When Rahul Rajagopal—@cycling_nomad on Instagram—calls me from Thane, Mumbai, I’m not surprised to see a cycle in the frame of our Zoom call. The 30-year-old ‘bikepacker’ is enthusiastic about seeing the world from across his handlebars, is wary of e-bikes and dislikes using padded seats—the ride should not be too comfortable, he tells me. He is also inclined towards short, intense meditations on life on two wheels.
When Rahul and I first corresponded in July ’22, he was in the middle of a three-week trip through the Western Ghats by cycle, taking a coastal route. With him, he had a sleeping bag, a mat, some basic bike repair tools and a few clothes, he told me. Starting in Vadodara on 16 July, he rode along NH48 until he got to Mumbai, covering 411 kilometres in two days. Then, he booked a ferry to Alibaug and biked till Murud, a small seaside tourist town in Maharashtra, continuing along the coast through Ratnagiri, Malvan, Shiroda, Panaji and Karwar. From Udupi, Rahul turned up towards the mountains of Chikmagaluru and, at last, arrived in Bengaluru on 3 August.
En route, he tells me, he usually looks for petrol pumps to sleep at for the night. But as he was often far from the highway or habitation on this journey, he would look for a bus depot or temple instead. Sometimes he would ask locals for a shed, so he could lay his head down for the night.
Rahul’s father worked in the railways, and the family moved from Tirunelveli to Vadodara when he was young. After school, he began to work at a call centre and then volunteered in administration at a feminist resource, counselling and training centre called Olakh. During the pandemic, he worked for Decathlon for two and a half years as a bike technician, moving to Mumbai in July 2022. He currently works in e-commerce and logistics for Scott Sports.
Often working with his hands, Rahul will earn enough for a journey, and then, leaving his working life, he cycles for weeks before starting a new job. No sponsored journeys or glamorous photoshoots. Just a steady infusion of movement into a city-dweller’s life.
Cycling, for many, is the perfect marriage of movement and stillness: moving while not going too fast. Getting there, slowly. Indeed, this Instagrammer’s atmospheric images are evocative of both the timelessness and the immediacy of travel. TKC caught up with this bikepacker and looked through his photo album.
What was it like during your three weeks cycling through the Western Ghats?
I was spinning along those opening miles. I felt like I should be feeling more excited or more anxious, but really, I was just riding my bike. It was like any other day, but instead of going home I’d stop on the road. Most of the time it would be petrol pumps, temples, bus depots, police stations or some roadside dhabas. It was a milestone experience for me, and it felt like a big adventure; while I also felt kind of flat emotionally. Like I was waiting—waiting to feel uncertainty about what I was actually doing out there.
That’s the beauty of a bike trip—there are no limitations. You can stop at any time and objectives are all self-determined.
What was the weather like?
The nature of the weather along the Western Ghats is exciting. One minute the skies are clear and blue, the next minute fog comes rolling in off the mountains, blanketing everything in white clouds. Such an occurrence took place as I approached the Nilgiris, which tower at 875 metres. The approach was surreal. The warmth of the sun disappeared, and I was in awe.
What did the journey look and feel like?
I was riding down from the mountains on roads parallel to the ocean; they looked like twin serpents. Most of the time I’m leaning over the handlebars on my heavy, loaded bikes, while gravity alone is pulling me forward, faster and faster, getting to that wonderful feeling where you can’t tell yourself apart from the bike. Then, every now and then, the beauty of the landscape pops. The valley I cycled through was packed with old farms, many with buildings going back to the 15th century. You have to stop and take it in. Cycling gives me that feeling of freedom.
Why the mountains?
Currently I live near Sanjay Gandhi National Park, next to the mountains. I’m really fond of mountains. My hometown is near an ocean, and I’d grown up seeing it often, so now I’m crazy about mountains. I want a place where I can find peace.
The best part about mountains is the elevation. I like climbing. You throw all your effort, everything, all the energy you carry at the start of the day into your pedalling. There is so much silence surrounding you. You’re in the middle of trees and dense forest. Everything slows down. You go to the past; you think about the future. Everything comes to mind.
When did you start long journeys?
I started following people who moved around on bicycles [on social media] and was fascinated by how they were talking about their relationships with cycles. Many were travelling around the country. I started following someone called Sudhanshu Verma, who was traveling across Zanskar, Ladakh. I also started cycling 10–20km in the suburban parts of the city. I thought, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’
Then, I went to Ladakh and saw so many people traveling like this. I met Sudhanshu in Leh city, in a café, and told him how much I admire him.
How do you manage cycling and work?
I really believe in a sustainable lifestyle. As a bike mechanic, you don’t need anything to make a living; you can travel anywhere. I am planning to make my own bicycles, a workshop on wheels. I’ll carry my own workshop on a bicycle. I’d like to go to Europe by bicycle too.
What are your current plans?
I’ll be saving up for my next adventure. This time it will be a bigger one.
Will you try to cycle like this again?
Yes, because cycling has always given me the feeling of freedom. And when I am on the road in this way, I’m much more appreciative afterwards of the small and self-evident aspects of ‘normal life’. Things like running water, unlimited electricity, having a warm, dry roof over your head and being able to access food at any time. For my part, I understand more and more that the possession of material things is simply not important and does not contribute to satisfaction. What is important in life? I think to go to sleep full and satisfied is the only essential thing.
You only have so much time on the earth; how are you going to spend it?
To learn more about Rahul’s bikepacking adventures, follow @cycling_nomad on Instagram.