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Delhi to Leh to Delhi in a posse of Royal Enfields. Plug out of the grid, lay some biker stereotypes to rest
I am gunning along towards the mountains up in the distance.
In front of me is 40km of freshly laid tarmac.
The Thunderbird 500 huffs and puffs as I wring the throttle. The motor feels out of breath, and so do I. Which is when I remember what they told us in the morning briefing: “Make a conscious effort to breathe”. Turns out, 13,000 feet above sea level, the air is extremely thin, and breathing is something you have to work at.
I’m no stranger to highway riding, but this trip has turned everything I know about long-distance biking on its head. This is the 10th edition of the Himalayan Odyssey, a bike run organised by Royal Enfield (RE). And as most RE fanatics know, the Odyssey is one of the most challenging rides in India, with participants starting preparations months in advance.
The 17-day journey begins in Delhi, goes up to Leh and then back to Delhi, covering 2,700km along the way. This year’s event has drawn 100 riders, split into two groups. For the record, riding to the hills is not all straight lines; there’s bad roads as well, and sometimes no roads at all – for instance, when you approach Rohtang Pass, where landslides are common.
I mentioned breathing upfront because the most direct fallout of thin air is altitude sickness, which is a critical factor in any circumstance, competitive or otherwise. And then of course, there’s the weather, which at these altitudes can change dramatically, with no warning whatsoever.
These challenges aside, I discover that riding a bike, especially a cruiser like the Thunderbird, is a lesson in the joys of keeping it simple.
We wake up in the morning, assemble for a route briefing and set off. The collective rhythmic thumping settles down into a comforting pattern as we ride across terrain that is sometimes scenic, sometimes hostile.
Because of the scarce population and hilly terrain, mobile phone networks are yet to arrive here. And soon enough, you begin to appreciate that. Since you’re not compulsively jabbing at a three-and-a-half-inch screen, you put that time to better use – talking to your fellow riders, hearing their stories, sharing laughs.
In the chilly morning air of day four, I’m inspecting my bike before we set off, when I get talking with Ravi Sevak, the rider of the bike parked next to mine. Ravi’s on an Enfield Classic 500 Desert Storm – and turns out, the soft-spoken, slightly-built young man is an assistant professor who teaches engineering in Baroda in Gujarat. Gives the hairy biker stereotype a decent burial.
This guy spends more time sniffing chalk powder than exhaust fumes, so I’m curious how he became part of this trip. “I’ve been anything but a die-hard biker for most of my life,” he says. “Then, a year ago, I was returning from college when I saw an RE parked next to my car and fell in love with it.”
So he researched REs on sale and zeroed in on a 350 Classic. On his way to buying the bike, his father, who was with him, asked him, “Isn’t a 500cc bike better than a 350?” Point taken. And that is how the mild-mannered professor ended up with a 500 Desert Storm.
Then there’s Hide Okamoto, who couldn’t be more different from Ravi if he tried. Hide is from Tokyo, and he’s been a motorcycle test rider – yes, on a full-time basis – since age 16. Over the last three decades, he’s tested the whole spectrum of bikes that you and I only dream of. The latest being the Vyrus C3 series.
His less glamorous work includes consulting for TVS Tyres, which he’s done for over a decade now. Hide knew nothing about the Odyssey till a few months ago. One fine day, in Tokyo, he met an RE dealer (yes, an RE dealer in Tokyo), who told him about the Odyssey and said he was looking to send someone from Japan for the trip.
Adventure junkie that he is, Hide volunteered right away. He rented an RE Classic 500 and has managed fairly well on it so far. He says he likes it. I assume he’s just being polite, but he explains, “This bike is meant for road use only, but over the last 1,000km, I’ve driven it on everything except roads”.
This is a proper road motorcycle, definitely not built for terrain like this. Hide is so impressed with the RE Classic, he’s thinking of buying one when he goes back. His biggest disappointment is that after all these years of coming to India, this is the first time he’s discovered masala papad.
It’s eight days since we left Delhi, and we rumble into Leh, on our way to the reunion site where the two groups will meet. There’s music playing at the site where we’re joining up. I park and take pictures of some customised Enfields. It’s a day of rest, a day to stretch, relax, party before setting off back to Delhi.
Around me are bikers being unruly bikers. In the distance are snowcapped mountains bouncing sunlight off. I’m going to miss all this. I’ll miss Harsimran Singh Kohli, who I met at the flag off at Delhi. Harsimran was part of the very first Odyssey, riding on a red 1980 RE Deluxe 350. He was 50 then, and as excited as a teenager about taking his bike to Leh. He’s been doing this route since 1988, but mostly on a scooter.
Now 66, that excitement and his appetite for adventure are showing no signs of dimming. He’s already planning next year’s trip, having arranged a Thunderbird 500 for the job. He asks me to join him on that ride. Now, that’s what you call an offer you can’t refuse.
(Words and Photos: Abhinav Mishra)