There is nothing quite like seeing a country from a bicycle. Even when you’re racing through it, your lungs feel like they are being flambéed and your legs are rapidly collapsing into jelly, the beauty of South India’s mountains, forests and coastline that the Tour of the Nilgiris takes you through will take your breath away, both literally and figuratively. The forests of Wayanad in Kerala and Coorg in Karnataka, and the demanding but endlessly engaging climbs through the lovely Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu are just the spectacular highlights of over eight hundred kilometres of touring by bicycle.
In the four years since two riders dreamed it up during a casual conversation on a cycling website, the Tour of the Nilgiris has grown to become India’s most well known cycling tour. It’s spawned a host of imitators, some nearly as good as the original inspiration. The tour routinely attracts several times as many applications as there are saddles available, with riders from India as well as abroad.
In its latest avatar, the Tour of the Nilgiris significantly raised the standard of the accommodation (an occasional grouse with some riders; though the choices in smaller towns is clearly limited, the last thing you want to have to deal with after a tough ride is a grubby hotel room) and added a new twist; a short section on most day’s rides that riders could choose to race. The route was lovely enough, as it took you from Bengaluru, through Mysore, Hassan, Coorg, Kannur and Sultan Bathery before finishing in the hills near Ooty. But the races added a frisson of competition, with several riders (many of whom had raced at amateur level or better in India, Europe and America) fighting hard to move up each day’s leaderboard.
Whether you raced or not, it was always hard to ignore the true star of the tour — the Nilgiris themselves. They remain one of India’s loveliest areas and are worth every pedal-stroke that it takes to get there.
Preparing for the tour
The route has a couple of long rides, nearly 170 and 190 kilometres, respectively. Doing one isn’t difficult for a reasonably fit person, but to be able to do 100km rides back to back at an average pace of 25-30km/hr can take up to a year of cycling-specific training. The races are not long (6-25km), but are over rolling country and outright climbs. To be competitive you’ll need to have trained extensively over such terrain and to be as fit as a club-level or sportive rider in the West, or an exceptionally fit Indian.
Costs and equipment
Rs 23,999 per head covers all accommodation, food and support during the tour but does not include the cost of getting to and out of Bengaluru. The accommodation is moderate 2- or 3-star in most places; rider feedback from previous tours has seen organisers take accommodations upscale wherever this is available. You’ll also need cycling clothes — at the very least cycling shorts and gloves, and a good cycle. None of this is easy to get in India, but entry-level cycling clothes and accessories are now available at Decathlon India (decathlon.in) and its partner stores in India. The cost of a good cycle usually comes as a shock to most non-cyclists. Decent entry-level mountain bikes and hybrid bikes (suitable for anywhere you’ll be travelling on bad roads and trails) will cost you Rs 15,000 and up. A road bike (essential for long tours and racing on tarmac) will cost from Rs 35,000 for a bare-bones entry-level aluminum bike to about Rs 60-80,000 for a road bike with good quality components from a respected brand. Good amateurs and pros generally use mid- to high-end bikes with carbon fibre frames and high-performance components, costing anywhere between Rs 1 and 5 lakh and more. Still, bike shoppers are among the world’s most dedicated hunters of the best online deals, so it’s not unusual for people to pay as little as half the list price for a high-end bike. A knowledgeable and helpful bike dealer can also help you find the right bike and accessories for you at a good price. Two of India’s best are Wheelsports (wheelsports.in) and B.O.T.S. (bumsonthesaddle.com) in Bengaluru. Hyderabad’s The Bike Affair (thebikeaffair.com) is also highly rated by experienced riders. For more info, see tourofnilgiris.com.
Cycle tours in India
Relative to what’s available nearby in Southeast Asia, India remains poorly developed for a cycling tour, but you still have several options, catering to a range of budgets and cycling abilities.
Tours from international operators like Butterfield and Robinson (butterfield.com), Exodus (exodus.co.uk) or Red Spokes (redspokes.co.uk) will cost you the equivalent of Rs 75-1,50,000 for a typical eight-day tour, with rides of between 30 and 100 kilometres. What you get for your premium spending is a small group, more comfortable accommodation, upmarket cuisine and, particularly important for people new to India, someone to tackle all the uncertainties that travel in India inevitably throws up.
Indian operators also offer bicycle tours but nearly all of them are still finding their feet as cycle tour guides. For every positive testimonial there is likely to be another negative experience. Few merit unqualified recommendation, but word of mouth will usually help you find a good one. Most will offer 4-15 day tours in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarkhand, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Kerala; budget for a tour price in the range of Rs 2-4,000 a day.
Tours like Tour of the Nilgiris usually cost somewhat less and are also somewhat more focussed on the cycling (and the company of cyclists) than on the destination itself. Some of India’s best-known tours:
Tour of Tamil Nadu
In late December, this tour travels over eight hundred kilometres around Tamil Nadu and follows a theme; 2010 was (beautifully but exhaustingly) mountains, 2011 memorably featured the many magnificent cuisines of Tamil Nadu. Cost: Rs 15,000. Difficulty: easy to moderate stages for experienced riders; challenging for beginners. bsa.touroftamilnadu.com/index.html
Tour of the Nilgiris
Mid-December; takes you 850km through Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Cost: Rs 24,000. Difficulty: moderate; the competitive stages, which you can choose to race, are only for strong experienced riders—the winners would not be entirely embarrassed in a national-level race. The non-competitive stages also tend to be ridden fairly fast. tourofnilgiris.com
Great Malnad challenge
Late October/early November; 850km over nine days through south-central and southwest Karnataka. The very picturesque 2011 route took in destinations like Madikeri, Belur, Mullaingiri, Kudremukh, Agumbe, Kundapura and the spectacular Jog Falls. Cost: Rs 15,000. Difficulty: easy to moderate; some roads are poor and several climbs are brutally steep. greatmalnadchallenge.com
Tour of Kangra
Late January; a three-day 260km loop out of Dharamsala that takes in the beautiful country you’ll see through Nagrota Suriyan, Andretta, Bir and Palampur. Cost: Rs 7,500. Difficulty: easy to moderate. tourofkangra.com
Late September/early October; a nine-day tour that takes in 500km of tough riding and racing over trails at heights of up to 3,250m. This tour actually predates the others by several years and though it’s open to amateur riders, is also a race that attracts very good riders from India and abroad. Cost: Rs 15,000. Difficulty: moderate to very challenging. hercules mtbhimachal.com (Warning: at the time of writing MTB Himachal’s website had been red-flagged for malware.)
Note: Costs are indicative; they can often change significantly from year to year based on feedback from riders on accommodation, food and support.You can also simply plan your own itinerary. Lots of riders prefer the freedom this gives them, even if it entails making every arrangement yourself, and not having the backup of a support crew. Sites like crazyguyonabike.com and bikeszone.com (for India-specific trips by amateur riders) can provide almost all the stuff you’ll need to know to plan a ride in India.