Often, people spend years wondering if they are ready for their dream cycle tour. Many never being able to fulfil their aspirations. Sorav Gahlot, shows us how it’s done as he goes single speed touring from Bikaner in Rajasthan to Vizag in Andhra Pradesh.
He rid himself of his comfort zone as he donned the avatar of a fakir on his journey. He talks about single speed touring, the challenges, difficulties, joys and generosity of the human spirit as he rode from west to east India.
Single Speed Touring with Sorav:
Cycling Monks: From when have you been cycling?
Sorav Gahlot: I never stopped cycling. I used to cycle to school everyday. During my teens for a very short period motorcycles entered my life. I was fascinated with them, but that didn’t last.
When I went to JNU for my graduation, I asked my parents to let me buy a cycle. Probably for 6 odd months I stopped cycling. I sold off my Pulsar 180 and bought a secondhand Firefox Road Pro. Automobiles and I never connected.
There wasn’t much of a cycling scene in Rajasthan. But in 2011 in Delhi for the first time I saw different kinds of fancy bikes available. I was quite inspired by seeing it and realised there isn’t the same swag in the Pulsar as there is in cycles!
I started riding with groups in Delhi on weekend mornings and in the university campus on weekdays. Navneet Kathait helped me get a cycle. I was searching for an affordable road bike and met him at a cycling store. He was getting his bike serviced. The first time in my life I saw a proper cyclist and was in awe of him.
He recommended buying a secondhand cycle and even helped me get a Road Pro. So I started riding it. But at that time 30-35 km seemed a lot. I was fascinated with cycling, but incapable of riding anything more than 20-25 odd kilometres.
CM: What gave you the idea of going single speed touring?
SG: I had been planning a long solo cycle trip for self-discovery, both physical and mental. But the biggest hurdle was that I didn’t have a cycle!
From 2011 I bought 4-5 different bikes. Not that I was upgrading. All my bikes were secondhand and below 12k.
Like everyone my dream ride had a dream bike. But it never materialised, because I have multiple loves.
Being a musician I end up spending money on instruments and a host of things to go along with it. And even though I hadn’t previously managed a cycling trip, I spent on treks and travelling.
As a result, I never managed to save up for a fancy bike.
I was down with hernia for a couple of years. Yet I participated in a few events at that time. Including the Etawah to Agra race in 2016. Then in May 2018 I had a surgery. After a 2-3 month rest period, I got back onto the saddle. But I couldn’t ride much and had gained a few kilos!
During that time I realised that you don’t need a perfect setup. What you need is a perfect state of mind. Then I decided to do it on a single speed. A simple cycle. At that time I didn’t think of using the ubiquitous Indian ‘standard’ cycle.
It was an overnight decision to use a steel bike. I rode a Hero standard cycle at the start of the year and thought of doing the ride in March. But January seemed a better time. I used the Hero standard cycle for slightly longer rides and did a couple of centuries and was ready for my dream ride.
At that time, I didn’t think I would be able to ride beyond Rajasthan on the Hero. But as I rode, the bike gave me confidence of doing a longer ride.
I bought the Raleigh Classicman on the 24th of January and took the delivery the next evening. On the 26th I started my journey! It was quite an impromptu decision.
I wasn’t out to prove a point by riding this cycle. I was looking forward to an experential transformation.
CM: What all was there in your bags?
SG: I wanted my trip to be organic. The simpler it is the easier it is, and the beauty lies in its simplicity. I didn’t even take along the cycling equipment I had.
I wanted it to be challenging. Didn’t even carry my cycling shorts! I went to an army supply store and bought basic canvas bags to strap onto the bike. A cobbler stitched it up on the evening before I left.
I didn’t know at the time of purchase, but the moment I bought this cycle my father told me, that my grandfather also had a Raleigh. At that time my parents didn’t know about my ride.
I told them that I would ride only from Bikaner to Kota and there is a team! My father was really happy that I bought a Raleigh. According to him, for the first time I bought a ‘real’ bike!
When my friends got to know I was leaving, one brought a pump, one a helmet, another an action camera and someone brought bandanas and I ended up carrying too many things! Again everything on the last night in Bikaner.
My luggage comprised of other stuff not useful for cycling! A Ukulele which I decided not to carry till the end. A flute, kazoo and jaw harp. I wanted to use music to connect with people along the way and make memories for a lifetime as I generally do when I travel.
Since I was using a simple cycle, not a lot of people bothered asking me about it. Fancy cycles generally attract all the attention. With this bike I could communicate with people about everything other than the cycle. A more human approach I believe.
I purposely kept my luggage extremely simple. No water bottles or phone charger even. I wanted to surrender to the game of uncertainty and serendipity.
CM: How difficult was it to ride a single speed?
SG: It was quite difficult. I realised it in MP. While passing through the tiger reserves etc. at odd times. There was quite a bit of climbing involved through the wildlife reserves. Circumstances played out such, that I ended up passing through these forest reserves after dark, when I was dead tired.
I had kept a limit of 100 km per day. But on the very first day of my ride I broke it! On an average I was riding 130 odd kilometres a day.
I don’t normally eat breakfast. Neither did I do so on the ride. Even lunch was uncertain. Only a proper dinner and a power slumber is what kept me invigorated for the next day.
CM: Did you at any point of time wish you had a geared cycle?
SG: No. There were times when I had to get off my bike and push it up a slope. But that would be at the end of the day when I was already exhausted.
One evening I entered Chhatisgarh crossing Kanha Tiger Reserve (Mandla) and Chilpi Range. I entered Bhoramdeo Sanctuary at 7:30 PM, where there was naxalite movement just a week prior. I had to stay the night in a village on the other side of the sanctuary.
At the entry gate the guards told me to go, but not stop along the way and ‘khench ke jaana‘ (loosely translated: ride like your arse is on fire)! It is safe for the next 20 minutes. I was exhausted, about to faint and was hallucinating that wild animals were around me.
There were no vehicles on that road either and it was completely dark and I was holding my phone in one hand riding with the flash on. With considerable effort I crossed the sanctuary and stayed in a police chowki on the other side.
CM: Were the sanctuaries the prettiest landscapes for you?
SG: Yes. I live in Rajasthan and have never actually seen jungles. I have only read stories and seen pictures on the internet.
You need to go there and experience it. The smells and sounds of the forest can be experienced only when physically present.
That can also frighten you when the conditions turn for the worse. But it was really breathtaking all along including Dandak Aranya in Chattisgarh while riding to Bastar, Mukundara in Rajasthan, Araku and Anantgiri Valley in Andhra.
CM: Where did you stay along the way?
SG: In Rajasthan I had no problem. And even after that I didn’t have a problem!
My friends once they got to know that I had left, all pitched in to help out. The dots kept getting connected and friends helped me out. In the 20 days on the road hardly 2 nights I had to stay in hotels.
CM: How much did you end up spending on this trip?
SG: I spent less than 10000 rupees. A big chunk of which was spent of four rest days, when I didn’t ride at all. Party time!
In Bhopal I had to buy cycling shorts. Many of my friends from cycling fraternity scolded me for not using it. In Kota I got a cycling seat cover amongst other things, including a basket on the handlebars which was extremely useful.
I spent 3000 on those cycling shorts which was part of my 10k total expenditure.
CM: What was the highlight of the trip?
SG: This ride was my version to know the truth, that there are good people in this world. If you are good to others, they will be good to you. This is your country and fellow countryman. You don’t have to fear unknown places and strangers. They are friends who you have never met and are favourite places to visit for a lifetime.
CM: Any negative experiences?
SG: No. There were a couple of shady experiences where I was intimidated. Eventually I realised that there wasn’t any problem. People can at times be aggressively inquisitive! Not much of a problem as I have been travelling solo to all parts of India since my college days.
CM: Did such a simple cycle surprise people?
SG: I didn’t expect people to be interested in this very basic cycle. But such reactions were there.
I was cycling in ghar ka pyjamas and for the most part I was in rubber chappals rather than shoes. I even pedalled barefoot.
The children and elderly were the most supportive and inspired by my ride. The middle-aged people were better at trying to scare me!
Children said that when they grow up they would love to accompany me on such a ride, which felt great to hear.
CM: Was there any visible change in culture?
SG: Every morning I would start and end in completely different places. Different in all respects. The landscape, language, attire and scenery changed continuously.
People asked, ‘don’t you get bored?’ But I was riding with open-mouthed astonishment throughout or singing or humming to myself, thoroughly enjoying my solo ride.
CM: Was there a common thread between the people?
SG: As Gandhiji said, India lives in villages. That statement played out for the first time in my life.
I have lived my entire life in a city, with no rural interaction. I had never seen village life from so close. This was the first time.
The difference between rural and urban life is stark. Villages across the country from Rajasthan to Andhra Pradesh, seem to have a similar pattern. Hardships are there across the country.
On one instance I rode along with an elderly man for 20 km. He told me he rode there everyday to sell wood which he carried on the back of his cycle. He would sell that wood for 10 rupees.
It was an eye-opening moment for me which I would never have experienced if I sat at home or travelled with a faster means of transport.
CM: Are you planning another ride like this anytime soon?
SG: Why not! But there are a lot responsibilities at home. Alongside my studies. So I don’t know when my next ride will be. But the thought is there in my head and heart.
In Vizag I wanted to continue to Chennai and Kanyakumari. But my parents booked my flight back home!
CM: Any advice for someone else who wants to tour on a single speed bike?
SG: Arey haan! I highly recommend it and would be happy to help anyone who would like to do it.
I didn’t have a single puncture along the way. Not that I knew how to repair a puncture. Even though I carried all the tools.
Basically I didn’t overthink it and just rode. That is the best approach! I didn’t prepare for the ride, barely had any knowledge. Something that others would rightly consider foolishness!
I just got lucky!
You can check out Sorav’s route on Strava.