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On a killer motorcycle odyssey, after many falls and near escapes, we figured out how bike maniacs control their machines - with mindtalk.
By the end of day three of the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey - a 2, 800-kilometre journey from Delhi to Ladakh's Khardung La Pass, the highest motorable road in the world, and back - the men had begun talking to their motorcycles. You could see them at it as they switched off their engines in the evenings. A quiet pat on the fuel tank. Then again in the morning as they cleaned their machines. Another little pat as the bikes roared back to life.
This was not unexpected. Venki Padmanabhan, the CEO of Royal Enfield, had forewarned the 60 riders - as he bid them goodbye - that "on some days your machines will lift you out of the bog of despair, and on other days you will have to do the same for your machines".
Rum, dark and potent and quaffed in large quantities, helped too, spreading cheer and camaraderie among the gaggle of doctors and dentists, software engineers and corporate types gathered from around the country.
There were the Delhi boys who, true to form, had the loudest Enfields and who, the ever-polite Tamilians said, sounded like characters straight out of Khosla ka Ghosla. The Mumbaikars spoke laconically but rode their motorcycles very fast. The lads from Karnataka looked grim, smiled little, formed a tight posse behind the lead rider Santhosh, and insisted on getting from point A to B in the smallest amount of time possible.
The youngest, Abhishek De, was 21, while the oldest man, G R Krishnan, an income tax officer from Mumbai, was 59. He will retire in November.
At other times, the rum was needed to fend off fear. Like on the morning of Day 3 - on the way from Narkanda to Kalpa in Himachal Pradesh - as we began to climb up towards Lachung La Pass. The road became narrower, or seemed to. The gorge became deeper.
Inside my helmet, I could hear myself talk to my motorcycle. "Slowly. Slower, " my mind screeched again and again. Ajay, a copywriter from Mumbai, explained it more succinctly over lunch. "Dude, " he said, "I was ready to go home. "
Things got worse after lunch. As we began our descent from Lachungla Pass, a pall of fear fell over our formation. The road was scratched high up into the mountain-side, a wall of rock to the right and a 5, 000-metre drop to the left. People clung to the rock face, riding excruciatingly slowly. Inside my helmet, I shook with fear at the thought of making a mistake.
When Santhosh honked behind us, wanting to overtake, he was waved on from the left. Which had him squawking like an angry bird at the next morning's briefing - that did not constitute motorcycle riding, he pointed out. "You ride on the left in India, " he reminded us. "People overtake you from the right. "
That night I had a rum-fuelled nightmare. I had fallen off the road and was perched atop a small outcrop of rock, my back pressed against the cliff, the ground a thousand metres below me. There was little chance of rescue. Our contingent of 60 riders, three mechanics, and one doctor did not include a mountaineer. All I could do was stand as still as possible and hope the wind would not blow me off my ledge. The soles of my feet began to sweat.
I woke up clutching the edges of my bed and the next morning the doctor told me my BP had shot up to a 150/100, and that from now on rum would not be allowed to assuage my fears. That was also about when the grumbling began, when people began to ask themselves, "Why am I here?"
Venki of course had an answer. "You're here, " he'd told us, "to set out on the mother of all journeys. " Which is true. The Odyssey, as done by Enfield, is now nine years old but the road to Leh has passed into motorcyling folklore - if you own an Enfield, this is what you aim to do - and motorcyclists will make the trip from as far afield as Mumbai, Pune and southern India.
But the men, when asked, talked more about how long it took them to get here and less about why they were here. That seemed harder to pinpoint. Ajay said it had taken him five years to get himself ready. When he'd wanted to make the trip a few years ago, a death in the family had forced him to put if off. It took G R Krishnan a little longer. "First the children had exams. Then they were getting married. Then last year, the showroom didn't deliver my motorcycle to me on time. This year, I finally made it, " he said.
But there was one man with a definite answer as to why he was here - because he'd missed breakfast. A few years ago, in a place called Debring, he hadn't turned up for breakfast. When they went to check on him, they found he'd turned blue. He'd got high altitude sickness. He was rushed to a nearby army hospital and from there, armed with an extra cylinder of oxygen, driven straight to Leh. There, he was hospitalised and later, flown back to Delhi.
"So I have unfinished business here, " he said.
On day 6, on the way from Kaza to Keylong, after a particularly arduous water crossing, the rider in front of me hit a large stone and fell over. His motorcycle was pinning his right leg down and he lay under it until I got to him and lifted his motorcycle off him. That evening, in a state of near-delirium, he told me he'd finally understood. That he now knew why he was here. After his fall, he said, all he wanted was to get to the next stop;to shelter, a hot shower, a warm meal and a comfortable bed.
And as he gunned his engine towards that destination, his peripheral vision began to blur over. Suddenly, he said, he couldn't see the 1, 000-metre drop any longer or the stark, pretty landscape on either side of the road. Or the snow-capped mountains beyond them. But the road, miraculously, seemed to become wider. He moved to the left, not needing the safety of the rock face any longer. The pointers given to him at the daily briefings came back to him, one by one. Look at where you want to go, for that is where your motorcycle will go.
Grip the fuel tank with your thighs and hold the handlebar loosely, with your elbows bent. The front wheel auto-corrects itself. Every time the wheel is pushed to the left, it will auto-correct to the right but not if you're holding tightly onto your handlebar.
Throttle down as you go into a turn, throttle up as you come out of it. Use both your brakes, together, in gentle squeezes. Locking your wheels will get you into trouble. And at last, he said, he got it. This is why motorcyclists do what they do. You know, those mad men you see on television, 20 or 30 of them racing around a mud track, all of them frighteningly close to each other. And as you watch this madness, you ask yourself: Why are they doing this? Have they no fear of speed? Do they not understand that they could get hurt?
The answer is no, because these men are in supreme control of their machines. They understand them, they know what their motorcycles will do, how they will react to their commands.
And so quietly, in his head, so nobody would hear, he began to talk to his motorcycle. "Let's go home, " he told her.
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