In Conversation with 72-years-old James Stevenson, who went cycling from Goa to Nepal covering 2400 km in 21 days!
Every once in a while, you cross paths with a cyclist, who inspires you beyond imagination. Such cyclists are generally nutters and force you to rethink your perspective of cycling…
James Stevenson is one such cyclist, who pushes you out of your mental comfort zone, by sharing his exploits. An incredibly fit septuagenarian, he recently hopped onto his bicycle and rode from his home in Goa to Nepal… all for a measly stamp on his visa!
Life in India…
Originally from Wisconsin, USA; music is what first brought James to Indian shores. He landed along the Western Coast in Bombay in the 90s to learn Hindustani Classical music. The love for Indian culture stayed and so did he.
James moved to Goa a decade ago, where the romance of cycling was reignited. He never got around to riding a bike in Mumbai, as he didn’t feel the city was conducive to cycling. His perspective is particularly poignant, because he had previously ridden as a bicycle courier in London for 5 years.
He realised there is no better place than Goa for cycling, and he flew down his old Italian racing bike from Europe. But that almost ‘vintage’ bike was not ideal for the humid conditions of Goa. So he sold his steel beauty to a collector in Mumbai and switched to carbon. And never looked back…
Red Hot Passion & Red Tape!
Living as an expat comes with its own host of challenges. The biggest challenge more often than not is the paperwork. Like most expats, James has to leave the country every 6 months to get his passport stamped.
Sensing an opportunity in this red tape, James cued his passion of ultra-light bicycle touring. A bicycle ride from India to Nepal just to get his passport stamped!
Cycling from Goa to Nepal
On the 7th of December 2022, James Stevenson left home with his bicycle and a handful of material possessions strapped on to the frame of his bike.
With no specific route in mind, he was riding with a general direction towards Nepal, covering a large swathe of India. 21 consecutive days of riding later, he climbed his way to Pokhara, absorbing a lot of the countryside.
The most surprising aspect of his ride were 4-lane properly constructed highways throughout, well, except the first day climbing over the Western Ghats into Karnataka. These beautifully built roads are faster and even safer than the old two lane roads. Yet James feels you miss out a lot of the country.
He remembers one of his previous rides through Rajasthan. Whenever he got off the arterial highways, he experienced the real India.
The good roads hastened up his ride and he eventually crossed the border into Nepal much earlier than planned.
Earlier James was an ardent believer in planning out a detailed route and using GPS devices to track it. On this occasion he tried a different approach. GPS had let him down, one time too many and he used a rather failproof method.
He would stop and ask rickshaw pullers for directions and accommodation options. Far more trustworthy than those satellites in the sky! This was possible because James is fluent in Hindi. He does feel that those who don’t speak the language might have a bit of trouble getting around the interiors.
The general plan was to ride around 100 km in a day to the nearest town, which was most likely to have a lodge. Finishing his ride by late afternoon, allowed James enough time to wash his clothes, the most important task for an ultra-light tourer! Dry clothes and Assos Chamois cream allowed him to ride without needing to take a single day’s break from the saddle. Pleasant December weather also helped him stay in good shape through the trip.
Even with a mindset of ultra-light touring, you sometimes end up carrying ridiculous things. James recounts how he packed and carried three pairs of socks and gloves, weight he could have happily done without!
What was worth its weight in gold, was his tube of sunscreen, he would lather it generously at 10 AM, along with using a cap with an oversized visor. Little things like this add up to make you comfortable on your tour. And this you only learn with experience.
Language and People
Being able to read the Devnagri script was especially useful to figure out the signboards and find a lodge to stay the night. Without which, James would have ridden past many lodges without realising it.
Language is essential beyond just functional relationships. As James says, “Just for chatting with people knowing Hindi helped. You wouldn’t be able to talk with anybody without the language. English is nowhere to be seen on the road.“
People are different everywhere in the country and you meet all kinds of people on the road. Mostly you end up interacting with the folks, where you stay the night. In Uttar Pradesh, James felt the locals are bit more ‘in your face’. But he feels he hasn’t travelled sufficiently to form an opinion of any sorts!
Travelling solo is the best way to strike up conversations with people, James feels. You talk to strangers, rather than talking to people within your group. You get to absorb a lot more of the local culture when solo.
Passersby would often request James for a photograph. He obliged, but generally didn’t stop for the ubiquitous ‘seflie’. Its only when he was riding with an English couple along the Konkan coast, that the selfie game skyrocketed. Most likely because the presence of a lady in the group!
Food and Landscapes
Cycling from Goa to Nepal, James encountered forever changing food habits and landscapes. The wheels of his bike hugging the contours of the land and highlighting every bit of elevation change.
The first and last days of cycling saw the maximum climbing to be done. On the first day climbing out of Goa over the Western Ghats into Karnataka. And on the last couple of days climbing to Pokhara from the plains.
Even otherwise, there was a fair bit of elevation change across the Deccan Plateau. Not dramatic, but always there. James got pancake flat roads only when he rolled across the Gangetic plains.
Food, like most things in bicycle touring, is a matter of perspective. If you are fussy about food, then it can become difficult. Having spent a large part of his life away from home, James is open to all cuisines. Being able to eat anything is essential to having sufficient energy to ride your bike.
Along with the food, James found some seedy joints where he could go and enjoy a beer at the end of the day. Often times the conversations would be interesting and extremely entertaining in these liquor dens.
Cycling from Goa to Nepal: Equipment
James was using a top of the line carbon bike with carbon wheels and electronic shifters on this ride. Earlier he would keep his bike in the room with him. Now he just doesn’t bother and parks the bike out, without any worry or lock!
With the bike he uses Apidura bags on the saddle, frame, top tube and a food pouch. This setup gives him enough space to carry everything he needs.
Even though he never rode after dark, he carried a headlight and tail light. The latter he used sporadically as a safety measure.
A bar-end mirror was the most prized piece of safety equipment for James. He recommends not compromising on the quality of this, as it helps incredibly.
A handlebar phone mount was the final piece of the equipment jigsaw puzzle. It was a good quality unit from America, but when things have to go bad, it does. His phone and part of the mount fell of his bike while riding, without James being aware of his loss. A few kilometres later a motorcyclist stopped him to return his phone, for another anecdote to be added to the book of experiences.
Bicycle Touring: India vs Europe
James has ridden hundreds of kilometres on his bicycle in India and Europe. Amusingly, he has never cycled in his home country, USA. So we had to know how different it is to ride here and Europe, with extremely different cycling cultures. Here’s what he said…
“There’s not that much camaraderie which you find amongst cyclists in Europe. On this ride, I met a group of cyclists in Yavatmal, out on their morning ride. It was so nice to meet them.
In Europe there are lots of places where you don’t get shops and water can be a problem.
A lot of Indian people think that it is dangerous cycling here. But I tell everybody that the most dangerous places I have been cycling are in Europe. The roads in Italy are worse than that what we have in Goa.
The really dangerous things are the tunnels in Europe. Many times I can’t believe they allow bicycles in these tunnels. There are big lorries making noise in this echo chamber which is narrow. It is very scary.
The best route in India is Mumbai to Goa, which is just fantastic. The roads are beautiful and there’s no traffic, what else could you want?“
There’s much to be seen in India and tourers like James help us remember, to get out and explore the countryside.
Below is the route James took while cycling from Goa to Nepal in 21 days covering 2400 km. He then flew back to Mumbai from Gorakhpur after getting his passport duly stamped!
Photos: James Stevenson. Follow him on Strava!