Cycling through UP on Holi: Cycling Solo 309.82 kms – Part II

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 final leg from Aligarh – Delhi on 10th March 2020, the day of Holi.

Backdrop

A backdrop to this 300 km cycle ride is on the blog of my first leg of the trip from Delhi-Aligarh. For continuity, read the piece before checking this out. This blog may still be enjoyed nevertheless.

The Preparation

As earlier, I was sharing my live location via WhatsApp with family and couple of friends. There isn’t any change in the non-edible materials I am carrying back. They are the same as was for my trip to Aligarh. With food though, I was carrying chocolates which I hadn’t on my earlier ride.

  • Multi tool kit
  • Spare inner tube
  • Hand pump
  • A couple of change of clothes
  • Windcheater (for rains)
  • 3 polythene bags (for waterproofing stuff in case of rain)
  • Power bank
  • USB cable
  • Bluetooth headphone
  • Hand towel
  • Hand sanitiser (COVID-19 concern)

Food

  • Peanut chikki (leftover from earlier ride)
  • Water
  • ORS powder (3 sachets)
  • 1 Snickers chocolate
  • 1 Perk chocolate

My 10th March 2020 – A Timeline

6:06 AM – An Early Start

As I had expected, I was up with my first alarm at 5 AM. I got dressed and packed soon enough, by 5:45 AM. After a quick snack of some peanut chikki, I woke my friends up from under their warm blankets, said my goodbyes and left. I was ready to leave by 6:06 AM, an earlier start than my Delhi-Aligarh ride. I was upbeat and confident for I had already done a 150 km ride now. I plan to take a different route than my outbound trip which was via GT Road. I will be going via Yamuna Expressway and was therefore looking forward to the new adventure.

Pic 1: Me, my cycle and UP’s ubiquitous cow are the only ones out at this time

I am wearing full length track pants today, against my choice, because to get out of Aligarh town, I had to cycle through Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). It was either that or do a round-about around the university campus cycling an extra 3kms. I chose convenience over freedom of dressing. I had only learned the day before during my leisurely ride around Aligarh town that one couldn’t enter AMU in shorts. The security guard’s question “Aap aise kapde kaise pehan sakthe ho?” looking questionably at my legs evoked mixed feelings. For there was frustration that I would have to go back and change to enter the campus while there was also happiness that someone apart from myself thought that my legs could evoke desire and cause distraction amongst others. It didn’t matter that not a single woman had ever said that or even hinted at that. I mean why would you ask women before forming conclusions about what women want? I wanted to respond to his question in the literal sense “Haath se“, but decided against it in the interest of time. So, I had to go back and change before I was allowed into AMU. Lesson learnt, I started out in track pants today. The silver lining was that the air was cold and it was helpful that my legs were shielded from the wind.

Pic 2: Google maps thinks this flyover works

The above picture (Pic 2) is part of the route Google maps showed. I crossed the tracks on foot carrying my cycle as did many others on cycle and on foot. So, no wonder Google thinks there is a way there. The ride to get out of Aligarh town was eventless. I saw people beginning to come out of their houses and preparing community bonfires for Holi. Some early risers were already smearing colour on each other’s faces and hugging each other for Holi. There was no traffic and I was quickly able to get out and onto the highway that I would stick to until I reached Yamuna Expressway.

7:17 AM – Inconvenienced by lack of public conveniences

Pic 3: The sun is up early. Holi no holiday for him.

Since I just had to follow the road for the next 50 kms, scilicet no confusion regarding the route and also because my muscles were fresh and rested, I cycled with almost no breaks. I stopped only when I felt I had to click a photo, post a status update or when I had to relieve myself. I had hydrated myself well the day before for the ride. Now with the cold air and no sweat, I had to pee multiple times in the morning. There weren’t any public conveniences on the way and I ended up fertilising multiple fields.

7:39 AM – Snack Break 1

The highway was flat and ran through fields of paddy on both sides. The monochrome scenery was broken whenever I passed a village. Along the villages, I saw people coming out to celebrate the festival; women going to temples, men making bonfires or buying coloured powder & pichkaris and kids running after each other. It does seem that on average women wake up earlier than men, in both rural and urban areas. I wonder if that is why breakfast at the women’s hostel in Delhi University begins at 7:30 AM while at my hostel it begins at 8:00 AM .

Pic 4: Stores getting ready with Holi merchandise

After having crossed Lodha and then Karsua, I stopped at Bajhera to buy some bananas from a fruit seller who was just setting up shop (Pic 4). While many temporary stalls had sprung up along the road selling Holi materials, regular stores had still not opened for the day. Even the fruit seller was busy selling colours as a one-time thing for Holi and was least interested in servicing my paltry order of three bananas. So, I had to get off the cycle and picked my own bananas. I ate one and left quickly to not give the local youngsters applying colour on each other a fresh target and to not let my muscles cool down.

7:51 AM – Enjoying the ride

Pic 5: A dry yet pretty river I crossed. Notice horse grazing. (May need to zoom in if reading on phone)

This road was definitely more scenic than GT road and was refreshing. I couldn’t let my eyes wander away in the scenery too long and had to will them back onto the road multiple times. Many stretches of this road had only two lanes which meant that the larger vehicles would pass by pretty close to my cycle. I think the Indians’ diregard for personal space spills over onto inter vehicular space on the road as well. Did I just do a Shakespeare with that word; inter vehicular ? (I googled. The word exists. I am a far cry from a Shakespeare)

8:25 AM – Snack Break 2

Pic 6: Eating Snickers for breakfast sans any guilt

I had written in the first part about the importance of eating before feeling hungry and and hydrating before feeling thirsty. I was drinking water regularly along the way even though I had to take multiple pee-stops on the way. It is better to have to pee than to have a cramp. By around 8:00 AM, the sunlight got strong and I was feeling hot inside my full length trousers. Remember that I am wearing padded cycling underwear. I began to consider changing clothes somewhere along the way.

9:00 AM – A dress change

Pic 7: Stretching by paddy fields

After running through in my mind the pros and cons of changing clothes in the middle of the journey, I decided that I must change. The day was only going to get hotter and the roads more crowded. The earlier I found a quiet spot and changed my clothes, the better. I soon found the opportunity in the cover offered by an empty platform (which seemed to have earlier been the location of some idol) beside an unpaved road running into the fields from the tarmac. The platform was as high as my belly and easily hid my lower body from the road if I stood behind it.

I stopped and scanned my surroundings. Seeing a man dressed very differently sniffing around the platform, two men on a bike stopped and enquired what I was doing. I remembered to wish them a Happy Holi and lied that I was just resting for a bit between my cycle ride. They were naturally surprised to learn that I had been cycling from Aligarh (40 kms behind me now). Like simple rural folk, their faces did not mask their genuine disbelief when I further told them I was cycling to Delhi (which was more than 100 kms away). Thankfully they had more pressing matters to attend and soon left me by myself. But I realised that standing behind that platform beside the road with a cycle parked alongside would only attract attention. Curios enquiries are the last thing you want when you are half naked beside a highway.

Pic 8: A dressing room in the fields

I decided that I had to move farther away from the road so that people passing by wouldn’t notice me. I cycled about 50m on the mud road and stopped because there were soon patches of dirt I couldn’t cycle through. All around me was fields of wet dirt on which stood paddy. There were very few trees or any object that could provide me cover. I decided to make do with what I had and changed into shorts behind few small trees beside the mud road (Pic 8). The only other pair of eyes I could see from there were that of a buffalo who I was confident would not take offense at me undressing in her sight. I was now ready to hit the road again with better ventilation for my legs under the hot sun.

10:34 AM – Happy Holi !

Very soon, I could see Yamuna expressway in the distance. The road I was on currently was broad and straight. I felt it was safe to record a video on my phone while riding with only one hand. No sooner than I started recording and providing a commentary of my ride was I interrupted by four men on a bike. Since I was recording, I was able to capture how I got stopped on the road and doused in colours. Find the video below.

Video 9: Four men on a bike stop me on the road just as I was recording a video and end up featuring on YouTube

I was scared initially when four people on a bike began riding by my moving cycle and wishing me Holi and asking me to stop. Unsure of their intent, I didnt want to. But the driver began coming closer to me and one of them held my cycle’s handle. I knew I had to stop or risk crashing. As I stopped, they got off their bike, surrounded me and took out a cover filled with what looked gulaal to me. I could smell alcohol as they came closer. This explained the overconfidence of the person zigzagging his bike with three other pillion riders. I was relieved when they asked me to remove my spectacles so that they could put colour on my face. I understood that they had no intent to loot but only wanted to spread the cheer. I cooperated and they took turns to put colour on my face and hug me a ‘Happy Holi’. Relieved and also happy that my Holi didn’t end colourless I set back on the ride.

10:45 AM – Yamuna Expressway

It was right after the ‘Holi celebration’ that I noticed that my rear tyre seemed low on air. I had with me a hand pump which I had fixed onto the cycle. I had only recently bought the pump specifically for this trip and had not used it myself although the person at the store had demonstrated its functioning. I decided to go on and stop only if the air became too low to ride.

Pic 10: The redskins are here !

At 10:45 AM I was on Yamuna expressway. I was happy I had gotten on the expressway before midday. Delhi now seemed much closer. The road had 4 lanes on each side and upto 6 lanes at some stretches. Of these, the outermost lanes were designated for two wheelers and this is the lane I took. The cars on the road rocketed past me. Yes, rocketed ! The sound as the cars passed me was similar to the sound I had heard as fighter jets flew above me when I went to see the Republic Day parade this year. But I felt safer than on the 2 lane highway I was on hitherto because these cars were at least 2 lanes away from me.

I soon reached the Jewar toll booth meant to ticket the vehicles that had entered the expressway from where I entered the same. As I approached the toll booth, I knew I would now learn the hard way whether cycles were allowed on the expressway. The operator saw me coming on the toll lane for two wheelers and gestured to me to go past the toll by the side of the toll gate and not through it. I followed his non-verbal instructions and cycled past a police patrol car parked on the side. As I faced no objections from the policemen or the toll operator, I assumed I could cycle on the expressway.

11:35 AM – Break and Brunch

I stopped for a meal at the food court right after the toll gate. With the confidence of a 150 km cycle ride behind me and because I had made better progress during the morning, I decided to treat myself to a heavy brunch. The food court was just opening up and the workers reluctantly heading to man their respective counters after their own Holi celebration. They were intrigued by my cycle and crowded around with questions. More than the interest in my cycle, I think they were happy to find an excuse to delay the start of their work day by a few minutes. I stood by as I didn’t want to leave the cycle unattended amidst a bunch of curious onlookers. Thankfully, a Jeep SUV pulled in and a man came out and lit a smoke. While he was smoking, two hot women in tiny shorts stepped out of the car and began posing for photos with the car. My beautiful cycle couldn’t compete with the attractions this new car brought and everyone soon lost interest on my cycle. These women were either normalised to the male attention or were too engrossed in getting Insta worthy pictures or both; the repeated glances of everyone around had no impact on their photoshoot. Everyone seemed happy and I was happy to leave my cycle and go in for my brunch.

Pic 11: The heaviest and only (if you don’t call snacks meals) meal during the ride

The waiter who served me my Chole Chawal, came back with a bowl of Chole and asked if I would like some extra Chole. After I happily accepted it, he put forth a request to take a ride my cycle. I was hesitant and told him I will let him ride once I finish my meal. This arrangement was agreeable to him. I was anyways planning to take some rest for the food to digest before I got back on the road. Encouraged by my consent, he further told me that a foreigner named Chris had come there yesterday who was doing a 4500 km ride across India and asked if I was part of his team. While I clarified that I wasn’t, I was happy that people were cycling across the country. By the time I finished my meal, the said waiter got too busy and the ride I promised never happened.

Note that this is the first time I heard of Chris and little did I know that I would bump into him later in the day. Chris also writes a blog about his rides and you can read his post about his ride on Yamuna expressway, which was his 36th day on the road.

12:54 PM – Can UP be any bigger ?

Pic 12: Yamuna Expressway stretching endlessly ahead of me

It had almost been 7 hours since I left my friend’s house in Aligarh. I still had over 65 kms left. The ride through the expressway was boring and lonely. The sun was hot and there was hardly any shade on the road (See Pic 12). There was too much heat generated between the cycle’s saddle and my buttocks. I was not enjoying the ride anymore and wanted to just be done with it. The one positive at this point was that my rear tyre was now taut putting to rest my earlier concerns.

1:23 PM – First signs of a metropolis

Pic 13: I can now see skyscrapers. City Ahoy !

I kept on and it wasnt long before I saw skyscrapers; signs of Delhi approaching. I found shade under a signboard and decided to sit down on the grass and rest my rear end for a while. It was quite a relief to have full support for my butt. I hoped to soon find another food court as I was about to run out of water. The last thing I wanted was to be lying down dehydrated on the shoulder of Yamuna Expressway.

1:59 PM – May I ride, please?

Thankfully, I soon found directions indicating that there were restaurants and toilets just a kilometre down a deviation from the expressway. I took that small road and arrived at a deserted food court. There was a restaurant, medical room and restrooms; all locked up for Holi. Luckily I found a drinking water dispenser. It didnt taste as good as bottled mineral water, but it had to make do. By now, the heat inside my shorts and padded underwear was very uncomfortable. Since the only noise I could hear was some security guards talking inside a garage a few metres away hidden from view, I felt comfortable pouring some of the water inside my underwear. As the padding got wet, I was very relieved. I would regret this tomorrow. Cycling with the wet underwear caused chafing on my skin, which I realised only the next day. Nevertheless, I know it helped me continue cycling then and the minor abrasion on my butt was not too heavy a cost.

Pic 14: Lending my cycle to a curious onlooker

As I finished, my cycle found a new fan in one of the workers there. I got my second request of the day for a ride and I obliged, albeit hesitantly. After taking a mini ride, he expressed his surprise on how light my cycle was. In the next two hours, someone would remark how heavy my cycle was. A case of what behavioural economists call anchoring bias.

2:20 PM – Yamuna Expressway is off limits

Video 15: Not being let back on Yamuna Expressway and so taking the service road.

Post the cooling sojourn away from Yamuna expressway, I was stopped by a security guard as I was getting back onto the expressway. I couldn’t talk my way back nor could my pictures on the expressway from earlier convince him. Finally, he showed me a service road I could take till Pari Chowk (the end of Yamuna expressway at Greater Noida). I also felt that while my speed may suffer slightly, it was alright to take the service road. The service road was in excellent condition and ran parallel to the expressway. There was almost zero traffic on the road. I dont know whether this was the norm on the road or an exception due to Holi. I passed the Buddh International Circuit, India’s only F1 race track (no cyclist’s destination ever) along the way.

Pic 16: Passing by Buddh International Circuit

2:54 PM – Happy Holi ! Again.

I became party to yet another Holi celebration along the service road when I stopped to refill my water at a store. The celebrants were much older men this time. They were much more polite and asked permission before applying a little colour on my forehead. On my part, I also borrowed their colours to apply some on their faces. I was happy how my Holi had turned out.

Pic 17: Some more Holi colours

3:02 PM – Touching 100 never gets old

Although I had not set 100kms as a goal (for reasons explained in Part 1 of this blog), I was happy to be able to get a screenshot (See Pic 17) at exactly 100kms. Although it had been more than 8 hours since I started on the road, the timer on the screenshot shows 5:25 hours which is actually the total time I was on the the move. So, my breaks till now cumulatively stretched to around 150 minutes.

Pic 17: Touching 100 in decent time

3:31 PM – Running (well, cycling) into Chris on the road

By around 3:20 PM, I reached Pari chowk and I now turned towards Greater Noida – Noida expressway. The prospect of another expressway after the boring and lonely ride through Yamuna expressway was not very welcoming. But the sun wasn’t as hot and there was slightly better shade on this road. The slow boring ride became an exciting one soon. I had stopped to have some chikki when an Innova with a decal reading ‘Cycling for Widows 2020 – 4500km’ passed me. Soon a cyclist zoomed past me followed by another Innova. Chris had just overtaken me on his cycle. He was going at a fast pace and I decided against catching him and instead took out my phone to click this picture from behind (Pic 18).

Pic 18: Chris zooms past followed by his support car

Chris, a UK citizen, is cycling from Kanyakumari to Kashmir to raise money for Loomba Foundation which works for the welfare of widows in India. He cycles 100 kms everyday and plans to cycle for 45 days. Moreoever, he writes everyday about his rides and you can read his daily blog for cycling adventures from across the country. I have been following his blog ever since and it is quite entertaining with pictures and videos as well.

Luckily for me, I found that one of the cars in Chris’ team was parked beside the road. I pulled up beside the car for a conversation. In the car was Ahmed and Sachin. We spoke a bit about Cycling for Widows and Sachin handed me a poster of the same. We clicked pictures as well and Sachin remarked that I was carrying too much weight on my cycle (with a lock, mudguards, headlight etc.). I agreed and that is probably also why I made an average of 18 km/hr on my rides. Chris was easily doing 24km/hr. Then again, the weekday job of my cycle is commute and not long distance rides. Also, I didn’t have a support car to help me carry other essentials. Professional cycling indeed requires much more investment. Sachin is himself a cyclist and unfortunately had a fall earlier in the day which was why I found him in the car and not on his cycle. Happy for having finally had a conversation longer than two sentences with someone other than myself, I bid adieu to them as they left to catch up with Chris ahead.

You may want to check out Chris’ account of the day riding through Greater Noida expressway, although in this he has written more about his day off the cycle than on it. But when you have been riding for over 40 days, the memorable parts of the day are not what happens on the cycle but the new people and places you meet.

Pic 19: Chris’ physio and a cyclist himself – Sachin Mali from Bangalore

5:05 PM – Oops !

Just as I was around 25kms away from my finish, I discovered that there was very little air in my rear tyre. The air hadn’t fully drained but was too low to ride. I now tried using the hand pump but it didn’t help. I couldn’t get the air to go in with the pump. I blamed my own lack of foresight for not having tried the pump by myself on my tyre at least once before buying it. I pushed my cycle and walked off the expressway into Noida to find a puncture repair shop. Luckily for me there were two shops within 500m of where I got off the cycle.

Pic 20: A puncture (?)

I called up my friend in Noida and asked to permission to come over just in case. When she sent me her location, I realised that her house was a good 15kms away. So, if I couldn’t get the cycle fixed, I will have to take my cycle in an auto to wherever I decide to go; my hostel (25 kms away) or her house(15 kms away). To my good fortune, although the second puncture shop was closed, the store keeper was sitting in front of the store. Although I couldn’t convince him to work on a holiday, he let me use his mechanised air pump. I was able to fill the air quite easily and waited to see if the air would drain out again. To my delight, the tyre stayed taut even after 5 minutes and a small ride. I realised that there was either no puncture or the hole was very small and whatever punctured the tube may be acting as a cork to keep the air in. Praying that I would not have any further trouble with the tyres, I left onward to my hostel.

Pic 21: Cycle tracks and closed puncture shops in Noida

8:10 PM – Done and Dusted

By 7:20 PM, I was within a kilometre of my hostel. I decided to skip the dinner in the mess and instead treat myself to something different. I stopped to get dinner parcelled and finally reached my hostel by 8:00 PM. Upon reaching I realised that I was 1.7 kms shy of 150. Egged on by the responses to my whatsapp status, I decided to take a round around campus to touch 150. I left my bag and dinner in the room and went around Delhi University campus. Riding without the weight of the bag on my shoulders was liberating and a small drizzle cooled my face. I touched 150 and got back to the hostel by 8:10 PM.

Pic 22: Fin.

I was off the saddle for the last time. My body felt no tiredness and my mind felt a sense of accomplishment. As I walked to my room, the few co-hostellers who were heading to the mess greeted me, congratulated me and enquired about my experience. With a brief thank you, I excused myself as I wanted to badly have a shower. I promised that I will write a detailed account of my ride and now that is also complete.

Conclusion

Between Holi, Chris and a puncture scare, my return trip was much more eventful than my outward ride. If you are more interested in knowing what I learned about the process of cycling long distance, and tips you want to take away, read the first part. Here, I shall conclude with a much larger message that this trip helped me learn. Before that here is a picture of the statistics of my return trip. My return trip lasted a total of 14 hours and 5 minutes (inclusive of breaks and stopping to buy dinner and drop off dinner) of which I was on my cycle and moving for 8 hours and 6 minutes at an average speed of 18.5 km/hr, an improvement of 0.2km/hr from my outward trip.

A dedication and a promise

As a few people along the ride asked me why I was doing this 300 km solo cycle ride and whether I was doing it for some cause, I decided to dedicate these blog articles to something. I had not wanted to cycle for a cause when I started and it would be opportunistic to claim so after my ride; so I dedicate the two blog pieces about the cycle ride to the women in my life. Here’s why.

This ride was made possible by many women. My friends in Aligarh who hosted me and fed me over two days are women. The person who lent me her bag for the ride is a woman. The two persons who asked me to postpone my plan due to concerns regarding communal tensions and crime in UP, but then supported me and offered to come along in their cars when I decided to go ahead with the plan nevertheless are women. A large number of the responses to my status updates on WhatsApp were from women. It so happened that International Women’s day fell right in the middle of my Delhi-Aligarh-Delhi trip.

Lastly and most importantly, I know that I enjoyed this ride as much as I did only because I am a man. And this has to change. All the women who followed my updates during the ride or are reading my blog know exactly what I mean by the last point. Men, if you are unsure, you are not alone. I didn’t think so myself until a female friend sent me the following message on WhatsApp.

Imagine a girl alone beside the road with a punctured cycle and it gets dark on the highway. The kind smiles of the truckers and the innocent curiosity of the rural folk that you happily put statuses about would soon cease to be kind and innocent. Even if they are indeed kind and innocent, no girl would be able to see it as so without her inner alarm being raised. I really want to cycle onto a hill station someday. But for now, I shall satisfice my desires by supporting you on your status updates from the safety of my home.

This response to my status update was probably uncalled for or even untimely. But I could not dismiss it as untrue. With this ride, I promise to try and not make the women around me uncomfortable knowingly or unknowingly. It is always better to regret not having understood a hint when given than feel guilty about having misunderstood a hint that wasn’t given.

Acknowledgement

While I dedicated the blog pieces to the women in my life, I am no less grateful to the men. Dedication to someone doesnt make someone else less important. I thank all friends who provided me information regarding route, in particular Nitish Thakurele. I must thank all my friends on Twitter and WhatsApp who responded to my queries before the trip and further provided encouragement throughout the trip by responding to my Whatsapp status updates. I owe much to Madhuri Shastry, Azeem Ahmed and Ajoy Basumatary who let me borrow their bag, power bank and multi tool for this trip. I also thank Raju, who worked on my cycle both before and after the trip.

Raju giving my cycle a belly rub after the 300km ride and fixing the puncture. There was indeed a puncture.

Check out the first part of this blog – More than a cycle ride: Cycling Solo 309.82 kms – Part I

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