As of 2019, Divya Tate’s company – Inspire India – was organizing three annual events in long distance cycling that are qualifiers for Race Across America (RAAM). She is also national representative from India for audax cycling, the culture of brevets (BRMs). Known for the events she anchors and her experience with long distance bicycle races, Divya however relates to cycling in a much wider sense.
For freelance journalist exploring the small universe of ultra-cycling in India, especially the segment dealing with brevets and races designed to serve as qualifiers for Race Across America (RAAM), it didn’t take long to notice a common intersection for several individual story lines – Divya Tate.
Three of India’s RAAM qualifiers are organized by Inspire India, the company she helms. She also oversees the India chapter of randonneuring, the sport of long distance cycling with roots in audax cycling.
Divya however is not all about cycling or sports.
Born 1966 in Nagpur, she learnt to cycle when she was around 9-10 years of age. She recalls that her parents – her father served in the Indian Air Force (IAF) – were having a lunch party at home when that specific moment of riding her bicycle independently, arrived. “ It was euphoric,’’ she said. Cycling was part of her general love for the outdoors, something you found plenty of in life spent with the defence forces; most air force stations Divya traveled to with her family had its share of open spaces. That view of world narrowed when her father after leaving IAF joined Air India and the family shifted to Mumbai. The long shadow of roads dominated by traffic and life gone indoors in concrete jungle loomed. Worse, probably in anticipation of city life and its restrictions, her cycle was sold off. “ My access to the outdoors was lost,’’ she said. She counted her days to freedom. Once she passed out from A.F. Petit School in Bandra, she attended junior college at St Xaviers and then proceeded to study architecture at Rachana Sansad. In 1991-1992, she finally got the liberation she sought from Mumbai’s congested environment with limited access to the outdoors. She moved to Pune.
Within a few weeks, she bought herself a bicycle – a Hercules Rock Shox, a model hailing from the early generation of geared bikes sold in India. It was pretty heavy too. Mumbai life had taken its toll. “ My first ride on that bike was horrendous. I could barely cycle five kilometers and I was done,’’ Divya said. But she took to riding it regularly, the daily jaunts fueled in part by some other developments in her life. “ At this point, I was in a bad marriage,’’ she said. Besides being a source of enjoyment, cycling was also good therapy taking the mind off problems at hand and reconnecting individual with universe. She periodically took time out to ride in the countryside around Pune. These were the years preceding Internet forums and networked groups in sports. Divya was oblivious of any keenly interested leisure cyclists around. There were of course those into bicycle racing. A focused lot, their company wasn’t Divya’s cup of tea; at least then. For her, being in the saddle was invitation to take a wider view of life, contact with nature and existence restored. After her second child was born, her marriage broke up. In 1998, she called it quits on that front. “ I had to start from scratch. Cycling played a big role in helping me maintain equanimity and have a sense of resolve. I was literally in a pea-soup fog kind of situation,’’ she said. A simple contraption composed of frame on two wheels and powered by rider’s effort, the bicycle spelt independence for Divya at this financially tough juncture in her life. Her children were in kindergarten. Often, she dropped them off on her bicycle. According to her these trips on the cycle were great for parent-child bonding. By the time they were 7-8 years old, the children too had their cycles and were spending time with Divya in the outdoors. From where she stayed in Pune, to where the roads gracing the countryside commenced, wasn’t a long way off. “ We spent much time outdoors,’’ she said.
Interestingly, following her divorce, Divya veered off architecture. She got deeply involved with environmental work including volunteering for the purpose. Then, after a visit to a farm she cycled to Junnar and wrote about it. It was her first article getting published in the media. Environmental work, cycling, writing – it became a pattern. “ Nobody did it back then. Cycling opens up your mind. If you look at it, you will notice a link between cycling and environmental activism,’’ Divya said. Back in college, she used to make earrings out of wire and junk and sell them. Later she got around to working with mosaic. Around the time her marriage broke up, she took to mosaic work more. “ I gave up my architectural practice and took up creative work. I enjoy aesthetically pleasing work. I actually discovered that we could live and be happy on very little. A lot of people get trapped in material life,’’ she said. It wasn’t long before this exploratory streak dislodged established practices in other areas of her life. The next bastion to fall was medicine; she weaned her family off allopathic drugs. “ Eventually I was beginning to see the cracks in our educational system. We seem to make people for an industrial environment. Education was one more institution after marriage and allopathic medicines that I was disagreeing with. I ended up divorcing that too,’’ Divya said laughing.
Around the time her children were in the fourth-fifth standard, she pulled them out from school. Thereafter it was homeschooling. The homeschooling community was very small those days; in Pune she could locate only two other families who had opted to do so. Divya believes that nature has wired all human beings to learn. Human beings are like sponges. It is teaching that is unnatural. “ The institution of education as we have it suffers from agenda. People are being taught for a purpose. My kids will manage. I just have to have the confidence that they will. Today, the obsolescence of education as we know it is becoming really evident. Now it is more about how you think and how you use it. The former edifice is crumbling. It is good to see that,’’ she said. This activist edge is visible in Divya’s perception of cycling too. Somewhere around the time of her divorce, she had attended a Critical Mass meeting in Pune. Critical Mass is an event usually organized on the last Friday of every month; it has no stated agenda except for cyclists to assemble at assigned hour and place and cycle through city / town streets. It began in 1992 in San Francisco and according to Wikipedia, a decade later the events were being organized in over 300 cities worldwide. Although its participants have argued that Critical Mass should be viewed as a celebration, it has been described as a monthly protest by cyclists to reclaim roads. Her interest in Critical Mass provides insight into how Divya relates to the world of cycling. For her it exceeds immediate physical activity and acquires the dimension of a whole way of life. That is uncommon in India’s amateur cycling and running scene, where philosophies built around activity is still the refuge of only a few. For the vast majority, sport remains action; an adrenalin-rush even as life continues mainstream, materialistic and motorized.
The ascent of social media brought BRMs (the brevets of randonneuring) to Divya. Here too, the activist in her wouldn’t take things lying down. When she first stumbled upon BRMs in an Internet chat, it was packaged as something that “ separated the men from the boys.’’ She couldn’t let that pass. She signed up for the brevet. “ In all fairness when I signed up, that sentence was removed,’’ she said. Until then she had only done bike packing trips including in France (about which she wrote in the media). She borrowed a friend’s bike for the ride in France; all her trips in India were on steel bikes. “ The BRM I signed up for was a 200 kilometer-one. There were 3-4 of us who went from Pune to Mumbai for it. I finished the BRM within cut-off but not gloriously,’’ she said. What that event did was make her aware of longer BRMs – those spanning 300,400, 600 and 1200 kilometers (the last mentioned being in France). She wished to do it but wasn’t mentally prepared to trade in her view of wider universe for the typical cyclist’s narrower, competitive view. She recalled a meeting of brevet enthusiasts she hosted at her house in Pune where she was struck by the nature of conversation – it was all about training and technicalities. “ It didn’t seem my scene. I just wander around the countryside on my bicycle,’’ she said. On the other hand, somebody like Alan Tonkin who had done Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) twice wasn’t built like a cyclist. It made her think she should also be able to do PBP. Given you had to become a super randonneur (SR – doing brevets of all the major distances in the same year), she registered for a 300 kilometer-BRM. It took her two attempts to complete it successfully.
Randonneuring itself was nascent in India at this time. Brevets of all distance categories were not yet around. BRMs were begun in the country by Satish Patki, longstanding cyclist from Mumbai. Slowly and rather unexpectedly, Divya found herself entrusted with organizing the events; by 2010 she ended up organizing India’s first 400 kilometer-BRM. She also completed the ride within cut-off. Next she organized a 600 kilometer-BRM from Pune to Kolhapur and back. This one, she couldn’t participate in because she broke her knee cap ahead of the event. Divya secured success in the 600 kilometer-brevet in 2011 becoming the first Indian woman to become SR. That year she headed for PBP.
The run up to PBP had showed her that a cycling community existed in India. In Paris, amid some 5500 SRs gathered for PBP, the magnitude of the community she had come to belong to grew even further. “ It wasn’t just event organization; there was also the people who turned up all along the way to support. It was an incredible welcome, a link to like-minded community. For me, it was another phase of transformation,’’ Divya said. In 2011, of 15 people from India who participated in PBP, only two finished within cut-off. The rest, including Divya, ended up Did Not Finish (DNF). That year end, Divya became national representative for audax activities in India. The growth in audax cycling since has been significant. In 2011, BRMs were held at 3-4 locations (cities of origin). Now (early 2019) it is close to 60 cities and towns. Cumulative membership at all these locations has crossed 10,000. “ Of that, about 5000 should be active,’’ she said.
Among the cyclists Divya met at one of the early BRMs organized in Pune, was Samim Rizvi from Bengaluru. Samim had attempted RAAM. He was a pioneer from India. “ That was the first time I heard of RAAM,’’ she said. In 2012, she went to crew for Samim at RAAM. “ I saw a fabulous event. I also saw a lot of people from BRM culture because there is this overlap between brevets and ultra-cycling,’’ she said. On the other hand, there was little of that overlapping in India. Simultaneously, there was growing interest in RAAM in India probably because of Samim’s repeated attempts and also the unsuccessful bid by Sumit Patil. Divya crewed at RAAM on more occasions – in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2013, she attended a RAAM seminar for crew and racers. Besides RAAM, she has crewed at Race Around Europe in 2015 and Race Around Austria in 2016 and 2017.
“ My attitude was – this is not rocket science. This is something that can be learnt and shared with community back home in India. What we needed to do was get rid of our chalta hai approach. That won’t work at RAAM,’’ she said. By the end of 2013, she was convinced that the ecosystem of ultra-cycling races and races to qualify for RAAM (RAAM qualifiers – RQ) in India deserved to grow bigger. In February 2014, she organized the first edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (DC) connecting Pune and Goa. It added to the number of RQ races in India. In 2015, Fred Boethling, president of RAAM, visited India to see that year’s DC. Same year in the world of BRMs – the other cap Divya wears, 60 people from India participated in PBP. Approximately 33 per cent of them finished the race, she said. She also collected an award at that edition of PBP for India registering the highest growth in membership in the audax community worldwide.
Apart from organizing DC, Divya has been promoting the need for cyclists to get familiar with crewing. Ultra-cycling becomes successful only when cyclist and crew work together efficiently. “ At 645 kilometers, DC completed within assigned cut-off qualifies you for RAAM. But it does not prepare you for RAAM. I have been telling people right from day one that crewing is important. If you are going to take on a monster race like RAAM then at least go and see what the monster is before you take it on – right?’’ she said. DC concludes every year with an informal sharing of experiences. Divya also got around to holding seminars in Pune on the subject of crewing. But that sharing and talking wasn’t enough. You needed a multi-day race with distance to match that would drive home the need for cyclist and crew to work together. “ That’s how Ultra Spice was born,’’ she said of the second race Inspire India started. Against DC’s 645 kilometers, Ultra Spice – another RQ, it goes from Goa to Ooty and back – spans 1750 kilometers.
As yet Inspire India’s flagship is DC. According to Divya, it is not a money spinner. “ Not many ultra-cycling events worldwide make money. Only the top 10-20 per cent will find sponsors,’’ she said. Further in DC’s case, as the most attended race in the Inspire India fold, it also offsets the losses other races – like Ultra Spice – must endure before they stabilize. To compound matters, 2017 was a tough year. Even as race revenues grew only organically, the events had become bigger and Divya also did more seminars. Atop that stretched situation, India’s newly introduced tax regime – GST, made its presence felt. That year DC faced a big financial loss despite hike in registration fee for participants. The loss was avoided by another hike in fees in 2018. Divya’s appetite for races however didn’t stop with two on limited budget.
According to her, when Fred Boethling visited in 2015, she had said that she would add a new race every other year. In April 2018, while driving in Coorg with a colleague from Inspire India who had just opened a hostel in Ladakh, she decided to commence an ultra-cycling event in Ladakh. “ We decided in April, did the recce in June and held the race in September. Among the world’s ultra-cycling events, this is the one at the highest elevation,’’ she said of the 600 kilometer (372 miles)-Himalayan Ultra. The event is the first RQ with mandatory sleep time, a measure introduced to guard against the effects of altitude. Steps are afoot to increase the distance at Himalayan Ultra, maybe add another 300 kilometers.
A few things strike you when you enter Divya’s apartment in Pune. There are houses and there are homes; this one felt like home, it had a lived in feel to it. You also sensed use of space and design. To one side, separated by glass door, was a room containing stuff that went into organizing bicycle races. There were banners, posters, fluorescent vests for visibility in traffic and those plastic cones kept on roads to mark space. Stacked against the wall were three bicycles; an Orbea cyclocross model, a Trek MTB and an Orbea road bike. A fourth one – a Ridley road bike stripped to its frame – was suspended from the ceiling. Divya’s son was into racing; he has been part of the Maharashtra state cycling team. As the races in the Inspire India fold grow, Divya’s motivation to host is as usual – universal. The Indian environment is a composite of contemporary generation in the midst of thousand year-old memories of how life must be lived. With such conservatism around, living a life of one’s choice is daily battle. Divya has had her fair share of struggle in this regard. But as most people know, directly confronting set beliefs in India merely cements it further. What works is the oblique approach; alternative lifestyle incentivizing a different stream of thoughts and priorities with much patience shown to let it sprout roots. Life by cycle is alternative. Hopefully, that alters our imagination. “ I see whatever I am doing as vehicle for social transformation,’’ Divya said. She may have stopped being architect in the conventional sense. But the flair survives, in another field.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)