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Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Not yet Neelima, the next sign board is just round the corner, keep pedaling. “

“We are almost there. The number is less by one more hairpin bend, keep pushing yourself!”

“What kind of an idiot would want to cycle up to Ooty? And what kind of an idiot would want do this in this kind of heat? Oh yea, that idiot goes by the name Neelima.”

“The kids who passed by are waving at you yelling “Good job!” That’s cool and some inspiration. Two more hairpin bends before you stop, okay?”

“If you can’t, nobody can Neelima. Don’t stop yet”

“Twinkle twinkle little star…”

“Damn you Kalhatty!”

“Yay! What? Wow! I made it? Really? No wait. Awesome!!”

Well this and a thousand other conversations I was having with myself while I tried to cycle up to Ooty one weekend in the summer heat of April. And if you don’t know why we talk to ourselves, you should read this post first! Trust me, talking to yourself and taking deep breaths really helps! ;)

IMG_9999_143 Ooty climb was known to be a killer climb among the veterans who regularly come here to train. Especially the Kalhatty climb holds special place in many a heart. Those who have been able to finish the route on cycle will never forget the slogging and the redemption while it stays a haunting dream for those who could not. I have to tell you, I have done few rides before Kalhatty and few more after but so far the claim stands good. Kalhatty is by far the toughest route I rode upon yet.

Ooty can be reached in two ways from Mudumalai Forest Reserve – One is the steeper but shorter route through Kalhatty which measures 36kms and the other one is the longer but less steep route through Gudalur measuring 67kms. Considering the inherent need for challenge of the few not-your-regular-city dwellers, the Kalhatty route was the obvious choice to reach our destination.

The climb hasn’t started yet, or has it?

Day 1:

IMG_9999_166We were off to a very late start from Gundlupet, just outside Bandipur National Park. The clock showed 9 AM as four of us started the ride towards the forest. The first small uphill seemed impossible, my body refused to push forward and the cycle refused to move forward. At this point, riding up to Ooty seemed an idea way too farfetched! But what do we know, all the body needs is some warm up. As soon as we enter Bandipur there is a four hair pin bend uphill to serve as the perfect warm up. There were quite a few uphills and downhills and riding in the forest wasn’t all that pleasant thanks to the scorching sun and the sparsely spread canopy.

Crossing borders, Enter Tamilnadu and the Elephant scare..

A rather dry ride brought us to Tamilnadu border where the forest guards put a break to the speeding wheels. Apparently a foreigner got stamped to death by an elephant last month and hence the forest officials were apprehensive about small groups cycling through the forest. We were to enter Mudumalai National Park now. As per their suggestion, we waited till we were a group of 15 and started the ride towards Ooty through the forest. Mudumalai was much more beautiful and greener compared to Bandipur. The short 4km ride could be best described as awesome. The heat wasn’t coming through the thick canopy above, the road was delightful, the forest was resplendent and there were deer and its ilk here and there.

Take left to burn a lot of calories

IMG_9999_170 Well, many a time I get this question. What do you get by doing all this? I guess it makes me feel alive. No points for guessing that the left turn is going to be a tough one. Well, so be it. We were still riding through Mudumalai to reach Masinagudi to have lunch. We waited for a long time before everyone came. Arvindh knew of a place which served simple but delicious homemade meals. Without a care in the world, four of us had sumptuous meal and as we ate, teams left one after the other to start the climb. We would’ve liked to start as early as possible but the food was simply delectable. Later we were the last ones to start the ride.

The first mile is just as tough as the last mile.

The road goes through some forest and village and then you can see huge mountain rising in front of you. Logic defies reason because reaching such heights on a cycle seems highly implausible. Yet the optimist inside keeps pedaling to reach the first right that marks the start of the Kalhatty climb. As expected, the afternoon heat made the climb twice as hard and climbing hills right after a heavy lunch, not the best of times. But I think, if you last the first kilometer or two you would keep at it till the end. The first kilometer definitely took a lot of determination from my side to not to give up the ride. By now, people had made their decision – those who wanted to ride and those who didn’t.

And then starts the number game

The climb officially doesn’t start till you see the first sign board proclaiming to be 36/36th of the hairpin bends. If not for these boards, I don’t know what would give motivation to the riders. Seeing the number reduce one by one works like a charm and gives you enough motivation to keep pedaling. 36 became 34, 32, 30, so on and so forth. Till we reached the 23rd hairpin bend, the sun was relentlessly doing its job. The clock showed 3.30 PM and few helpful guys in a car offered us water that they were carrying. Soon dark clouds engulfed the sun and the weather turned pleasant just like that. Time was 4.30 or 5.00 and we were at hairpin bend number 14. We found Ravi, Ashish and Nirav taking a break here and after a quick stop all of us resumed the killer climb again. We were 6 in all and it was much better than three of us riding given the warning of locals shouting “Elephants! Elephants!”

IMG_9999_132The never-ending climb

Just as we cycled through the numbered hairpin bends, there came a long never ending stretch of a road which went up and up and up and up. Okay I am exaggerating because it looked never-ending to a tired soul but it would be atleast 500meters of a 45 degree incline. Again I might be wrong in estimating but when you are cycling, that is how it is going to look to you as well. This is just before Kalhatty village, the road that broke everyone’s determination. Each one of us thought we’d cycle all the way to the top but the bike wouldn’t move. Sooner or later we all got to our feet dragging the bike. Good thing is we just crossed 8th hairpin bend. We are this close to completing the super crazy Kalhatty climb.

After this, we cycled across the village and the numbers didn’t reduce much as the altitude increased. We reached hairpin bend number 4 and that’s where I couldn’t pedal anymore. I was way too tired to even talk myself into riding ahead. Ravi was with me and we got down the bike to push through the last mile, more like the last kilometer. 3, 2 and 1!

The coveted Hairpin bend 1/36, here we cometh!

IMG_9999_40There we were. What joy I cannot explain, for I myself do not understand. We took photos, we rested, we discussed as the light disappeared and the cold started setting in. Three others were still cycling to reach the top. We moved base to wait near a small shop nearby and the shared camaraderie especially after enduring a killing ride or trek is always joyful to say the least. We waited for the three to come and spent some more time in cheerful banter. As I look back, it was a good time.

We were still 10kms away from Ooty and the clock showed 8.00PM. All that rest rejuvenated me to an extent and I was able to ride the rest of the distance to Ooty. It wasn’t all uphill but it was a rolling terrain and we managed to reach Ooty fine. Here I also ran into the wildlife expert Sandeep which was a pleasant surprise.

At last, 10 of us managed to finish the Kalhatty climb, on cycles! That is legendary!

Sometimes people ask me, what am I made of? The answer is quite simple – flesh and blood. I am no different than any other. But what I am also made up of is grit and a mind that refuses to let my body stop. Like I said, I am a firm believer of mind over matter philosophy. Let your mind do the work, trust me, it can take you to places, quite literally! :)

We cycle, we pedal.
We trudge. we struggle.

Who are we? We are finishers!

Total Distance Covered – 65kms
Time Taken for the climb (36-1 hairpin bends) – 4 – 4 1/2 hours.

Day 2:

"It was time to enjoy the benefits of yesterdays effort, is what I thought, which is why I refused to use the awesome hydraulic disc brakes on my bike, which is why I flew off the bike and fell on my head during my first high speed downhill crash!"

Reveling in yesterday’s glory wasn’t going to help me in any way. As we took the cycles out of YHAI campus, the road goes straight up. Damn those uphills already! I was told that even though the Gudalur route is going to be downhill for considerable part, it is not going to be as easy as a push of a pedal at the top and nonstop descent after that. The route would be scenic too I was told. But nothing gave me enough motivation. For that day, I hated ascents, even nominal ones.

Today the entire gang of 40 was back on bikes to enjoy the downhill ride. Rekha was cycling too and the photographer in me came out today. Me, Rekha, Nitin and Arvindh decided we would go slowly, very late taking as many photos as possible. Just outside of Ooty, we came across this awesomely beautiful dried up lake bed which now looked like grassland. Tall trees outlined the area and the sky was exceptionally blue, just the way I liked. With two photographers and willing people it was time for photoshoot.

We were trailing behind while Dipankar also joined us. The five of us now reached Kamraj Sagar Dam and it was time for more photos and offroading. Look what my bike can do! ;)

Neelima So far so good. The ride was interesting and then started more ascents. We crossed the Pykara Lake and went ahead to reach Pykara Boat house. The thing is the route is a continuous 10kms of delirious downhill ride. I was all too happy about the first major downhill ride. It was time to enjoy the benefits of yesterdays effort, is what I thought, which is why I refused to use the awesome hydraulic disc brakes on my bike, which is why I flew off the bike and fell on my head during my first high speed downhill crash! The curves were lovely and swaying left to right trying to maintain speed seemed fun but at one such devious curve, I knew there wasn’t enough room for me to take a turn at such speed, I tried to apply brakes but I was already at the point of no return. Fall I had to, the only question was where would I like to land. Once I decided the location, the only thing left for me to do was to apply the front brake which would surely throw me off the bike but at least I’d stop. It was time, I applied the brake and the next moment I was lying on the ground saying a million thanks to my awesome helmet, without which I would’ve sustained serious head injury.

I got up to find I was completely unharmed and so was the bike. The chain came off, I laughed to myself as I fixed it. I started riding again but now I was a changed person, I wasn’t the crazy speed maniac I was a while ago. Instead I was a cautious person going at acceptable speeds with both the hands resting on the brakes. What this actually means is the ride got super boring after this. There were more downhills after this, there were mountains, tea plantations, clouds and more downhill. But too much of downhill can get seriously boring, especially if you are trying to control speed.

IMG_9999_126As we came down, the heat was soaring high. We reached Gudalur checkpost just before Masinagudi after some uphills. Like I said earlier, we were the last ones to come down while most of the team had already left for the 34 km ride to the Gundlupet pitstop where our vehicles were parked.  The afternoon heat was unbearable, even a nominal ascent was getting me super angry and at such a time I was all too confused if it actually makes sense to do the rest of the ride through that sparse forest in this heat. But I was also thinking if I’d finish the last stretch I would’ve finished the entire ride. While I was still in two minds, Dipankar comes to me and tells me to get into TT as it will get tougher from here and I am better off sitting in the TT.

And just like that, it was decided. I was going to do the rest of the ride on cycle.  Rajesh and Ashish were also coming along with me and the three of us decided we’ll complete the entire ride. So, now you know how to get things done from me. Ask me not to do it. ;)

The ride was long, the heat was on, there were uphills but of course nothing compared to Kalhatty. And for someone having done Kalhatty, everything else seems just fine. We finished the 34km ride in 90 minutes to reach the final pitstop.

That’s how the crazy ride ended. I managed a total of 170kms over a weekend which included one of the toughest climbs of South India. After this ride, the one thing I learnt was ain’t no mountain high enough! :)

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Written by: Neelima Vallangi

Date: April, 2011

Photo Courtesy: Neelima Vallangi

Event organized by: Dipanker Paul

Composed by: Swetha Padakandla

The Crew: Aashish, Arvindh, Chandan, Dipankar, Karthik, Neelima, Neerav, Nitin, Ravi, Rajesh

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