Tour of Nilgiris – 2013 Recce – Brace Yourselves For Kalahatty!

The grade was insane. The front wheel was refusing to stay in contact with the tramac. Handlebar was wavering. The bike reminded a horse rearing out of control. Sweat was pouring down, burning the eyes. The heart was desperately trying to jump out. The lungs were working overtime to supply the steam. The legs were screaming for mercy. The fingers automatically went to the shifters to find a non-existent easier gear. Then a ‘Tak.. tak.. tak’ and the bike stalled, refusing to move. Welcome to Kalahatty, a Hors category climb in the Nilgiris.

A sign board showing way to Kalahatty water falls in the middle of the killer climb.
Steep and Some More..
According to Wikipedia, Hors categorie is a French term used in cycle races to designate a climb that is “beyond categorization”, or an incredibly tough climb. Most climbs in cycling are designated from Category 1 (hardest) to Category 4 (easiest), based on both steepness and length. A climb that is harder than Category 1 is designated as hors catégorie. The term was originally used for those mountain roads where cars were not expected to be able to pass.’ 

This year in the Tour of Nilgiris, we will be reaching Ooty on day two via Kalahatty. The Kalahatty climb gains 1200mts of elevation in about 12kms giving an average elevation gain of around 10% with a few stretches going up to 15% or more of gradient. If that is not tough enough for you, nothing will be. It can easily feature amongst the toughest climbs around the world. When you see the number of cars struggling to make it up Kalahatty, you’ll understand why most of the traffic to Ooty goes through the less steeper but longer route of Gudalur instead.

My first experience with Kalahatty climb left some indelible mental scars. The climb humbled me when I attempted it on my bulldog(fixed gear bike) in May 2011. It was easily the most agonizing day on the bike for me till then. Later that year, I completed TFN on the same bike but nothing was as difficult as that day on Kalahatty
I got my road bike in Jan 2012 but the plans to go back to Kalahatty and completing the climb never really materialized. So, when I came to know that it is going to be part of 2013 TFN route, I was excited that I’d finally get to tick Kalahatty off my bucket list. 
I didn’t have to wait till December however, since I was invited to join TFN recce a couple of weeks back. Recces are hectic and fun at the same time with route changes, support station locations, race sections, hotel confirmations etc to be finalized along with some riding. I jumped at the opportunity solely for Kalahatty although I wasn’t really well. I wanted to see if I can finish it on a road bike although I’m not in the best of shape.
We drove up to the climb and started climbing from 2km into the climb(Bison point) since it had some parking space. So, we had about 10km to climb. Since we started well into the climb our legs had no time to warmup to the insane gradient. With in a few meters after I started climbing, it became clear that I’m in no shape to fulfill my ambition of climbing non-stop.
The grade was insane. The front wheel was refusing to stay in contact with the tramac. Handlebar was wavering. The bike was acting like a horse rearing out of control. Sweat was pouring down, burning the eyes. The heart was desperately trying to jump out. The lungs were working overtime to supply the steam. The legs were screaming for mercy. The fingers automatically went to the shifters to find a non-existent easier gear. Then a ‘Tak.. tak.. tak’ and the bike stalled, refusing to move. 

I quickly tried to uncleat but had a fall to the side. The chain got jammed between the sprocket and the spokes of the rear wheel. The Lemond’s rear derailleur hanger was bent a couple of weeks before in a small crash and it wasn’t ready to take up the pressure of this climb in the lowest gear(34*26). So, I had to go a couple of gears down(34*23) so that the derailleur doesn’t rub the spokes. Given my current condition, I was finding it hard enough to climb in the lowest gear available for me. Now it only got even worse. 
I was getting quickly out of breath and had to stop every couple of kilometers to regain breath. The problem with stopping is, it is terribly difficult to start again once you stop on such a steep climb. If no vehicles are coming, riding across the road in a zigzag manner to start is one option. But it is dangerous to do so near hairpin bends where visibility of traffic is obstructed by the terrain.  So, it becomes a tricky thing to manage.

To counter the front wheel raising, I had to get off the saddle and ride or move to the front of the saddle and lean forward to bring the weight forward. Getting off the saddle isn’t a great option for such a long and steep climb as you can quickly get out of breath. So, leaning forward on the saddle is best. My teammates Mohan and Saravanan who were also on the recce were riding ahead and waiting for me while they caught breath. After about one and half hour we finally made it to the temple at the top where the climb ended. I was glad it was over.

Sweat bucket loads.. Saru squeezing out the sweat after the climb

Coming at the end of the second day after about 130km of riding from Mysore, Kalahatty is going to be a big challenge. Looking at the traffic conditions and the dangerous nature of the climb, this climb is not going to be a competitive section for this year.

I’ll soon start preview posts for the route on each day of the tour where I’ll talk more on this climb and other routes. For now, be warned and train well.

A small tip on gearing for a climb like this: Compact(50×34) is preferable at the front and for the rear cassette, find the biggest you can accommodate on your bike, something like 28-30. You’ll thank yourself. 

Here are a couple of photos from the recce to give you a sneak preview of the beautiful routes that are coming up on this tour.

Not just the beauty of Nilgiris to ride in but it is the people you get to ride with that makes the tour special!
The immense beauty coupled with amazing rolling terrain makes the tour both fun and challenging!

PS: Photos are by Stalin SM who is one of the official photographers on the tour this year along with Deepthi Indukuri
      

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