Motoring

The motorcycle diaries: How five riders got together to take on chaotic Indian roads

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It is not the thrill of riding that keeps these five well-known faces in the international motorcycling community going after years spent on the saddle. It is their way of life...

For someone who rode a motorcycle on permafrost (in temperatures of minus 52 degrees Celsius), Karolis Mieliauskas’ request to step out of the air-conditioned hall seems odd. “It feels like I’m sitting in a refrigerator,” he says.

In February 2019, Mieliauskas rode his motorcycle in Oymyakon, Russia — one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet. “I rode in Oymyakon for five days. There are valleys where the temperatures drop even further; at one point my thermometer stopped working,” he says. His response was to hit the highest gear on his vehicle, and keep moving.

The 37-year-old Lithuanian is at a clubhouse in Nungambakkam, enjoying the pleasures of a perfectly warm November day in Chennai. Mieliauskas was part of a six-member team that just rode from Goa to Chennai on five motorcycles, over a 10-day trip they named Spice Route Odyssey.

The motorcycle diaries: How five riders got together to take on chaotic Indian roads

Though he has visited India on six separate occasions previously, this is the first time Mieliauskas has ridden a motorcycle here. “India is tough,” he sighs. “It is chaos on the road. If you are slower than the rest, then you will be killed, and if you are slower and thinking a bit too much, you will crash,” Mieliauskas adds, laughing.

Unending quest

One of his riding partners, Declan McEvoy, an Irishman, also subscribes to this opinion. But McEvoy has grown more confident of his riding abilities over the past few weeks. “I feel like I have become Indianised. I think I’ll be calling myself Pritam McEvoy from now on,” he smiles.

McEvoy is no slouch. The 57-year-old took to motorcycling as a teenager but had to give up on his passion, when he committed to the love of his life in his twenties. “When I got married, I sold my motorcycle and bought a carpet for our living room,” he says, the dry humour not failing to find its mark.

The motorcycle diaries: How five riders got together to take on chaotic Indian roads

Then, around 20 years ago, a life-changing moment for McEvoy happened at work. “One of my friends did not turn up, and I learnt that he had died on his bathroom floor while shaving to go to work. On that day, I decided that life is not about the future because who knows... it may never come to you,” he adds.

About 12 years ago, he got back on the saddle and rode the length of Ireland in a single day before going on to cover the whole of United Kingdom on his motorcycle. With the adventurer spirit rekindled — “It was like a drug really”, he says — McEvoy went motorcycling east into Europe. “I wanted to go further and further east, and eventually nobody would come with me because it was too far, and too many strange countries. I decided to go anyway,” he says.

On one of those trips, on the Pamir highway in Tajikistan, he bumped into Deepak Kamath. One of the most popular, and recognisable, faces of the Indian motorcycling community, Kamath has not strayed from a motorcycle saddle for the better part of 30 years.

Hardcore adventurer

A former NCC cadet, Kamath is nicknamed Armstrong in the community. It is easy to imagine the name’s origins (it could also be that he has strong arms, and can actually attempt to shake your hand off your body) considering his explorer qualities. Try being the only Indian — and one of only three motorcyclists in the world — to have ridden on all seven continents, including Antarctica. In 1994, Kamath and his friend took a Yezdi 250 on a trip around the globe, covering 40,535 kilometres in the process.

The motorcycle diaries: How five riders got together to take on chaotic Indian roads

The obvious question followed: How many times did the Yezdi break down? “You will be stunned. Not even once,” he smiles.

It was Kamath who put together the Spice Route Odyssey. He explains: “It was to help the international riders connect with our community, and to understand how these trips are done.”

Behind the scenes
  • The logistics behind the Spice Route Odyssey was courtesy Big Biking Commune, an aggregator platform based in Bengaluru, dedicated to the motorcycling community in India. “With the Spice Route Odyssey, we brought the best names in the international biking community to share their experience and motivate the local bikers to think of biking beyond borders, to step out of the comfort zone and explore the world. The Spice Route riders also enjoyed the tour, and got to experience a varied section of bikers as well as local culture along the route,” says Arun Kumar, convener, Big Biking Commune.

The connecting part is something that Kamath holds dear, and is an aspect, he believes, that is on the decline among the younger biking community. “It is a Google-driven world today; it has made them rely on gadgets and disconnected them from the community. When I rode from Kanyakumari to Khardung La (in Ladakh) in 1991, there was no road. We got lost, and the Army people helped us get back on track,” he adds.

But even for a road-worn motorcyclist like himself, Kamath remarks that the Spice Route Odyssey was a challenge. “Especially, the stretch from Kochi to Nagercoil. These were small roads, and the trucks and buses literally run on you,” he says.

Making a difference

Mandeep Kaur Merwah, a Delhi-based motorcyclist who was part of the group, echoes his views. Mandeep, and Veena Shetty from Bengaluru, were only the women members of the touring contingent. In terms of acceptance of women bikers, the Indian motorcycling community still has a long way to go. Both Mandeep and Veena have braved the odds to be where they are at. They acknowledge that a society which restricts access to geared motorcycles for women, and makes it harder for them to get trained on one, is a little unfortunate.

The motorcycle diaries: How five riders got together to take on chaotic Indian roads

Growing up in Kuwait, Mandeep, 48, says the restrictions placed on women riding a motorcycle is what made her determined get on one. When Kamath — who is a family friend — requested that she accommodate a couple of his guests at her Delhi residence on short notice, Mandeep demanded that she be allowed to take part in the Spice Route Odyssey in return. “I’ve only been riding for the last three years, and I feel very accomplished with what I have been able to do,” she says.

Veena, who has been riding motorcycles for the last 19 years, was in college, when she convinced her father to buy her the two-stroke Yamaha RX100. “I was a topper in my college,” she says. But when she broke her ankle attempting a wheelie, her dad responded by selling the bike.

The motorcycle diaries: How five riders got together to take on chaotic Indian roads

“As a child, I used to wonder why my aunt or mother never rode my uncle’s or my father’s motorcycle. When I asked that I be allowed to ride, I was told I cannot because I was a girl,” she remarks.

To help encourage more women to take up motorcycling, Veena hosts breakfast rides on Sundays. “I ask my friends to bring their sisters for the ride... to let them ride as pillion. Or, I let them ride my bike slowly,” she says. For her part, Mandeep spearheaded an academy that is dedicated to training women to ride.

However, the perception is changing. “There are still people who give the looks when they spot a woman ride.” Mandeep adds, “But then there are also men who give you the thumbs up, when they spot you on the road.”

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 8:49:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/this-motley-biker-group-spent-10-days-riding-from-goa-to-chennai/article30016545.ece

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