The Solitary Rider

Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
William Wordsworth, Solitary Reaper
One of the eye-catching scenes of the Tour de France is watching a solitary rider who breaks away from the pelaton. It could be someone heading for a stage win or few additional bonus points or the last rider who is trying to save himself from disqualification; or simply just to hog the limelight. Whatever may be the reason, it certainly takes a lot from a rider to go all alone on any stage of the gruelling tour. In the final part of yesterday’s Stage 8, Peters Nans, the French Rider, launched a solo assault to reach the finish line 47 seconds ahead of rest of the pack. It was certainly a sight to watch.

During my solo ride today morning, I started reflecting on my solitary rides over the years. If I ignore the cycling during my school days, my real ‘cycling’ adventures began in 1999, when I was stuck at home during my summer vacations in Karur. It was an unfamiliar town and I didn’t have any friends either. Moving from Chennai, where I did my schooling, it was quite an uncharacteristic town. Luckily, the cycle that I used during my school days was still around and I started exploring the town and beyond. Starting from the cement factory at Puliyur, reaching the banks of river Cauvery at Nerur (didn’t know the greatness of Sadasiva Brahmendra back then to visit his Samadhi) and Vangal, and various other locations that I cannot remember off the head now. These rides used to be for about an hour or two and I was back home for breakfast.
Hercules MTB
My first cycle

Fast forward to 2007, the present avatar of my cycling journey started with a chance meeting with ‘Coach’ Srinath Rajam at the Saravana Bhavan in RK Salai who thought I was a ‘serious’ cyclist – something I could only aspire and never become. I was soon added to the cycling group – Madras Bike Hash, and soon started riding with the group. Our rides used to be those easy ones on saturday morning, covering about 25-30 Kms and finishing with a heavy breakfast. Occasionally, a ride on the ECR This was the time the ‘cycling’ in Chennai was expanding with the influx of foreign brands and fitter and faster cyclists. Our group slowly disbanded into multiple groups and after moving to Pondicherry, I once again became a ‘solitary rider.’

The ‘Madras Bike Hash’ group in May 2009.
Unlike running, cycling with a group is quite a complex. To start with, the traffic on the road is a deterrent to it – the constant disruptions by other vehicles and narrow roads will make it difficult to ride with others. Given the range of cycles that people ride and the condition of those cycles, the speed of the cycle is not dependent on the riders’ physical ability alone. Sometime back, a newbie cyclist riding with me commented that I am slow, only for me to respond back, ‘I didn’t ask you to ride with me’! This is not to say that I don’t like to ride with a group or other individuals. I have some wonderful memories of riding with excellent fellow riders – Manjula and Magesh (Singham) on the last day of Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010, Srini on a weekend trip from Pondy to Vaitheeswaran Koil and back, and many others on different occasions.

After I moved to Coimbatore in 2016, I became part of the Coimbatore Cycling. Soon, Satish and Manju started accompanying me on my routine Saturday rides. More than a ride, it is all about the conversations and post-ride coffee sponsored by Satish. The only challenge with them are they prefer a familiar route; and long rides are restricted on special occasions like Independence Day and Republic Day rides – Understandable, given that they have ‘family duties’ on Saturday. The rides are fairly regular, if all three of us are in town and not engaged in other commitments. I continued pursuing my long rides and few adventurous rides as a solo affair.

These solitary rides give plenty of time for me have conversations with myself on issues as diverse as colours in a kaleidoscope. It gives me time to criticise myself, demonstrate a non-existing expertise in everything, play devil’s advocate on my thought process, draw plans for ‘changing the world,’ before getting grounded by a reminder of pending items on my ‘to-do’ list. As RK Narayan writes in ‘The World of Nagaraj’

‘What is going on?’ she asked, surprised. ‘Are you talking to yourself?’
‘Why not?’ Nagaraj asked. ‘I am my best listener: quiet and agreeable and never disputing.’

Such rides usually atract undue attention from the passer-bys. There are urchins shouting, ‘Vellaikar! Vellaikar!,’ before I reply back with some abusive word in chaste Tamil; Then, there are moments when other cyclists start trying to “race” with me. Frustrated motor bike riders speeding past me after brushing past to show their superiority; In the less explored places, there are myriad questions from curious onlookers, including the purpose of cycling, if not my existence. Not to miss out the standard query on the cost of the cycle, for which my response would that my cycle is not for sale. With the proliferation of cyclists all across Tamil Nadu, one would expect that such inquiries are a thing of past; but the solitary rider is still not spared.

The solo tours – be it the Tour de Malabar in 2009 or recently, the tour for Asha, has been an exploration of routes, unknown places, unknown people, and plenty of surprises and challenges. It is the uncertainty factor that prompts me to go out and try it again. After all these years, I still do not know why I do these tours or solo rides. While the experience on the ride is a mix of pleasure and pain, the memories have always been sweeter. Only two things happen – You enjoy or you learn.


  1. Padma says:

    I can imagine your solo cycling – one moment where I felt jealous and curious was your solo cycling to Prague – that’s felt very adventurous . Can’t imagine how you did it alone in a new country without any company.

    1. Balaji S says:

      That wasn’t very difficult, considering the kind of assistance I had with GPS and Phone. It must have been really tough a decade back. For sure, I couldn’t have located the hotel at Sezemice in Czech Republic!

  2. Satish says:

    I admire your strong mental strength & commitment essential for long solo ride. Infact I revived & sustained my cycling because of our Saturday rides. It is combo activity -cycling with knowledge sharing. Thanks Balaji for a wonderful company & looking forward to continue for long time 👍

    1. Balaji S says:

      Thank you Satish for those wonderful words!

      1. Neil says:

        “Me talking to me” on solo rides. Sounds familiar 😀

      2. Balaji S says:

        Ha Ha Ha! Almost in the same league!

    2. I’ve just started cycling. Originally i didn’t like it. But I’ve started appreciating it, especially when i couples it with running or gymming. Your piece fuels my curiosity and interest to explore further with long rides. I’d prefer solo rides too… Thanks, Balaji, for that peep into a solo rider’s cacophony!! Look forward to ride with you some day… for the knowledge bit though 😀

      1. Balaji S says:

        You are welcome anyday!

  3. Rajesh B says:

    Lovely piece Balaji. Quite enjoyed reading it. Hope you have many more cycling adventures, solo or otherwise. Cheers!

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