Bicycle Touring In India. FAQs from 100BeachRide - Part 1 of 2
How did the bicycle tour idea originate?
In August 2015 I had traversed the MSH4 from Mumbai to Malvan with two friends and a Labrador. It was a short 4-day trip but I was so enamoured by the landscape that I had promised myself I would return to Konkan again. So when Varun from Fittrip Bikes contacted me for a backpacking trip on a fatbike - this was the route that came to my mind. The beaches beckoned and the fatbike seemed like the perfect sand cruising machine. The idea of pedalling with the ocean breeze in my face, skimming the sand just beyond the reach of the ocean’s foamy wake would be an enlivening experience. Little did I realise that the reality was even better than what I’d envisioned.
The objective of this bicycle tour?
We conceived the tour with a threefold aim. First, I wanted to experience life along the Konkan coast and document it. I live in the Himalaya, thus life along the Indian coastline is a novelty. The second facet was whether a fatbike would make an optimum bicycle touring rig for offbeat exploration in India (which it does btw, read my comprehensive review). My third aim was to showcase that bicycle touring as a viable alternative for travel in India. Most of us believe that a vehicle will run us over or we need some special training to tour on a bicycle. On the contrary, all it needs is a reliable bicycle and an adventurous spirit. Bicycle touring is something anyone and everyone can do.
The expectation from the tour?
I knew this tour would be the toughest I have done till date. I've cut my bicycle touring teeth in Europe, touring and riding on dedicated cycling routes on bicycles that cost five times as much. I was certain this time things would be different. I would be sharing the road with other vehicles, riding on a varied terrain, from bad roads to sand, while being chased by the monsoon. Plus I do not speak Marathi, which would potentially handicap me in my interactions with the locals. Yet, to counteract all this, there was the ever-present allure of the mysterious Konkan beaches far from the madding crowd. As for human interaction I've always found that rural India has a heart far bigger than its means.
How did you train for your bicycle tour?
I maintain that the best way to train for a trek is to go on a trek. Eating my own dog food, I borrowed a mountain bike from a friend and started riding every day. Eddy Merckx once said
This is what I did around Patnitop where I live. I was riding every day of the week, alternating between long-ish rides (25-30 kilometres) and short sprints (20-35 kmph) on alternate days. My target before the expedition was to cycle up to Nathatop without a break. Nathatop at 2700 metres means a vertical climb of almost a kilometre over poor roads. After a ride, I'd follow up with these exercises
In addition to this, I incorporated a fair amount of fruit, especially bananas, in my diet. In Mumbai, I realised that I had to get used to the humidity. In the Himalaya one just has to cycle faster and the sweat evaporates. Here in Mumbai, a clinging, sweat-filled jersey is a part of cycling. I cycled from BKC to Aarey (the greenest part of Mumbai) every day to get used to this humidity.
Tour dates & duration?
We wanted to start at Mandwa (Maharashtra). A ferry connects Mandwa with the Gateway of India and we thought it would be a great way to get out of Mumbai City, without having to ride the highway. The idea was then to visit all the 104+ beaches that dot the Konkan coastline and finally end in Panjim (Goa) after 1000+ kilometres. Little did we know that the Mandwa ferry does not ply during the monsoons. This meant either taking a bus to Mandwa or to start the ride from Mumbai itself. Out of the two, I figured the latter was more in line with the objectives of our tour. So I started from Goregaon on Sunday (27 August) to beat the traffic. The trip ended in Panjim on (20 September).
Tell us more about the bicycle and modifications
Royal Enfield Bullet is an iconic motorcycle in India with fatter than normal tyres. This is the question I was asked most often.
The closest analogy to the FitTrip Bikes Marine is an SUV. Just like an SUV, a fatbike is meant to go bad-roading. It makes mincemeat of bad roads, yet is not the best choice if you ride it primarily on tarmac. The Marine is a capable trail bike as long as you're not in a rush or want to keep up with your friends. It weighs more than a mountain bike and this means it takes a lot more effort to accelerate. However, once you get it to speed, it is a tank and will plough through or roll over any obstacle and tenaciously hang on long after mountain bikes have given way. Off the beaten path, it will chew up Indian (lack of) roads. More than everything else, it offers a fun-filled ride and is the ticket for anyone looking to lose weight on a bicycle.
The Fittrip Bike's Marine was my chosen steed for this trip and never along the way did I regret my choice. Ok, maybe just a teeny bit on the paved National Highway (NH) stretch from Mumbai to Alibaug. Read about the bicycle in detail and the modifications I made for the tour here.
How you packed/loaded the bike?
I own a pair of trusty Ortlieb Panniers and handlebar bags. Ortlieb, for those who may not know, has been making waterproof bicycle touring gear in Germany since the '90s. I've toured with these bags from sunny Italy to snowy Sweden and they've never let me down. So on this trip, all my gear was packed in these three trusty bags. One pannier full of bicycle gear, spares. The handlebar swallowed my electronics and the other pannier held my personal gear.
It's interesting to note how little you need to survive while riding a bicycle. Nevertheless, since this was my first tour in India I was carrying more bicycle spares than I would have now (in hindsight). The entire setup (gear and bags) came at a whopping 13 kilos. This is way above normal for me, considering the fact I was not carrying any camping gear. But then I was already riding a bicycle that weighed 17.5 kilos, so I reckoned a few extra kilos would hardly matter.
The only thing I regret leaving behind was a kilo of homemade granola. Something that had been made especially for me just for this tour. But there was no way I could justify another kilo in my bags. I was already feeling guilty about the 13 kilos!
What worked and what didn’t. What will you not carry next time?
Let's start with the things I would kick out from my bicycle spares and repair kit
- Dedicated Screwdriver Set (13) — Available at every house and a multitool in an emergency
- Adjustable Spanner (14) — Will simply take a 15 spanner if my bicycle has a wheel nut and use the multitool in an emergency
- Pressure Gauge (15) — After a few days of riding, you get a feel for what the right pressure is and don't really need a gauge to figure out what's right for you
- Spare chain (9) — Not needed on a tour under 2000 kilometres especially if you're starting with a fresh new drivetrain
- Brake Pads (6) — Again not needed on a tour that is under 2000 kilometres especially if you're starting with a fresh pair
- Hangar (17) — One spare derailleur hangar only. Two is overkill
- Inner tube (7) — One Inner tube only
From my personal gear, I'd take out a lot of spare clothes I was carrying. All I needed for this tour was
- Two cycling (padded) shorts
- A pair of quality quick drying MTB shorts
- A full sleeve cycling jersey (a half sleeve will give you a sunburn on your forearms)
- A pair of t-shirts (one half and one full) and a convertible pants for off-the-bicycle walking
- A rain jacket for those bad weather days.
What I'd definitely recommend is using sandals (preferably closed-toe) for bicycle touring in India. This is especially true if you prefer platform pedals to clipless pedals (although Shimano and Keen both make bicycle sandals with recessed MTB cleats). Sandals are super versatile, they can be worn on and off the bicycle and allow for excellent ventilation that does not leave your foot clammy, and can be worn through rain, floods, stream crossing and everything in between. They can be paired with thin or thick socks.
My biggest mistake was not starting my tour in a pair of sandals. Something I remedied in Alibaug (100 kilometres in the tour). But that meant I had to carry my shoes in my panniers for the most part of the 1000 kilometres. I could have just couriered my shoes back home but this is also a learning experience. In India, every small town has a courier service and anything that you feel is not being used should be couriered back at the earliest opportunity. It is much better than lugging it around and cursing the weight every time you hit an incline.
Electronic gear you used, What worked and what didn’t?
If you're travelling alone like I did, carry a mini tripod. It may be a pain to set up, and will weigh a bit, but you will have memories that will outlast the pain of lugging that extra weight.
My top tip for cameras - keep it simple and rugged. If you own an interchangeable lens camera, figure out one lens (any lens) and stick with it. On a bicycle tour, where you have to be constantly on and off your bicycle, less is more. One camera, one lens keeps things simple. Trust me you don't want to be changing or worse dropping a lens in sand or in the pouring rain. It's even better if the camera is weather sealed. If you own an action camera - perfect. It does both stills and video. If you own a mobile that has a decent camera - use that. If you're using your mobile for photos, navigation etc., be sure to buy a burly case for your mobile with a screen guard and a lanyard. Cases like those made by lifeproof are the only must-have-accessory in my book (available on Amazon India)
How did you navigate?
I had saved offline Google Maps for the entire route and as a backup had the Maps.me app (available free on Android and iOS) complete with offline maps for Maharashtra. I was also carrying my Garmin Etrex20x with downloaded maps to record my journey and as a navigation backup. However once on the road, I found it much easier to memorise a set of village names along the way and ask any local who happened to be walking along or flag down a passing motorcycle. This was much better than relying on Google Maps because Google does not tell you if a bridge is out of order or if a road is best avoided or if a local landmark/beach you had not considered is actually a must-visit.