Racing On India’s First Bicycle Highway: Etawah to Agra
A firsthand account of racing on India’s first bicycle highway!
In the year 2016, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh announced a plan to build a cycling highway in India between Etawah and Agra. Cycling highways might be common in the developed world but it’s the first in our country.
This much needed shot in the arm of the sport amidst increasing pollution and traffic problems was to be held in a part of India which people generally fear to visit because of its many tales of lawlessness.
When I first heard about this race, I was a bit sceptical. A race conducted by the government in an area not particularly famous for its safety and security. It was to be held a stone’s throw from my hometown. There was a nagging voice in the back of my head that I should participate. If people were putting in effort to organise and conduct this race, then the very least I could do was to show up there and ride my heart out.
With minimal practice and preparation I landed up at the gates of the Decathlon store in Noida from where 150 participants left for the Chambal Safari Lodge. Bikes safely packed in an accompanying truck; we enjoyed the comfortable journey to the resort.
For the latter half of the route we had a police escort as we hooted through traffic. On a relatively narrow 2-lane State Highway our convoy breezed through. Aggressively pushing everyday cyclists off the roads. It was hard to miss the irony.
We were sitting with fancy riding gear and bikes going for a cycling event, where our accomplishments would be celebrated, while harassing the everyday cyclist going about on his daily commute. This just goes the importance of having dedicated cycling lanes everywhere, if people are to take up cycling in larger numbers.
There wasn’t a single person who could find cause to complain at the campsite. The arrangements by Cycleit (the organisers) were fantastic. They had thought of every little thing a cyclist requires. After lunch and tea, the truck with the bikes arrived and the campsite was buzzing with activity, as everyone went about setting up their bikes. There were mechanics present to assist with assembling the bikes and were kept properly busy with pesky cyclists like myself!
Most went for a quick spin to ensure all was in order. The effort ensuring we worked up an appetite and the sumptuous dinner didn’t disappoint. For a cyclist food is possibly the most important thing on the riding agenda!
There was also a comprehensive briefing by the Cycleit team. Dinner was good not just because of the food but also because of the fantastic cyclists. Accomplished riders who had been there done that. Inspiring and humbling in equal measure.
Race Day 1
Race Day. Finally! A 5 o’clock wakeup call and equally early breakfast later we got into the bus headed to the start point – The Lion Safari Park, Etawah. The closest thing which resembled a lion at the park were the politicians strutting around! They were there in full force along with the establishment. Full police bandobast all along the route to ensure the safety of the participants.
The flag off was a staggered time start, since it would have been dangerous for a mass start. Not wanting to get tangled in an incident, I waited at the end of the line like a good coward! Over enthusiastic cyclists who want to win a 75 km race in the first kilometre itself!
The strategy was to ride as if it was a regular city ride, and complete it without incident. As the flag dropped my bullshit plan flopped! The first 100 metres went to plan till someone overtook me. And then better sense didn’t prevail! I pushed hard from the outset with my heart immediately thumping away to glory, riding a pace I couldn’t maintain. I backed off for a moment to regain my breath, but my newly acquired friend Gaurav latched onto my rear wheel and shouted out enthusiastic commands to go faster!
Pumped with adrenaline I pushed beyond my comfort zone. That was mistake number one! Mistake number two happened soon after within the first 3 km. I flew over a speed-breaker safely, but my water bottle came loose and as I slowed to pick it up, forgetting about my newly acquired cleats. My first crash was at 0 kmph in front of very many surprised looking spectators who until then had been cheering on those colourful wheeler dealers! I picked up myself, my bottle and bike, while leaving my dignity there amidst peals of laughter.
Embarrassed, I wanted to get away fast and again started hammering. Within the next few kilometres Gaurav and I made quick work of the backmarkers as we worked together at a good clip. We had overtaken 50 riders within the first 10 km itself. A few kilometres later Gaurav dropped off the pace and I passed the first refuelling point at the 20 km mark. I waved away a proffered hand with the sweet nectar of life, suffering from overconfidence. We had started the race at 11 am and the sun was beating down hard. Not drinking sufficient water in the beginning and not refuelling at the water points was big mistake number three!
Ignoring the important aspect of proper hydration I pushed on and soon caught up with another new friend Chandru. We rode together for a bit and I pushed till Chandru got left behind and I had overtaken almost 100 riders since the start. We were zipping on the narrow roads as I intermittently rode with different cyclists as we kept pushing. Until calamity struck, again!
We were riding through a village and there was a speed-breaker tucked away nicely behind a bend in the shade, I didn’t spot it in time and went flying, giving the bystanders another glorious spectacle which they could laugh about! I am sure someone captured my wild antics, as a number of people were recording videos on their phones. Antics which comprised of me getting off the saddle and onto the handlebars mid-air before somehow hanging on for dear life and not crashing.
Not only did the incident knock the confidence out of me, I also managed to pull a calf muscle. Not paying heed to the aching muscle I sprinted up the next climb in an attempt to catch the guys. Disaster finally struck in totality, I cramped up badly and had to jump off my bike and rest before I could continue. Lack of water and excessive enthusiasm took its toll!
The cramp turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Forced to slow down I enjoyed the ride, the countryside, the cheering school children, the waving policemen and the greenery of the #GreenPath! Every time a cyclist passed through a village, the children would stand up and cheer, it was fantastic, yet terrible. Terrible because I didn’t deserve the standing ovation.
I limped to the third and fourth re-hydration points, riding behind the rear wheel of another newly acquired riding buddy Prakash. Making slow progress, I watched cyclist after cyclist pass me by, unperturbed I crossed the finish line. Happy to finish. The headwinds, sun and lack of water had drained me considerably. The mud flowing off my body in the shower and the litres of water I drank before lunch drove home the point of the stupidity of my ride. I made a small knot in my mental handkerchief to be less stupid on the second day!
As riders continued to trickle in for the next couple of hours, the camp was abuzz with energy and stories of everyone’s ride, including the inevitable crashes. In camp, there were a few poor souls all bandaged up. Nobody was seriously hurt. Of course not one of those wounded soldiers had any intention of giving up on the second day. Everyone was ready to race!
Race Day 2
The second day saw an earlier flag off at 8 AM. Everyone was pleased to start early, to clock more miles before the sun came out in full force. Learning from the previous day’s mistake I carried an extra bottle of water along with energy bars and promised myself to ride slow. The moment I rested my aching posterior on the saddle, I realized the race was going to be agonizingly long!
I slowly made my way ahead after starting from the back of the pack. I didn’t get suckered into following a big group of cyclists who swept past me.
The headwinds were strong and progress was painfully slow, until a small group of organised cyclists caught up with me and I latched onto them. They were riding a comfortably fast pace, and I took turns with them at the front fighting the wind. The group gradually got bigger as we caught more riders in front of us. Our progress reminded me of the Snake game we had on our old Nokia handsets!
As we climbed out of a dry river bed, the snake got its tail cut off. A rider from Himachal and I pulled ahead and we soon caught up with a lady cyclist from Maharashtra. She was the eventual winner of the Women’s Masters Category. The three of us rode together. For the most part I was tucked in behind the rear wheel of the lady. I eventually caught and passed Chandru, Gaurav and Prakash before we crossed the finish line.
There I got to know that Prakash and Chandru had had an incident while riding together! A drone was flying overhead filming them, and they both looked up to see if it was a bird, a plane or superman. Unfortunately when they did look down it was tyre hitting tyre and body hitting tarmac! Chandru had a hip bone fracture, which didn’t stop him from riding all the way to the finish and beyond. His hardiness was inspiring. He finished along with Gaurav, who was also unlucky to take a tumble.
Finisher medals were handed out to the ecstatic and pumped up riders who had crossed the finish line. Lunch was handed out as well, which was equally important! A short break later, the entire cycling contingent rode along with the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav to the venue where the prizes were handed out to the winners.
The closing ceremony was quite the fancy political do! Though it paled in comparison to the experience of riding on the first bicycle highway of the country. The memories that we would take back, of the smiling faces of the villagers as they cheered us on, the natural beauty of rural India and the fantastic riders we met and interacted with. We hope to have many more such rides and bicycle highways in India.
A video from the Green Path:
A video from the Green Path Race made by the organisers