SLOW AND SOLO

Vijay Beladkar; location: Cafe Colony (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Few avenues show you world as well as touring on a bicycle does. Nothing teaches as you as much about existence as traveling solo does. Combine the two – you get the solo cyclist, moving unhurriedly, noticing the spaces he / she is passing through. Vijay Beladkar, passionate about cycling from childhood found himself doing something with it after he joined an outdoor club specializing in hiking and climbing that had also in its fold, individuals interested in bicycle touring. Equally helpful in the process, was a group of cyclists he met outside the club, who came together to execute one project after another, setting Vijay up eventually, for his first major solo tour. This is Vijay’s story:

At the foot of Tilak Bridge in Mumbai’s Dadar East, is a popular Irani café.

It is a combination of restaurant and general store.

Most evenings, Café Colony – it has been there since the 1930s as per published media reports – is a busy eatery. Every Wednesday, the central table here is taken by a group of hikers and climbers; their club called Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. Couple of years ago, when the club celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, it brought out a souvenir; two pages therein were devoted to an article on bicycle touring by Vijay Beladkar.

NIM days (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

The fascination for cycling has been there at Girivihar for a long time. It revolved around select individuals. Abhijeet Burman (Bong), at one point among the club’s most active members in hiking and mountaineering, had toured solo on his bicycle quite a bit. Among others at Girivihar, Rajneesh Gore pedaled with his friend Rishi, from Mumbai to Goa in 2002, and published a neat little book about it. Barring perhaps Bong’s later trips, a lot of this touring was before cycling culture as we know it today – foreign bicycle brands, snazzy bike showrooms, weekend cycling groups, BRMs and organized outings – became familiar sight in Mumbai. In fact, for his 1999 tour Bong had a bicycle assembled around an Indian frame; he kept improving it along the way using better bicycle components he came across in Nepal and Thailand.

Late evening; September 10, 2019, for some reason Café Colony was shut. I walked around the neighborhood scouting for an alternative to sit and chat with Vijay. Having found a place, I went back to Café Colony and waited in front of it. Mumbai is divided into east and west by its railway lines. Traffic on Tilak Bridge and the road connecting Dadar East to suburbs in the west, was heavy. When Vijay appeared he was on his cycle. That’s how he commuted to office and back. He worked at Lagu Bandhu, a major retailer of gold jewelry in Maharashtra. The trusted steed – a Trek 4300 bearing signs of long use and loving care – was parked and locked in front of the café. It seemed premises that Vijay, from years of having attended club meetings at the cafe, treated like home turf. We left the bike there and shifted to another café close by.

Vijay (foreground, left), Sanjay, Minhaz (centre, white shirt), Paresh and Anoop (foreground, right) at Cafe Gulshan, in times when Girivihar met there (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

People join Girivihar to pursue hiking and climbing. For Vijay though, his interest in cycling predates his affection for hiking built through the club. Born the middle child of three siblings, regular cycling for Vijay was his father’s recipe to keep son active and exercising.  Vijay’s father had initially served in the army; he later worked with the public sector oil company – Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL). When Vijay was in class nine, his father got him enrolled with a newspaper agent to distribute the morning paper. The job came with a bicycle.  That was how the tryst with cycling started. The bicycle provided by the agent was a roadster, the heavy steel bike once common throughout India and used for everything from commuting to ferrying load. Vijay took the roadster everywhere. Later, having outgrown this phase, he acquired a Flying Pigeon, a Chinese road bike, bought from retailers in Kalbadevi, the old hub for bike shops in Mumbai. After school, Vijay joined Patkar College where he actively participated in hikes to Maharashtra’s Sahyadri ranges besides a trek to Pindari Glacier in the Himalaya. His chemistry professor – Manohar Moghe – upon noticing his interest in hiking, introduced him to Girivihar. He joined the club in 1997-1998.

At the time of writing, Anoop Menon worked in Dubai. A journalist, he shifted that side from Mumbai in 2008. He was already a member of Girivihar when Vijay joined. Good friends to date, they met at one of the club’s rock climbing sessions in CBD Belapur. “ Vijay had done a rock climbing course in Mount Abu and had been on the Pindari Glacier trek. I had done neither, so that kept the conversation going at least from my end. Thereafter, we always managed to catch each other at Cafe Gulshan where Girivihar used to meet every Wednesday before we were forced to move to the current location at Cafe Colony. What I remember is that even those days Vijay would always be with a cycle – for the club meetings, for the climbing sessions,’’ Anoop said. At the club, Anoop, Vijay and Minhaz Kerawala became close friends. They went on adventure trips – like climbing rock pinnacles, a popular pursuit with Mumbai’s climbers then – together. In 2001, Vijay did his Basic Mountaineering Course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). Over time, as the club’s climbing aficionados burrowed deeper and deeper into their specialized ecosystem (by now sport climbing was on the rise), Vijay was seen less and less at climbing sessions. The reason for this was his father’s ill health and the family’s subsequent decision to relocate (for some time) to their hometown, Akola. Vijay however stayed quite active in hiking and went on to become an office bearer of the club on repeated occasions. Every club has its internal politics. Girivihar had its share. Acceptance of Vijay straddled these divides; he had that quality.

From the December 2011, Mumbai-Goa bicycle trip with YHAI (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Around this time, Bong’s bicycle tours had become known in Girivihar. When Vijay asked him for suggestions on how to commence touring, Bong pointed him to Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI), which was scheduled to host a supported ride from Mumbai to Goa in December 2011. With the tour filled up, Vijay had to lobby to get his candidature accepted. The trip cost him Rs 4000; bike rent included. There was also a pre-ride workshop where participants were taught the basics of geared bicycles, still new to the Indian market. The session was anchored by Bong and his frequent partner in cycling, Kedari. “ I thought Mumbai-Goa would be easy,’’ Vijay said. He had factored in the scenic beauty of the coastal route overlooking the gradients. Out on the trip, it took him 4-5 days to get into the groove. Periodic interventions and suggestions from trip leaders, Ashish Agashe and Swapnil Gharigaokar, helped. “ When you cycle, you are one with nature. The connection is strong. You also sense solitude. I like that,’’ Vijay said. Among those on the Mumbai-Goa trip was Satish Sathe. Satish wished to cycle to Khardung La, the high mountain pass in Ladakh. The momentum of the journey in cycling Vijay had embarked on, started picking up with his next outing.

Ficycles (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Ficycles was the adopted name of a group of five cyclists – Satish Sathe, Girish Mahajan, Milind Yerzarkar, Rutesh Panditrao and Vijay. From December 2011 to mid-2012, they did stints of hill cycling at Khandala, Matheran and Mahabaleshwar. They also cycled most weekends in Mumbai, from Mahim to Marine Drive and back. During this time, Vijay also acquired the Trek 4300. Then, in July 2012, Ficycles set off to pedal from Manali to Leh and on to Khardung La and thereafter, to Srinagar. Given this was cast as a project with social media for linking back to well-wishers at home, Prasanna Joshi – another longstanding member of Girivihar – stepped in as web administrator. The ride was a supported one; a member’s wife and the sister of another, traveled in support vehicle. The entire ride took nine days.  “ It was tiring but given the support and company I had, it was enjoyable,’’ Vijay said. Reaching Khardung La had been a personal wish for Vijay too. That done and returned to Leh, he took the flight back to Mumbai and work, while the others proceeded to Srinagar. After graduation, Vijay had done his catering studies and was at this point, working at a banquet hall. In his mind, one particular episode from the Manali-Leh-Khardung La ride stayed very alive. Two foreign cyclists the group met en route had chided them for using support vehicle. Real bicycle touring is self-supported, they said. Back in Mumbai, Vijay chanced to mention this in a mail to Minhaz, since shifted to Canada. On his next visit to Mumbai, Minhaz brought Vijay panniers, speedometer and some other cycling accessories.

The next Ficycles project was Goa-Kanyakumari. Resolved to keep it self-supported, the group trained harder. “ We were now getting bit more serious about the whole thing,’’ Vijay said. The reason was simple – none of the performance parameters from supported rides hold true in self-supported circumstances wherein your bike is laden with the weight of essentials. To get used to riding with panniers, Vijay and his friends did rides in Mahabaleshwar, around Bhandardara, up Malshej Ghat and Khandala Ghat. Besides getting used to cycling with load they had to also get acquainted with the new gear ratios. “ You figure out the correct ratios as you keep cycling. At first I went with what I was instructed. Then I slowly discovered the ratios that worked best for me,’’ Vijay said. Done in December 2012, the Goa-Kanyakumari trip took 12 days. Once that trip was completed, the outline of a larger project started to take shape. Vijay had done Mumbai-Goa, Manali-Khardung La and now, Goa-Kanyakumari. How about filling in the remaining stretch on India’s west coast?

Vijay (right) with Abhijit Burman aka Bong ahead of his 2019 Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

By now there was also a pattern emerging in Vijay’s life. He does not normally take leave from work. Every Wednesday evening he drops by at Café Colony for the weekly Girivihar meeting.  Weekends he reserves for his bike rides or outings with the club. Every winter he digs into his annual leave to do a long bicycle trip. In December 2013, Vijay and his friends did a self-supported ride from Koteshwar in Bhuj, Gujarat to Verawal. “ The route was interesting, with good food,’’ Vijay said. The trip took them 10 days. Next winter – December 2014 – they cycled from Verawal to Mumbai. Now, a whole coastal stretch from Koteshwar to Kanyakumari had been visited and seen on the bicycle. In December 2015, Vijay and company cycled from Jammu to Jaisalmer touching four states – Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, a bit of Haryana and Rajasthan. It took them 14 days. “ People ask: why are you cycling? But nobody bothers you,’’ Vijay said. The cyclists relied on Google for navigation including potential spots to rest or break journey along the way. On this trip, the route brought them occasionally close to the India-Pakistan border.

From Ficycles, Vijay said, Girish Mahajan has done BRMs (randonneuring) of 100km, 200km, 300km and 1200km besides attempting the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in France. Vijay did BRMs of 200km and 300km out of curiosity. “ I did it on my MTB. I couldn’t complete the 300. I prefer touring to riding fast or racing. I like to see the country,’’ Vijay said.  He never went back to BRMs. Meanwhile that fascination for cycling along India’s periphery continued. In December 2017, Vijay and his friends pedaled from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam on the Indian east coast. In December 2018, they rode from Visakhapatnam to Pondicherry.  Now that segment from Pondicherry to Kanyakumari remains. As does a whole amount of potential cycling in North East India and hopefully, linking that up to Manali via Sikkim, Nepal and Uttarakhand. How that will be done is a question mark. Ficycles isn’t anymore the old group it was – Satish has cut down on his cycling and Girish is more into BRMs. Vijay too was getting pulled in another direction. The first time this writer met Vijay was at a Girivihar weekend outing in 1999-2000. It was a rock climbing session in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The thing you quickly noticed about Vijay was this – he got along with people. His was a personality, at peace with the world, what you would call laid back or chilled. Coupled with a weakness for napping, it became inspiration for a moniker – Sotya – encapsulating that nature, at the club.  Of Vijay’s call sign, Anoop said, “ what clinched it, is his knack then and now, for making himself comfortable with bare minimum accessories in the most trying situations.’’ It’s a useful trait to have if you are traveler, especially one on the verge of upping the ante in his travels.

One of the most famous landmarks from the Shimla-Spiti route; the road passes through a hole cut into the rock (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Rutesh Panditrao had given Vijay a book to read. Called Rarang Dhang the book by Prabhakar Pendharkar told the story of building a road at altitude. “ I liked it very much. It described the lives of personnel from the Border Roads Organisation, how they live and work at altitude,’’ Vijay said. It left him with the desire to visit Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. Looking around for company, he found that most people he knew had already cycled there. The few, who hadn’t, didn’t have time to spare for a trip. Slowly the reality loomed – if Vijay wanted to go, he had to cycle solo. Riding alone wasn’t entirely new for Vijay. There had been several day trips done alone, a few lasting 2-3 days and in 2016, even a solo trip all the way from Mumbai to Goa.  That last one had been interesting. It was done in the heat of March availing a short break from work that was available. Given few days, Vijay had cycled along the national highway – NH17 – instead of taking the quieter coastal road. He covered the distance in three and a half days. “ I was taking a chance. I made it to Polatpur in time; the first day was Panvel to Polatpur. That gave me confidence,’’ Vijay said. Further on NH17, after Khed, traffic hadn’t been too heavy or bothersome. “ Traffic is high around settlements and industrial clusters. It picks up by morning and evening but is manageable for the rest of the day,’’ he said. Besides gradients are less on NH17 and in March 2016, the highway was in decent condition. Still that is Mumbai-Goa. Spiti and its landscape would be a different cup of tea.

From the Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

The 2019 solo trip to Spiti was Vijay’s first major solo project. Besides acceptance of the fact that he would be cycling alone in a place far off from Mumbai, it was also project entailing funds as unlike before when he cycled with group, solo endeavor rested completely on his shoulders. Girivihar stepped in to help. The mountaineering club officially backed the expedition, attaching its name to it; such association helps when raising funds. Credit for this should go to a hard fought precedent set in place years ago. In 1999, Girivihar had supported one of Bong’s trips. Supporting the trip was not easy as it required the club’s office bearers to think outside the box. As a hiking and climbing club, Girivihar imagined its mandate narrowly. Is it right to back cycling? – That was the dilemma. Approval was hard to secure. According to Bong, Girivihar’s support was eventually had on paper and it was mostly due to efforts by Minhaz, who pushed the hiking and climbing club to leverage its mandate for supporting its core adventure activity “ and allied sports,’’ to include cycling. Any financial assistance that eventually manifested, happened through his own personal connections, Bong said. In 1999, he cycled solo from Mumbai to Kathmandu and from there through Bihar and Bengal to Bangladesh. Having visited Dhaka and Cox Bazaar, Bong planned to pedal through Myanmar to Thailand. But Myanmar’s ruling junta was averse to touring cyclist just then and forced by the police, Bong had to discontinue his Myanmar leg after a couple of days. Shifted to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, he continued his tour from there to Bangkok, Cambodia and parts of Malaysia before flying back to Mumbai from Bangkok. Some years later, he commenced a chapter of cycling in the Himalaya. He covered Srinagar-Leh-Manali; Manali-Spiti-Shimla, Rampur to places on the Char Dham circuit, and later, a brief foray into Bhutan. With precedent available, things appear to have been clearer in 2019. By this time, the component of cycling had also grown at Girivihar. When it came to Vijay’s project, the club stepped in to back it. That in turn inspired a crowd funding campaign to assist him. “ The club’s members and well-wishers helped me a lot,’’ Vijay said. On a rain-swept day in Mumbai, amid the monsoon season of 2019, he also made sure to drop by at Bong’s house and apprise him of the project.

With one of the cyclists he met along the way during the 2019 Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Spiti is a cold desert mountain valley in north east Himachal Pradesh. It borders western Tibet. Its average elevation of 12,500 feet is higher than the average elevation of neighboring Ladakh. The road journey to Spiti is a bit wilder than the access to Ladakh, which is now characterized by well laid out road. Over July 7-28, Vijay cycled solo from Shimla to Kaza (in Spiti) and onward to Manali. He met other cyclists on the way. Of the lot, two were riding solo – himself and a British cyclist. Additionally, there were two, two-person teams; one from the US, the other from Spain. The whole trip – he visited Rekong Peo, Tabo, Kaza, Hikkim, Komik, Key, Kibber, Losar, Kunzum La and Rohtang Pass before touching Manali – took him 17 days. Every long ride throws up some problem – a puncture or a brake pad issue. On long self-supported trips, Vijay typically carries spare tube, brake cable, brake shoes, hand pump, puncture repair kit, bike repair kit, lubricating oil and chain cleaner. He maintains the bicycle himself, cleaning and repairing it as needed. “ On this trip, I had no problems,’’ Vijay said. He had serviced the Trek 4300 in advance and also changed some of its parts.

At Solang (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Parked in front of Café Colony the bike shone every bit like a well-loved mode of transport. It was faded; tad scarred here and there and yet, sounded smooth to the ears as it moved. That’s the mark of a bike, well taken care of. People who have logged as much mileage as Vijay did are usually prone to owning multiple cycles. In technically specialized verticals like racing and triathlon, ownership of multiple bikes is common. A traveler loving the significantly slower act of ambling along, Vijay has stuck to the one bike he bought at the start of his long trips. It is a different approach to wheels, valuing a different set of attributes; you and bicycle gather memories, grow into each other. The Trek had aged; even become tad outmoded – it is a MTB on 26 inch-wheels in India now given to 27.5, 29 and 700c. Vijay has never felt that his cycle is old or may give him trouble. He speaks the same way lovers of the 26 do, of how the bike suits them. “ I am attached to this cycle. I am used to it and it handles well,’’ he said. For now (as of mid-September 2019) he wasn’t toying with any new projects. He admitted though to having a personal wish, reserved for the future – a shot at Tour de Bhutan. Back in front of Café Colony, the Trek 4300 was unlocked, final pleasantries exchanged and freelance journalist departed to catch a bus to where he stayed. Vijay and bike disappeared into Mumbai’s traffic.

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

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