R. Sundararajan took to the pedals at 58. Six years on, he is India’s oldest super randonneur

Eyes sparkling with surprise, I tell him he looks decades younger. I almost always say such nice things to seniors, matching the treacle of words with an appropriate facial expression. Except that, this time I mean it.

With a toned physique and a brisk gait, R. Sundararajan looks anything but 64. More significantly, the man does not live like a sexagenarian. He cycles most days in a year, doing an average of 40 km a day with his 10-gear Colnago Ace, keeps track of endurance cycling events, often travelling long to take part in them, and regularly rides with a dozen groups, matching pedals with cyclists one-third his age. And, here is what makes him the poster boy for endurance cycling in the country: he hit the pedals only at 58 and has clambered up the cycling ladder with his cleated Shimano shoes.

Sundararajan has the distinction of being the oldest super randonneur in the country — someone who has completed a bouquet of 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides in a year. He has achieved this feat twice.

A ride to remember

“I did the series of first four rides in 2013, and again this year. In India, nobody else my age has done this,” states Sundararajan, a member of Madras Randonneurs. There is however no hint of self-admiration: he’ll probably allow himself that emotion when he completes a 1,000 km ride to be able to join a huge peloton of riders on the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride, a grand quadrennial event. (A randonneur has to complete a 1,000 km ride in addition to the series of smaller rides closer to a PBP year to qualify for the cycling extravaganza.)

At my age, muscle memory will be poor. It takes constant training to keep the muscles receptive to such tasks. Youngsters will not face such a problem because their muscles are more open to inputs

He attempted a 1,000 km ride — Chennai-Vijayawada-Chennai — in March this year, which he left mid-way, after completing around 550 km, deterred by the thought of having to return by a cold-milled stretch between Nellore and Tenali, which he had handled efficiently on the way up.

“On the way to Vijayawada, I rode on this stretch. To keep the cycle in position, I had to hold the handlebar hard,” he says, showing the resultant marks and calluses.

He has however not given up on the stubborn 1,000-km, preparing to give it another shot, either in Bangalore or Chennai, and is pounding his body into shape for that. “At my age, muscle memory will be poor. It takes constant training to keep the muscles receptive to such tasks. You’ll not face that problem. Once you train your muscles for an activity, they’ll ‘remember’ it for years,” he tells photographer Ram Keshav. Ram, in his early twenties, promises to give endurance cycling a try — he will probably soon be one of the many youngsters Sundararajan has won over to this fitness sport.

Sundararajan has mentees across cycling groups and cities, because there is something electrifying about his engagement with endurance cycling. He expends considerable time, energy and resources for it.

“In the last four years, I have chalked up more than 40,000 kilometres,” he says.

The light advantage

In his neat, but hardly attention-grabbing house at Indira Nagar, where he and his wife Padmini live alone, their two children having flown the nest, Sundararajan has an 11-speed Pinarello Dogma 2 and a 10-speed Colnago Ace, both high-end carbon cycles. His other cycles include a 10-speed foldable Dahon that he has carried in his car on visits to Bangalore and Mysore.

“I went in for the two high-end carbon cycles to overcome the disadvantage of age,” explains Sundararajan.

As he explains the features of the machines and the minor modifications — such as a stem riser and a dynamo in the Colagno Ace — he comes across as a man who has given considerable hours to researching the subject.

Given his passion for cycling and knowledge about it, it is hard to believe he kept away from it for a long time. I pose the question that is itching to be asked, “What drew you to cycling at age 58?”

Says Sundararajan, “I did my mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy and there were 140 students in our batch. We kept in touch through reunions. Between 2000 and 2008, we lost around 20 of them, many of them dying of cardiac arrest. Three others were on dialysis. And I saw one of my batchmates being admitted to a hospital with many of his organs shutting down. I did not want to wind up in a similar situation.”

He took up cycling as a fitness activity, having seen his father cycle till he was 72. And then, the activity took over, recasting Sundararajan beyond his wildest imagination.