From July 13-25, 2012, my friends Harsha, Ashwin and I went on a one way cycling tour from Manali to Khardung La, Leh, India. We started our trip from Solang Valley in Manali, and flew back from Leh to Delhi. The idea was to scale the highest motor-able roads in the world. Over 9 days, we cycled 580 kms crossing many high altitude passes in partly tarmac partly off road mountain terrain. Reaching atop the Khardung La - the world's highest motor-able road (18380 ft.) was our triumphant moment. Post this tour, a lot many friends have been inspired to start cycling, including a group of friends in Bangalore who are now planning the same trip in 2013. So how should you go about planning a cycling trip from Manali to Leh? I’ve tried to summarize based on my experience during this tour.
Preparation & Training
• Harsha perhaps was the fittest of the lot, or may be Ashwin. It is hard to say, coz Ashwin did another 500 kms solo as he went beyond Khardung La down to Nubra, but Harsha was ahead of us usually everyday by about an hour or so on average. I was perhaps least fit in comparison, however, barring the odd day, none of us had any aches and pains, sprains or any sort. On an average if you do a combination of gym and cycling, it should work well.
• For me personally, gym training was the key. Being based in Singapore, I could not prepare adequately for the terrain, the gradients etc., so most training had to be indoors in the gym. I signed up for 30 sessions with an instructor, who primarily worked with me to increase endurance, build leg and back muscle. One of the key things I recollect was the appropriate use of muscle for certain activity. He trained me on how to use my hamstring and quads, ensuring the back does not get stressed and stiff and hence I didn’t end up with strained muscles on any day.
•The other learning I had from gym was that for endurance training, I was mostly doing something called active circuit training (not so much weights or gym equipment)...look it up on YouTube, you will get a feeling for it. This helped me the most, because I developed stamina and the ability to extend stamina over longer periods. After the whole 60-minute workout, he would end up making me cycle in the gym for another 30 minutes even if it was at a lower levels.
•Just for reference, I have not been in a gym before Feb this year 2012 for the past 36 years :) and the last time I cycled was at least 19 years ago. And my basic level of fitness was very very poor; very little sport before cycling started...this whole preparation has helped me alter my lifestyle completely. I am regularly gyming now and back to cycling.
•Stretching everyday before and after you finish is important. There were a few stretches that were key that ensured the back was never strained through the trip. A local gym instructor should be able to guide.
Mental Resilience & Fitness
• I can’t stress how important this is. Even though one may consider himself very fit, the mind really plays tricks and sends all sorts of signals to the body...very important to be strong willed. To be able to tell the mind "shut up - you're wrong, I can do this". There will be times during the ride, during some passes that seem really long, when one tends to give up, take the easier option out; or worse - quit. I found myself very weak initially and my confidence grew every passing day. For those who do it, meditation and yoga helps balance the mind.
• Enjoy the ride - very important. Its not a race, its not a challenge, don't compare your pace with anyone else's, ride at your own comfort, stop as many times as you want to, don't get pressured that you have to reach your destination at the end of the day. Relax, take pictures and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
• Break down your 500 km ride into each day, and each day into smaller portions. At one point in time, I remember I would cycle every 500 meters and take a break. I just had to, and that was the only way to push myself.
• Be patient with other riders, some will be fast, some slow. Remember to stay together, keep nudging and encouraging - I had great companions on this trip, and it would have been very difficult to keep going if Ashwin did not ride along with me most days. Our pace was just too slow for Harsha...I guess he would have burnt out faster had he kept going at our pace.
• Being successful in the ride boils down to your nutrition. It’s a game of carbs. Carbs give you immediate energy/fuel to burn. It takes about 10 mins from the time the food goes in, to feel the energy boost. So eat before you're hungry. Ashwin shared a great article that I read in Sarchu on nutrition for long rides – highly recommend for anyone who’s planning long cycling rides. http://tunedintocycling.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/cycling-nutrition-eating-on-the-bike
• During training, I altered my diet quit a bit. The idea was to be lean. Lose the fat to gain muscle. I was drinking protein shake every day, and did a lot of research on good carbs, useless carbs. Also it is a good idea to eat about 20 minutes before you start cycling while training, you will feel a lot better.
• Hydrate - drink a lot of fluids. It was quite funny - I had a bio break almost every 20 minutes consistently on all days of cycling. On an average Ashwin and I consumed about 5-6 liters of water everyday...Harsha of course was superman, probably drank 2-3 liters...but I genuinely believe its not a good practice. Hydration also avoids muscle pulls and restores all the salts in the body.
• Having a cook travel along was a great idea. I truly enjoyed the food. It took away the worry away of having to find a place to eat food and avoids Maggie fatigue. After a long tiring day, eating hot food in cold weather is a true delight.
• We carried energy gels, nutrition bars, chocolate, dry fruits and bananas, for our snacks. We rationed our stock into 12 packs - one per day so we don't waste time every night preparing for the next day.
• It was my first trip of this kind, not sure how the body would react, never been on that terrain before. Additionally I have asthma so I insisted on a support vehicle. Also was not too keen to carry my own 20-kilo luggage with me on panniers while riding (call me spoilt!)
• To my mind this trip has to have great memories. It is not about proving anything to anyone. Just chill and enjoy should be thy motto. I would highly recommend a support vehicle. It is a safer option.
• I probably differ from both Harsha and Ashwin on the itinerary. In my mind, had the trip planned out quite differently since we had 12-14 days to ride. Eventually we did the ride in 9 days. I would have preferred it had we not pushed every single day.
• Every body can do this ride if the itinerary is a bit more comfortable. A good target is to ride about 40-60 kms every day. We were crossing 60 on all days, on some occasions crossed 80. The problem with that is that because of varied fitness levels of people, some will start finding the trip too demanding and the mind becomes weak. In some cases, you could even become physically drained. You could probably consider some options for itinerary and keep flexibility depending on how the group rides.
• Do remember that riding 70 km on flat surfaces is not the same in that terrain. The average speed you will find most people riding on is between 4-7 km/hour so its almost 9-11 hours of cycling every single day if you follow our itinerary.
• Start early - we did not on all days. But on the days that we did, we could stop early, and feel a lot more relaxed.
• Try and take a full day's break somewhere in between. Ours was at Sarchu and it was a great way to spend time, unwind and recharge your batteries.
• Be open to taking slight detours, slight delays, spending some extra time in a village etc. It is important to cherish the experience rather than the feat of cycling 500 kms.
• We had dismantled our bikes to fit into boxes. I had borrowed a bike case from a friend. Basically, take both wheels off, remove the handle bar and pedals, and put the frame in the box. Depending on size, some cases may require only one wheel to be removed (in which case remove the front one since it’s a lot easier to put back)
• Internationally, most airlines treat this as sports equipment and will charge you the same way they do for items such as golf kits etc. I paid a flat $50 charge to Indigo for a flight from Singapore to New Delhi.
• On return, please expect to pay excess baggage on flights within India. From Leh to Delhi and then beyond anywhere else. Different airlines have different rates ranging from about INR 300 to INR 600 per kilo. A typical bike weight with packaging etc. is about 20 kilos.
• If you enjoy Gold status on preferred airlines, you should be able to check this in within your extra weight limit hopefully.
If you’re interested in any more specific information, feel free to me on firstname.lastname@example.org.