Cycling To Mirik: The Toughest Ride So Far…………

Mirik: An idyllic hill station in Darjeeling Himalayas

I was getting desperate with every passing minute…….

The climb seemed like a never ending suffer fest and to make it worse, the sky had turned ominously grey with an imminent possibility of a spell of rain. And to add to the woes, it was well over three hours that I had eaten anything and I was fading in energy and was almost on verge of bonking out in the climb.

I probably looked like a despairing castaway hoping for a rescuer to extricate myself from the predicament, in this case- looking for a tea stall where I could sink my teeth on some food and refuel myself with some calories to complete the ride.

“Come on ….You don’t quit!” I egged myself on and to my immense relief; there was this shanty tea stall right at the middle of this booming switchback climb.

Tea and Wi-Wi Noodle joint. The place which threw us the lifeline needed to complete the climb.....

Relief……relief……relief………… It seemed like a lifeline and the moment the mongoloid looking governess of the tea stall nodded in affirmation to the query “Hot Noodles??” it seemed like seeing 777 in a slot machine. Hot tea and steaming Wi-Wi noodles felt like the best food one can lay one’s hands on. And, what a stroke of luck; the moment the noodles arrived, rains came down lashing the lush green tea estate infested mountain roads. Vinay and I gobbled up 2 plates of noodles each while the rains continued. Peace. It felt real peaceful.

So, where was I? Where was I going? Who were my mates?

I was cycling from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station, a major railhead in North Bengal  (incidentally the only station in the world with all three working gauge railway systems: the 1.69 meter Broad Gauge, the 1.00 meter Meter Gauge and the .68 meter Narrow Gauge). New Jalpaiguri acts as the gateway to Darjeeling Himalayas and Sikkim. Our destination was Mirik, an idyllic hill station at a modest altitude of 5800 feet having a breathtaking manmade lake. The overall cycling distance would be some 60 km and we were attempting a climb of nearly 5500 feet (at least that’s what I thought when setting off, only to be proved worng later).

It was Feb 27th 2010 when we reached New Jalpaiguri station by an overnight train from Kolkata. We assembled our bikes, had our breakfast, picked up the most essential commodity- water and hired a cab for our luggage. Mausmi, my wife and Madhumita, Saibal’s wife, also travelled with us in the cab.

Saibal and I

We were the three torch bearers of the Kolkata Cycling Club (KCC). Saibal, was undoubtedly the leader. He had taken the lead role in arranging the entire logistics of the tour. At 45, he is fiercely fit and regularly puts younger riders to shame (which includes me) with his stamina and spirit. I always believed, he had a dynamo installed in his shoes, for he would ride like wind all the time!

VB and Saibal

Vinay Bhatia, was the second cyclist. I called him:  “A Vegetarian Blood Sucking Sindhi Lawyer”, but was everything else than what the phrase above makes you conjure up. A fabulous biker himself with an amazing zest for life and with a killer sense of humor, VB was a real livewire. And, of course there was yours truly!

We set off from the railway station with our hired cab, the luggage and the womenfolk at 11 am. The weather was nice to start off. The first 35 km of the route was fairly flat, climbing only 600 feet to Dudia, a small village in the foothills. However, the ride to Dudia was anything but eventless. We were continuously hounded by big heavy vehicles jostling for space on a highway which was at times only as wide as a seal. Add to that the constant honking, an ever accompanying feature of Indian highways and it was a pretty forgettable experience at times.

peaceful road finally......stretch between Siliguri and Dudia

We crossed the Mahananda River Bridge and then ditched the national highway and instantly landed into a peaceful road section. We could see the hilly contours at a distance and we knew pretty soon we would be riding up the majestic Darjeeling Himalayan section. There was a lot of headwind but mercifully the surface was good and we pretty much coasted to Garidhura, a small settlement on our way.  Soon, Dudia presented itself.  By now it was almost 1 pm and we had done the first 35 km of the ride. A little slow it may seem but I guess you can’t go any faster with 16 wheelers sniffing your tail and blazing their air horns!

Right, now the climb begins. We had 25 km to cover and climb up 4700 feet, at an average gradient of around 6.5% (which is quite steep). I had done these kinds of gradients in the past. Kalka-Kasauli was pretty near to a 6%. Khardungla is close to 7%. Gata Loops in the Manali-Leh Highway is a notch above 7%, so I thought this would not be that tough. However, Darjeeling Himalayan roads are special. As against almost every other mountain haul, this was not a monotonic climb. There were numerous intermediate downhill sections that would rob you the ascent you had labored on. Incidentally, the total climb from Dudia to Mitrik is close to 5000 feet with an average gradient of 8%! This was one very steep climb awaiting us!

Enough of mathematics……the climb began through some moderate intensity gradients and we all were enjoying ourselves. VB kept the mood upbeat with his funny comments and stories while Saibal was quick to introduce the concepts of lactic acid build up/ heart rate spikes/ correct gear combination vs cadence etc.  We were climbing well and enjoying ourselves.

Beautiful Tea Estates, fresh mountain air and a bike in my hand.......what else can you ask for?

At 2000 feet from the sea level, the majestic tea estates with its lush green plantations magically appeared. But with it came two troublesome environment variables. The gradient now changed its intensity from moderate to tough and the environs became murky as the sun disappeared behind the clouds.  We all put on our warm clothing and attacked the climb.

As we sailed deep into the tea estates flanked by tea gardens from both sides the ride started to live up to its expectation from the beauty perspective. However, the surface quality dropped dramatically and we could see signs of past landslides. Also, we started to hit those unexpected downhill sections. Now, I really don’t know how a cyclist climbing up should feel for a downhill in the middle. Whilst, it would be a welcome respite from fighting the gravity, I knew every inch I descend would have to be earned back with more hard labor. It is like the credit card interest, you don’t like them, but you can’t do anything about.

More Tea Estates....more climbing......

It was now well over three hours since we began riding and I knew I had to get some food to keep producing enough power. We were eating sugar laden energy bars but the body was craving for replenishment of salts. VB was feeling the same. So, we decided to keep our food searching radars functional. In the middle of this dreaming for food, Saibal told us stories of how making the “Poori” percolated to India from China. I could have given anything to get a “Poori-Tarkari” at that time.

Finally, when I was almost at the edge of my strength, we spotted a shanty tea stall. It felt like a discovery no less important than that of America by Columbus! Saibal, however, was not hungry and he cycled on and on and on while VB and I sipped 2 cups of tea and siphoned off 2 plates of noodles each.  And as soon as we had finished eating came the rains. It rained for some 15 minutes.

Salts replenished, jokes exchanged, rains seen off, VB and I set off again. We had 16 km to climb and it was 3 pm. More tea estates followed and the gradient changed its characteristics to become really steep. Now, I have cycled a lot in hills and generally I am quite comfortable ascending at a rate of 7-8 meters per minute (data given by my Suunto Vector watch, my companion for all climbs), but for the first time I was seeing the climb rate in double digits. It was incredibly steep and I was climbing at 12 meters per minute!

In fact, there was a section of the climb 10 kms long when I climbed up a whopping 2200 feet; almost 50% more than any normal mountain roads I had done thus far. But the nature came to compensate for the hardship. Now the alpine type vegetation dominated the landscape. The vast coniferous towering trees flanked the roads from both directions and the cool mountain breeze made it an amazing climb, albeit very tough physically.

Welcome to Alpine vegetation......One great thing about climbing a hill on a cycle is you can see the dramatic transition of vegetation up close and personal.....

There were quaint villages dotting the road. The local population seemed very different looking from the traditional Bengalis. Though we were still in Bengal, it was clear the people have their allegiance with the Gorkhaland. Not only the locals looked and spoke differently, they all displayed Gorkhaland support openly. I feel there is a definite case for their statehood and sooner or later it will happen.

Anyway, finally all the difficulty of the climb, the exhaustion of hauling up such a steep unrelenting-unforgiving inclines ended with a quick 150 feet descent to the Mirik town. I parked my bike in front of our hotel and it felt amazing. The fact that it seemed so tough made the feat special.

Sneak peek of Mirik....

Soon VB arrived and we all regrouped and celebrated our achievement with chilled beer. The hotel was a decent affair and we had a great goodnight sleep. You always sleep well with such an arduous climb behind you!

VB and I playing the proverbial camera wielding tourists at the Mirik Lake

The beautiful lake side promenade

The next day, we made a small trio to the Mirik Lake. This is a manmade lake with a nice 3.5 km promenade around it. We walked around soaking the beauty and clicking few pics. Finally at 1 pm, we again picked up our bikes and started the downhill. It was a fast and uneventful affair. But we stopped at the yesterday’s Wi-Wi noodles joint for memory’s sake.

Downhill time.....wide grins are expected as you have labored the uphill to earn a great pedal free downhill....

Wi-Wi noodles join revisited, this time with the whole gang. From Left: Saibal, Madhumita, Manasij, Mausmi and Vinay Bhatia (the vegetarian blood sucking Sindhi lawyer)

Once we descended from the hills we did a great sprint of almost 10 km at nearly 35-40 km/hr (courtesy our support vehicle’s speedometer). Then we rode along the Darjeeling toy train rail tracks when VB startled all passers by with his full volume “Mere Sapno ki Rani Kab Aayegi Tu…” Finally, at 5 pm we were back at the railway station.

Biking and singing "Mere Sapno ki Rani Kab Aayegi Tu".....

On VB’s insistence we did a bike salute and ended the bike tour with the widest grin on our faces. I was mobbed by a group of no less than a dozen locals who asked all sorts of questions about the bikes, about us..blah blah…. I answered them with 100% commitment and it was fun.

So, the figures for the ride were:

Total Distance: 120 km

Total Vertical Ascent: 5700 feet

Total Time on Saddle: 8 hours

Route Profile: New Jalpaiguri Railway Station to Mirik

Overall, I rated this as the toughest ride I have done so far, purely because of the steepness of the climb! Now I know why the Darjeeling Hills have this special status among all the riders and drivers. All these days, I believed that riding the mountains required skill, stamina, power, dedication and determination. I was taught of a very important lesson here. You need to respect the hills as well. My mom says, “Every time you think you are invincible, the nature will come back to impart the humility”. I will surely go back to the mountains with my bike, for there is no better place to learn the virtues than in the lap of Mother Nature herself.

-Manasij Ganguli

09874544003

manasij.ganguli@gmail.com

Yours Truly

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7 Responses to “Cycling To Mirik: The Toughest Ride So Far…………”

  1. Erik Yeh Says:

    Thanks for the ride report, Manasij. I guess the toughest ride for me is yet to come, as I wasn’t able to join you guys for this one. I’m really envious now, esp after viewing the pics…oh, well.. there’s always another time and another place. Hope to see you guys during one of the weekends rides and hear more about the trip. Cheers!

  2. Vinay Says:

    Good one, buddy. I will chip in with a ride report too – on the KCC group. After all, I’m sure you’re expecting adequate retaliation from the bloody vegetarian blood sucking sindhi lawyer, ain’t you? 🙂

  3. Amit Godara Says:

    Awesome Dude. Truely refreshing. I would love to join you on these majestic trips. Hopefully Next time 🙂

  4. Richa.. Says:

    hiiiiiiii,

    You did it again….. Another feeather in your cap…
    Good to hear from you . The way descibe your experience it seems as if i am also there cycling with you… so keep posting ..
    Tk care….
    bye..

  5. Shailaja Says:

    Nice Story….of a Great Experience…. 🙂

  6. Dingo Says:

    I do not recognize you but I got the invitation in gmail to read your blog.
    God knows how but I know if I had not been thro’ your blog I ‘d missed a lot.
    Bon Voyage Wonderlust.

  7. alam Says:

    Can anyone tell me if there is any cycle store in darjeeling?
    I need a 29er rim/ wheel for wahoo

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