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Robbie McEwen and Co. head cross-country in India

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Feb. 12, 2011
  • Updated Feb. 12, 2011 at 12:19 PM EDT

The pack had to deal with trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, ox-drawn carts and stray cows as they pedaled southwest across the rolling country of the Maharashtra region of western India. Here, they whiz past a woman carrying water to her home.

MUMBAI, India (VN) – Robbie McEwen and a handful of pros experienced India “unplugged” after they decided to ride the better part of a 200km transfer from Nashik to Mumbai on Saturday.

While the rest of the 100-strong entourage piled into three buses for the four-hour journey to Mumbai, McEwen and his small band of explorers decided there was no real good reason why they shouldn’t just ride instead.

Something that is an every-day routine in Europe becomes an adventure in India and there were a few surprises along the way, including a non-stop barrage of cars, exhaust-belching trucks, overloaded motorcycles, slow-poke rickshaws, itinerant pedestrians, stray dogs, wandering cows, potholes, garbage, dust and bleating Indian heat.

“I thought I’d seen it all,” McEwen said afterward, “but after 16 years as a pro, I never saw anything like what we experienced today riding across India.”

It was a unique experience for everyone and probably the first time in history that elite professional cyclists were ripping across the open highways of India.

Riders have been plying local roads the past few days around Nashik ahead of Friday’s race without getting too far away from the race hotel, but this time, McEwen and about a dozen riders simply got on their bikes and headed down the highway.

The road crossed spectacular mountain-ringed valleys in the sun-baked Maharastha region, dry and dusty after a long winter. The countryside was dotted with Hindu temples, ramshackle villages and lush farms.

“We really saw India today,” said Malcolm Lange, rider/manager of the Bonitas team. “You can see the challenges that India would have in trying to host a stage race. There are a lot of people and a lot of traffic, but there are not a lot of roads. It was a good experience today to get a taste of India.”

RadioShack sport director Alain Gallopin wanted his men to get in some kilometers ahead of Sunday’s circuit race in Mumbai. He and McEwen chatted and they came up with the idea of riding instead of waiting for buses, which would eventually arrive two hours late for their scheduled pickup at the hotel.

Most riders opted to wait to ride on the circuit course after they arrived in Mumbai later Saturday afternoon, but McEwen and few others quickly decided they wanted to see what real India had to offer.

“When Gallopin first mentioned the idea, I wasn’t thrilled because I thought it would be complicated in terms of logistics, but we pulled it together,” said race director David McQuaid. “I was happy they wanted to ride and I was quite happy they were able to ride 140km. They didn’t have any problems and they all seemed happy and content with the experience.”

McEwen was joined by RadioShack teammates Sam Bewley and Robbie Hunter, the South African Bonitas team, keen to put in some miles ahead of next week’s Tour of South Africa, and members of the UK-registered Motorpoint team, including racer/manager Malcolm Elliott.

They rode 140km, heading out of Nashik and taking in the opening 50km of Friday’s race route. Instead of turning around at the bottom of a wide gorge, as they did Friday, they kept on heading southwest toward Mumbai.

Road conditions were surprisingly good and the pack rode along a wide shoulder on a divided, four-lane toll road for most of their unscripted journey. The group was followed by a local India on a motorcycle and a support truck that hauled suitcases and gear.

They would later discover, after Bewley flatted about halfway to Mumbai, that no one had any extra wheels so they quickly had to replace one of the tubulars.

The journey featured many of the sharp contrasts that modern India represents, with imported cars and trucks overloaded with consumer goods speeding past peasants riding ox-driven, wooden-wheeled carts.

“It was really something unique. Today was saw all the sights, sounds and smells that are India,” McEwen said. “People were cheering us as we rode along even though we were just training. We saw horse-carts with wooden wheels, motorbikes with three or four people, all those things that make it real.”

The group stopped when they got to the outskirts of Mumbai and waited for the buses to catch up to them. By the time they got to the five-star Trident hotel in Mumbai, they were ready for a buffet lunch and had an experience they likely won’t forget.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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