Clifin Francis (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mid-2018, a young man hailing from Thuravoor near Kochi, was in the news for cycling to Russia to see the FIFA World Cup. This is the story of Clifin Francis; what he did and plans to do next.

Azerbaijan is a small country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia.

It has borders with Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Russia.

On the east it is bounded by the Caspian Sea.

In May 2018, a young cyclist from Kochi in South India made his way to the border of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The specific border crossing he chose was the one linking the city of Balakan in northwestern Azerbaijan to Lagodekhi, a town in Georgia, at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It is a location visible on videos posted on the Internet. On the Azerbaijan side, the approach to the border is heralded by a big gateway. The cyclist, who had pedaled in from Baku, faced no problem leaving Azerbaijan. Officials put the exit stamp on his visa. Beyond Azerbaijan’s last check post is a bridge over a dry river bed, at the end of which is the entry to Georgia. With countries at both ends, you could ask: what nation are you on, on the bridge? At the Georgia end of the bridge, trouble awaited cyclist. Although his papers were in order the Georgians denied him entry. He pleaded. They stood firm. No, there was no entering the country. He retraced his steps to Azerbaijan. But with exit stamp already on his visa, he couldn’t return to the country he had just left. Clifin Francis sat there, stuck on the bridge. “ I was in no man’s land,’’ he said.

All you need in a backpack and a whole world to explore (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Kochi, October 2018. It is nearly six months since that incident on the bridge. As the time of appointment approached, I left my hotel room and reached MG Road to meet Clifin. Born April 1990 in Thurvaoor, some 25 kilometers south of Kochi, Clifin attended school in Pattanakkad and later joined Kochi’s Model Engineering College (MEC) to study electronics and communication. “ I had no particular interest in sports in school. MEC changed my life. Unlike those brought up in Kochi and other cities, I came from a comparatively rural background. MEC taught me to dream,’’ he said. Passing out from MEC in 2011, Clifin joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Kochi, working with them for three years. While at TCS he took leave and traveled to Bangkok and Bali. At both these places, he met backpackers and was fascinated by their way of life and the stories they told. “ They were free and surviving with the basic amenities of life,’’ he said. This trip and lessons from it wasn’t the only undercurrent shaping his thoughts.

From the backpacking trip in South East Asia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Back in 1999, when Clifin was nine years old, living in Thuravoor and attending school in nearby Pattanakkad, a 21 year old-computer programmer in the US called Casey Fenton conceived the core idea of the nonprofit organization he would set up in 2003 – Couchsurfing. According to Wikipedia, Fenton once took a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. He did not have lodging. So he hacked into the database of the University of Iceland and randomly emailed some 1500 students, seeking homestay. He got 50-100 offers and wound up staying with an Icelandic rhythm and blues singer. Today, Couchsurfing is a hospitality and social networking service accessed via website and mobile. Members can use the service to arrange homestay, offer lodging and hospitality. While at TCS, Clifin joined Couchsurfing. He hosted two travelers at his house in Kochi. One of them specialized in traveling overland. He inspired the young man from Thuravoor to contemplate border-crossing, wherein instead of flying in to destinations, you travel overland and cross borders as people did in era preceding commercial aviation. By then, the French sports goods chain, Decathlon, had opened outlets in Kochi. Fired up by thoughts of travel, Clifin visited Decathlon and bought tent, sleeping bag and a few other items.

Dreams don’t die. They hibernate, nudging you gently, unconsciously to the true nature of your wiring. The typical Malayali life follows a pattern. Through school and college, academics dominate. Once done with that, career dominates. Vindication of time spent minting success, is well settled life replete with family, handsome bank balance, house (or houses), car et al; with of course address overseas prized above all else. Clifin wrote the Common Admission Test (CAT) to pursue a course in Master of Business Administration (MBA); according to him, his scores were good enough for admission to the country’s elite business schools. Friends recommended that Clifin go for MBA. However, he decided that he should take a break. So he resigned his job and spent six months backpacking through India. The trip took him to Hampi, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Varanasi and India’s North East. Then taking a leaf out of what the overland traveler had told him back at his house in Kochi, he crossed from Manipur in North East India to Myanmar and traveled on through that country to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

From a train compartment in Myanmar (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

On this trip he met a new type of traveler – those touring on bicycles. The cyclists he met included a person from Kerala, who worked in Bengaluru and was cycling in Laos. “ I felt I must try that lifestyle,’’ Clifin said. Thanks to traveling and the way he was doing it, his views about life changed. “ I realized the value of time. Money is not that important. You can tackle time in a cost efficient manner. You just have to choose the correct options,’’ he said. On his return from South East Asia, the erstwhile TCS employee decided that he will be a freelance teacher. It seemed better suited for the kind of life he sought. “ It is not like if you are an engineer you have to be one for life,’’ he said, taking a sip from the drink he had ordered. The café was a compact one, on the first floor of a building overlooking MG Road. Outside, Kochi had changed considerably. Through the glass windows one saw the pillars of the city’s new elevated metro. Across the road, the iconic cinema theater, Shenoy’s – by which name the locality was known and continues to be known – was under renovation to become a multiplex; the plot it stood on was shielded from public view by aluminum sheets.

For many youngsters in India, their education progresses towards a set of life defining tests. Thousands of students pass out from college / intermediate college every year and then confront a series of competitive exams to study professional courses like engineering, medicine, MBA, accountancy; even a shot at becoming bureaucrat in government or joining the armed forces. Not to mention, tests to qualify for studying abroad. Preparing students for the plethora of tests that abound is a big industry in India. According to their website, as of September 2017, Career Launcher had 200 test-prep schools in 100 cities in India. The brand was over two decades old by then. Post TCS and backpacking stint, Clifin joined Career Launcher as a freelance teacher teaching mathematics and logical reasoning to students wishing to appear for CAT. His daily work straddled two coaching centers in Kochi – he taught at the center in Kakkanad in the morning and the one at Ravipuram by evening. Alongside, an idea had been brewing in his head. It started sometime in 2015-16, before Career Launcher; on the flight from Bangkok to Kochi.

From the backpacking trip in South East Asia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Football is a much loved game in Kerala. Local teams, football leagues and tournaments abound. Teams like Travancore Titanium, Kerala Police and FACT are remembered by old timers while the new crop includes Kerala Blasters and Gokulam Kerala FC. Once every four years, the FIFA World Cup becomes a craze across Kerala. People identify strongly with their favorite teams, some paint their houses in team colors, put up large billboards featuring football stars; you will even find colorful portraits of leading players drawn on the side of transport buses. Like most Malayalis, Clifin liked football. He used to watch important matches telecast on TV. Indeed, at his house in Thuravoor, the 1998 FIFA World Cup (held in France and won by the home team defeating Brazil 3-0 in the final) had seen his father buy a new TV. But TV was no more pinnacle of watching sport. With economic development and rising affluence, Indians have been traveling to major events like the football World Cup and the Olympics. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was due in Russia. Inspired by backpacking, the stories he had heard and the cyclists he met, Clifin wondered: how about cycling to Russia and watching the World Cup there? That would combine travel, cycling and his affection for football. He decided to take the plunge. He shared the idea with his friends. But they were skeptical. “ They said, I will reach Russia but not on a bicycle,’’ Clifin said. One of his friends, Namsheer Koraliyadan, thought differently. Hailing from Malappuram, Namsheer liked football. He met Clifin at MEC, where both did their BTech. The two bought bicycles; Clifin bought a Cosmic hybrid while Namsheer bought a Btwin MTB. They cycled on and off around Kochi and to nearby places. On one occasion, they rode all the way from Kochi to Kanyakumari, the southern tip of mainland India. In course of time, Clifin upgraded – he bought a Merida Crossway hybrid.

At Kanyakumari; Namsheer in red T-shirt (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

However there was a problem – it was tough getting the right size of bike; something that matters, when dreaming of riding long. On incorrectly sized bike, cycling long hours for several days can reduce cyclist to picture of suffering. Kochi’s drawback was that it didn’t have a facility to properly measure cyclist and match him / her to appropriate bike. “ My arms are short. That made me sensitive to size of bicycle,’’ Clifin said. He trusted Paul Mathew of The Bike Store to help him find the correct bike but beyond telling him the truth about the mismatch between his body size and bike frames available in town, there wasn’t much Paul could do. Meanwhile there was no shortage of audacity in planning the Russia trip. In October 2017, the FIFA U-17 World Cup was held in India (the Indian edition went on to see the highest ever attendance in the event’s history with 1,347,133 fans turning up to watch). According to Namsheer, Clifin and he planned on cycling to some of the U-17 venues and then, cycling on to catch the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. They even contemplated cycling through Pakistan. “ We understood soon, that’s impossible for Indians,’’ Clifin told me at the cafe. Meanwhile, Namsheer got married and dropped out from proposed trip. Clifin looked at accessing Russia from Mongolia. He scrapped that idea because the distance – including China – was too daunting for rookie cyclist. He may end up taking longer than what a visa usually permits. Further, if instead of tackling China from its south eastern provinces up, he elected to cut across from Nepal, the cost would likely escalate because of Himalaya and Tibet in between. “ My budget was $ 1000 apart from cost of bicycle and I didn’t want to hurry while cycling. It is not a race, it is a slow, relaxed journey doing what I feel like,’’ he said.

Bandar Abbas, Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

The alternative was to start cycling from Iran and reach Russia through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia give Indians visa on arrival. End-February 2018, two of his friends dropped Clifin off at Kochi’s Nedumbassery airport. The long planned expedition was finally commencing although he still had no bicycle for the long ride. Namsheer recalled the sight. “ He had just a backpack,’’ he said. Aside from what he had packed for the expedition, Clifin carried with him a parcel his aunt had sent along for his cousin in Dubai. Clifin spent two weeks in Dubai. He visited as many bike shops as he could. Eventually, he bought a Trek DS-1 hybrid with 24 gears, front suspension and no lockout. In general, the Internet speaks of it favorably as a dual sport model, one that commutes well and also handles trails to an extent, provided you tackle uneven surfaces keeping in mind that it is not a MTB, but a hybrid. The shop did the bike fitting and Clifin dispatched pictures of him on the bike to Paul in Kochi for his approval. “ He replied – that’s a good one. That’s when I decided to buy it,’’ Clifin said. His friends then dispatched bicycle panniers and camping gear to him, from Kochi. Early March, Clifin and Trek, took the ship from Sharjah to Bandar Abbas, the port city in southern Iran. He had about 20 kilos on the bike – two paniers of 15 liters capacity each and a large backpack. Officials at the Iranian port were used to cyclists coming through. They welcomed him in. That day, the first day of his expedition, he got his first puncture. It is a window to Clifin’s nature.

With fellow cyclists in Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Shuttling between his teaching assignments in Kochi, Clifin hadn’t found the time to train systematically for the long ride from Bandar Abbas to Moscow. He hadn’t learnt bicycle maintenance. When they got punctures on the trip to Kanyakumari from Kochi, Clifin and Namsheer had visited roadside mechanics to get things fixed. Strangely, none of that seems to have bothered Clifin. It is as though he views everything that unfolds – in whatever way it does – as life. “ I have no ego. I used to hitchhike. I think everyone should try hitchhiking. It takes away the ego. You try, try, try….people don’t stop to give you a lift. Who do you get angry at? What’s the point?’’ Clifin asked. So he rolled up his sleeves, got down to work and learnt how to fix a puncture that first day in Iran. It was good he did so for Iranian roads weren’t smooth everywhere and he had a day with five punctures to fix, all on the rear wheel.

From Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Other cyclists on the ship to Bandar Abbas had advised Clifin to take it easy on the road initially. They had a reason. The route Clifin was on could easily end up being deceptive for newcomer to cycling. Iran is one of the world’s most mountainous countries. The bulk of the mountains are in the west and Azerbaijan, the country Clifin had to be in next, lay to the northwest. A rookie cyclist starting from sea level at Bandar Abbas, may race off from start and overlook saving oneself for the rugged terrain to follow. It is wiser to treat distance and terrain with respect. Heeding the advice, in the initial phase of his tour, Clifin covered 50-60 kilometers every day. Then he slowly ramped it up, till on some days, he was touching 140 kilometers. “ People were really nice in Iran. They love football. They were happy to see somebody cycling to Russia for the World Cup. They asked me to support Iran’s football team at the event. The only problem in Iran was that it was dry country. I couldn’t get chilled beer!’’ Clifin said. Of the 45 days he spent crossing Iran, he stayed in hostels on only two occasions. All other days, he slept in his tent, at people’s houses or at mosques.

Rasht, Iran; the family he stayed with (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Meanwhile back home in Kochi, Clifin’s expedition was becoming real to his friends. “ Not everyone thought he would do it. As the journey progressed, people started believing,’’ Namsheer said. By the time Clifin reached the Azerbaijan border, he had lost weight; he had also become sunburnt from days on the road. The officials at the Iran-Azerbaijan border took some time to approve his entry. Nobody was rude; they just took time. Landscape and culture was different in Azerbaijan. High point for Clifin was running into Siraj from north Kerala who runs a restaurant in Baku. “ Baku is a beautiful city,’’ Clifin said. He stayed with Siraj for a week enjoying the place and devouring Indian food. Azerbaijan is located in the South Caucasus region. Over one half of it is made of mountain ridges, crests and plateaus; the rest consists of plains and lowlands. Clifin covered Azerbaijan in a month’s time, including the time he spent in Baku. When he reached the Balakan-Lagodekhi border gate some 390 kilometers away from Baku, he was in the company of a German cyclist. “ They let the German cyclist through to Georgia. But I was denied permission by the Georgian authorities. I had the required visa and documents. They didn’t give me any reason for denying entry,’’ Clifin said. He was left stranded on that bridge.

With other cyclists en route to Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

What saved him was a small but crucial gesture by the German cyclist. As they pass from one country to the next, it is normal for cyclists to buy a local SIM card for their cellphone. Clifin had bought one in Azerbaijan. Anticipating exit to Georgia (and new SIM thereafter), some 15 kilometers ahead of the Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing, he gave his SIM to another cyclist for use in Azerbaijan. At the Georgia end of the bridge, as refusal of permission for him to cross unfolded, Clifin was without a local SIM in his phone. Luckily, before he entered Georgia, the German cyclist handed Clifin his Azerbaijan SIM card. Using that, Clifin was able to call up people at the Georgian embassy in Baku. But there was nothing they could do – they represented external affairs while the border crossing was handled by internal affairs. With no other option at hand, Clifin worked the cellphone and applied for an e-visa for entry back into Azerbaijan. All this time and for more that day, he sat parked on the bridge; neither in Georgia nor in Azerbaijan. People passing by asked him where he was headed and what happened. They gave him food and water. It was night by the time e-visa was received and he could return to Azerbaijan, stone’s throw away.

In Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

“ It was an experience, waiting on that bridge. But not as bad as what happened to me in the desert in Iran. On the bridge, I knew I would get food and water. They won’t let me starve. So it was okay. The experience taught me patience,’’ Clifin said. Earlier in Iran, in a place he described as desert, he had got lost. There was no road. His GPS had stopped working. He cycled on looking for footprints or tracks. There was none for close to seven hours; there wasn’t a soul around. He started to panic. “ I realized, it was fear,’’ Clifin said. After those seven hours, a man showed up. Conversation was tough for the man spoke only Farsi. In utterly basic Farsi with some gestures thrown in for good measure, Clifin managed to indicate Bandar Abbas way behind, two weeks through Iran spent on the saddle and Russia ahead for destination. That was enough to find him roof for the night. He stayed in that man’s house.

From Azerbaijan (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

From the bridge at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border, Clifin cycled back to Baku. He would now have to undertake another route to Russia; one that he had tried to avoid by opting for the Balakan-Lagodekhi crossing instead. It was temporary setback in a journey otherwise lit up by the humanity and good people he met on the way (his Facebook posts reflect the sentiment). Georgia’s denial of permission would stay imprinted in his mind. In a June 2018 article in Khaleej Times on alleged mistreatment of UAE citizens and residents at Georgia’s airports, Clifin’s experience at overland crossing also found mention. “ I heard several stories of issues that people faced trying to get into Georgia. So I went to the Georgian embassy in Baku first with all my paperwork, holiday insurance, hotel bookings, spending money etc and they told me it would be fine,’’ he is quoted as saying. As for what happened at the border, he told the paper, “ they just looked at my passport. They had no interest in seeing the paperwork I had. They were shouting at me in their language and they were very aggressive. I felt like I was targeted because of my nationality. They gave no reasons as to why I was turned away. I felt discriminated against. Why bother issuing e-visas for certain nationalities or asking for documented evidence if they are just going to refuse you entry?’’

Camped in Tambov Oblast, Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Dagestan, officially called the Republic of Dagestan, is a federal subject of Russia located in the north Caucasus region. According to Wikipedia, Russia has 22 republics, 46 oblasts, nine krais, four autonomous okrugs, three federal cities and one autonomous oblast. A republic in Russia is nominally autonomous with its own constitution and legislature but is represented by the federal government in international affairs. Each republic is meant to be home to a specific ethnic minority. With an area of 50,300 square kilometers, Dagestan is a small republic. It is also the most heterogeneous of Russia’s republics, with the largest ethnicity constituting no more than 30 per cent of the population. Since the 1990s, Dagestan has witnessed Islamic insurgency and occasional outbreaks of separatism and ethnic tensions. The province is also close to Chechnya, a known trouble spot. On the map, Azerbaijan; Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan – they are all located on a strip of land sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The strip connects Russia to Iran. You can cross from Azerbaijan into Dagestan and thereby be directly in Russia. But Clifin wasn’t sure how safe it would be. That’s why he had elected to reach Russia via Georgia. Now with the Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing shut to him, Dagestan remained sole possibility.

In Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

The new border crossing was 200 kilometers away from Baku. It took him three days to reach. “ I was scared in the beginning,’’ he said. After all, he had been turned back at the border with Georgia. Dagestan also had political and ethnic tensions within for visitor to think about. But once the guards saw his football fan ID (part of FIFA’s ticketing paraphernalia) and realized he was from India, they began asking him about Indian film stars, Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty. Clifin breathed a sigh of relief. He was thrilled when the electronically operated gates at the border parted and Russia loomed before cyclist. “ I felt really happy crossing the border here,’’ he said. Dagestan was also where he – Indian football fan cycling in from Bandar Abbas and on his way to Moscow for FIFA World Cup – got interviewed by a local TV channel. Result – here and there on the road, he was recognized.

In Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

It is over 2000 kilometers from Dagestan to Moscow. He covered it in a little over a month, securing details of best routes possible from local members of the Warmshowers community (founded in the US in 1993 as a hospitality exchange for bicycle tourists, Warmshowers had some 85,000 members worldwide by early 2018). “ This last stretch – the route from Dagestan to Moscow – was comparatively easy for me. The only problem was that the road wasn’t consistently good and at places, there was no cycle path. The people were nice and very relaxed. They were welcoming of stranger cycling through their land,’’ Clifin said. As per original plans, two World Cup tickets had been procured – one for him; one for Namsheer. But with the latter dropping out, his ticket was passed on to another friend from Kochi, Anand V.K. He was Clifin’s senior at MEC. But following a brief stint as software engineer in Bengaluru, Anand first attempted to join the civil services and later, shifted to coaching others for civil service exams. Eventually he joined Customs & Central Excise as an officer. Anand was originally part of Cliffin’s Russia plans but had withdrawn when he learnt that the idea was to cycle. Cliffin had stayed in touch with him during sections of the journey; especially after the incident at the Georgia border. Anand had batch mates in the civil service and friends of theirs stationed in Moscow helped verify how safe the Dagestan route would be.

Clifin with Anand, at the stadium in Moscow (Photo: courtesy Anand V.K)

Anand reached Moscow on June 11 for the FIFA World Cup. He had booked accommodation at an Air BNB close to Red Square. From that day on, Clifin spoke to him almost daily apprising him of his progress. “ On June 24, all the others who were staying with me – four people in fact – left for Kazan to watch the Germany-South Korea match. It was around 6-7 PM and they were just leaving, when Clifin arrived on his bicycle,’’ Anand said. By now Clifin’s story had become well known. Somewhere during his ride through Russia, a friend who saw his periodic posts on Facebook had linked him up with a journalist. The story appeared on Manorama Online, a popular media website. The day after Clifin reached Moscow, there were interactions with the media in Moscow’s Red Square, following which he and Anand were invited for lunch at a leading Indian restaurant. On June 26, ticket in hand and carrying a printed poster expressing Clifin’s wish to meet Lionel Messi (which they hoped TV cameras would pick up), Clifin and Anand went to the stadium to see the qualifying match played between France and Denmark. It ended in a goalless draw. Clifin stayed in Moscow for the entire duration of the FIFA World Cup. He saw the remaining matches in the Fan Zone outside the stadium, where big TV screens had been installed. France won the World Cup beating Croatia 4-2 in the final. It was a disastrous World Cup for Argentina; they were knocked out by France early in the tournament. Clifin didn’t meet Messi.

Clifin’s Trek DS-1 (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Clifin’s Trek DS-1 held up fairly well through the whole journey. Besides his personal supplies and camping gear, he had carried along for the trip, 3-4 spare tubes, a puncture kit, a spare tyre, bicycle tools and a full sized pump. He had his share of punctures, which he learnt to fix on the go. Luckily most cities in the world have a cycling club. “ They helped in locating service centers for the bike,’’ Clifin said. For the return trip to India, a bike shop in Moscow dismantled the bike and packed it for him. “ I told them that I had cycled from Bandar Abbas to Moscow but did not know how to pack my bicycle,’’ he said, a mixture of embarrassment and laughter playing on his face. The flight from Moscow to Delhi took six hours. From Delhi, he flew to Kochi, where his friends – four of them, this time – came to the airport to receive him. “ He had informed us that given bicycle and luggage only two people should come,’’ Namsheer said. Clifin had been away for five months. He returned to work at Career Launcher.

Journey’s end; June 26, 2018, France versus Denmark, at the stadium in Moscow (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Clifin hopes to write a book on his journey. He also has plans, at a very nascent stage, for his next journey – cycle from Kochi to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “ I can cycle to Shanghai and take a ferry from there to Japan or cycle to Vladivostok via Mongolia and take a ferry from there. This time he wants to cycle for a cause. “ I want to give back for the love I got from people,’’ he said. Also planned, is documenting the trip. He has begun learning photography and videography. As he spoke, the `also’ list slowly grew – he must buy a new camera, he must find sponsors and yes, he would like a new bicycle; a proper touring bike. We had chatted for a long time and it was getting late. For a city of its size, Kochi seemed to retire early. Or maybe, as an autorickshaw driver would tell me: MG Road is no more where the action is; life has shifted to the suburbs. “ It is time for the last bus to where I live,’’ Clifin said as we shook hands and parted ways on a MG Road, rain swept and bereft of activity at that hour, except at its eateries.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Clifin Francis.)                       


Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from Vedangi’s Facebook page)

By November 24, fourteen days remained to match the existing record for fastest solo unsupported circumnavigation by a woman on a bicycle. Having been slowed down by an unfortunate mugging incident in Spain, matching the record is not a priority at this stage of the ride; successfully completing solo circumnavigation is. At the time of writing, the young cyclist was riding through the world’s biggest nation by land area; that too as the fabled Russian winter sets in. Record or none, Vedangi – she had cycled roughly 23,500 kilometers as of November 24 – has done a fantastic job.

Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, reached Samara on November 24. Samara is in the southeastern part of European Russia. It is at the confluence of two rivers – Volga and Samara. According to her father Vivek Kulkarni, the 19 year old-cyclist has now pedaled approximately 23,500 kilometers across the planet since her solo unsupported circumnavigation attempt commenced in Perth, Australia on July 17.

A warm welcome in Samara, Russia; the hotel Vedangi elected to stay at baked a cake for her (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Vedangi reached Finland in early November but given her visa for entry into Russia had expired she had to wait till a fresh visa was issued. The new visa was received on November 17. By the evening of November 21, she was in Moscow, having cycled the distance of 1100 kilometers from Helsinki to the Russian capital in that while. Given winter, she was cycling in pretty cold conditions, Vivek said. From Moscow, Vedangi cycled to St Peterburg and onward to Tver and Samara. From Samara, she is expected to cycle to Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Bashkortostan province. It has an airport. By the time she reaches Ufa, Vedangi would have covered about 3000 kilometers in Russia, leaving approximately 4000 kilometers left overall to qualify for circumnavigation. Signifying change of plan, Vivek said that Vedangi won’t be heading to Mongolia and would instead cover most of the last few thousand kilometers in India. Besides factors related to visa, one reason for the change in plan was that she would have had to cycle through Siberia to reach Mongolia and temperatures would be quite cold at this time of the year. Since she began her circumnavigation from Perth in an easterly direction, the same direction would have to be generally followed for the route she chooses to be on in India as well. At the time of writing, the exact route was yet to be finalized. Given her circumnavigation would be complete only at Perth, there would be a small distance left for finish in Australia.

Attending to her bicycle (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Vedangi’s website, November 24 marked 130 days since she began her circumnavigation trip. When she started out, the trip was a quest to become the fastest woman cyclist to accomplish solo, unsupported circumnavigation. For that she would have to better the record held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. As per Vedangi’s website, the circumnavigation trip entails cycling 18,000 miles (roughly 29,000 kilometers). Vivek said that completing full circumnavigation in the remaining 14 days is not a priority because unexpected hiccups along the way had upset some of the earlier cast plans.  Focus now is on getting the job done. When she completes her circumnavigation, Vedangi would be the youngest to do it solo and unsupported and the first Indian woman accomplishing it, Vivek said.

Vedangi’s journey has not been entirely smooth. There were unexpected challenges. The last reported one was a mugging incident in Spain that left the young cyclist injured and quite rattled. She described her experience on her Facebook page (you can also read about it in previous articles about Vedangi on this blog; please scroll down to access the relevant piece). At the time of that post, Vedangi was more than 17,500 kilometers into her circumnavigation trip and had already cycled across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. In the process, she crossed both the antipodal points advised under circumnavigation rules – the first was Auckland in New Zealand and the second, Madrid in Spain. Cycling in Spain (before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell of cycling in Iceland) was to be followed by passage through France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. “ I had reached the halfway point at 14,432 kilometers in 55 days,’’ she wrote, adding that her experience with people worldwide had been mostly “ extraordinary.’’

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Vedangi Kulkarni.

“ Given the incident (in Spain) and the concussion she suffered, she had to take it easy for some days. In that period her daily mileage fell,’’ Vivek had said then. Several days later, as he spoke of Vedangi’s arrival in Samara, Vivek said that Russia had so far been a happy, enjoyable experience for cyclist passing through. She got water and tea from the police and people traveling in cars stopped to quiz her about her world tour. The hotel she went to in Samara baked a cake for her; gestures that mean much for lone cyclist and parents tracking her progress from far. Language is not a barrier to find love from people, Vivek texted.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There is a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Photo: courtesy Deeptha Raghunath

The 2018 TCS New York City Marathon got over recently. According to available figures, 52, 812 runners finished it. The event is part of the World Marathon Majors; from among the races constituting the majors, the course at New York is comparatively tough. As running grows in India, running the marathon majors has become a fancy with many. There were runners from India traveling to New York to participate in the 2018 edition of the city’s annual marathon. Like all sports, running has its highs and lows. The highs need no explanation; good timing and ` personal best’ (PB) feature in the popular perception of high. Also finding place therein are race ambiance, cheering and definitely, the sheer pleasure of having run, PB or none. The downs are usually related to hiccups in training that upset race preparation, vagaries in weather on race day and injury; coping with the after effects of injury or picking one up / aggravating an existing one during a race. You then hope to do better next time. The 2018 New York City Marathon saw all this in Indian runners. We spoke to a few of those who went to New York, about their experience:

Anjali Saraogi / file photo (Photo: courtesy Anjali Saraogi)

Anjali Saraogi

The New York City Marathon of 2018 was a very enjoyable experience for me. Weather was perfect for a marathon. The course was undulating and hence not boring.

After I got my entry confirmation in February 2018, I commenced training diligently for this race. However in August I was laid low by a severe attack of dengue and unable to train for an entire month. This was a huge setback resulting in immense loss of fitness, stamina and speed. It also caused a major gap in my training. Following this setback, chasing any great timing at the New York City Marathon was no longer my goal. I decided to just run and enjoy the marathon without a target.  I finished in 3:24:12 hours.

I enjoyed the run as I was under no pressure to complete within a set time. Dengue had affected my joints. I am still coping with some remnant joint pain. Had I not suffered a hamstring injury due to sacroiliac joint weakness, I would have enjoyed the race even more.

This event has incredible crowd and spectator support. The volunteers, security and the NYPD go out of their way to assist runners. It’s a glorious experience. The energy in the race is electrifying and encouraging.

It’s not important for me to run all the marathon majors. I had wanted to run NYC Marathon ever since I heard that it was a challenging course.

I started running in November 2015. I have since enjoyed running the 2016 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Tata Mumbai Marathon of 2017 and 2018, the 2017 Comrades, Airtel Delhi Half Marathon of 2016 and 2017, Tata Steel Kolkata of 2016 and 2017, 2018 Garhwal Run (Dehradun to Dhanaulti / qualifier for La Ultra), 100k World Championship 2018 and 2018 Changan Ford Ultra 50k.

At present, my focus is rest and recovery. I would like to improve my strength and joint health, flexibility and mobility.

I am looking forward to 2019 Boston, which will hopefully be a race where I can aspire to improve my timing.

I ran the Changan Ford Ultra Challenge 50, less than 10 days before NYC Marathon.  It was an extremely challenging hilly course, in hot humid weather. It was hard and took all of me to complete. I clocked a time of 4:22:22 hours, ranking 35 out of 115 men and women. I was pleased with the result. I participated in this event since the NYC race was not by then a race for me to achieve any goal at.

In September 2018, I participated in the 100k World Championship in Croatia, clocking a time of 9:40 hours. It was an extremely hard race for me since I had barely recovered from dengue and hadn’t trained well for it. Hence, the result was disappointing but it was a memorable experience. I learnt a lot and it was wonderful pushing my limits and evolving as a runner.

Karthik Anand; geared up for 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik Anand

For the first time in my world majors so far, I was pacing a friend – Deeptha Raghunath – for a sub-four hour finish at the New York City Marathon.

It was a stress free run for me.

I enjoyed it.

Weather was perfect. The course was indeed a tough one compared to the other world majors but I had trained on hilly terrain specifically for this. So the race went as per our expectations. My target was a sub-four hour finish and I managed to finish the run in 3:55:38 hours.

This run was part of my plan to finish the six world majors by April 2019. I have now successfully completed five world majors and will head for my last world major from the list – London Marathon, in April 2019. I have completed five world majors so far – Berlin, Tokyo, Chicago, Boston and New York.

Going ahead, I will be doing IDBI Delhi Marathon in February 2019 and London Marathon in April 2019.

Pervin Batliwala; from the pre-race expo of the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala)

Pervin Batliwala

I had a great time traveling to New York and running the marathon. New York City Marathon was a difficult race with quite a lot of uphill sections as there are many bridges along the way. There was some shortfall in my training as I lost four weeks due to injuries – stiff back and tight abductor muscles.

On the day of the race, we had to leave at 5:30 AM. My corral was starting at 11 AM. When we landed in the holding area it was cold and then it started to get warm. So I got out of my track-pants. But closer to the race start, the temperature started to drop. I got back into my track-pants and I ended up running the marathon in them. It wasn’t easy doing so. After 28 kilometers I resorted to walk-run. In fact, I walked quite a lot. This was the first time ever that I walked during a marathon.

Overall, the experience was great. I finished in 4:29:48 hours. My coach was happy with my performance.

Three factors that did not go well for me was the shortfall in my training, the five-hour wait at the holding area that took a toll on me and my running attire.

NYC Marathon is a very well organized run with superb cheering.

Now, I will be doing a couple of half marathons. I plan to follow it up with a 2 kilometer-swim.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke; 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar Tidke)

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

I was in real good shape during the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon held on October 21, 2018. But soon after the event I started to feel discomfort on the outside of my right knee. When I tried to bend my knee I felt pain. I rested for two days and then went for a 20 kilometer-run.  At the end of that training run my knee felt locked and it swelled up. I did some icing but to no avail. I visited the doctor. It was initially diagnosed as an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) injury. Once I was back from New York I did a MRI and the problem was diagnosed as meniscus tear.

I wanted to cancel my trip to New York. I tried to cancel my tickets but realized that I was going to lose a huge amount of money. I then, decided to go and see if I can manage to run the marathon. Also, the pain had eased a bit.

Upon reaching the US, I stayed with a friend Manjunath Bhat, who lived 78 miles away from the start line of the race. On the day of the New York City Marathon, we headed out at 3 AM. The start of the race was at Staten Island and the finish, at Central Park. Weather on the day of the run was quite good with temperatures in the range of 10-14 degrees Celsius.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke; 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar Tidke)

I started the run slowly. Within the first kilometer we get a bridge with some incline. I did fine during the incline but during the decline, I felt some discomfort in my knee. At around 14-16 kilometers I started to get terrible knee pain. I continued running but after 22 kilometers I had to slow down. Between 25 and 35 kilometers I jogged. After 35 kilometers I was unable to jog as my knee would get locked. I started walking. But that wasn’t easy either. I started to get cramps in my shoulder, stomach and calves while walking. At every point during the run I felt there were at least 1000 runners ahead of me and 1000 behind me. The last seven kilometres of the marathon felt never-ending. I have not walked at any run since 2011. I finished NYC Marathon in 4:03:51 hours, way outside my personal best of 2:53 hours.

I will definitely go back to run the New York City Marathon. It is a very well organized race, the course is beautiful and markings were accurate with the blue line laid out all through the course. Hydration and refreshment support during the run was excellent. Cheering was also good.

My priority now is to recover and heal. I require surgery to correct the knee issue. Next on the cards are 2019 Mumbai Marathon and the 2019 Boston Marathon. I won’t be able to run Mumbai Marathon.

(Author’s note: the surgery mentioned above was done in mid-November. Dnyaneshwar is now recovering.)

Lata Alimchandani (Photo: courtesy Lata Alimchandani)

Lata Alimchandani

This is my fourth world marathon major. I have completed Berlin, Chicago and London so far.

At New York City Marathon, on the morning of the run it was quite cold. Then it turned warm before reverting to cold. That’s typical New York weather. I had lived in New York for some time so I was aware of how the weather behaves.

The run started well. I was doing good pace. I wanted to run fast in the beginning when my energy levels are good. At 25 kilolmeters I started to feel hungry and looked for food at support stations. I managed to get a banana but I had to stop to eat it, so I lost some time. I also lost some time at a couple of other water stations. The course, also, is a little tough. I finished in 4:11:50 hours, a personal best. Though I could have finished in better timing I am happy with the run. My training was brief; for about five weeks but still quite good.

In September 2018, I had participated in the World Masters Athletics Championship in Spain. I came back on September 17 and started my training for NYC Marathon. Because of this marathon I had to give IDBI Half Marathon and the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon a miss.

I started running in 2013. My first event was Pinkathon (10 kilometers) held in December 2013.

Going forward I will be doing the half marathon at Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon and Mumbai Marathon.  I am likely to run Tokyo Marathon in February 2019 and Boston Marathon in April 2019.

Siddesha Hanumanthappa; 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Siddesha Hanumanthappa / Facebook)

Siddesha Hanumanthappa

Just a week before New York City Marathon, I ran a 10 kilometer-race in Philadelphia. I ran well finishing the race in 46 minutes and ended up with a place on the podium in the senior category. But it was very cold with temperatures around 3 degrees Celsius with winds at 20 miles per hour accompanied with rains. I picked up a cold and a bad cough and chest congestion. A week prior to that, I had also suffered a fall in the bathroom hurting my spine and resulting in a stiff back.

Therefore, at NYC Marathon, I had no specific time target. I just wanted to finish the run in sub-4 hours. I ended the run with a timing of 3:55:33 hours. I am happy with my timing. My personal best is 3:24 hours. I have also finished Boston Marathon twice with timings of 3:36 and 3:37 hours.

My training for NYC Marathon was not quite up to the mark. I was not able to focus on speed. Instead, I focused on endurance. My training was aimed at completing the run. It was not centered around pace. Just a day before the marathon, I did a quick five kilometer-run to verify my capability and finished it with a pace of five minutes, five seconds per kilometer. I was, therefore, confident of a sub-four finish.

NYC Marathon is an amazing event. The whole city celebrates and Manhattan is shut down.  The entire running route is taken over by police. It is like being part of a mini universe as New York is akin to a mini universe. The entire route is jam packed with people cheering, singing, dancing and encouraging runners. There are bands playing all along the way and there was loud music as well.  The bridges are the only places where there were no people as they are not allowed there. There are about five bridges in all on the route. You feel so happy and energized running in this city.

NYC Marathon has the best cheering spectators among the world marathon majors. It is also the toughest among the six majors, I think. You never know what is coming your way as you progress along the route here. The bridges have gentle inclines and gentle declines and that can be quite deceiving.

It is an extremely well-organized event and you just flow with the crowd. There are signboards, markers, hundreds of volunteers and police personnel. I feel it is much better organized compared with Boston Marathon. At NYC Marathon, there are different types of runners because the entry is lottery-based. I totally forgot myself because of the cheering and the enthusiasm of the volunteers.

I have done Boston Marathon twice and now NYC Marathon. In 2019, I hope to do Berlin Marathon and Chicago Marathon back to back. I may end this year with one more marathon locally.

I don’t train specifically for an event. My training is uniform throughout the year. On an average I log about 105-110 kilometers per week.

Pervin (left), Chitra (center); pre-race parade, 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

Chitra Nadkarni

I marvel at the sheer logistics of how New York City manages such a huge running event. New York City Marathon had over 52,000 runners. Yet it was organised so well.

Pre-race day events and race day events were superb. I excitedly participated in the pre-race country wise parade and was so proud to walk with the Indian flag. I met many other runners from India and Indians living abroad who were running this race.

I had done Chicago Marathon three weeks earlier and had come back to India before leaving again for New York. I had little time to shrug off jet lag and body ache and be in good form for New York.

The race day in New York was beautiful. It was cold in the beginning but the sun was up and there was clear blue sky. My coach and I had decided to go for 4:10 finish time and at the expo I had picked up a pace plan accordingly.

I was very apprehensive about the route because it is undulating terrain and there were many flyovers. I started my race with extra layers and shed them when I had warmed enough. I ran sensibly till the half way mark because I was advised at the expo that the second half is tougher than the first. The last 200 meters was also a climb and Central Park was one undulating route. But I stayed true to the pace plan and finished in 4:09:32 hours. I am very happy with my timing.

I have just one marathon major – Tokyo, left. I would love to finish it in 2019.

Going ahead, my to do list includes full Ironman and Masters.

Kranti Salvi; 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Kranti Salvi)

Kranti Salvi

I had run Berlin Marathon seven weeks before New York City Marathon. I ran in a saree, becoming the fastest woman to do so. My original plan was to come back from the German city and take two weeks to recover before I commence training for NYC Marathon. But that was not to be. After I landed in Mumbai, I was flooded with requests for interviews, both by print and broadcast media, for my feat: running in a saree at Berlin. I also got invitations for felicitation functions, many of which I had to turn down.

During one such interview, I had to wear my nauvari saree (traditional Maharashtrian saree) and do a short run for a video shoot. But I tripped and fell, badly bruising my knee. My injury was quite bad and that put a stop to my training. The doctor, I went to, said the injury would take six weeks to heal. I was on antibiotics to help the healing of the wound. Two weeks before NYC Marathon, I also got flu. With all these, I just resorted to slow jogs as part of my training.

During my travel to New York, I had stomach distress on the flight. I had to miss the pre-race day parade.

On race day, I woke up at 3 AM. Getting to the race venue was an experience. There were thousands of people on the roads from early morning. Everywhere, there were queues – for buses that transport you to start line, queues at toilets.

I started the run slowly as my aim was just to finish the marathon. NYC Marathon is like a river of people – hundreds of runners and thousands of spectators cheering you. Despite my stomach issue, I did not feel tired. I did not get any cramps either. I finished the run in 3:56:29 hours. I guess running the Berlin marathon was my training for NYC Marathon.

I will be doing Chicago Marathon in October of 2019. In the following year, I hope to do Tokyo Marathon and London Marathon.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)


Deeptha Raghunath; 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Deeptha Raghunath)

Running is fun. But marathons don’t come easy; especially if there is a desire to do well, included in plan. Training pays. The process changes you as person. That’s what Deeptha Raghunath discovered, preparing for her first full marathon – the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon – and eventually running it. Deeptha chose the New York City Marathon because she had heard how well organized marathons abroad are. Further, advised minimum six months training, New York was the best placed big event available once she took the plunge to do the full marathon. This is her account, presented here as an article by invitation: 

Crossing the finish line at New York was the most intense feeling ever.

I cried.

It was months of training dovetailing to race and finally, finish. I told myself, “ this is it, it’s over.’’

I started running five years ago. A friend introduced me to the sport.  I can’t thank Karthik Anand enough for doing that. I have always wondered how people ran a full marathon; what drove them? From where did they get that kind of energy? Why did they run that distance? Being a runner – not a marathoner – I knew there was something about running and training for a marathon which drove millions across the world to do it and become marathoner. I never had the courage to try it.

My runner friends would ask me: when are you taking the plunge to do a full marathon? I always responded: me? No way! The thought of the distance was enough to scare me. I don’t think I will ever be able to run a full marathon – that was my standard answer.

I shared my fears with Karthik. He said, “ just stay focused and dedicated. You will finish super strong. I promise that.’’ He believed in me much more than I did. It pushed me to think: maybe I can.

I registered for the TCS New York City Marathon in mid-March 2018. Although I train in Bengaluru with PaceMakers, under K.C. Kothandapani, I was always laid back when it came to training. I found excuses to miss the speed workout on the tracks and since I missed the most crucial training day of the week I always found it tough to do the tempo runs. Race after race I used to fail and I kept telling myself: this is not for me.

Karthik Anand pacing Deeptha at the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon (Photo: courtesy Deeptha Raghunath)

Having registered for the New York Marathon, I realized I needed to up my game. Karthik decided to guide me since he was running the race too. He had already completed four of the World Marathon Majors. He began sending me my weekly running schedules after discussing it with the coach. The moment he donned his running gear, Karthik transformed from close friend to taskmaster. He wouldn’t take no for answer. Once the schedule was made, there were no discussions or changes; it had to be done.

I started slow with about 65-70 km mileage per week. I was clearly told that pace should never be looked at especially in the initial months of training. That was a comfort. Week after week the mileage gradually increased. I dreaded Saturdays which were my long run-days. The distance was being stepped up week after week and I had to get used to being on my feet for a minimum of four and half hours. I remember days when I had my menstrual cycles. I could not even think of raising that as excuse for I was told examples of working mothers who were ace marathoners and who toiled relentlessly on the same roads.

Time flew by. I was at the peak of my training when mileage was minimum 80 km per week. Karthik was there all through. It was not easy for a sub 4:30 minutes per km-runner to trot beside a 6:30 mins per km-runner. He sacrificed all his training runs for me. Before I knew we were in October and I had mere weeks of the most crucial runs left. In that time I had to do the race distance at the planned race pace.

Officially the training had ended, the long runs, the intense speed workouts were all over. I was 3-4 weeks out from my marathon. That’s when I reached one of the most important parts of training – the taper. During the taper, weekly mileage is reduced in order to allow the body to rest and recover before a prolonged race.  At this point in training, there is not much you can do to improve endurance or performance, but there is still plenty of time to overdo it and court injury. The taper is a very difficult time for most runners, as rest is not a concept they are used to. But it’s during this period that your muscles, damaged from long training season, get repaired. I had to reduce the weekly mileage gradually; each run got shorter but faster. The hard work was now over.

I went to New York a week prior to the race to get acclimatized. I had never run in cold conditions.

Kathik had set a realistic target for me – to complete the race within 4 hours 10 mins. He decided to make me run without my Garmin and I trusted my pacer. On race day, the elite runners started earlier than my wave. At 10.15 AM the Race Director said, “ Wave 2 – on your mark.’’ Boom; we were off. While I was running the first mile on the bridge, which is by the way the highest incline of the entire race, I felt everything from joy to anxiety. The first mile was intense. I realized that I was actually doing the New York Marathon. Entering Brooklyn after the bridge was like running through one of the biggest parties imaginable. I saw DJs and church choirs and people dancing and singing for the runners.

Photo: courtesy Deeptha Raghunath

Karthik made sure our pace was steady and easy. I told myself to save energy for the final six miles. I was flying. I had so much fun running from one big block-party to the next and also having my pacer boost my confidence. The 23rd km, I knew, was going to be an uphill and it was a tough one but we cruised through it. When is the fabled marathon wall coming? – I kept asking myself. Everytime we crossed the timing mat Karthik told me that folks back in India would be tracking at that very. It motivated me to now let anyone down, most of all – him. As we hit the 32 km-mark, Karthik reminded, “ Deeptha, your race starts now. You are doing fab. Just stick to what you are doing for the next five kilometers. This is the most crucial stage and this is where everyone takes a hit.’’ I began to feel the fatigue in my legs. But I knew 37th km onwards would be tough. I kept my mind prepared for. The course with its inclines was taking a toll and every muscle in my body was aching. You just want to see the damn finish line and cross it. But it’s not even close. I had no idea of the pace I was doing though in moments of silence Karthik asked me if I was comfortable. At the 40 km-mark when I touched the highest level of fatigue, he told me:  you have 23 minutes left to do three kilometers and that would mean a sub-four finish. I had no words to express my joy and shock. At the 41 km-mark, where I needed a cheer the most, a runner friend cheered his lungs out for me.

The finish in Central Park is something I will never forget. Few meters before the finish, I heard the announcer scream: India! I finished with a sense of satisfaction and pride. It is a moment I will cherish forever. I remember Karthik telling me “ you beast you killed it. You clocked 3:55.’’ Thank you Karthik; I owe this one to you. A huge shout-out to my coach, family and friends as well. Your training will never let you down – that is what most of them said. I could not agree more. Does running a marathon change your life? I’m not sure. It definitely changes you as a person; you evolve. Almost a week after the NYC Marathon, the runner’s high is still there. I feel mentally stronger today after running the marathon.

(The author, Deeptha Raghunath, is a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur and runner.)


Winning the 2Go Masters Championship Road Race; July 2018 (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Sometimes sport begins in the most mundane ways. The joy it provides and the improvement in health it can lead to are priceless. A weighing scale changed life for Venketeswara Rao Navanasi. Three years later, he won a race at the Bangalore Bicycle Championship. A further seven years later he is coach, training others.

The oldest recorded evidence of weighing scales being used dates back to 2400-1800 BC. According to Wikipedia, the proof showed up in Indus Valley in the form of uniform polished cubes of stone. The material used had varying density but mass was set as multiples of common denominator. Since those beginnings likely in commerce, the weighing scale has come a long way. While the classic scale featuring counterweights and two pans faded to the stuff of imagery, variations of the bathroom scale and the kitchen scale are now more commonplace – a platform to place the object to be weighed; a dial or electronic digits to tell you the outcome. Ever since the link between health and body weight was explored, measuring body weight has been a curiosity with people.

Training on Nandi Hills near Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Hyderabad, February 16, 2008. The young couple at a city multiplex had reached there from a friend’s wedding. The wife was expecting their first child. Venketeswara Rao Navanasi, then 31 years old, headed for the weighing scale. He stood on it. It said 92 kilos. Ten years and eight months later; that encounter with the weighing scale – Bikey Venky said – is how his story in cycling began, as a quest to reduce weight.

Venketeswara Rao Navanasi aka Bikey Venky (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venky was born 1977, youngest of three children, at Eluru in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Eluru was district headquarters. The land around was generally flat. Agriculture was the main source of income. Although his father – he used to be a fertilizer dealer – came from a well off background, by the time Venky arrived little of that wealth remained. “ My father was self-made,’’ Venky said. Schooling done in Eluru and Vijayawada, Venky shifted to Hyderabad for college. In his first year of graduate studies, his father passed away. He therefore returned to Eluru and completed his BSc (Industrial Instrumentation) there. Then he went back to Hyderabad and finished his post-graduation in computer applications (MCA). Following his studies, he joined a small firm called Webhelp (later acquired by Brigade Corporation). Next move was to Keane India (now NTT Data); with them he worked in Gurgaon for six months, returning to Hyderabad after the stint. In 2009, the company posted him for 11 months to Vermont in the US. Back from this assignment, he joined ITC Infotech and shifted to Bengaluru. Nowhere in life thus far, had sports found place. “ Physical activity wasn’t my forte,’’ Venky said.

At Valparai; from the 2016 Tour of Nilgiris (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

In college he played a bit of cricket but it smacked of reluctant participation. He was a terrible fielder and when he batted, preferred to employ others as runners between wickets. It was predicament traceable to school days. As a child Venky had health issues. He suffered from asthma, had frequent bouts of bronchitis and had lengthy spells of coughing through the night. “ Breathing was a challenge for me. My mother would carry me from hospital to hospital. Nothing worked,’’ Venky said. Further, akin to his father, he was on the heavier side. “ As youngster, I ate a lot,’’ Venky said. During his years of graduate studies, his brother introduced him to a friend who was a weight lifter. Subsequent work out at the gym helped shave off some of his body weight. The physical workouts also eased his coughing episodes.  But returned to study and sedentary life by post-graduation, all that he sweated off came back. “ I was back to being physically unfit,’’ Venky said. In 2006, he got married. Roughly two years later, he was staring at what the multiplex weighing scale informed. “ I was at least 20 kilos overweight. I looked at my wife and felt if I stayed the way I was, I risked being a bad example to our child,’’ Venky said. Conditioned to be social, human beings usually pick games over solo pursuits. Post weighing scale episode, Venky’s first instinct was to buy a shuttle racquet.

On his first 100k ride on the outskirts of Hyderabad (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Two things surfaced from the daily shuttle badminton sessions with other residents of the apartment complex he lived in. First, he realized he was quite unfit. Second, as the weeks went by, he felt his fitness slowly improve. Encouraged, he joined for yoga and also began controlling his diet. By October 2008, he had lost 16 kilos. His child was now six months old and with new addition to family around, Venky was unsure how sustainable his engagement with sport could be. So he froze the weight reduction spree and decided to maintain body weight at where it had fallen to. For this he sought an exercise that he could incorporate into his regular lifestyle; something you didn’t have to take time out to do. That’s how he got down to researching what bicycle to buy. It was somewhere around this time that Venketeswara Rao Navanasi became Bikey Venky. The reason for this was a hangout on the Internet for cyclists, called Bike Zone. When it came to signing up as a member, Venketeswara Rao Navanasi found that the popular abbreviation of his first name – Venky – was already taken. It had gone to Venkatesh Shivarama, now a well-known figure in Bengaluru’s cycling circles and proprietor of Wheelsports. To distinguish himself from the Venky of Wheelsports, Venketeswara Rao Navanasi assumed the moniker: Bikey Venky. It stuck.

From a ride with Hyderabad Bicycling Club (HBC); with Mathew McTee, Shay Mandel and Sunil Menon (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

On October 28, 2008, Bikey Venky (hereafter in this article, called Venky) bought his first bicycle – a Hero Hawk road bike. He bought it from a store at Koti in the center of Hyderabad and rode it 25 kilometers to Miyapur, where he stayed. “ That was my first bicycle ride as an adult. It was very satisfying,’’ he said. Soon he commenced cycling to work and back. But as he did so he noticed that his soul was aching for more miles to log. “ I guess I wasn’t getting enough endorphins,’’ he said laughing. He started riding 20-50 kilometers on weekends. Within two months, he did his first 100 kilometers. It was a lesson on too much, too early. He returned with a sharp pain in his left knee. The culprit was a wobbly pedal. Simple as they seem, sports like cycling and running are highly repetitive. Something small and incorrect runs the danger of piling up into a big problem, courtesy repetition. “ The bike had some problem or the other all the time. I became an expert at fixing it. It was not fun. But it was something I had to do,’’ Venky said. Hyderabad had a clutch of active cyclists at this time – people like Shay Mandel, Ed Martinez and Mathew McTee. Shay started Hyderabad Bicycling Club (HBC). They organized rides, which Venky joined regularly. The rides gave discipline and structure to his cycling. When the time came for him to shift to Vermont with Keane India, he started looking for ways to continue his cycling in the US. He found that there was a bicycle collective in Vermont that collected discarded bikes, repaired them and sold them at a cheap price. Coincidentally, it also turned out to be on the same street where Venky lived. The shop opened only for a few hours every week. He volunteered to repair bikes there. “ If you accumulated eight hours of volunteering, you could build a bike with whatever components were available at the store. I logged eight hours in a couple of months,’’ he said.

The MTB he built; Vermont in the backdrop (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

His first bike built so (using components available at the shop and ordering those that weren’t) was an 18 speed, rigid fork MTB on 26 inch wheels. He built it from an old unused chromoly steel frame. Venky elected to own a MTB because he had reached US in winter and a MTB seemed the best type of bike to get around. He started riding to work on the bicycle, doing so till winter became full blown, when he began walking to office. “ A downside to cycling in Vermont was that the weather window was small,’’ he said. Vermont is in the north eastern part of the US; it borders Canada. It has the second lowest population among the states of the US. In terms of weather, it is not a particularly warm place. It has cold winters; certainly quite cold for someone going to work there, from southern India. To overcome the small weather window he perceived in cycling, Venky also got into running. Training for his first marathon in Vermont, he however developed knee pain on the third long training run. The problem was diagnosed as related to dissimilar leg length. Given it didn’t bother in cycling, he reverted to that sport. In May 2010, Venky’s life in cycling took a significant turn. He found an enduring partner for his growing adventures on two wheels.

With colleagues after finishing the Prouty Challenge 100 miler; July 2010 (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Bike swap is common practice in the US. Used bikes are brought to stores; the stores take a cut from sale proceeds, the sellers stay anonymous and the proceeds are adjusted against new buys. At a bike swap he attended to pick a bicycle for his friend’s daughter, Venky fell in love with a Redline 925 fixie that was perfect fit for him. Redline is an American bicycle manufacturer with particularly strong reputation in BMX. According to Wikipedia, it is currently owned by the Netherlands based-Accell Group, which also owns other bicycle brands like Lapierre, Raleigh, Ghost and Diamondback. Venky’s interest in fixies went back to his days in Hyderabad; Mathew McTee used one. The bike Venky wanted cost $ 120 and while he was away from the store, getting the money, it was purchased by a woman. But she realized pretty soon how interested Venky was in the bike that she sold it to him. The bike was a fixie with single speed option. After some initial riding on single speed, he switched to fixie and never looked back. “ With a fixie you get constant feedback. It gives a sense of oneness with machine,’’ Venky said. Vermont is hilly. In July 2010, Venky did his first 100 miler on the fixie, a charity ride called Prouty Challenge. The preparation for it – along with friends at work – was systematic. They had jerseys made. The training was proper. The team completed the ride well. It was now time to return to Hyderabad. Venky sold the MTB; he retained the fixie, bringing it with him to India.

With Vineet; from the May 2011 Gudalur-Ooty ride (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

In 2010 Venky shifted to Bengaluru. Having heard of Tour of Nilgiris on Bike Zone, he decided to attend the after party of the event’s third edition. Among cyclists he met there was Hari Menon. “ I was blown away by the experiences I heard. I was so inspired that I wanted to sign up,’’ Venky said. During this time, he was riding alone in the city. Then with a few friends and having acquired a Giant Warp full suspension MTB, he commenced riding on trails. They did a lot of riding in Turahalli and Savantdurga. One of his friends Vineet Katarki was due to attempt Tour of Nilgiris. Used to climbing Bengaluru’s Nandi Hills on his fixie, Venky wished to see if the Tour’s route near Ooty was doable for him. So in May 2011 Vineet and he went to check it out. Of the two routes up – one from Kalahatti, the other from Gudallur – Venky found the Gudallur-Ooty section alright but Kalahatti tough. He couldn’t complete the second. In July he started training for the Tour. From 78 kilos he dropped to 66 kilos by December, riding roughly 10,000 kilometers in training. “ That period changed my cycling completely and in a way, my life,’’ Venky said. Less than two months into that training, something else – something rather defining – also happened.

With Hari Menon and Vicki Nicholson; from the 2011 Tour of Nilgiris (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Aside from Tour of Nilgiris, Bike Zone had played a catalytic role in triggering the Bangalore Bicycle Championship (BBCH). It was a series of races that eventually spread throughout the year. In August 2011, Venky went to see the BBCH team time trials. He was standing among the spectators when the organizers informed that even if those around lacked a team they could still participate in the individual time trial if they wished to. Venky had gone to watch the race on his trusted fixie. Hearing what the organizers said, he immediately enlisted for the individual time trial. “ I was nobody. I had nothing to lose,’’ he said. Venky clocked 33 kilometers per hour on the fixie. Unaware of race outcome he left the venue. That was when he got a call from Brijesh Nair informing that he had won the race and that his medal was waiting to be collected. It was the first medal of any sort he had won in his life. “ It was my first race. That result was a pleasant surprise,’’ Venky said.

At his first bicycle race (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

He had until then only watched BBCH; in fact he watched it without fail. “ BBCH was window to real cyclists, real speed and real training,’’ he said. Later the same year, his participation in the Tour of Nilgiris went off well. The Tour has some stages which feature racing. He did well in those stages, yet again riding his fixie. Within the Tour, there was a rest day in Kannur in Kerala. Spectrum Racing – one of Bengaluru’s bicycle racing teams – used that break in the race to ask Venky to join them. By then he was already member of Veloscope, the team founded by Brijesh Nair. Venky discussed the offer with Brijesh. Eventually he moved to Spectrum. According to Venky, such shifts from one bicycle racing team to another in Bengaluru are informal affairs. There is no money in the deal; no administrative framework to negotiate or adjudicating third party overseeing transfer. It is based on friendship and good faith. Venky’s new team was quite supportive. In cycling circles, the road from Budigere Cross to Devanahalli is known as Siva’s Road because it was Sivasai Nellore, a member of Spectrum, who commenced using that road to go to Nandi Hills. When Siva bought a new bike, he offered his old bike – a three year-old LeMond Reno – to Venky. It was Venky’s first real bike with gears and frills. He got it at a discount; it was made still easier on the pocket with payment in installments. “ That is how supportive he was of a teammate,’’ Venky said of Siva.

With his teammates from Spectrum Racing (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

2012 was Venky’s first proper racing season. The next year – 2013 – was his first year on the podium with Spectrum. From then on, BBCH medals became more regular. In 2017, he raced abroad with Spectrum for the first time – it was the Tour of Friendship in Thailand. Venky has since resolved to race abroad at least once every year. In 2009, Venky started a blog called At the 2011 Tour of Nilgiris he used to ride and blog about his experience every day. Impressed, for the 2012 edition of the event, the organizers asked him come aboard as official blogger. 2018 will be his eighth year blogging so about Tour of Nilgiris. However the real benefit of blogging was something else.

With Gagan Reddy who Venky has mentored and coached; Gagan won gold for Karnataka in U-18 TTT at the 2017 nationals (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Among other things, Venky’s blogging was a document of his improving performance (he touched 40 kilometers per hour on the bike for instance). People wrote in asking him questions about how he trained, how he set up his bike. He responded diligently to the queries. Then a couple of years ago, he chanced upon a tool that made such interaction easier. However using it cost money. Alongside he also knew that what comes for free typically has no value. So Venky commenced his own coaching site – BV Coaching, where he trains for a fee. His blog’s URL now dovetails into the coaching website. His first trainee was Vivek Batheja, a member of Spectrum. Venky said he has around 20 trainees. Meanwhile on the work front, in 2015, the client Venky worked for at ITC Infotech started their own captive unit. Venky joined them. It was the IT wing of a Danish bank; the outfit is called Danske IT. After he joined them, Venky had opportunity to go to Denmark. He took his cycle along and rode there.

Sharing Venky’s homemade cake is part of BAR podium ceremonies (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

Venky’s real accomplishment in cycling is perhaps none of the above. BBCH has both MTB and road bike races. For those more into road racing – Venky among them – the once a month-BBCH may prove inadequate frequency to stay engaged with. There was general feeling that more races were needed. He discussed the issue with Spectrum. Rather than complain about the inadequacy, Venky felt it made sense to do something. He took the initiative to start a new racing calendar called Bangalore Amateur Racing (BAR). It held its first race – a 24 kilometer-individual time trial – on July 21, 2013. Since then, BAR has coexisted with BBCH; their dates don’t clash. According to Venky, over time BBCH had come to mean serious racing. So much so that newcomers require a separate event as stepping stone to BBCH. In part, that is the relevance BAR has come to have. What’s more top notch racers like Naveen John also participate in BAR, using it as additional opportunity to race and train. The presence of such talent to interact with and the opportunity to see them in action adds to newcomers’ experience, Venky said.

A typical day at BAR (Photo: courtesy Bikey Venky)

At present in Bengaluru, every first Sunday of the month sees a BAR race; every third Sunday features BBCH.  BAR works with minimum overheads. Sometimes all you have for officials are Venky and a friend. Results are provided as soon as given race ends. Belief is – the lower the overheads, the greater the ability to sustain. As for himself, Venky’s wish is to one day qualify for the UCI Grandfondo World Series finals in age category. Earlier in 2018, he attempted to qualify for Masters at Tour de Bintan in Malaysia. But the attempt failed. To qualify you have to be in the top 20 per cent of finishers in individual time trial or road racing. In cycling, competition is stiff even among middle aged athletes. I asked Venky if cycling long distance – as in ultra-cycling – attracted him. The longest distance he had cycled till then was 250 kilometers. “ I don’t think I am wired for endurance cycling. Racing is what I like,’’ Venky said. As for that old frailty and the coughing his mother struggled to cure; it doesn’t haunt him anymore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Bikey Venky.)                    


The team members; from left – Pranav, Bharat and Shekhar (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Over end-August to mid-October 2018, a team of three completed a long traverse of the Indian Himalaya from Ladakh to the border of Nepal. The trio covered 950 kilometers and crossed 27 passes. One of the participants, Bharat Bhushan – he is a seasoned mountaineer and hiker and an instructor with NOLS – mailed in a report on the expedition. Presented below, as an article by invitation, is an edited version of the report:     

The summit is for the ego while the journey is for the soulthis oft heard adage from the mountains, in a way, encapsulated the driving force behind the Western Himalayan Traverse. The idea was to travel in the most self-sufficient manner possible, have least ecological impact on the places walked through and keep Leave No Trace (LNT) principles in mind. Ultra-light backpacking forces you to be more efficient in the use of resources while enabling you to cover distance faster.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

India lacked a long hiking trail. The US has the Pacific Crest Trail among others and Nepal has the Great Himalaya Trail. We wanted to correct the anomaly. In recent years, the idea of the Western Himalayan Traverse seemed to have finally come of age. Establishing such routes enables and encourages the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact environment friendly backpacking.

The planning process took over a year. Three members for this traverse seemed an ideal number. Each member picked was physically well trained and equipped with sound technical mountain skills and knowledge. This would help minimize risk in case something went wrong during the traverse. Having the ability for one teammate to go down and call for help and bring aid to the others in case of an emergency, increased safety margins during those patches of the route where communication devices would be of limited use and mountain hazards faced would be the highest. Team members make or break an expedition. Pranav Rawat, Shekhar Singh and I, Bharat Bhushan, complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We made for a strong cohesive team.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

The planning process was divided equally between the three of us to get things done faster. I poured over contour maps at the library of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). The initial plan of starting out from Siachen Glacier had to be dropped due to the additional number of days it would have added to the expedition. In the end, Markha Valley in Ladakh was zeroed in on as the ideal place to start from. The trek was flagged off from Chilling Bridge. Dharchula at the Nepal border was our end point. With the start and end points fixed, now it was time to fine tune the middle portion of the traverse. We had two considerations – keeping it a simple, direct and straight route which would take less time. And avoiding as much of challenging and technical terrain en route, as that would require greater effort, technical gear and resources. Eventually, the Kalindi Khal pass was the only technical terrain we had no option of bypassing due to the nature of the route. We kept it in.

We got down to collecting as much information as possible from the internet and having conversations and meeting up with people who had done sections of the traverse before or had ground level knowledge. Ravi Kumar, Director of NOLS India, gave us maps and shared what he knew of the areas we would pass through. In Delhi, Punit Mehta, who is an independent explorer and NOLS instructor, filled us in about the Ladakh and Garhwal areas in detail. Chetan Pandey, my climbing partner from Almora, gave me details of the Garhwal Himalaya and helped me plot the way points on Google Earth map. Over conversations in the IMF dormitory, my friend Kaushal Desai along with Bhagwan Singh from Manali helped fill in the remaining gaps. Dhruv Joshi and Vijay Singh Rautela my climbing partners connected us to a lot of people who could help us when tackling officialdom – paperwork to be filled and permits to be issued.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Following this process, Pranav and I, sitting in Manali, were able to compile the information by plotting all the way points and making a rough Google Earth map of the traverse. It felt like the second concrete step towards our expedition. Step three entailed selection of lightweight technical gear and apparel. Keeping in mind the time of the year, possible weather faced and climate zones we’d be crossing we finally got down to making our required list. We also devised contingency plans. We only had cell phones as devices of communication. That made us vulnerable because connectivity is not available everywhere. Our plan was, should anything happen to any one of us, we would send one member as a runner to reach out and contact the team from 4Play, who were waiting with ration parcels at each predetermined ration re-stocking point. We also made sure to note the closest road head in every valley that we crossed.

It took us 47 days to do the entire Western Himalayan Traverse route. We started on August 27, 2018 and completed the expedition on October 12. During this entire journey we put in four rest days. We took full day stops at Kaza, Chitkul, Auli and Himni. Else, we walked every day. Some days we did up to 44 km. It was only by such a disciplined and relentless push that we managed to cover the traverse within our scheduled time frame.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

While covering the entire route we had to cross varying terrain, and different ecosystems and climate zones. We had four passes to cross that constituted glaciated terrain – Bhabha Pass, Parangla Pass and Lamkhaga Pass were comparatively small. Kalindi Khal proved to be the most formidable, being a huge glacier with open and hidden crevasses. We needed proper glacier travel equipment here. A major obstacle we faced was unexpected bad weather while crossing Kalindi Khal. We had limited fuel and were running out of rations. We had to adapt to the situation by cutting down to having just one meal a day and trying to collect water through ingenious unconventional means. We collected water by wiping the top of our tents with bandannas and squeezing it into containers to collect it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

River crossings during the traverse too turned out to be technical challenges. There were many big raging rivers that we had to cross. The biggest of them was the river in Norboo Sumdo on the way to Parangla Pass from Tsomoriri Lake. Scouting these rivers, choosing from where to cross them and the time of the day chosen for it were important factors we had to keep in mind. Steep trails on the way to Kumaon and Garhwal were a challenge. This year the monsoon was still on in full swing while we were negotiating our way through the trails. Many times we had to forgo the main trail and search for safer alternative route.

Of the 27 passes that were crossed, 10 of them were above 5000 mts in height. We covered a total distance of 950 km with cumulative ascent of 123,432 feet. The following passes were crossed during the traverse:

  1. South east pass parallel to Dhat La (5610 mts)
  2. Kyamar La (5100 mts)
  3. Mandalchan La (5210 mts)
  4. Shibuk La (5270 mts)
  5. Kolakongma La (4940 mts)
  6. Kai Yeru La (5420 mts)
  7. Koste La (5380 mts)
  8. Yalung Nyau La (5470 mts)
  9. Parangla Pass (5560 mts)
  10. Thaltak ( 4710 mts)
  11. Bhaba Pass (4910 mts)
  12. Lamkhaga Pass (5270 mts)
  13. Kalindi Khal (5950 mts)
  14. Kuwari Pass (3670 mts)
  15. Vinayak (3170 mts)
  16. Kukin Khal (3120 mts)
  17. Ali Khal (3470 mts)
  18. Pass between Garwal and Kumaon (3350 mts)
  19. Above Garkuti (2770 mts)
  20. Khati Khal ( 2920 mts)
  21. Bainsa Kharak (3040 mts)
  22. Dhara Pani ( 3150 mts)
  23. Rur Khan (3440 mts)
  24. Unnamed pass, East of Puniya Peak (2860 mts)
  25. Dharti khal (3430 mts)
  26. Chongmo (3810 mts)
  27. Balsi Khal (3900 mts)

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Among rewards, we spotted the elusive snow leopard near Tsokar Lake. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever. There was also blue sheep, monal, marmots, wild pheasants and many more; enough to fill an entire journal. All through the hike we came across bridges built by shepherds. We always examined its strength first, to see if it would bear our weight or not. There were occasions when we found the bridge weak or collapsing. We always had to keep a Plan B in mind in case we had to find a way other than using those bridges. We were a group with mixed levels of experience in this terrain. Shekhar was new to most of the passes we faced. Pranav had seen a good bit of the trail before. I too was fortunate to have covered most parts of this trail in bits and pieces on previous forays. In spite of that, route finding remained a major challenge. Not having a good reliable map and the tricky terrain of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya always kept us on our toes. Now that we have mapped the correct position anyone will be able to follow our trail by downloading the file (editor’s note: at the time of writing, such a file with updated map was in the process of being made, Bharat said) and using it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Since this was a new route, planning accurately in terms of rations and logistics was based on approximation. We set up seven predetermined re-ration stations at various places of the traverse. These were places where we had previously sent boxes of ration well ahead of time, in order to be able to collect them as we passed those places during our journey. We also ate at village homes and food shacks along the way. This helped us not to carry extra ration and instead, move faster with light backpacks.

4Play – it is an Indian outdoor adventure content and media company; Pranav Rawat is their sponsored athlete – tried securing sponsorship for the Western Himalayan Traverse. They pitched our idea to several companies here and abroad and upon not finding much of a response to it advised us to try and see if crowdfunding would help. Pranav and Shekhar campaigned for the Western Himalayan Traverse project and raised funds individually. In spite of that we still had to invest our own funds to buy the required gear. Raising the funds for this expedition was almost as challenging as completing the traverse itself.

(The author, Bharat Bhushan, is a seasoned mountaineer. He works as an instructor with NOLS.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When a company that was once the world’s biggest automobile manufacturer decides to add electric bicycles to its product range, you sit up and take notice.

Early November 2018. As Delhi faced yet another smoggy winter and traffic elsewhere in India continued to worsen with people buying more and more vehicles, news appeared overseas of General Motors (GM) planning to sell electric bicycles.

The business of electric bicycles is nothing new. Established bicycle manufacturers already produce electric bicycles. Within the world of bicycles, electric bicycles form one of the fastest growing segments of the market with large volumes sold in countries like China. Automobile companies have romanced electric bikes for a while now. The Internet says, BMW (which is a known brand in two-wheelers as well) has been making them since 2013.

What made this latest news item interesting is that the company in question was GM. In the twentieth century, the automobile industry was the biggest industrial sector around. The concluding decade of the twentieth century and the beginning years of the twenty first saw much restructuring in the automobile industry. It was driven by sluggish market conditions, business economics (including cost of manufacturing) and larger questions looming over continued use of fossil fuels. Detroit, once the capital of America’s automobile industry, faded. As consequences of climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion gained in various parts of the world, the industry couldn’t anymore ignore the reality it had partly contributed to. The biggest of the automobile companies of the twentieth century – indeed the biggest company in any field for a long time – was GM.  That pecking order has since altered with Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai overtaking GM in auto sales (data from Wikipedia). Meanwhile the world’s biggest company by revenue is retail major, Walmart; the world’s most valued company is Apple (the next four also being in the IT / digital space, in Amazon’s case, combined with retail). It is a measure of how things changed in sales, human habits and overall industrial reality. In GM’s case, the interest in electric bicycles is a consequence of thrust commenced earlier to explore electric cars. But as anyone can see, there is a lot of industrial history behind this latest vehicle, likely GM’s smallest.

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk announced recently that electric vehicle manufacturer-Tesla may look at making an electric bike. The Internet also directed readers’ attention to companies like Uber being bullish on rides offered on electric scooters and electric bicycles; in April this year Uber even bought bike-sharing start up Jump for an amount, the media pegged at around $ 200 million. Among factors inspiring these trends are environment friendly last mile connectivity and potential for digitally networked transport ecosystem, the latter in instances of bike sharing. Although they engage as relevant for today’s polluted, congested traffic environment, electric bikes have their set of problems too.  The Internet has much in-depth discussion on technical aspects and mechanical issues customers face; something engineers will enjoy wrapping their heads around. For the rest of us, I found a couple of points worth mulling over.

A bicycle is a combination of mathematical parameters (its dimensions from frame to crank, cogs and wheel size), married to propulsion and covering distance by that. When motor aids human propulsion on standard bicycle dimension (or human propulsion aids drive by motor), the resultant speed may amaze.  For humans, speed has always fascinated. There is in fact, a lot of celebration of e-bike speed one comes across on the Net. Two questions matter therein especially in the context of bicycle being simple structure at heart and capacity to tinker being hardwired into humans. How much speed can regular bicycle components shoulder without mechanical or structural failure? Second, how safe is it for all, if speed is accompanied by silence, something typical of electric motors? Clearly, just being alternative means of transport does not directly translate into a healthier, safer traffic environment. A bad driver is a bad driver, no matter how many wheels under him or what engine he uses. Further in as much as regular vehicles have messed up urban environments through congestion, the bicycle too can be guilty of it when accumulated in big numbers. But on one aspect it scores indisputably.

Pedaling – whatever be the degree of pedaling involved, pedaling in part as with electric bikes or pedaling in full as with normal bicycles – is healthy on human being. To my mind, in a reverse migration of sorts, electric bikes can be a bridge between giving up mechanized, fuel guzzling means of transport and rediscovering pure cycling. Industry though may see it just the opposite way; that’s what capital does to every equation. There’s more money in getting those on plain bicycles to graduate to motorized two wheels; electric bike is convenient bridge for that. Shortly after news of GM’s electric bike appeared, I asked a Pune based-designer of bicycles what he thought. “ I may look at electric bikes as a matter of market interest. But if I do, I would want to make it look very bicycle-like because my heart is in pure cycling; non-motorized,” he said.

According to published reports, technical details of GM’s electric bicycle are not fully available yet. The company has announced a naming contest. This blog spoke to a senior official in the Indian bicycle retail business, who had seen media reports of the GM product. There was doubt on whether the model is a pedal assisted electric bicycle or one that has a throttle-assist, in which case the bike / bicycle may move even if you don’t cycle. Websites reporting on the product have so far conjectured on their own. At least one pointed to the modest size of battery visible in product photograph and speculated that it seemed a pedal-assist.

Meanwhile for those on plain bicycle – non-motorized two wheels – life remains simple, as always; till world around decides to make it otherwise.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sailing in India lost one of its strongest supporters with the demise of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd) on November 4, 2018. He was 91. Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy’s project to execute solo circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat, owes much to him.

Circumnavigation had fascinated Vice Admiral Manohar Awati throughout his career in the navy.

But he had been unable to realize it while in service.

As he told this blog in 2013, it all started in west London soon after World War II. He was in his early twenties, freshly commissioned in the Royal Indian Navy and attending a course at the Royal Naval College. While out on a walk, he bought a book from a person selling books on the footpath near Charing Cross; it was Joshua Slocum’s account of his solo circumnavigation in a sail boat, the first such voyage done. It impressed him deeply.

“ From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,’’ he said. In that while he would be awarded the Vir Chakra for leadership and gallantry during operations in the Bay of Bengal (1972 India-Pakistan war), serve as Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and eventually be Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, sword arm of the Indian Navy. All through his career the idea of circumnavigation in a sail boat survived in his mind. Upon retiring, he persisted with his pet project. It was an uphill task. The project needed funds. The navy wasn’t quite enthusiastic; corporate India – he approached them for funds – by and large cold shouldered him.

In 2005-2006, a former cadet of his, Admiral Arun Prakash, became navy chief. He warmed up to the idea of circumnavigation. Vice Admiral Awati proposed a revised budget and added a condition that would distinguish Sagar Parikrama – he wanted the boat being used for circumnavigation to be built in India. The navy allotted funds. From this was born the INSV Mhadei, perhaps the toughest little boat the Indian Navy has known yet. Based on a Dutch design, she was built at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa. In 2009-2010 Sagar Parikrama bore fruit when Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) became the first Indian to do solo circumnavigation in a sail boat. Two years later, over 2012-2013, Commander Abhilash Tomy executed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat.

Vice Admiral Awati wasn’t done. He had a few more voyages he wished to see happen. Over 2017-2018, the first of these – Indian women completing circumnavigation in a sail boat was realized when six Indian women naval officers sailed around the planet in INSV Tarini, the Mhadei’s sister vessel. In August 2018, soon after an article on the circumnavigation by all woman-crew appeared on this blog, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in: At near 92, I still have ambitions. (a) to be around to see the first Indian woman solo circumnavigator, and (b) to see an Indian sailing boat (go) through the Arctic, and finally (c) to witness an Indian sail boat circumnavigate Antarctica. All this and more shouldn’t take long to be realized if the momentum of Sagar Parikrama is maintained.

Vice Admiral Awati was among the few readers of this blog who periodically wrote in with feedback and suggestions. He wished to include the public in his enthusiasm for sailing (Sagar Parikrama and the fan following it had is excellent example of this). Compared to 2500 kilometers of Himalaya and considerable fuss around mountaineering, India has 7500 kilometers of coastline and no matching push for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing or any such water-based sport. Vice Admiral Awati felt India was inadequate in its appreciation of the sea and wanted to see the trend corrected. He also knew that if it was to happen in a convincing way, then sailing as activity had to grow. When Maharashtra evolved a policy for outdoor / adventure sports, he was concerned that sailing should be both properly represented and backed by supportive policies. He sought the contact details of those in charge.

This write-up must necessarily end on a personal note.

File photo / INSV Mhadei; at berth in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Journalists are typically awful communicators in the normal sense of the word. Newspaper offices receive so many mails and press releases daily that if you honed your skills in such an environment, you take it for granted that you needn’t respond to each personally. When world reduces to information and data, an element of the impersonal creeps in. The first time I met Vice Admiral Awati was at the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Center (INWTC) in Mumbai, when I was doing my first article on Sagar Parikrama. Captain Dilp Donde (Retd) and Commander Abhilash Tomy were also there. We were on the second floor and the lift had been kept on standby for the retired admiral, then in his late eighties, to take. He took the stairs instead and reached the interview table, a bit tired by the effort but happy for it. He spoke to the point and was very articulate; his choice of sentences leaned towards classical harking of bygone era.

Conversation around sailing over, I requested him for a copy of his bio-data, which he agreed to mail across as soon as he got back to Vinchurni in Satara, where he lived. I received the mail – if I recall correctly – the very next day. I was busy writing the article and while I perused the bio-data for material to include in the piece, didn’t reply to the mail. Two days later I got a mail from the admiral in which, he pointed out that while he had promptly dispatched his bio-data to me, I had failed to extend him the courtesy of acknowledging it. I learnt something that day. I have since tried my best to reply not only to his mails but most other’s as well. He never belittled freelance journalist for not belonging to any big media organization or writing for a blog. He recognized individual character and interest in subject. He appreciated good work and always sent in a line when he noticed instances of it. A naval officer once said this of him to me, “ he is the best chief the navy never had.’’

Vice Admiral Awati passed away on November 4, 2018. “ A giant of a man, one of our tallest heroes and greatest icons. Its truly the end of an era. May his soul rest in peace,” Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, said in his statement available on the official Twitter handle of the Indian Navy spokesperson.

Thank you for everything sir; this blog and this writer will always remember you.

To read an interview with Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (it was done in 2013), please click on this link:

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For all articles related to sailing and Sagar Parikrama, please select from story list / archives or click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ruminations on blank skin.

Tattoos are beautiful.

Some people wear it well.

I have friends who are into tattooing; not just getting it but also giving it. More than once the blank skin on my body has been their target. Why don’t you get one?

I spent a few years wondering what tattoo I should get.

Since you can get a tattoo but not easily erase it, the image would have to be something you deeply identify with. My dilemma starts there. You see there is nothing I deeply identify with; nothing I cannot really live without. I used to hike, climb rock and go mountaineering. When my resources dried up after I turned freelance journalist, I found myself lacking the money to indulge in these pursuits. It hurt for a while. But when you live life like a voyage you wonder – should I go back to where I came from or should I see what lay beyond the bend? What’s the point in tattooing an ice axe or a coil of rope, if you are not anymore that frequent in the mountains?

Perhaps then I should be a collector of experiences. I could collect tattoos representing each. I may then run the risk of looking like one of those pirates from Hollywood’s popular franchise. But frankly I don’t think I am so adventurous in life or so prolific at gathering experiences that I may run out of skin. But do I wish to be known by any of my experiences? Yet again I don’t think I am defined by anything except the fact that I am sailing through, which raises a question – would you be traveler reaching town branded as something or traveler reaching town attracting no attention? Worse – as is typical in debate by degrees of belonging – what if you walked into some place sporting wrong tattoo or walked into a place full of tattoos with none on you?

Tattoos are invitation to dwell on identity. But who do you pick for pack? Religion, divinity, community, cult et al – I find them delusional comfort. Even music – I listen to what I feel like at given point in time and that means, curiosity for many genres, preference for some and not loving one to the expense of all else. The Earth is five billion years old. It will be there – in varying forms though – for another five billion years. I am 50 years old. What do I know of universe yet, to soak in and claim for identity? Now artists are creative and I am sure they have a design that captures above mentioned state of mind. But what if you thought yourself so and then proceeded to be something else? Like I said, nobody knows what lay beyond the bend and if you did, the question arises: is that universe or your imagination?

It’s better to stay seeker than pretend to have found or been found. And if you haven’t found or been found, what do you tattoo into your skin?

But that’s not how identity works.

Identity is not as insistent on timeless truth as it is of something you can identify with. It seeks to merely answer concerns that matter to the human hive. So you don’t work back from eternity, the age of the universe or planet. You work back from a human lifetime. Within that, tattoos are many to choose from. And as some critical of my escapist, ever-blank argument may say, the problem is perhaps mine; I am not adventurous enough to court powerful experience in the hive, the sort that impacts.

Still I keep asking myself: what about people whose minds exceed hive; people for whom the hive smacks of entrapment?

The universe as it is seems infinite.

I wonder what the universe sports for tattoo.

Who tattoos it?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)