It's been six years since I last rode a bicycle. Six years is a long time. Long enough for rust to have reduced my bike to dust and to make me consider with trepidation an activity I could once do as easily as breathing.
I try to forget my skepticism just long enough to release the brakes. As the bike picks up momentum, hurtling downhill, the misgivings return, this time as a crazy, mounting fear. The bike skips over stones, the handlebar fights me for domination, and all I can remember is Jose's advise about the brakes: "Don't use them while riding downhill!"
Learning to let go
I'm certain everyone heard the air getting sucked out of my lungs when Jose George, the 41-year-old founder of Lakecity Pedalers off-road bicycling club, first mentioned the bit about not using the brakes till I reached flat ground. This was a bit too much for me.
All the bikes I'd ever ridden were Indian MTBs, the sort that made all your friends gawk when you were speeding back from school, but would crumble if you rode over a pebble. So when Jose handed me his shiny Trek with its bouncy suspension and dual disc brakes, I could only imagine what a mean Decepticon it could turn into.
It was 9 am on a cool, rainy day, but there were beads of perspiration dotting my forehead. The circuitous path I was told to take downhill wasn't daunting per se; but the bright green moss that had grown on the pebbles certainly was. I was sure if I hit one of those slippery stones I'd go flying off the hillside.
The hesitation made my anxiety all the more evident. I tried to psych myself. "Stop trying to control everything and just let go," I thought, and let go.
All is green. And slippery
The Yeoor hills look bright and fecund in the monsoon. It was drizzling when I caught up with the Pedalers at the dhaba where they'd halted to parcel snacks and drinks. The roads were riddled with potholes full of brown sludge, which meant the bikers would have to be extra cautious. They were fully geared and charged up, and spoke of biking equipment like nobody's business.
Once we got to the top, they sailed off one by one, slowly at first but darting down as they picked up speed. Each had his own way of controlling the bike. Faisal Thakur was the pick of the lot.
He examined the route carefully, like a master chef choosing his first cut, then finally took off. When he'd gained considerable speed, he stuck his left leg out at an awkward angle, bending it back to place it on the rear tyre. I was still looking quizzically when he reached the bottom, triumph evident on his face. As the bike rolled to a stop, he hopped off and exclaimed, "No brakes!"
Master of my fear
Right, the brakes. When I first let go of them, I did panic. Not because I couldn't control the bike or that it was skidding, but because it began to pick up speed immediately, like an airplane readying for take off. I sat firm, slouching back, like Jose had told me to, clutching the handlebar so strongly that my knuckles showed white. The stones made the bike bob up and down frantically, and I had to maniacally swerve the handlebar a couple of times, all of which I managed just fine.
Maybe the breaking of bones would be put off for another day. But in a split second, another peril surfaced: I couldn't brake hard on plain land as the bike was certain to skid on the slushy mud.
In the natural order of things, up is antipodal to speed. I spotted a small rise and gravity did the rest. The brakes were applied minus the hazards posed earlier. The bones were intact. Between fight and flight, I may've literally chosen the latter, but here that's what the fight was all about.
The writer hasn't ridden a bike for more than six years, just like most of us. But he discovered a whole new world trying to pedal on dirt. Your turn.
You can do it too
Why ride on dirt?
Riding on tarmac is boring! Head away from civilisation, look for a dirt track and go exploring. Hurtling down hilly paths is a great high, just like being on the edge anywhere else. And if you take a tumble in the muddy water, so what?
What gear do you need?
Knee and elbow pads, a helmet, eyewear and shoes that won't slip on mud. You need an MTB (mountain terrain bike) with suspension, a strong frame and fatter tyres that provide better traction. For that, be prepared to shell out about Rs 10,000. Helmets cost Rs 1,000 upwards; knee and elbow pads circa Rs 500.