Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Narsapur Forest - The Monkey Trail

Gareth and Gr on the trail..

The Trip
After five months of being away, my cousin’s marriage gave me an excuse to make a trip to Hyderabad. I was excited at the prospect of meeting my friends at HBC and the possibility of riding with some of them again. I exchanged a few mails with gr and co and a plan for a trail ride in the Narsapur forest was formulated.
The Narsapur road ride was a pretty regular ride when I was in Hyderabad. It was what I called a monkey trail as the road goes through the forest and hordes of monkeys are always lined up on both sides of the road. On many such road rides some of us used to think that it would be great to find some single tracks with in the forest to ride. But we never got around to doing it. Now that guys like Gareth, gr have done all the hard work of searching for trails and marking them in gps etc., I was keen to join them up and have fun.
Thanks to Sreekath for allowing me to ride this beautiful bike, the Cotic Soul

The Bike: Cotic Soul
I did not want to carry my bike for such a short trip. My friend Krish at TBA offered to lend a bike from his fleet. So did Sreekanth. I’ve decided to ride the Cotic Soul MTB that Richard so beautifully built for Sreekanth. I loved the bike the minute I saw its photos a few months back and wanted to see if it rides as amazingly as it looked. Oh boy did it ride like a charm! I think it weighs between 11-12kilos with its Reynolds 853 frame, XTR drive train, carbon seat post and carbon handle bar etc. It is the lightest and the best MTB that I have ridden so far. The Reynolds frame just absorbed the trail buzz beautifully and felt like a full-sus more than a hard tail in comfort. It just rolled amazingly smooth on the trail.

The Moron Moment
Sreekanth wanted me to ride more and not worry about fixing flats on the trail. So, he had a set of tire liners installed just before he gave me the bike. I picked up puncture kit and a spare tube from him as well. I barrowed a helmet from TBA and promptly forgot all about the road morph pump that I intended to pickup along with it. I got on the bike at 4:20am to meet up gr and Gary to hitch a ride to the starting point. Just as I reached JNTU I felt the familiar shake of the tail and I couldn’t believe that I had a flat even before getting on the trail. I was sure that I would find a big nail but found none. In the sheer helplessness of the moment, I felt like a complete moron. I guess it is precisely to avoid such moments that we carry along all the tools that we do. Having no other option, I called up Gary to come and picked me up. As it turned out, it was a pinch flat from newly laid liner in the back tire. Once fixed, there were zero flats on the trail itself.

The Thorny Delight
The trail started out as double track probably made by tractors that transport the forest out of there. As we got deeper into the forest the terrain got more interesting with winding single tracks and thorny bushes. Gr ended up loading, on his watch, a gpx file that was different from the one he sent to the rest of us. Still his mental map was reliable enough to guide us through most of the trail. At places where his mental map was fading, the chief (Gareth) chipped in with his inputs in addition to the gpx on my Garmin. Despite all the collective navigation skills put together we ended up finding some new trail. Some call it getting lost.

The more we got into the heart of the forest the thicker the thorny bushes became. As we made our way through them they kept showing their delight with lovely graffiti on our skins. The chief’s hydraulic disc brakes were working too well and offered him some trail rash as he got washed out on a slightly tricky descent. Even with out falling the rest of us were also sporting enough bloody scars to make anyone believe that we ran out of a war zone.
Gr walking the thorny and rocky portions of the trail..
"There! That side. No, I think this way..."
As we reached the halfway point, i.e., the end of the marked trail, Sam and I went out into Narsapur to fetch some water. The two navigators decided to rest at the high ground which offered a nice view of the lake. Going out on to the road and into the town was easy enough. While we were buying water a couple of local newspaper reporters started interviewing us and even took some photos. After our five minutes in limelight, when we tried getting back on the trail, we promptly lost our way.

We headed back to the road on gr’s instructions and regrouped at the tiny Ayyappa temple by the roadside. On our way back we decided not to go back the marked trail. We planned on getting lost aka finding new trail. We’re doing a great job of it too. We went through some awesome trails with tiny rock gardens and more thorny bushes until we reached a clearing on a high ground from where we saw a few buildings. The chief suggested going through what looked like a non existent path that would take us to the original trail. Gr was skeptical and was betting on jumping a fence and going through the property of what we thought was of the Achaya Ranga Agricultural University. As it turned out it was a poultry farm which prohibits anyone entering the premises for the fear of decease for the birds.

After fixing a flat on gr’s bike we headed out to the road and entered the agricultural university track to try and get back to the trail. But we ended up at a village and then on the road to Jinnaram. The plan of getting lost on the trail ended up with us getting lost on the road. So, we decided to shelve the plans of finding new trail for the day and headed towards our cars.

Gr sighted a Deer fawn, and the chief showed us a few paw marks which were way too big to be those of a dog. Luckily for us we didn’t run into any wild boar or the makers of those paw marks. We rode more than 40kms of trail most of which was single track and about 55kms in all. But it was surprisingly not that tiring. I think the bike had a major part to play along with the exciting but relatively flat terrain. The awesome ride rounded off what was a memorable trip to Hyderabad. Thanks gr, Gary and Sam for the great time on the ride and gr for the ride home.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gudalur to Ooty - Ooty Trip Day Two

With a setting like this, what else can they ask for?

A New Day and a New Challenge
I came out of the room to take a look at the hills that humbled me the day before. Stood for a minute gazing into them in the twilight wondering what they have in store for me on the day. The morning breeze was invigorating. The mood was optimistic.

On Saturday while discussing the plan for Sunday, Vineeth asked if I was sure I wanted to try the climb from Gudalur-Ooty. He knew how disappointed I was with the first attempt from Kalhatty. My answer to him was, “Yes. I can live with two failed attempts.” Not that I’ve accepted a second failure already. What I meant was that I cannot live with not having tried after coming so far precisely to do that. Try. Even if it meant another failure.

We decided to drive down to Gudalur and start riding from there to save time. The plan was to drive back to Bangalore immediately after the ride. We reached Gudalur by 8am driving through the magnificent Madhumalai Tiger reserve.

Like the day before, we planned to ride only till the place where the Kalhatty and Gudalur roads meet instead of riding into Ooty to avoid the tourist traffic and save time. That makes it a 42km one way trip. We estimated four hours of ascent and a couple of hours of descent which means we should be done by 2pm.
Started with the hope that it is going to be a better day for me.

Where does the climb start? 
We were not sure where the 20 kms of the climb started in nearly 50kms of the ride from Gudalur to Ooty. When we mapped the route on Google maps and looked into the elevation profile, it seemed to suggest that the climb starts some 10 kms after Gudalur. We were hoping to see some flat stretch to ride as a warm-up before the climb started. But the road kept climbing. With every passing kilometer we were expecting the road to descend while hoping that it won’t. We knew where we’re headed, what goes down has to go up. 

When I did the Nandi climb, I was able to climb the first 5km without stopping. So, thinking it would be like climbing Nandi three or four times, my initial strategy was to try and stop every half an hour to let the muscles relax. Vineeth was taking it easy after a hard ride the day before and decided to let me set the pace. The pace was a consistent 10kmph. The gradient was steady and constant. We were confused and were thinking, “If this was supposed to be the flat before the climb how bad-ass would the actual climb be?” Something didn’t add up. 

Half an hour came and went by. I continued pedaling and wanted to see how far I could go and how far the road would climb. There was no sign of any descent or a flat section even after 10km and an hour into the ride. It was then that a slight suspicion that we might be in the middle of the actual climb raised in our minds. I decided to stop for a couple of minutes before proceeding further. Some chikki, a few gulps of water and a couple of minutes later, we’ve decided to continue the climb. I’ve decided to see how far I can go before I needed to take a break. I just didn’t want to try too hard and burn out before long climb is done. The amazing views on either side of the road acted as a perfect dope to keep us going on the continuous climb.

I've got a car and balls too-Vineeth
Every time youngsters passed us with their motorbikes or cars they hollered for attention. Some guys showed thumbs-up signs saying things like 'good job', 'all the best' etc. I generally nodded and acknowledged them with a smile. Smile may be another dope. Anyway, one such youngster apparently hollered and asked Vineeth in Tamil, "Don't you have a motorbike or car?" "I've got a car and balls too", Vineeth retorted. :)

As we approached 2hrs into the ride, the climb eased into a false flat/downhill section. That minute or two of gradient easing up meant the muscles got a chance to relax and we continued riding with out stopping. 2hrs 45mins and around 32kms into the ride, we stopped to buy some water as we ran out of water. The place was busy with tourists climbing and watching over what looked like bank of a lake. We couldn’t be less interested and decided to get on with the ride.

The altitude was showing up as 2250mts above sea level already. That meant we were almost done with the climb. Nearly another ten kilometers of the remaining ride would be rolling terrain. We marched ahead and with in no time reached the police check post where the road from Masinagudi/Kalhatty meets the Gudalur-Ooty.

It took me a while to realize that the climb was over in a little over 3hrs and 30mins. That was a big relief for me after the Kalhatty debacle. Vineeth has completed two tough climbs on two successive days. He’s an awesome rider and a great person to ride with. It was a pleasure to be riding with him. His constant presence behind me on the climb gave me a silent confidence on the long climb. We posed for a few victory snaps before we started the descent.
Venky and Vineeth after the climb to Ooty..
The Descent 
The descent was very enjoyable in parts and looked dangerous at parts. There were sections where the tree shade made spotting potholes impossible. The road was not particularly smooth the whole way. I know that hitting potholes at the downhill speeds can be quite disastrous even for my 700*28s. The bends and the on-coming traffic meant we got to be really careful not to get into their line. 

I had a bit of a scare when a cow walked into my path as I was turning into a bend. Fortunately, I was in control. There was another instance on the way up when a TN state bus came very close to me and forced me off the road. Fortunately that section by the side of the road was not that bad and I stayed in control. 

On the descent, I was hanging on to the brakes and continued to turn the pedals as smoothly as I can. Took a couple of breaks to take photos and relax the arms that were gripping the brakes for dear life. Swooped down to the location of the car at exactly 2pm. Vineeth was some ten minutes ahead of schedule.

It was a great ride that made the whole trip worthwhile for me. Quite satisfying in the end.

The elevation profile of Ooty ride from Gudalur..
The Gudalur-Ooty ride elevation profile from my Garmin.. A vertical gain of around 1200 meters and a total elevation gain of 1900 meters over the ride.. The Bulldog is content with its biggest climb till date

Killer Kalahatty - Ooty Trip Day One

Killer Kalhatty-Start of the 36 hairpin bends

So, what are the weekend plans, dude?
It is the season of marriages and vacations for kids. So, when one of my cousins decided to get married, it meant a trip to hometown for the family. Two weeks in advance. That means an entire weekend for myself and for my Bulldog to go riding. No deadlines for rides to end by so and so time. That is a luxury a few married souls hardly get. A chain of emails to a few friends with ride plans and a plan was etched to make the most of the weekend of 21st and 22nd May.

Ooty climb was on my mind for quite some time now. Ever since I read stories of TFN going through the tough climb stage, the climb intrigued me. From this part of the world, Ooty has two primary approaches. One through Kalhatty ghats and the other from Gudalur. For both one would need to go through two huge reserve forests. Bandipur forest in Karnataka and Madhumalai Tiger reserve in Tamilnadu.

The plan was to try and get to Masinagudi early on Saturday morning so that we can try the Kalhatty climb on day one and Gudalur climb on day two.

Initially Kalkat also was supposed to join Vineeth and me for the trip. Then a friend’s marriage reception on Saturday night meant he had to drop off. So, Vineeth and I decided to go ahead and give it a shot.

The Nightmare!
The Kalhatty climb gains 1200mts of elevation in about 12kms giving an average elevation gain of around 10% with a few stretches going up to 15% or more of gradient. The 36 numbered hairpin bends are stuff of nightmares for someone like me and quite a challenge even for the strongest of riders.

The climb up to Ooty from Gudalur however is a less steeper climb but a longer one. It gains the same elevation in about 20kms. It becomes a rolling terrain after the initial big climb.

Since the legs will be fresher on day one, we decided to try the tougher of the climbs first. I had my doubts if I will be able to get the Bulldog up those steep gradients and those 36 hairpin bends. Friday night sleep was sparse and filled with nightmares of me coming down those hairpin bends on a full bus that was out of control. Why bus? I didn’t even bother to decipher. It just told me how much I dread the climb.

Our stay was at a small resort at Masinagudi. Vineeth and I parked the car in the resort and headed for the climb around 9am on Saturday after a bit of breakfast. The plan was to ride not all the way to Ooty but complete the climb and turn towards Gudalur and come back to Masinagudi to complete a loop. Nearly a century and a lot of climbing. The distance to the top of the climb from Masinagudi is around 23kms with 12kms making the killer climb.

The approach route before the actual climb starts is also quite rolling with grades around 5% for small stretches. That was a good warm-up for the climb. Or so I thought!

36/36 Hairpin Bends From Hell..
As I approached the climb slowly, even before the hairpins started the gradient felt tough. I kept going trying to push and trying to stay on the saddle. It was getting impossible. I found myself standing up and trying mash within no time. It meant that the heart rate shot up even before I made a few precious meters of progress. I had no choice but to stop to regain composure.

I stopped a couple of times even before the hairpin bends started. When I finally got to the hairpins, the sign 36/36 on the yellow board raised my heart rate by a few notches even when I was just standing there and staring at it. I told myself not to think too much and try to move forward. I started and surged ahead from the 36th and crossed the 35th hairpins but had to stop again. It was hardly 200 meters but felt like a lot of effort.

I tried to tell myself to try and go forward even if it meant stopping at every hairpin bend. But every time I stopped the steep gradient meant that I had to do switchbacks on the road to get started again. Switchbacks within switchbacks(moving like a snake). That would have been fine if I had the road all to myself. “Ha ha.. fat chance. Dude, we cannot give up on one of the last weekends of the summer vacation that we can spend at one the greatest summer destinations so that you can ride your fixie up the hill. Go buy your own hill.” The continuous traffic seemed to mock at me.

So many four wheelers were struggling up the hill roaring, moaning, pleading their way up the hairpins one after the other in almost a continuous chain. Every time I stopped I had to make sure no vehicle was coming from behind or from above before I started doing switchbacks on the road to get started. I was stopping every few meters and waiting forever to ensure no vehicle is coming before starting again. I knew it was going to take forever.

In the meantime, I used up the two bottles of water I had and began asking for water from every passing vehicle. A generous guy from a car that stopped there to let the heated up engine to cool down filled up one of my bottles.

Accepting Defeat!
At this point I was stopping, waiting, starting and stopping before any meaningful progress was made. I would go faster if I just get off the bike and started walking. I went past the 20th hairpin and was near the 19th hairpin bend when Vineeth called me asking how was it going. He completed the climb by that time and told me it was only going to get tougher past the point where I was.

I was already defeated mentally and exhausted physically with the Sun and the gradient sapping the energy. I felt like a complete idiot. I knew it is going to be very tough. I guess I made it impossible by mentally giving up very early.

In the meantime Vineeth descended on the same side instead of completing the planned loop. We've decided to head to the resort to get some lunch. It was a 46km ride for him which included the killer climb successfully tamed and a 35kms of pain and disappointment for me.

Trying and failing is fine by me. I accept that the gear ratio(42*15) on the Bulldog was too high for such steep climbs. I just wish that I approached it in a more positive frame of mind and was not scared like the way I was the minute I saw the tough grades. I felt I did not fight it hard enough before giving up. I didn't do the Bulldog justice that day!

PS: After the initial disappointment of the failed ride, I've decided to stop feeling bad and not spoil the day for Vineeth who had a great ride. After lunch we sat down watching some cycling videos in my laptop. We lazed around the resort for a while. We then decided to drive up to Ooty through the Kalhatty so that I could see the portions of the climb I didn't make it, to get an idea of what I missed. It felt like a killer climb even on a four wheeler. I was happy for Vineeth for successfully completing such a climb. The Ooty city was bustling with the tourists. We decided to head back and rest up for day two.

The day two report is here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Bulldog's First Birthday

The Bulldog leaning against a tree atop Nandi on its first visit there..

It’s hard to believe that it has been only one year since I first saw it and fell for it. It gave me so many unforgettable memories in the past one year. Many come to mind today. A couple of near death experiences when I started riding it in Fixed gear mode. Nah not really near death experiences, but definitely a bit scary. :)

I would never forget getting a ticket for riding it on interstate. My first fixed gear century, my first imperial century. Climbing Smuggler’s notch and Bethel Mt in great company. Riding in great places like North Eastern Kingdom in New England. Many century rides and more recently an excellent Nandi climb.
It might be a bit arrogant of me to say that I gifted it with its fastest century so far. May it was its treat for me. A 100km in 3 hrs 48 min 27 sec. It is a personal best for the Bulldog as well as me. Incidentally, it was a first century ride for both this year.

(The activity doesn't start where it ends because I had to reset the Garmin some 4 km into the ride as it was acting a bit strangely)

Ride stats from another cyclo-comp on the bike:
Total Ride: 103.9 km
Total Ride Time: 3 hrs 59 mins
Century time: 3 hrs 48mins 27sec @ an avg of 26.3 kmph
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