Image, courtesy: Sumit Patil

When this blog met Mumbai-based long distance cyclist Sumit Patil for a chat in February 2020, COVID-19 wasn’t yet the stuff of lockdown in India.

The disease was somewhere between worry and real worry; there was what it did in China and Europe and it had made its presence felt in the country. But mask to every human face, deserted roads and loss of livelihood didn’t seem hinted at for immediate future. Shops and cafes at Prabhadevi in the city were busy; people were out, traffic was heavy – there was little pointing to gathering storm, except that sense of uncertainty lingering within. Sumit had projects in mind for the year. The following days indicated need for course correction. The disease was quickly gathering momentum. It was clear that cycling projects in far off locations and travel to those places had become a shaky proposition. Originally a resident of Alibag near Mumbai, the cyclist shifted out from the city to his home in the coastal township, where his parents lived.

Alibag is known for its farmland, beaches and resorts. Not one to idle, Sumit’s first project upon arrival was to get the people around interested in a ride designed such that the aggregate elevation gain of participants would match the elevation of Mt Everest (8848 meters). The project design was clear. This wouldn’t be about people tackling inclines and logging great doses of elevation gain for individual milestone. On the other hand, it would be about keeping personal milestones modest and spreading the effort around so that sense of community is strengthened through goal achieved collectively. The place Sumit chose for the project was Karli Khind in Alibag where a loop of 1.4 kilometers entailing elevation gain of 96 meters (figures are approximate) was possible. That meant close to 95 repeats of the loop would be needed to equal the height of Everest. Sumit had done this on March 13, 2015, a date he recalls as a Friday the 13th. “ For 2020, we decided to restrict the number of loops per head to a maximum of three so that people of varying ability can participate,’’ Sumit said. On the appointed day – March 13 again and a Friday to boot – fifty four people turned up on their bicycles to attempt the project. Riding from 4AM to 7AM, they accumulated in all, 150 loops. Everest and more, was in the bag. A little over ten days later, India slipped into nationwide lockdown. From then till the time of writing, the virus and its capacity for havoc would dominate people’s imagination.

Sumit Patil on his home trainer in Alibag; riding to raise funds for Prabodhan Trust (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

The initial part of the nationwide lockdown was strictly enforced. Those loving the active lifestyle were reduced to working out at home and trotting around in their courtyard or the space around their housing complex. This was the case with Sumit too in Alibag. He ran a bit. Further, among the classic endurance trio – swimming, cycling and running – cycling was best placed to tackle lockdown. Not all cyclists therein, but those with access to home trainers. With a trainer you could do a stationary ride at home. Connect it to one of the emergent virtual reality apps and you could do a ride with self as avatar on computer screen and even have others – represented by their avatars – join you on the ride. Sumit has a home trainer in Alibag. But he is also the sort who can’t shut himself out entirely from reality. It wasn’t long before the pains of the outside world got to him. A major tragedy unfolding through April-May was that of migrant workers. They are the manpower – often overlooked – building big cities and keeping them running. As cities shutdown in panic, these workers were left in the lurch. Thousands of them began trying to get home from the cities and towns they were stuck in. With no public transport available due to lockdown, people walked and cycled long distance to reach their villages. Concerned citizens responded. But given the scale of the problem, the initiatives were often inadequate. Yet for those with a conscience, what little intervention they could do, mattered. The migrant worker issue troubled Sumit. As he put it, if you have been a cyclist, hiker or runner pushing your limits, you would have known what hardship is; you would have also known what a food stall operated by utter stranger or some such relief in the middle of nowhere means to exhausted human being.

Already on Zwift and with the virtual riding season underway, Sumit moved to fashion an initiative around his home trainer. He would ride on the trainer, spread the news of his pedaling on social media and seek contributions. He wanted to ensure that there would be no leakage in the pipeline delivering the funds raised to those in need. A friend introduced him to the Dhule-based Prabodhan Trust. They were already working on the migrant workers issue. Sumit structured his initiative such that people wishing to contribute could do so directly to the Trust. The basic unit of the contribution was fixed at Rs 100 per kilometer ridden.  It was intended to discipline monetary inflows. The hundred rupees could be split as required by those wishing to donate; that is their choice. On May 20, pedaling on his home trainer from Alibag, Sumit covered 644 kilometers in 30 hours. As the ride unfolded on Zwift, some of his friends from the cycling world occasionally kept him company.  “ We raised close to Rs 190,000,’’ Sumit said.

The BRO signboard (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

Virus wasn’t the only challenge nature had in store. Cyclones usually lash India’s east coast washed by the Bay of Bengal. Depressions forming in the calmer Arabian Sea to the west rarely bloomed to cyclone proportion and when they did, generally tended to move north or north-west. The Indian state of Maharashtra had been spared damage by cyclone for long. Thanks to climate change, the behavior of the Arabian Sea has altered in recent years.  Some ten days after Sumit’s ride to raise funds for migrant workers, on May 31, an area of low pressure developed over the Eastern Arabian Sea. In the next couple of days it evolved into a deep depression and by the noon of June 2, it had become a cyclonic storm christened Nisarga. On the afternoon of June 3, it made landfall at Alibag leaving a trail of destruction in the region. “ It was bad, really bad,’’ Sumit said. People rallied around in their respective localities to clean up the damage.

For the past several years, Sumit has been a regular visitor to Leh (Ladakh). He has cycled much in the region and been a guide multiple times for the classic Manali-Leh bicycle trip. The Border Roads Organization (BRO), which maintains important roads in these parts, is known for its memorable signboards. One such board had stayed in Sumit’s memory; it said: Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India Is One. Around mid-June the process of relaxing the nationwide lockdown commenced. Among the rights restored in part during this phase was the freedom to exercise outdoors. A modest amount of running and cycling became possible. Alibag has a young outfit called Alibag Cycling Club. When the idea of a group ride was proposed, it was soon realized – this social tradition loved by every riding club wouldn’t be ideal amid pandemic. Protocols recommend no bunching of people. The paradigm shifted to riding with masks on, maintaining adequate distancing and dispensing with the socializing over refreshments `group’ typically implies. Next you needed an objective that respected above mentioned mode of riding and yet stayed interesting.

Members of the Alibag Cycling Club; this photo was taken on an occasion preceding pandemic and lockdown (Photo: Dr Akshay Koli)

The club picked on Sunday, June 21 – the year’s longest day (summer solstice) – as occasion to host every participant’s longest ride. Once again, the emphasis wasn’t on a few strong riders logging 100-200 kilometers. “ What we wanted was just longer than your longest yet. That could be any small amount. We also suggested ways to make the strain less. In a sunrise to sunset endeavor, you could cycle some hours in the morning, go home for lunch and then cycle again a few hours in the evening,’’ Sumit said. To make the whole thing even more engaging, the imagery in that BRO signboard was invoked and the aerial distance from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, which is roughly over 2500 kilometers, pointed to. It would be wonderful if the aggregate mileage of all participants matched or exceeded that figure. By now, some of Sumit’s friends in cycling sought that the affair not be kept exclusive to riders from Alibag. They should be able to pitch in with rides at other locations. The June 21 ride saw 172 people take part. Their cumulative mileage was in excess of 7000 kilometers. The youngest cyclist participating in the initiative was five year-old Ovi Pathre, who cycled 20 kilometers. Riders from Pune, Panvel and Uran brought in some 200 kilometers. The rest was met by cyclists from Alibag.

At the time of writing, the lockdown was still going on (its severity depending on location and level of infection) and Sumit was still in Alibag.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Photos of the rides of March 13 and June 21 couldn’t be had; according to Sumit, pandemic related protocols and participants cycling on their own meant no opportunity for group photo.)                     

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