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.”
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.
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.”