As a kid all of us look to summer holidays for full days of playing, reading story books & non-stop fun. As we grow up some parts of us refuse to do so. Being a cyclist probably allows us to revisit that childhood summer fun days. Is that the reason for our summer hill camp ritual? Well, we just need a reason to ride, don’t we?
Ooty has been our go-to destination for a few years. It has two of my most favourite climbs – Mettupalayam to Kotagiri & the masochism inducing beast that Kalahatti is. But, we took a departure from the norm and did Madikeri last year. This year we started our quest for the summer climbing camp with Kodaikanal. One thing led to another and we got lucky that Krish knows Munnar like the back of his palm and curated a beautiful three days for us.
To save a few bucks, I recommended an insanely early flight out of Hyderabad. While most of the riders must have cursed me through the early hours of Wednesday, we had a beautiful drive out of Kochi to Bodimetu on the border of Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Being peak season, the resort could not accommodate an early check-in. But we utilised the time to quickly assemble our bikes. When you have shining steeds ready to be ridden there is only one thing you do – ride. And that is exactly what we did. Krish had given us a couple of ride options to test our bikes on Day 0. Most of us went out and paid our evening salutations to the hills around.
We were 6 of us including a 13-year-old boy with a lion’s heart amongst us – Ansh Mantena. Ansh’s dad Pradeep accompanied us and became our de facto tour director. The first day started with a 20km 1000m descent and climb into Tamil Nadu. We had an initial hiccup that our support vehicle needed permits to get into TN. Thankfully we realized it the night before and arranged a different vehicle for the ride in & out of TN.
Every successful team needs players with specific roles & skills. The number cruncher amongst us was Rishendra. He had identified the key segments, the distance, gradient & much more than I could understand. Since the climb was similar to the Kotagiri climb I knew exactly what I could and more importantly what I could not do. So I kept a 1:20 target for the 20km climb. Climbing down a hill that you are going to climb is like doing the marshmallow test. You have a tasty treat in front of you, you get to see it, smell it, and feel it, but want to refrain from tasting it fully. We did a countdown of the 17 hairpins and realized that this is not a safe place to accelerate through the shorter steeper section as the roads were too narrow to go on to the right-hand side of the road.
Negative splits are when during a race or ride you get faster over the period and have lesser split times towards the end than the beginning – something which I have never managed to achieve. The climb up to Bodi was no different. I knew my FTP and power numbers, but leading up to the tour I had a two-week cooling-off period with a more traditional family vacation and recovery from that. So I knew I had lost a bit of form, wasn’t sure how much.
But I started the climb without discounting this poor lead-up to the tour. I didn’t realize it was a poor decision till the last 20-odd mins when I lost a bit of steam. Thankfully I still managed to be on target. As I was shivering on the top with a tea, Rishendra came by. He didn’t notice me shiver nor the fact that it was instigated by the effort and not the weather. It would have been a massive hit to the ego to refuse a partial rep of the climb with exhaustion as an excuse just 2 hrs into the tour.
Well, the ego won and was royally abused by the legs as we ended up doing a part of the climb catching up to the rest of the group. Somnath – the fun foodie from the group had a broken spoke, but managed to twist it to avoid contact with the frame and rode up. The big climb was done for the day, but we still had a lot of ground to cover.
The rep had taken a lot out of me and it started showing as we approached lunchtime. Stupid of me that I didn’t realize that I was bonking. But somehow by instinct, I took a small break an hour before the lunch stop, had a couple of sugary cold drinks, and tried to catch back Rishendra & Balaram. When I neared him, Balaram switched on his go pro and tried getting some footage. I surely couldn’t hide the cramping I was going through. Need to figure out a way to find and destroy that part of the video as otherwise it will be one ugly memory from the tour. I somehow got out of that cramping episode quickly with a salt cap and stayed away from it for the rest of the ride.
Seeing Rishendra chug along without ever stopping at the catchup points our support vehicle driver gave him a beautiful sobriquet – BS 6. BS 6 didn’t stop for lunch and reached the resort for the day. He had gone ahead and along with his lunch had ordered an extra Brownie & Ice Cream, which we polished off in quick time. It was a beautiful resort housed in the middle of a cardamom estate. Balaram & I managed to get an abridged version of the plantation walk admiring the various plants, trees & birds in the area. After an elaborate dinner, we hit the bed early with dreams of more hills & fun.
The breakfast started on time, but finished much beyond the planned roll-out time as we had to do justice to the tasty spread ;-). My HR monitor battery died towards the end of the first day’s ride and I planned to stop midway to change the battery. However, as we started riding I realized my power meter battery also died. Thankfully my Rotor crank-based power meter runs on a traditional ubiquitous AA battery, which I could find early even in the sleepy suburbs around our resort. I asked others to carry on while I changed the battery, but had to restart the cyclo-computer to re-pair the sensors and lost more time than expected, and never saw BS 6 again for the rest of the ride.
I managed to catch a watch shop opening and get the battery for my HR belt. After a few photos & videos near some Tea estates, we carried on. The route was beautiful and the cloudy/misty weather provided the perfect lighting for the great panorama all around. As we crested Munnar visibility was poor and I had to remove the sunglasses as we inched our way up. The weather made the climb not only beautiful but also a tad bit easier, and we reached Munnar far earlier than planned. I tried to roam around and find better places to eat (out of fear of Som, who wasn’t very pleased with my choice for lunch the day before). But I couldn’t find many en route and settled to eat at a more modest place. But thankfully our resort was ready with lunch and Som was happy with the food there.
Krish provided a bonus loop around Munnar for the day which we could have embarked on. But we decided to skip it and enjoy a few hours of relaxing. Some more banter over tea & dinner led us to the last day of the ride.
This was going to be the longest and possibly toughest day of the camp as the bulk of the climbing was in the second half. The first half had a short climb followed by a beautiful, fast, narrow descent. This was a section where I didn’t miss the monster descenders like Krishna Kunam, Hemanth, or Sampath. It would have been disastrous to follow any of these guys in such flowy descents amongst heavy traffic. BS 6 had published the key segment for the day & the KOM times. Again I knew that the KOM was beyond me. But I wanted to get as close to the time Nils had posted. I think he won the Tour of Nilgiris a couple of times and it would be a great achievement to have a time that is close to his.
BS 6 seems to be having some cooling problems that day and as we descended down to Chinar he was suffering from the heat. I was suffering as well but somehow decided to still give it all for the climb back to Marayur. We had taken a breather at the checkpost which was also the border of TN & Kerala. The guards came warning me that there was no water in the toilets as the water pipes above had been destroyed by elephants – a scary reminder of whose territory we were in.
The climb started fast with even a genuine negative gradient for a while. The top times on Strava looked misleadingly slow and I expected that it wouldn’t be as easy as the gradient suggested. I stayed positive and kept a strong tempo. Although my power numbers were nowhere near the first day’s climb, I still met my objective of staying below the 1-hour mark, finishing about 5 minutes slower than Nils.
While having lunch, Pradeep joined us and informed us that Ansh, Som, and Durgesh (who was responsible for keeping our style quotient high) had returned. Balaram just finished the descent as we started the climb. Pradeep told us that he was suffering and unable to feel his legs and maybe was way behind. Just a few mins after this update Balaram cheerfully appeared to our utter surprise.
He picked up a new shoe before the tour and hadn’t got enough time to get used to it. As a result, he developed a few hot spots around the cleat position on his feet. He recovered remarkably after a small break when he removed his shoes and got his rhythm. Som had been calling Balaram a “Full-Time Athlete” (FTA) for the past few days for the discipline with which he recovers & balances his activities across multiple domains. Well, he more than lived up to that today.
We were glad to have reunited but knew pretty well that the second half of the climb was still there. A tinge of sadness was also there as we knew that this was the last climb of the tour. The weekend traffic was getting on our nerves and around a tourist spot we had a bad traffic jam. While we hated the stoppage, it was perfectly positioned in the middle of the climb and a great excuse if we missed out on a good time on the segment ;-). As we navigated out of the jam and restarted the climb, fatigue started kicking in and I was counting every passing km. Pradeep was there just before the top and I knew it would be very difficult to restart the climb if I stopped.
With a heavy heart, I had to pass on his offer for some refreshments and continued. As fate would have it there were no shops near the top. I checked with a few locals who informed me that the nearest shop was 10 min away. With a few choice curses to let off the steam, I continued and stopped at the first possible shop. Was delighted to find it had old-fashioned lime juice and downed one too many while I enjoyed the curious stares of the locals eyeing a semi-naked cyclist drinking like a camel. Some of these stares and admiring twinkles in the stranger’s eyes can make those cramps go away in a jiffy.
I took the descent back to Munnar carefully as I knew my instincts & energy were dwindling. Dwindling they were as the only point I lost way was 200m before the resort – a place where I had been staying and ridden into as well. It was a costly mistake as it took me downhill on a broken road. I climbed back with more grunts and even more cuss words. After a quick shower, I sent a leading message to the group, throwing all baits for people to pack the bikes the next morning as I was truly done for the day. But nobody took the bait, and we packed most of the bikes. We had to pack mine and Balaram’s bikes the following morning as we lost our race with sunlight.
The night continued with cyclists who were more hungry than thirsty. The needs were addressed in the said order as we reminisced about the beautiful climbs. Thus ended this summer camp – we are back to the grind & to planning & longing for the next one, while we think wrongly that we could have done better on some of those climbs.
Instagram handles to see more photos from the tour: The Bike Affair, chakisomnath (Som), dirtrunner9 (Balaram Krishna aka FTA), durgesh_agent47 (Durgesh), twt_twowheelthrill (Ansh). Staying true to his nickname BS 6 / Rishendra is more active on Strava than Insta.
Photo credit: None of the good photos are clicked by me. They are attributed to someone in this group.
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