Bicycle diaries – cycling in Karnataka’s Kodagu

So are you guys ready, Manohar asks us – the motley bunch of cyclists gathered around him in a circle on a damp Saturday morning.  Moments earlier, we were handed the maps for day one with details of the route and contact details of Manohar, the organizer and the standby crew of experts who would fix the cycles in case we face any issues enroute.  It was a two-day long cycling trip dubbed ‘Tranquil Trail’ – the first day of which traverses along the monsoon-washed roads of Karnataka’s Kodagu district leading to Bhagamandala and further up to Talakaveri, the birth place of Kaveri.

The weather remains unpredictable during monsoons in these parts and though the earlier couple of days were sun-drenched, just as we reached Kadunga, the base camp early in the morning, drizzles were in order. Clouds, however, cleared up soon enough and we reported on time for instructions to start the ride. The participants are a mix bunch ranging from hardcore cycle enthusiasts to amateur cyclists (like me) who can cycle all right but never attempted a 150km ride spread across two days before.

The first day of cycling comprises of a little more than 100km starting from the base camp Kadanga to Bhagamandala. The 16km round trip to reach Talakaveri is recommended for expert riders because the steep incline is quite dramatic – it shoots to 1200ft from 800ft from Bhagamandala.

After receiving precise instructions and aided with additional information that there are two vehicles pursuing us in the trail to supply water, food and above all to perform repair works on the bikes in case of emergency, we set out into the clear day that had sunlight sifting through the dense foliage of Kadanga. The real ride began after we hit the main road. Though most of us started together, the competitive and experienced riders zipped ahead like balls released from a cannon. The enthusiastic first-timers tried to catch up with the first bunch and almost as soon as we started, I could not spot anyone on the road while I trundled in my bike panting my lungs out.

Left to my devices, I egged on disseminating mental pep-talk to my already stiff calf muscles and tired lungs that had by now developed soreness. The road, however, is hugged on both sides by tall trees that are interspersed with coffee plantation and a variety of other trees. The coffee plants are pruned for the monsoons and while there is the occasional danger of a speeding vehicle startling you in the sharp bends, your cranium stands a greater risk of getting shattered by ripe jack fruits arbitrarily falling on to the road. I evaded that risk fruitfully, I am happy to report.

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For most parts, the roads, most likely of the same quality of our city roads, remain virgin since the traffic and heavy vehicular movement in these parts are negligible. While weekends are likely to witness a heavy inflow of tourists from the cities, the main tourist attraction remains a visit to the temple in Talakaveri where the river Kauvery originates. And that is simply a one day trip, so effectively the tourists come and go leaving the roads unharmed.

The road ebbs and flows, often rising impossibly high threatening to crush my knee cap while laboring uphill. And then it drops rapidly so low just as well. Just as Bhagamandala came to view and I spotted the meeting point, I gratefully learnt that I wasn’t the last soul to reach. By then, my self-belief has gained a good score and I decided to lumber up the steep incline to reach Talakaveri.

That punishing ride was peppered with occasional showers and strong breeze but once the elevation is ascended, you are rewarded with unparalleled views on all sides. The view point at Talakaveri, to which I reached after scaling – dragging my feet, so to say – about a hundred stairs carved into the mountain offers splendid views of green-blanketed peaks and lush vegetation. Enough to provide even a novice photographer with instant gratification, the view point was also filled with camera wielding tourists.

That night, over beer-guzzling, introductory sessions and random topics of conversation with fellow riders, I tried to forget the abuse I put my body through. But there was one more day and 62kms waiting to be scaled. Albeit fears of breaking my ride midway and traveling in the support vehicle to reach the finish point – Bylakuppe golden temple and Tibetan monastery – I cycled the entire stretch without much fuss. An uphill battle is always rewarded with an effortless descend and the second day proved rather undemanding.

While the wind whistled in my ears and tiny streams gurgled by the roadside, I took it even more easy the second day. I breathed heartily, took a little too many breaks, bought sour cherries sold by village kids, stopped by the roadside to take pictures of grasslands and grazing cows and culminated the ride with two hearty plates of momos at the Bylakuppe temple with a fellow rider.

Since I don’t subscribe much to Nietzscheism, his often over-used quote “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” didn’t ring a bell at the end of the ride. Coming to think of it though, it might not have killed me but stronger? With a rattling knee, the jammed right palm and the abuse to my muscles notwithstanding, I am not exactly close to being called stronger but given a chance, I will do it all over. Again.

PS: This (in an edited form) was published in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.

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