“My choice would be to make the climb”

What does a computational physicist from Pune have in common with the Himalayas? Well, nothing geographically, but if one considers his love for cycling and fixing bicycles, the connection can be easily established. 

Dr. Ajay Nandgaonkar heads the research and innovation team dedicated to the Energy and Resources business at TCS, and his areas of interests include analytics, modelling and simulation of physical systems, computational materials science, high performance computing and design thinking. Living in Pune with his wife and son, his other interests include cycling, inland wind surfing, enterprise sailing, biking, trekking, typography, cinema, Indian classical music, and making a lot of noise with a range of percussion instruments.

Due to the increasing popularity and easier import regulations, Indians now have access to more advanced bikes than the older Raleighs or Hercules. These geared cycles are fun to ride provided one knows how to change the gears! And once people start cycling, soon some of them get the ambition of conquering Himalayas.

Dr. Ajay Nandgaonkar too got into this mountain mood and landed up in Manali one day, with a group of about 30 other enthusiasts. All with only one thing in mind: Khardung La – Ladakh.

With the opening of the Atal Tunnel in Kullu District in October 2020, there has been an explosion of tourists visiting the region. Even under the prevalent COVID-19 situation, as per official information from Kullu Police, a total of 5450 vehicles travelled across the Atal Tunnel from Manali to Lahaul and back on 28 December 2020.

This made us think about the adventure sports related tourists who frequent Himachal Pradesh, and revisit one of the works sent in by one of our regular contributors — acclaimed flautist and traveller, Milind Date.

In this first of a 5-part series, Milind Date interviews Dr. Ajay Nandgaonkar in the context of Himalayan cycling and his 2016 Cycling Expedition from Manali to Leh and Khardung La.

(First-person account as transcribed by Milind Date)

Milind: What are your views on travel across the recently opened Atal Tunnel? 

Dr. Ajay: The tunnel will facilitate connection between Lahaul Spiti and Kullu Manali. Rohtang from Manali had the worst road in the entire journey, due to water and tremendous traffic, which is gone due to this tunnel now. Overall it is very good for local residents, commuters, and businesses. 

For a bicycle expedition, I would avoid it. The greatest reward of a gruelling climb on a bicycle is the view from the top, and a long downhill. Therefore my choice would be to make the climb. And enjoy the downhill, after a nice cup of tea and hot snack on top. The tunnel offers none of these. The view from Rohtang top towards the Pir Panjal Range and Baralacha La is just breathtaking. Also there is the issue of polluted air for a longer time inside the tunnel.

Milind: How was your 2016 Manali — Khardung La Cycling Expedition? 

Dr. Ajay: Well to be honest it was a pleasure ride. It was not easy, but it wasn’t difficult as such. I have known people doing far more difficult rides! Ours was a supported ride. This was organized by Ulhas Joshi, Gayatri Joshi and Nachiket Joshi from Pune. They have been invaluable support to everyone. There was a support crew of about 10 people with us. They were doing all sorts of things — preparations mainly. So when we reached our daily destination, there would be tents ready for us. There would be lunch and dinner ready for us. They even used to drive ahead to a decided spot on the route to give us breakfast and tea and all that. We were not carrying our clothes or toothbrush and all that. It was luxurious. 

But yes, you had to push the pedals lakhs of times everyday, and that wasn’t easy at all!

Milind: What bike (model) did you take on the trip? Was it some special bike or the usual one that you ride here in the city?

Dr. Ajay: I rode a TREK 4300. It is a mountain bike — a hard tail with lockable front suspensions (the hybrid bike was what I rode here in Pune). There were several long, long patches where there was just rubble, not a spot of tar. By definition tar and water are enemies, so it is very difficult to make and maintain roads in these remote regions with such challenging weather. 

Milind: What was the preparation like?

Dr. Ajay: The preparation for the ride was spread over several months. It is for psychological and physical readiness as well as technical skills. Although as I said this was a completely supported ride, you still had to repair a puncture on your own bike. Also maintenance of the bike is highly important. Then entire trip depends on a good bike actually. I learnt all the necessary maintenance from Ashok Captain – the legend in cycling!

Milind: Tell me one thing: were you used to riding before you went for this expedition?

Dr. Ajay: Yes, and no. I am not or wasn’t a cyclist by definition like Ashok Captain — we were lucky he was with us in the ride! I have my day job and this is purely my hobby. I had to train specially for this ride. We — those who had joined the ride in July — started practicing in Pune from January. First we would go from University Circle to Chandani Chowk and return. In the beginning this wasn’t easy either. Then slowly we started extending our rides to Pirangut and then eventually to Sinhagad, Lavasa and then to Panchgani. Lavasa is particularly bad — it’s long and the gradient is high. 

So these rides were extremely helpful for this Ladakh expedition. Ladakh ride became easy only because we had practiced enough!

Milind: How did the practice help you? I mean it would have been more than just increasing your endurance, surely?

Dr. Ajay: Well, riding on mountains is a totally different ball game than riding on plains. And moreover, riding in the Himalayas is again quite different from riding here in Sahyadris. The first and foremost important thing is how you sit on a bike — how to get your posture right. There is a particular way to sit on a bike if you have to ride for longer hours, so that you don’t get cramps or such. The seat height has to be right and all that. It doesn’t really come in first ride. It’s always an evolving process.

But in any case, first you need to know how to change gears. There are lots of them. My bike had 3 on the front and 8 on back. So what happens is that in the early stages of your practice, you want to ride in the high gears, but practically it’s not possible. It’s exactly like you trying to take you car in the top gear to say Sinhagad! Also, you have to maintain the ratio of the gears properly. The chain should be as straight as possible.

So while training, in the first few rides, actually you are getting acquainted with the idea of gear changing. You change the gears by the feel eventually. The idea is that you have to minimise your pedalling effort and as you go lower on the gears, your efforts are lesser. Soon when you get through it, you don’t even realise when you are changing gears, it becomes a reflex action — just like driving a car.

Dr. Ajay Nandgaonkar.

Milind: I know this may not be the correct question, but generally on what gear do you prefer to ride on these long but low gradient rides? I know it will keep changing, but still …

Dr. Ajay: Most of the times I would try to stay in the middle segment. But then as soon as the climb comes, they you change the gear and if the gradient goes higher then you go on the smallest gear or the Granny Gear. So for Lavasa, Sinhagad, there would be times when you had to go on the Granny Gear. The important thing was that your cadence had to be good — your number of pedals per minute.

Milind: What would happen if something went wrong with the bike? Wouldn’t it be a nightmare?

Dr. Ajay: Certainly! But that’s exactly why I learnt the maintenance and repairing of the cycle. I learnt it a lot from Ashok Captain. He is a super experienced chap, multiple race winner and all that! He knows everything by heart I guess. He loves to fix bikes, and I love bikes, so after every ride there would be these bike-fixing episodes at my house. Eventually we would get other rider’s bikes to fix too, and I was getting better and better. My whole house would be turned into a mechanic’s workshop (and it still is at times). So my involvement in biking is not just riding, but also in fixing it. I always took pride in having a clean, noise less, absolutely smooth bike.

Milind: What kind of grease or oil did you use? I mean the temperature would be very low there and the weather must be bad! Was it?

Dr. Ajay: Well, not really! We didn’t meet up with minus 20 degree Celsius or such lows. We were there in summer. We used some special grease but there was no trouble with the temperatures there. Yes, it was cold — on the passes, where there is permanent snow, it would be mighty cold, but we were prepared for that. In the journey, several times there were rains, then snow, sleets actually. That was tough. The worst was the wind. At times it was so strong that you would be pedalling a lot and still be at exactly the same spot. There were storms too, with the one that happened at night (when we weren’t riding) just making us feel as if our tents would go off flying or what!

Milind: How was the road quality generally?

Dr. Ajay: It was good and bad. For miles and miles there would be excellent tar road and then so many miles would be bad road. At times, in several patches, there was just rubble. Not a spot of tar could be seen anywhere. That’s why we needed hybrid bikes. Otherwise if there had been a good tar road, we would have chosen different types of bikes. The real examination was wherever there was mud — mud is even tougher to tackle. Then there were streams to be crossed. You did not want your shoes to get wet. So, stop before the stream, remove shoes. Go through the stream and hop on … this was done many times. 

Milind: What do you think was the most important factor in this journey?

Dr. Ajay: Well, everything is important, every detail is important. But I think the ability to sit on the cycle for a very long time and not to get daunted by the weather are two highly important factors in this ride. Unlike Maharashtra, in the Himalayas the gradient is not much but that’s the reason why the distances are much longer. This is a kind of highway so the fully loaded trucks also travel on it. Thus the gradient isn’t much but the road is just endless. Also, here in Pune, we aren’t used to high altitude. Rohtang Pass is around 13000 feet high, but some of the further passes are way higher than this — Baralacha La is at around 16000 feet and Khardung La is 18000+ feet. And the air is thin there. Lesser oxygen makes it very difficult for everything! So unfortunately some guys did get high altitude sickness and thus couldn’t complete the ride.

Milind: What was your day like?

Dr. Ajay: We used to start cycling at 5.30 am. It’s a routine. There is enough light and it’s not hot at all — because during the day even if it is cold, direct sun can be very harsh. We used to ride till around 2.30 in the afternoon, and then take rest for the remaining day. That was the best part I think. Depending on every person’s riding speed, they used to reach anywhere from 2 to 3 pm. 2.30 pm was the cut-off timing — this way you keep your energy for a longer ride.

On the way there would be breakfast ready for us at a specific pre-decided spot. Usually we reached there at around 8.00 am. You would get these packages of breakfast, so you could eat them wherever you want on the ride. There used to be some food, fruits, some juice, and yes of course — lots of water. You carry some water with you anyway. In fact I used to carry some hot tea and whenever I felt like, I would simply sit on a road-side rock and sip it like a king! Eventually we would to reach the day’s destination between 1.00 — 2.30 pm. And then simply rest. 

The entire remaining day was free for us to do anything. We would enjoy the nature so much. The silence, the wind, the sound of stream and mountains … everything around us was divine!  What I also loved was that while riding you could see the nature around you a lot. If you go by car, you simply pass it so quickly that rarely you get to see everything the way we could.

Milind: I am sure being physically fit is highly recommended for such tours?

Dr. Ajay: Oh yes, absolutely! The terrain is tough. There is no doubt about that. In our case, as it was a supported tour, there was a doctor with us. In fact he too was riding with us. Every day there would be a blood oxygen test. You put this small unit on your finger and it tells you the oxygen level in your blood. Unfortunately a couple of guys did develop Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and had to be evacuated from there. Some developed it early in the ride and those were taken to Manali, and some developed the condition later, and they were taken to Leh. We had an extra car only for this reason! 

The trick is to hydrate! Keep having lots of water all the time! Some guys take Dimox without asking a doctor and that too can land them up in trouble.

Dr. Ajay Nandgaonkar at Khardung La – the final destination of their 2016 Cycling Expedition.

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