On a recent trip to Leh, Mansi and I had the undeniably awesome experience of high-altitude biking. In an euphoric, light-headed moment brought on by the crisp, cool mountain air (or perhaps the lack of oxygen), we decided to hire a 500cc Bullet Thunderbird and ride the 150 kilometers to Pangong Lake. Something that usually takes four hours took us more than eight, and that day will remain unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Compiled here are some of the things we learned the hard way about high-altitude biking that every traveler and wannabe biker should read before kick starting those rented monster bikes:
Check Those Brakes:
Bikes are rented out to a lot of people everyday. This usually means that the bike you will end up with would have been used by someone else barely an hour earlier. You should know that the higher up you get on the mountains, the worse the roads are, which adds an extra strain on the bike’s hardware. Though the proprietors claim it, it’s very rare that they tune up the bikes before every rental. Ultimately, the bike you rent out will not be a hundred percent. The brakes on our bike failed halfway through the ride, just after we passed the Chang La pit stop. Going downhill on tremendously treacherous roads on a very heavy bike with no brakes and a pillion rider behind you, is not an easy task. Be very sure that you double-check and tune up the brakes before you rent out the bike.
Watch Out For Sand Spots:
A little known danger, sand spots are very common once you descend into the Pangong valley. The last 30 kilometers of the road have patches where loose, desert sand covers the road. On a two-wheeler, sand spots are incredibly dangerous as the tires don’t get any traction and tend to skid. We almost careened off the cliff after riding over a sand spot and losing our balance. It was only a sheer determination to stay alive that gave us the presence of mind to turn into the direction of the skid and bring the bike to a shuddering halt. Always make sure that you don’t go beyond 10 kmph on a sand spot and never apply the brakes. Brakes just make the skid worse.
The Right Clothes:
There are a lot of clothing options for riding and I’m sure you’ll make a good choice. But one thing we discovered during our disastrous ridewas that the trousers you wear play as important a role in your safety and comfort as your sexy riding jacket does. There are patches on the road to Pangong where meltwater from the glaciers above flow across the road at tremendous speeds. Roads don’t exist at these places. Instead, there are sharp, jagged and uneven rocks – the innards of the mountain exposed by the constant stream of water ripping away the road much like a bad scrape rips away the skin and exposes the muscle and bone beneath. At these points, jeans are not the most ideal, because you need to put both your feet down to balance yourself as you tiptoe the bike slowly and steadily on first gear. It’s recommended to wear water-resistent hiking pants that don’t get wet too much and dry out quickly. More than the miserable feeling of a wet, cold pair of jeans hugging your legs, the added weight is something you can do without.
Pack your first aid kit with lots of painkillers. We recommend Combiflan. Especially if you are someone who does not ride in extreme conditions and long distances very often, this will be a blessing. By the time we reached Pangong after eight harrowing hours, we could barely move. We each gulped down two Combiflan tablets, huddled up beneath the thick blankets in the first guest house we came across and slept like logs. It was such a pity that we rode all that while to the most beautiful lake on Earth and didn’t have the energy to look at it for more than two minutes. Don’t do this to yourself.
All said and done, we’ve leaned our lesson. Unless we have the right amount of practice, we are not going to try something like this again. Have a wonderful and a safe trip to Leh. The place is breathtakingly beautiful and it takes more than a bad bike ride to tarnish our memory of the place. Rach out to us if you need any tips on where to stay, what to eat and where to rent out bikes, cabs, and other essentials.