They call it God’s Own Country. Swaying coconut palms, sensuous beaches, alluring emerald backwaters — that’s how they describe Kerala.
I promise you ‘they’ have never seen this side of it.
Day 1 & Day 2
By the time we reached Mananthavady, Wayanad — a delayed flight took us from Bengaluru to Konnur which was followed by a 3-hour cab ride — the sun was already setting in the horizon. In fact, the last sun-rays of the day was kissing the outline of the mighty Western Ghats.
Even though it was getting darker, we could gauge the serene beauty of this place. This being my third visit to the state (but, first time in Wayanad) in as many years, I already knew about the natural beauty that it has to offer. What I or my friend did not know, and never expected, was the thrill and adrenaline rush that MTB Kerala 2019 would bring.
MTB Kerala, an international mountain bike challenge, is an initiative of the state’s tourism department, under the aegis of Kerala Adventure Tourism Promotion Society, DTPC Wayanad and the Cycling Federation of India. This particular edition, though, turned out to be a little more special.
Introduced in 2014, the event was always famous for its unique track and the diverse course encompassing terrains like dirt, rocky and water it offers. But for the first time in India, the sixth edition of MTB Kerala, was included in the MTB championships of Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the Swiss-based world governing body for sports cycling and oversees international competitive cycling events.
The good thing for us, though, was that we had a day in hand to process all the information. And also to do a 4.8 km hike, covering the tough stretch of red-earth track with loose stones. At first, we thought, ‘Alright. This is just 5 km. Shouldn’t be that difficult, right?’
Well, it wasn’t. Until the two of us slipped on some pebbles and went rolling down, until my friend fell on his back while on the climb down. Now mind it, we (at least I) are no amateur hikers. But by the time we made it down we had enough scratches and bruises to boast for an entire week.
The 4.8 km track is filled with twists, turns, and all sorts of ups and downs. And add to that several steep slopes, a mere slip could cost one’s life. Until you see this course up close and personal, you cannot begin to fathom how scary it is. If walking on this terrain was so tough, how is it possible to even ride bikes on this, let alone race!
Being a self-confessed sports and adventure sports enthusiast myself, the craving to get on a bike and just start pedalling started engulfing me. But I knew, having never done this before, I should not try it in that scary and dangerous track in Wayanad at least. Anyway, we were curious to see how the cyclists would go about the track, defying the danger that lay ahead.
Priyadarshini Tea Environs, Mananthavady, Wayanad
Nearly 3000 feet above sea level, the tropical conditions posed a different kind of challenge to the experienced international cyclists. The weather was warm and the December sun was shining bright, making it somewhat humid and uncomfortable.
The day started with Minister Ramachandran, legislator Kelu and Kerala Tourism Deputy Director K Radhakrishnan speaking at the inaugural function that was attended by Thavinjal panchayat president Anisha Surendran. At 9 am sharp, the men’s elite race flagged off.
As many as 78 male cyclists from 14 countries (including India) went toe-to-toe in the elite men’s challenge. There were cyclists from all over the world, Bangladesh, Nepal, Iran, Armenia, USA, Germany, Canada and many more.
I decided to not wait at the finish line, like my friend (who is a little lazy, I must say) but to go around the track as the cyclists would take some time to finish their eight laps. With this in mind, I started hiking even as the competitors vroomed past me. Had I realised how dangerous it would be, I would not have loitered into the track.
Minutes later, I had my first close shave. As I went round a steep, narrow, downhill curve, I could hear someone shouting, “SIDEEEEE”. On instinct, I dived left just in time to go out of a raging mountain bike’s way. A crash would have surely resulted in something fatal, but thankfully, I live to tell the tale.
I decided to be a little more careful and wary of the participants, and also to not distract them from their main goal. With this in mind, I continued my hike to the finish line.
En route, multiple times I had to pause. Sometimes, for the cyclists to past, and at other times, just to take in nature in its rawness. Thankfully, I did not suffer any accidents on the trail but the same cannot be said about the cyclists. They sported, almost proudly, several cuts and bruises on their hands and knees.
By the time I made it down to the finish line, the final lap was going on. Two international cyclists, Canadian Cory Wallace and Iranian Farzad Khodayari, finished first and second respectively in the men's international category.
India’s Shiven, who is based in Chandigarh, exceeded all expectations as he left several international pros behind to finish third. Another Indian, Kiran Kumar Raju finished fifth.
A women’s event was also held later in the day, with 24 female cyclists competed in the women’s section where Naima Madlen Diesner of Germany finished first.
As the sun started setting behind the tea plantation, I could not help but wonder what would have happened if I had hopped on a bike in the morning!
Maybe, next time I will be back with a bike. Maybe, next time I will take on death in God’s Own Country.