“ I got interested in the event mainly because of its name,’’ Kabir Rachure said.
He was talking of the annual Borrego Springs WTTC (World Time Trial Championships) held in the settlement of Borrego Springs in San Diego County, California. Both “ world’’ in the name and the fact that the event is a time trial, attracted. ` World’ had a ring of quality and things to learn from. As for time trial – it is all about speed, an attribute associated more with the shorter sprint disciplines in cycling and not, ultra-cycling.
A two-time finisher in Race Across America (RAAM) and a regular podium finisher at ultra-cycling events in India, Kabir’s forte is endurance. Ultra-cyclists are not usually associated with speed. But speed does play a role in ultra-cycling for both finishing races within stipulated cut-off time and the higher ground of emerging a podium finisher, demand speed from ultra-cyclist. It isn’t the same speed as showcased by sprint cyclist in a velodrome; it is the stuff of higher average speed maintained for long, which is still the stuff of speed. “ It is like comparing Usain Bolt and Eliud Kipchoge. Bolt may be the fastest. But Kipchoge is not only running fast; he is also doing that for 42 kilometres,’’ Kabir said, outlining the paradigm, which drew him to Borrego Springs in early November 2022 for the annual WTTC. Or to cite an example from within the world of ultra-cycling, think of the Austrian great, Christoph Strasser, winner of RAAM multiple times and current record holder for the fastest completion of the 4800 kilometre-race – seven days, 15 hours, and 56 minutes, set in 2014. That’s speed; sustained.
Closer to ultra-cyclist’s interests, the WTTC at Borrego Springs tests endurance because its categories span six, 12 and 24 hours of cycling in the time trial format. Such long hours of pedalling fast represent a sweet spot, showcasing both speed and endurance. Not surprisingly, the WTTC Borrego Springs also serves as a RAAM-qualifier. “ If you cover 400 miles in 24 hours, you get a certificate that lets you participate in RAAM,’’ Kabir said. The Navi Mumbai-based cyclist reached Borrego Springs registered for the 24 hour-time trial competition and nursing a goal of covering 720-750 kilometres in the assigned time. Kabir knew what he would be up against. “ I didn’t want to fight anyone leading the race. Some of the racers had done more than 800 kilometres at such competitions before,’’ he said. His intention was more in line with discovering his capabilities and finding out where he stood in a competitive field.
The event was held on a loop of 29 kilometres. It had one stop sign and no traffic signals. Notwithstanding the lone stop sign, cyclists participating in the WTTC were given priority by the authorities so that they could go about accumulating loops. In fact, the whole town appeared supportive of the event. Kabir recalled traffic making room for the cyclists and accommodating them on the road. The weather was helpful; prevailing temperatures were not high. And unlike in RAAM, where the scale of the course is huge and cyclists are often separated from each other by considerable distance, in Borrego Springs, the loop of 29 kilometres kept the sense of community compact and permitted social interaction among the participating cyclists.
Kabir reached California a week in advance to ensure he recovered well from the jet lag of a long trip. He had a small support team, his sister Sapana and Rutvik; and two bicycles to tackle the time trial – a proper TT bike (the Spiegel Diablo) and a road bike (the Spiegel San Marino). Once in Borrego Springs, he cycled on the 29 kilometre-loop multiple times to get used to the surface, get an idea of the gradients, and understand which segments demanded effort and where it would be possible to save energy. Knowing the course was critical because the road’s texture included sand and scree. There was the need to try out both bikes, different pieces of equipment and figure out the optimum configurations. Given the race was scheduled to start at 5PM and continue for 24 hours, cyclist would be required to manage his passage through changing weather conditions. The right attire and how layering should be managed – these had to be worked out. He essayed five rides on the course to find out the combinations that would work well for him. From a few days prior to the race, he started to consume only safe and familiar foods to minimize the chances of any health disorders.
On race day, the TT went off largely alright for Kabir. He used the TT bike for the first 12 hours and the road bike for the remaining period. It made sense because although the TT bike is designed for speed, the riding posture on it is aggressive and therefore tough to sustain for extended durations. To the credit of both bicycles and their maintenance, Kabir faced no mechanical problems during the TT. “ There was not even a flat tyre,’’ he said. Towards the later stages of the TT, Kabir developed some knee pain. But he felt that 700 kilometres was within reach. Past 22 hours, the riders were shifted to a shorter loop built for speed with no gradients. Given the knee pain, Kabir decided not to push aggressively and play conservatively instead. Eventually, Kabir covered 428.4 miles (689.44 kilometres) at an average speed of 18 miles per hour (28.9 kilometres per hour). in the 24-hour category, Kabir finished twelfth out of 90 participants overall. Within the solo male category, he placed eighth in a field of 52. In his age group of 30-39 years, he placed fourth. “ I wasn’t happy with the mileage achieved because I felt that more than 700 kilometres was possible,’’ he said. The overall winner of the competition was Philipp Kaider of Austria; he covered 531.6 miles (855.53 kilometres) at an average speed of 22.5 miles per hour (36.21 kilometres per hour). Kabir is currently weighing the options of repeating RAAM in 2023. While there is always the challenge of improving his performance at RAAM, his body has been craving for rest. “ I may elect to take a break,’’ he said about his plans for RAAM. But he confirmed that a return to Borrego Springs attracts.
Kabir was not aware of a time trial similar to that of Borrego Springs – one that combines long hours, speed and endurance on a loop – in India. Asked if such an event would be helpful for the growing community of endurance cyclists in the country, Kabir said it would be. The big challenge according to him, is the Indian environment. There is heavy traffic and rising pollution. Borrego Springs appeared a community that appreciated the cycling in its midst. For the WTTC, the road used was a normal one (which authorities repaired and spruced up ahead of the annual race) and traffic was not suspended. What was noteworthy was how traffic accommodated the cyclists and gave them the space to cycle as part of the WTTC. In other words, these are vignettes from lands where the active lifestyle is not an exception to the rule but is part of everyday life or the very stuff of life. It is how people define existence. It is paradigms of this sort and imagination therein, which then dream up races and contests including RAAM and the Borrego Springs WTTC.
Ultrarunning in India has its share of races held in stadiums. Encouraged so, Indian ultrarunners and teams of ultrarunners have since done well in continental championships in the 24 hour-category. For a six-hour, 12-hour or 24 hour-TT of the Borrego Springs sort to be held in India, cycling needs a loop at the intersection of acceptable surface quality and supportive weather. “ In July 2021, when Christoph Strasser became the first person to ride more than 1000 kilometres in 24 hours, he did that on a course at an air force base in Austria,’’ Kabir said. In India, there are racetracks used for motoring that aren’t optimally used. They could be freed up for a few days for an annual TT event provided the loop is not so small that it enables drafting (tucking in behind a competitor to escape wind resistance) by cyclists. At events like Borrego Springs, drafting is not allowed. Those are however finer details. The fundamental question is – do we want such races?
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The results quoted from the Borrego Springs WTTC are as published on the event’s website.)