(June 28, 2022) Many eyebrows were raised when 48-year-old Dhruv Bogra took a two-year-sabbatical from corporate life to cycle across the Pan-American highway. The disapproval didn’t deter the Delhi-based Dhruv from his solo, unsupported expedition, which began with his Surly Troll cycle in June 2016 at Deadhorse in Alaska and stretched on to Cusco in Peru. What many called a “crazy decision” turned out to be a “beautiful journey” for this adventure cyclist, who found his purpose and calling in the 500-day ride across 15 countries.
“I was on a journey of exploring the world and myself. For me, it was a chance to break away from the cast we are born with. Not as a rebel, but to see that there is more to the world,” says the man whose quest was to explore the world on a bicycle. “I knew this couldn’t be done in a car. A cycle was the best way to soak in the rawness of it all,” the 53-year-old tells Global Indian. The 18-month, 15,000-km journey led to his first book Grit, Gravel, and Gear in 2019, turning this corporate man into an author and a motivational speaker.
Love for adventure
Born in Simla in 1968 to a fauji dad, adventure was Dhruv’s way of life even as a child. From following a jawan patrolling a minefield to climbing a 30 ft high post with a ladder, Dhruv never missed a chance to explore. This thirst for the unknown took him to Borhat in Assam for his first job with Tata Tea. “I did my History Honours from Sri Venkateswara College in Delhi and wasn’t keen to work in the city. So, I ended up in a small village in Assam which was called kala paani district,” laughs Dhruv who would ride 35-km just to make a phone call. He was 21 and took the job “without a second thought” but soon felt the itch. With limited access to music, books, and television, he decided to pack his bags and return to the city life in search of “mental stimulation.”
In Delhi, Dhruv dove into the corporate world with a sales job. “Those were the early days of globalisation and the defining years in retail,” Dhruv recalls. He worked with global brands like Loreal, Levis, Adidas and Vero Moda, “meeting 45 retailers every day. We were caught up with growing the big brands and saw ourselves as pioneers, building a new India. We didn’t have the luxury of pursuing our own goals,” says Dhruv, who currently serves as the country head for Forever New. In the bargain, his love for the outdoors and adventure took a backseat for almost 15 years.
Existential crisis led to soul calling
After decades of being neck-deep in work, Dhruv bought a mountain bike in 2011, trained for 10 months and did his first big expedition from Manali to Leh. “That trip was a point of inflection for me. Riding 500 km for 10 days, I was mostly alone. It felt like vipassana. Oxygen levels were so low, I would hallucinate. It felt like the wind was talking to me (like in The Alchemist),” says Dhruv who says that the masterpiece by Paulo Coelho played a pivotal role in his life.
“I had these mini, existential breakdowns where I wondered, ‘what’s the purpose of life?’ That trip played a catalyst in shifting my mindset,” adds Dhruv who later went on cycling expeditions to Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Realising that he had completed one of the toughest road journeys in his 40s, he started pushing his boundaries. “My dreams got bolder.” Meeting two Russian cyclists who were on a month-long trip through India nudged him in the right direction.
Gearing for the epic trip
Dhruv returned to his corporate life with new zeal. “It was a means to make an end. I wanted to work hard to fund my trips. After my daughter graduated and got a job in the US, I could think of travelling boldly,” he says. He considered the Trans-Siberian highway, Egypt to South Africa and Pan Europe – before settling on the Pan-American Highway, drawn to “the diversity of culture and terrain. Also, no other Indian had done this road before.”
With 15,000 km to go and 24 months in his hand, he began preparations for the most epic trip of his life. “It’s you, your bicycle and almost 40 kg of gear – water, food, fuel, a stove, light and repairing tools.” There’s no crash course for something like this, but as far as Dhruv was concerned, he had been training for years, “without even knowing I was going to do this one day.” His previous expeditions gave him the fortitude he needed – physically, mentally, and psychologically. He also read every book he found that gave him an insight into the trip, learning everything from how to stay clear of bears to fighting wolves. “Theoretically, I was prepared and knew I could put it to practical use if the need arose. I’m glad I never got attacked by an animal,” laughs Dhruv. Procuring the gear took a year, including importing bike parts from England and Germany which were assembled in Bengaluru.
“Now we have stores like Decathlon but in 2016, I had to outsource almost everything as nothing was readily available in India. Planning and sourcing gear took a year,” says the adventurer. Visas and health insurance for 15 countries took six months. Packing was a challenge – he would experience a range of weather conditions, from Canada’s cold terrain to the hot, tropical weather in Central America. Food and clothing, potential logistical nightmares were sorted when he discovered he could place an order on Amazon US and get it shipped to any post office around the world, which will hold the product for three months. Food was lentils and rice, but he survived mostly on dried meat, cheese, peanut butter, bread, and oats.
Getting a handle on the challenges
Friends, family and colleagues didn’t respond favourably when Dhruv announced his two-year sabbatical from corporate life. There were detractors at home – his father thought he was “going through menopause,” Dhruv laughs. “My friends thought I was crazy to throw it all away on a crazy expedition. Our work culture doesn’t support people taking a break to follow their dreams. But it was my opportunity to re-connect with myself. I knew I would find the answer along the way, that the Universe would guide me.” At 48, he didn’t feel he was “endangering” his career and made peace with the possible outcomes. He was going to explore the world.
During those 18 months on the road, which cost him ₹24 lakh, Dhruv met kindred souls from diverse cultures. “People opened up fast, and reached out to me.” However, the journey came with more than its share of challenges – extreme elevations, unpredictable weather, and food. “Only 2500-km out of the 15,000 km trip was flat terrain. And the weather played havoc. Some days were rainy and cold, others hot and humid. The extreme weather changes can play with you psychologically too,” Dhruv explains. For months after his return, he suffered from inflamed joints, the “scars he carried from his journey.”
A magical journey
The two-year journey culminated unexpectedly in 18 months in Peru, where Dhruv had what he calls a “sort of divine experience” in Urubamba. “I could see Mt Chicon on one side and a river on the other, and I was the only soul on a stretch of road that disappeared into the horizon. That moment was magical, I broke down and was inconsolable for 15 minutes. It felt like I belonged to this place.” It was the epiphany he had been waiting for and he didn’t need to go any further. “Strangely, Urubamba wasn’t even in the plan,” he says.
The trip made Dhruv realise the importance of living with a purpose. “It helped me evolve as a person. It made me aware of nature and helped me embrace adventure as a part of life,” says the cyclist who launched his book Grit, Gravel and Gear in April 2019. “I wanted people to know about these places and to talk about climate change, indigenous tribes, different cultures and nature. I wanted people to understand the joy of doing, and the importance of not waiting.” The trip added new aspects to his personality. “I now help people find their purpose. I use my knowledge to shape their lives,” smiles the motivational speaker who is gearing up for a short bike expedition to the Western Ghats in July and has his sights set on a trip to Norway and Iceland. However, he warns people not to do anything dramatic to experience freedom. “Do whatever excites you, even if it’s as small as taking a walk in the nature. Take time to reconnect with yourself. Solitude can work wonders. Try it,” he signs off.
Dhruv tells you how to make the Pan-American Highway journey:
1. Train adequately, and unsupported, in simulated conditions of extreme terrain like grave roads, high altitude and harsh climatic conditions (snow, rain heat, humidity).
2. Test yourself, camping system, the ruggedness of the bicycle and other equipment in these varied conditions especially cooking systems, water filtration, the tent and cold weather clothing.
3. Incorporate seasonal weather changes and variations in climate across continents into the planning for clothing and gear which should be light, minimalistic and high on technical performance.
4. Items like a can of bear spray, high pitch whistle, solar charger, paper maps, Garmin Inreach Messenger, a good water filter, storm proof matches, hunting knife, tinder to light a fire, high quality tarp, can save your life.
5. World Travel Insurance should include repatriation of remains in case of demise.
6. Border crossings on road by bicycle in Central America are risky even though covered with a treaty by India. For cycling through Central America check with the embassy in India.
7. Carry two phones, world traveller debit card, limited cash hidden in secret places on the bike.
You can read more about Dhruv’s journey in his book Grit, Gravel and Gear