Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) has entered its final phase.

It is poised to see its first finisher in the next couple of weeks.

By the second week of January 2019, of 18 skippers at the start of the race, only five remained in the main race. Of them, four – Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, Mark Slats, Uku Randmaa and Istvan Kopar – were back in the Atlantic having sailed that much around the world.

As per updates on the race website, 73 year old-French skipper Jean-Luc Van Den Heede sailing Matmut, a Rustler 36 Masthead sloop, was in the lead. He was followed by Dutch skipper Mark Slats with Uku Randmaa (Estonia) and Istvan Kopar (USA) trailing him in that order.

Both Van Den Heede and Slats – the two are incidentally sailing identical Rustler 36 yachts; Slat’s boat is called The Ohpen Maverick – were at latitudes corresponding to North Africa on the map. At one point in the race, the French skipper held a massive lead of more than 2000 nautical miles over his nearest competitor. That has since declined. Media reports said that Van Den Heede damaged his mast in a storm; the boat got tilted badly and in the process the mast took a beating resulting in slackened rigging. Although he made temporary repairs at sea and avoided diverting to Valparaiso in Chile for repairs ashore (which would have shifted him from the main race to the Chichester class assigned for those availing one stop), he has had to subsequently proceed in a more measured fashion. Later, he served an 18 hour-penalty for improper use of satellite phone and has also had to put up with a windless, calm sea in the North Atlantic. Thanks to all this, Slats has been closing the gap.  Checked on January 11, 2019, distance to finish (DTF), for Van Den Heede was 1943.5 nautical miles. For Slats, it was 2133.9 nautical miles.

The 2018 GGR began July 1 from Les Sables-d’Olonne, a seaside town in western France. The race involves solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat with technology aboard participating vessels pegged at levels which prevailed in the first GGR of 1968.

The 1968 GGR had only one finisher – Sir Robin Knox Johnston of UK in the India-built Suhaili. It was the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat. Sir Robin completed his journey in 312 days. Compared to this, Van Den Heede and Slats were at their earlier mentioned positions in the North Atlantic by the 194th day (as per GGR website) of the race. Van Den Heede holds the current world record for single-handed westabout circumnavigation. According to information on Wikipedia, the westward route for circumnavigation is harder as it faces the dominant winds and currents. There are fewer attempts in this direction. In 2004, Van Den Heede completed this route in 122 days, 14 hours and three minutes.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on 2018 GGR please go through the blog’s list of recent posts, explore Sagar Parikrama in the categories section, visit the blog’s archives or simply scroll down to see earlier posts.)


Ion Lazarenco Tiron (This photo has been downloaded from the Facebook page of the swimmer and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended)

Ion Lazarenco Tiron of the Republic of Moldova was recently voted the 2018 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year.

The list of nominees had included Rohan Dattatrey More of India. The winners were selected by the public in a global online poll.

According to information available on the website of World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) others in the nominees list for Open Water Swimming Man of the Year  were Benoit Lecomte of France / USA, Cameron Bellamy of South Africa, Diego Lopez Dominguez of Spain, Ferry Weertman of Netherlands, Igor Lukin of Russia, John Batchelder of USA, Jose Luis Larrosa Chorro of Spain, Kristof Rasovszky of Hungary, Lewis Pugh of Great Britain / South Africa, Maarten van der Weijden of Netherlands, Ned Denison of Ireland, Vladimir Mravec of Slovakia / Australia and Yaroslav Pronin of Belarus.

The WOWSA Awards honor people who best embody the spirit of open water swimming, possess the sense of adventure, tenacity and perseverance that open water swimmers are known for, and have positively influenced the world of open water swimming. About Ion Lazarenco Tiron, the WOWSA website said: Ion planned and accomplished his first major open water swim with a 235 km Swimming Marathon Nistru – Unites Moldova charity stage swim that took 8 days – and raised lots of money and awareness for charity. He forged on and ultimately developed a massively hardened veneer and a tough mental attitude in his adopted Ireland. This year (2018), he culminated his four-year Oceans Seven journey with a successful crossing of the Cook Strait. Along the way in the midst of receiving a slew of awards in Ireland and completing an Ice Mile, he has completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming as well as crossings of the Strait of Gibraltar (4 hours 41 minutes), English Channel (13 hours 34 minutes), North Channel (16 hours 23 minutes), Catalina Channel (12 hours 1 minute), Molokai Channel (18 hours 11 minutes), Tsugaru Channel (11 hours 20 minutes) and Cook Strait (11 hours 5 minutes). He was the first person from the Republic of Moldova to achieve the Oceans Seven and completed a 100 km 3-day stage swim called the Swim of Peace in May together with Avram Iancu on the river Prut between Romania and Moldova to celebrate 100 years of unity.

Hailing from Moldova, Ion moved to Ireland in 1997. An April 2017 article by Sorcha Pollak in The Irish Times, shed light on how Ion commenced his tryst with long distance swimming. In 2011, he read about Tunisian swimmer, Nejib Belhedi, who swam the entire 1400 kilometer-long coastline of Tunisia. A maverick swimmer with many long distance swims to his credit, Belhedi is perhaps best remembered for a set of branded solo swims he created, called World Iron Swim, wherein between 2015 and 2017 he pulled boats of increasingly greater weights. In 2011, Belhedi undertook the swim along the Tunisian coastline as a call for peace not only in Tunisia but in conflict zones around the world. Moldova had experienced its share of unrest in Transnistria, a narrow strip of land between the river Dneister and Ukraine. Inspired by Belhedi’s example, Ion decided to swim the Dneister, which runs through Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea. Following this initial swim, Ion returned to Ireland and decided to pursue Oceans Seven. The first person to accomplish Oceans Seven had been Irish swimmer Stephen Redmond, in 2012.

Rohan More (left) with Ion Lazarenco Tiron (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

In February 2018, India’s Rohan Dattatrey More completed the Oceans Seven challenge. In 2017, the Pune-based endurance swimmer was selected for the year’s Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award given by the Indian government. Oceans Seven brought Rohan into contact with Ion. The two swimmers first connected on Facebook. An actual meet-up took time. When Rohan reached Ireland to swim the North Channel, he had the good fortune to train with a friend who was known to both Rohan and Ion and had been with the latter when he successfully swam the North Channel. The two swims – Rohan’s crossing of the North Channel and Ion’s – were apart by about a month.

It was in January 2018 that Rohan finally met Ion. That month, Ion had wrapped up Oceans Seven accomplishing the final swim on the list, the crossing of New Zealand’s Cook Strait. Rohan’s window of opportunity was due in February. They met on the beach at Wellington. Cook Strait separates New Zealand’s North Island and South Island; it connects the Tasman Sea to the South Pacific Ocean and runs next to Wellington. Ion shared his observations of the swim across Cook Strait. “ He guided me well,” Rohan said. Cook Strait was the last swim for Rohan too in his Oceans Seven project. “ Ion was the eighth person to accomplish Oceans Seven. I was the ninth,” Rohan said. At the time of writing, as per Wikipedia, 13 people from around the world had successfully completed Oceans Seven with Rohan being the first (and as yet only) Asian on the list.

For more on Rohan, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/07/13/rohan-more-gearing-up-for-a-new-challenge/

According to the WOWSA website, other 2018 WOWSA Awards winners included Aleksandra Bednarek of Poland as the World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year, the Great British Swim by Ross Edgley as the World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year, and Icebears  Hintertux of Austria by Josef Köberl as the 2018 World Open Water Offering of the Year. Incidentally, among those nominated for World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year, was Nejib Belhedi.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Divya Tate (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As of 2019, Divya Tate’s company – Inspire India – was organizing three annual events in long distance cycling that are qualifiers for Race Across America (RAAM). She is also national representative from India for audax cycling, the culture of brevets (BRMs). Known for the events she anchors and her experience with long distance bicycle races, Divya however relates to cycling in a much wider sense.

For freelance journalist exploring the small universe of ultra-cycling in India, especially the segment dealing with brevets and races designed to serve as qualifiers for Race Across America (RAAM), it didn’t take long to notice a common intersection for several individual story lines – Divya Tate.

Three of India’s RAAM qualifiers are organized by Inspire India, the company she helms. She also oversees the India chapter of randonneuring, the sport of long distance cycling with roots in audax cycling.

Divya however is not all about cycling or sports.

Divya and children on her bicycle; from an old article that appeared in Times of India (Image: courtesy Divya Tate)

Born 1966 in Nagpur, she learnt to cycle when she was around 9-10 years of age. She recalls that her parents – her father served in the Indian Air Force (IAF) – were having a lunch party at home when that specific moment of riding her bicycle independently, arrived. “ It was euphoric,’’ she said. Cycling was part of her general love for the outdoors, something you found plenty of in life spent with the defence forces; most air force stations Divya traveled to with her family had its share of open spaces. That view of world narrowed when her father after leaving IAF joined Air India and the family shifted to Mumbai. The long shadow of roads dominated by traffic and life gone indoors in concrete jungle loomed. Worse, probably in anticipation of city life and its restrictions, her cycle was sold off. “ My access to the outdoors was lost,’’ she said. She counted her days to freedom. Once she passed out from A.F. Petit School in Bandra, she attended junior college at St Xaviers and then proceeded to study architecture at Rachana Sansad. In 1991-1992, she finally got the liberation she sought from Mumbai’s congested environment with limited access to the outdoors. She moved to Pune.

Cycling to Junnar (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

Within a few weeks, she bought herself a bicycle – a Hercules Rock Shox, a model hailing from the early generation of geared bikes sold in India. It was pretty heavy too. Mumbai life had taken its toll. “ My first ride on that bike was horrendous. I could barely cycle five kilometers and I was done,’’ Divya said. But she took to riding it regularly, the daily jaunts fueled in part by some other developments in her life. “ At this point, I was in a bad marriage,’’ she said. Besides being a source of enjoyment, cycling was also good therapy taking the mind off problems at hand and reconnecting individual with universe. She periodically took time out to ride in the countryside around Pune. These were the years preceding Internet forums and networked groups in sports. Divya was oblivious of any keenly interested leisure cyclists around. There were of course those into bicycle racing. A focused lot, their company wasn’t Divya’s cup of tea; at least then. For her, being in the saddle was invitation to take a wider view of life, contact with nature and existence restored. After her second child was born, her marriage broke up. In 1998, she called it quits on that front. “ I had to start from scratch. Cycling played a big role in helping me maintain equanimity and have a sense of resolve. I was literally in a pea-soup fog kind of situation,’’ she said. A simple contraption composed of frame on two wheels and powered by rider’s effort, the bicycle spelt independence for Divya at this financially tough juncture in her life. Her children were in kindergarten. Often, she dropped them off on her bicycle. According to her these trips on the cycle were great for parent-child bonding.  By the time they were 7-8 years old, the children too had their cycles and were spending time with Divya in the outdoors. From where she stayed in Pune, to where the roads gracing the countryside commenced, wasn’t a long way off. “ We spent much time outdoors,’’ she said.

From a bicycle tour in India (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

Interestingly, following her divorce, Divya veered off architecture. She got deeply involved with environmental work including volunteering for the purpose. Then, after a visit to a farm she cycled to Junnar and wrote about it. It was her first article getting published in the media. Environmental work, cycling, writing – it became a pattern. “ Nobody did it back then. Cycling opens up your mind. If you look at it, you will notice a link between cycling and environmental activism,’’ Divya said. Back in college, she used to make earrings out of wire and junk and sell them. Later she got around to working with mosaic. Around the time her marriage broke up, she took to mosaic work more. “ I gave up my architectural practice and took up creative work. I enjoy aesthetically pleasing work. I actually discovered that we could live and be happy on very little. A lot of people get trapped in material life,’’ she said. It wasn’t long before this exploratory streak dislodged established practices in other areas of her life. The next bastion to fall was medicine; she weaned her family off allopathic drugs. “ Eventually I was beginning to see the cracks in our educational system. We seem to make people for an industrial environment. Education was one more institution after marriage and allopathic medicines that I was disagreeing with. I ended up divorcing that too,’’ Divya said laughing.

From a trip in Europe (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

Around the time her children were in the fourth-fifth standard, she pulled them out from school. Thereafter it was homeschooling. The homeschooling community was very small those days; in Pune she could locate only two other families who had opted to do so. Divya believes that nature has wired all human beings to learn. Human beings are like sponges. It is teaching that is unnatural. “ The institution of education as we have it suffers from agenda. People are being taught for a purpose. My kids will manage. I just have to have the confidence that they will. Today, the obsolescence of education as we know it is becoming really evident. Now it is more about how you think and how you use it. The former edifice is crumbling. It is good to see that,’’ she said. This activist edge is visible in Divya’s perception of cycling too. Somewhere around the time of her divorce, she had attended a Critical Mass meeting in Pune. Critical Mass is an event usually organized on the last Friday of every month; it has no stated agenda except for cyclists to assemble at assigned hour and place and cycle through city / town streets. It began in 1992 in San Francisco and according to Wikipedia, a decade later the events were being organized in over 300 cities worldwide. Although its participants have argued that Critical Mass should be viewed as a celebration, it has been described as a monthly protest by cyclists to reclaim roads. Her interest in Critical Mass provides insight into how Divya relates to the world of cycling. For her it exceeds immediate physical activity and acquires the dimension of a whole way of life. That is uncommon in India’s amateur cycling and running scene, where philosophies built around activity is still the refuge of only a few. For the vast majority, sport remains action; an adrenalin-rush even as life continues mainstream, materialistic and motorized.

At India’s first BRM in 2010 (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

The ascent of social media brought BRMs (the brevets of randonneuring) to Divya. Here too, the activist in her wouldn’t take things lying down. When she first stumbled upon BRMs in an Internet chat, it was packaged as something that “ separated the men from the boys.’’ She couldn’t let that pass. She signed up for the brevet. “ In all fairness when I signed up, that sentence was removed,’’ she said. Until then she had only done bike packing trips including in France (about which she wrote in the media). She borrowed a friend’s bike for the ride in France; all her trips in India were on steel bikes. “ The BRM I signed up for was a 200 kilometer-one. There were 3-4 of us who went from Pune to Mumbai for it. I finished the BRM within cut-off but not gloriously,’’ she said. What that event did was make her aware of longer BRMs – those spanning 300,400, 600 and 1200 kilometers (the last mentioned being in France).  She wished to do it but wasn’t mentally prepared to trade in her view of wider universe for the typical cyclist’s narrower, competitive view. She recalled a meeting of brevet enthusiasts she hosted at her house in Pune where she was struck by the nature of conversation – it was all about training and technicalities. “ It didn’t seem my scene. I just wander around the countryside on my bicycle,’’ she said. On the other hand, somebody like Alan Tonkin who had done Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) twice wasn’t built like a cyclist. It made her think she should also be able to do PBP. Given you had to become a super randonneur (SR – doing brevets of all the major distances in the same year), she registered for a 300 kilometer-BRM. It took her two attempts to complete it successfully.

Receiving an award at 2015 PBP after India registered the highest membership growth in audax community worldwide (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

Randonneuring itself was nascent in India at this time. Brevets of all distance categories were not yet around. BRMs were begun in the country by Satish Patki, longstanding cyclist from Mumbai. Slowly and rather unexpectedly, Divya found herself entrusted with organizing the events; by 2010 she ended up organizing India’s first 400 kilometer-BRM. She also completed the ride within cut-off. Next she organized a 600 kilometer-BRM from Pune to Kolhapur and back. This one, she couldn’t participate in because she broke her knee cap ahead of the event. Divya secured success in the 600 kilometer-brevet in 2011 becoming the first Indian woman to become SR. That year she headed for PBP.

2015 PBP; part of the Indian team (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

The run up to PBP had showed her that a cycling community existed in India. In Paris, amid some 5500 SRs gathered for PBP, the magnitude of the community she had come to belong to grew even further. “ It wasn’t just event organization; there was also the people who turned up all along the way to support. It was an incredible welcome, a link to like-minded community. For me, it was another phase of transformation,’’ Divya said. In 2011, of 15 people from India who participated in PBP, only two finished within cut-off. The rest, including Divya, ended up Did Not Finish (DNF). That year end, Divya became national representative for audax activities in India. The growth in audax cycling since has been significant. In 2011, BRMs were held at 3-4 locations (cities of origin). Now (early 2019) it is close to 60 cities and towns. Cumulative membership at all these locations has crossed 10,000.  “ Of that, about 5000 should be active,’’ she said.

Fred Boethling, president, RAAM, during his visit to Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

Among the cyclists Divya met at one of the early BRMs organized in Pune, was Samim Rizvi from Bengaluru. Samim had attempted RAAM. He was a pioneer from India. “ That was the first time I heard of RAAM,’’ she said. In 2012, she went to crew for Samim at RAAM. “ I saw a fabulous event. I also saw a lot of people from BRM culture because there is this overlap between brevets and ultra-cycling,’’ she said. On the other hand, there was little of that overlapping in India. Simultaneously, there was growing interest in RAAM in India probably because of Samim’s repeated attempts and also the unsuccessful bid by Sumit Patil. Divya crewed at RAAM on more occasions – in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2013, she attended a RAAM seminar for crew and racers. Besides RAAM, she has crewed at Race Around Europe in 2015 and Race Around Austria in 2016 and 2017.

Officiating at 2014 RAAM; with Joe Barr at the finish (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

“ My attitude was – this is not rocket science. This is something that can be learnt and shared with community back home in India. What we needed to do was get rid of our chalta hai approach. That won’t work at RAAM,’’ she said. By the end of 2013, she was convinced that the ecosystem of ultra-cycling races and races to qualify for RAAM (RAAM qualifiers – RQ) in India deserved to grow bigger. In February 2014, she organized the first edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (DC) connecting Pune and Goa.  It added to the number of RQ races in India. In 2015, Fred Boethling, president of RAAM, visited India to see that year’s DC. Same year in the world of BRMs – the other cap Divya wears, 60 people from India participated in PBP. Approximately 33 per cent of them finished the race, she said. She also collected an award at that edition of PBP for India registering the highest growth in membership in the audax community worldwide.

From Race Around Austria (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

Apart from organizing DC, Divya has been promoting the need for cyclists to get familiar with crewing. Ultra-cycling becomes successful only when cyclist and crew work together efficiently. “ At 645 kilometers, DC completed within assigned cut-off qualifies you for RAAM. But it does not prepare you for RAAM. I have been telling people right from day one that crewing is important. If you are going to take on a monster race like RAAM then at least go and see what the monster is before you take it on – right?’’ she said. DC concludes every year with an informal sharing of experiences. Divya also got around to holding seminars in Pune on the subject of crewing. But that sharing and talking wasn’t enough. You needed a multi-day race with distance to match that would drive home the need for cyclist and crew to work together. “ That’s how Ultra Spice was born,’’ she said of the second race Inspire India started. Against DC’s 645 kilometers, Ultra Spice – another RQ, it goes from Goa to Ooty and back – spans 1750 kilometers.

Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

As yet Inspire India’s flagship is DC. According to Divya, it is not a money spinner. “ Not many ultra-cycling events worldwide make money. Only the top 10-20 per cent will find sponsors,’’ she said. Further in DC’s case, as the most attended race in the Inspire India fold, it also offsets the losses other races – like Ultra Spice – must endure before they stabilize. To compound matters, 2017 was a tough year. Even as race revenues grew only organically, the events had become bigger and Divya also did more seminars. Atop that stretched situation, India’s newly introduced tax regime – GST, made its presence felt. That year DC faced a big financial loss despite hike in registration fee for participants. The loss was avoided by another hike in fees in 2018. Divya’s appetite for races however didn’t stop with two on limited budget.

The route used for Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

According to her, when Fred Boethling visited in 2015, she had said that she would add a new race every other year. In April 2018, while driving in Coorg with a colleague from Inspire India who had just opened a hostel in Ladakh, she decided to commence an ultra-cycling event in Ladakh. “ We decided in April, did the recce in June and held the race in September. Among the world’s ultra-cycling events, this is the one at the highest elevation,’’ she said of the 600 kilometer (372 miles)-Himalayan Ultra. The event is the first RQ with mandatory sleep time, a measure introduced to guard against the effects of altitude. Steps are afoot to increase the distance at Himalayan Ultra, maybe add another 300 kilometers.

Himalayan Ultra (Photo: courtesy Divya Tate)

A few things strike you when you enter Divya’s apartment in Pune. There are houses and there are homes; this one felt like home, it had a lived in feel to it. You also sensed use of space and design. To one side, separated by glass door, was a room containing stuff that went into organizing bicycle races. There were banners, posters, fluorescent vests for visibility in traffic and those plastic cones kept on roads to mark space. Stacked against the wall were three bicycles; an Orbea cyclocross model, a Trek MTB and an Orbea road bike. A fourth one – a Ridley road bike stripped to its frame – was suspended from the ceiling. Divya’s son was into racing; he has been part of the Maharashtra state cycling team. As the races in the Inspire India fold grow, Divya’s motivation to host is as usual – universal. The Indian environment is a composite of contemporary generation in the midst of thousand year-old memories of how life must be lived. With such conservatism around, living a life of one’s choice is daily battle. Divya has had her fair share of struggle in this regard. But as most people know, directly confronting set beliefs in India merely cements it further. What works is the oblique approach; alternative lifestyle incentivizing a different stream of thoughts and priorities with much patience shown to let it sprout roots. Life by cycle is alternative. Hopefully, that alters our imagination. “ I see whatever I am doing as vehicle for social transformation,’’ Divya said. She may have stopped being architect in the conventional sense. But the flair survives, in another field.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)            


Cyclists assembled for the Scott 60 Year Ride at Seawoods, Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Scott Sports India hosted the Scott 60 Year Ride at multiple locations in India on Sunday, January 6, 2019.

According to an email from the company, received a couple of days ahead of the event, the ride was planned to be held at 30 locations simultaneously.

In the Mumbai region, the ride was scheduled at four locations – Kalyan, Thane, Andheri and Navi Mumbai.

An estimated 278 participants had signed up for the ride in Mumbai while the total number of participants across locations was 1200, the email said.

After the ride at Seawoods (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The ride commenced at 7 AM on Sunday and lasted for an hour.

Company officials confirmed that the ride was held at all locations as planned, sole exception being Delhi where the duration of the ride had to be kept short due to unexpected showers.

The event in Navi Mumbai featured the Scott Technology Center at Everest Cycling Culture, Seawoods, as assembly point. The ride was on the adjacent Palm Beach Road. Jaymin Shah, Country Head, Scott Sports India attended the event.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Dr Mahendra Mahajan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When it comes to long distance cycling in India, the Mahajan brothers hold a special place. In 2017, we had the first Indian solo finish at Race Across America (RAAM) and the first solo completion of the race by an Indian cyclist attempting it for the first time. Two years earlier, in 2015, the Mahajan brothers had completed RAAM as two-person team. They put Nashik on the map in distance cycling and have since been a name you come across regularly in the sport. Dr Mahendra Mahajan, the younger of the two brothers, spoke to this blog of his latest achievement, the brothers’ upcoming expedition to Everest and trips past, including RAAM.

On November 15, 2018, World Ultracycling Association (WUCA) added a new record to its list. It congratulated Dr Mahendra Mahajan and his crew for setting a WUCA record for India N to S (north to south). Starting on November 5, 2018 from Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley, Mahendra reached Kanyakumari at the southern tip of peninsular India in10 days, 10 hours and a minute.

K2K; cycling in Kashmir (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

Kashmir to Kanyakumari (K2K) had its set of challenges. The start from Srinagar was delayed due to rain and snow. When the journey got underway it was in very cold conditions. This was followed by the need to tackle a landslide between Banihal and Ramban and stretches of terrible road all the way to Udhampur. Near Agra, Mahendra developed knee pain, which kept getting worse. By the fifth day of cycling, he was on painkillers. But the knee was perhaps the least of his troubles. Some 20 kilometers past Narsinghpur in Madhya Pradesh, a speeding pick-up truck laden with tomatoes smashed into his support vehicle. The latter was parked well to the left side of the road and Mahendra was inside speaking on the phone when the accident occurred. Luckily nobody suffered serious injury. But the vehicle – a Toyota Fortuner SUV – was completely damaged. One of two support vehicles, it had to be towed to a nearby dealership and left behind so that K2K may continue. The journey of roughly 3700 kilometers progressed with second support vehicle.

From K2K (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

At Nagpur, where local cyclists – including Amit Samarth – met the expedition, Mahendra’s knee was examined by an orthopedic doctor. He approved the decision to cycle on with painkillers. However the knee stayed troublesome. Then came a fall at Hinganghat in Maharashtra which – fortunately – was light on injury; he bruised his palms, that was all. He also switched to taking painkillers an hour ahead of cycling so that the medicine’s effect was adequately felt. At 5.45 PM on November 15, cyclist and support crew reached Kanyakumari. It was the latest feather in the cap for the Nashik-based dentist. Previously Mahendra and his elder brother, Dr Hitendra Mahajan (he is an anesthesiologist) had been the first Indians to complete Race Across America (RAAM) as two-person team in 2015. Subsequently they also had a project pedaling the length of the Indian highway network called Golden Quadrilateral.

In 2019, the duo will attempt a slightly different expedition, one that could be deemed an Indian take on the smashing precedent set by Swedish adventurer, the late Goran Kropp. In 1996, Kropp had cycled from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest and cycled back part of the way. In 2019, the Mahajan brothers hope to commence their expedition from Gateway of India, a monument by the sea in Mumbai. They will cycle from Mumbai to Kathmandu, do the regular walk-in from Lukla to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and then attempt Everest.

From Kalindi Khal trek (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

At his clinic in Panchavati, Nashik, Mahendra said that climbing Everest has been a longstanding desire for the brothers. Their roots are in trekking and Hitendra has additionally done his basic and advanced mountaineering course and been on expeditions in the mountains. Mahendra isn’t a mountaineer but he has done high altitude treks including Kalindi Khal, which nudges 20,000 feet. Fund-raising for the expedition – it is called Sea to Sky – is currently on. It is a costly outing with expenses estimated at around seven million rupees. According to Mahendra, Pune-based automobile manufacturer, Force Motors, will be one of the sponsors. “ If we don’t succeed in raising that much money, we will cycle to Kathmandu together and probably have one of us – most likely my brother – attempt the summit,’’ he said. The bulk of expedition cost pertains to commercial charges for attempting Everest; hence the option of reducing number of climbers to one. At the time of writing, the date of departure from Mumbai was yet to be firmed up. Given May is traditionally the window to climb Everest, Mahendra estimates that they would require to leave from Mumbai sometime in early April 2019, factoring in adequate time for the road journey and acclimatization at altitude. A potential advantage of combining cycling with mountaineering is that the former, which is good for cardio-vascular conditioning should improve their chances to acclimatize well for the climb to follow. The brothers have back-ended their expedition into spreading awareness about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Golden Quadrilateral (Image: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

Supporting socially relevant themes is not new for the Mahajan brothers. In 2010-2011, following several years of trekking in the Western Ghats and the Himalaya, it was their association with a NGO – Kalpataru Foundation – operated by an ophthalmologist friend, which got both brothers into cycling. The NGO had its camps in the Trimbakeshwar area of Nashik and Mahendra used to cycle to the location. In 2011, on World Environment Day, he had his first shot at long distance cycling (along with Hitendra), tackling the roughly 150 kilometers from Thane near Mumbai, to Nashik. Following this, Hitendra headed north to do the prized Manali-Leh-Khardung La ride (popularly called MLK, Mahendra is yet to attempt this). He did well on that bicycle trip at altitude. Subsequently, a fellow doctor mentioned Tour of the Dragons in Bhutan. Its 268 kilometer-long route entailed crossing four high passes. The brothers decided to try this event, together. In Bhutan, they rented three bicycles; two to ride, one for back up. On race day in September 2012, Mahendra reached the final cut-off with 15 minutes to spare; he was in Thimphu 16 hours and 27 minutes after commencing the trip.  Hitendra finished a bit after cut-off time.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan (left) and Dr Mahendra Mahajan (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

Mahendra was in good shape now. At the start of the year, he had run his first full marathon – the Mumbai Marathon – in four hours, 27 minutes. Post Tour of the Dragons, he ran it again in January 2013, covering the distance in 3:59:59. He then thought of participating in MTB Himalaya (it is an annual mountain biking competition in Himachal Pradesh) but it didn’t materialize. By October 2013, Mahendra was hearing of BRMs. At that time Nashik didn’t have a robust community of cyclists. The only person participating in brevets was Mohinder Singh Bharaj, a senior cyclist. In less than two months after he first got to know of BRMs, Mahendra (as well as Hitendra) was a super randonneur. You become one if you do brevets of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers in one year.  Along the way, he first upgraded from the MTB he was using (Trek 3700 and 4300; both owned by Hitendra) to a Giant hybrid and then, two days before his 600 kilometer-BRM, bought a Scott Speedster road bike. Once he was super randonneur, he decided to take a shot at the 2014 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (DC). That was when he came to know of RAAM – the 4800 kilometer-long bicycle race in the US – and DC’s role as RAAM qualifier (RQ). “ At that time RAAM wasn’t an aim in our mind. It evolved to one after we realized that there were only four RAAM qualified cyclists in India then,’’ Mahendra said. Among those qualified so, were Kailash Patil, Sumit Patil and Samim Rizvi. Of them, Samim had attempted RAAM twice (till then), Sumit once.

The brothers at the start of 2015 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

“ DC was a gamble for us,’’ Mahendra said. But as it turned out, he covered the race’s first 500 kilometers in roughly 20 hours, leaving him approximately 150 kilometers to cycle in 12 hours. “ That was when I realized that RQ is achievable,’’ he said. Both brothers qualified for RAAM. They stood second and third. In March 2014, the Mahajan brothers and Mohinder did a 1000 kilometer-brevet from Delhi to Wagah and back. With DC and 1000 kilometer-brevet done, cycling circles in Nashik started encouraging the Mahajan brothers to attempt RAAM. Force Motors stepped in as one of the sponsors. Meanwhile new bikes were required. Hitendra uses a small frame; Mahendra who is taller, requires medium or large. They needed two bikes each. Unable to afford top brands, they settled for Fuji; they got a discount too as they were buying four cycles at once. While frame sizes were different, they kept components as much interchangeable a possible. They also upgraded the wheels. At the suggestion of Divya Tate (she runs Inspire India, organizers of DC), Hitendra headed for the US to crew for a four person-team at 2014 RAAM and gain insight into what sort of a beast the race is.

From 2015 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

Training for RAAM started in September 2014. It was the brothers’ first taste of scientific training; the credit for that goes to their coach, Miten Thakker. He divided the nine months they had on hand, into three parts – endurance, variations with tempo rides and intensity. Mahendra recalled that his speed at peak training was nearly on par with that of cyclists heading to the nationals. Among instances of hill training, they used to do the Kasara Ghat four to five times. “ My best timing on that stretch was 19 minutes, eight seconds,’’ Mahendra said. Finally, training done, Miten guided them into the phase of tapering. To feed the mind, the late Bhishmaraj Bam helped with counseling and motivational talks. In 2015 when the brothers headed to race in the US, it was Mahendra’s first visit that side. Budget constraints meant they could be in the US only 10 days before the race. Two of their crew members from India – Miten and Pankaj Marlesha – were into bicycle racing. The rest were trekkers and friends from college days. Miten had chalked out race strategy based on the strengths and weaknesses of the two riders. All that went for a toss. “ Within the first 150 kilometers of RAAM I had cramps. Coastal California was comfortable but 100 kilometers inland the weather altered; the heat was terrible. I didn’t hydrate well and pushed my limits early. The whole race would have ended there. Luckily my brother stepped in when I suffered cramps. He cycled for 5-6 hours giving me time to recover,’’ Mahendra said. Slowly, a sustainable relay pattern emerged. “ I sweat a lot and can tolerate cold. Hitendra sweats less and tolerates heat. That seemed potential thumb rule to tackle terrain and weather conditions,’’ Mahendra said.

2015 RAAM; the full team (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

Couple of days into the race, in Utah, Hitendra suffered a fall. He bruised his arm badly; two finger nails ripped off. But he continued. It was a team with peculiar perspective of racing. Given the riders were doctors, there were several doctors in the support crew too (four of them would form a team and attempt RAAM two years later). Every injury, every sign of fatigue and every indication of the human body adapting to RAAM – it became subject of medical interest. On the fourth day, Mahendra had a fall. “ In both falls, the cycle started to twitch. There was nothing visibly wrong; just the bike going out of control. I knew something was going to happen. I could sense the fall setting in. Two approaching vehicles also noticed it and stopped to stay clear of cyclist. I then chose the best place to fall and crashed there,’’ Mahendra said. The reason for the “ twitch’’ is unclear. One similarity remained across both falls – they were on downhill sections and the bike was moving at high speed. Mahendra reckons that it may have something to do with all the four bicycles the team had picked up, being endurance models. These models are not designed to handle speed. Their geometry is more suited for sustained riding and climbing. The “ twitch’’ may have been the product of wind turbulence and aerodynamics playing with wrong bike in the wrong place. All this notwithstanding, that year, the Mahajan brothers became the first Indians to complete RAAM. They placed first in the 18-49 years age category. In February 2018, the brothers were among recipients of the Shiv Chhatrapathi Award, instituted by the state government of Maharashtra.

Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan

Doing RAAM in two-person format slots you uniquely. A two-person team gets nine days to complete the same distance that a solo rider is allowed to do in 12.  Mahendra believes that the flavor of RAAM done as two-person team is closer to solo than it is to attempting the race in team size bigger than two. In team of two, you have to watch out for the other person. When one person is not fully fit, the load shifts to the other in a two-person outfit; there is no further distribution of load as is possible in four-person team. “ For example, sleep is important for recovery. If you finished your turn in a two person-relay and found that your partner is still sleeping, you don’t wake him up and tell him to cycle. You continue for some more time and wait for your partner to wake up because a well recovered person cycles stronger and longer,’’ Mahendra said. The limited room for transferring load and definite instances of additional workload handled alone, makes two-person team closer to solo. It is possible that you come off two-person endeavor wondering if you can try something solo. This may have been among reasons nudging Mahendra towards attempting a record breaking Kashmir to Kanyakumari (K2K) solo ride in 2018. As to whether he would attempt RAAM solo any time, his reply was cryptic. “ It is too late for 2019,’’ he said.

There were also other trends at play. Mahendra would like to take a shot at cycling in the Masters circuit. In a drift towards simpler sports, he also finds himself increasingly drawn to running. “ In cycling, there are things you must plan and get ready before setting out on a ride. It takes time. You also have to address the issue of mechanical wear and tear on your bike; you spend much time at the bicycle shop. Running is comparatively simple,’’ Mahendra said. He will be running the full marathon at the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon.

K2K; the team at Kanyakumari (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

It was late evening; November 13, 2018. As my bus cruised along on the highway from Nashik to Kasara, a clutch of cyclists straining their way up the Kasara Ghat road came into view. It was the road Mahendra had spoken of mere hours before; the one the brothers had trained on for hill climbs, in the run up to 2015 RAAM. Nashik lies in northern Maharashtra. It is 1916 feet above mean sea level. From cycling’s point of view, there are flat roads as well as gradients here; the hills of the Western Ghats are not far from the city. The road from Kasara to Igatpuri and Nashik has long been a favorite with cyclists for hill training. There are other roads too in the region, offering gradients. Unlike Mumbai, which is at sea level and has hot, humid weather, Nashik is comparatively temperate and it has a winter, one that is certainly cooler than Mumbai’s. All this makes Nashik suitable for endurance sports like cycling. Plus from most accounts, the Mahajan brothers not only put the city on ultra-cycling’s map, they also fostered an atmosphere of easy interaction. That is a blessing in competitive sports, where people can be pretty tightfisted with information and knowledge.

However the biggest advantage Nashik has is something else. Nothing kills cycling in India as vehicular traffic does. Although the number of vehicles in Nashik has risen steadily, the lay-out of the city is such that cyclists usually manage to clear urban crowding and exit to wider, less congested roads in a short while. This is unlike the predicament in Indian cities with more cyclists like Mumbai, Pune or Bengaluru, where it takes a long time to leave city and its traffic behind. You set aside a few hours every day for cycling and lose the bulk of it managing escape route from city. What a way to live – I thought. Outside the bus window, scenes of sunset and life winding down to rest, flashed by. We were moving smoothly, efficiently. I plugged them earphones in to listen to some old Pearl Jam.

Then, as Mahendra had warned me it would happen, the bus reached Kalyan-Bhiwandi ahead of Mumbai and got stuck in traffic.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Mahendra Mahajan.)


Bharat Pannu (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

For years, Lt Col Bharat Pannu lived a bland life. Then he discovered cycling, enjoying in particular the challenge of cycling long distances. A 2016 transfer to Nashik fueled the passion further. His progression in the sport has been rapid. In 2019, he will attempt Race Across America (RAAM).

There’s a story Bharat Pannu told.

In 2016, soon after shifting to Nashik he rushed to meet Col Srinivas Gokulnath, who had that year participated in Race Across America (RAAM). RAAM is a brutal test of endurance; it stuffs roughly 4800 kilometers of cycling – from the west coast of the US to the east with all accompanying geographical and climatic variations – into a requirement to cover the distance in a maximum of 12 days. Having heard of Srinivas, Bharat wanted to meet him. “ I considered myself a cyclist because of what I did in Jammu. So I introduced myself and expressed my desire to do something in the field of cycling. He asked me what my goal is. I thought a while and blurted out: Tour de France!’’

For Bharat, it had been a long ride to Jammu waiting for the universe to show him something he could excel at. His father Ram Mehar Singh retired as a subedar from the Indian Army; his mother Sarbati Devi is a homemaker. An only child, Bharat was born May 1982 in Julana in Haryana. As with children in army families, Bharat’s education happened across towns in India; wherever his father was posted to. There was Secunderabad, Tezpur, Pathankot, Ambala; by the time he reached Pune, Bharat was studying mechanical engineering at the Army Institute of Technology. “ Throughout I was the typical good student, as defined in India. It was all about being good at studies and very little, practically no sports,’’ he said. Sole exception was a work-out that manifested as related requirement. School students in India avail tuitions in addition to regular study at school. Although minors in age, they too end up commuting like their office going-parents, traveling from one location of study to the next. In country measuring itself more and more by the capacity to afford, this is the stage when life is about you and a bicycle. Later, most people won’t sit on anything less than an engine. Bharat sometimes covered 30-40 kilometers on his bicycle – a Hero Ranger Gen X – linking the dots that were school, tuition classes and home.

Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu

Once he completed his engineering in Pune, he worked for a very brief while at Forbes Marshall, a company in the city. Then, a project he had been on for quite some time, bore fruit. Seeking to join the army, he had earlier taken the admission test for the National Defence Academy (NDA) multiple times and been rejected every time at the interview stage. Through college, he had therefore kept himself involved in activities that may improve his skills to communicate and interact. A couple of months into his first job, he got his call letter from the army and moved to join the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun. Here too, as in school, he wasn’t a cadet particularly competent at sports. He did his expected share of participating in games and physical training, wherein luckily, one strong point graced him – he turned out to be a good runner. “ In the army, there is a saying that if you are good at running then you are good at everything,’’ Bharat said. On June 10, 2006, he was commissioned as an officer in the army’s Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME).

Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu

Bharat’s first posting in the army was a stint at high altitude, in Sikkim. From there he moved to Arunachal Pradesh. Given altitude, sport for recreation was mostly chess, carom and volleyball, the last mentioned, viable only in summer months. In 2008, he was posted to Hissar in Haryana and after close to two years there, in 2010, was posted to Leh in Ladakh. From Leh, Bharat shifted to Secunderabad where he did his advanced course in aeronautical engineering. His job profile now altered to helping take care of the army’s aviation assets. All this time, Bharat’s appetite for physical activity was limited to what was compulsory under army rules – mainly the daily games parade, when officers and soldiers played together for bonding and team building. Plus he kept up that regular running, at times leading his unit to wins at cross country competitions. From Secunderabad, the army posted him to Bareilly and eventually, Jammu. His life began changing. There was a sports complex near where he stayed in Jammu. Bharat joined his colleagues to play badminton. “ Sports became a matter of interest for me in Jammu. It started with badminton. Then upon seeing others cycling, I bought a Raleigh MTB and joined them. Our camp was at Nagrota and we had good roads with rolling terrain in the vicinity. Probably because of my running, I seemed to do well in cycling too. All my rides were with colleagues from the army. Interaction with civilians has been little for me. The army is a self-contained ecosystem,’’ Bharat said.

Darshan Dubey (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

In September 2016, he was transferred to Nashik, home to the Combat Army Aviation Training School. Within days he was before Srinivas. According to Bharat, Srinivas – he knew well the hard work required to be cyclist in the proper sense – asked him how much he cycled. Bharat replied: about 100 kilometers a week. Srinivas encouraged him to cycle more; he recommended BRMs. Bharat promptly registered for one, a move that also brought him in touch with Dr Mahendra Mahajan, who with his elder brother Dr Hitendra Mahajan, had been the first Indians to complete RAAM (as two person team) in 2015. It is a bit difficult putting in perspective what drove Bharat to commit himself so to cycling. He reckons that Jammu was some sort of a late awakening in sports for him. He also admits to craving for some of the recognition that visits people accomplishing things in life. Cycling appeared a path opening up; he grabbed it. Bharat joined duty in Nashik on September 8. By October 28, he had spent over Rs 150,000 and acquired a Trek Emonda S6 road bike. “ I was in no frame of mind to stop myself,’’ he said.

At Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

That November – he had taken leave the whole month to use up the holidays he hadn’t availed – Bharat cycled to Pune. It was November 5. Within the first 10 kilometers he got his first puncture. He replaced the affected tube with a spare one and carried on. Roughly 60-70 kilometers before Pune, he got his second puncture, which he repaired himself.  November 6, he rested in Pune. The next day, he returned to Nashik. By now he was part of the city’s BRM group and nursing dreams of becoming a super randonneur (completing 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometer-brevets in a year). One day after he texted seeking company for a ride to Trimbakeshwar, Darshan Dubey responded. It was the beginning of a solid friendship; Darshan, the more experienced cyclist of the two. Born 1989, Darshan grew up in Nashik. His curiosity for distance cycling was prompted by a 2014 magazine article by the Mahajan brothers on their experiences in cycling; Hitendra had written about Tour of the Dragons in Bhutan and Mahendra had written about his BRMs. “ I read that and thought maybe I too can do something,’’ Darshan said. He bought a Hercules Atom steel frame bike and for a while struggled doing long rides on the heavy cycle with no proper bicycle gear and apparel. A visit to Decathlon – the sports goods retailer – eased the apparel issue and helped extend the distances he covered. Then he stumbled on GCN network on the Internet. It showed him the predicament he had got himself into – there was more to bicycle than just buying one; there was intended application and bike suited for it, there was bike geometry, there was bike sizing. By now, he had also got to know a group called Nashik Cyclists. Although his parents were skeptical about upgrading, Darshan managed to buy a Montra Unplugged 1.1 road bike; it was the cheapest Montra road bike and had a seven speed-cassette behind. Then a move to crowded Mumbai for higher studies put the brakes on cycling. “ Still I cycled whenever I could,’’ Darshan said. In January 2016, he did a 300 kilometer-brevet; Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai.

Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

In October, he was visiting Nashik when Bharat’s text landed in local brevet circles. “ I responded not knowing a thing about Bharat. That’s how it is in cycling, that’s how you meet new people,’’ Darshan said. Also joining in for the ride to Trimbakeshwar was Venugopal Nair, Nashik based-cyclist who had done a bunch of brevets. Not long after Darshan returned to Mumbai after the Trimbakeshwar ride, he got a call from Bharat about an upcoming 300 kilometer-BRM from Dhule to Nashik and back. BRMs are not races. On that outing, Bharat was the first rider to report back to Dhule after completing the route. According to Darshan, the organizers and riders complimented Bharat. Being from the army, he had the endurance required for long rides. All he needed was being comfortable on the saddle for long durations. Darshan remarked that Bharat should face no problem completing Deccan Cliffhanger (DC), the annual race on the Pune-Goa route which also serves as RAAM qualifier (RQ). Darshan had crewed earlier for a cyclist at DC. Bharat added DC to his list of things to do, while in Nashik. The 300 kilometer-BRM was followed by a 200 kilometer-BRM on November 20 – it was Nashik–Saputara-Nashik – which Bharat completed successfully within stipulated time. A week later, on November 27, he did a 300 kilometer-BRM – Pune-Mahabaleshwar-Satara-Pune. November 2016 was a month of getting BRMs done. A stroke of luck in taking leave right then was that it was a convenient month for Darshan too. At that time, Darshan was pursuing his MBA from Wellingkar Institute in Mumbai. November suited him to join Bharat on rides. “ I got a good friend in Darshan, someone more motivated than I to ride. He was the force taking me ahead,’’ Bharat said. Post November, the routine of office returned and with it; although weekly mileage had clearly risen, Bharat’s regular riding was mostly Nashik to Trimbakeshwar and back.

From Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Around December 15, Bharat got a call from Darshan informing that Divya Tate of Inspire India was organizing a new race in January 2017 – Ultra Spice from Goa to Ooty and back – with three distance categories of 500, 1000 and 1750 kilometers and RQ to boot. Bharat estimated he was probably ready for 500 kilometers. Darshan agreed to take care of securing support crew. Later they shifted to 1000 kilometer-category because the 500 kilometer-race wasn’t assigned RQ. According to Bharat, there were only three participants in Ultra Spice that year, one in each distance category (the rider for 500 kilometers did not turn up on race day). The pre-race briefing was therefore a chat across a table. It was Bharat’s first race with support crew and he had no idea yet of what the race entailed; he had no specific strategy or nutrition plan in place. “ When Divya asked me about my race strategy at the briefing table, I had that old Tour de France-look on my face. It must have worried her for besides my personal safety she had a race’s reputation to protect,’’ Bharat said laughing. In his mind, Darshan who was anchoring Bharat’s crew, felt 1000 kilometers was ambitious. “ I was keeping my fingers crossed,’’ he said. However Bharat went on to complete the 1000 kilometer-course in 55 hours, 35 minutes with less than two hours of sleep en route. It was RQ; he was the only finisher in this first edition of the race. In retrospect, he admitted, what he did exposed the novice in him – ideally, it should be adequate sleep, recover, proper nutrition and let the body deliver. Following Ultra Spice, Bharat believes, he started to be taken a bit more seriously in cycling. He explained it so – cycling circles perceived him as rider who accomplished RQ at Ultra Spice despite no proper strategy and nutrition plan. So what would it be like if he had those in place? It hinted of potential. His cyclist friends in Nashik became even more supportive. “ After this race, a new chapter commenced,’’ Bharat said. He began thinking of attempting an ultra-cycling event outside India. Once again, the fuel driving it was need for recognition; achievements within the country are not as celebrated as those outside. He was candid in admitting that.

From Race Around Austria; cyclist is visible as small speck on the road in the left half of the picture (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Some months earlier, in August 2016, Ammar Miyaji from Nashik had attempted Race Around Austria (RAA). RAA is not as long as RAAM but within its compact proportion of a ride along the perimeter of Austria, it packs a punch with steep roads and sizable elevation gain. Divya had been part of Ammar’s crew for RAA. The original idea, Darshan said, was for Bharat to attempt RAA’s 1500 kilometer-race, which was RQ and open only to solo riders. But when they approached Chaitanya Velhal to be coach, Chaitanya was skeptical. Not one to back off, Bharat came up with the suggestion that he and Darshan attempt RAA’s 2200 kilometer-race as two-person team. Lacking comprehension of how such a team works, they consulted Dr Mahendra Mahajan. He explained the process and also recommended that they get a coach. The schedule was tight. The duo decided in March, met Mahendra in April and the race was due in August. At their request, Divya came aboard as crew chief. Chaitanya joined as coach. Of the three months available, Chaitanya effectively had two for use. July being a month of rain would be wash-out. Divya’s challenges included finding crew members who spoke German because local knowledge and ability to engage when needed are always helpful. But most important was finding someone in Austria who would make the team feel comfortable on the ground.

Race Around Austria; the team after the finish (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

On Strava, Darshan found the Moshammer family residing in St Georgen Im Attergau, where RAA starts. Having done RAA himself, Hannes Moshammer helped with valuable tips besides hosting the team at his house once they reached Austria. The race route was along the countryside. To practise for RAA’s steep climbs, Bharat had relied on the gradients around Nashik. Darashan, having been transferred to Bengaluru on work, had a tougher time. Exiting Bengaluru’s urban congestion and finding space for practice is itself time consuming. As for bikes, Bharat took his Trek Emonda fitted with new wheels for improved rolling; Darshan had his Fuji SL 2.3 (a carbon frame bike, he had used it at the Dhule-Nashik BRM). Gear ratios on both bikes were altered to suit climbing. Ahead of race, the two cyclists rode up the last of RAA’s nine mountain passes. “ Not one instance of hill training we did in India was comparable to the climbs we faced,’’ Bharat said. The highest elevation in RAA was only 12,800 feet. But the roads connecting these heights had gradients more severe than what Indian roads did. As race progressed, the Moshammer family tracked the team on a daily basis. Austria is a small country. Every day, the family drove from where they stayed to some point on the route and cheered the Indians as they cycled past. Between Darshan and Bharat, they had set a goal of completing RAA in 100 hours. At the 86th hour, they were left with roughly 350 kilometers to complete. They motivated themselves and got the race wrapped up in 99 hours, 53 minutes. Race cut-off was 108 hours. “ We finished fifth in the two-person category,’’ Bharat said. Post RAA, the cyclists got a rousing welcome in Nashik. Bharat was also commended by the army. Among those who attended the awards ceremony at RAA’s close had been Christoph Strasser, Austrian ultra-cyclist and five time winner and record holder at RAAM.

At 2018 Ultra Spice; notice neck brace (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Back from RAA, Bharat trained for the January 2018 edition of Ultra Spice and completed it. He had issues with his bike; he also suffered neck pain. “ Despite being competitor, Kabir Rachure looked out for me on this race,’’ Bharat said. On completing Ultra Spice, Bharat was firmly resolved that he should attempt RAAM. In February, he made up his mind to enroll for the race. But there was one thing to do before formally participating in RAAM as rider. He required getting a sense of the route and seeing, firsthand, what riders endured traversing the breadth of the US.

2018 RAAM; Team Sea to See (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Bharat wrote to teams attempting RAAM in 2018 for berth as crew member. Team Sea to See responded positively. Dedicated to proving that those who are blind can succeed in any field, they envisaged combination of one visually challenged rider and one with normal eyesight cycling together on tandem bikes. The team had eight cyclists participating. Bharat was accepted as navigator. “ Going with a team is better as chances of completion are higher. You get to see the whole RAAM route,’’ Bharat said. The team – Bharat included as navigator – completed 2018 RAAM successfully. “ Team Sea to See was a very good learning experience,’’ he said. Now it was time for Bharat to focus on his own preparations for attempting the race solo in 2019.

Ram Mehar Singh and Sarbati Devi (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

At his house in Nashik, to a side in Bharat’s room was a Scott road bike mounted on a trainer. It was one of three bikes acquired recently – a Scott Foil 20 and two Scott Addict 10; the former for flats, the latter for climbs. Below, on the ground floor of the house, was a wooden chest of drawers with rack on top holding three bikes; one of them being his old road bike. The chest contained bicycle accessories and tools. Bharat’s parents stay with him. “ Had it not been for their presence here, I wouldn’t be able to live as I do,’’ he said. For a long time, his parents didn’t know exactly what he was doing, disappearing every now and then with his bicycle. The turning point was RAA. Some days before leaving for Austria, he had to tell them what was underway. Now they are aware of his fascination for cycling. Ram Mehar Singh hasn’t yet crewed for his son but he hoped to be at a race one day. Sarbati Devi is set to be part of Bharat’s crew for RAAM. She will handle food in the run up to RAAM (Bharat will reach US about a month before the race to train and get used to the weather there) and once race starts, she will be in one of the support vehicles preparing homemade food for her son.  Darshan too is headed for the US as part of Bharat’s RAAM crew.

It was close to midnight, November 12, 2018. Bharat – now a Lieutenant Colonel – had just returned from a party at his friend’s house. He was expected to continue the conversation with this blog from where he had left off ahead of party. But with work, cycling, training at the gym and socializing – all going on, he was tired; early next morning seemed better option to chat. That was when Tracy called. It was night in Nashik; daytime in the US. Until some months ago, Bharat had been training under Mumbai-based cycling coach, Miten Thakker. However Miten was unsure whether he would be able to accompany Bharat to the US for RAAM. So in April 2018, Tracy McKay entered the picture. They met on Facebook. Tracy had completed RAAM in 2002 as part of a two-person team (they took eight days, three hours, placing second overall). In 2004, he made an unsuccessful solo attempt. In 2005, he was team strategist / crew chief for Chris MacDonald who cycled solo and finished second overall besides winning Rookie of The Year.

RAAM (Image: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Based in Birmingham, Alabama, Tracy took on the role of Bharat’s coach and crew chief for RAAM. In a brief email exchange, Tracy outlined the challenges in RAAM. An event of this dimension will see participant running after many things. Among the first challenges therefore would be getting distracted from the main task of training and preparing. “ Much time can be taken in publicity and marketing by rider. Someone must take charge of this while rider prepares…sleep, ride, sleep, ride, sleep, ride – it slowly becomes a full time job outside of what they currently do,’’ he said. Then there are the physiological challenges posed by terrain and weather during RAAM. For example, in the desert the heat must be mitigated with IV fluids and there should be a strategy on when to ride. However what makes RAAM what it is, is the mental test and introspection it throws up. While the brain is designed to keep us away from harm and pain, each pedal stroke in ultra-cycling moves rider closer to discomfort till it builds up to a level you didn’t expect. You prepared, sacrificed, friends and family are invested in you – and then RAAM brings its reality. “ There is a great deal of self-examination, self-doubt. It becomes a roller coaster; it becomes a roller coaster for the crew. There will be moments where you want to quit, where the crew may even support it. But it is not required. Everyone must understand that this is the unexpected part of RAAM you must prepare for,’’ he said. As for any benefit in RAAM aspirant having done RAA before, he said, RAA can be compared only to other races of similar distance. RAAM is much longer. There can be no comparison between the two. Asked if there is any “best’’ personal quality or trait that a rider can bring to RAAM, he said a single quality won’t suffice. Self-concept / humility, sense of humor, ability to fail and try again (not out of vanity but from what you learnt from failing) and detachment – these may help, Tracy said.

Some weeks before I met Bharat, the 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger occurred. Bharat completed it successfully in 26 hours, five minutes. At the time of writing, Bharat had Tracy’s instructions to follow, Ultra Spice (1750 kilometer-category) to tackle in January and thereafter, by mid-2019, RAAM in the US.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)