During the first Tour of Tamil Nadu in 2010, I offered myself to be a blogger but never fulfilled that promise. Most of my writings remained in draft mode and on many days, I did not write anything other than the title. I redeemed some of the promise when I wrote this piece for The Hindu during the last Tour of Tamil Nadu – 2018, largely helped by pictures from Ganesh and Srini. Over the 8 days of this year’s Tour of Tamil Nadu, I managed to provide daily updates on my Facebook page – little did I realise that I had ended up typing a whooping ~ 2500 words on my smartphone! The blog is an edited version of those posts with few additions and pictures by Srini Swaminathan
Day 1 – December 22nd – Thanjavur to Chidambaram
The tour started with the customary photo shoot, the image which usually finds it way to our participation certificate. Some exchange of old memories on how it all began in Coimbatore in 2010 – just to show off I have been riding for so long (and yet quite rubbish as it was revealed end of the day). We exited Thanjavur listening to the incessant honking which was mistaken for cheering from the public – not true for sure. We reached Ayyampettai, Ammapettai, and shouted together ‘pettai rap‘. Our first pit stop was at the Dharasuram temple.
We had a choice to visit the temple and I was carrying the dhoti in my hydration pack. I unveiled the fashion disaster of the tour when I wrapped around a dhoti, a towel, hydration pack and not to miss out my goggles!
The next major landmark was the Lower Anaicut – the terminal barrage across Kollidam before the river joins the sea. The dam, built in 1902, still allows only one-way traffic for cars and heavy vehicles. The second pit-stop was at Gangai Konda Cholapuram – my hunger made the hotel outside of it look more attractive and the lunch was excellent. We viewed the temple from outside as it was too hot to place our feet inside.
The last phase of afternoon ride took us to the banks of Veeranam lake. The road seems to be never ending and the only solace was seeing the lake filled with water. I kept myself engaged thinking how many thermacols are required to cover the lake. Srini gave an excellent company on the ride and clicked some lovely pictures!
The heat and the headwinds certainly humbled me and the ride finished in Chidambaram at 5:40 PM.
Day 2 – December 23rd – Chidambaram to Velankanni
The start was delayed to make sure we are on time for lunch at Aryapuram, the highlight of the day’s ride. The first town on route was Kollidam, just after the river with the same name. Memories of buying my cane rocking chair in 2005 flashed in my minds – a piece of furniture that has been integral to my life since. The next town was Vaitheeswaran Koil – a nondescript temple town that shot into fame in the early 2000s due to ‘Nadi’ astrology. Looks like the hay days are over now. Personally, the place is significant as the presiding deity in the temple happens to be my ‘family deity‘.
Devotion levels rose instantaneously and I thought of making a quick stop. The challenge was to find someone who will take care of my cycle during the visit. Few of them rejected to do so despite my emotional appeals about the significance of the place in my life – getting tonsured here on completion of my first year on earth, piercing of my ears etc., Finally, one kind lady agreed for it and I was able to make a quick visit to the temple. Returning back from temple, I offered her some money which she refused stating that she is happy to see me visit the temple. Who said God lives inside the temple alone!
The star attraction of the day was the pit-stop was Aryapuram, where TOT veteran Ganesh Ram had arranged for a traditional ‘sappad’ in his ancestral place. Delicious meal served exquisitely with tons of love made the meal unforgettable. The reclainer chair in the pyol tempted me to take a long siesta. It was certainly a challenge to motivate ourselves to ride again!
Post-lunch ride was through densely populated villages leading to Velankanni. There was not a patch of land where we were devoid of the noise from loud speakers. Election announcements, Temple songs, Churches, Mosques – at times, I wished that villages need DJs more than elected leaders. They can mix and match all these through a single speaker in periodic intervals! Srini kept me occupied through this stretch with some random discussions. His portable speaker ran out of battery and was certainly not missed with the noise around. Our second pit-stop was outside the Nagore Dargah. Time constraints forced me to abandon the visit and proceed to Velankanni instead.
The day ended with a visit to the Vailankanni Church, which certainly looked well maintained than the temples we visited.
Day 3 – December 24th – Velakanni to Karaikudi
Being a long ride of about 157 Km, we started the ride by 7:45 AM at Velankanni. And then, it happened!
R A I N… You made me a, you made a, believer, believer!
We were welcomed by a downpour that pushed us the nearest covered place available. I took refuge at a house where an old man proudly told me about his achievement of riding his bicycle all the way to Poompuhar in his younger days. Good old times when he doesn’t need to show his Strava reading to anyone! Left the house only to be welcomed by another downpour. The next place of refuge was a bus stop where I gave an impassioned speech on the “true worth” of my cycle, when asked for its price. Quite a few gave an impression that it would have been lot better to get drenched in the rain than listen to me.
There was an option to use the pickup truck and take float to the next pit stop, from where we can start riding again. Rain is a pretty strange thing – at first, we do our best to avoid getting wet; once fully drenched, we don’t wish to escape it anymore. While running in the rain is real fun, like the Berlin Marathon early this year, riding in the rain has a painful side to it – the task of cleaning the bike after ride. Today was a long ride and there was ample time to think about it.
In the meantime, Abhijit, one of the riders captured this beautiful video of me riding in the rain.
I reached the first pit stop at 45k mark and the rains have subsided then. Soon after that, I faced my first puncture on the front wheel. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – ace mechanic Rajashekar fixed the issue in less than 5 minutes.
The route was through places that I was hearing for the first time. One exception was Aranthangi, synonymous with S. Thirunavukkasar, a politician whom I always felt never got the due from different parties he belonged to. The final stretch of the route from Puduvayal to Karaikudi was filled with beautiful Chettinad houses (most looks haunted though!) and the Kandanur temple.
The day ended at Karaikudi and the hotel was next to Pandian Cinemas – memories of watching, rather suffering, ‘Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu‘ with Rajan, when we were in the town for the wedding of Thenappan!
Day 4 – December 25th – Karaikudi to Rameswaram
For some, it was a 145 Km ride; for Coach Srinath, it was a ride in a pace line in steady 160W. Those terminologies certainly got few of the heads spinning. Never mind, waiting for a train at level crossing ensured that we are well separated from the ‘pace line’!
The first stop was at a Chettinad House in Devakottai. One of our riders had arranged for us to visit the house and have a look around it. We were warmly received and the residents took us through the house. Sometimes, I wonder where we lost our sense of aesthetics in the process of building concrete jungles.
After Devakottai, there weren’t any major towns till Ramanathapuram. We had to ride through vast open spaces of barren land with few patches of greenery. The ride was a pleasure though, thanks to pleasant weather conditions, less traffic, and assistance from tail wind. Our route bye-passed Ramanathapuram and we found a decent place for lunch on the road leading to Rameswaram. It was 1 PM, we were looking for lunch after covering about 90 Kms. Some adventured in their choice of food whereas, I stayed safe with my staple diet of curd rice. The sky rocketing of onion prices meant that I cannot get onion pakodas to relish. It was a fairly easy post lunch ride and the next destination was the iconic Pamban Bridge. It was bizarre to see a bridge on a highway looking like a tourist spot with vehicles parked on either side. Breathtaking views of the sea and the Rail Bridge got me captivated for few minutes. I was later told that the bridge rarely opens these days.
As we moved towards Rameswaram, our pit stop was located at the memorial of APJ Abdul Kalam. I felt that the memorial serves the purpose of tourists than for anyone seriously wanting to know about him. The paintings gave an impression of a mythological legend than someone who really lived!
Day 5 – December 26th – Rameswaram to Rameswaram
The day when the Solar Eclipse eclipsed our ride. Our tour was fortunate to have an enthusiast like Prasad, who had personally bought eclipse glasses for safe viewing for all of us. Further, he found an ideal location, about 3 Km from our hotel for best viewing of the Eclipse. Laziness made me choose the balcony of my room as the location. Should I tell you that the moon came in the view between me and the Sun!
Our ride started at 10:30 AM towards the farthest point in Dhanushkodi. Getting out of Rameswaram town was an experience in itself. A 20 km ride with sea on either side was a beauty in itself with less to be described. Looks like some of the old remains of place have disappeared from my only visit in 2006. The final point – Arichalmunai – was crowded with crazy traffic, and I preferred to turn around few metres before. The ride both ways had plenty of cross winds giving some hints on what is store for the next day.
A mandatory temple visit for the evening. While I had an option for a “guided” visit which usually involved getting sprayed with water, I preferred a simple option to take a walk in the beautiful corridors (1212 pillars) of the temple. I could not fathom what kind of spiritual progression can be expected in a place that is nothing short of filthy and filled with noisy and unruly crowds. The sanctum sanctorum was crowded and there was no chance of visiting it. I was suggesting to my fellow riders that one day, we should ride through the four corridors to make the tour special!
The rest of evening was spent listening to Coach Srinath about various facets of cycling and fitness, in general. If I look back to find out that moment where it that started my cycling journey, it has to be the chance meeting him at RK Salai Saravana Bhavan (although he wishes he met someone in Muniyandi Vilas instead!). This was back in 2007; Twelve years later, his enthusiasm in learning and sharing about cycling has not diminished a bit. While it is tough for me to ride to his expectation, I can sincerely hope to retain my current enthusiasm though.
Day 6 – December 27th – Rameswaram to Madurai
The first of two days, when it is more about riding than touring. The longest ride of the tour at 176 Km, if not the toughest of the tour, certainly ensured that we focus on riding and nothing else. Yet again, getting out of Rameswaram was a challenge due to traffic issues. I may be generalising here, but the chaos caused by Sabarimalai devotees was certainly obnoxious. So much that I was hesitant to visit Madurai temple due to their presence in temples all over south.
The route was through the highway and we did not enter any of the towns enroute like Ramanathapuram, Paramakudi, or Manamadurai. The architect of the Tour, Vasanth used to call these rides as “Junk miles” in the past; but he too was riding today! The crosswinds and the heat did pose challenges. Such long rides require substantial food and water intake and we stopped for a royal ‘full’ meals. Post lunch ride was supported by listening to some random podcasts on Astrology (that too by The Guardian), crisis in North Carolina, and some issues with a youth club. If there was one podcast that I enjoyed the most, it has to be Athletes Unfiltered by Strava. I did miss my good old iPod classic, which helped me manage podcasts a lot better.
It is very easy to know that you are entering Madurai as soon as you see the unruly traffic situation. Where else would you see in the middle of the road, someone park their car or stop their two wheeler to take a phone call!
Day 7 – December 28th – Madurai to Madurai
This was an easy ride day before the one final big day of the tour. I wanted to ease my legs by going for a short run, which did not turn out to be noteworthy. This made me wonder how participants of Ironman run a marathon as soon as they finish cycling for 180 Kms!
Our ride to Azhagarmalai started at 10:30 AM through the heat and dust of Madurai. We rode on the road to Natham, where a bridge to nowhere seems to be perenially under construction. We finally had the real ‘climb’ of the tour – a missing ingredient in the Tour. We climbed about 300m on a narrow road constantly obstructed by the monkeys – not only the four legged ones. It is yet another bizarre case of a road that is permitted for two and four wheeled motor vehicles but not cycles. The organised assured the officials of safety and managed to get exemption.
Crowded temples did not interest me anymore and quickly rode downhill.
The Tour is never the same without the photos and selfies with Suresh. After missing the tour on the 6 days, he duly announced his arrival on the tour with his exciting photography.
The felicitation ceremony of the Tour, where all participants get honoured regardless of the distance or speed they rode, was held in the evening. Vasanth unveiled the theme of the next season of the tour. It is amazing to see the completion of 10 editions of the tour when we think that the first edition was in jeopardy due to certain issues. Eventually, some of the organisers personally funded the see through the first edition of the tour in 2010. It goes without saying that the Tour has always been about the organisers and spirited volunteers – replace them with anyone else, the tour wouldn’t be the same. We also took time to appreciate the wonderful support crew and the spirited volunteers who made the tour.
Day 8 – December 29th – Madurai to Thanjavur
The day started with a surprise visit of Kumaravel from Chennai Runners at the Hotel. It was nice of him to break his Sunday long run and wish us at the Hotel. Being the last day, some of them opted out of ride due to various reasons. I was surprised that I still had the mettle to start. Not sure of finish, I decided to take it one pitstop at a time.
The first two hours of the ride was under a pleasant weather and I rode past the first stop. The weather continued to be kind until the second pit stop. The headwind was posing a challenge and I maintained a steady rhythm. Some emotional moments when Sachin Krishna announced that this is the last pit stop manned by him for 2019 (fairly obvious, still..!). Srini, who had taken a day off delighted us with some photography!
The highlight of the day was the third pit stop. We were hosted by the members of erstwhile Pudukottai Royal Family. Although called as High Tea, we ate enough to make it a perfect lunch! The arrangements and warmth shown by the host was certainly overwhelming. It is definitely not an easy task to invite a bunch of sun burnt cyclists wearing sweat laden multi-coloured clothes that would potentially damage anyone’s sensory organs! I quickly checked if the tour was over there. It was only 2:00 PM and with only 50 Kms left, it was too early to call it a day.
I wanted to finish my tour at the Big Temple. The crowds outside the temple didn’t permit me to have a spectacular finish. Hence, I finished with a picture outside the temple!
It was simply impossible for me to do a tour of this magnitude without the support of some wonderful people who helped me do it.
Firstly, the core of Tamil Nadu Cycling Club, Vaz, Venky, Rajaram and others for the conceptualisation and perfect execution for 10 editions!
The team from Pro-Bikers, Bala Sir, Suresh, Vissu and their dedicated staff for the support on the tour.
Pit stops will never be the same without Sachin! His presence and enthusiastic cheering gets you going. Not to miss out the stern faced strict officer Rajaram, currently in Swamiji avatar, and his clear directions!
Abhita, Chitra, and other volunteers who quietly worked behind the scenes to ensure everything works perfectly!
My roommate Srini Swaminathan, for putting up with me in yet another tour. His photographs were priceless!
The support crew of drivers, mechanics, Loknath and others who worked tirelessly for eight days to make the tour memorable.
My friends in Coimbatore Cycling who are my ride partners round the year; Sulu Bhai for getting my cycle in perfect condition for the tour.
Last, but not the least, heartfelt thanks to all my fellow riders on the tour! I would also like to move from riding to volunteering in the next season. I would certainly continue touring and would prefer them to be unorganised henceforth.
Excellent write up Balaji, it shows how you have enjoyed every distance in the 8 days. Kudos and thanks for writing such a beautiful blog!! Happy to be associated with TOT and looking forward for many more blogs in the coming years. Cheers!