Wheels as wings, 6 men saddle up to find their life back

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When the first national lockdown was announced on March 24 last year, Rajinder Manan was caught off guard — like everyone else. From one boring day to another, from one crippling lockdown to another, he saw his business go down and down. There was a lock dangling outside his Manan Hotel at Mehatpur in Una district, Himachal Pradesh. No one knew when this lock would open, no one knew when the unlock would begin. There was tremendous pressure, both financial as well as mental. Unlike everyone else, however, he found the road ahead — with the help of his son’s cycle.

“The hotel was closed. Losses were piling up. We were inside our home. There was nothing to do and there was nothing we could do to improve the situation. It was difficult to pass time and it was difficult to cope with the mounting stress. Then my eye fell on the cycle my 25-year-old son Vedant had bought for himself. It was locked. I opened the lock and started cycling,” says Rajinder.

What began as peddling around his house has seen a new peak now: Rajinder is part of a six-member team that returned from a five-day cycling expedition from Manali to Chamba via Sach pass, from August 29 to September 2. They cycled a distance of 372.03 km, gained a total elevation of 8,254 metres, rode at an altitude of 4,500 metres. And he is only 58.

“Age doesn’t matter, willpower does,” says Rajinder, who has been doing morning walk for the past 18 years. He is an athlete as well. He stood second in his age group in ‘Super Sikh Run Vaisakhi 7 km Fateh Run’ at Anandpur Sahib, Punjab, in 2018. He has the trophy, the medal and the newspaper cutting to prove his claim.

If Rajinder took his son’s cycle, Jasbir Singh didn’t have to. “My 29-year-old son Rachpal Singh is a BTech. He gifted me a cycle from his first salary when he landed his first job in Chandigarh,” says Jasbir, 56. “Cycling has added 10 years to my life.”

Jasbir owns Kalgidhar Furniture House at Rakkar Colony, Una, but claims his business didn’t bother him during those five days. “Na kaam ki tension, na paise ki tension (There was no tension about work and money),” he says. “Hum to swarg ghoom aaye (We have been to the heaven).”

Another 56-year-old in the team is Jagtar Singh, owner of Him Corner, a sweet shop at Una. He is not a typical halwai, with paunch hanging over his belt. He belongs to the family of sportspersons: his two sons are cricketers, brother is a former Ranji player, and nephew is a badminton coach. Jagtar himself is a member of the Himachal Pradesh Badminton Association. While he cycles around 15-20 km in the morning, he plays badminton from 8 to 9 in the evening if he is not busy otherwise.

Isn’t it tiring? “Thakawat to hoti hai, par pareshani nahin (I get tired but not troubled),” says Jagtar, who started cycling actively two years ago.

Their younger teammate is Dr Rohit Sharma, who cut his cycling teeth three years ago. An avid runner, this 41-year-old claims he has taken part in half marathons in Mumbai, Chandigarh, Ludhiana and other cities of Punjab. He runs his Healing Touch Dental Hospital at Una. “My senior team members were a source of inspiration for me,” he says.

On August 28, the four loaded their cycles and bags into a mini-bus at Una and headed to Manali, where they met Sandeep Kumar, the driving force behind the expedition.

The cycle came as a gift to Sandeep as well. “It happend four years ago. I was then posted as Deputy Commissioner at Kangra. I couldn’t find time to exercise, so a friend of mine gifted me a cycle,” says Sandeep, 51. Now he is posted at Shimla as managing director, Himachal Road Transport Corporation.

State Transport Minister Bikram Singh Thakur is all praise for the IAS officer as “he is setting an example for others to stay fit”. Youth Services and Sports Minister Rakesh Pathania claims he has seen the officer cycle when he was Kangra DC. “It was his hobby. Now what his team has done is really commendable,” says Pathania. “Covid indeed gave a great push to cycling in the state. All of a sudden, everyone, especially youth, took to cycling. In the mornings, it seemed as if all of Shimla was out with their cycles, as if all of Kangra was out with their cycles. However, as the cases came down, the cycling craze came down too.”

Jasbir credits his love for cycling to the IAS officer. “Meri cycle ko pankh lage Sandeep ji ke saath (My cycle got wings in the company of Sandeep),” says Jasbir, referring to the time when Sandeep was Deputy Commissioner at Una. He stayed there from June 2019 to October 2020.

On February 23 last year, Sandeep says they organised a cycle rally, “Pedal against Peddlers”, which was flagged off by Mithali Raj, the captain of the Indian women cricket team, at Una. It was a successful 100-km rally which later brought like-minded people together with cycles in their hands, but the coronavirus and lockdown came in their way.

“On the positive side, Covid also cleared the way for my cycle. There was no traffic. So I used to take out my cycle and go round to quarantine centres for inspection,” says Sandeep.

Slowly and slowly, as the unlock began in June, an informal group took shape: Cycling Enthusiasts, Una.

The only one without Una connection is Jasprit Paul, a professional photographer from Mandi. He became part of the team because of his association with Sandeep.

Like Rajinder, Jasprit, too, started cycling during the lockdown. “Karne ko kuchh tha nahin. Isliye apna camera udhate the, apna cycle udhate the, aur nikal padte the (There was nothing to do. So, I would take out my camera, my cycle, and move out),” says Jasprit, who cycles 100 km on Sundays and 30 km every day now. This year he won a virtual cycling competition, Firefox Firestorm Cycling Challenge 2021, by logging 1,976 km and 76,271 metre elevation in 42 days. From June 10 to 13, he along with Sandeep went on a four-day cycling expedition to Chandertal Lake in Spiti from Thunag in Mandi, covering 250 km.

At 40, Jasprit is the youngest member of the team, a bachelor and yet to be vaccinated.

The Manali to Chamba expedition began from Prini, the abode of the late prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

There were challenges aplenty right from the word go. “There was a rough road from Udaipur, Lahaul, to Pissa,” says Jasprit.

Sandeep seconds him: “There was a kachcha road from Udaipur to Bairagarh with a steep ascent and a steep descent. Distance, height and oxygen were other concerns.”

“It was a tough terrain,” says Rajinder.

Sandeep and Rajinder once fell down during the expedition, so Dr Rohit gave them first aid. “We faced issues with the weather, the health and the cycles. So, for around 30 km, we travelled in the mini-bus,” says Dr Rohit.

Pollution pained the teammates no end. “People go there on bikes and in cars, and throw plastic, be it wrappers or bottles, here and there. They should not be doing this,” says Jagtar.

While Jasprit says they cleaned up the mess at many places, Jasbir says, “People should stop this habit of throwing kachra everywhere.”

The high point of their journey? “From Killar in Pangi valley, we reached Pissa, Chamba, in one day, covering a distance of 99 km,” says Sandeep.

Scenic beauty enchanted them along the way. “Hills, waterfalls and Chanderbhaga river — it was an altogether different experience cycling in such a setting,” says Sandeep. “More and more people should come and explore the beauty of Himachal Pradesh.”

For Rajinder, it was a tough but enjoyable experience. Dr Rohit found it wonderful but tiring. The others had a great time and said bahut maza aaya.

At the end of the day, all of them agree it’s fitness that counts and a Fit Individual is equal to a Fit India.

Rajinder, who cycles 40-50 km on Sundays nowadays, shows the road to fitness: “Cycling, walking and running are a must to stay fit — and live without medicines.”

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