Dec 04, 2013
The Barefoot Odyssey of an Indian Cyclist
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Datta Patil is a pot-bellied farmer who has been ripping through trails sans shoes all his life. He is an unspoken hero in the mountain biking community, embodying true grit and passion
From a remote district in the western state of Maharashtra in India to the mountains of Switzerland, for 43-year-old Dattatreya Patil, a grape farmer from Sangli, it’s been a journey through mud, dirt, pain and passion. What makes Datta ‘bhau‘ (‘brother’ in Marathi) special is his barefoot odyssey. He hasn’t used footwear his whole life! (Sangli is about 380 km southeast of India’s financial capital Mumbai.)
Patil as an 11-year-old had to cycle many miles to get essentials for his family, something still quite common for rural communities in India. This compulsion turned into passion, and he took up cycling as a sport – walking, running, cycling along the road and through the hills. All of it shoeless!
Thirty years on, Datta Patil today runs his own cycling club where he trains over 30 children for free. His day begins at 3am. A quick warm up and he hits the tar with the steel machine for an early morning ride. By the time his rookies arrive at 6am, he’ll be back after a 100km outing. With his students, he pedals an additional 50km. Patil’s training methods have inspired many to take up cycling in India.
A routine exercise for him is a strict ‘no-no’ for many. How can someone go barefoot on a bicycle, exposing their feet to injury on sharp pedals and over hostile terrain? According to Patil, he enjoys it that way, and he also proclaims that he’s not taken any medication for the last 25 years.
I met this ‘wonder on wheels’ during the 2013 MTB Himalaya event in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India’s major mountain biking competition. The cool breeze and the sprawling lush, green mountains, the sun peeping through the clouds set the mood for a lovely day and a phenomenal week ahead. With participants still flocking in and registering for the competition and many things happening around, the whole camp was abuzz. Some riders could be spotted doing the last minute overhaul of their bikes, while others chatted and mingled with the crowd. A lot of them were familiar with each other and the rest kept busy exchanging ideas and profiles.
Amidst all this hullabaloo, there was a precipitous rush of people around one gentleman, extending their greetings. Their euphoria was pretty evident in their sparkling eyes. A layman could mistake him for a local celebrity or politician. I went in close to look at him. There was a man – pot-bellied, unkempt hair and with stubble – standing next to a bike, dirt splashed all over its body and wheels. A quick look at the guy and you’d be convinced that he wasn’t a celebrity, he looked more like some local who might have come over to the camp to cheer the riders. No wait! He was wearing a MTB Himalaya jersey. That was strange! Maybe he was a participant… But why was he barefoot? There was something peculiar about this person.
The kind of welcome this guy got led to a series of questions that reverberated in the air – who was this person and where he was from – most importantly, why was he barefoot?
“Don’t you know Dattabhau? He’s an icon and an inspiration to all of us. This is his eighth MTB Himalaya and over the years, he’s been one of the reasons why this event has grown in participants”, said Kirtiraj Parmar, one of the riders.
“He rides barefoot!”
What do you mean by a barefoot rider? There are rocks, mud, thorns along the trail. That’s unreal!
After greeting everyone, he parked his bike along the hotel wall and made his way towards the lobby. Following him in tow, armed with a pen and notebook, the ambiance seemed perfect for a close interaction. After the registration formalities, he reclined in a couch nearby and started fiddling with his mobile. I walked up to him, “Hello Dattabhau. Would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?”
“Haan haan, pucho na (Of course, go ahead)”. he said with a smile.
“I’m sorry for my ignorance, but why are all these people so excited to see you? Tell me something about yourself. I want to know everything about you.”
He smiled and began his tale.
At 11, he learnt how to balance a cycle. Thirty years later, the Sangli farmer had ridden thousands of kilometres across the country. Last year, he pedalled all the way from Sangli to Panipat for a social cause – ‘Save The Girl Child’. Earning just enough to support a family of six with a monthly income of 15,000 INR, Patil still takes out time to follow his passion. “That’s the only consistent thing I’ve done all my life”, he says. “Cycling takes me to a different world, it gives me joy and the will to fight adversities. Everyone has some problem or the other in their life but they need to find a way to breathe easy. For me, cycling does that.”
His cycling club has been organizing trips to various destinations – from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari far south. As he trains them for competitions free of cost, he goes around looking for sponsors to fund the trips. And if he fails to do so, he pumps in funds on his own, whatever little he has. Every year, Datta Patil confers a Swami Vivekananda Young Achiever award to the most prolific cyclist in his club and makes sure she or he gets the right exposure and training to go places where he couldn’t.
In 2010 and 2011, he cycled around 2,400 kms over 16 days from Sangli to Shimla to participate here, another 500 kms over another 6 days! A regular in the Masters Category here, he was 2nd and 3rd in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the same years he pedaled all the way from his village. A finisher in all his previous MTBH appearances (2006-2012), he didn’t disappoint this year either. Right through the competition, I had my eyes set on Patil and it was phenomenal the way he returned to the camp everyday, unscathed and raring to go. He didn’t carry a Camelbak, nor did he have any gear to protect his hands and feet from the treacherous trails. But he was always charged up for the next day.
Patil has been training kids in Maharashtra for the past 18 years, and each year he brings his best student to participate at MTBH. He lives a simple life but when on the saddle, he’s a warrior. That’s what makes him a champion…and a legend.
Place: Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India