Preetam Bora - Through the Himalayan Foothills on Royal Enfields

Introduction

Eight years and nine months ago, I was pleading with my father to buy me a second-hand Royald Enfield Bullet 350. I was all of 19 years and had tasted first blood—riding a friend's Standard 350 for nearly a year—and realized if I had to have a motorcycle, it had to be an Enfield Bullet. But all my pleadings fell on deaf ears. My father, himself a Bulleteer in the past, had some logic which I had to accede to. "It's more expensive to maintain than a 100 cc. You won't be able to afford to run it. Besides, you have to grow up and be a man first to ride a Bullet." So I settled for a 100 cc (a new one at that) and after a couple of years started doing trips on that. The tiny 2-stroke would huff and puff up the Himalayas on second gear, sometimes I'd have to downshift even to first on particularly steeper inclines. Those were hard days. Overtaking a truck or a bus on the highway was a big problem, since the engine would strain after cruising for over an hour at 70-75 kph, and overtaking meant speeding up to over 80-85 kph. Then there were the added woes of stability - doing anything over 80 kph on a 95 kg, 100 cc machine on the highways of northern India was nothing short of daredevilry. But the joys of cruising on open roads, pine-fresh air and the zillions of smells that one encounters on the road left an indelible impression. It was waiting to happen again, and wait I did, for nearly four years.

Day 1 - April 9, 2004:

My pal Rockass woke me up at 4:52 am and we had barely hit the sack some three hours earlier. Seeing his enthusiasm, I immediately kicked myself out of bed and headed for a quick shower. The bags, along with spares, flashlights etc had already been packed the night before, after a quick check up (chain slack, air filter, cables, etc.) at the mechanic's. Warming up the engines for a few minutes, we headed for the Delhi-Hapur-Moradabad highway at 6:02 am. Our destination was Binsar—a wildlife sanctuary nearly 400 km from Delhi, tucked amidst the hills of Kumaon in Uttaranchal. After crossing the outer limits of Delhi, I fell into a steady cruise at around 75-80 kph. Traffic was minimal in the morning hour and I intended to make up time as long as the four-lane highways lasted. But Rock lagged behind, and I had to slow down for him to catch up. He was already on slow cruise mode and doing 60 kph enjoying the morning sounds and smells along the highway. I egged him on and we decided to step up the pace a bit and ripped across the Hapur by-pass. It was smooth sailing for some time along the highway, and we were doing speeds of up to 95 kph till the road turned to two lanes. But it was still very good, and we were doing about 80 kph crossing lot of vacationers in Delhi-registered vehicles headed for the hills. At 7:30 am, we took our first break for breakfast at a roadside dhaba. The aloo paranthas were delicious and after a cup of tea and a smoke, we set off again. At around 10 am, near Moradabad, we were held up at a level crossing for nearly 20 minutes, all vehicular traffic making way for two goods trains to pass. Here, holidayers looked at us with curiosity, and some started off with the usual queries: How much do the bikes cost, what's the mileage, where we were headed for, etc. From Rampur to Kathgodam, the road takes on a new face. It's a straight stretch of smooth road paved by eucalyptus and other trees on both sides. And we revved up the engines, sometimes touching even 95 kph, leaving all the holidayers far behind at the level crossing.

In the hills

From Haldwani, we got the first views of the hills on the horizon, but they were closer than we expected. Right after Kathgodam (12 noon), the hills started abruptly and it took only a couple of bends for us to fall into rhythm. The Thunderbirds ( Royald Enfield Thunderbird A350) were performing beautifully, as if they were born to take on the twists and turns of the hills. Even on a slightly steep gradient we were cruising comfortably, negotiating the turns in third and fourth. All traffic left behind, it was only the green canopy welcoming us, the cool mountain air refreshing on our faces. The Kumaon hills are quite unlike the hills of Himachal. They are lush, with lots of tropical undergrowth in various shapes and hues till you ascend and hit the altitude where the pines start. We were on the highway that goes to Nainital and Ranikhet—popular hill stations in the Kumaon hills. After half an hour, we took a break at a tea shop on a turn in the hills. Washed up, had tea and biscuits and fastened our bags. The air was cool, so I took out my jacket. Twenty minutes later, we resumed, again overtaking all the small cars and buses as we climbed up through the hills. But further up, the road forks, the left turn leading towards Nainital and the other one leading towards Almora. This was my first visit to this part of the country and I'd no idea what lay in store for us. Traffic disappeared completely on the road to Almora (all those cars and buses were probably heading for Nainital) and the vegetation changed color almost in harmony. The green canopy made way for pines and before we realized, we were in the middle of a pine forest. This time of the year, the pines take on a very different hue. Everywhere, the mountain slopes were golden brown and we were in the middle of a golden brown heaven. It was too much of a sight to just ride through, so we decided to take a break. The forest floor was covered with golden brown pine leaves and we parked the bikes on the roadside and lit up, taking in the glory of the surroundings. The mountain on the far side, however, was in sharp contrast, glowing bright green and yellow in the afternoon sunshine. From there, it was a spectacular ride through pine forests, mountains and valleys as we crossed Bhowali, and then Khairna. Throughout this stretch, traffic was down to a trickle and we took in the majestic beauty of the hills, as we crossed the valleys on our motorcycles. It was a different music, that of the soft thumping of the machines together with the sights, smells and sounds of the forests with the cool breeze on our faces. We did not have to talk to each other. We were just taking in the grandeur, with grins plastered on our faces. From Khairna, we travelled a few kilometers along a valley and then suddenly the road turned to a steep climb up a mountain. We could see the rooftops of Almora on top of another mountain on the far side. Finally, at 2:45 pm, after nearly nine hours on the road, we reached Almora, and decided to stop for lunch. Almora is like any other hill station frequented by tourists from across the country. Honeymooners, families, and carloads of youngsters thronged the narrow streets as we thumped through the busy street in the market. Locating a decent-looking eating house, we ordered lunch, and washed up waiting earnestly for the food to arrive. After the meal, where we devoured everything like starved lions, both of us set out to refuell the cycles. R.A. picked up a bottle of vodka to keep us company for the night and to soothe our tired limbs. Crossing Almora, we cruised through pines on the ledge of a mountain, with a dense jungle following us on our right and pines donning the slope on the left. This is 'real' big cat country and the jungles sure looked like a place panthers and leopards would favor. After all, this is "Man-eaters of Kumaon" country. We left the sights and sounds of Almora behind, thumping along the mountain. At places, it was disheartening to see the massive deforestation taking place, human habitat encroaching on the home of birds and beasts. A few kilometers away, we crossed Kasardevi, today a settlement of 21st century backpackers, but otherwise the home of the 6th century Kasardevi temple. After a couple of bends in the mountains, we crossed Kaparkhan, a small hill town, bustling with election fever. Just a few hundred meters from Kaparkhan, we left all civilization behind and started ascending another pine forest. It was the same golden-brown hue glinting in the evening sun everywhere and the machines were taking on the turns with ease. A couple of kilometers through twists and turns through the pines, we again encountered some young men, carrying flags of a political party on two-wheelers. There were a couple of shops towards the right and we carried on, going slightly downhill through the pines on both sides. Minutes later, Rock started hollering at me while I was busy trying to shoot from my cameraphone with one hand while trying to steer the bike with the other. We had left the turn for Binsar behind us!

Binsar, Call of the Wild

So, we turned back and reached a clearing in the pines. There was a forest check gate with a small teashop and we had to register ourselves at the gate. It was an 11-kilometer climb from there and after enquiries I realized there were no telephones at the GMVN guesthouse inside the sanctuary. There were no signals on the cell phones, so I had to turn back to Kaparkhan to make that one important call announcing our safe arrival. Oh well! Rock wasn't too happy to wait for me at the gate, but I HAD to go. The ride up to Binsar was again, in one word, breathtaking! We crossed the turn to Khali Estate, a private guesthouse a kilometer up from the main gate and started climbing up the pine mountain.

The air became cooler and gradually the pines gave away to a dense jungle. It was past five in the evening and the thick undergrowth with the dense canopy above cast shadows on the chrome as we thumped ahead. Riding in the mountains throw up new surprises at every turn. And honking at corners is one way of letting anybody else know of approaching traffic. But being in a wildlife sanctuary and without encountering a single vehicle, I decided not to honk at all. With the engines kicking up the racket anyway, I didn't want the sound of the horn to disturb any wild animals if they were in the vicinity. But that decision taught me a valuable lesson. The road to Binsar is quite narrow and on a particularly steep turn I was taking a right turn, which was nearly at ninety degrees. The small truck coming downhill was almost on top of me when I saw it at the last moment. The driver braked hard and I braked hard, stopping only a couple of feet before the truck. Thank heavens for the disk brake! Those steep 11 kilometers took us up, up and up to 2,300 meters and suddenly we saw the lone guesthouse in a clearing on top of the hill. It was almost filled to capacity and we were lucky to find a room at all. The guesthouse has a terrace on the edge of the hill, which gave us a spectacular view of the greater Himalayas. The entire range encompassing the Nanda Ghungti, Nanda Devi, Trishul and the Panchchuli group of peaks were glinting on the horizon in the evening sun. While we were out on the terrace, storm clouds appeared out of nowhere and there was a brief thundershower lasting only a couple of minutes. Even though it was raining there, we could still see the sunshine on the distant peaks. There were quite a few tourists crowding the terrace and the last thing we wanted was a group of noisy people around us. After unloading the bikes and checking in, both of us headed towards the highest point in Binsar on Rock's bike with me riding pillion. Just out of the gates, and after a turn in the forest, there was a wild animal on the road. I thought it was a fox and it was quite bewildered seeing the two of us and started darting in a zig zag fashion across the road. Getting closer, we discovered it was a deer and it darted off up the dense mountain. We were heading for Zero Point and it's a 2 km ride through the dense forests along a dusty trail. The rains washed up the dirt and there was only a hint of mud as we rode through the trail, me teasing R.A. about tigers appearing out of nowhere and bears giving us company at Zero Point. Zero Point is a tiny clearing in the middle of the jungle perched atop a hill. There's a small concrete shelter where we spotted some animal droppings and a steel rickety watchtower with a sign warning tourists to climb it with caution. We climbed up the tower, Rockass trying to roll a smoke in the icy cold wind. It was really really cold up there and the view was absolutely out of this world. Towards the west, the sun disappeared behind some clouds and southwards we could spot some rooftops of Almora and below us, far far below, on another hill facing north, were the tiny bungalows of Khali Estate. The northern horizon held the faint shape of the snow peaks that we had seen earlier in the sunshine. With the approaching dusk already casting shadows over us, we headed back towards the guesthouse with the headlight on through the forest. We bought a detailed road map of Uttaranchal from the front desk and retired to our room, spending the entire evening poring over the map in candlelight. Dinner was strictly vegetarian and there was no electricity, evidence of the state government's promotion of eco-tourism.

Day 2, April 10, 2004

I was up by 5:40 am, even though the guys at the guesthouse promised to wake everyone up with tea in bed for the sunrise. It was really cold and the double blankets we were using made up for it, but getting out of bed proved to be a big problem. Rock missed the sunrise in bed, and I went out to check the bike and ask for some tea. In the meantime, we washed up, packed our bags, cleaned the bikes and checked the chains, cables and tires and had tea outside in the early morning sunshine by the bikes. At 6:58 am, we were out of Binsar. We'd decided to keep riding towards Bageshwar, then Baijnath and Karnprayag. We'd no idea how long it will take. And the guy at the front office at Binsar dropped his jaw. "But that's in Garhwal! It'll take you a long long time," he had said. It was chilly, and Rock was teasing me about shivering, saying, "It's all in the mind." It was cold, riding through that jungle without even a hint of sunlight, and a couple of kilometers down I took out my sweatshirt and my leather gloves. Still couldn't figure out how Rockass was managing. The ride that morning would prove to be one of the most memorable ones in the entire trip.

Misty mountains

Getting out of the sanctuary, we were following the road to Bageshwar, crossing mountains filled with pines and little hamlets on the way. After what seemed like four mountains, we reached a valley filled with stepped green paddy fields on the other side glinting bright green in the sunshine. We crossed that valley and rode around some high pine mountains. It was a great feeling. Riding on the mountains in the early morning air is the most exhilarating experience that one can have. There was a nip in the air, the golden rays of the morning sun peeking through the pines, as we thumped along. The 18 horses under that tank needed no prodding and we were sailing across the mountains, foot pegs scraping the tarmac on the bends. Suddenly, after a couple of bends on the dark side of the mountain, we were headed down a steep incline, facing the sun and the green rooftop of a bungalow peering out from below the trees. I was wondering who built that bungalow in the middle of this big beautiful valley. Closing in, we discovered it was a Club Mahindra resort with a row of Delhi-registered cars parked out front. The resort itself is at the southwestern end of a long wide valley filled with lush grass and a small stream running through it. Two little children were playing outside and a lady looked up from her book as we thumped by. The beginning of the valley was a place called Bansoli, and we meandered along villages running on both sides of the valley. On the far side, we could see a column of misty smoke rising through the rays of the morning sun. This was quite below Binsar and the entire valley was flat, almost like the plains, except for the mountains on the sides and the twisty road curving along the mountain on the right. Further down, we reached a village. It was 8:15 am and we decided to stop for breakfast. Here, Rockass decided that he was feeling cold too and took out his jacket and gloves. I was wondering where "it's all in the mind" got lost. We both started chuckling. A kilometer or two later, we approached the end of the valley, wondering what lay across that bend in the mountain. It would prove to be another pleasant surprise. The Himalayas never fail to amaze me, at what each turn, each valley and each peak can throw at you. It's a discovery after every other kilometer that you travel through and the curiosity of just what lay across that bend, that mountain, that grove of trees is what I guess were driving us along. That turn took us down a steep steep mountain, again through a thick pine forest, then up another pine mountain and across it. We again reached a valley, and stopped for a smoke just at the foot of the mountain that we had just crossed. It was around 9:30 in the morning and we took out the map, and sat down under the gaze of the Trishul peering at us from the northern horizon. At 10, we reached the holy town of Bageshwar, situated at the confluence of the Saryu, Gomti and the Bhagirathi rivers. The town was bustling with activity as we crossed the Gomti across a narrow bridge. We carried on along the north bank of the river, on a newly constructed road at the foot of the mountains. It was a smooth road, and for the first time that morning, we hit the fifth gear, going up to speeds of 65-70 kph. We had to cross Gwaldham 40 km away where Kumaon ends and Garhwal starts, to reach the main highway from Karnprayag to Rudraprayag. The entire 40 kilometers to Gwaldham is along a valley as we crossed Baijnath, the temple town on the banks of the Gomti. From Baijnath, the road forks left to Kausani 17 km from there and right to Gwaldham, again on top of another mountain. The air turned cooler as we climbed up to Gwaldham, the Trishul and another peak accompanying us on the right throughout the journey. We decided to have a cup of tea, but didn't want to stop in the middle of the market. So we moved on down the pine-laden mountain and as we slowed down a bend between two mountains, we spotted the perfect teashop. It was more of a wooden shack and two teenagers seemed to be the only occupants. They put up a pan on the fire as we sat on a rock just behind, admiring the splendid view. The place, we were told, is called Taal and remains snowbound in winter. Karnaprayag was still a good 55 kilometers away and we bid adieu to the boys at the tea shop, promising to come by again sometime. From here, we were alone, passing the occasional jeep as the road curved across some tall mountains, sometimes narrowing down to a deep gorge, the waters of the Pindar a deep turquoise inviting us from down below. We crossed Simli and then reached Karnprayag. The map showed us a shortcut to Khirsu, where we intended to spend the night, through Dhanpur. Enquiries at Karnaprayag revealed that the road from Dhanpur onwards is still under construction and would take us a good many hours to reach Khirsu. So we decided to take the highway through Rudraprayag, Srinagar and then Pauri.

The long and winding road

Karnaprayag is at the confluence of the Pindari and the Alaknanda, and is situated on the main Rishikesh-Badrinath highway. The town itself was bustling with tourists and pilgrims probably heading towards Badrinath or headed back when we reached. It was already past 3 pm and we were beginning to feel hungry. But we decided to move on from the crowded market to look for a place to eat on the highway. For the first time that day, we encountered city traffic—cars, jeeps and buses heading northwards. The road itself was quite good - wide open and curving across the mountains. Sometime later, we crossed Rudraprayag, but still we couldn't find a decent place to eat. The highway to Badrinath is one of the best mountain roads we have encountered, though at places it was still being constructed. At around 4:40 pm, we stopped by a dhaba, but discovered there was nothing available to eat. I put the bike on the side stand and took off my helmet for a quick wash and a drink. But just a couple of bends later it was all dusty, two bulldozers removing boulders from the highway, holding up traffic on both sides. Five minutes later we encountered another construction site, where the road was ragged, rocks jutting out of the surface while bulldozers removed the large boulders. A few kilometers downhill we again encountered a horribly bad patch of road, jagged rocks jutting out of the surface. Both of us were covered with dust and sweat and pangs of hunger drove me crazy. We were negotiating a steep bend on the dusty highway, Rock in front of me, when an Enfield appeared out of nowhere. The rider waved me to pull over and a moment later he was joined by another Enfield. We parked the bikes, exchanged pleasantries and experiences. Both the riders work for the BPO industry and were headed for a place called Chopta. They were both in their early 20s and introduced themselves as the " Hell Riders". We clicked photographs and after a smoke, parted ways. Just a few minutes after meeting the Hell Riders, the road broadened out and turned super silky smooth. I couldn't help chuckling at the thought that meeting the Hell Riders showed us the way to heavenly roads. Both of us ripped from then on, touching 70-75 kph on that highway along the Alaknanda working its way down through the mountains. We reached Srinagar at around 5 in the evening and stopped at a tea stall and ordered bread and omelets. After a half-hour break, we headed for Khirsu. From Srinagar, we took a left turn towards Pauri, the main highway heading on towards Devprayag and Rishikesh. It was another steep climb from Srinagar and the sun was beginning to head towards the western horizon, bathing the mountains with its golden rays. Pauri was the old headquarters of British Garhwal and the town is like any other hill station. Tourists flocking the streets and weekend traffic from the plains, though the town itself is situated on a high mountain. Two guys on a Hero Honda tried to speed with Rock, but couldn't keep up with the Enfield on the steep ascent to Khirsu. I was following behind and the look on their faces was amusing when I overtook them effortlessly in the third gear. The road to Khirsu was another surprise, and as we crossed over to another mountain, the sun was setting on the horizon. We stopped for a quick photo session and carried on to the GMVN guesthouse where we intended to spend the night. The 10 odd kilometers were thickly wooded after crossing some pines and brought back memories of Binsar. At exactly 6:45 pm we reached the GMVN guesthouse, perched on the northern slope of a mountain, with views of the peaks in the distance. There was a lawn out in the front and a couple of families were lounging out on the chairs. Rock met an acquaintance from Delhi, who'd come there with his family and was amazed to hear about our ride. The rooms at the guesthouse were all occupied and unfortunately, some schoolboys had also booked the dormitory. We were stuck without a place to sleep, with the only option of heading back to Pauri. But one of the workers at the guesthouse told us about a private guesthouse just a few hundred meters away and on enquiries, we found out that there were rooms available there. The guy we met invited us later to join him and his friends for a drink and we agreed. But reaching the guesthouse, we felt too tired to again venture out and socialize. I had a bath with hot water and both of us poured drinks on the verandah. Food was absolutely delicious and after a couple of hours we hit the sack.

Day 3, April 11, 2004

At quarter to six in the morning, I was up and asked for hot water, while Rock snored away. I had a cup of tea, ordered for breakfast and cleaned the bike. After a bath, we had aloo paranthas and curd for breakfast, washed down by a cup of steaming tea. At 8:20 am, we hit the road. The route we had decided to take was to take us through Bubakhal just before Pauri and then on to Peepalpani, Satpuli and Gumkhal. From Bubakhal, it was a descent as we curved through the mountains, the morning mist hanging heavy along the far valleys. Then we rode along a mountain, the road first snaking up and then snaking down through a valley, as we crossed the few vehicles on the way. The route we were taking was supposed to be relatively quiet compared to the heavy traffic on the Rishikesh-Haridwar highway and it didn't disappoint us. I was leading and maintaining a speed of between 45-55 kph and on a straight stretch, zipped up to 70 kph. We crossed the Jwalpadevi temple and then crossed a small river, taking the right turn on the other bank towards Satpuli. The road from Jwalpadevi to Satpuli was just amazing. It was along a valley, with virtually no traffic at all and sometimes small mountain creeks flowed across the road on the bends. There was the smell of wildflowers in the air as we thumped on. Satpuli is an important town in Pauri-Garhwal and tucked amidst high mountains in a valley. As soon as we crossed the bus stop, the road turned wider and climbed up a steep descent. This was one of the steepest climbs on the whole trip and we were on top of a magnificent mountain, with fields and villages hundreds of feet down below on the valley. The road itself was being constructed at some places, but on the whole quite broad and smooth. We crossed Gumkhal and were amazed at a village on top of a steep mountain. Houses dotted the steep southern side of the mountain. Only a few meters away from the mountain we were traveling on. It was quite an extraordinary village with houses on top of another on the mountain, going down several hundred feet down below to the valley. From Gumkhal, the road forks, one goes towards Rishikesh and the other towards Kotdwar. We took the turn to Kotdwar and after a couple of kilometers noticed the turn to Lansdowne, the headquarters of the Garhwal Regiment. The road to Lansdowne was another experience, much like the pine forests we encountered two days ago in Kumaon. The town itself is a small one, mainly of military installations and buildings. The "55 Holidays in the Hills" we had carried with us indicated a petrol pump at Lansdowne and both of us were dangerously low on fuel. But we realized at the town square that there were no petrol pumps in Lansdowne!

Riding the hot plains

It was nearly 12 and we decided to leave Lansdowne and head for Kotdwar. The road to Dugadda at the foothills from Lansdowne was filled with holidayers in jeeps, cars and some even on motorcycles. Once in the foothills, we ripped through the curves on the newly paved tarmac. I was already on reserve and was praying for the sight of a petrol pump in the vicinity. We crossed two, but they both had only diesel. Finally in Kotdwar, we filled up the tanks, and without wasting any time, headed for Bijnor and then Delhi. The heat hit us as soon as we reached Kotdwar, but it got worse as we rode across the plains towards Bijnor. Both of us had only one aim—to reach home as soon as possible. The worst part of the entire trip was the ride from Bijnor to Delhi through Meerut. There's no bypass if one's coming from Bijnor towards Meerut and the afternoon traffic at Meerut really hit us hard. It took us nearly an hour to cross Meerut through the chaotic traffic. We were drained and after crossing Meerut, took a short break by a roadside dhaba. Then we ripped across the highway, crossing many small cars and other two wheelers, finally reaching home at 5:25 in the evening. We were exhausted, limbs aching and eyes rolling shut. But it was well worth it. 1089 kilometres in three days across Kumaon-Garhwal—not a bad start. Later that night, as I hit the bed, random thoughts crossed my mind, most of them, dreams about where to go next. Certainly, there's only one better way to explore the country —riding a steel horse from the Royal Enfield stable.

For other travel stories with photos, please check out Bora's site at http://boracho.fotopic.net/.



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