Over the Holi weekend, I cycled from Delhi to Aligarh and back over two days with two days rest in between. I rode 150+ kms on both days, which was a first for me. This is the story of my journey cycling through rural Uttar Pradesh. For readers not familiar with the cycling scene in India, I must tell you that this is no record. People regularly cycle 100 kms on weekends and I personally know people who have done 200 kms in a day. The ride is memorable for me as it was the first 150km+ ride for me and because it was done on a hybrid cycle (not a road bike). This is a travelogue of the the first leg from Delhi – Aligarh on 7th March 2020.
I had already been actively cycling both for commute and leisure for three years when I moved to Delhi. Although I brought my cycle along, my cycling reduced drastically here. For one, my commuting distance was a total of 2 kms and the weather was not very encouraging for long distance rides on the weekend. Heavy traffic, although a feature common to Bangalore and Pune, coupled with unruly drivers made cycling more strenous in Delhi, particularly where I lived; North Delhi. Nonetheless, Central Delhi and Noida are excellent to cycle with good roads and greenery. The urge to get back to cycling was always present. So, when a friend of mine set up base in Aligarh which was around 150kms from my place of residence, it presented a good premise to do a long weekend cycle ride. This ride was always on the cards, and a few days of Holi holidays presented the right opportunity.
I had never before travelled to Uttar Pradesh, let alone cycle solo, with the exception of Noida. Movies and stereotypes did not present an encouraging picture. I decided to ask the internet for help. I looked up people who had cycled to Aligarh from Delhi and the route they took. I also took to twitter and Whatsapp to solicit tips. I received a mixed response. Some told me not to ride solo as it was risky given the crime levels in UP while others encouraged me and applauded the choice of going on an adventure. I couldnt find many online who had cycled to Delhi, while there were groups that cycled to Agra from Delhi( a distance of 200 kms). The internet was helpful though on how to prepare for long cycle rides in general.
Closer to the day, there was heavy rain in both Delhi and Aligarh. Communal tensions were high in both cities due to riots and added to it was the corona virus scare. My friends gave me an ultimatum the night before to postpone the trip. I convinced them that that I will not ride in the rain and that there were towns along the way where I could book a hotel for a night in case I had to stop my trip.
A solo ride over such a distance required me to be largely self sufficient and prepare for both mechanical and human failures. For safety, I was sharing my live location on whatsapp with family and few friends and decided also to post regular status updates on Whatsapp to keep people in the know. My prime mechanical concern was a puncture, while dehydration was the main concern for the body. I have listed below the things I was carrying
- Multi tool kit
- Spare inner tube
- Hand pump
- A couple of change of clothes
- Windcheater (for rains)
- 3 polythene bags
- Power bank
- USB cable
- Bluetooth headphone
- Hand towel
- Hand sanitiser (COVID-19 concern)
- Bananas (2 nos)
- Peanut chikki (150gm)
- ORS powder (2 sachets)
I had a pouch attached to the cycle which could hold my phone, wallet and keys. My cycle had a bottle holder and a holder for the hand pump, so they were attached nicely to the cycle frame. The rest would have to fit in a small backpack. The cycle had LED taillights and headlights and I stuck reflective tape onto the backpack, which was important as I would be riding early in the morning and even after sundown if I didn’t reach my destination as planned..
Tip: The decision to carry a backpack was a mistake, and I realised that within the first 50kms itself. The backpack made my back sweat and strained my shoulders. The option I would consider for future rides is a bag that can be fixed onto the cycle.
After consultations with friends who knew the roads in Delhi NCR and to some extent Uttar Pradesh, I decided on this: Delhi University – Noida- Surajpur-Dadri- (from here on via GT Road till Aligarh) Bulandshar-Khurja-Aligarh. The fastest route to Aligarh was via Yamuna expressway, a 6 lane expressway connecting Greater Noida to Agra. But I wasn’t sure if cycles were allowed on this road. On the internet, I found accounts of people having ridden on the road and also having been declined to enter the road. The people I was able to get in touch with also couldn’t provide this information.
Can one cycle on Yamuna Expressway ?
I still dont know the status regarding cycling on Yamuna expressway. While two wheelers are not allowed on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, they are here and there is a dedicated lane for two wheelers. A cyclist I met at Noida on the day of my Delhi-Aligarh told me that he has been on the expressway and that he has friends who have done the same too. Moreover, I took the expressway on my return trip and was not stopped at the toll or by the many police patrol cars on the expressway. But, after riding about 30kms on it, I made an entry onto the service road to enter a food court, and was not allowed back in at the re-entry point. At an earlier food court on the expressway that I had stopped at, the waiters had told me of another cyclist who had come there just yesterday. So, I still don’t have a definite answer. But, I believe that the rule is that cycles are not allowed and the cycle rides on it including mine were possible because the enforcers were also confused whether cycles are allowed or not.
5:00 AM. I woke up and got out of bed on the first alarm, something usually achieved by the second or third alarms. This is something about me that I have discovered time and again. While I always had trouble waking up until it was almost 9 AM during the winter months in Delhi that went by, the anticipation of something momentous to happen always got me off the bed. I was packed and ready by 6:00 AM. I had a quick snack of a banana and some peanut chikki and left my room for an adventure !
The forecast for the day was not the best. There was 50% chance of precipitation in the forenoon. The afternoon was forecast to be sunny. Hoping for the best, I left by 6:20 AM from the hostel. As you can notice from the empty bottle holder in Pic 1, I forgot to take my bottle, but I realised this within 500m and came back to fetch it. I also realised that the servicing done the day before had adjusted the gear cables and I now couldn’t shift to my highest gear on the rear wheel. As there was nothing I could do about it now and also because this fault would only affect my top speed (and therefore average speed) and was not a safety concern, I decided to ignore this while making a mental note to check all gears whenever taking delivery of a serviced bike in future.
Not the best of starts and I hoped this wasn’t a precursor for things to come.
Leaving the city behind, but not Delhi NCR
The ride up till Surajpur was exciting for a multitude of reasons. For starters, I had just started. Since it was a weekend, there were other cyclists I met on the road in Noida who were heading to the Greater Noida expressway. This helped me pace myself by following them. The morning was not very warm yet and it helped. To avoid confusion on the route inside Delhi city, I had taken a practice ride a couple of days ago till Noida. This was very helpful as I could focus fully on the road and not worry about figuring directions on my smartphone.
The first physical problem of the trip happened early. I got a minor cramp on the outer thigh of my right leg. I got off the cycle, sqautted, stretched and had some water. I didnt want to stop completely and thereby cool down the muscles. So, I got back on the cycle but reduced my pedaling effort. The reduction of effort helped. I focussed on maintaining a steady cadence (RPMs of a cyclist) and compromised on the strength of pedalling by running on a gear lower than I normally would. Soon, I refilled my water and mixed ORS powder and kept sipping it along the way.
While I did keep drinking water along the way , I took the first bite of food at 44 kms. I had a banana and some chikki. This stop also presented the first conundrum of my trip. A kind stranger who looked like he was heading to work on Saturday gave me precise directions to reach Dadri from Surajpur. Google maps showed me a route orthogonal to the direction he was pointing at and showed that the route he suggested would take me over a distance longer by around 7 kms. He was suggesting the popular route through the main road while Google maps suggested a route through lanes in a residential area. I took the time off the saddle to ponder a little further on my phone’s map and finally decided to take the friendly stranger’s advice. As with any road not travelled, I don’t know for sure if this was a wise decision, but the road travelled by gave me a hunch that I did the right thing. But another instance later in the day of trusting human advice against Google proved costly in terms of time and quality of road.
As I didn’t know whether I could take Yamuna expressway, my plan was to get onto GT road. Google suggested that I keep on the Greater Noida expressway and then onto GT road. But a friend told me going through Surajpur and Dadri may be shorter. And indeed it was shorter by almost 8kms. But what I didn’t know, I learned. What I saved in kilometres, I paid in time and stress.
The roads were narrow and there was heavy traffic leading upto Surajpur, that at one point I found that walking along narrow pathways while carrying the cycle was faster than waiting on the tarmac for traffic to clear. When traffic relatively thinned at Dadri, the roads also disappeared and I found myself riding through water not knowing what lay under the water. It is quite paradoxical that Dadri, which is part of Delhi National Capital Region, feels nothing like a capital. In case you were wondering, this is the same Dadri that became infamous for lynching a man because he allegedly had beef in his refrigerator. In hindsight, I would have been less tired had I stuck to the Greater Noida expressway and the route Google suggested.
GT Road, all the way to Aligarh
The GT road is one of Asia’s oldest roads that runs from Afghanistan through Pakistan and India upto Bangladesh. After a challenging and slow ride through heavy traffic and poor roads, I finally entered the ancient yet modern Grand Trunk Road. It was 10:43 AM, a little more than 4 hours since I had left.
While some of the 4 hours was spent on breaks and figuring out the route, I was disappointed I hadn’t made more from the initial hours. The start is when body and mind are fresh and temperature and tiredness would only increase as the day progressed. I had done only about one-third of the journey and at this rate, the trip could well exceed 12 hours, which I had not anticipated. On the other hand, I knew I had better roads ahead and that I wouldn’t need to worry about the route until I had to get off GT road into Aligarh town. The sky was overcast providing an ideal temperature to ride in as long as it didnt rain.
True to my hunch, I was able to make better time. In the first two hours (including breaks and stops to refill water) on GT road I covered over 25 kms. This wasnt a huge improvement on my average speed before GT road, but was definitely a better ride than Dadri and Surajpur. The cramp had disappeared and was a non-issue. But I had a larger problem, sore buttocks. Sitting on a not so comfy seat for around 6 hours began to show its impact. I was wearing padded inner-wear meant for cyclists, but it wasnt much help.
Tip: Wearing a padded cycling shorts is much better for air circulation than wearing padded cycling underwear inside regular shorts or running shorts. Foam padding is not good for heat management over long rides of 100 or more kilometers, gel padded shorts are better. Gel padded shorts are much more expensive, but needed if doing 100 or more kilometres.
I realised that I had already gone through three litres of water and was still thirsty. The presence of dhabhas along the way ensured that I was never concerned I would run out of water. I didn’t stock up on water as that would mean a larger load to lug, and never had more than the one bottle that I was carrying. There was a slight drizzle around 1:30 PM which lasted 2-3 mins. It was either that the drizzle was short or I passed the unruly cloud shedding its load in the middle of the road. These clouds, I tell you ! But the good sun soon came up strong and silenced the clouds. As can be seen from the pictures after 2:00 PM, the sun came back stronger in the afternoon true to the weather forecast that the afternoon would be sunny. Fears of a rain perished but the temperature made me sweat.
Talking only about my concerns and travails along the ride might give you the wrong impression. Let me share the positives too. Along the way by around 2:00 PM, I completed 100kms on the cycle. I hadn’t set that as a goal, as I felt that my mind and body would feel tired once I completed that target. Instead I kept intermediate targets of time to spend on the saddle between breaks. Nevertheless, it felt wonderful and now I felt confident that I will finish the ride. Also, it was a scenic ride through paddy fields, mango orchards and just flat land. The sheer expanse of flat straight land I could see unhindered by buildings or trees was a sight I wasn’t very familiar with. This is what struck me as most remarkable about the UP countryside. The sense of fulfillment that had already come and the scenery were two positives along the way.
My petrol pump – Vijaya Dhabha
Although I had only had three bananas, peanut chikkis and some peanuts apart from fluids, I wasnt hungry at all. This was probably because my mind and body were focussed on the pedalling. But I decided I must eat and take a longer break. I stopped at a dhabha along the highway near Mirpur village, some 40 kms from Aligarh and 45 kms from my final destination. The joy of taking off my backpack, helmet, gloves and having a facewash cannot be written down. I felt very refreshed.
I ordered the lightest and least spicy thing I found on the menu; a vegetable sandwich and a sweet lassi. The sandwich portion turned out tinier than I had anticipated. On any other day, I would not have been satisfied with the meal. But today, the crisp veggies and the sweet lassi was enjoyed thoroughly sitting under the breeze of a ceiling fan. I also took this time to respond to messages on Whatsapp encouraging me. I had been broadcasting my journey live through multiple Whatsapp status updates.
Tip : On long cycle rides, eat light, low spice food rich in water content. Remember to always drink water and eat food before your body feels very thirsty or hungry.
The last stretch
Energised with the lunch and a break, I decided to push myself a little harder for the remainder of GT Road. I wanted to reduce the amount of cycling I would need to do after sundown. I definitely did not want to be riding alone on a highway after sunset with reduced visibility. The reflective tape on my bag or the AAA battery powered LED tail lights had its capacity limits. Sunset for the day was to be at 6:40 PM and I knew I could comfortably get off the highway before that unless something untoward happened.
Humans of the road
As we near the end of my trip, let me recount another source of joy along the way; the people. Now this is subjective and may not be a joy for everyone. Let me explain.
As I left the city and entered rural areas, I was getting more eyeballs. This, I believe, was largely because of the way I was dressed and to a smaller extent because of my cycle. While cycles are commonplace here, it is not everyday that you see a cyclist with a helmet and gloves. Every time a two wheeler or auto overtook me, I could see the passengers turn around for a second look. Some smiled, others gave me a thumbs up and still others shouted encouraging words.
There were couple of instances where a bike slowed down and made conversation. One person was very eager to know how expensive my bike was. I tried to avert the question and luckily for me our paths diverged and he didnt follow. The second biker was much better. He matched my pace and started talking about why I was cycling all the way to Aligarh. He couldn’t believe that this was a hobby and wondered if I was doing it for some cause or as part of some challenge. He said he was also travelling to Aligarh and offered to help by holding his hand and cruising alongside his bike. I declined because it was risky and also that would be cheating. After all, I was doing this for myself. I met him a second time when I stopped for a break at Gabhana. My new friend told me that he was a medical representative and had stopped to meet a doctor. The doctor did not believe that someone was cycling on GT road and they both came out onto the highway and saw me pass by. I suddenly felt special. I finally clicked a picture with my friend (Pic 10. His face isn’t very clear though).
Another incident I was able to photograph (Pic 10) is when a trucker parked his truck a little behind where I was squatting beside the highway in the sun. His truck provided shade. He came out of the truck to take a smoking break and gave me a smile as he was leaving.
Whenever I stopped at a crowded location on the highway, there were eager onlookers whose curiosity changed to encouragement when they learned what I was doing. This eagerness is something characteristic of rural life and I don’t think such attention is offered in cities. While I enjoyed most of the attention, I was also slightly wary for all the tales of crime I had heard.
I must admit that not everyone might enjoy this attention. Also, I had the privilege of being a man. A woman might have faced a different kind of stare and may have gotten concerned with the strangers making conversation or getting too close physically when moving on the bike.
Destination Ahoy !
Finally, just before 6:00 PM I got off GT Road ! And I knew my joyride for the day was over. The roads became narrow, traffic thickened and riding was not easy anymore. I now had to take frequent stops to figure out the route and also due to traffic blocks.
I spent the next 1 hour 20 minutes traversing 11 kms through Aligarh town to my friends residence. At the end, I completed 160kms and 13 hours on the road. My body was fine except for a sore bottom. I was in the top of spirits and didn’t feel tired. But I knew that once my body cooled down, the pain will come in unless I stretched soon.
I recorded my ride on the app called Strava and I am attaching the stats here. You can see from the stats that I rode for 8 hours 40 minutes and my breaks accounted for 4 hours. I had hoped to do an average of 20km/hr but this ride made me realise that I still have some work to do before I do that. I averaged 18.3 km/hr. Having done this I know that doing a 150km + ride is more about the mental grit than physical grit. Physical readiness is important as the mind needs a body that can handle its grit.
Read the second part of my ride on the blog. That was a more interesting ride as it was on Holi and just as my friends had warned, the Holi ride was not without incident. Also, I took a different route through Yamuna expressway and also captured some videos.