Four Thrilling Trails To Cycle Through In India

A cyclist charts courses that promise both adventure and astounding views.  
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Mountains in Ladakh shift in shape and size, often making you feel no bigger than a minion. Photo by: somnuk krobkum/Moment/Getty Images

High In The Himalayas

Manali-Leh-Khardung La, Himachal Pradesh & Jammu and Kashmir

Duration: 9 days; Distance: 561 kms; Difficulty Level: Extreme; Best Time: July-September

Royal Enfields rage here. Jeeps, army trucks and trading caravans ply purposefully. And that’s that. Or at least that’s how it’s been for decades. The Manali-Leh highway isn’t everyone’s playfield. But more recently you’d be surprised to see many mountain bikers negotiate the Himalayan landscape that this stretch encompasses. With an average elevation of more than 13,000 feet—highest being the Tanglang La at 17,480 feet—this is one journey that intimidates as much as it thrills. It’s also breathtaking. Flanked by the Zanskar mountain range in Kargil, the ride is a sensory explosion. Such is the enormity of the surroundings that you might possibly feel like Bob, the youngest and tiniest minion from Despicable Me, while slicing your way through snow-sprinkled mountains. Steep ascents and vertiginous drops apart, you will also bike beside rivulets that gush with ice-cold glacial waters. Total elevation gain over the entire route is a staggering 24,000 feet! Rest, therefore, is not just recommended but absolutely essential. Luckily, camps and teahouses, run by both organised operators and friendly nomadic herders, are not difficult to come by. Of them, rest camps such as Zingzing Bar, Whiskey Nallah and Debring are perfect for giving those aching calf muscles some TLC. Before you hit Leh, do stop at Thiksey Gompa. Monickered ‘Mini Potala’, for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the monastery affords stunning views of the Indus Valley. Stay the night in Leh and resume the trip’s most epic lap at six the next morning. It might take you between five and seven hours and 40 kilometres to reach Khardung La from the main market in Leh. Weather, the bicycle’s build, your endurance level, and road conditions (avalanches are common) determine the duration. But once you are atop one of the world’s highest motorable roads, on a mountain bike no less, take a minute to soak in the momentous feat. Now how do you celebrate at 18,500 feet? Forking through a bowl of piping hot Maggi at the ‘World’s Highest Cafeteria,’ as the signboard proclaims, is one option.

 

Rain-Rich Western Ghats

Navi Mumbai-Lonavala-Shilimb, Maharashtra

Duration: 2 days;  Distance: 130 kms; Difficulty Level: Moderate; Best Time: August-March

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Lohagad Fort. Photo by: Jovivek Photography/moment/Getty Images

This is one trip that can be embarked on in any season but the Western Ghats, which the trail hugs, is at its bridal best during monsoon. Start day one on the bustling roads of Vashi in Navi Mumbai. Once beyond city limits, you are greeted by lush, hilly landscapes until Lonavala. Further up, the steep climb clinging to the plush Aamby Valley township is quiet, misty, and the slight chill in the air makes the journey truly magical. Red-mudded pathways, mischievous monkeys, verdant green Ghats—cycling on this stretch feels like flipping through a coffee-table book dedicated to the rains. It’s not advisable to venture out in the Ghat after sunset, so spend the night in Lonavla. A popular weekend getaway from both Mumbai and Pune, it is packed with hotels, Airbnbs and guesthouses. Next morning, on day two, start for Shilimb, a tiny village 32 kilometres from Lonavala embanking Pawna Lake. Some villages along the route are Morve and Chavsar. But remember that once you take the turn opposite Cloud 9 Hills Resort on the Lonavala-Aamby Valley road towards Shilimb, there are no eateries. So stuff your backpack with enough water and nutritious snacks, or even a mid-morning meal of boiled eggs, chutney sandwich, poha, or parathas. This is a trip most suited for getting lost in the highlands and admiring the mystical beauty of the Ghats—and that’s why most cyclists return from Shilimb itself. But if you will, add a third day to hike up the green-carpeted hill forts of Tikona and Lohagad.

 

Way Past The Nilgiris’ Blues

Bangalore-Ooty-Coonoor, Karnataka & Tamil Nadu

Duration: 7 days; Distance: 300 kms; Difficulty Level: Moderate to Difficult; Best Time: September-March

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Coonoor’s tea plantations. Photo by: Dethan Punalur/Photodisc/Getty Images

Cyclists in South India will vouch for this: the Nilgiris are the region’s mecca for riders. Sprawled along Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the range overlooks postcard-pretty landscapes. The 144-kilometre-ride from Bangalore to Mysore is fantastic, and there’s more than one worthy pit stop: the timeless artisan town of Channapatna is famous for its wooden toys; 18th-century stories of Tipu Sultan’s reign are tucked away in the fort town of Srirangapatna. If luck is on your side, you might end up spotting pachyderms feeding on tender teak leaves and chitals roaming distant grasslands on this route. The tough leg comes en route to Ooty when you have to ride the steep 12-kilometre Kalhatti climb, also called Sigur Ghat, near Mudumalai. The grade is quite steep and in some sections as much as 20 per cent. The angle of gradient of most roads is typically three per cent. Top that with 36 hairpin bends. Yet, graceful mountains, stunning blue skies, and the Nilgiri laughing thrush singing high above make it all worth it. Once you hit Ooty, stop at Modern Stores for Moddy’s nutty almond chocolates the hill station is famous for. For this you will need to get off the Coimbatore-Gundlupet highway to Garden Road. If you have time, pay the botanical garden a visit, or simply enjoy the narrow roads and colonial bungalows dotting them. For those who’d like to stay back, a great budget option is Zostel Ooty (Rs1,600 for a night) on Kerada Road, a snug hideout overlooking the hills. The next morning when you start for Coonoor, grab a bite at Place to Bee or Hyderabad Biryani House. The Ooty-Coonoor stretch is spectacular, and lined with manicured tea and coffee gardens. It also shows you the best of both worlds—Ooty buzzes with honeymooners, but Coonoor, with its heritage bungalows and green trails, likes a life of quiet.

 

Your Moment in Sikkim’s Sacred Spot

Gangtok-Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim

Duration: 5 days; Distance: 174 kms; Difficulty Level: Extreme; Best Time: March-June & August-October

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Gurudongmar Lake. Photo by: Pallab Seth/moment/Getty Images

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Do stop for a plate of steaming momos en route to your final destination. Photo by: Jishnu Changkakoti/Moment Open/Getty Images

At 17,800 feet, the clear Gurudongmar Lake, among the world’s highest, sparkles like a priceless jewel in Sikkim’s crown. The lake’s waters are considered sacred and it is named after guru Padmasambhava, the saint who is believed to have introduced Buddhism to Tibetans. Mountain biking from Gangtok to here guarantees visually exhilarating, action-packed five days. There’s one rule of thumb, though. Start at 5 a.m. on day four from Thangu, the last village on the route, and begin your return journey by noon. At 13,000 feet, the wind does get quite rough and the weather unpredictable. Still, the route is picturesque, rich with glimpses into local life. There are pine and fir forests, lovely stupas and pathways that whizz past pretty towns. The quaint, river-hugging Chungthang and the more touristyMangan, site of the famous 18th-century Phodong monastery, are some settlements you will skirt past. But do brace yourself for stretches of rough and unpaved roads. Many sections are in fact just gravel, making hurtling downhill riskier. The sight of prayer flags fluttering in the distance helps, as do technical skills and prior experience of riding in high passes. Pit stops to savour Sikkim staples at matchbox-sized nameless eateries help too. Momos, thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup), and phagshapa (lightly flavoured pork curry) are nutritious and delightfully light.

But when the sun sets, retiring in a guest-house might be a good idea. There are many clean and inexpensive (Rs750-Rs1,000 for one night) options to pick from. Save your breath for some gorgeous views on day five when you inch closer to Lachen. The intense red rhododendrons will leave you stunned and it’s on this stretch that you will encounter children waving gleefully at you.

Hand out those Snickers and Bounty bars and you will be greeted with toothy smiles and enthusiastic selfie partners. The smiles on the children’s faces are priceless and a source of instant energy, something you’ll need in abundance.

  • Dhruv Bogra is an extreme adventure cyclist who has explored North and Central America, Peru and the Indian Himalayas on his bicycle.

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