Sukhmani Gill is not a name that you may have heard of. She grew up in different parts of the country and studied in seven different schools because her father is a defense officer. Naturally, it did not take long before she mingled well with the people at her workplace in Chennai.
Thanks to her father being posted to different parts of the country, she had been bitten by the travel bug. Her father’s love for travelling helped too. If there was one passion Sukhmani inherited from her dad, it was the passion to travel. “I always wanted a bike since I was a kid,” she says.
If there was one thing Chennai girl Chithra Priya did not want to miss, it was to do exactly what her two brothers- one of whom is her twin, used to do. So, when it was time to get a bike, she did not have to think too much. The feeling of freedom that riding on a bike gave her was inexplicable.
When studying at SRM College in Chennai, Chithra was often seen riding the Yamaha Enticer. As she graduated, the bike took her to “places that I could never otherwise go.” In 2005, when riding on the race track at Sriperumbudur, some 40 kilometres from Chennai, Chithra did not realise how many male bikers she had overtaken and ended up in third place. That certainly was a ‘place’ she had never been to before!
As she started to enjoy riding, Chithra used to organise rides every month, inviting and encouraging women bikers to join the fun. The passion for riding bikes took her to different clubs, and in March 2013, Chithra and Sukhmani met for the first time in one such group. They were from Chennai and Chandigarh, different from each other like the proverbial chalk and cheese. They were the only two girls in their group and hit it off instantly. Soon, the two did a 21-day ride from Chennai to Kanyakumari to Mumbai, as part of ‘Chase the Monsoon,’ a programme on MTV.
“After that, it was a regular thing for us. As long as we were on a bike it was all good for us. On a bike, even hunger did not matter,” Sukhmani says about their friendship.
The ride of their life
Sipping coffee together one day at a restaurant at Besant Nagar, Chennai, sometime in May 2014, Sukhmani mentioned to Chithra that she was thinking of visiting her parents in Chandigarh two months later. As they talked about it, the idea of a bike ride to Chandigarh cropped up in their head. Suddenly, the two were discussing a plan to ride their bikes and travel from Kanyakumari to Leh and visit Sukhmani’s parents in Chandigarh on the way! Over the next half an hour, the two had finalised a rough plan, which ultimately earned them a name in the Limca Book of Records.
A very small group of friends were told about the plans for the ride, which was going to cover over 3,900 kilometres, cutting across several states in between. The two did online research, spoke to some people who had done some similar kinds of bike rides to understand some of the challenges that they could face.
Chithra was riding a Honda CBR 250 and Sukhmani was on a Bajaj Avenger for the ride. Two weeks before they began the ride, their bikes were checked by trained mechanics with even small things like clutch wires changed. They also appended a jerry can for keeping some extra fuel with them so that if they ran short of fuel, it could be of help.
According to the 2015 edition of the Limca Book of Records, ‘the duo set out from Kanyakumari at 5.34 am on July 23, 2014 and reached Leh, Jammu & Kashmir at 4.31 pm on July 29, 2014.’
Chithra’s parents were aware that they were planning the long-distance ride. Sukhmani too informed her parents and told them that since they did not have any warm clothes for the ride up the hills, they wanted to pick up some when they reached Chandigarh. It was July 23, 2014, and they were ready to make history.
Riding the rough roads
The beginning was smooth, having covered nearly 850 kilometres on the first day, and the first pit stop was at Anantpur in Andhra Pradesh. As they reached Telangana on the second day, the roads were seeing some inexplicably slow-moving traffic. They asked around and found that it was due to an accident involving a school bus. Worse, it was pouring heavily and the two were drenched since it took time for them to navigate the traffic. They were racing against time, and the traffic mess and the rains had slowed their pace before they reached their next pit stop at Adilabad in Telangana.
But nothing had prepared them for the third day of their ride!
The road condition was not the best and they had to navigate huge potholes for an extended stretch. At one place the jerry can, filled nearly to the top with fuel and perched on Sukhmani’s bike, fell off and the impact left a dent in it. The two decided to leave the can behind and move ahead with their plans. Soon, they had emptied the fuel in the two bikes and they were lighter by a few kilos as they revved up for the road again.
But as they headed for Jhansi- the planned stopover for the night, they seemed to be running short of fuel. It had turned dark and there was no sight of a filling station for kilometres. The GPS installed on the bikes was not of much help either. But their companionship kept them going- they were regularly chatting with each other as their helmets were Bluetooth enabled. Thankfully, talking to each other meant just speaking out normally and the other person could hear comfortably!
Finally, just before they reached Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, they found a place to get fuel and heaved a sigh of relief. By the time they reached the hotel, it was midnight.
“We should have planned better,” Sukhmani now says, referring to the unenviable situation they had landed themselves in.
The fourth day’s ride to Chandigarh was very good because the quality of the roads got better. When they reached Chandigarh, Sukhmani’s parents were a little surprised since the riders did not seem tired, and were going about all their work as normally as they could!
A little after they sped away from Chandigarh, the road quality turned bad again. There were places where the road had been washed away and only gravel was left behind. When they reached Leh, they had completed 3,950 kilometres in 154 hours and 57 minutes- a record for the fasted south to north two-wheeler expedition by women in India.
The experiences of stopping at various places for a cup of tea or a short beak had their own charm. At different places, women would come and talk to the duo because they found Chithra and Sukhmani’s effort inspiring. People would assume that they were not girls who were doing it- till they took off their helmets!
“We just tried to do our best. The record was just a byproduct of the journey,” Sukhmani says, recalling the five exciting days of her life.
Once they had reached Leh, they decided to catch up on their sleep over two days and eat the best possible food they could get. A proper receipt from the places they ate, the refueling that they got done, the people they met and regular updates on Instagram helped document that they had taken the path as part of their effort. On their way, they also occasionally visited government establishments and met up with officials. While establishing claim for a record, all these documented meetings were of help.
On their way back from Leh, Chithra and Sukhmani stayed again at Chandigarh where the effort earned them a pat on the back from Sukhmani’s family. Her father too loved to drive to offbeat places and the appreciation meant a lot to both riders.
Love for endurance rides
Chithra had always grown up with a passion for riding bikes, helped in no small measure by her brothers. As she got her first bike in college, she made good friends among the biking community. “The racing community has always been very supportive. It is also a part of my lifestyle. I cannot think of a lifestyle without it,” Chithra says.
Sukhmani is more organised and meticulously plans what she does. With an engineering degree from Manipal, she has chosen to pursue a career in data analytics. But when she is on a bike, passion of a different kind shows up. “Had I not met Chithra, I would perhaps have not done what I did,” she says of the 3,950-kilometre ride.
Till they completed it successfully, they had not realised the enormity of their achievement. It was certainly a very special ride, different from other shorter, weekend-only rides that they had been used to doing. Three years after their historic ride, don’t be surprised if they are revving up for something big again.