India’s ONLY female rider to cover 1600 km in 24 hrs

At 28, Chithra Priya is the only Indian female bike rider to have completed the Saddle Sore endurance ride.

Chithra Priya became the first Indian woman to complete the Saddle Sore endurance ride.

Chithra Priya became the first Indian woman to complete the Saddle Sore endurance ride.

Around 6 am on December 26, 2011, Bengaluru’s Electronic City flyover was a sight for Chithra Priya’s sore eyes. By now she had been riding her Honda CBR250R for a little over 23 hours and all she needed was a gas station. Chithra pulled over at the first one she saw and was turned away; there was no fuel. The same scene repeated itself at the next two she came across, by which time she began to get desperate.

Chithra wasn’t looking to tank up so much as she was hoping to get an electronic receipt, which would show the exact time at which she’d refuelled.

After riding around awhile longer, she finally got what she wanted at 6:21 am. Chithra looked at the fuel purchase receipt and took a photograph of the odometer, which showed that she’d covered 1,650 km in less than 24 hours.

That morning, Chithra became the first Indian woman to have achieved the feat, which is called the Saddle Sore ride. This the most basic in the various endurance-rides promoted by the International Iron Butt Association.

That fuel receipt was the last of many she had collected on her way from Bengaluru to Pune and back, and would be submitted as proof to the association, along with photographs of her having completed the ride in the stipulated time.

Located in the US, the Iron Butt Association is accessible to bikers around the globe. Their various rides include, among others, the following:

  • The Saddle Sore 1,600k , which requires riders to complete 1610 km in 24 hours.
  • The Saddle Sore 2,000k: 2000 km in 24 hours
  • The Bun Burner 2,500k: 2,500 km in 36 hours
  • The Bun Burner 2,500k Gold: 2,500 km in 24 hours
  • And finally, there is the elite 100,000-mile club, which consists of riders who have covered and documented that distance (approximately 1,60,934 km) in one year.

It’s been nearly 18 months since she completed her Saddle Sore stint, but no one has attempted to match Chennai-based Chithra’s record; she remains the only Indian woman to have achieved this feat so far. Since she started riding about a decade ago, she’s covered over 5,00,000 km.

Chithra Priya says that her journey into the world of extreme biking really began when her brother advised her to buy a motorbike, an unusual choice of vehicle for a woman.

“He used to watch me ride my scooter really fast. So he was just suggesting a safer option, because larger bikes are better to ride,” she says. “What he didn’t know was that I’d take it up as a full-time profession.” In fact, neither did she — Chithra was only in her second year of college then.

“College was about 30 km away from my house and a two-wheeler was the most convenient mode of transport, so I’d ride there everyday and back and wherever else I went. I suppose I was always quite good at riding and my friends began noticing it too.”

Somewhere along the way someone suggested — she doesn’t remember who and when — that she should consider riding professionally.

“The first race I participated in was the 2005 Speed Run (a drag-racing event) in Bengaluru, which I won. I then went on to participate in the second leg of the race in Mumbai, where I also finished first. Those two victories really got me interested in racing. I wanted to know what types of races were an option to me and what their requirements were,” she says.

The same year, a friend took Chithra to the Irungattukottai racetrack in Sriperumbudur, Chennai, where she participated in her first ever circuit race — the UCAL Rolon National Racing Championship.

“It was all very new to me — the track, the race, everything. I was the only woman on the track and even though all the men were giving me these funny looks, I just stood there grinning, because I was so excited about racing on a professional track for the very first time. The race started and all I can remember thinking was, ‘Hey that bike is slow, let’s overtake it’. By the time I crossed the chequered flag, I hadn’t even realised that I’d finished third and secured a place on the podium,” she recollects.

Chithra also became the first woman ever to have participated in a bike race alongside men and won at Irungattukottai and received a commemorative certificate to that effect.

Needless to say, she hasn’t looked back since. Over the years, she eventually graduated to long-distance rides and has participated in several to date.

In 2010, Chithra was part of the Great Indian Ride organised by Mahindra 2 Wheelers to promote their motorbike the Mahindra Stallio. The 40-day rally started from Kanyakumari and ended at the Zero Mile mark in Nagpur, where the company’s manufacturing plant is located.

Chithra was one of 20 finalists selected to from among thousands who had applied for what Mahindra called ‘The Best Job In India’.

In one of her interviews, Chithra described the Great Indian Ride as one of her best so far because “all we had to do was ride.”

“(We covered) a distance of 8,000 km, at about 300 km each day, for 40 continuous days,” she writes in one of her blog posts. “The journey was very challenging, but exciting as I was out on the open roads for 40 days, exploring the world’s highest mountain ranges, hottest deserts, longest highways, beautiful coastlines and witnessing the diverse regions (and the) people and their cultures… (As one of) the perks, I got to keep the bike that I rode.”

(Interestingly, the Stallio failed to take off in the Indian market and has been re-launched as the Panthero.)

Then there was another ride in 2011, which was documented and telecast on UTV Bindaas, the television channel best known for its reality shows.

Chithra was part of the largest group of female bike riders ever to have ridden from New Delhi to Kardhunga-La — the world’s highest motorable pass located at 18,380 feet above sea level — over 15 days on Royal Enfield bikes.

“That ride was memorable too. We did a lot of off-road riding, though snow and all other possible terrains, battling sub-zero temperatures and uncertain weather,” she says. “It was the first time I was riding in an all-girls group and it was f-u-n!”

The group, Bikernis, earned itself a place in the Limca Book of Records for being The Largest Group of Girls to Cross the World’s Highest Motorable Pass.

For all practical purposes, Chithra Priya rides bikes for a living. Her biking expeditions have led to other things, such as hosting travel shows for local channels, or taking up challenges like riding to Kardhunga-La. However, since motorsport isn’t cricket, sponsorship is hard to come by. So when she isn’t riding, Chithra runs an event management company on the side and has taken up motivational speaking assignments, among other things.

She confesses that it isn’t always easy to come by money, but she doesn’t seem to mind the unpredictability of her income. Neither, she adds, does her family. Her father, A Rajalingam, is a doctor, her mother Premjyothi is an artist who runs a gallery, and her brothers, Arun Kumar (the elder sibling) and Vijay Kumar (her fraternal twin) are IT executives in Canada.

While growing up, Chithra was always an outdoorsy person. “I was always into some sport or the other. At one point I was a state-level rifle shooter,” she says. Much of her sports background has made her aware of the need to stay fit and she works out regularly. She doesn’t use the gym, she says, preferring to run outdoors and use the local park while preparing for her endurance rides.

When I point out to her that riding as a career doesn’t come with a long shelf life, she is quick to point out that there are several other things she sees herself doing, even if there comes a time when she is unable to ride.

“I am passionate about biking, but that doesn’t mean it’s my whole life. I could be travelling, hosting shows, giving lectures…living! We often forget to live,” she says.

The idea of doing the Saddle Sore had been with Chithra ever since she’d first heard of it during the Great Indian Ride in 2010.

 The certificate that endorses Chithra's achievements -- of having completed the Saddle Sore endurance ride and having been the first Indian woman to have done so.

The certificate that endorses Chithra’s achievements — of having completed the Saddle Sore endurance ride and having been the first Indian woman to have done so.

“It isn’t an easy ride. Even if you are a minute late, you are disqualified. For every one person who completes it, there are five others who don’t. But the more I thought of it, the more sure I was that I could in fact do it!” she says.Most people who undertake such rides opt to start out from the city they are based in, reach the halfway mark and then double back to meet their target distance, so they can return home after the gruelling experience. Chithra was initially to ride from Chennai, where she lives, to Vishakhapatnam and back.

“I thought it was prudent to conduct a recce in my car with my mother. But I realised that the road from Chennai to Vijaywada was under construction and would cost me a lot of time and possibly damage the bike. So we turned around from Vijaywada itself and gave up the idea of that route.”

“My other option was to take the Bengaluru-Pune route and ride back. I knew I would be able to cover 1,600 km on that one too. I discussed the idea with my friends from both the cities, who told me that most of the road was in good condition and free from construction. Ideally I would have liked to undertake a recce on that route too, but by now I was itching to ride.”

A friend who runs a bike dealership in Bengaluru had agreed to lend Chithra one of his bikes for the ride.

“So I travelled to the city on December 20, 2011, checked into a service apartment and tested the bike to get used to it. Finally, on the morning of December 25, I set out,” she says.

“Initially, the plan was to leave around 4 or 5 am, but I realised there would be few petrol pumps open at the time and I needed an electronic receipt to show my starting time. So I decided to leave around 6 am and managed to get my first fuel receipt at 6.53 am. I now had 24 hours to complete 1,600 km.”

Preparing for a ride of this nature is similar to preparing for a marathon, says Chithra. “Sitting in one place for 24 hours and riding for long hours is as difficult as running for 24 hours. It is mentally AND physically strenuous. As part of my training, I had been doing long rides, but the sheer unpredictability of every new ride can throw all your planning and training out the window.”

Chithra is often asked why she attempted this ride. Her usual response is, “Why not?”

“To me, it was a test. I wanted to see if I could complete it. I have always been passionate about motorsport and this was quite simply something I wanted to do.”

And so on the morning of Christmas Day, Chithra Priya set out to make a record.

For the ride itself, she carried a couple of cans of an energy drink, a few energy bars, chewing gum, salted cashew nuts, a GPS device and a backpack that contained a hydration pack with two litres of water, besides a waist pouch containing a Swiss knife, camera, lip balm, tissues, eye drops, a mobile phone, a hands-free device for the mobile, a powerful torch and some emergency cash.

Then of course, there were her driver’s license, bike documents and wallet that were tucked away in her jacket.

“The weather was fantastic, ideal for the bike and the roads were a dream to ride on, making it safe for me to test the bike’s best performance,” she writes in her blog post.

“About 200 km down the road I stopped for about five minutes, had my energy bar, some water and started out without losing a moment further. At 400 km I took my first coffee break, where I spoke to my friends and updated them of my progress and location.”

“All they had to say was ‘MOVE IT! DON’T WASTE FURTHER TIME!’ I took their advice, got on to my bike and hit the road with a strange kind of happiness in my heart and a smile on my face, stopping only for fuelling to gather documentation.”

At about 5 pm Chithra reached Pune — Katraj to be specific. She had been keeping her eye on the odometer, waiting for it to touch 800 km so she could turn back to Bengaluru, but she was within city limits before that happened. As luck would have it, she ran into a huge traffic jam that cost her a crucial 90 minutes to hit the NH4 again.

She continues: “This was the first time during the ride that I realised I should have done a recce,” she explains. “I had gone off the highway and that put me back by a good hour and a half.” In any case, the break proved crucial — it helped her recover from the ride so far. She grabbed a bite while waiting for the traffic to clear and then set out on her return journey. She was now confident that she’d be able to make it and the idea was not to halt for anything but fuel, but things didn’t quite turn out that way.

“As the sun went down, the weather got chillier. Although I was wearing a jacket with a warm lining, nothing had prepared me for this. At one point I think the temperature was close to 4 degrees Celsius. This slowed me down. By now I had been riding for over 13 to 14 hours at a stretch and my back was beginning to hurt. I was beginning to experience a shooting pain in my upper back, so I had to take more breaks than I would have liked. All of this was costing me crucial minutes,” says Chithra.

“It was Christmas Day and all the restaurants along the side of the road were lit up. I was following the traffic and then suddenly at one point I realised I wasn’t on the correct road and thought I was heading to Hyderabad. For the second time I wished I had done the recce, but I wasn’t panicking. The idea was to cover a certain distance, so as long as I was doing that I was fine. Soon enough I was back on my way, but I had managed to lose more time.”

Riding in the night has its own unique challenges. Nothing can prepare you for unexpected smoke emerging from brush burning on both sides of the road, or a dog crossing your path in the dark. “It took one hell of a split-second manoeuvre to avoid colliding with it and not crashing myself!” Chithra recollects.

By now it was past 1 am on December 26 and she had crossed Hubli.

“It was dark and there was not a single soul on the highway. The Hubli stretch is known for dacoit attacks and it was a little scary. The only real option I had was to pray, ride fast, get out of this stretch as fast as possible and hope that I didn’t crash anywhere.”

“I was riding like a lunatic and the next thing I remember is crossing Chithradurga with a shooting pain in my shoulders. Initially, I thought that if I kept shifting my sitting position frequently it would help, but it didn’t. So I was left with no option but to take a break every couple of hours. This was costing me more time. Since I was alone, I had to be doubly sure that each place I stopped at was safe enough and that I did not draw attention.”

“By now I was down to the last 300 km of the journey. I always knew this would be the toughest part, but I hadn’t realised how hard it would be. My eyes had a clot, my nose was watering and my back was hurting the most, and I was trying hard to keep my mind off all of this.”

“At a few places where I stopped, I couldn’t help but notice that people were staring at me. It is unusual to see a woman in biking gear as it is, and at night doubly so. It usually works as a good camouflage, though — because of the helmet, you don’t know if there’s a man or a woman under it. It’s only when the helmet is off, during refuelling for instance, that people turn to look.”

“It was dawn and I was approaching Tumkur. I was not too far away from the comfort of the service apartment that was home for the duration of my stay in Bengaluru. At Tumkur, I stopped over for a cup of coffee at a Cafe Coffee Day, charged my phone, called my friends and got back on my bike. Here too, a lot of people were curious to see a woman in biking gear. During my entire ride, I got quite a few of these strange glances, but at the same time there was not one instance of people trying to chase me or passing lewd remarks.”

“By now it was 6 am. According to yesterday’s fuel receipt I had all of 53 minutes to complete the ride. But as I was approaching the city, I couldn’t help noticing the amount of heavy vehicles on the road, making it look like another place altogether.”

“I had completed the stipulated 1,600 km, but I needed a fuel receipt to prove it. I pulled over at the first petrol pump I saw, but there was no petrol. It was the same story with the next two. Because the previous day (Christmas) had been a holiday, the pumps had run out of fuel. I was losing time. If I didn’t get a receipt, all my efforts would be in vain. I was desperate.”

“Finally, I saw a pump where another biker was refuelling. I heaved a sigh of relief and pulled over. On seeing my condition, the pump assistant immediately refuelled my bike and handed me the receipt. It was 6.21 am and I had officially covered 1,650 km in 23 hours and 40 minutes.”

Even though she remains a passionate biker, Chithra says it is just a part of her life. She sees a lot more beyond her riding career. Chitra says that deep down she continues to remain a conservative south Indian girl.

Chithra Priya’s next dream is to ride around the world in 80 days on her bike. She blogs at Supergirltotherescue.com and can be contacted here

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