What the Tour of Nilgiris taught me

It has been ten days since the Tour of Nilgiris (TFN) officially concluded — none of us is biking around the Nilgiris any more. But the Nilgiris is still weaving its way through our heads, hearts and minds. As I stare at the computer screen now, my legs still think they are pedaling, my eyes look for the route markings and I can sniff the fresh mountain air.

So what is the Tour of Nilgiris ?

Here are the facts

  • 900 kms of cycling over 7 days
  • 3 states (Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu)
  • 3 wildlife sanctuaries (Nagarhole, Mudumalai, Valparai)
  • Umpteen villages, canteens and chai shops
  • Many cities
  • 25 pit stops
  • 100 riders
  • 50+ volunteers
  • 7 hotels

But as every avid traveler would concur, the facts never describe an experience. So what is the TFN then?

  • A tour ? A race ?
  • A picnic ? A holiday ?
  • A war ? A battle ?
  • A challenge ? An opportunity ?

It’s all of this and more. I’ll let you decide.

Every rider has taken something back from TFN. Here is what the TFN taught me

1. Miles to go before I sleep

I had considered myself “reasonably fit” for someone my age. I knew there was an opportunity for me to improve a fair bit, but I always thought my age was limiting how good I could become. Boy, was I wrong! I have been proven wrong in the most emphatic way possible, and I am so glad for that.

Belinda, a lovely smiling woman from Goa was faster than 90% of the guys on the tour. She is 54 years old !

Belinda’s husband Richard beat 95% of the guys on the tour. He is a young 50!

Russel from Goa (originally from Manchester, UK) was faster than 95% of the participants. He celebrated his 70th birthday on Dec 22nd 2015. Beat that!

These three amazing folks are a living example of how a healthy lifestyle and a focus on fitness can make age seem so so so bloody insignificant. This was one of the biggest takeaways from TFN for me. I also got the distinct feeling that this incredible fitness they possess also reflected in their persona. They seemed so happy, so genuine and so comfortable with themselves and those around them.

2. Conquer the mind, the body will follow

When you are cycling 130 kms a day on average, your mind is playing games with you and asking questions of you.

  • Why am I doing this?
  • How hard should I push my injured knee? Should I stop now?
  • Do I have to continue tomorrow ? Will my legs bear the brunt again ?

I had considered myself “fairly mentally tough”, but I was put to the test. When its just you, your bike and miles of road with no one else around, these questions creep in with a sickening regularity. I eventually developed a way to deal with this by asking myself two questions. If the answer to these questions was in the negative, I had to keep going.

“Are you dead?” — No.
“Are you injured” — No
Then just keep going !

Once I had used this technique to deal with the mind battles, the body seemed to follow. The aches became bearable, the knee pain didn’t matter as much and the destination was that much closer.

When you give yourself limited choices, clarity suddenly stares you in the face.

Every single rider on the tour was fighting his/her own battle. Two in particular come to mind. (I choose not to mention their names because I suspect they would like to keep their struggles private)

One rider was suffering from SLE two years ago and could barely walk. She took up cycling because she had no other option — she couldn’t walk. After chemotherapy, yoga, regular exercise and serious lifestyle change, she is almost back to normal now and decided to do TFN in 2015. Imagine the mental battles she fought through these 2 years and through TFN! I can’t even begin to think what thoughts must have run through her head in those 2 years and these 8 days.

Another rider has bad eyesight. He can barely see 10–15 feet ahead of him. He cycles by looking at moving objects in his line of sight. He decided to ride 900 kms in 8 days — I salute the audacity of the effort. Can you imagine what questions he would be answering through the ride?

My mental battles pale in comparison to these two. That’s the other lesson from TFN — if you think you are going through a tough time, look around you and get inspired. I am in awe of these 2 riders and simply salute their spirit. I am inspired. Are you?

3. Stretch, Stretch and Stretch

Although I believed in the value of stretching, I never actually practiced it diligently. On this tour, an injured knee meant that I had to stretch some of my leg muscles regularly. I ended up stretching a lot of my leg muscles throughout the day (including before going to bed) and it helped immensely. Day after day, I could feel a very tangible difference that the stretches accomplished.

I now try to practice this twice a day. So if you have 10 minutes to spare in the morning and evening, stretch ! It can’t hurt !

4. Hydrate, Hydrate and Hydrate

I had heard this many times “Drink lots of water”, but never paid too much attention to it. Four days into TFN I decided to take this seriously. I sipped water every 15–20 minutes. This meant that I was having water before I felt thirsty. Before going to bed, I consumed 1–2 liters of water. It made an unbelievably HUGE difference. Recovery after the next day’s ride was tangibly and conceivably better, the body felt stronger and the legs didnt ache as much. No exaggeration here!

So, if you play any sport, hydrate as often as you can, especially before you hit the bed. You may not see results in the first 2 days, but over a period of time it will help. Remember, there is no such thing as overhydrate — so just keep drinking water !

5. Culture is everything

TFN is run by 50+ volunteers and 4–5 leaders. Within a day, you realize that this is a special organization. Having built a few organizations I can appreciate the effort that has gone into making TFN a great place to work. All these articles in the media on tech startup culture are generally meaningless. If you want to see how culture is built, look at TFN. Every volunteer will greet you with genuine warmth — with a look on his face and unspoken words that say he is ready to help you. This sort of culture is not built overnight.

The underlying fabric of an event is its people and its culture.

TFN demonstrates this aptly.

Each one of the volunteers is handpicked and trained. One of the volunteers is a national biking champion. Another is a running champion. Yet another runs his own startup. All leave their day jobs to spend 8 days in the Nilgiris to help other riders. Why would they do that? Ask them next time you see them :)

TFN is a 8 year old startup that refuses to grow up. And I hope it never does.

There you go — those are some of the things I learnt from TFN. If you are considering TFN, just do it. And remember to enjoy the ride and not get to the destination early. Because…

TFN is a way to experience South India. TFN is not a way to experience hotels in South India