In a scene from the movie World’s Fastest Indian, there was a conversation between Tom and the protagonist, Burt Monroe, played by Anthony Hopkins,
Tom: Aren’t you scared you’ll kill yourself if you crash? Burt Munro: No… You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime
In an age of secured job, assured monthly salary, stable relationships, and settled lives, it is not unusual to give and receive words of caution when trying to step outside comfort zones. Running, or cycling, is certainly one such activity which can attract a plethora of advisories. I neither ignore these words nor doubt the sincerity of those conveying it. From mundane generic caution to knowledgeable suggestions, there is a whole gamut of literature available for everyone. These words of caution gets amplified each time an incident of tragedy happens.
Apart from the major incidents, there are other incidents that make us rethink about running or cycling. Personally, the two accidents that I met with while riding, in 2017 and 2019 respectively, left me with a trauma that affects me even now. There are days when I get ready for a ride only to return back because I didn’t ‘feel well.’ It is then I start contemplating on why I do these? Is it even worth the effort, given the risk involved? Importantly, am I doing these because of a false sense of bravado? Motivational statements like ‘pain is temporary; quitting forever’ or ‘Winner never quits and quitters never win’ are anyway, a total humbug and I don’t attach importance to them. I am happy to quit just when I don’t feel like doing it, without offering further explanations.
Running or cycling, at whatever intensity it is pursued, is rarely reckless. While some appear to push themselves beyond their limits, most of them are well aware of consequences. The medical issues in most running events or cycling events, although widely amplified, is relatively less compared to activities of similar nature. A peer reviewed study of medical data from ParkRuns in the United Kingdom over a period of 6 years involving nearly 30 million participants showed the incidence of life threatening events and fatalities in the event much lesser than the population. The study concluded,
Serious life-threatening and fatal medical encounters associated with parkrun participation are extremely rare. In the context of a global public health crisis due to inactivity, this finding underscores the safety and corollary public health value of community running/walking events as a strategy to promote physical activity.
Most recreational cyclists also drive or ride motorised forms of transport. Anecdotally, I find that cycling has helped them to be a little more sensitive to other vehicles while driving or riding. While news of cycling accidents are worrisome, the chances of such incidents aren’t any different from those of motorised or battery operated two-wheeler.
Basic safety measures are generally adhered widely among runners or cyclists. Personally, I wear a helmet (strapped well) at all times (including commute rides) while cycling; I run facing the traffic, never engage in running or cycling if I did not get adequate sleep, avoid heavy exercise on days following blood donation, always carry a bottle of water on hot days, quit when I need to, and few other practices that I consider as safety measures. However, none of these guarantee safety from reckless actions of others with whom I share the road. The two cycling accidents that I referred to earlier happened due to an over-speeding motor cycle knocking me from behind.
It is difficult to say whether it is worth pursuing these activities despite these external risks. For instance, many advising me about risks of riding bicycle also ride motor cycles where the probabilities of accidents as well as deaths are much higher in India. In the all time classic, ‘Reminiscences of Stock Operator’, the protagonist Jesse Livermore would say,
I wouldn’t take a callous view that risks are inherent in life regardless of safety measures, and hence to be ignored. There is a need for prudence to be exercised here. A better approach would be to accept the warnings, understand the risks, and examine if we are well equipped to handle the risks. My orientation to speed in cycling as well as running is built around this premise. I do take extra caution while riding in hills or undertaking long runs and rides.
Over the years, the need for running or cycling has gone beyond just physical fitness. It also shaped my thought process on the World I would like to see. Would I like to see a World where everyone actively engage in outdoor activities or a World where children and adults confine themselves within four walls engaged in their digital world? Would I like to a see roads where people respect each other’s right of way or engage in a competitive battle for spaces and stamp their supremacy because of the vehicle they own? I am certainly not going to change the world; but I can certainly change myself to find a better world.
If everyone tries to withdraw, of what purpose would be the death of many runners and cyclists all over the world who were killed during running or cycling? It still does not address the root cause of the problem – unruly drivers, lack of road sense, respect for everyone on roads irrespective of the vehicle they use, and overall consideration for one’s and other’s safety. We need safe roads and pathways for running and cycling. But, we cannot wait till we have one.
A cycle tour, unlike other types of touring, is more about the journey than destination. My daily notes for over 8-days are presented here in a chronological order. I have added some references and other information to what was earlier published on my Facebook page for my friends.
December 23, 2022 – Day Zero
After riding on five tours, I was keen on volunteeringfor the tour, and the organisers were kind enough to accommodate my request. I was equally keen on doing some riding. Hence, I chose to ride from Coimbatore to Madurai, from where the tour begins. It was the longest ride in more than a year. Despite a few challenges, it was relatively easy compared to what the riders on the tour are experienced in the next 7 days. Special thanks to Ganesh Kumar for agreeing to bring my luggage to Madurai!
I made it on time for the pre-tour briefing by Vaz and team. The briefing showcases the meticulous planning for the tour. The number of participants was at the highest this year and no stone was left unturned at planning stages.
December 24, 2022 – Day 1 – Madurai to Theni
The route was from Madurai to Theni with a detour to Vaigai Dam. We started with the customary team photo shoot,
….and I followed it with my newly discovered ritual of ‘selfie’…
It was a nondescript route, which in other words mean that we are not able to find anything significant. Then, there was Usilampatti, introduced to me in a wrong way in early 1990s – female infanticide and a lewd film song. Riders enjoyed taking a break at a shop selling Jigarthanda – one of the ‘World famous in Madurai’ items. I was assigned the second pit stop near Vaigai Dam and the 78K drive looked tiring, as I haven’t travelled that distance for over 9 months.
The riders reached the pit stop after getting roasted in the sun, which was only a warm-up for the next few days. Since it was a short ride for that day, my work got over rather too fast. The park next to the dam offered some majestic views of the dam, and on climbing to the top of the dam, the view of the reservoir was breath-taking.
We travelled through Andipatti, which once elected late MG Ramachandran (MGR) to the State Assembly in 1984, when he was hospitalised in the USA. It was quite surprising on his death anniversary, there was very little evidence of people remembering him.
December 25, 2022 – Day 2 – Meghamalai Loop Ride
It was a loop ride to Meghamalai and back to Theni. A trip to Meghamalai brought me memories of my long training run there for Comrades marathon in 2012. Unfortunately, I was assigned the pitstop at the base and was not required to go up the hills. The traffic to Meghamalai has considerably increased in the last decade. The road, which was in a tattered condition back then, has seen a significant upgrade. Despite not having any notable tourist attraction, it was surprising to see a huge crowd there.
The pit stop was located next to Then Palani Murugan temple – serves as a start point for many devotees to launch their pada yatra to Palani. Most riders enjoyed the ride up and down the hill, which served as an excellent preparation for their ride to Munnar, the following day.
December 26, 2022 – Day 3 – Theni to Munnar
The third day of the tour can easily be considered as the most challenging day for riders and organisers. The steep climbs leading to Bodimettu, and then to Munnar was a challenge to any rider. Riders had a choice to start from either Theni or take a float to Bodimettu and start from there. Bodimettu is located at the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. An old building that once housed the customs office of erstwhile Travancore province still exists. I was not aware of its significance then. I later read that it was built in 1905 and was used as a border check-post until the nation-wide Goods and Service Tax came into force in 2017.
The pit stop assigned to me was located further ahead on the road to Munnar, overlooking the Anayirangal lake. I reached the spot at 11:30 AM and was there till 4:00 PM. The view of the lake and the tea estates and forests overlooking the lake was breath-taking. Over the 4 hours, the weather conditions changed many times, from bright sunshine to rains and back to sunshine. The constant change of visuals of a static landscape due to the change of day light was fascinating. Just standing and staring was a pleasure in itself.
We ended the day at Munnar. The dinner was a sumptuous Sadya – The hotel crew not only prepared it well but also served it very well to the delight of everyone.
December 27, 2022 – Day 4 – Munnar to Kumily
The day started with a magical view of the hills from the hotel balcony.
The first 4 Kms of the ride was through narrow roads. There was a temple festival in the little town of Anachal. Adding to the traffic congestion was the temple elephant royally taking a stroll through the crowded streets. Riding or driving through Kerala roads can be a huge challenge for any outsiders. Narrow roads, rash driving, and adding to it, hilly terrain, made riding more complicated. It was a long journey to my assigned pit stop, which I reached after losing the way at least four times. Saumyen appreciated the location for the presence of a beautiful tree, which he feels must be centuries old. My reason to feel good about the location was the availability of good ginger tea.
We ended the day at Kumily, which happens to be the native of one of the riders, Senthil Mohan. Buddy, as he is affectionately called, organised tickets for watching Kalari performance at Kadathanathan Kalari Centre. The arena was well designed for everyone to get a 360-degree view of the performers. As much as the Kalari performance, I enjoyed the unique commentary by Agil. When everyone rushed to get a picture with the performers, I chose to get one with him.
December 28, 2022 – Day 5 – Kumily to Adoor
I started the morning with a refreshing run at the Periyar National Park. I could run inside only for a couple of Kilometres before returning back to the chaotic roads. The ride was through the rubber estates of Kerala. Every time I saw the boards indicating Kottayam, I was tempted to divert the Pit-stop vehicle towards it. Although Ms. Mary Roy is no more, I wanted to see the landscape that Arundathi Roy described so vividly in The God of Small Things. While the route was heading towards the opposite direction, the rubber estates did bring some memories of the book. As we started descending to the plains, the route started becoming more familiar and predictable. From the bungalows of estate owners, we started seeing the bungalows of Gulf migrants. Our day ended at Adoor – a place that can be associated with the renowned film maker/thinker Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of his presence in the town except for a road named after him.
December 29, 2022 – Day 6 – Adoor to Coutrallam
It was a short and sweet ride designed for everyone to reach the destination faster. There were two attractions at Coutrallam – 1. Parotta shop 2. The falls; and to add to it, we had the valedictory function in the evening. Neither the parottas nor the falls interest me. As such, I have consumed more parottas in the last 4 days than the entire year. I was assigned the pitstop midway in a small village called Vellimala and as always, we stopped next to a tea shop. Looking at the communist party symbol outside the shop, I could not help but find out whether CPI or CPM interests them the most. My friend was not happy with my curiosity as he feared that it would be troublesome. I pacified him by saying that it is less controversial than finding whether they support Brazil or Argentina. As we made our exit from Kerala, I made sure that I have the Kerala meals again, at a small hotel at Tenmala. The ride looked like a pleasure until they reached Tenkasi, where they were welcomed by a long traffic jam. The felicitations in the evening was certainly a moment to rejoice together before departing back home with plenty of sweet memories.
December 30, 2022 – Day 7 – Coutrallam to Madurai
It was the last day of the Tour and the longest, in terms of distance. Many riders chose to opt out for other activities like visiting temples or taking a drive to Madurai directly. The remaining riders certainly showed a great determination to complete the tour. At Rajapalayam, riders were felicitated with a grand reception at NA Annappa Raja Memorial Higher Secondary School. We were welcomed by a marching band and NCC cadets. The students took time out of their vacations to take part in the activity.
The best part of the route for the first 100K was the view of the hills on the western side. The route takes us through towns like Kadayanallur, Srivilliputtur or Rajapalayam – sadly, no time to explore the multitude of stories associated with these towns. On the day Pele passed away, I noticed that one of our pit stop vehicles carried the name ‘Black Pearl’ – a nice tribute to legendary football player with that name.
We slowly moved towards Madurai and reached safely before the sunset. The tour ends here… The memories live forever!
December 31, 2022 – Day 8
Actually, Day 8 doesn’t exist in the original tour. But, the hangover from the tour is not easy to get away from. So, I chose to ride back from Madurai to Coimbatore. In this mini-tour of mine, I don’t have the support of Chitra and Abhi, who did a stellar job of handling baggage throughout the tour. But, I have Ganesh, who kindly agreed to bring back my luggage as day zero.
A long ~12 hour ride was a great opportunity to recollect the previous 7 days, and even the previous 5 tours. It reminded of the efforts of many riders. Every pick-up truck resembled PT-1 and PT-2 and the wonderful mechanics. The Tempo travellers made me look out for Sachin in them.
When confused with routes, I was tempted to call out Vaz for guidance. There was no Venky to take photos for me to carry it in my memories. When the going gets tough, the tough goes to the nearest tea stall, and there was no Ganesh Ram to give company there. In the last 40k, I started visualising Sameer leading me in front with Rajaram chasing me down on T-2. A solo ride to celebrate a wonderful tour. It was the most satisfying way to end the tour and the year.
During my cycling trips through Tamil Nadu, the often asked question is, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு” – Thambikku entha ooru. It cannot be expressed in English so easily. The literal translation would be – “Where are you from?” or “Which place do you belong to?” or in a more contemporary style, ‘which place bro?’ The translation does do justice to the attempt by the inquisitor to unlock a wide range of information in such a simple question. The purpose of the question is not just to find out where I started the trip or where I live presently, but more about my origins, my ancestors, my ethnicity or possibly who am I?
As a fourth generation migrant (no idea about my ancestors beyond that!), this is certainly not a question that I enjoy answering to. I would invariably come up with some absurd response to make the questioner repent asking such questions. On some occasions, I would rattle out the lines from the Tamil movie ‘Parasakhti’, written by Karunanidhi and expressed by Shivaji Ganesan.
“பிறக்க ஒரு நாடு பிழைக்க ஒரு நாடு, தமிழ்நாட்டின் தலையெழுத்துக்கு நான் என்ன விதிவிலக்கா?”
Translation – Born in one country, surviving in another; When this is the fate of most Tamilians, how can I be an exception
On other times, I quote ancient poem of Kaniyan Poongunranar, “யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர்” (Translation by APJ Abdul Kalam – I am a world citizen. Every Citizen is my own kith and kin). On one instance, I was embarassed by a homeless person standing nearby, ‘I should be saying that.’
An exercise to find one’s origins usually makes stories filled with passion, emotion, pride, as is normally seen in most movies or television soaps. I consider it as a futile exercise for me to discover my ancestry or native place. Even if I have to claim a certain place as my origins, I would be invariably told by others that I don’t resemble or behave like someone from that place. Given that real estate is expensive across all places, it is highly unlikely that I am ever going to get the ‘காணி நிலம்‘ (Translation: a piece of land measured in Tamil metric) anywhere to claim it as my place. Having lived across different towns of Tamil Nadu, my Tamil accent is a mix of various regions which will leave many confused about my antecedents.
For celebrities, it is a matter of pride for many to seek credence by arbitrarily tracing their antecedents all the way to Gods and Goddesses, a custom that is common to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. At times, the town or village will automatically start owning them even if they have a very tenuous connection. Very recently, a nondescript Thulasendrapuram found its identity by claiming Kamala Harris as one of their own. Of course, it was obvious that her mom would have been estranged as soon as she married a Jamaican or even before, for crossing the sea.
My search was limited to my dad’s choice – Vishnampettai in Thanjavur district. The only reason for his choice was his inheritance of small fragment of land. The land was disposed off long before I was born and there has been no contact with the village since. For a large part of my life, I was more confident of discovering Malgudi rather than Vishnampettai and its existence sounded only less fictional than Attipatti! Later, Google maps confirmed the physical existence of the place.
On October 16, 2021, I set out from Kumbakonam to ride all the way back to Coimbatore over a day or two. I wanted to ride along the river Kaveri till Musiri before taking the highway towards Karur and then to Coimbatore. The map suggested that Vishnampettai is not far away from the road and I decided to take a detour. At about 17 Kms from Thiruvaiyaru, the road takes a detour towards Vishnampettai. As I rode towards the village, the first person I encountered asked me, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு?” I refrained from answering the usual way and instead sought the way to the Agraharam – the ghetto of Brahmins. There was no one in particular whom I could look up to. I rode through the Agraharam which seems to be a rundown version of a prosperous locality of yesteryear. There was a well in the middle of the road that was built in 1938!
As I reached the end of the road, I spotted a temple with few uncles standing outside of it. I requested their permission to take a picture of the temple and soon, conversation began.
It started with routine questions on my current residence, job, marriage, which unfortunately did not elicit adequate response for them to probe further. After claiming that I ‘supposedly’ hail from this village, they conducted elaborate inquiries about my father, grand father and the gothra! Since I looked clueless for most questions, they decided that it was best to let me off. They were kind enough to offer me a lunch. It was a festival day and the final set of rituals were to be performed at the Temple. I offered the maximum amount possible (in fact, the highest I have ever offered to a temple!), with the hope that my dad would be impressed by my gesture and reimburse them. I soon realised that the presiding deity belongs to the rival sect and later, my dad didn’t show any eagerness to reimburse. After declining lunch with the excuse that I have long way to go, they offered me with sumptuous amount of chakkra pongal to binge on.
The route from Kumbakonam to Vishnampettai was filled with places associated with Carnatic Music. From the holy Thiruvaiyaru to Umayalpuram (Sivaraman), Maharajapuram (Santhanam), and Papanasam (Sivan). I wasn’t sure if Vishnampettai had any musician to their credit. When I asked a little boy on the significance of Thiruvaiyaru, he promptly answered, ‘Asoka Halwa’! I rode around to see if there are any other temples that can be remotely associated with my ancestors. Karumbeshwarar temple, located on the north of village, close to the Kollidam river, was an option for me to claim as a ‘family deity’, but there is no way to corroborate those claims.
When triangulated with other data points, the claims of this village being my ancestral or native village somehow doesn’t add up. For instance, I have been long told that the family deity is Vaitheeswaran Koil (you can read about my visit by foot as well as cycle!) which is located about 100 Kms away form the village. It is unlikely that my ancestors would have performed their ‘duties’ in a temple so far away (not that any of us do now!). Considering that I have no financial stakes in discovering my nativity, it is easy to ignore the village. However, it is also true that the village doesn’t need me either.
“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”
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.
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.’
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.
With Manjula on Kodai-Palani Road. Photo by Ryan Karz
With Srini at Richy Rich Pondy after completing our weekend trip
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.
Before you start reading the blog, please check if you have at least 10-15 minutes with high tolerance levels. An easier way is to to scroll all the way down, check the final part of the blog, and contribute to Asha. It would be more meaningful than the entire blog!
It was in the year 2009 that I was introduced, inadvertently, to two activities in my life – Self-supported cycling tours and Asha for Education. It would be impossible to gauge the impact of these two activities in my life over the next decade and possibly, much more into the future. In March 2009, I undertook the tour of Malabar – an eighteen day cycling tour on the west coast of India; an unique experience that brought me in touch with many ground realities of the world. In June 2009, I visited Thulir – a project supported by Asha, during a cycling tour in Dharmapuri district. Over the last decade, it is certainly not an understatment to say that Thulir has been my another home.
I was keen to combine both and find out if I can do a cycling tour covering the projects supported by Asha for Education. I looked up to the list of projects supported by Asha in Tamil Nadu and chose five of them (Thulir was an automatic choice!) for site visits.Padmanava a.k.a Paddy, projects co-ordinator at Asha, helped me with an introduction to each of the projects. Thanks to Sulu and Anand at Cycology, my bike was fitted with a pannier and I was ready for the tour.
Asha for Education was started in 1991 by Late VJP Srivatsavoy, Prof. Deepak Gupta, and Prof. Sandeep Pandey, during their student days at the University of California, Berkeley. Their belief was that education is a critical requisite and an effective catalyst for social and economic change in India. Over the next 3 decades, Asha has grown in manifold across USA and India, raising funds for numerous supporting grass-root level institutions, and managed in a decentralised manner through various chapters. For details, please visit the website http://www.ashanet.org
I was introduced to the Bangalore chapter of Asha through their running program, anchored by Santosh, a volunteer with Asha, before he moved to start Runners High. From Santhosh to Anita and Sanjeeev, I started getting interested in the projects supported by Asha. Since 2013, I have been a project steward for Thulir and you can read my site visit reports here.
The Tour Plan
Day 1 – February 24, 2020 – Ride upto Mettur
My first destination was Puvidham school, located in Dharmapuri district, about 200 Kms from Coimbatore. Riding all the way on the very first day didn’t look like an option to be contemplated. Also, reaching a remote place like Puvidham in late evenings could be challenging; and I detest riding in the dark. I split the ride into two days with a halt at either Mettur or Erode on the first day, depending on my energy levels. The ride from Coimbatore to Bhavani was on the National Highway with very little to report. The soreness in my legs, following the half-marathon at Annur, was bothering me and I preferred to ride it with ease. I reached Bhavani at about 11:30, before it started getting too hot. The ride from Bhavani to Mettur was a reminiscent from the Tour of Tamil Nadu (ToT) 2018, when we rode from Erode to Hogenekkal on day 1. The Tamarind trees on either side of the road offered much wanted protection from heat. One of the sad outcomes of the road expansion projects in India is the axing of these trees from the road. They were planted decades earlier and had myriad benefits for a host of people. I was reminded of this excellent piece in The Hindu few years back, where the author poignantly concludes,
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
I reached Mettur at about 3:00 PM after a lunch enroute. I was able to find a budget hotel to crash for the night and keep my bike securely. The entry to the Dam closes at 5:30 PM, and my afternoon nap delayed my visit.
Day 2 – February 25, 2020 – Ride from Mettur to Puvidham
The start on the second day was delayed in fixing a puncture and then, a bizarre incident of dropping a glass of tea! The owner was kind enough to let me go for Rs. 10 towards damages and offered another cup of tea too. The ride had plenty of climbs starting from the ghat section near Mettur dam. The view from the top of the hill was breathtaking.
The route until Mecheri was chaotic with lorries and school buses. The number of school buses has increased in Tamil Nadu exponentially over the past decade; largely because, it offers an excellent scope for the owners of the school to make big bucks. In the process, the distance travelled by children has increased taking much of their percious daily time, which could have been used for better purposes. After some breakfast at Mecheri, the ride to Puvidham was through some scenic village roads. It was a pleasure to ride in these roads – well paved and superior to many city roads in India.
Before reaching Puvidham, the route took me to Nagavathi Dam, which was nothing more than a vast tract of empty land. Dharmapuri is one of the most drought prone districts of Tamil Nadu. Despite the fact that the river Cauvery flows through it, the region is economically backward and relies on rain-fed agriculture. I reached Puvidham in time to have lunch with Meenakshi, the founder of the institution.
Day 3 – February 26, 2020 – Stay at Puvidham
The origins of Puvidham goes back to 1992, when Meenakshi, an architect, and Umesh, an engineer turned agriculturist, decided to settle down in the driest region of Tamil Nadu and engage in conservation efforts. Early 2000, Meenakshi started the school, which offered an alternative to conventional education. Starting with her own children, she wanted the school to be a place of self-learning through nature and physical activities. The school also has a hostel attached to it and it caters to both local children as well as outstation children. Children study here upto class 8 and then proceed to the the high school nearby or at Dharmapuri, located about 20 kms from Puvidham.
I spent the day at Puvidham talking to the teachers and students, and attending some of their classes. My favourite class was learning to spin the cotton by using a takli or drop spindle. It was here where I learned that my hands don’t listen to my eyes and I ended up struggling to spin the takli. I promised Meenakshi that I will learn before I visit Puvidham next time. The challenge now is in getting a takli, which seems to be unfamiliar even in Khadi shops.
You can read my site visit report at the project page. The school is supported by Asha – London and Seattle chapters – since 2004. To know more about Puvidham, you can visit their website or visit the project page in Asha website.
Day 4 – February 27, 2020 – Puvidham to Thulir
I started from Puvidham after an excellent coffee from/with Meenakshi. My first destination was Dharmapuri, where I planned to have my breakfast. Dharmapuri, a nondescript town, is known only for being the district headquarters and that, it is on NH7. Finding a decent breakfast place was a challenge. From Dharmapuri to Harur, the ride was through one of the finest roads – it was unbelievable to see a well maintained broad road with reasonable tree cover. I was likely to be late for lunch and requested Anu to keep lunch for me, as I always relish Thulir’s wonderful lunch. After Harur, the route took me to Theerthamalai with plenty of short and steep climbs. This was my third visit to Thulir in bicycle. The first one was in 2009, when I reached Jolarpet by train and rode from Jolarpet to Thulir, after riding up Yelagiri. The second time was in 2015, when I rode from Pondicherry to Thulir via Thiruvannamalai. I rode different bikes in each of the above occasions, and this time, it was a chance for my third bike to pay a visit to Thulir. I reached the school at about 3:30 PM, an hour before the school closes. With the senior students out for a tour, the school was filled with the tiny tots. Some kids were curious on what I would do if my tyre was punctured!
Day 5 – February 28, 2020 – Stay at Thulir
Thulir was started by Anu and Krishna in 2003 when they moved to the Sittlingi village. The objective of Thulir is to cater to the educational needs of the Sittlingi Valley, located amidst the Kalrayan hills in Dharmapuri district. Thulir started out as an after-school learning centre for school going children during evening hours and holidays. Later, they introduced a Basic Technology Program for school drop-outs. After a few iterations, it has now evolved into a primary school. Personally, it has been a great learning for me in associating with Thulir for over a decade and witnessing the change in educational needs in the village. The day was spent well at the school interacting with teachers and lunch with the children. In the evening, the senior students (age 8-10) returned back from their trip and it was a pleasure meeting them. Some of them travelled for the first time without their parents.
It was the additional day of the year and I certainly wanted to make it count. After some lovely coffee from Archana, I set out on the ride well after the sunrise.
The first 20 kms was through the Thumbal forests and I hoped to encounter a bison or two; alas, none were around. The road was unexpectedly good for long stretches and I was thrilled to ride on it! Unfortunately, good things don’t last longer, and I encountered a rough patch for about 5 Kms, where I missed my MTB the most! I crossed Thumbal and reached the Salem-Villupuram highway for some hot breakfast. I had to find the route to take me to Malliyakarai, where I join the Attur-Thuraiyur road towards Thuraiyur – familiar from the ToT 2015 edition, when we rode from Thuraiyur to Kallakuruchi. The day was getting tough and my struggle to ride further found me under a pipal tree for relief from the heat. These unplanned rest breaks offer some time for additional contemplation on whether the trip is worth anything before reassuring myself to hang on there. At Thammampatti, I found a ‘new’ restaurant to get charged up for rest of the ride. My riding speed certainly improved after the lunch.
Thuraiyur brought back memories of ToT 2015 and the difficulty of finding a place to have our dinner and breakfast as most restaurants were very small back then. Padmas cafe, where we had our breakfast, has since been upgraded and the capacity has been expanded. I stopped for a coffee and some pleasant conversations with the owner, before riding to Payir. It was a slow day and I reached Payir at about 4:30 PM. I was warmly welcomed by Senthil and Preethi and had my dinner with them, listening to their stories of starting Payir.
Day 7 – March 1, 2020 – Stay at Payir
It was obvious that getting time with Senthil seemed practically impossible as he is engaged with various facets of Payir round the clock. On Saturday, there were students seeking his help in academics after his dinner time. He was still kind enough to allot some time for me on Sunday. Senthil is a engineer by graduate and worked in corporate for a decade. He quit his high flying career to relocate himself to Thenur and start Payir. His TEDx talk would give an excellent overview of his work at Thenur and the surroundings.
You can read more about Payir in their website. Asha has been supporting the educational program at Payir since or visit the project page in Asha here.
Senthil is also an Asha Fellow since 2017 and I was keen on knowing about his work and plans. I had a freewheel chat with him about the various challenges in the region and his work with them over the decade and half. Later that evening, I also attended a meeting of farmers in that region over watershed management in that region. You can read more about his fellowship and my observations in the Fellowship page here.
Day 8 – March 2, 2020 – Payir to Madurai
I was keen to find out routes that would keep me away from the highway for that day but couldn’t find any. My first pitstop was Manachanallur. I wanted to stop for a coffee but the cozy hotel tempted me to have some hot idlis and vadai before washing it down with a cup of coffee – the breakfast was cheaper than a coffee at some of the city restaurants! I wanted to bye-pass the Trichy town to avoid the morning traffic. In the process, I could catch a glimpse of the Rockfort while crossing the river Cauvery.
After crossing Trichy, the barren highway had very little to describe. At times, you feel that you are riding towards the end of the world. This is exactly where the podcasts came handy. On this tour, I rekindled my love for podcasts. Apart from the usual favourites from The Guardian, there were few others that got me interested like We Crashed by Wondery. On that day, I was listening to a two and half hour conversation between TM Krishna and Amit Verma in a lovely series called The Seen and the Unseen. It was a thought provoking conversation on caste, carnatic music, gender, privilege, and social structures, as viewed through his own life. I am sure a reference to his name can get people polarised to extremes; but this was one conversation where I find him being honest with himself. He was willing to accept that his rise in music was not just a symbol of meritocracy but also linked to his antecedents, caste, and the society he grew up in. More so, on that day, it helped me to cover 50 Kms in an otherwise boring ride. I reached the outskirts of Melur for my lunch at about 1:00 PM and stayed put there till 3:00 PM. I reached the “Temple City” at 4:30 PM after surviving an ‘attack’ by a two-wheeler, which seems to be an integral part of riding in Madurai. Although a long day of 10 hours and 30 minutes, my riding time was only about 7:21 – tail wind helps!
In Madurai, Asha supports the Madurai SEED project at Karumbalai. It is an after school learning centre for school going children aimed at education beyond the school curriculum. The objective is to help children continue going to school and also, to find out the true potential of the children. The assistance extends beyond their education in helping them achieve their aspirations. To know more about Madurai SEED, you can visit their website or view the project page here. In addition, the founder of the project, A. S. Karthik Bharati is also a Asha Fellow. I had planned to visit the centres during the evening (as it functions only in evenings and weekends) and meet Karthik for a chat the following day. The evening was well spent going around the four centres of Madurai SEED in Karumbalai.
Day 9 – March 3, 2020 – Visit to Gandhi Museum, Meeting Karthi Bharati and ride to Vathalakkundu
I started the day by visiting the Gandhi Museum, purely out of my inquisitiveness. This was the first time I have even heard about it as people rarely associate Madurai with this museum. Housed in the erstwhile palace of Rani Mangammal, it was inaugurated in 1959 and contained some interesting collections of memorabilia from the life of Mahathma Gandhi. It also had an extensive photo exhibition on freedom struggle.
The photographs from the Gandhiji’s trips to Tamil Nadu were treasure troves. I was particulary impressed by the collection of letters that Gandhiji had written to various people. One of the letter was addressed to the Principal of Gujarat College requesting him to re–admit the students who had participated in the civil disobedience movement. At a time when people are debating the relevance of students’ participating in political movements, this was interesting.
The next two hours were spent conversing with Karthik and he was kind to take me for lunch too. Karthik has been a Asha Fellow since 2013, supported by Asha Boston. He grew up in the Karumbalai area and was the first graduate in his family. He was keen on giving back to the society as he was supported by others. This prompted him to start the Madurai SEED and has since worked extensively with the children and youth in that locality. You can read more about his fellowship in Asha Project page here.
The ride from Madurai to Kodaikanal was about 120 Km. I preferred to split into two rides – from Madurai to Vathalakkundu (or is it Batalgundu or Batlagundu?) that evening and climb the ghats, the following day. I was hoping that the hotel where we stayed during ToT 2010, enroute to Kodai, would be still around. I reached Vathalakkundu and realised that the hotel has been shutdown sometime back! I had to ride back to the town to find Hotel O2 Residency, who were kind enough to allow me to carry my bike to the room. It was good to finish this section of the ride earlier to allow the following day only for the climbs.
Day 10 – March 4, 2020 – Vathalakkundu to Kodaikanal
My first conquest of Kodaikanal was back in 2010 when we rode from Vathalakundu via Pattiveeranpatti and Pannaikkadu. This time, I chose to ride through the highway. I find riding uphill as a very ‘spiritual’ experience – I struggle, I curse it during the ride, but the satisfaction of accomplishing it surpasses it all. Riding slowly with high cadence is like a poetry in motion; it is just between you and your bike. My first attempt to climb hills was in 2008 when I rode uphill to Coonoor and yet, every ride still makes me feel that it is the first time I am trying it. It has been a learning experience, shuffling my ride strategy between cadence and power. Often, the breathtaking views after few hundred metres of climb will reaffirm the confidence and push towards further climbs.
There were some additional challenges – The newly laid road caused a few problems with the stones sticking on to my tires. A temple festival in one of the villages that held the traffic for a while. After reaching Kodai, I was surprised to see rooms unavailable in TTDC on a weekday during off-season! I finally checked in at Hill Top Towers, who also provided me with a safe place for my bike. I believe many hotels and homestays have been shut down in the recent past due to violations of building rules, among others.
I spent the evening going for a walk around the Kodai lake. The ambience around the lake tempted me to go for a run, which I did on the following two days. The one awkward moment was when someone asked me if I want to rent a bicycle! A statue of Jawaharlal Nehru was an interesting find, when you observe the names of dignitaries in the inauguration plaque.
Day 11 – March 5, 2020 – Morning run, Betsy Creche, and the phone!
The day started with a pleasant morning run around the Kodai lake. It was a scenic location and a 5K run was possibly the best thing that one can do in Kodai. The road was largely free from traffic and there were a few fellow walkers and runners enjoying their morning there. It was a reminiscent of my days in Pondicherry doing my morning runs at the promenade. I feel that every city must allot some roads for the exclusive use of early morning walkers and runners.
I was scheduled to meet Ms. Hilda at the Betsy Elizabeth Creche that morning. The creche was located a little away from the hotel and it was best to ride the bike all the way. The Creche has been supported by Asha Seattle since 2007. You can read more about the funding and support by Asha on the project page.
The afternoon was spent visiting Sai Sruthi and a walk around the lake again. Somehow, I didn’t seem to get tired of the lake even if I visit it again and agin. I was also glad that I was there when there aren’t many visitors, if I visualise how chaotic it would be during the ‘tourist season.’ There was garden inside the lake which caught my attention, not for its maintenance but for the person after whom it has been named. It was named after Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who died in Kodaikanal as a political prisoner – some historical facts that I was not familiar with.
On the way back to the hotel, I found these interesting lines from The Bible in a Church.
After taking this picture, my phone fell flat and the screen broke! Yeah, the weary and burdened phone was given some rest!
Day 12 – March 6, 2020 – Morning run at the lake and Ride back home
It was impossible to resist another chance to run around the lake. I started the day with an energetic run on Kodai lake and bade farewell to its beauty. Little did I know that the following weeks will be deserted for worse!
I started the ride after a sumptuous breakfast at Hilltop, watching children being dropped at the Kodai International School by the parents during the ‘rush hour’ – One would think that settling down in Kodai is to have a laid back life; not for these parents though. A long downhill ride was awaiting me with a 5K climb in the middle. The ride was a repeat of the last day of ToT 2010, when we rode from Kodai to Pollachi. On that day, the road from Perumalmalai to Palani was ‘exclusively’ for us, as there was a landslide in-between and heavy vehicles couldn’t come through it. Even otherwise, there wasn’t much traffic and it was an absolute beauty to ride overlooking deep valleys and through tall trees. Memories of riding with Manjula and ‘Singham’ Magesh flashed by as I rode towards Palani. I am posting the pictures from that ride. The picture by Ryan on that day was outstanding (left one)!
After Palani, I had no choice but to take the route via Pollachi, as my phone was not available for navigation. The road from Palani to Pollachi was turning out to be a nightmare to ride. Thanks to the good-old ways of finding routes – Oral enquiries – I found some alternate route to avoid Pollachi. The route was tough with rolling hills but was largely free from traffic making it a pleasant ride. After crossing Chettipalayam, while riding towards Pothanur, I spotted my fellow cyclist, Manju returning from work. He went ahead and warmly welcomed me back to Coimbatore with sugarcane juice! Since Cycology was on the way, my first priority was to go and thank Sulu and Anand for their support before heading home.
These are journeys without destinations; There are only temporary halts. This was the longest tour since my tour on the west coast, a decade back. Every cycle tour teaches me plenty of things – from cycling perspective and society, in general. This time around, it was more to do with Asha, the projects supported by Asha, my own association with Asha and the projects, and importantly, how I can contribute more through Asha. The best part of volunteering for Asha has been that it is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. For me, as a project steward, it was a great experience to engage in the development of Thulir over the past decade and see the transformation during this time. It also helped me to step outside the bubble that I was living in and understand the bigger challenges that people face in their daily life.
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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.
Talk about France and cycling, the first thoughts that comes to one’s mind is the prestigious Tour de France. Equally popular though is the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) Randonneur event, which unlike the Tour de France, is open to amateurs across the world. Started in 1891, older than Tour de France, the next edition of the quadrennial event is scheduled to be held on August 18-22 , 2019. Unlike Tour de France, a multi-stage event, PBP is a single stage event where riders cover a distance of 1200 Km at a stretch. Riders are expected to complete the distance within 90 hours with stringent cut-offs in the intermediate segments, like 600 Km in 40 hours. To qualify for the event, riders have to complete a series of brevet rides, organised across the world under the regulations of Audax Club Parisien, the organisers of PBP. The brevet rides are long distance cycling events starting from 200 Km onwards, with time limits. The PBP is actively participated by riders all over the world and in the 2015 edition, about 57% of the 5,311 participants resided outside France. This year’s edition sees participation of over 300 riders from India, of which four of them are from Coimbatore.
1. Chakkravarthy Birur, 51 years
Chakkravarthy, popularly known as Chakra, was a pentathlon athlete during his college days before getting sucked into his business and family life. He started riding in 2012 to keep himself fit and has not looked back since. He attempted his first brevet in Chennai in 2012 and was instrumental in bringing the brevet events to Coimbatore. He finished the arduous 1000 Km ride between Chennai and Vijayawada in 2014 helping him qualify for the 2015 edition of the PBP. After quitting the 2015 event midway due to mechanical failure in his cycle, he is more determined to complete the current edition. He is also a triathlete and looking forward to finish his first half-Iron man event later this year.
2. Siva Balaji, 36 years Siva Balaji, a production engineer by profession, had his interest rekindled in cycling in 2017 and was addicted to it since. He started riding the brevets and started scaling up from 200 km to 1000km, not just once but five times, within the next two years across South India. The longest brevet that he has undertaken is the 1200 Km early this year stretching over 4 days. He occasionally participates in competitive cycling and has won prizes in time trail events and finished third in the Western valley MTB challenge.
3. Sakthivel Manian, 36 years Sakthivel Manian, an IT professional, started cycling in 2015 only as a means to keep himself fit during his hectic work schedule. He credits his friend Gokul Raju for getting him to take up cycling for fitness and participating in various events. It soon become a passion and unsurprisingly, he got hooked to brevets. He started riding brevets with Coimbatore Cycling and presence of his friends in the group are constant source of motivation.
4. Dr. Achyutha Krishnan, 29 years Hailing from a family of doctors, Achu took up to cycling during his post graduation in Medicine, when he started riding with his friends at the We the Chennai Cycling Group (WCCG). A juvenile diabetic, cycling helped him to test his limits and the way beyond it. Since the beginning of this year, he has clocked over 10,000 Km in his bicycle across the South India. Being a native Coimbatorean, it goes without saying that he enjoys climbing hills on his bicycle.
The common thread that runs across these 4 riders is their passion for riding and the amateur spirit in them. They took up to cycling with minimal background in sports and it is the sheer persistence that has taken them to these heights. Their technical abilities and age may not help them participate in the professional events but their determination sees them through in amateur events.
A quick calculation would suggest that brevet require riding at only about 15 Km per hour, which doesn’t sound difficult when viewed with layman’s glasses. The real challenge lies in enduring the distance and finishing within the time specified. During the given time, one has to manage their sleep, food, mechanical failures, and other unforeseen incidents on the route. The brevets are largely self-supported and one has to plan their routines themselves. Further, the route include significant increase in elevation and drop adding to the complexities. The total elevation for this year’s PBP route is about 11,566m, well above Mt. Everest. One of the key strategies in cycling event is to stick with the peloton – a group of riders. This helps all the riders to help each other and go the maximum distance with minimum effort. In PBP, this would be difficult to implement as over 90 hours, as they need to match not only their riding speed but also their scheduled and unscheduled breaks. They do ride with different groups at different points of time but the finishing the event ultimately relies on individual pursuit.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu – Metroplus on August 17, 2019 under the title “Going the Distance (1200 Km)”
After riding in the 2010 (first edition of the tour), 2015 and 2017 editions of the tour, I registered for the 2018 edition of the Tour themed “Waterfalls”. My personal experience can be summed up the image below!
In addition to riding in the tour, I also ventured to write about the tour for The Hindu – Metro Plus. I was supported immensely by Ganesh Ram whose picture got deservingly featured in the News paper
It is a paradox that in an age of access to bullet trains, expressways, and long haul flights, choosing a bicycle as a means of touring still presents a challenge. There has been many stories of people touring all over the world in a bicycle ever since the first bicycle was invented and yet, many find it difficult to navigate even familiar cities due to issues like safety, weather, road conditions, traffic, on-road support and so on. Despite the advancements in technology and communication, the psychological barriers amongst riders today are more than ever before. In 2010, Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC), a Chennai based not-for-profit organisation started out to organise an annual cycling tour in partnership with The Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation. Vasanth Ramaswamy, Secretary TCC and curator of the tour, outlines the objective of the tour as
to promote eco tourism in the state of Tamil Nadu and provide a platform for touring on cycles.
Given the vastness and diversity that the state presents, TCC came up with innovative themes every year to explore different facets of the state. In the first edition, the tour started in Coimbatore with the theme of ‘Mountains’ where the tour offered the riders a chance to explore the three magnificent mountains, Ooty, Yercaud, and Kodaikanal, in their bicycles. The subsequent editions explored themes like heritage sites, cuisines, eastern ghats, forests, western ghats, Nilgiris and wildlife focusing on places that are intricately linked to these themes. This year, the tour was themed ‘Waterfalls’ and covered four of the waterfalls in North-west Tamil Nadu – Hogenekkal, Kiliyur falls in Yercaud, Periyar falls in Kalrayan Hils and Agaiya Gangai in Kolli Hiils. The tours typically start and end at one of the major towns in Tamil Nadu and this time, it was Erode. The intermediate halts over the next seven days were at Hogenekkal, Yercaud, Kallakuruchi and Kolli Hills.
The route for different days are designed to provide a variety in ride experience – flat sections, uphill rides that tests one’s determination, downhill rides that requires good control, headwinds to frustrate and tailwinds to provide much wanted relief. “We avoid National Highways as much as possible as they offer very limited scenic beauty; and most of them are all about speed” says Venkat Venkatadri, one of the key organisers. The first day of this year’s tour was from Erode to Hogenekkal through some of the beautiful roads that posed stiff headwinds, the second day had steep inclines, the third day was a relaxed ride at Yercaud that was all about scenery, the fourth and fifth day posed gentle climbs in Kalrayan Hills, and the toughest one was reserved for the sixth day when riders ascended the Kolli hills. The last day was a ceremonial easy ride back to Erode.
It is inevitable that any cycling tour would instantly evokes comparison to the prestigious Tour de France. Rajaram Pattabiraman, the tour director, quickly dismisses any such comparisons, “This is not a race; it is a tour. It is immaterial whether someone rides fast or slow, entire distance or partially, all days or some days in the tour. We want each participant to enjoy the tour and will offer support and recognition to all riders in the best possible manner.” The participants for the event were from all came from all over the country including few international participants. The riders were from all walks of life, diverse professional backgrounds and all ages. For many, especially those fromother parts of India, it was a new experience to ride through Tamil Nadu in places that they have rarely heard about.
The tour would not be certainly possible but for hours of volunteering work and the extravagant on-road support by the members of TCC. When questions were raised about the sustainability of these tours, Vasanth explains, “We wanted explore the possibility of such tours and break a few inhibitions in the process. Participation in the tours have been largely through word of mouth and thus every rider helps in motivating few others. Over the past 9 years, we have made a repository of route maps, information on hotels that are cycling-friendly, availability of support and others. We have also followed it with feedback from participants. We plan to create a portal and then, make it available for general public. It will then help people design tours as per their convenience and choices.”
It is not always the destination that counts but also the journey. One may not find a small town like Kallakuruchi any romantic but when reached through the Kalrayan hills and breathtaking views of Gomukhi dam, it will be a place to visit. Riding up to hill stations helps one to enjoy every bit of the view from the top and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. Modern day highways bye-passes most of the small towns and links only the major cities. Cycling through small towns helps us in connecting with many wonderful people and institutions. The friendly cheers from the children that accompanies one during the ride makes each of the rider feels like a celebrity. It also offers us a chance to try local cuisine and get a closer look at local customs and traditions. As Eddie Cantor once said, ““Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
In 2007, after finishing fourth in the prologue of Tour De France, Sir* Bradley Wiggins took a dig on the most popular television show in UK around that time, “It is nice to be recognised for actually achieving something in life as opposed to spending seven weeks in a house on TV with a load of other muppets.” Around the time when the modified version of that show is making news, Coimbatore Cycling, supported by Cycology, organised the 100 Kms Independence Day Ride for cyclists to help them to have an experience of their lifetime. “Riding the first 100 Km is an aspiration for every amateur cyclist. When organising the ride on an Independence Day, we make sure that amateur cyclists remember the day by achieving something special,” says Chakkravarthy Birur, one of the organisers.
Although this wasn’t my first 100K cycling ride, my lack of preparation was certain to provide me with an experience of a first time rider. I had originally planned to do a “mini” version of the ride covering about 50 Kms but my ride partner, Satish Kini encouraged me to go for the 100 Kms. A group of 25 riders started out at 6 AM in the morning of August 15th from Coimbatore Cycling group at Ramanathapuram area to challenge the 100 Kms. The group comprised of some of the best cyclists in Coimbatore who ease past the 100 Kms under 3 hours to first time riders who look forward for their first taste of long distance ride without any time constraint. The bicycles, and of course the participants, came in all shapes and sizes. There were the top-end carbon-frame bikes designed to cruise at 35-40 kmph to the simple ones whose speed is largely dictated by the energy levels of the riders.
I started out with my fellow riders, Satish Kini, H. Manju, V. Suresh and P. Karthi – all of them being fellow runners too. The lovely morning weather was certainly a nature’s gift and something to be cherished; what more, it made our ride easier. The route for the day was fairly simple – a long ride on the Avinashi Road towards Salem up to 50 kms and return back. The early pace was set by Satish Kini, nicknamed the German for his no-nonsense approach to cycling, running and possibly every aspect of life. Reluctantly, we followed him, for we knew that he has his plans in place and will help us to finish the ride.
We skipped our routine tea break on long rides as the weather was conducive for a fast paced ride. The onward journey was largely downhill and the tail wind was assisting our smooth progress. The volunteer presence en-route made our ride comfortable with hydration and nutrition support. The roads looked pristine and were cleaned by the overnight rains. The return journey was a different game altogether and offered some challenges for the riders. It was a ride up towards Coimbatore with headwinds acting against our efforts. I had to let go my fellow riders one after other and wage some lone battles towards the finish. The first time I attempted to ride past 100 Km was way back in 2008 and since then, there were many occasions, I completed that distance, and even more. Nevertheless, each ride proves to be a challenge of its own and as memorable as the very first ride.
All the finishers were treated with a lovely badge celebrating their achievement and sumptuous food. “We believe every finisher is a winner and there is nothing like coming first or last. Each rider rides to a best of his/her ability and deserves to be recognised equally,” says Sulaiman Bhimani, a former national-level cyclist and currently one of the key organisers in Coimbatore Cycling. There was also a 50 Km ride on the very same day to encourage beginners to take up long distance cycling.
Cycling can easily related to the concept of Independence – at personal as well as collective level. To begin with, regular cycling helps people to keep themselves physically fit. Second, the satisfaction of completing the distance (longer than walking or running) solely by one’s own effort instils a great level of self-confidence. At a social level, there are many examples of social change that has been achieved by promoting cycling in underprivileged communities. A 2014 study** of the Bihar Government’s initiative of providing free cycles to girl students found that the scheme has increased girls’ age-appropriate enrolment in secondary school by 32%.
As Ivan Illich would write in his seminal work Energy and Equity, in 1974, “A true choice among practical policies and of desirable social relations is possible only where speed is restrained. Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.” There is plenty of merit in promoting cycling for a better human being and society as a whole.
Our celebration of the 71st Independence Day was certainly made memorable thanks to the efforts of the Coimbatore Cycling and fellow riders. As it is likely to be a routine affair henceforth, we hope to see more and more riders join the bandwagon and experience the joy of cycling. If you still have doubts, remember the day when you first attempted to learn how to ride a cycle – it’s as much fun now as it was then.
*He was knighted in 2012, after winning Tour De France 2012
** Muralidharan, Karthik, and Prakash Nishith, 2014, “ Cycling to School: Increasing Secondary School Enrollment for Girls in India
An edited version of this blog was published by The Hindu on August 19, 2017 in the Metro Plus – Coimbatore Edition. You can read it online here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/coimbatore-cyclists-covered-50-and-100-kilometers-on-a-trip-along-avanashi-road/article19517496.ece
Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
A week back, my good friend, Srini was looking for someone to replace him in the Tour of Tamil Nadu as he is keeping himself busy with the ‘clean-up’ work in Chennai. The following day, as I was riding to my office, it suddenly stuck me ‘Why not me?’ Within the next 24 hours, most of the formalities were ironed out and I see myself participating in the Tour of Tamil Nadu.
My first experience in the Tour of Tamil Nadu was during the inaugural edition in 2010. The enthusiastic organising team of ‘Vaz’ Vasanth, Rajaram, Venky, Suresh, Magesh, and many others ensured that the tour was memorable and set the tone for the next 4 editions. The Tour was also getting popular forcing them to introduce “process” to select riders. Personally, it was difficult to join them in subsequent years due to participation on ‘Shahid’s Ultra‘ every year.
The present edition of the Tour, starting tomorrow, goes through the northern part of Tamil Nadu and covers some interesting places. Even if there are places I have visited before, there are some routes that I haven’t explored. A quick snapshot of the places is given below:
Vellore – I have fond memories of living there between 1987 and 1992 and claim to have witnessed the River Palar in full flow. I revisited the place in 2009 and could recollect some of the places where I grew up. Often referred to as the city of 7 wonders – River without water (Palar, which may have water now due to the recent rains; Temple without God; Fort without King; Hospital without Doctors (reference to CMC); Women without beauty (apologies in advance!); Hill without trees and police without power (reference to Police training college). Of course, there are multiple variants of the above theory.
Yelagiri – My first visit to Yelagiri was in 1992 as a part of the school trip and gave my earliest memory of being on a boat. I had cycled up the hill once in 2009 during my first visit to Sittlingi (more about it later).
Yercaud – In the first edition of ToT, I had to give up the ascend of Yercaud. Later, in 2102, I managed to ride up to the top during one of the TCC weekend rides. The loop road in Yercaud is one of my all time favourite routes for running and we even managed to make an event out of it as the Servarayan Ultra.
Kolli Hills – Krishnakumar Rangachari a.k.a. KRESIDENT conducts his annual ‘Val Vil Ori’ ultramarathon on these beautiful hills. I was there for the inaugural edition in April 2014.
Thuraiyur – This trip must take me to the town for the first time.
Karumandurai – Karumandurai is located very close to Sittlingi, a village that I frequent as a part of my volunteering work with ASHA for education. It is the home of Thulir, an educational resource centre for students from underprivileged backgrounds and well known for Tribal Health Initiative, a renowned hospital. You can read more about my visits to Thulir here – http://www.ashanet.org/projects/project-view.php?p=967 While Sittlingi is located in the valley, Karumandurai is located on the top of the hill and there are no direct roads connecting them. In April 2015, I had cycled all the way to Sittlingi from my home and on second day, I rode up to Karumandurai on the dirt road (actually a stream that has gone dry). Should the Tour organisers permit, I may chalk my route through Sittlingi.
Polur – I will be visiting Polur for the first time even if I have heard about it many times.
Srini had originally planned to use the tour as a part of his fund raising efforts for Haji Public School, a village school up in the Kashmir mountains. Taking his mantle on the tour, I would like to dedicate this ride for his efforts and seek the assistance of readers to help him. You can read more about it here – https://milaap.org/campaigns/forHPSkids
I will try to update on the tour and post a detailed blog after the tour.