Bone cancer could not stop Bittoo Sondhi from becoming Bittoo Bikewallah. The dreaded disease was detected at the tender age of 16 when Bittoo was being treated for a major leg injury.
“As a child I had just one passion-bikes and secretly hoped that one day I would participate in bike rallies. Once while riding my friend’s bike I injured my right leg. The injury did not heal for a long time and I was eventually diagnosed with bone cancer. Initially the doctors had decided to amputate my leg but later they chose a more conservative approach to treatment,” recalls Bittoo. He saw this change of decision as divine intervention as “otherwise I could not have ever driven a bike.
The doctors chose radiotherapy for me, which in those days was a new concept in the field of oncology. I am especially thankful to Dr Singhal, who was then working in AIIMS for motivating me to recover. It took me two years to get back to my passion with renewed zeal and a steelier determination.”
Bittu attributes this resilience and sense of grit to his genes. His grandfather had a flourishing business in Rawalpindi which had to be forsaken when the family migrated to India after Partition. Thereafter their financial situation nosedived to reach an abysmal low.
“As a young child I worked in a dhaba,” says Bittu. “In my sparetime I used to watch motorcycle races on television. I desperately wanted a bike when I was 14 years old and when my father refused I smashed some glasses in the house in anger,” he shares. His preoccupation with bikes became the driving force of his life. “My father’s refusal to buy me a bike meant nothing to me and I persisted to persuade him and even saved money for a year. Finally my father agreed and arranged for private finance to buy me one. Bittoo became the proud owner of a second-hand Yezdi motorcycle with a down payment of Rs. 2,500. “Therafter I cleared Rs. 5,250 in installments. The feeling of finally owning a bike was simply out of the world. I was constantly watching over my bike as an obsessive lover or cleaning it,” remembers Bittoo.
To repay his installment he found himself a job in a Karol Bagh shop for a modest salary of Rs. 500 which was spent entirely in making the payment and on fuel. Bittoo even started driving an autorickshaw at night with the objective of contributing to the family expenses. Not one to be deterred by odds, Bittoo was clear about one thing -- he had to realise his childhood dream of becoming a bike racer. “Since I had successfully battled bone cancer and all my financial odds I somehow had an inexplicable feeling that my dream was meant to be. And I was preparing for it steadily but surely. I practised stunts, concentrated on building speed and boosting my general health condition and stamina.”
In 1988, Bittoo participated in his first bike rally - the Dara Desert Rally. “At that time I didn’t know much about the technical aspects of a rally and did not have the requisite racing gear or sacks tied around my knees for protection. Some people were waving at me, signaling for me to stop but I was sure about one thing - I had to win the race and I didn’t want to lose my position by letting the riders overtake me. I didn’t stop. Later they told me that I had been disqualified because I did not stop at the passage control to get the form stamped. I was very disappointed,” recollects Bittoo. After this a turning point came in his life when biking guru Tutu Dhawan took him under his wings and trained him for a rally. Their teamwork paid off and Bittoo lifted the trophy and hasn’t looked back since.
Today the trophies for Raid de Himalaya, South-India Rally, Great Deserts Himalaya Raid, Hot Weather Rally grace the shelves of his bike showroom in south Delhi, which he acquired after a glorious career in racing. Winner of many prestigious national and international races, he did not acquire wealth on a platter like many of his other counterparts. Looking back at his journey and recalling some particularly memorable moments, Bittoo says, “Being on a bike all day long in extreme conditions takes a toll on your physical as well as mental strength. In the pursuit of my passion I have broken almost all bones in my body. During the Great Deserts Himalayan Raid in 2003, I was in second position driving through the Bara-Lacha pass near Ladakh when my bike’s chain lock came off. It was snowing heavily and my bike got covered in snow. I left it there and started walking back. I was lucky that an ambulance came by and gave me a lift. The rally officials later recovered my bike.”
Talking about some of the challenges he says, “ Preparing for a race is not easy on the pocket. One has to be prepared to shell out anything from Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 4 lakh.” The time now is reserved for preparing his GSX - R1000 for track races and RMX 450 for rallies.
So how did Bittoo Sondhi officially become Bittoo Bikewallah? “I have been rechristened thus by one of India’s numero uno ad man,Prasoon Joshi,” says Bittoo. Not one to forget his tribulations, Bittoo is determined to give back to the society. He motivates children and youth across India to pursue their dreams through his organisation Dream on Wheels. He is also associated with ActionAid and other organisations like Gandhi Smriti, Darshan Smriti, Plan International, Vikalp, World Comics, UNICEF, Chetna, Kalyanam and many more.
Bittu Bikewallah is also the brand ambassador of ActionAid that among other things funds schools for underprivileged children in Munirka and Burari. His latest venture is to invite underprivileged teens from poor families to train under the Suzuki brand as trainee mechanics on super bikes for one year. The organisation will ensure that these mechanics get retained as permanent staff or get the opportunity to work with other super bike brands across the world.