Issued: 06/Jul/2023, The Indian Express. Online. New Delhi, India.

All of us crave freedom, however, only a few of us are able to break the shackles of societal norms and experience a taste of freedom. More often than not, it is women who are bound by matrimonial obligations, household responsibilities, and caregiving duties, making it difficult for them to pursue such freedom. But breaking these norms are two Indian women – Gareema Shankar and Renu Singhi –who ventured out in the pursuit of freedom and took charge of their own lives.

Defying conventional norms set by society, they took up long-distance cycling much later in life after they got married. Refusing to bend to gender roles, they hopped on a bicycle and undertook long-distance cycling events and races.

Based on the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ journeys of these two women is a documentary called ‘Going Solo’, which follows them before, during, and after one of the world’s most prestigious endurance cycling events – London-Edinburgh-London (LEL).

Talking about the making of the documentary, director Amey Gore said he was never into sports, however, after interviewing the subjects of the film, he realised that there was a lot more than just cycling as a sport. “They said that cycling is a coping mechanism for them and that was a cue for me to explore something larger than just concentrating on the technical aspects. The movie is about Indian families and social structures with cycling as a device to explore these larger narratives,” he shared.

Adding, Gore explained that more than anything else the movie is about freedom. “Everybody desires freedom in some way. But life, with its infinite variables, keeps us trapped in multiple loops. So, we need different activities to help us channelise our energies. If that does not happen, it completely changes your mindset, and you get bogged down by negativity. The film is essentially seeing how the energy of an individual conflicts with freedom and all the restrictions society brings. And we are seeing how cycling as a mechanism can help us channelise our energies and seek freedom.”

A glimpse into the lives of the women

Both Shankar and Singhi come from vastly different family backgrounds and upbringings. However, what unites them is their endeavour to do more with their lives. With this ambition, they undertook one of the toughest endurance cycling events in the world (read LEL).

Shankar, who was born into a wealthy family in North India, lived a rather privileged life. The only complaint was that it was like a cocoon – comfortable yet suffocating. As a teenager, she dreamed of roaming freely on her own. But her parents, in trying to protect her, often restricted her from going out alone.

For 37 long years, Shankar led a fairly predictable life. She got married and became a mother, but soon after a deep void began to set in. After the delivery of her baby, she became quite overweight. In hopes of shedding those extra kilos, she took up cycling –something she could be consistent with. She learnt cycling from her male cousin, but when she was younger, he would never allow her to cycle on the road. Soon after she took up cycling, she began to notice how her happiness had increased. Shankar even started discovering her city and became a regular rider, so much so that people started associating her bicycle with her.

“They would ask me why don’t I set goals for myself through cycling. This is the reason I started to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone. I began attending cycling events. I would be thrilled after completing those races,” she said.

After she saw her team preparing for LEL, she got motivated and registered herself for the event just three months before it was scheduled. “It was an impossible task to achieve but I wanted to participate in it,” she shared. So, she took up the challenge of cycling 1,540 km in only 125 hours at LEL.

Four days into the ride, it was clear that she would not be able to finish in time. But while most riders in her position were giving up, Shankar rode on, determined to fight till the very end. Although she could not achieve her goal, the LEL community was overwhelmed with her enthusiasm and spirit and awarded her a medal.

She recalled that before cycling, she was never into any sports. “I had never even been to a gym before. So, cycling was tough because I had no muscle memory. I had to practice very hard and build my stamina slowly,” she said.

Additionally, cycling in Delhi had its own unique challenges. Apart from women’s safety, rash driving, and bad roads, making it a nightmare to ride on these streets, Shankar’s parents would remain worried about her every time she went for a ride. And her own parenting skills were put to a test, as she tried to manage her training schedule with her maternal responsibilities. But cycling taught her to strike a balance between everything and live life on her own terms.

Her advice to anybody taking up a sport later in life is to always seek guidance from professionals. “Take it slowly just like a house is built brick by brick. Build your stamina gradually. And enjoy the whole process. The idea is to de-stress and not worry about achieving perfection,” Shankar said.

Meanwhile, Singhi had a rather carefree childhood, even though she was born in a traditional Jain family in Rajasthan. Even as a teenager, she could be seen riding on the streets of Jodhpur during the 1970s. However, after she got married, her life completely changed. Her husband’s family was conservative, and she had to single-handedly take care of the household – cooking, cleaning and raising two children. Soon, she started sensing a void in her life.

But it was at the age of 52, when she was already a grandmother that while visiting a bike shop to check out a cycle for her son, she ended up buying a bicycle for herself too. After that, there was no looking back.

“Initially, my family was against me taking up the activity. But nobody could stop me. I was unfettered to take up long-distance cycling events. After completing several long-distance Indian rides, I decided to take the plunge and participate in international events,” she said.

Last year, Singhi created history by becoming the first Indian woman to successfully complete the LEL event in time. She has faced several barriers along the way–from road accidents to conservative mindsets. But she is no mood to stop cycling behind her dreams. “People should do what they like. Age is no bar. I hope to motivate those girls who are afraid to go after their dreams. Put your heart and soul into something you love, and nothing can deter you,” she said.

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