The Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo was a 100 kilometre/ mile ride, which saw cyclists brave extreme winter conditions at high altitude to complete this challenge on the 19th of March 2023. Here’s the ride report…
Check out the video first!
Winter in Ladakh is magical. The snow-covered peaks, frozen lakes, minimal vegetation, all add up to an enchanting sight and enthralling experience.
For those visiting Ladakh in winter, the challenges are accentuated. Just adjusting to the weather is difficult. Now, imagine pedalling your bicycle in this challenging terrain. The satisfaction of overcoming this gives you a high. The kind of high, you can only enjoy at those high mountain passes!
6 intrepid cyclists took the challenge upon themselves to ride beyond what they had previously imagined possible.
Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo
Rewind a week prior to the Gran Fondo, and temperatures were rising in the mountainous region. A few days before the ride, everybody wondered whether this was going to even be an ‘extreme winter’ challenge!
As they say in the mountains, ‘be careful what you wish for, it might just come true’…
On the 18th of March 2023, a day before the ride, clouds gathered in the sky above Leh. But the clouds didn’t threaten, instead, they seemingly were spectators to these madcap humans who were planning something lunatic. As the briefing happened on Saturday evening, the weather continued looking fair.
Fast forward 12 hours to the start of the ride and things got spicy…
The Flag Off for the Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo was done very kindly by Sh. Shrikant Balasaheb Suse, IAS, the Deputy Commissioner of Leh.
The clouds didn’t hold back as mute spectators, instead they wanted to be an active participant in the Gran Fondo. Peppering the city with gentle snowflakes at the start line.
A quick photo-op with our honoured guest later, it was time for all the riders to start at 7:40 AM sharp. Well, almost all the riders. Faisal, had forgotten to bring his helmet and had to rush home in his car to get it. Sonam waited for Faisal to return, while the others made their way up for the first leg of the Gran Fondo. To ‘warm-up’ the riders, the first leg was on the road towards the mighty Khardung La. While not going all the way to the top, the route was till South Pullu, the midway point of that grand mountain pass.
While some riders had previously opted for the 100 kilometre ride, on being prompted by their cycling buddies, they decided to ride 100 miles. Going the whole hog! A decision which was made at the start line.
Before the climb started the group of riders were joined by Sh. Stanzin Losal, DSP Leh. He was there on his bicycle to enjoy the climb in true Sunday morning cyclists’ camaraderie spirit. It was seemingly the perfect Sunday brunch ride. Except that nobody expected to be eating snow and ice for brunch!
As the riders gained altitude, the snowfall got progressively heavier. Every 5 km, the side of the roads had more accumulated snow. But the road itself was clear to ride and everybody pushed on. For the first 15 km the group rode together, then the stronger riders started pushing forward.
With more snow visible on the road itself, everybody was worried about the lone road cyclist in the group. Sriram with skinny road tyres would struggle if the conditions deteriorated. Keeping this in mind, the backup vehicle surged ahead to catch the leaders and make them take a U-Turn some 10 km before South Pullu. Safety far outweighed bravado in the mind of the ride director, Tanvi.
When she finally caught up with the fast paced Faisal, she made him stop and he reluctantly agreed to get the remaining riders to turn back from that point as well. The problem was that Sonam, Ladakh’s MTB Champion, is a bit of a mountain goat. And was flying uphill faster than the backup SUV!
The quantum of snow had increased to a point where the backup SUV needed snow chains on its tyres to continue. Sonam was still far ahead and out of sight. What was in sight was also not pretty.
The riders behind unanimously chose to push on ahead in the worsening conditions. Sriram on the road bike was the one to egg everybody on to greater heights. How could a raging Himalayan blizzard dampen the indomitable spirits of adventure cyclists! Nobody stopped and they continued riding into the white…
A couple of kilometres ahead Sriram was stopped by the side of the road. Something looked amiss. Road conditions had come to bite, as the skinny rubber finally gave way, dumping the rider on the asphalt. Sriram suffered a bruised elbow and hip and decided to not ride farther, instead descend to where there was less snow on the road.
But there was no stopping the boys on their MTBs. Sonam rode all the way to South Pullu and the others stopped short a few hundred metres before. Every one of them enjoyed the grandest visual spectacle on the saddle they could have ever wished on that Sunday.
From being a ride where we worried about the temperatures being too high, to getting a proper blizzard. Ladakh never fails to surprise!
After touching heaven, all the riders turned back towards Leh for the second leg of the route troika.
Otsal who had started visibly lagging behind the rest of the group said that he was not well and that he would have to abandon the ride. Even though he is from Leh, he had just returned from Bangalore a few days prior, so his acclimatisation was not ideal. To add to that, the extreme weather took a toll on him and he made the sensible decision of calling it quits. Even in his unwell condition he rode up to South Pullu and back in inclement weather, an achievement in itself.
By the time everybody reached Leh, temperatures were soaring. Relatively of course! All the riders had to stop to peel of a layer or two. Regulating body temperature was just another challenge that was faced along with the other physical hardships of this brutal ride. Sriram was the master of this clearly, as he was the only rider who did not add or remove a layer during the duration of the ride. What clothing he started with, he ended with as well.
The group had reduced in number by then. With Otsal having pulled out, and Mr Losal having only joined for the big climb.
Gurdwara Pathar Sahib
This holy place is built on the top of a hill on the Leh-Kargil road. The road is undulating for the first part, before a nice tasty climb at the very end, all the way till the Gurdwara. The climb is open and you can see the entire road meandering in the distance, with enough open space to get hit by the winds, if the velo gods so choose!
The backup vehicle was stationed at the War Memorial as the riders made their way to the Gurdwara. While they were expecting the riders to be making their way up, Sonam was so far ahead of the rest, that he was making his way down. Ride Director, Tanvi, couldn’t believe her eyes that Sonam had already zip-zap-zoomed through the second leg of the route in the blink of an eye.
The backup vehicle then followed the slower riders (who happened to not be Superman aka Sonam) and assisted them at the U-turn point with water and nutrition. The cold had made everybody stiff and the warm sunshine gave all the riders good reason to get off the saddle and spend time stretching their sore muscles.
After rolling down the hill back to Leh, it was time for the third leg of the Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo. This leg was on the Leh-Manali highway till Karu.
Before expending anymore energy, everybody was treated to tasty lunch at Kathi Nation. Rigzin had prepared soup and rolls for the riders. Perfect fare for the fatigued riders. Once again Sonam had stopped for lunch and proceeded long before the others were anywhere on the horizon.
The lunch was a community affair, as everybody stopped together and munched, before proceeding. Spirits were still high but the accumulated kilometres had taken a toll on the body.
Except for Sonam, whose worry was not draining spirits or energy. But his phone’s battery getting drained. He needed to record the entire ride on Strava, else where’s the fun! He stopped at a petrol bunk for 20 minutes to charge his phone sufficiently to record his ride till the last mile.
Dodjoo who had originally selected riding 100 kilometres, had to eventually throw in the towel at the lunch point around 90 km. 100 miles was biting off more than he could chew. He chose to ride home and eventually finishing off his original marker of 100 km!
The Final Stretch
The final stretch from Karu back to Leh, was not on the main road. Instead it rolled through the villages of Stakna and Spituk. In the golden light, this place was a paradise to ride through. With tired bodies, all the riders lost touch with each other. All of them doing their own solo rides. Lost in their tranquil thoughts.
On the 100 mile route there was barely a single mile of bad road, the rest was perfect black top asphalt. We hope to see more cyclists on road bikes in the next edition of Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo.
6 started the ride, only 4 finished. And all 4 finished well within the allotted time, even though they braved a blizzard and humongous climb. First to finish was Sonam, followed by Faisal, Wangchuk and Sriram. Congrats to all of these toughened riders.
Route for the Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo
We are deeply grateful and thank Sh. Shrikant Balasaheb Suse, IAS, the Deputy Commissioner of Leh for flagging off the riders early in the morning.
We would also like to thank Sh. Stanzin Losal, DSP Leh, for joining us for this ride.
Special thanks to Mrs. Ramya Sriram for volunteering to be in the backup vehicle and assisting the riders throughout.
Also thanks to Col. Sripada Sriram for providing the backup vehicle.
Last and surely not the least, thanks to Faisal Qadir, whose infectious enthusiasm from the very first day helped us pull this off…
Inspirational rider was Stanzin Otzes, who had to travel to Bangalore and couldn’t be a part of this ride. So in Bangalore he rode a Gran Fondo in solidarity with his friends in Leh.
Here’s to the second edition of the Ladakh Winter Gran Fondo.