It’s that time of the year again. When people start thinking about ‘the’ great Indian cycle ride – from Manali to Leh. A couple of people have written to me in the recent days asking me questions, many of which can be classified under: ‘what does it take?’ While I have replied individually, I thought it might be a good idea to post a consolidated response here.
To provide a perspective, I cycled self-supported from Manali to Leh in September 2010 . Of course, riding this route once does not make me an expert. I should also clarify that I am now a middle-aged bloke, and for over a decade after college, I wasn’t really involved in any athletic activity. I also carry a torn meniscus in my left knee and a stent in my heart. Why am I telling you all this? Well, I am trying to drive home the point that while you do need to be fairly fit you do not need to be an athlete. So what does it take?
The single most important thing:
Passionate desire to do it. I think it is good to begin with the understanding that this is not an easy trip. Especially for those who have not spent too much time cycling in high-altitudes, climbing endless steep inclines, sleeping out in tents, cooking on stoves in the outdoors (or eating every day in roadside ‘dhabas’)… In my view there are broadly two kinds of people who are likely to do well on a trip like this: either you love the mountains or you are driven to prove a point, to your own self, perhaps.
If you are thinking of embarking on this trip and have never done any of the following, I’d urge you to try all, or most of them at least once before going:
- On this trip you are likely to spend multiple nights at or above 4,000 metres. If you haven’t ever been to these kinds of altitude, it may be a good idea to test them once. Ideally you should spend at least one night in a tent at 4,000 odd metres. But of course this can not be a ‘one-night-stand’. You will probably need to spend a week acclimatizing to get there. Just because you are extremely fit, does not mean that you will acclimatize to high altitudes quicker or better.
- You are likely to encounter multiple days of long climbs – in the range of 500 metres or more. If you have never climbed that kind of altitude before you might do well to try it. It is almost a given that in Ladakh the same climb will feel harder, because of the higher overall altitude and lack of oxygen (remember Ladakh is a high-altitude desert).
- If you decide to go self-supported (and this is a major question you have to address) then you should very carefully test all your equipment – the panniers, the pannier bags, the tent, the sleeping bag, the stove… at that altitude and that kind of harsh climatic conditions, everything has a higher propensity to fail. Be prepared to make emergency repairs. If you have never done it before, then you should try and go for a self-supported ride, even if it is only for a couple of days, and in familiar grounds.
Does it take a lot of money?
Depends. Some decisions are likely to have a major impact on your budget:
- Self-supported or vehicle supported: Depending on the season and the competition for taxies a support vehicle can cost you anywhere from 25k to 50k. The other option is to convince a friend or family-member to drive a support vehicle for you. Well good luck with that, and if you do find someone, remember that you have found true love. Just kidding of course.
- Night shelter: Manali and Leh offer a whole range of hotels, from the relatively inexpensive to fairly top-of-the-line. The hotels you choose here can have a significant impact on your budget. Also to a lesser extent, where you stay during the ride can make a difference. If you decide to cook and camp yourself through the trip then of course you can do the entire thing on a shoe-string.
- Return trip: A third thing that can affect your budget is the return trip from Leh. A last minute airline ticket can be costly, while booking a ticket months in advance can sometimes work out cheaper than a shared taxi on the return leg.
I have already posted a detailed cycling equipment list. The only thing I’d like to add is that you should avoid trying out new equipment on this journey. Make sure that you have clocked a couple of thousand kilometres on you bike, saddle and shoes.