Two-wheel tourists pedal along Andakaranazhi Beach near Kochi on a trip with Art of Bicycle Trips and (below) stop for lunch at Kayalpura, a man-made island on the backwaters;Pic: Ebin John

Sunday, April 6th: Would you like to explore a rubber estate in Kerala or go bird watching in Arunachal? And would you like to cycle all the way to these far-flung corners of the country? "What's the fun in travelling in an AC car where you doze off without taking in the view? You might as well head back home and watch a video," says A. Thomas, founder, The Kerala Bicycle Trips which takes travellers on trips around Kerala and also on day-trips around cities like Kochi and the smaller, scenic Alleppey and Munnar.

If you're ready for a challenge, join a cycle convoy organised by Gaurav Kataria, founder of Delhi-based AE Travels. Kataria has a go-anywhere collection of 25 all-terrain bikes and sometime ago he organised one of the longest-ever marathon cycling tours around India. The cyclists started in Chandigarh and pedalled all the way up the mountains to Shimla. From there, they headed off on an up and down adventure that took them through Kumaon and on to Spiti and Lahaul. Pedalling torturously through the Baralacha Pass in Zanskar and also Tanglang La at 17,000ft, they finally ended in Amritsar. "This 62-day, 1,600-km-long trip like the others that we organise was customised," says Kataria, who oddly enough admits that he's a trekking fanatic more than a cyclist.

 

A cycle tourist crosses a mountain stream near Baralacha Pass during an adventure trip with Manali-based tour company above14000ft. Pic: Kaushal Desai

It’s avian spotting at its best with The Kerala Bicycle Trips at Thattekad Bird Sanctuary

Cycling is one of the hottest hobbies of this decade. But now many companies are offering to take energetic holidaymakers on discovery trips around Indian cities or on long, cross-country cycling trips up close to the most scenic spots of the sub-continent.

"People and hotels are more open as compared to other countries, which attracts people to India," says Pankaj Mangal, founder, Art of Bicycle Trips, which has its headquarters in Bangalore and smaller offices in Rajasthan and Kerala. Mangal has a garage filled with 50 bikes that he can offer adventure-seekers.

Two-wheel thrill-seekers who'd like a trip with an extra edge can sign up with Kaushal Desai, founder of the Manali-based outfit, above14000ft, which as the name suggests, takes clients around regions like Ladakh, Uttaranchal and Himachal. Desai sets out on bicycling journeys with all the equipment that might be needed including a portable Gamow bag for giving instant relief to those who succumb to high altitude sickness. Most recently, above14000ft took clients on a Manali-Leh trip.

Inevitably, the country's most touristy regions are also the most popular cycling destinations. Bangalore-based Kalypso Adventures, for instance, takes people round the Garden City but in the last one year, it has also taken about a 1,000 people to tourist hotspots like Kochi, Marari Beach and Alleppey in Kerala and Jaipur and Ranthambore in Rajasthan.

  

Taking a break on the relatively empty roads near Kumbalgarh in Rajasthan during a trip with (below) Gaurav Kataria’s AE

Thomas Zacharias, Kalypso Adventures' founder has just returned from a specially tailored month-long cycling tour. "A couple cycled from Goa, along the Western Ghats to Mysore and explored the countryside and the cultural diversity on this almost 2,000-km-long trip," he says.

One hot favourite for Kerala Bicycle Trips is its 10-day Spice Trail trip which goes through spice plantations in places like Munnar, Kuttikanam and the Cardamom Hills in Thekkady. It takes its clients to spice godowns, throws in cooking lessons for good measure and includes visits to Kochi's tourist hotspots — St Francis Church, the Dutch Cemetery, Jew Synagogue and the spice markets. "In keeping with the theme, the hotel rooms are infused with the smell of aromatic spices like cardamom or cloves," says Thomas. The nine-night trip costs about $2,000 (about Rs 1.22 lakh) for a four-star hotel stay and about $3,900 (Rs 2.38 lakh) for a premium package which includes stay in top-notch hotels.

Or look at Jehan Driver, managing director, Quest Expeditions, who has spread his wheels across several states and takes guests to places in Rajasthan, Konkan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the Himalayas.

All the cycling companies divide their time between longer, out-of-town journeys and day-trips around the country's more colourful cities. Driver's day trips around Udaipur cost about Rs 6,000. For the price, the would-be cycle tourist gets the bike along with an ever-so-essential helmet and also a guide, support vehicle and snacks. Similarly, The Kerala Bicycle Trips gives its intrepid clients an insider's view of Kochi for about Rs 3,500.

Many of the bicycle companies have smartly spread themselves across the country so that they still get customers when the heat hits Rajasthan or places like Leh get a bit too icy for comfortable cycling. "So, from September to March people can go pedalling through Rajasthan and Kerala, and the summer months are ideal for the mountains," says Kataria.

Getting an eyeful of the greenery at Periyar Tiger Reserve with Kalypso Adventures.

It goes without saying, that anyone planning to get on a bicycle in India worries about the killer traffic. So, the cycle tour companies stick to smaller roads with less dense traffic conditions which also give the cyclists a glimpse of village life. Says Kataria: "Villagers are friendlier when you cycle down as they realise that you are putting in an effort. It certainly enriches the experience."

And they avoid danger by getting into the accompanying back-up vehicles when they pass through bigger towns and cities. Says Kataria: "The cyclists cross a township in the back-up vehicle and not on the cycles." Tour operators point out that Rajasthan is an ideal destination for cycling as there are long stretches of road without cities or habitations.

The tour companies travel well-equipped. There's always a back-up vehicle that ferries clients through the towns and is also pressed into service when a cyclist is too exhausted. Occasionally, the vehicle is used for medical emergencies. Recalls Thomas: "During one of our initial trips, a person insisted on cutting costs by doing away with the accompanying vehicle. Unfortunately, he fell down and got injured. So now, we do not compromise on safety."

But the tour companies ensure that unexpected slip-ups are minimised by doing extensive recce trips. "We scout the area and know exactly where the nearest hospital or medical centre is," says Mangal.

In fact, the team accompanying the cyclists depends on the type of trip. Drivers and guides accompany the cyclists if they are staying in a hotel. But a much bigger team tags along if the group camps out. "During a camping tour, there is also a cook and back-up staff who set up the camps in addition to the driver and the guide," says Desai. Even for self-guided tours, without guides, a safety vehicle and staff accompany the cyclists.

Cycling is not always an end in itself. For some cycling is part of a larger, get-closer-to-India experience. The Kerala Bicycle Trips is organising a cycling trip for a large group from Australia, UK and the US that will teach English at a primary school in Ezhupunna, a village about 30km from Kochi, which lies between the sea and the backwaters. When not teaching, the group plans to do a range of activities like kayaking and visiting a bird sanctuary while cycling along the Periyar River. The majority of the clients for most companies are foreigners from Germany, the US, Canada, Hungary and Far East.

Kataria too organises mostly customised tours. "While there are standardised tours, most people ask for some change in the itinerary, so in the end, all the tours are actually tailor-made," he says. He reckons that a trip with AE Travels costs roughly about $140 (Rs 8,500) per day per person with accommodation in a three- or four-star hotel.

But even the standardised tours have options galore. Says Desai: "The 10-day Manali-Leh cycling trip is certainly a rite of passage for most cyclists. There are high altitude passes and it is one of the hardest routes in the country." This trip costs Rs 35,000 and has fixed departure dates but it's a BYOB trip — Bring Your Own Bike. For a more customised experience, costs could vary between Rs 40,000 and Rs 1 lakh.

It goes without saying that there are unexpected surprises — both pleasant and unpleasant — on every trip. "Once a group travelling through Ladakh spotted a snow leopard," recalls Kataria.

The age groups too can be really varied. "The oldest that I have had is a granny of 86 who went mountain biking," says Zacharias, whose clientele is primarily over 40. Driver's youngest was a 10-year-old and the oldest was 75. Desai, on the other hand, says there are clear categories — the foreigners are anywhere between 35 and 65 and the Indians not older than 45.

And everyone it seems carries something back from the tour. Says Thomas: "People often go back and buy a bicycle. They start loving nature more. By the end of a trip most people become close friends."

So what are you waiting for? It's time to strap on a helmet, leap into the saddle and get a 'slow travel' two-wheel view of the country.

It's all about two-wheel thrills as energetic holidaymakers head out on long, cross-country cycling trips around India, says Saimi Sattar


Source: The Telegraph, graphiti