10 Questions: Cycling In India

Welcome to 10 Questions.

This is the first in a series of articles, where we ask cyclists 10 questions about a place they’ve travelled and get them to share tips and advice about that place, to help you plan your journey.

We’re starting with India.

For many people, it’s a daunting, yet intriguing, travel destination. Australian cyclist Andrea Collisson has been there several times. She shares tips on what parts to take, how to deal with traffic and what keeps her coming back to the country.

1. Where have you been cycling in India?

Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, The Western Ghats, Kerala (see these areas on map)

2. What is it about the country that keeps you coming back?

It sure isn’t the food! India is rich in culture and history and for an Aussie, I can’t think of a place on the planet which is more different than home. Cultural difference is a big attraction for me. And I like the people, though I know they can be quite hard on each other.

3. Can you describe what a typical day cycling in India is like?

Being a late riser by nature, I struggle to get on the road by 8am. It’s often hard to find breakfast at that time of day. I amble along tiny country roads meeting many people along the way and seeing an old way of life. I stop often for chai or a chat with someone. I hope to reach town where I plan to stop by 4 or 5pm by which time I am usually exhausted. I settle into my guesthouse, have a wash, wash my clothes, go out to find dinner and then go to bed as soon as I can get there.

4. How do you keep yourself safe and sane with so much traffic on the roads?

Between cities, I ride on small roads where there is little traffic and I quickly get off the road for speeding buses and anyone else who looks threatening. I’ve got time and I want to stay alive. In the cities where the roads are clogged, I trust that those behind me can see me and I try to avoid hitting those in front. So far, so good.

5. What about constant attention from local people? Does it feel overwhelming or do you enjoy it?

I enjoy it quite often but it can be tiring. I know many people find it trying. It keeps loneliness at bay.

6. Are there any special equipment considerations for people who want to cycle there?

Modern bikes are still quite rare so take specialist tools that pertain to fixing specific modern parts of bikes. For example, bikes with gears are rare so take tools to get the cassette off in case of broken spokes. On the other hand, there are cycle mechanics everywhere and they can fix almost anything.

7. I know you enjoy getting off the beaten track. Is there such a thing in a crowded country like India?

The beaten track is where the majority of tourists and cyclists go, rather than where the majority of Indians live. The beaten track is the coast, especially from Mumbai to Goa and the Manali to Leh. Rajasthan is also a popular destination. I haven’t done the first two stretches yet but I hope to cycle Manali- Leh one day.

8. What is your most treasured memory of cycling in India?

On several occasions, I was invited home to meet the family and share a meal. These are my favourite memories of cycling off the beaten track. Other memorable occasions resulted from arriving in towns where there is no accommodation and I had to rely on the locals to find me somewhere to sleep.

9. And the most difficult moment?

I started to get run down after 2.5 months of my four month trip. I got a small bout of diarrhoea and lost weight quickly. This sapped my energy. That along with an increasing intolerance for chilli and Indian food made me cranky (which I regret) and I struggled to get on the road each day and complete my route as I planned it. I think I got depressed. I decided to take it easier, altered my itinerary, caught the bus if the cycling day was going on too long in order to reach my destination for the last few 20 or 30km to reach my intended destination for the day. This was a good solution as I was able to still see the most significant parts of that end of the route and my spirits gradually improved as the way got easier.

10. What advice do you have for travellers who want to go cycling in India?

Health and security should be the first priority for every traveller and cyclist. In India, however, there is one area where travellers consistently fail and you see the results in the treatment you receive from the locals. When the locals are unpleasant to us, I think it may be often because they’ve experienced a bad attitude from previous travellers and when they are happy to see you, it’s often because they’ve had good experiences with us before. And then there are those who’ve never met tourists. Such people can be reserved and shy. I can’t stress the importance of humility in India enough. Learn to be humble. Become aware of your sense western superiority as soon as possible and let it go, take India as it comes, don’t fight it. (Filthy guesthouses, bad food, and misunderstandings due to language can be the most challenging part of the Indian experience but getting angry won’t improve anyone’s experience.) That said, don’t be a mug either. Do your research. I was rarely ripped off – this is more common in the most popular tourist areas anyway.

Thanks to Andrea Collisson for answering the questions.

Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in India:

  • Tour.tk – Practical information on India, including visas, getting there, costs, climate information, a distance table, and bike shops.
  • Impressions from India – A beautiful photo journal that shows what it’s like to cycle in India.
  • BikesZone – An Indian cycling forum.
  • Indian Odyssey – A journal of a trip through India (and on to Nepal), by David Piper

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.