AMERICA, THE TRANS AM WAY

Nishanth Iyengar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Like Race Across America (RAAM), Trans Am too is a bicycle race across the United States. There are however some crucial differences. Trans Am is an unsupported race; cyclist has no support crew. Trans Am features no cut off time within which to finish. Those who wish to see it as a race, treat it so. Records are set and bettered. There are also those who cycle at their pace, leveraging the race and its course through small town USA to experience the country in a manner that is different from mainstream. Nishanth Iyengar from Bengaluru belonged to this second category. This article is about his journey to being a touring cyclist and eventual participation in 2018 Trans Am. 

“ I like seeing new places. I don’t like anything structured. It is very hard for me to work in a structured environment,’’ Nishanth Iyengar said. Between cyclist and freelance journalist, we seemed to have struck a healthy compromise. Writing’s eccentricities often gravitate towards the old and familiar; some place known that you can settle into and listen to a story or type out one. We were at Koshy’s in Bengaluru, as landmark as a restaurant can get anywhere. It was regular haunt for Nishanth and adequately lived in for old school scribe to feel comfortable. The conversation was however cyclist’s way – we sat inside the restaurant and whenever a smoke beckoned Nishanth, we shifted to the side of St Mark’s Road, sat on the building’s skirting and continued the conversation. I understood well when Nishanth said structured approach puts him off.

At Khardung La (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Born 1985, Nishanth grew up in Bengaluru, the only child of his parents. Following school education, he studied instrumentation technology and then proceeded to run a business for four years while pursuing a MBA alongside. For project work as part of studies, he worked on developing a marketing model for a circus that was then camped at Kanjirappally in Kerala. However in 2012, he ended up an hour short of required attendance at college and wasn’t allowed to sit for his exams. In regular Indian life with emphasis on exams and marks that would qualify to be a crisis. Nishanth on the other hand elected to remember a longstanding dream – he had always wanted to visit Nepal. Why not cycle in Nepal? – He wondered. Yet again, for most people that would be a project. Nishanth wasn’t a driven cyclist; he wasn’t the sort training diligently with objectives in mind. “ I can’t wake up early and ride 100 kilometers in a disciplined way,’’ he said. Similarly even though he liked to travel on his motorcycle, he rode with a group of motorcyclists just once. Traveling in a group wasn’t his scene. For Nishanth, motorcycle touring was an earlier fix than cycling; he had commenced riding long on his motorcycle in 2003. The bike was a 150cc Pulsar; he used bungee cords to keep his travel kit in place and did little homework before any trip. He based his approach on two beliefs. “ If somebody has done something, I know I too can do it. Second, I really, really like the unknown,’’ Nishanth said. On his motorcycle, Nishanth rode from Delhi to Leh; he also visited Rishikesh. It was on that trip that he used a tent for the first time. Now he was courting a different dimension of adventure. Two wheels still, but no engine; strain, slow moving and sensing universe.

From 2018 Trans Am (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

When the idea of cycling in Nepal assumed shape, he bought a MTB – a Bergamont VTOX 6.2. He took it with him to Kathmandu and cycled a few thousand kilometers in that country, eventually exiting Nepal and entering India at Gorakhpur. Significantly on this trip, except for accommodation in Kathmandu and Pokhra, he didn’t stay in a hotel anywhere. After his return from this trip, he completed his MBA. Then with some money made from the business he ran later, he decided to attempt something afresh in cycling. This time he thought of riding from Bengaluru to Leh and thereon to Uttarakhand. While the route of this trip had to be tweaked owing to floods in Uttarakhand, Nishanth learnt a few things about cycling. He realized that it is wise to avoid pedaling during the hot hours of afternoon spanning 1 PM to 4 PM. When he kept getting punctures continuously he found that he could manage with Indian tubes for replacement; solutions of this sort altered the imagery of high cost attached to touring. He also learnt to approach time and competition differently. “ The worst thing that can happen is that I lose time. That is okay with me. I tell myself that it’s okay not to reach the end. It takes away a lot of the pressure. As for competition, I really don’t care,’’ he said. Redefining perception of time and one’s sense of self within the compulsions of the human collective are crucial to appreciate journey. What these steps seem to have done for Nishanth is – make riding more enjoyable. “ I am happiest when I ride my bike,’’ Nishanth said. He began going on a cycle trip of 3-4 weeks every year. In 2015, he rode extensively in Tamil Nadu.

From 2018 Trans Am / campsite just outside Yellowstone (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

According to Wikipedia, the oldest known use of helmets is from 900 BC, by Assyrian soldiers. They used it as protective head gear during combat. Combat and competition are cousins separated by degrees of interpretation. Over the centuries, the helmet has evolved from protection used while fighting to protection advised for a range of sports and thereon, as daily life grew competitive and distracted with capacity for accident – as protection used during daily commute by two-wheeler. Notwithstanding laws, in India, the helmet has frequently divided riders into polarized camps. There are those who embrace it and those, who are averse to it. Nishanth belongs to the latter category. “ I dislike helmets. I was looking for a long distance ride that did not have a rule requiring compulsory use of helmet,’’ he said explaining his choice of Trans Am, the annual bike race across United States. Nishanth said, Trans Am advises use of helmet but does not make it mandatory. He had always wanted to cycle long distance in the US; this race appeared perfect.

From 2018 Trans Am / bedroom for the night (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Trans Am is an interesting event. It is similar to Race Across America (RAAM) in that it involves riding across the US. But unlike RAAM, wherein cyclist pedals with crew for support, Trans Am is unsupported or self-supported; there is no crew, cyclist is on his / her own. Further, unlike RAAM which is distinctly identified as a race, Trans Am is a race and not one depending on how one treats it. Records are set by those who treat it as a race. At the same time, there is no cut-off time, leaving others wishing to cycle across the US and experience the country at ground level, free to do so at their pace. This experiencing of the country is what Nishanth does on his bicycle tours. Typical of him, Nishanth kept his homework on Trans Am limited so as not to crowd out the pleasure of discovering with information overload on race and US. That would prove both good and bad. Among things he didn’t realize was that Trans Am is not a straight line across the US; it goes up and down collecting more miles than RAAM. Attempt Trans Am in 2017: that was his initial thought.

From 2018 Trans Am / with host Curtis at Darby (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Meanwhile on the work front, he had shut down the business he commenced. Following that, he joined Runners For Life (RFL), helping out in the sales department. During this tenure, he did a bunch of half marathons, a full marathon and also a 50km-run. After a year and a half at RFL, he joined Practo, a start-up that helps consumers locate doctors and healthcare information (at the time of writing Nishanth had moved from Practo to Proline India, a longstanding company in the sportswear and casual clothing space). Having toured within India on a bicycle and realized his affection for it, Nishanth had been on the lookout for a good touring bicycle. The model he had in mind was the Surly Long Haul Trucker. The choice was inspired in part by a couple of cyclists he met in Leh, who praised the model, particularly the combination of the bike with a Brooks saddle. Surly – it specializes in steel bicycles and frames – commands much respect in the community of cyclists into touring. The Minnesota based-company’s Long Haul Trucker model is often praised for its reliability and value for money spent. In 2015, roughly a year after Nishanth’s return from his last bicycle trip to Ladakh, he met a person in Bengaluru who wished to sell a Surly Long Haul Trucker. It was the old model with 26 inch wheels. The bike had a market price then of Rs 125,000. Nishanth got it for Rs 75,000 plus all associated gear the seller had acquired. “ Every opportunity I got to ride my bicycle, I availed it. I loved it,’’ Nishanth said. By now another transition was afoot. Although he began touring on a motorcycle, the bicycle and its simplicity won him over. “ I lost my mojo for motorcycle touring,’’ he said. In 2016, he cycled for a month in North East India. The following year, 2017, he got married and spent his honeymoon in Russia, including a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. That along with the couple’s shared affection for dogs – they adopted some as pets; it entails commitment – meant that Trans Am in 2017 was a non-starter. On the bright side, Nishanth’s wife understood his interest in Trans Am. In 2018 she said: go for it. She joined his friends in gifting critical pieces of gear and equipment to Nishanth. The need for a smoke beckoned. Outside Koshy’s, a gentle rain was on. Nishanth lit a cigarette. We sat perched on the building’s skirting; Bengaluru’s traffic in front, lively restaurant behind. Existence is one and a series of partitions at once. To journey is to shift between partitions, make them translucent and be aware of universe.

From 2018 Trans Am / with Don Harter (left); Grand Tetons in the backdrop (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

“ For registration, visa, tickets – all put together, I must have spent between 3000-3200 dollars. Additionally I would have spent around 2000 dollars for gear, food and accommodation,’’ Nishanth said of his journey to 2018 Trans Am. It was his first visit to the US. But he plunged into the task at hand. From Seattle, he cycled to Astoria, the starting point of Trans Am. For company he had a cyclist from Poland, also heading for Trans Am. In Astoria, Nishanth met Don Harter. His attempt of the 2018 Trans Am was Don’s retirement gift to himself. Nishanth and Don bonded; they decided to ride together. Given Trans Am provides participants with a digital map, “ riding together’’ does not mean being together all the time. You may be cycling considerably apart; you keep a lookout for each other and sometimes plan rendezvous points to decide on places to stay or camp. For efficiency, Nishanth also divided the race into two broad stages. Soon after he completed the ride through the colder sections of the race, he packed all his cold weather gear and couriered it to an address at the finish line. True the Appalachian mountain was still ahead but Nishanth reckoned it won’t be as cold as what he had already endured. The decision to send away what he did not need made his bicycle lighter. Trans Am proceeds from Astoria in Oregon to Yorktown in Virginia. Nishanth began cycling from Astoria on June 2, 2018. He reached the finish line in Yorktown on July 28. Towards the end, Nishanth admitted he felt some pressure. It had nothing to do with Trans Am. Although the race had no official cut-off time to meet, return tickets to India already booked meant a deadline by which Nishanth should wrap up his outing at Trans Am.

From 2018 Trans Am / entering Kansas (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Developed and mapped by Adventure Cycling Association, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail was the first bicycle touring route across the US. It was the route for Bikecentennial, a massive cycle tour organized in 1976. Bikecentennial was part of celebrations to pay tribute to the historical events leading to the creation of the US as an independent republic. Trans Am uses the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The route, which includes plenty of minor roads and bike paths, gives insight into small town America. Like most big races, Trans Am has its share of those who do not finish. From among those who completed the race in 2018, Nishanth was one of the last to reach Yorktown. That was eminently acceptable for the bicycle tourer from Bengaluru; speed was never part of his plan. Seeing the country – the real US – was the priority. I asked Nishanth how he managed to feel secure and comfortable in utterly new country, that too off the beaten track, for most Indians – both as tourists and resident in the US and chasing livelihood – typically cluster in American cities. “ Nobody did anything harmful to me. If you shut up and mind your own business, nobody troubles you. I talked to people as people,’’ Nishanth said. There is also another angle. Nishanth is usually lone tourer on bicycle; he has no group, no support crew and thereby no ecosystem of the familiar around to breed the ingredients for manufacturing prejudiced views and mental baggage. He takes each day as it comes. “ I live in utter poverty when I ride. Every day I have to look after myself. The need to look after myself gets me talking and engaging with world, makes me an explorer. Further, when you are poor, the universe opens up,’’ Nishanth said. Among the highlights of his trip was experiencing July 4 in small town USA. According to him, aside from the money he spent on race registration, airline tickets, visa, food, gear and accommodation away from race – figures mentioned earlier – his actual expense on accommodation during the race (June 2 – July 28) was 50 dollars and 50 cents. As for the Surly, it proved trustworthy steed. There were no breakdowns; not even a puncture during the 6800 kilometers covered.

From 2018 Trans Am / at the finish line in Yorktown (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Bengaluru had by now drifted into after office hours. Koshy’s was gathering more people and conversation. A motorcyclist dropped by at the table to congratulate Nishanth on Trans Am completed. We briefly discussed his proposed tour overseas on a motorcycle. It was a major undertaking and there were aspects he needed assistance going over. The feel of a conversation about motorcycle touring is very different from one about bicycle touring. In the former, steed and rider are not exactly one. Courtesy its engine, a motorcycle has capabilities of its own. Bicycle on the other hand is a lot like one of those prancing horses dancers get into at festivals. Steed is rider’s half; there is only you to commend, you to blame for performance. As the motorcyclist left, the conversation reverted to life on human powered wheels. Both of us were three cups of coffee-old. The vast majority of bikes used at Trans Am were road bikes, Nishanth said. They carry less but move fast. Looking ahead, he said he would like to invest in a new bicycle. A road bike makes no sense for he knows he is not the racing type. A cyclocross model perhaps? – That’s a thought. Nishanth’s future projects included a north-south ride in Europe, a ride around Australia and maybe a foray into riding with groups; the latter an attempt to see if it encourages the wife to take up cycling.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This blog encourages cyclists to wear helmets. As per news reports, 2018 Trans Am had its share of road accidents; one cyclist died while another was left seriously injured.)      

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