Touring on a bicycle is like digging through a dessert to get to the sweet filling - but, very slowly.
Any place looks more beautiful when you are closer to it on a bicycle. I felt the same emotions in the Tour of Eastern Ghats. I never realized the limitless beauty right in my backyard in Andhra Pradesh.
For a tour to be enjoyable a few C's are important - Company, Curry, Climbs and of course the humble Cycle. This is a write-up of the tour through these C's. We were a small cozy group and ice-breaking happened at the beginning itself since the majority of us travelled in the same train to Badrachalam. It was quite humid at Badrachalam. After lunch, we assembled our bicycles, learnt about the tour in the briefing and went to visit the beautiful Rama temple. Satish and Narayan took us through the history of the temple.
We were prepared for Prajwal - we knew he was chatty, but the curveball was from Narayan who was hilarious and as talkative as Prajwal. Sometimes, we were caught in a war of words between them as they fought for who got more talk time!
Day 1 - BHADRACHALAM TO MAREDUMILLI
Day 1 features the famous Maredumilli climb towards the end.
While I have been riding regularly since the beginning of the year, over the last few weeks this went down owing to a lot of travel. I was also training for the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon, where I finished a half marathon just a week before the beginning of the tour. This reminded me of the Horsley Hills tour of 2017, which also started a week after the marathon. However, I was in far worse shape then because I had just recovered from a bout of viral infection.
This time, I decided not to be a superhuman on Day 1 and kept riding within limits.
Climb - Maredumilli
Even the most advanced technology cannot prepare you for the real deal. While the GPX profile of the climb shows a steep steady gradient of 15 km, it is, in reality, a series of kickers with flat breathers every few 100 m. Not my kind of a climb since I prefer the more consistent ones. But a good one to start the tour.
Towards the end of the climb, there was a young boy selling ice cream on a cart. From a distance, it shattered our ego as it looked like he was pedalling the cart up, only when we went closer did we realize that it was powered by a motorbike. Sam took an ice-cream from the guy, and was all praise for his pro like fast feed!
The climb witnessed three riders crashing, but the spirits were still high and none of them stopped riding. We had broken bikes, road rashes and people pleading for pain killers, but everyone eventually got hold of a bike and rode on.
The casualties for the day were Prajwal, Narayan, and Dev.
Curry - Bamboo Chicken at Maredumilli
Those who know that I am a vegetarian may wonder how I can claim this. Let me get to the background. We were amongst the first to reach the lunch spot and I had ordered the food based on Krish’s instructions. I saw the entire preparation and was impressed by how elaborate it was.
The proof of the pudding was definitely in the eating - the chicken vanished as quickly as it came and Krish had to hide some for the latecomers.
Cycle - Felt FR 40
This is a beautiful consistent climber. I used a super-light aluminium front wheel. While it is light, the wheel flexes and rubs the brake pads when out of the saddle. So out of saddle efforts were done away with. I didn't disturb any leaderboards but was glad to have woken up the legs while limiting the damage.
Day 2 - MAREDUMILLI TO NARSIPATNAM
Day 2 was relatively easier, with the highlight being the remote waterfall where we all went rogue! Fresh coffee and tea with Karachi biscuits made us stick around for eternity!
Initially, we were careful at the waterfall since we were warned earlier that it was dangerous. But once the first person removed his jersey and decided to take a dip, there was no holding back. Post lunch the crazy rain made us wet to the bones.
Curry - Masala Tea
The surprise winner of the day was the awesome masala tea at the Narsipatnam bus station post the ride. We were a group that was ready to wage a war for chai, so this was a well-deserved curry of the day.
Cycle - Astr Sidewinder
The cycle and rear derailleur of one of our riders, Dev, broke on Day 1. We had an Astr Sidewinder single speed on us as a spare bike. So I gave my Felt road bike to Dev and took the Sidewinder. I moved the Look pedals on the Sidewinder. It took an hour to get used to the easy gearing, but years of commuting on the fixie meant that within an hour I started enjoying it.
Climb - None
None really, it was rolling all day. But it was a challenging day nevertheless because of the rain. Sam went ahead after the waterfall and gunned the last 80 odd km alone. We were slower than expected and stopped 30 km before the designated lunch spot. So Krish finished his lunch and caught Sam on the car to let him know. He was way ahead by this time and decided to finish the ride without lunch. That was one strong ride by Sam.
A few of us reached the hotel before the sag vehicle. However, we were so dirty that we decided to clean up and take a shower. That meant that we were restricted to our rooms in towels and food was further away. Thankfully the bags came quickly and Sam could head out to replenish his empty tanks.
The ride through the rains had taken a toll on all the bikes. We washed and lubed the bikes. Sam and Narayan had some gear issues and Prabha, Sam and I stayed up late to fix it as much as we could. When we were done and retired to the room, I realized I had returned to my room 6 hrs after my shower and an apparent short walk out for tea. I was tired and had less than 5 hr of wink time before the toughest day of the tour.
It is much easier to preach than practice - I insist on the importance of sleep to my athletes, but couldn't manage it on this most important night of the tour.
Day 3 - NARSIPATNAM TO ARAKU
Day 3 held the scariest climb of the tour, the climb to Lambasinghi - the coldest place in Andhra Pradesh. As expected I was sleepy in the morning and told Krish how tired I was and tried to wake myself up fully with his coffee. But I knew that I have had some of the best days on a bicycle when I felt awful in the morning. So I chose to forget about the fatigue and just go with the flow.
Climb - Lambasinghi
We had a perfect approach to climb as the first 15 km served as a good warmup for the 13 km climb. Since I had to scale this on the Sidewinder, the climb seemed to get a few percentage points steeper.
The Sidewinder is our creation at The Bike Affair. I had visited a few countries, tried various prototypes for hundreds of km, before finalizing and producing the bike. I reminded myself how lucky I was to scale a climb on a bike we had created and I told myself that however many gears I have, I can ride only in one gear at a time and believed that this was the right gear for scaling Lambasinghi.
Just before the base of the climb, I waited for Sam and Prajwal, but they didn't realize I was waiting for them. Before I could react they just breezed past me. I started riding up slowly and tried to set targets for myself to catch up with riders ahead of me. After I caught up with Satish I could see the green helmets of Sam and Prajwal a few corners away. This was absolutely unexpected, as they had a headstart on a climb on carbon roadies while I was grinding on my single speed. Refreshed by this thought I pushed myself to catch up with them. As I caught up with them, Prajwal pressed forward. While I could not catch Prajwal, I stayed with Sam.
Diving into a hairpin bend through the inner line and powering out of the corner gives me a high and I was glad I could do that even on a single speed. This gave me a lot of confidence as I did not need to get out of the saddle. The Sidewinder I was riding had a narrow street style raiser handlebar which was too narrow to get out of the saddle and dance around. No hairpin was spared and I attacked everything from the inner line. Since Sam was taking the outer curve I was gaining on each hairpin bend and decided to keep doing it. After every hairpin, Sam would slowly ride back and then attack me. I kept going and marked almost all the attacks. I coach Sam and am lucky to have such a disciplined athlete under me. He has shown a scale of growth which is almost too good to be true. So I was quite excited that I was able to thwart his attacks and glad that I could still push him.
As I was getting tired, I thought the end was 2 km away and considered drafting Sam for a bit. He kept swaying to deny me any draft and at one point he came right in front of a low hanging branch and eased off the power. I was just behind and had to slam the brakes and let daylight get between us and just as this happened I saw a road barrier and semblance of a town. I didn't expect it to be the top but when I saw the other green helmet of Prajwal I sprinted as much as I could and finished just behind Sam. We were wondering who would have had a faster time as Sam had a head start and I finished just behind him. We had no network coverage and would have to wait for the end of the day to let Strava reveal the results.
It was an impressive ride by all the riders as no one got in the truck and everyone conquered Lambasingi. Some had to take a few breaks and walk a bit, but everyone did it on their own.
Unfortunately, this was not the only climb, the next 30 km had some nasty kickers, horrible roads and jaw-dropping scenery. I had to relent and walk a few of the near 20% gradients but rode all but a handful of the climbs on the faithful single speed.
The tourist guest house we stayed in had great food and awesome service as we chatted on all the KOM's we got and lost.
Day 4 - ARAKU TO ORISSA BORDER TOWN & BACK
Day 4 was meant to be recovery day which almost became a rest day owing to the heavy rain in the morning. We rolled out late after a leisurely breakfast. We crossed into Orissa and wiped out all the curry and sweets the first town in Orissa had to offer. Thankfully the rain god gave us some respite post-lunch and we rolled back fast to the hotel. Today was all curry and no climb (well almost no climb).
In the evening there was lots of coffee as we visited the coffee museum. So Araku coffee and Orissa curry were the joint curry winners of the day. We wound up the day with Sam plotting to climb back Ananthagiri hills and tried to entice me to see if I had the legs for this on the last day of the tour.
Day 5 - ARAKU TO VISAKAPATNAM
Day 5 was the last day of the tour and there was a sense of melancholy about the tour coming to an end. We rolled out after a nice warm breakfast at the hotel.
We had planned to ride up the Ananthagiri Hills and I had butterflies in my stomach. I had ridden up these hills nearly 7 years ago. It was on a 20" wheel Dahon folding bike last time. I was wondering why I was going to attempt it this time on a single speed. While I was analysing, the valley presented some amazing vistas of the hill ranges around.
As we passed the turn for Borra caves and Tyda I was reminded of all the good memories of past trips. The ride, unfortunately, got cut short at the base of the hill as one of the riders crashed and needed medical attention.
So sadly for a few of us, there was no curry or climbs on the last day, but the companionship took over. When we looked back at the achievements of the riders and reminded how we pushed each other across every mile and climb despite the falls and mechanicals we were proud of each other. For many like Narayan, Raunak, Praveen, Somnath this was their first bicycle tour which was made more challenging by the tough climbs. But the banter, humour, beautiful landscape, coffee, and food kept us rolling to conquer every climb along the way.
Thankfully the fall didn't cause any major damage. We repacked the bikes to send back to Hyderabad and started our goodbyes with a heavy heart. The few of us staying back had a good drive around Vizag and a nice dinner to rekindle the awesome moments we had in the tour of Eastern ghats.
The miles were far from over for me and Satish as we had to drive the support car back to Hyderabad the next day. Thankfully for me, Satish is an expert driver who was familiar with the route. I kept feeding him enough stories about my slow driving and he drove the entire distance on his own and we reached Hyderabad at a fast pace.