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WHEELS OF WANDER

Calcutta’s only bicycle group Ride2Breathe has ridden into many an adventure in and around the city. Three bicycle buffs pedal Metro through places often forgotten or seldom visited

East Calcutta Wetlands

A picture-perfect and yet seldom explored piece of Calcutta are the East Calcutta Wetlands. One of our favourite destinations, it’s amazing to see nature in full abundance in spite of being so close to the hustle and bustle of the city. The serene surroundings, the vast water bodies, lush green fields, fishing boats — all make for the perfect bicycle ride.

Gathering at our usual starting point — Central Park, Salt Lake, in front of the Netaji statue, at the crack of dawn, we ride past a sleepy Salt Lake and enter the wetlands through Sector V.

The preferred route is always the metalled road behind Technopolis, which ends at Bantala (near the leather complex on Bantala Highway).

Once we ride past the tall, glass-panelled buildings of Sector V, the bheris or lakes welcome us, with the sunlight glimmering on the water, lighting up the surroundings. Riding along the narrow kutcha trails, which are mostly dykes separating one bheri from the other, is quite a test of balance for us bicyclists.

As we cycle deep into this beautiful world, the sound of traffic fades away and all we get to hear is the chirping of birds. A gentle breeze caresses our body, the smell of wet soil engulfs us and crisp, pure morning air fills our lungs.

We often take a detour from the metalled road and explore the trails, riding on the narrow dykes with water bodies on both sides.

But what’s even more interesting are the interactions that take place on these trails — catching up with the fishermen on their boats casting and hauling the net through water and then coming across their fresh catch for the day at the small fishermen’s settlements in the wetlands, the sunlight glinting off the shiny silver scales of the freshly-caught fish, inviting us to buy some for later.

A bird watcher’s paradise, the wetlands also offers a chance meeting with Wood Sandpipers, egrets, kingfishers and different types of ducks. Moving along silently on our bikes is the trick to get to know them closely.

The refreshing ride ends at our favourite tea stall at City Centre Salt Lake. The adda session with masala chai and piping hot kachoris brings the ride to a perfect end and makes for a rejuvenating start to the day ahead.

Sagar Sen, banker and founder member of Ride2Breathe. Rides a Scott.

Calcutta heritage ride

Outside Victoria Memorial for the Calcutta heritage ride. Picture by Neil Law

On May 19, a group of cyclists from Ride2Breathe went on a heritage ride around Calcutta. We discovered the actual beauty of the city on cycles. Exploring old Calcutta was the highlight of this tour. We were showered with history and trivia about the monuments and other places by Neil Law, a member of Ride2Breathe who doubled as the tour guide.

The first heritage building we visited was, of course, Victoria Memorial Hall. As all Calcuttans know, this landmark was built in the memory of Queen Victoria, the empress of British India.

Next we rode to the Patton tank on the Maidan, which is a Pakistani tank that was captured by India in the war of 1965. The Glorious Dead Cenotaph, also located on the Maidan, is quite interesting too. Built in 1924, the cenotaph commemorates those British soldiers and Anglo-Indians of Calcutta who gave their lives for king and country between 1914 and 1918.

Then we rode up to the colonial era hotel, Great Eastern, established in 1840-41. Built when Calcutta was the seat of the East India Company, today the hotel is undergoing extensive renovations and is expected to reopen as the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel.

We visited many more monuments, such as “Dead Letter” Post Office, the Old Currency Building, Writers’ Buildings, Oriental Insurance House and Standard Life Assurance Building with figures depicting Death and the Maiden. Each was fascinating!

The Street Orderly Bin, near the high court, was the first ever dustbin to be introduced in Calcutta. We also visited an Armenian church and cemetery. Armenian soldiers who fought in World War I are buried here. There was also the grave of a day-old baby and other Armenians. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit St. John’s Church, which houses the mausoleum of Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta.

At the end of the ride, we all went to a Spanish cafe — Raj’s Café on Sudder Street — to fill our growling stomachs.

Overall, it was a very thrilling experience and I learnt so much more about my own city and visited places I didn’t even know about. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

Cleo Law, Class VII, La Martiniere for Girls. Rides a Huffy.

Garpanchkot, Purulia

Garpanchkot, Purulia. Picture by Gautam Shroff

Every few weeks, as I spend time working on my assignments and desk work, there is a longing. An itching in the soul that makes me want to travel. The room makes me claustrophobic and I crave for open mountain air and breathtaking sights.

It’s then that I pack my bike and set off. No plans, no reservations, a spontaneous answer to the call of the trail. It does not matter how I reach, the point is getting to the hills. A new environment, a new and different landscape every morning.

Life is great when seen from behind the handlebars of a bike — the places you see, the things you do, the sheer pleasure of shredding down a trail and the post-ride beer!

In Calcutta, most might think the nearest hills are the North Bengal hills or Susunia hills in Bankura. But in fact, there are hills much closer to the city and they are fun to ride around and explore on a bicycle.

It just happened that my buddy Jam (Aryadeep Ghosh) and I were chilling in his room around midnight when all of a sudden we had the urge to shred [perform tricks on wheels]. We had heard about Garpanchkot but had never been there.

So it was on. Bikes lugged, gear packed, all set.

Garpanchkot is a five-hour drive from Calcutta. It is located on the shores of the Maithon Dam reservoir, beyond Asansol. The small 600-700ft high hills are fun to climb and shred down, providing a great view of the surrounding topography. Mostly isolated hillocks, the trails are rocky and challenging but highly enjoyable.

We drove all night and reached Garpanchkot at sunrise, parked our car near the guesthouse, assembled our bikes and set off exploring and ripping some trails.

The forests are protected and lush. Fresh air, amazing trails, breathtaking views, and just five hours away from the city! We rode around till one in the afternoon and then began the drive back. We were home by 6pm.

A road trip, good trails, great views, and the shred life in under 18 hours. A short getaway can give you a huge respite from your everyday life. The rolling hills are really a lot of fun to ride for beginners and there are also technical trekking trails for riders who seek hardcore mountain action. Garpanchkot has now become our weekend destination.

I ride bikes for a living, but when there are no trips coming up, this is where we head… ride and rip all day and come back.

BEFORE YOU SET OFF

• Pick a bicycle according to your height and build

• Ensure chains and other moving parts are well-oiled and serviced

• Check if the tyre pressure is right, as indicated on the tyre wall

DO

• Always wear a helmet

• Carry an ID with name, emergency phone number, address and blood group

• Pack sufficient fluids (water/energy drink)

• Eat some solids like cereal or banana 30 minutes before riding

• Obey traffic rules, use hand signals

• Install front and rear flashlights when riding after sunset

• Beware of blind spots around large vehicles

• Wear bright clothes during the day and reflective or fluorescent clothing at night

• Carry a foldable toolkit

• Carry a spare inner tube

DON’T

• Jump traffic signals

• Ride against the traffic on one-way streets

• Get too close to parked cars (doors may open suddenly)

• Wear headphones for mobiles or music

• Ride under the influence of alcohol

• Overtake

• Let children or adults ride pillion

Prateek Singh, editor-in-chief of Mountain Bike Mag India and a core member of Ride2Breathe. Rides a Giant.