Six years ago, Vedangi Kulkarni took on her first cycling adventure, riding some 471km from Manali to Leh solo, before continuing onwards to Drass. The heady high of altitude and distance had her hooked. She was only 17. It made her realise how far she could go on a modest pair of wheels. Two years later, Kulkarni, who is based in Scotland, rode around the world in 159 days, only the fourth woman—as well as the youngest—to pull off the feat. Soon, her life revolved around cycling. When her mentor, cyclist Sumit Patil, suggested she ride the Manali-Leh highway again, she knew she had to go.
“Sumit dada proposed the idea of targeting the record for the fastest time on this stretch. It made sense to come back to where it all started for me,” she says. And on 15 June, Kulkarni, now 24, finished the project in 2 days 3 hours and 49 minutes. She had bettered the previous mark by over three hours; the timing is currently being ratified by Guinness World Records. The ride had been demanding at times, forcing her to dig deep. It reminded her just why she was drawn to these feats of endurance, ever since that first ride.
“No matter what discipline of cycling I’m involved with today or at what level I’m doing it, I just feel at home in the saddle. I think all my experiences have made me brave and resilient,” she says. She arrived in Leh on 9 May, and, once acclimatised to the altitude, started logging an average of 300-500km each week around town in her cycle around town.
She rode as high as the Khardung La (5,359 metres), an elevation gain of around 2,000 metres, and as far as Upshi on the longest ride of over 100km. Much of the specific training was done on an indoor trainer, where she focussed on increasing her cadence. “The idea was to make it easier on the muscles during climbs. But training indoors is totally not my thing; I much prefer riding outdoors,” she says.
Kulkarni also focussed on her nutrition and recovery, something she’s fallen short on during multiple rides in the past. All along, she had one eye on the weather, awaiting any news of the Manali-Leh highway being thrown open. “I pretty much sat through all of May checking the forecast. I had other commitments mid-June, so it was touch and go by the time my opportunity finally arrived,” she says.
At 2am on 13 June, Kulkarni set off from Mall Road in Manali. The climb to Rohtang La (3,978m)—the first of the five high passes she would encounter along the way—was exhilarating. But she soon realised the terrible road conditions in store for her, especially since the highway had just opened up after a late winter. “Between Patsio and Zingzing Bar, there was a section that quite literally had a river flowing across it. I had to take off my shoes and socks, and carry my bicycle to get past it,” she recalls.
The climb to Baralacha La seemed never-ending, with the only relief being a sighting of a magnificent Himalayan wolf. A bumpy descent through towering snow walls finally brought her to Bharatpur, where she settled in for an hour-long sleep break. All along, Kulkarni was tended to by a crew of four that included Patil and Kulkarni’s father, Vivek.
“Since I don’t take nutrition very seriously, they kept feeding me—everything from lychees to paranthas and chips and chocolate bars—which is exactly what you want on a ride like this. They would even run alongside me during the moments I felt sleepy. It was overwhelming to see these folks take time out of their busy lives to be there for me,” she says.
After riding past Sarchu in sub-zero temperatures, she took on the Gata Loops, where the road climbs up to the pass of Naki La in series of 22 hairpin bends. It’s the sort of terrain Kulkarni thrives on and she stormed up the climb as if on a pair of fresh legs.
A jarring descent on a dirt road from Naki La forced a break at Pang that was longer than usual. She soon climbed to Morey Plains and by the time she arrived at the base of Tanglang La, the final pass before descending to the Indus Valley, it was getting dark. As the climb unfolded, the crew had concerns whether she was going to make it to the top of the pass.
“During the last 10km of the ascent, I was falling asleep on the bicycle. And I was getting really nauseous each time I tried to eat something. Fatigue had caught up and I was hallucinating that I was being chased by a pack of dogs: my worst nightmare.” A ride that should have taken Kulkarni under an hour to complete, took two and a half hours instead. After crossing the pass, Kulkarni had a close call when her bicycle skidded on black ice, coming to a halt quite close to the edge. It snapped her out of her daze.
“There had been so much drama and I had wasted far too much time. I told myself that I had a record to chase and I was strong enough to do it. I decided to enjoy the remaining distance. It was a different me during the last 100km,” she recalls. Though the sun was up, the town was still stirring from its slumber when Kulkarni checked into Leh. She knew she could have been faster, but there was only a feeling of gratefulness once her bicycle came to a halt. “We almost didn’t ride this time because of the weather. So I was blessed to finish this amazing route without any major issues,” she says. And, of course, get the record against her name.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.