Of late, she had been pedaling rather aimlessly in life. It’s a metaphor that may fit a cyclist’s life nicely, but for Gareema Shankar, the resemblance to a mid-life crisis was too striking to be taken lightly. The birth of her son had thrown her diet and gym routine off-the-track, causing her to put on weight. By her own admission, shehad become “clumsy and cluttered”. A post-graduate in business management, visions of not being able to manage her own life – and ending up a dependent wreck in her advanced years – shook Gareema to the core. It was the spring of 2018, now 38 years old, the lady decided it was time to act. Or, well, Google.
She looked up outdoor cycling. The connection was instant. Gareema took to the sport like a duck to water. Before she knew it, her life had changed. It was like someone had added gasoline to fire. The years had fallen away, and with it, the inertia and aimlessness. Her body was fitter and lighter, her mind had never felt sharper, and her spirit soared like a teenager’s. The Gareema she thought she had lost forever was back! “Cycling improved my decision-making, and I realized that the toughest of things can become easy with some hard work,” says the Delhi resident, looking back at the ‘A-Ha!’ moment in her life.
The rest, as they say, is history. In the next five years, the ‘born again’ lady – at 160 cms and 65 kgs – would clock a remarkable 55000 kms on her bicycles. She would also go on to become the first Indian woman to acquire the Super Randonneur title by biking 1500 kms in six days. The Delhi mom was on a roll, and there would be no turning back. The first of her Super Randonneur medals – won on her MTB – came in the February of 2019. It happened on short notice, but Gareema was upto the challenge. She flashbacks : “The Super Randonneur title was not on my agenda. I had called off another planned ride and was very upset about it. I discovered I was strong enough to take pain. Every time I am stressed, I recall the occasion. It gives me confidence to never give up”.
With the highs came the lows, of course. Gareema Shankar’s shot at Paris-Brest-Paris (2019) – the most international gathering of Randonneurs – didn’t quite fly. But that didn’t prevent her from signing up for the event again. Like a true lover of the sport, she’s chasing the enduring magic of the journey, not the fleeting high of the destination. As she puts it, “Winning and losing is not important.”
Amongst the many colorful feathers in her cap is the London-Edinburg-London ride, a grueling test of mental and physical resilience. To training for the elevation gains, Gareema cycled from Dehradun to Mussoorie. On the first day of training, she had trouble covering even 3 kms. But like a die-hard champ, she didn’t back down – proving that grit and focus are what success is actually made of. The memory of her father hugging her in London after her triumph ranks right up there – along with the birth of her son – as amongst the brightest highlights of her life.
Today, Gareema is intimately familiar with the spotlight. When a documentary on Indian women cyclists had to be made, she was the natural choice for the leading theme. She was also hailed as one of the ‘Heroes of London-Edinburg-London 2022.
Gareema was one of the marquee attractions at the HCL Cyclothon 2023. She loved every bit of the action, and wants the occasion to be converted into an annual event on India’s sports calendar. Hear it from her : “HCL cyclothon was the best event ever held for Cyclists. This includes the safety, route, organised. Not to forget the participation that happened from Pan India. We all await series 2. This athon for cyclists should be a year on year event like we have for runners.”
Despite the attention, Gareema remains centered and retains her humility : “I try to get better each day by learning from the environment around and make the most of the resources available. I go by my heart and seek happiness. I try and be grateful to the universe by spread happiness.” She also has pearls of actionable wisdom for the next generation of aspirants : “You must know what you want to do and not do what others want you to do. Take suggestions, but you know where to draw the line,” she says.
Having found joy on bicycles, Gareema is determined never to let it go. The champion, an inspiration to an entire nation and 43 years young, sums it up : “Cycling taught me to discover and explore potential. The best ideas come to me when I am cycling. It is my purpose in life”.