Saying good bye to the gorgeous Highland Accord hotel in Ooty on a super chilly winter morning, we set out for the next leg of The Tour of Nilgiris. A 145 km ride, mostly comprising of descents this was going to be. It meant two things – riders could pace themselves, enjoying the beautiful landscape of the tea estates and that they could for a change, reach the hotel the earliest today!
There is an art to descending gracefully though. If you give-in to the adrenaline rush and zoom through the slopes, a small error in judgement or an oncoming vehicle can ruin all the fun. While speaking with Alexi Grewal, a cycling veteran, and an Olympic gold winner with Indian roots, he said, “We were fast riders, we couldn’t slowdown, so there were bound to be some close shaves. But in the first four years of my professional career, we were taught how to fall from the bike. We were taught simple exercises in the gym where we learnt what to do in case of an accident. Thanks to that, I’ve never broken a bone on the bike.”
Heading downhill from Pykarra to Gudalur in the misty morning and then onwards to sunny Kalpetta was the route map for the day; through some of the most magical hard wood forests, bamboo and tea plantations.
The sentiment in the air was calm, this day being just a day away from completing the tour, everyone was taking it easy. Shankey, a rider from Mumbai coolly exclaimed, “Ah, this is my kinda ride, barely any climbs, easy down hills, this has been my most favourite day!”
While most riders managed to control their bike breaks, ensuring they din’t go too hard, feathering occasionally and taking their time coming down the slopes, a few riders did lose their balance or had a close shave with traffic but with just a few bruises.
A senior rider Girish, all of 52 years, could teach the younger riders a thing or two about being wise on the slopes. Alexi, watching him ride all these days had named him a trooper; and rightly so. Never has there been a calmer rider, pulling on his bike smoothly at the toughest climbs and the steepest inclines. You really have to see him ride to believe his kinda zen.
Meanwhile, as everyone reached the lunch point after SS1, which was set right in the middle of the Ruby tea gardens, you could see them get off their bike and lie flat on the cool ground, sighing with a deep feeling of contentment. Dr.Dhananjey from Spectrum Physio and his team were at work as usual, helping riders ease out a nagging pain here, a tight muscle there. With kids from the nearby village excitedly buzzing around the lunch spot, chatting with riders and checking out all the fancy bikes, everyone indulged them with photos, goodies and smiles.
With 70 kms more to go, this time mostly on winding roads amidst tea estates, some riders took their time to stay back and rest at the lunch spot or ride a little ahead and stop with their groups for photographs. A conversation with Stephan, a rider from Sweden revealed his love for cycling tours like the Tour of Nilgiris. This is his second year he said and he enjoys the combination of the competitive section and the scenic route; he takes his time to stop at sections and admire the view along the way. I caught up with him at SS4 sipping his hot cuppa black tea and just looking on at the calming expanse of the emerald green ahead of him.
SS4 was set near the tea stall of the Wentworth Tea Factory. A big blue support tent, a small tea shop and acres and acres of tea plantation – all the way meeting the horizon; we couldn’t have asked for a more idyllic location for the last support station for the day.
Just a few kilometres away from SS4, as the riders peddled across a nondescript white bridge, we left Tamil Nadu and entered back into the state of Kerala; that’s all it takes to mark state border crossing here in India! The scenery remained the same, except for some quaint village homes with kolam designs adorning their front yard, lungi clad men heading back home, and lots of banana plantations on either side of the road.
All in all, today was a simple, no nonsense day, no need to think and strategise, no competitive section to plan your time. So all the riders had to do was get set, rock and roll!