Different gears, still speeding: The Kaladhungi One Day Classic
‘It’s not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.’
~ Sir Edmund Hillary
Haldwani – Kaladhungi – Nainital
In the mountains, there are only two grades – you can either do it, or you cannot. But before tackling the two grades, one must overcome the fear of even attempting the climb. The first time I went on a mountain tour was back in June, 2015. I had ridden from Shimla to Manali, and those four days had scarred me for a very long time. At the beginning of 2017, I decided that I will dedicate this year completely to the Mountain. Each month, I would spend at least two days ascending some climb or the other.
For April, I made plans to attempt the Kaladhungi Epic. I had read about this mammoth on Facebook, when the Aravalli Trailhunters raced up from Kaladhungi to Nainital. I was no racer, specially with my 19 kilo steelie and hefty panniers, but it would be fun to amble up the challenging gradient. So, it was decided – I rode to ISBT after work and hopped into a bus headed to Haldwani. It was also my birthday, so I was excited to bring in my birthday on a bus, and spending the entirety of the day on my bike.
530 am- the conductor woke me up and forced me out of the bus. The legs were cramped but the joy of being back on the road was enough of a distraction. I reassembled my bike and hunted down a public loo to change into my cycling outfit. The chain had come off because of poor handling by the buswaalas, and I wasn’t particularly happy with the way they had treated my bike. The sensor had come off, and I noticed a new set of scratches. A rickshaw puller was kind enough to help me out. He mocked me for the dry chain and dusty cassette, but there was nothing I could do about it right now.
After a quick cup of chai and bun-maska, I was finally on the road. 25 km of splendid flat tarmac greeted me from Haldwani to Kaladhungi. Not to forget the stunning views of the Ponderosa Pine trees flanking me on either side. At the beginning of the climb, I watched as a woman beat a shopkeeper for eve-teasing her. The crowds looked on as she hit a well-rounded bael on his head. It was scary, but I was mentally occupied elsewhere to pay attention to this affair. I filled up some ice tea and started ascending. ‘Slow and steady buddy’, I kept telling myself. Two hours in and the messages and calls started pouring in. It was all too overwhelming. I had to keep stopping to return calls and reply to messages, but there was no other way I’d do it.
By lunch, the sun was right over me, and I stopped frequently to refill the ice tea and take a chilled bottle shower. Even 5 minutes of a cold head changed the mood substantially. The gradient was taxing, sometimes crossing the 9% barrier. In lay-man terms- it was bloody hard! The climb had exhausted me and there was still another 20 km to go. Only half was done. I decided to take a little nap. Those aloo paranthas had worn me out. I woke up 90 minutes later. The dhabawalla made no effort to wake me up, and I was refreshed and motivated to get back on the bike.
By 530 pm, I had managed to complete the Epic, and rolled into the Army Headquarters where dad had set up a room for me. Post some much needed room service, I tucked into bed, and passed out by 830 pm. It was an exhaustive day, but it was a cracking experience. The trick was to keep going, even if it was at a snail’s pace. Pedal after pedal, I and my ever faithful Pahadi managed to put our names on the list of the cyclists bold enough to attempt this monster. For a 22 year old newbie – this was truly a satisfying achievement.
Nainital – Ranikhet
There on, I took the day off in Nainital, did some local climbing and read my novel on the rocks by the lake. Peaceful but not very exciting. The next day, I packed up my panniers and headed towards Ranikhet. The first 30 km was all downhill, but the cold wind gave me a headache. It always does. I stopped for chai and pakoras just before the end of the descent. I could spot the bridge that marked the beginning of the climb.
The watch read 730 am, and I had 37 km to go up. Thankfully, the gradient wasn’t as grilling as the previous one. By 11 am, I was in Ranikhet. Pretty quick, by my standards. I rarely stopped, also because I had gotten used to the way of the Mountain. Dad had once again fixed up army accommodation, so I didn’t have to make rounds looking for an overnight haul. Ranikhet was a pretty dull town, and apples were the most exciting thing I spotted. More chai, more bun maska.
Ranikhet – Almora
Next day, I rode down to Almora, a pleasing 35 km downhill partaay. I felt like Chris Froome descending down to Bagnères-de-Luchon on Stage 8 of the 2016 Tour de France. Legs and elbows tucked in, bum on the top tube, and head just ahead of the handlebar. An aerodynamic eagle, to be precise.
I had my first and only puncture in the last km of my tour. Without a puncture, this adventure would be incomplete. I guess the road understands that by now, and makes plans for disruption as it pleases. That was the end of my time with the Mountain. I took a shared cab down to Haldwani and a Volvo back to Delhi. I woke up in Anand Vihar, cursed myself, and rode back home.
These five days in Kumaon had been an eye-opener. It wasn’t just the beauty of the Shivaliks of Uttrakhand, but also the time spent alone in the mountains. I realised it is an asking to cycle all by yourself here. On the flats, it feels like a cakewalk. But not here. The difficulty needs to be discussed, the pain needs to be shared. Back at home, I am super happy with how things went. Safe and sound, I made friends with Mountain. The great leveller of egos is now a mate. The Road to Ladakh suddenly feels much easier than it seemed pre-Kaladhungi. Onwards and upwards!