Prathap Nair takes a cycling trip along the Cauvery, with forts, falls and food thrown in

“It seems like a bright day,” I think when I step out of the dormitory in Bhagamandala, all ready for a cycling trip that will span 160 km over two days. It is to start where River Cauvery originates and go on to a tiny village on the Karnataka-Kerala border called Jalsoor. The ride is to begin at 7 am and the parking lot of the hotel is slowly getting thick with cyclists in full gear — perky windcheaters in bright colours, padded cycling shorts, helmets, tiny backpacks with essentials for the road, and so on.

I had slept well on the bus the previous night, despite a rather bumpy ride from Bangalore to Bhagamandala. An oversight on my part — I did not send a follow-up mail to the organisers and they failed to allot me a proper bus seat — worked out rather in my favour in hindsight. The last two seats weren’t filled up and I had a good sleep, aided by ample leg room and all.

The spectrum of cyclists ranges from novices, even first-timers, to maven bikers who are regulars on the trips organised by the Bangalore-based Cycling and More. This ride, one of their popular ones, promised to take the rider along some stunning scenery in the Western Ghats peppered with numerous little waterfalls by the side of the road and lush greenery amid untouched, virgin forests.

Owing to its popularity, the same ride has been conducted four times in a row now and I only managed to find myself in the fourth instalment. By now, however, the unpredictable weather has brought with it thick dark clouds and it has started drizzling softly. We are handed out the day’s maps and instructions on how to proceed to the first day’s target — Bekal Fort in Kasaragod. The ride will cover about 80 km on the first day and we will have a lunch break at a midpoint. The target is to reach Bekal around 3 pm since there is no entry into the fort after 6 pm.

Armed with the knowledge that there are support vehicles following us with water, supplies and repair assistance, I tug my windcheater closely about me and set out into the drizzle, following the expert bikers who are by now fast disappearing from sight. The route is fairly straightforward (although the roads, hardly) and it is not difficult to lose your way if you are super challenged with directions. Deceptive turns branching into a narrow road attract your attention or a conspicuous fork confuses your sense of direction. Either way, you are never far from a fellow cyclist or better, the support vehicles that tag along. Besides, the map also has emergency contact numbers.

As if to mirror the map’s promise, the ride is mostly downhill and the road, extremely patchy and riddled with potholes. The ride is hardly an issue because the landscape is worth much more than the hard slog of pedalling. The roads are thickly canopied with the monsoon-laden trees and the effect created when mist swims through the leaves is quite magical. Picturesque attains a new meaning here.

I pedal along, often breaking the ride to take pictures. This proves to be a bit of an effort since the drizzle sprays my lens, obscuring my view. Not to mention that the two bags I use to keep my camera from getting wet work against taking any shots quickly. Thus trundling my way through the 80-odd kilometres on the first day, I reach Bekal Fort with the sun still blazing, blinding me and overexposing my images. I am one of the early riders to reach the destination, so I wait for the rest and watch the crepuscular charm of the fort until our bus takes us to our hotel rooms in Kasaragod town.

That evening, after pleading for first shot at the bathroom — not that my travel mates care; they are busy nursing tired calves — I set out in search of fodder for my famished stomach. The middle-aged gentleman at the front desk is pessimistic but finally recommends The Metro restaurant.

It stands opposite a KFC on the other side but the crowd at its tables suggests that it might still be the favoured haunt of the locals. The waiter reels off an assortment of fish dishes but I quickly settle for fish biryani, a unique Mopla dish I have not tried before.

The biryani comes in a stout metal container with chunks of deliciously cooked fish buried deep inside flavourful rice and splendid masala. I eat till I can’t eat anymore and conclude the meal with a suleimani chai or black lemon tea.

The next day’s ride covers a mostly descending landscape. The roads are in good condition and though a sprained ligament on my knee threatens dissent, I manage to reach Jalsoor by the banks of the Payaswini. A hearty dip in the shallow river with its strong currents washes off the remains of the day, and we follow it up with curiously shaped fried food, spicy buttermilk, and nameless sherbets.

As I sit taking notes, the other riders slowly gather. They have quickly realised that the river is harmless and safe for flapping around, even for non-swimmers. They decide to do just that. The team leader’s calls to board the bus to the hotel go completely unheard.