosas.
Got back to the hostel, picked up our bags and had one last run-in with the videographers :)
The bus ride back was slow and easy and caught a nap or two. Got a Volvo at Mysore almost immediately, and saw a horrid movie - 1920 - that they were playing on the bus. Got another Volvo to Koramangala at Majestic (my first ever bus from Majestic! - and a very decent experience). Shubha and the kids were there to pick me up.
Got home more or less fine, except a light niggle in the left ankle. Still persists.
Day 7 : TFN rolls into Bangalore
Went upto Bangalore Univ (in BMTC buses - good experience again even with 3 bus changes) and met the TFN caravan which had paused there to regroup, and for a drink. Got my bike down from the support truck, and rode along in a group behind the cops and support cars. The cops once more cleared the intersections, and even the Mysore Road flyover for the riders to ensure a smooth ride!
The ride ended at Cubbon Park - with an additional lap around the park. There were hugs, exchanged phone numbers, triumph, joy, sorrow, cheers, snaps, stories recounted, jokes made. Pretty much everyone just wanted it to last just that bit longer.
[ There was a sour note as well - in the melee Sangwan's bike went missing :( I'm hoping the cops are able to trace it quick - its not a bike you can hide anywhere too long. ]
But it had to end. The first edition of the Tour of Nilgiris finally got over. Like the end of a beautiful dream. So many friendships forged. Things learned. Places seen. Experiences lived. Wounds endured. Hills climbed. Fears conquered. Demons quietened. Minds opened.
TFN 09, here we come :)
[ There's a dinner get together tonight for TFN riders and all others in the cycling fraternity around Bangalore. One last cheer for this amazing trip! ]
So next time you cross the place, do stop there for cane juice and tip the honest guy!