Motorcycle diaries: Riding high on long roads
Chithra Priya is the first Indian woman biker to be ushered into the Saddle Sore Hall of Fame. Hema Vijay profiles this spirited young woman.
Before she got hooked to motor sports, this spirited young woman was a climbing geek, and you often found Chithra Priya hanging for hours from dizzying heights of tall scaffoldings, holding aloft banners with activist messages. While Chithra had always been a tomboy climbing trees and playing korf ball, she had specifically trained in rope climbing for this modus operandi of activism. That perhaps explains the magnificent success this young woman has seen as a professional biker: She brims with both inspired passion and meticulous professionalism.
Meet Chithra Priya, biker extraordinary. She happens to be the first Indian woman biker to be ushered into the Saddle Sore Hall of Fame (a famous endurance challenge offered by the US-based Iron Butt Association) after biking 1600 km in 24 hours flat — all alone. She was part of the ‘Great Indian Ride' that biked over 7,000 km in 45 days; she was part of the first ever all-women riding group to cross the Himalayas, a ride that created a record for being the first-ever all-female motorcycle group to scale Khardung-la, the highest motorable pass in the world. No wonder, she was the only woman biker to get voted to be among the top six bikers in India, at the prestigious XBHP online forum.
Being a woman biker
Being born with two brothers did play a part in bringing motorbikes into her life. “They taught me the basics of biking. And mom has been very encouraging all along. In fact, when I scout ahead to check out my racing routes, mom joins me”, says Chithra. But initially, biking was just a fun thing to do, like commuting to SRM college well outside Chennai city, to attend her visual communications classes. It was a college friend who suggested that she try racing, and Chithra’s first race was the 2005 Unisexual Drag Race, where she came first. This was followed by the BP Speed Run in Mumbai where she came first again. She then started circuit racing at the Madras Motor Sports Club tracks at Irungottai. Suddenly, biking seemed to have become her profession. She then trained at the California Super Bike School, staying back after the training to explore America on bike.
Being a cross-country woman biker can’t be easy. Safety is a concern. For instance, in 2010, she biked with four other men bikers from Kanyakumari to Pune covering 4000 km in 45 days along, for the launch of Mahindra Stallio. Safety was not a worry then, because there was a TV crew with the group who shot footage on the ride (later telecast as a reality show ‘The best job in India’). “And really, it was the best job. All I had to do was just bike. All of us in the team became great friends, and we stay close even now.
But staying safe is something a woman biker has to think about constantly, especially with solo rides”, she concedes. Consider her Saddle Sore Ride, for which she rode from Bangalore to Pune and back to Bangalore in 23 hours and 40 minutes. “While returning to Bangalore, there was no traffic on the roads after 10 pm, and I had to be careful not to draw attention to myself at petrol bunks or on the road. I was worried that someone ahead could be passed the information that a lone woman biker was headed towards them and ambush me. I take my defence seriously and prepare for it, should I need it. I can’t say that biking is entirely safe for women”, she says. Chithra has also spent hours at bike service centres, watching mechanics set right snags in bikes. “To handle minor repairs”, she says.
And then, riding for hours together, feeling the full impact of the weather, and often hitting the bed at 2 am and being ready to ride early next morning... biking is tough on the body. Being a woman on the road for weeks can get tougher still. “It takes months of preparation for every biking odyssey. Not only do you chart out the route, the fuelling stations and the nearest hospitals, you also have to exercise your muscles and get your back in top shape. Your back should be tough enough to stand hours of biking; and you need to be able to stay sharp for hours together, as speed biking requires enormous and undiluted focus and concentration”, remarks Chithra. In her Saddle Sore Ride, the last 300 km was toughest. “I was unimaginably tired. It had gotten very cold, and my teeth were chattering. But I kept telling myself, it can be done”, she shares. Chithra eventually completed the ride in 23 hours and 40 minutes. It didn’t matter that her eyes were watering, that her body swelling up, and that she couldn’t get up from bed the next three days.
A Himalayan ride
Then came the Himalayan adventure. “I had seen the south. I next wanted to explore North India”, Chithra narrates. So she got together with Bikerni – a group of women bikers, and this 10-women crew biked across some of the toughest terrain on earth, sometimes having to drag bikes across rocky river beds and slushy earth. Chithra reminisces, “Himachal Pradesh was unforgettable, and not just for its beauty. It is the Mecca of motor-bikers. People come here from all over the world just to ride on her roads”. So, what next? It is a seven-day pan India ride covering Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Vizag, Chennai, etc. This would call for covering 1000 km per day, and biking for 18 to 20 hours a day!
“Biking is not considered a sport in India, and I keep looking for sponsors”, she mentions. This doesn’t leave her a cushion to fall back on, once she retires. “But I don’t think about the future, and hope that things will fall in place. For now, biking is the priority. These tough rides have to be done now. Later, my body will not be able to take the strain”, she says. You can read more about her biking adventures at supergirltotherescue.com