Manali to Leh cycling – What does it take?

Manali to Leh cycling – What does it take?

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?

Climbing the mountain --Manali to Leh

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.

Links:
Pictures and a short write up of the cycling trip from Manali to Leh
List of cycling equipment you should carry

19 Comments

  1. Im 50, on BP medication. No other issues. 5’5″ ans 69kgs. Will appreciate health related advice and precautions.

    Naheed 9810844414

    Reply
  2. Ma cyicling ma karyer bnane chate hu

    Reply
  3. wow thanks for that useful post…whats the best time to visit manali and about the cycle its not possible to get it from mumbai, so what are my options…also what kind of cycle should I prefer…I have done trekking before but this is a new experience for me too….thanks in advance for your help…

    Reply
  4. we are planning the cycle trip and are thankful for your advice. we have a Firefox hardtail target bike. will it do?
    What is the condition of the road. can u advice.
    thx
    anand

    Reply
    • There are some parts of the road that are excellent. Some other parts are terrible. Most of it should be ok, though. Depending on when you ride, you may encounter many a waterfalls running on the road. We encountered a rather wide river with a missing bridge and had to wade through pretty deep water… We had to take a couple of hundred km detour because Tanglang La was closed. The road, like almost everything else on this journey will be a little unpredictable. Things changes form year to year, month to month… Be prepared for all eventualities and you should be ok.

      Firefox hardtail should be fine. I know somebody who did this trip comfortably on a black Atlas, while someone else — on a rather expensive bike — had to abandon the ride due to equipment failure.

      Reply
  5. thx will get back to you with more questions

    Reply
  6. Hi,

    Inspiring blog and comments to all, I am being a member of a cyclist NGO called icycle. We are conducting an event called Great Malnad challenge(GMC) is an annual 9-day cycling event covering about 850kms of the Western Ghats, passing through some of the breathtakingingly scenic parts of the Malnad region
    The Trail which winds through six rural districts in the state of Karnataka, is carefully planned with completely traffic-free remote roads in the backdrop of the most picturesque rural locales of Western Ghats and presents an ultimate adventure for the cyclists.

    Team Icycle.

    Reply
  7. Inspiring stuff man. It must have been one of those things you are glad to have done before dying.

    One simple question – How did you get your cycle there? I stay at delhi and it would be quite an ask to take my cycle all the way to Rohtang :-)

    Reply
    • @ Siddharth:
      Sure, I am glad, I did it. And would do it again…
      On our trip I had driven up in my car, with the cycles mounted on top. The other option, and perhaps easier one, is to take an over-night bus — the Volvos are pretty comfortable and have enough boot space to carry cycles.

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  8. You write well. Wish you’d have written some more about the daily experiences on the trip. Planning to do the same circuit this September. I’ll probably opt to stay at the “dhabas” along the way just to avoid carrying all the extra weight. I’ve motorcycles in these mountains a couple of times, so know what to expect.

    A few questions if you have the time.

    1. What kind of fitness levels are needed? Will the ability to do 100kms a day consistently in the plains be enough?

    2. On motorcycle trips, places like sarchu hit hard. It’s probably because of the rapid climb you can do on a motor. Is it the same on a bicycle? Or does the gradual climb take care of that issue?

    3. How much warm clothing is really needed? Will a fleece be enough if you’re staying at the dhabas?

    Appreciate the information you’ve put here.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Harried. I had the intention of writing a travelogue, but then more travel came in the way ;-). The answers to your questions:

      1. If you ride 100 kms in the plains regularly, you should be fine. Though, practicing some hill climbing before you go may be a good idea. Even if it is a small hill that you keep riding up and down multiple times.

      2. If you start at Manali and ‘cycle’ up the passes but sleep low, you should not have any acclimatized issues. There are exceptions to all rules, so it is always a good idea to be hydrate well and watch for symptoms.

      3. I guess it depends on the month of the year and also on each individual’s cold threshold, but I would definitely not go with just a fleece. Riding down some of the passes, I was glad that I was wearing a thick waterproof jacket. And on some nights/mornings, I was glad that I had a down jacket too. Yes, I like to stay warm, but you could find a middle ground for yourself…

      Reply
  9. hey great info.

    me n few frnds are planing a manali to leh trip this august. we wanna keep it completely raw in terms on staying. we plan to stay in tents the whole trip. so is it possible at all times? we wanna keep budget the minimum. any places we must see or make stop?

    thanks
    neil

    Reply
  10. Sir,Can this route be done on a Hybrid bike. I am planning on a new bike and this trip is on my mind for the near future.Dont want to switch bikes later. Thank you

    Reply
    • Prateek
      I’d be a little apprehensive if you were going fully self-supported. But if you don’t overload the bike, I think you should be ok with a hybrid.
      All the best!

      Reply
      • So an MTB with slicks in the city and fatter tyres for the trip should do it then. Which bike would you recommend?

        Reply
        • Yes, that should work, in my opinion.
          Which bike, is a much tougher question to answer. Short answer: If you are not trying to set speed records, and if you are not carrying a ton of weight, and if you are strong, then you should be able to do this with practically any bike. Beyond that it depends on what you can afford…
          What I would strongly recommend,though is that you put in at least a 1000 kms on the bike and the saddle before you head out.

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          • Yes I have read about a retired army officer doing the ride on a Atlas bike.
            So a decent Scott/Bianchi Hybrid should do it then. Will surely practice before heading out. Will do a few uphills and regular long rides. Thank you.Much obliged.

          • I know two people who have done this route on an Atlas. And that too many decades ago, when the roads were much worse. So, I guess, it certainly can be done. Especially if you are willing to get off and push when necessary, and if you are willing to take the odd part failure in your stride… A decent bike is always nice, but eventually it is your legs (and your lungs) that will take you there. Having said that, let me also say that I know at least one person whose fancy brand MTB left him stranded in the middle of nowhere on the Leh highway…

  11. Yeah I read about that. SO an MTB or Hybrid shall not make any difference if the effort is put in and the ride is done with the right frame of mind and determination. Just need to be prepared for everything. Thank you.

    Reply

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