He was the base camp leader of YHAI Sarpass trek-2011. On an acclimatization trek he stunned us with his introduction. A long distant cyclist par excellence he had ventured many firsts. When 30 km is what I could imagine as anyone’s cycling ability, his dream of cycling for 1000 km got me rethinking my own benchmarks. Passionate about long distance cycling, Mithun Das is among the first few who kick-started long distance cycling events in the country. In a telephonic interview, he shared his passion for cycling and plans for the cycling community:
You had a regular day job in Kolkata with cycling nowhere in the picture. What happened?
I started working in the year 2000 and till 2008 I was not into any adventure sports. In the beginning of 2009, however, I had pain in my knees due to the nature of my job and decided to get fit. I loved cycling when I was a kid. I went to a store—15 km from my home—and bought a racing cycle, a low-cost one at that for 3000 rupees. Since then, I started cycling to office everyday in the perilous traffic of Kolkata.
Around mid 2009 came the announcement for the first Cyclothon in Bangalore. I took some help from a gentleman online whom I had not met and started training. He advised me what to do and what not to. With my cycle, I boarded a train to Bangalore and participated in the massive event and cycled for 26 km. There were 5000 cyclists of all age groups, from all over the country. I was over-whelmed to be a part of such an event. That was the beginning.
From casually cycling to office everyday how did you become interested in long-distance cycling?
2009 was a period of recession. Owing to certain ethical concerns I had left the job and moved to my village in Orissa. One morning, I got a call from Satish Patki, the gentleman I was in touch with, online. He wanted to organize long distance cycling events in India and asked me if I could come and help. In two days, I packed my bags, took my cycle, and boarded a train to Mumbai.
I had seen Satish Patki only in the profile picture. It had seemed odd—he was wearing a large coat and his face not clear. But what I saw at the station was a 55-year-old man who had cycled all the way to VT station and was fit than anyone I knew. We cycled back to his home.
His house was small with two rooms. His wife and son slept in one, his mother in the other, on the cot, and we both slept on the floor. Every morning we set off to practice long distance cycling. We would be on NH 4. He was very strict and it was like what they would call military training.
With all the practice and experience gained, we together organized the first 200 km cycling event in India. It was a turning point for me. I never realized that I could cycle 200 km within the fixed time limit of 13 hours. When you do something you never had dreamed of doing, you become confident of the power inside you. That is what happened to me. We gradually organized 200, 300 and 400 km cycling events and it was a success.
I got to know you as the base camp leader of YHAI Sarpass trek in 2011. How did your association with Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) happen?
I met Trilok, a fellow cyclist, in Mumbai. Knowing me, he suggested that I apply for YHAI camp leadership. I applied and got through. The only unexpected change was that I had to lead the ‘National family adventure camping’ in Goa as step one. I later understood why. Dealing with kids was easy but managing their parents was close to impossible. It provided one with all the necessary training to handle all kinds of participants (he laughs) Later, I was posted as the base camp leader of Sarpass trekking expedition in the Indian Himalayas. Since then, I have worked as the camp leader of many biking and trekking expeditions organized by YHAI.
As a camp leader, understanding the terrain, navigation, and survival techniques are crucial. How did you learn that?
When I first trekked up to learn the route of Sarpass expedition, I went by myself from camp one to camp three. I did get lost at one point and had to rely solely on my instincts to stay on track. I paid attention to the little details—Chocolate wrappers, cigarettes, grass pushed to make way—to find the continuation of a trail.
I learnt how to ration my water—I had taken a short-cut and it happened to be a steep climb. Water was fast getting over. Every time I felt thirsty, I would calculate and pour a few ml into the second bottle and drink from it and not gulp down the whole of it. When I drank the last sip, I was relieved to see the top of a tent, far in the mountains which was camp three. It was a tough and important learning exercise for me.
From your cycling expeditions, which terrain would you name as the toughest?
Leh it is, without doubt! On cycling uphill, you are not only fighting against gravity but also constantly dealing with lesser amounts of oxygen. Your arms and heart are not used to cycling at 13,000 ft and higher. Sometimes the temperature drops so low. At one instance we had to cycle for three days in rain when the weather was hardly conducive.
Cycled for three days in rain, that too in Ladakh? What happened?
We were two camp leaders, Sumit Patil and I. We had to get the groups across to higher camps and for three days the weather was bad. We would cycle with the group in the morning in the rain to one camp, get the group members all motivated, energized and get to the next camp by night.
Once, Sumit and I got stuck in a storm at Fotula pass at 13,479 ft when cycling from Lamayuru to Heliskote, 100 km from Leh. If I would have swayed for a few minutes more in the storm, I would have ended up with frost bites. He managed to pull me out of it and I am happy that I made it to the other end.
Is that the most adventurous cycling trip till date?
Ah…No. It was a year back in Leh, Ladakh. During one of our cycling expeditions, a mechanic with conviction said that only cyclists from other countries are fit enough to ride up to Khardung La pass and return to the camp on the same day.
On a free day, when I had no groups to train, I decided to take up the challenge. I took my cycle out, packed some extra clothes and started cycling. It was drizzling in the morning when I started. It took me nine hours to reach the top. After 25 km from the starting point there was an army camp. They indicated that the weather might get bad. I decided to return if the weather gets bad and continued cycling.
From that point till the next 15 km it was truly off-roading. With no proper roads, I was finding it difficult and to add to the misery just six km before reaching the top there was a hailstorm. I was exhausted to the point that I couldn’t cycle anymore.
Luckily I met a few local[s] en route. They just know it when someone is need of help. They offered me green tea and after resting for a while, feeling better, I continued cycling and reached the top—Khardung La pass. Cycling for 80 km on a challenging terrain, in a single day, under challenging weather conditions, was the toughest task I ever attempted till date.
Your friend Sumit Patil participated in “Race Across America (RAAM)” which is widely recognized as the world’s toughest endurance bicycle race. Do you plan to take part in it?
It is the toughest tournament in the world. To take part in that, one needs legs of steel or nerves of steel, whatever you call it (he laughs). From your heart you need to dedicate yourself entirely for it. To reach that stage, I need to do more. In two or three years, yes, I will definitely attempt it.
Tell us about the cyclist from Brazil you met.
There are many who cycle around the world today. We met this cyclist from Brazil who had been to Vatican City and met the pope. He showed us the flag on which pope had written his blessings. He showed us his bike. It was quite interesting.
Has cycling brought any changes in you as a person?
One thing I have learnt over the years is to distinguish between my needs and wants. I would think and decide what I need and what I can survive without. Now, it has come to a stage where human relations matter more to me.
What would be your contribution to the cycling community in Kolkata?
My immediate goal is to make cycling safe in Kolkata. From my house, Bay of Bengal is around 120 km. I would cycle 120 km and get back the same day. I had seen many times on NH 117 that high speeding vehicles are unable to see cyclists properly. So, I am thinking of distributing red and white stickers that can be pasted on cycles and it can be visible from far. With the white lights on my cycle I have saved myself many times.
What is next for you?
I will be attending the National trekking expedition in Goa this year. Meanwhile I am preparing for the Territorial Army exam which will happen in February 2015. I may have to don a different look then (he informs excitedly)
Mithun Das along with a cycling club is actively involved in organizing cycling rallies for school children in Kolkata. It continues to receive good response. Having cycled the length and breadth of the country, he is now preparing to attempt the ‘1000 km cycling challenge’. As a person with great zeal and determination, the day when he will create a new record is not very far.
Photo courtesy: Mithun Das