Ten years ago, Meera Velankar was unfit and having an identity crisis. So she took up cycling, and is now the holder of several records. Last year, Velankar became the first Indian woman to complete the Golden Quadrilateral (a national highway network that stretches for 5,846km, passes through 12 states and one union territory, and connects the major cities Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai) on a tandem. The 46-year-old mother of two daughters took 42 days to complete her journey of 6,263km including some backtracking. She started in Bangalore in June, to avoid the worst of the monsoon weather. Velankar had been a research scientist in the United States and moved back in 2011 to Bangalore with her husband. She was having difficulty finding a suitable job and wasn’t feeling good about herself. “Here I was, a mother of two, short and slightly obese, not particularly athletic, in my late 30s, who decided to start cycling. No one took me seriously.” After a series of short rides she went on an eight-day, 800km trip in the Malnad region of Karnataka, southwest India. She began taking part in cycling events, riding different bikes over a variety of terrains. In the decade since she started, Velankar has won four Limca records (The Limca Book of Records is a reference book published annually listing records achieved by Indians), has completed a 3,800km east-to-west ride in India with another woman, ridden close to the sensitive China and Pakistan borders, and undertaken a tandem journey from Kashmir to Kanyakumari – from the far north of the country to the extreme south. Paradise found: sailing through Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago When she set out on June 19 last year to become the first woman on a tandem to tackle the Golden Quadrilateral, she did so with an ex-serviceman, Dinkar Patil. “We started with the home stretch first, from Bangalore to Mumbai, as both me and Patil are from Maharashtra. We were in good shape, and the first stretch felt like an endless party, with relatives and friends all over the state [kept informed through a WhatsApp group], who greeted us, hosted us, fed us ladoos (confectionery) and tasty home-cooked food. “However, after some time, the truck traffic was very heavy and it started raining torrentially, so the easiest stretch was actually not so easy,” says Velankar. The duo would begin at 4am each day to avoid the midday heat and typically ride until 10am, trying to cover at least 150km a day. What kind of training was necessary for such an arduous trip? “Physically I was fit because I had done around 8,000km every year for the past 10 years. More than physical, it’s the mental grit that is important. From extreme heat and winds to rains, no escort or support vehicle following us, as many as 25 punctures with hot weather making the tubes burst, and the social barriers in Indian society of riding a tandem with a man who is not your husband. “Riding tandem is all about cooperation and teamwork, unlike riding solo. The captain (the one in front) and stoker have to trust each other and match their pace. Also, Indian tandem cycles are very long, heavy and difficult to turn or lift.” She rode a basic 22kg Indian model that was further weighed down with food, clothes, repair kits and water. Velankar would do her laundry when she stopped at well-wisher’s homes. “I was on a shoestring budget and I slept in small hotels, stranger’s homes, by petrol pumps and even in religious places. Ultimately the ride was all about ups and downs – sometimes I would miss my kids and family and wonder why I was doing this. At other times, when a friendly local or truck driver gave us a thumbs up in admiration, it would be exhilarating. “What was mind-blowing was the help and hospitality from the community at large and random strangers and acquaintances. From cycling clubs and their families, to an army officer who heard about us and hosted us in the home where he lived with his old father, to owners of small stalls giving us free coffee or tea, every moment is etched in my memory.” There were both benefits and drawbacks to attempting the journey while Covid lockdowns were in force. In places like Rajasthan, they could ride only at night, but the highways were far less busy than they would have been without lockdowns. They had been going for 20 days, and were halfway through the trip, in Aurangabad, when Patil had to return home for personal reasons, leaving Velankar to find another partner. Fortunately, Utkarsh Verma, 20 years her junior and a professional cyclist and mountaineer from Varanasi, came to her rescue. He helped her through the most challenging stretch of the ride, the 1,650-plus kilometres between Kolkata and Chennai. “[Here] the winds are fierce, weather unpredictable, with the ocean on one side and the Eastern Ghats on the other side. But Verma had done this route solo before, and he knew the terrain well.” She had wanted to win the title of “first pair to complete the Golden Quadrilateral”, but had to settle for the title of “first Indian woman” to achieve the feat, because of Patil’s withdrawal. Velankar now trains young children and adults to ride, tests new bicycles for manufacturers and organises group cycling tours. She wants to tackle solo trips outside India and hopes that her achievements will inspire other Indian women to take up long-distance cycling and break stereotypes about them not being able to compete in endurance sports.