What Cycling 500 Kilometres Taught Me

In June 2016, I headed out on a cycling expedition along with eighteen other peers and four masters (teachers) from my school. This cycling expedition wasn’t going to be any ordinary cycling trip. Over the period of nine days, we were to cycle approximately five hundred kilometres. We (a bunch of high schoolers) were going to cycle from Manali to Leh (both of which are in India) along the world’s highest motor-able road (with an average elevation of 4,000m / 13,000 ft).

Self-explanatory pain (via Wheels Guru)

We were to face some really steep gradients, incredibly long flat-lands, and constantly varying weather conditions. We were constantly warned prior to the expedition: “It’s a game on your mind, not so much a test of your fitness”. And having successfully completed the expedition I couldn’t agree more.

I’d done some training beforehand. Running, bodyweight exercises, and cycling around my locality along with friends and teachers became part of my daily routine in the run up to the expedition. But I believe that only helped marginally.

The Expedition

It was bad. Really bad. But also fun. And very scenic.

(Besides the description below, the route is paradise for photographers. Do visit if you get the chance!)

The distances we had to cycle daily varied. Some days, we cycled more than seventy kilometres; some days, we cycled around fifty kilometres. But this was coupled with some of the worst possible headwind, gradient, and traffic. During the first few days of the trip, I was more afraid of being knocked over (and off the mountain) by a truck, than losing my own balance on the bicycle. And now, nearly two years after, I’m glad to announce that neither of my fears harmed me. Yay?

Pretty cool shot. Except for the truck. Ugh.

The route was punishing. Some stretches weren’t even paved. Coupled with the climb, we huffed and puffed our way up these stretches. You’d literally be in sight of your destination only to find out that there remains a winding road thirty kilometres long (around another mountain) to get there.

And that was only one aspect of the mental challenge.

The second test: we had support on our tail throughout the adventure. There was always a mini-bus following the pack (trailing a few kilometres behind the last cyclist). This meant that you could get off your cycle at any time, and get onto the bus. You could choose to quit.

Mind games. Throughout the expedition. There were times when I regretted even signing up for the expedition. But each morning of the expedition I’d also feel pumped to face the Himalayas. Nothing was going to stop me from reaching Leh.

The third test: our route was also traversed by plenty of groups on motorbikes. Seeing these bikers embedded two thoughts in me:

  1. “Heh”. I’m doing the same thing on a bicycle. A sense of pride and accomplishment.
  2. “They’re so lucky”.

But there was a nice addition to having those bikers around you. Every time anybody would pass a biker, the biker and the cyclist (or whoever) would give each other a thumbs up (👍). If not anything else, these few “thumbs up” always brought a short-lived smile to my face. Third aspect of those mind games? Certainly.

Mental Prep

Before the expedition, I’d convinced myself that quitting would not be an option. Getting on the bus was the last thing I’d do. I knew I’d regret getting on the bus if I ever did. I craved that feeling of accomplishment. I’d never really challenged myself before.

The mindset I’d fixed for myself during the expedition was that I could only cycle. No getting off the cycle, walking, and pulling the bicycle by my side. I’d allowed myself to take breaks. Grab a chocolate, sip on your water.

But no walking. No bus. Just keep pedalling.

The hills played their games. But I’d told myself that I “gotta keep going”.

Nothing was going to change the course of the road; I had to traverse it.

At the worst of times, I looked at my legs while cycling. I pictured them as the pistons of a car engine. Pumping, pumping, and pumping. The shadows of my legs moving mirrored that visualisation of the movement of the pistons. That one image got me going through more than half of the route. (Disregard the inherent danger I created for myself by refusing to look at the road ahead so I could stare at the shadow of my legs moving. I’m glad to be alive.) Call me weird if you must, but my half-engineer mind did get me through the expedition.

One of the many passes we cycled through.

In Retrospect

I’m glad I had set some mental rules and general rules of procedure for myself. I was extra careful to ensure I didn’t hurt myself, because then I’d have to sit in the bus. Braking correctly, setting the optimal gear, and adjusting the cycle’s front suspension was always on my mind.

I did not have to tell myself to get on the bus.

I cycled the entire* way. “Good job, Amal” I told myself upon reaching Leh.

Yes, I suffered. I fell sick. My body hurt. My brain was confused. I’d cursed myself for signing up.

But I’m glad I challenged myself. Because this experience taught me that “it really is all in the mind”. And I didn’t learn this fact by myself; I was taught the fact by a tough teacher.

I was determined to complete the expedition without getting on the bus. And I did *. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve done for myself till date. I learned that determination is key.

I’ve applied this learning to my daily life. Whenever I tell myself I can’t do something, I try to convince myself that I can do that thing, because I did endure “the expedition”. I’ve challenged my willingness to be lazy. And it’s worked wonders. (Or so I think!)

Of course, this feat is nothing extraordinary. People have done way more extraordinary things. But to me, this experience is particularly significant because it taught me valuable lessons.

*Our entire team did actually have to get on the bus twice due to rain and snow. But I’m glad I didn’t give up on myself (if you get what I mean).

Perhaps I’ll write about the trip too. I don’t recollect all the details, but I do have cool pictures and great-ish notes. Coming soon? Maybe. Keep an eye out!