Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cycling into Christmas Day...and into India!

Was I nuts to ride a borrowed bicycle through the dark, strange streets of Bangalore with heavy traffic heading toward me on the "wrong" side of the road, and the real possibility of a milk cow, bullock or dog jumping into the mix? I don't think so. If anything happened, my riding companion was a brain surgeon after all!

Plus, every vehicle driver honks at least every 15 seconds, so I was never caught unaware of a single vehicle's presence!

Seriously though, I will confess to nervousness as I anticipated my first cycling in India. But as with just about all of the things we most fear, it's just not that bad. And in this case, I truly loved it!

I couldn't have had a better guide. Arvind Bhateja, pictured second from left above, happens to be a neighbor in DartreDame's parents' apartment building. He is also fast. He finished first in the first ever Bangalore brevet the week before (though this one wasn't ACP sanctioned, their upcoming one is!) in about seven hours. Told you he's fast. Arvind is also training for an upcoming Triathlon in Singapore.

Arvind is also very generous. Since I had no ride, he loaned me his Look 566 bicycle (after he made saddle and handlebar adjustments). And though I know he had planned to ride like the wind with his cycling pals (Roopak Suri is on the left and Mohan Kumar is second from the right), he hung with me instead.

Roopak lives in Delhi, and he too is very fast. He rides about 300k a week, I think he said. He is on the Delhi racing team. Mohan, again also fast, is newer to cycling, and he hails originally from Kerala, DartreDame's family's home state as well. My next trip to India, I hope we get to visit beautiful Kerala!

So what was the riding like? First off, you've got to visualize yourself as a corpuscle in the bloodstream. That was my strategy. You've seen those photos of cells going through an artery, right? All the corpuscles are individual, but they bob along despite obstacles and always squeezing through like one fluid unit. That was my vision from riding around in cars and auto rickshaws, and it worked for me on the bike.

In our case, we corpuscles departed before dawn so as to escape Bangalore Central prior to the arterial traffic rush. Christmas Day is an official holiday (residual from British times?), but most shops are open and traffic is still as congested, so leaving early was a good strategy. The challenge with that is seeing the road. You just can't assume the road is smooth, because it might be for a long while then...boom! There will be a deep, gaping hole. But I had taken my Ixon IQ light plus a helmet light, and I stuck to Arvind's wheel pretty tightly. And when the morning brightened, I knew I had endured the worst.

And as Arvind had planned we were nearing the outskirts as the Sun came up, and all was good. He pointed out the beautifully designed buildings at the high tech center called Electronics City. Big campus with gracefully carved, space age-looking buildings.

After we hooked up with Roopak and Mohan, we headed for the gate that sits on the border between the states of Karnataka (home to Bangalore) and Tamilnadu. The whole time we cycled on Hosur Road. And the road condition was actually great outside of Bangalore proper. It was about a 60k ride, roundtrip.

On the return we stopped for Chai Tea at a local roadside stand. That's where I took the photo below of Arvind's bike that I rode, and where a fellow traveler snapped the shot of the four of us above. I'm not a coffee drinker, so the cliched randonneuring coffee stops here in the Seattle area don't interest me, but if we had little Chai stands I'd be hard pressed to ride by without stopping. It was a sublime cup of tea, and with me cycling in India!

Then, entering back into Bangalore, the Sun really came out and so did the people. We passed by all kinds of shops just opening up. My favorite was riding by a meat stall with a butcher carving up a goat hanging from a hook just feet from us in the morning glow. It was Christmas morning, and I was cycling in India.

I wish I knew how to convey my love of India. All I can conjure up is that it is a present place, and I feel very much in the present there myself. I'm sure being on vacation and being held gently by family and friends like Arvind is part of it. I recognize that when I've been in India I've not been jammed for time between work and other demands. But still, I've vacationed other places too, and India and Indians are special. Cycling into India was beyond special! Thanks, Arvind, for your generosity.

A few other notes. Arvind's family founded a hospital in India. His wife, Anandita, is also a physician, and while we were there she ministered to the SingingCyclist's health as he recovered from a diarrhea and vomiting bout, to DartreDame and her sinus and diarrhea issues, and to Maya, Dartre's mother. She has treated lots of issues for building residents over the years, and for no compensation. She says simply: "Why have a physician in the building if you can't be cared for?" I also witnessed first hand as both Arvind and Anandita answered pesky medical phone calls from patients at all hours of the day and night without complaint. These examples perhaps get at part of the Indian spirit I cherish.

Now don't go thinking I was any kind of intrepid traveler cycling in India. Millions do every day. They typically ride Atlas or Hercules bicycles that are truly utilitarian. Built tough and heavy to last, they are everywhere. I got the impression though that serious road cycling for sport may not be viewed as such a revered thing since many regard the bicycle as a sign of the lower classes. That may explain why there are relatively so few sport cyclists. I asked Arvind whether he figured he knew all the sporting cyclists in Bangalore ( a city of 8 million residents), and he reckoned he did. And Bangalore has got the most robust cycling scene of any Indian city. With a country of over a billion people, talk about a potential audience for randonneuring and other sport cycling!

And of course I've already posted about one of the first cyclists in India. Remember Thomas Stevens?

And finally, see how visible I am in the photo above with my randonneuring reflective sash? I think I agree with (was it Jan Heine?) who said that reflective gear is more effective than lighting as for cyclists being seen. I really like my new Indian cycling pals; I do encourage them to consider seriously the complexities of being seen when cycling at night. This is one of the lessons I've learned from my nighttime randonneuring: you just can't overdo it, and reflective gear on the moving parts (legs and feet) go a long way.

Keep it present,


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