In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Biking: an age old process that involves exploring the world around you on two wheels. While the objective is to travel, and we can travel by various means, I could not think of a better quote than the above that explains why biking is not just about traveling but something more. When you ride on a bike, you feel everything-the heat when the sun is at his zenith, the water soaking through your bones when the rain gods “pour-down” their generosity, the chill slicing through your body when its cold. And that’s what separates biking from all other means of transportation.
I have always considered biking to be a natural instinct for me. It is like my reflex action to any elongated duration of professional boredom. Until now, when I was asked to provide my insights on biking, I could never realize that there are a lot many things that I do to ensure that I, and sometimes my group, have a safe and exciting riding experience during our rides. So here my chance to earn some good karma.
I have been a biker since quite long, almost 10 years now and am a proud rider of a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 350cc that I befriended 10 years ago. Mind you, I don’t own my bike because if you “own” a bike, you are the master and the bike follows your orders. There is no two way communication in this relation. He is a friend and even has a name-The Messiah. And a friend would never let you down and would always give you the right advises no matter how bad you feel about them. Believe me, in my almost 70,000 km of riding, there have been many instances in which The Messiah lead the way and I simply complied.
We have covered quite a few places in the hilly parts of Uttaranchal & Himachal and have had the privilege of riding to Ladakh twice. We have also covered the entire Spiti Valley circuit along with other long distant places like Harsil, Chopta, Chittorgarh etc.
Having established my reputation as a biker, I am confident that the rest of the prose will get your undivided attention.
Type of Bike:
Honestly, it does not matter what bike you ride so long you have the passion to remain on one for 10-12 hrs in a day. Although I have an unbiased bias towards Bullet yet, I won’t really be the jury to decide which bike is ideal for long rides. But yes, one thing that you need to take care is the terrain that you would be covering since the impact on a bike would vary from one bike to another.
Apart from the mechanics of your bike, what also matters is your confidence about your bike. I have seen people covering the entire Manali-Leh stretch on 100cc and 125cc bikes so its not necessary that for long rides, you must have a Harley.
Type of Ride:
By type of ride I mean the following:
1. A short spin lasting for about 4-5 hours for e.g. Breakfast rides
2. Day ride-start early in the morning and return by evening
3. Overnight ride-one that has an overnight stay at the destination
4. Long rides: anything that roughly lasts more than 5 days
If you are a beginner and have never been on long rides before, I strongly recommend that you start with a short spin. For example, being a delhi resident, I often head out to places like Murthal on the National Highway-1 for a short spin. The ride is roughly 60kms one way and gets over in a matter of 3-4 hours. Once you get a hang of going on some of these short spins, you would be able to gauge your comfort level on your bike. Gradually, you can look at increasing the duration to a day ride and then to overnight rides and so on.
I strongly recommend not taking off on a long ride without a prior experience of riding your bike long distance. In my company where I lead a biking group, it’s a mandatory condition that the participants must have prior experience of going on long distance rides.
Basics of Planning Ride:
In my many years of riding, one thing that I have always followed religiously is to meticulously plan my ride itinerary. Usually, the perception that people have about bike rides is that its impulsive, spontaneous and impromptu. Its like, “I came back from work in the evening and all of a sudden I had this urge to ride so I picked up my bike and went on a 5-day ride.” I grossly disagree with this mindset and I can already feel some people sneering at me.
I would always insist on planning a ride before you begin one. Here are some of the factors that influence your riding experience:
• Destination-Very important to have one
It is recommended that you choose a destination before you start off. This way, you will have a target in mind and can push yourself accordingly. A few people go on what is called the random ride-basically no destination in mind and would just ride to wherever the road takes them. If you are a beginner then I would recommend you have a destination in mind.
• Duration-How many days do you have in hand
Your destination is usually determined by the time in hand-the number of days you workplace can survive without you. For example, you don’t want to plan a ride to Ladakh with only 5 days in hand.
• The terrain-plains or hills
Once you have fixed the destination based on time in hand, the next factor that comes into play is the terrain. Is the road mostly plain or hilly or both? At a speed of 60kph, one tends to cover about an average 45 kms in an hour. If you think that does not add up then here’s why-in any highway it is not easy to maintain a steady 60kph with the traffic that keeps moving around. I have realized that when I ride at 60kph, I end up covering an average of 45 kms in one hour in plains. Similarly, if you are riding uphill then the speed that you can maintain is roughly 40kph and therefore, in an hour you would end up covering anywhere between 30-35 kms. This gives you a good idea of where your nigh halt should be.
• The type of roads-4 lane/2 lane; national/state highways
This is a very important factor-both from time taken and safety perspective. One of the best roads that I have ridden on is NH-1 leading to Chandigarh. Another one that comes to my mind is the Jaipur by-pass leading to Ajmer which is part of the GQ. On the flip-side, riding to Hardwar is no less than riding through hell with double lane roads for the better part of the journey.
• The weather-summer/rainy/winters
• The company-solo or in a group
• And, last but not the least, your physical endurance levels
If I am planning a ride to a place that has only plain roads (for eg. From delhi towards Rajasthan/Madhya Pradesh/Gujarat etc.) I usually plan for about 400kms in a day and therefore, choose my first night’s halt accordingly. An average riding speed of 60kph is widely considered to be the best speed one needs to maintain to ensure that one reaches the destination and also enjoys the surrounding landscapes. Obviously, there will be those empty stretches on the highway where one can let his hair down and give the ride a bit of a rev but overall 60kph is considered pretty safe for the rider.
Packing your luggage:
Rides that last more than 2-3 days would usually involve basic clothes and accessories that need to be packed and carried along. A lot of first timers think that would simply stuff their paraphernalia in a duck-bag and hang it on their shoulders for the entire ride. Let me tell you, its very cumbersome to do so. To have a duck-bag hung on to your shoulders for 8-10 hrs worth of ride only means that by the time you get off the bike your shoulders will no longer be in talking terms with you.
Be nice to your shoulders and pack your bags on the bike. Especially if you are riding solo with no pillion with you then use the rear seat for packing your bag with the help of the ever-reliable bungee chords. They are available all over the world and are extremely handy in tying your luggage to the bike. I recommend good quality saddle bags for a slightly longer rides and if you are heading towards Ladakh etc then definitely the Ladakh carrier.
While packing your luggage, keep in mind you are not going to attend a wedding so keep your stuff very basic. Nobody is going to check if you bathed everyday and you are changing your wardrobe everyday. Its better that you pack light and ensure that you carry a pair of jeans along with a few t-shirts.
Preparing your Bike:
Before you start off on your ride, you must ensure that your bike is all in good shape. Make sure the bike is serviced atleast one week before the ride. Once the servicing is done, please ensure that you ride the bike for some time to determine if the bike is in proper shape.
Make sure that you carry spare cables for clutch, accelerator and brakes along with a spare spark plug. A puncture kit is also a must but not so much up to worry about if the ride is to easily accessible places. However, if you have plans to go on a long distance ride to remote places then make sure a proper puncture kit along with spare tubes find a place in your luggage. It would also be better if you get some basic training on changing cables and removing the tyres. Your mechanic would be more than happy to oblige you on this.
I usually tank up before I start the ride. This helps avoid unnecessary stoppages in the highway. Depending on your bike’s mileage, you may have to top up once or twice based on the distance that you cover. But so long you are not heading to remote places like Ladakh or Spiti Valley, you would not need to carry petrol along.
Riding in different terrains/conditions
1. Riding in Plains-4 lane/2 lane highway
Riding in plains is relatively easy. Usually, 4-lane highways tend to have very less traffic between towns so if you have wits about yourself, you can carry yourself through pretty safely. However, this is not the situation when it comes to 2-lane highways. You have to be extremely careful while riding in 2-lane highways since you have incoming traffic from the opposite direction. This means, you have to be very cautious while overtaking to avoid a head-on collision.
2. Riding in hills
Riding in hills can be tricky. When you are riding uphill, you need to make sure you are maintaining the right kind of gear so that you don’t loose your throttle on those difficult turns. I recommend a shift between 2nd and the 3rd gear. Between these two gears, you can comfortably maintain a speed of 30-40kph and also not loose your throttle while negotiating turns. Talking about turns, NEVER EVER overtake at turns and at blind curves. No matter, how late you may be getting, do not take the risk of doing so.
3. Riding through difficult terrains like Leh
Its not just Leh but there are other places whose access roads are not always in good condition. They usually are broken with lots of potholes and stones. You have to be very careful in negotiating such a terrain by maintaining a slow speed and a low gear. If one tries to ride at a high speed on such a terrain, he is likely to loose his balance leading to an unnecessary accident.
4. Riding through water streams
And here comes the most exciting part. One of most notorious things about a Ladakh ride is the myriad water streams that you would need to negotiate. These water streams are as a result of glaciers melting at the high mountain which leads to icy cold water gushing down the hills and on to the road. As the day progresses and sun becomes hot resulting in the intensity of these water streams increasing. So it is always recommended to negotiate such routes early in the morning when the flow would be low and slow.
However, if you do come across a situation where you would have to negotiate an intimidating water streams then here are a few tips:
1. Never approach the water stream at high speed
2. Always stop and survey the flow and depth of the water before deciding on the path that you would want to take.
3. Look out for hidden boulders and stones. Sometimes, you may only see the tip of what could be a bigger stone lying underneath the water. If your bike climbs one of these, you are bound to slip
4. Never be scared of getting your shoes wet. You have to ensure that your legs are ready to balance yourself in case of a slip
5. If you are more than one, ensure that you help each other out while crossing the stream especially if the stream has lots of water
6. Never let the bike’s ignition to go off. Keep giving throttle even if the bike gets submerged in water. If the bike switches off, don’t panic just try and push the bike out as soon as possible
7. If you are not very confident about riding through a stream, you could put the bike in the first gear and push it through the stream. You will end up completely wet but then you would stand a better chance of crossing the stream
What to wear?
A very important but often overlooked factor is the clothes that you should wear while riding. Again, the type of clothing depends upon the weather in which you are riding. I strongly recommend the following:
1. Full-sleeve T-shirt: protects your hands from the sun during summers
2. Loose cargos-a loose fit cargo remains comfortable throughout the ride, especially considering the fact that you would be sitting for nearly 8-10 hrs during the ride
3. Sturdy riding boots-No prize for saving money on your boots. Be sure to get a pair of sturdy riding boots, preferably high ankle ones which give a good balance if you have to stop the bike suddenly
4. Gloves and balaclava (face cover)
5. A good riding jacket, especially in winters
6. A good raincoat to be used during rainy season
I strongly recommend not overlooking these basic details since absence of these above mentioned things might end up making your ride very uncomfortable. Always keep in mind that the ride will last for 8-10 hrs in a day so make sure whatever you wear keeps you comfortable throughout.
I have often seen people riding in slippers, floaters, sneakers etc. Its ok for a short spin around the market but definitely not recommended for long rides. Same goes for Bermudas, 3/4ths and sleeveless t-shirts.
I am hoping that my insights about biking come in handy for you all. I am also hoping that those who have never done a ride before get ignited with the spirit of exploring the world, 1km at a time, on two wheels. It does not matter when you start but whenever you do, make sure you ride safe.
Make sure you follow the below mentioned habits for a safe and comfortable ride:
1. Always wear a helmet. Never give yourself this excuse that I want to get some air into my hair or I want enjoy the landscape and take off your helmet.
2. Always wear a pair of goggles or a full-face helmet. Do not ride with naked eyes.
3. Do not consume alcohol before or during the ride
4. Follow traffic rules and don’t be ashamed to stop at a red light even if you are the only one
5. Learn road signs and hand signals especially if you are riding in a group. Some people have a habit of making random hand gestures assuming everyone is understanding what they are trying to say
6. Avoid riding in the night.
7. Avoid riding in rain or on snow