“Doing something unique is what motivates me. I keep telling myself that it (cycling) is like a video game that I have opted for, and I have to go from Level 1 to 5. It will be difficult, no doubt, but I will reach Level 5 and enjoy in the process taking the good and bad that comes my way without regret,” says the 44-year-old mother-of-two cyclist Meera Velankar. This Bengaluru resident believes in working aggressively towards her goal. “Be active, and fitness becomes your lifestyle. To attain and maintain a fit body and mind for my cycling journey is my finishing line,” adds Velankar, who has been cycling for more than ten years now and has four Limca records to her name. She recently completed her ‘East to West’ biking circuit, a long ride that started on January 27 and ended on February 22. “In this ride, the first 300 km and the last 300 km were very lonely, and the terrain was extremely difficult with hardly any connectivity. Also, cycling near the China border and the Pakistan border was very challenging,” she says.
A seasoned endurance athlete, Velakar became the first Indian woman to complete the Golden Quadrilateral—a national highway spanning over 5,846 km and connecting the four major cities of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai—on a tandem cycle in less than 42 days last year. She started her journey from Bengaluru on June 19 and reached back on July 31, 2021. “I had to use all my ten years of experience for this ride,” she says. She was accompanied by ex-serviceman Dinkar Patil, who had to quit halfway for personal reasons in Varanasi. Patil was replaced by rider Utkarsh Varma, who completed the journey with Velankar. Before her Golden Quadrilateral run, Velankar had prior experience in long-distance tandem cycling from her Kanyakumari to Kashmir journey, where Robert Kingsley accompanied her. “I covered three entirely different routes in a little over 16 months amid the three coronavirus waves,” she says proudly.
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She has steadily racked up finishes at multiple running and cycling events. She wins in some of the toughest challenges, for example, Ironman 70.3 finish, Super Randonneur norm and Tour of Nilgiris. So how does she train for it all? “I am very record-driven. I try to attend unique rides—that’s my secret super-power. My uniqueness is my motivation,” she says. At the same time, she maintains that cycling long-distance is actually gruelling, and one needs a lot of inner motivation to do it, especially when doing self-supported events with fund-crunch making do without support car and crew. “Only people with strong mental make-up can embark and finish these journeys,” she says.
So would she advise cycling for mental wellbeing? “Absolutely! I suggest people cycle in small groups and indulge in small journeys. Go for city rides, heritage rides, climbs, food trails, photography routes and short treks with cycling. All such exercises are very good to regain self-confidence self-worth and feel rewarded and productive,” Velankar says, adding, “Cycling is basically low-impact cardio activity. When done consistently and in moderation, it can aid in maintaining a fit body.”
Velankar believes cycling has not only toughened her physically but also strengthened her mind. “Today, thanks to my cycling routine, I can adjust to various situations, and my mental strength and wellbeing allow me to deal with the crankiest of people. Of course, my body is toned, and despite the different weather conditions I travel in, my skin and hair have never been better. Also, there have been other changes too, which are not outwardly visible. These are on the mental front. My tolerance level has increased, and I feel more positive every day,” the cyclist says, adding, “You’ll be surprised at the kind of positive changes cycling can bring to one’s lifestyle. Cycling for up to five hours a day with an average speed of 18-25 km per hour can result in an inflow of positive, feel-good hormones. And I have experienced it.”
What Velnakar says about cycling and mental wellbeing resonates with what Steve Jobs had said in the magazine Scientific American in 1990. The American business magnate had laid out why a person on a bicycle was more efficient than the most efficient animal, the condor. He used this to back up his belief that computers could be “bicycles for the mind”. Likewise, an October 2021 study—published in the journal SSM: Population Health—led by the University of York showed that participating in outdoor and nature-based activities such as cycling led to improved mood, less anxiety, and positive emotions.
A former medical professional in the US, Velankar had to quit the field of science for lack of good jobs in 2011 when she relocated to India. “But my mind is always looking for innovative outlets, and so I picked up cycling,” she says. “Cycling is not just about physical fitness. It is more than that. One has to be mentally strong to take on a cycle run of the kind I do. If you can survive out on the roads, it means you are mentally strong to survive just about anywhere,” says Velankar, who talks of days she had to hang out in petrol bunks and struggle to get food due to lockdowns while she was cycling. Battling extreme weather conditions requires mental toughness, she believes. Also, being a woman during her 41-day run, she had to endure her monthly cycles during the journey. “And being a woman, it becomes challenging to clock in hours on the road. For safety reasons, one can’t cycle at night even if one is physically up to it. But, I still managed it all,” she smiles.
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For newbies who would like to take to the roads, she advises, “Before venturing out on long rides, build your stamina and your mental strength. I can’t stress enough the importance of starting out small. Take up small goals, work towards them, ask people for help if needed, cycle in small groups if required. Each small step can bring in the mental strength needed to take on a bigger goal. Remember, along with disciplining the body, you have to discipline the mind as well to be prepared for every eventuality and not give in. That’s my fitness mantra.”