Article on cyclist Srinivas Gokulnath, the first Indian to complete Race Across America (RAAM) in the solo category
The car slowed down, took a second to assess safety and then continued on.
It was a move that reminded of railway level crossings. Except, this was a runway and hovering some distance from the car, to this side and that, were helicopters. It is not always that you drive across a runway in India. Where Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas Gokulnath lived and worked, it was daily ritual. We were at the army’s Combat Aviation Training School, built around Nashik’s old airport and runway. Meeting Srinivas had been on the agenda for some time.
On June 13, 2017, three Indian cyclists had been among those assembled at Oceanside, California. They were registered to compete in the solo category of the Race Across America (RAAM), one of the most grueling endurance events on the planet. RAAM requires participants to ride some 4800 km from the US west coast to the east (it ends in Annapolis, Maryland) within a cut-off period of 12 days. It is a single stage race and riders could be on the saddle for as much as 22 hours a day, repeating it day after day in a merciless grind all the way to the finish line. The race features a mix of terrain. It starts at sea level, crosses mountains and zips across the flats of the North American prairie. It also tackles varying weather conditions typical of the country side it is passing through. Simply put the race gifts the rider a battering and tests his / her determination like few events do. That day in June, Samim Rizvi attempting his fourth RAAM, Srinivas on his second outing at RAAM and Amit Samarth were all on a quest to be the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category.
Although working in Nashik, Srinivas hails from Bengaluru. He was born in November 1980 and raised in that city. His father who was a metallurgist owned a bicycle. An active youngster who took part in games and athletics at school, Srinivas was attached to that cycle and it played host to many early outings. However there was nothing to indicate a serious interest in cycling, brewing. Srinivas went on to attend medical school and become a doctor. He worked for two years in Bengaluru; then he joined the Indian Army. The early years of an army officer’s posting are typically in areas that stretch his professional ability on the field. Srinivas was posted to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) for four years. He also served on Siachen Glacier, known as the world’s highest battle field. Following this stint, he returned to Bengaluru to do his post-graduation in aerospace medicine. He had bought himself a single speed Hercules MTB and trips on it brought him in touch with members of Bengaluru’s cycling community. One of his friends suggested that he invest in a road bike. Then, in a twist of the sort seen in the lives of interesting people, that friend – Vijay – got Srinivas a road bike and told him that he can pay him back later. The bike was a Giant TCR 3. It is a model much respected by riders; the Internet has reviews in praise of it. Srinivas felt he should do justice to the road bike. He started riding long distance, sometimes touching 200-300 km. It was during this phase from 2009-2011, spent studying aerospace medicine in Bengaluru and taking the Giant TCR 3 out on spins, that Srinivas realized he had a fondness for endurance cycling. It was also at this point in his life that he got to hear of RAAM. He heard of Samim Rizvi attempting it. The idea of RAAM attracted Srinivas. But before RAAM, he wanted a domestic challenge. For that, he picked a cycle trip from Leh to Kanyakumari. It connected India’s north tucked beyond the main axis of the Himalaya to the southern tip of the peninsula. In 2012, Srinivas was posted back to J&K.
A troubled region, army postings to J&K can be restrictive. For doctor and emergent cyclist with road bike in tow, space to practice was limited. “ I couldn’t go out and train on the road. But there was a 2.8 km-perimeter loop of the garrison which was possible and I kept doing that,’’ Srinivas said. Meanwhile the planned expedition from Leh to Kanyakumari simmered at the back of his mind. Then and later, Srinivas would struggle with a paradigm problem in endurance cycling. Endurance based-activities typically take person out of the crowd and away into solitary existence. In army and economically resurgent India with its bank of potential sponsors of sport, `solitary’ and ` solo’ attract much less than `team.’ There is plenty of buzz these days about corporate team building and team based pursuits. Attempting something that is the stuff of lone battle fetches no support.
Assembling the building blocks of the Leh-Kanyakumari cycle expedition was Srinivas’s first tryst with the real paradigm challenge of what he had embarked upon. He understood that nobody was going to support him. So he largely invested his own funds. Being a multi-day trip he needed a support vehicle. Help came in the form of an enterprising villager from Sharifabad. This person hadn’t ventured beyond the Kashmir valley and wanted to see India. Owner of a Mahindra utility vehicle, he agreed to bring that along as support vehicle and pitched in to assist Srinivas. On September 2, 2014, the expedition commenced from Leh. Weather in the initial phase was bad; there was rain and snow. Back in Srinagar, there was flooding; they got news of this at Manali. The expedition pushed on. Two weeks later, on September 16, cyclist and support crew reached Kanyakumari. The trip was formally recognized by the Limca Book of Records as the fastest passage yet from Leh to Kanyakumari on a bicycle. One project done, the next one – RAAM – took hold.
Shortly after the Leh-Kanyakumari expedition, the army dispatched Srinivas to do a course in Pune. There he came to know of The Deccan Cliffhanger (TDC), scheduled for November 2014. On its Facebook page, TDC describes itself as a 400 mile ultra-cycling race from Pune to Goa. According to Srinivas, if you cycled 647 km at TDC in 32 hours, then you qualified for participation in RAAM. This was an excellent opportunity to move towards attempting RAAM. Unfortunately he was in Pune to do a course; he had no cycle with him. A friend in Bengaluru sent him a BMC road bike. Additionally, he asked around in the Pune cycling community and they responded loaning him a Merida road bike. He now had two bikes for TDC; one to ride at any given time in the race, the other for back up. A bunch of college students volunteered to be his support crew. Participating in TDC, Srinivas covered the required 647 km in 31 hours. He qualified for RAAM. “ For me, that TDC is special,’’ Srinivas said. From December 2014 onward, Srinivas’s RAAM phase officially commenced. It became an obsession. To train and prepare, he requested the army for posting to a peaceful area. His choice was Pune where the Army Sports Institute with its excellent training facilities is located. In July 2015, as sought, Srinivas was transferred from J&K. The army moved him to Nashik and the Combat Aviation Training School there.
Maharashtra’s geography is essentially a study of two main features – a relatively narrow coast sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the hills of the Western Ghats, and the sprawling Deccan Plateau, which lay beyond the hills. Nashik, located 167 km north east of Mumbai, is an ancient pilgrimage center and in the present times, a major center of industry and agricultural produce. It is at a higher elevation than Mumbai next to the sea. Kasara, which is one of main outlying stations of Mumbai’s suburban railway network, is at an elevation of 915 feet. The next major halt from here, en route to Nashik, is Igatpuri by which time you would have climbed over the edge of the Western Ghats and reached 2000 feet in overall elevation. Igatpuri, now famous as a center for Vipasana meditation, has always been a favorite with trekkers in Maharashtra. One of the state’s classic treks connecting the hill forts of Alang, Kulang and Madangad, is staged here. The region is also home to the state’s highest peak, Kalsubai (5400 feet). Nashik is 47 km away from Igatpuri. It has an elevation of 2300 feet and given the combination of hills and elevation, a fairly temperate climate year round.
Mid-August 2017, my train from Mumbai reached Nashik on time. On the three wheeler ride from the railway station to the area in town called CBS, three things were quickly apparent. The terrain around had a spread-out feel to it; there was a sense of space. The roads were broad and traffic, still manageable, compared to the grind and gridlock congested Mumbai tends to be. There were cycles on Nashik’s roads. With its roads, availability of space and hills in the neighborhood, Nashik looked ideal to train in cycling and running. In 2015, two brothers from Nashik, Hitendra Mahajan and Mahendra Mahajan – both of them doctors – had become the first Indians to complete RAAM in the team category. Race in mind, riding hunched down on his road bike with focus narrowed to road and cadence, Nashik’s geographical blessings appeared to have eluded Srinivas’s attention. He didn’t feel distance cyclists owe as much, to where they are from as to whether they wish to train and excel at what they do. As strange as that perspective may seem, one needs to identify that faith in self as coming from an individual who moves around the country on work. In such predicament, the stuff of roots is in oneself, not in any place.
At the Combat Aviation Training School, work load was high for the army doctor. However he managed to find time for training and trained systematically. Srinivas is the type who likes having a goal. It helps him focus. RAAM was goal. He trained 5-6 hours daily, morning and evening. But there was a problem. It wasn’t a training regimen properly structured for the needs of RAAM. Aside from the Mahajan brothers who he spoke to and got some idea of RAAM thereby, there wasn’t anyone else to help him devise training schedules or prepare a race strategy. Besides the Mahajan brothers had participated in the team category; Srinivas had enrolled in the solo category. The two are different. Plus there was the question of raising the funds needed to go to the US, have a support crew, support vehicle and participate in the race. Attending to funds, distracts from training and preparation. Old paradigm problem haunting him, Srinivas had no sponsors. He invested his own money; he also borrowed. Given the nature and stature of the race, he acquired a new road bike – a NeilPryde Bura SL. “ It was expensive but when I saw it at a shop in Mumbai, I immediately felt a link to it,’’ Srinivas said. According to information available on the Internet, NeilPryde Bikes, based in UK, is part of a Hong Kong based sports group by the same name that had longstanding presence in windsurfing before it entered the bicycle business. The Bura SL was launched in 2012 and revamped in 2016. Made of carbon fiber, it features NeilPryde’s lightest frame weighing in at 750 gm. For back up, Srinivas had a Polygon road bike. Polygon is a bicycle manufacturer from Indonesia. Its dealer in India is Bengaluru-based Wheel Sports, whose owner Venkatesh Shivarama is a former state level cyclist and a nodal figure in Bengaluru’s cycling community.
Amid the struggle to make it to RAAM, Srinivas had one significant help. His wife, Prafulla, also works as a doctor at the army base in Nashik. She decided to be part of his support crew. Prafulla had her own reasons for joining the crew. Like Srinivas, she hailed from Bengaluru. Unlike him, she had no background in sports in her growing up years. She does not cycle. When they met for the first time, Srinivas told her of his interest in cycling. She accepted cycling as part of the overall person, Srinivas is. “ One thing I was worried about was his safety,’’ she said. In J&K, Srinivas’s cycling happened within the garrison complex and army bases are well managed. Then he briefly took leave of that environment to cycle from Leh to Kanyakumari, a trip Prafulla wasn’t part of. By the time RAAM set in as obsession, Srinivas was training regularly on the highway. This worried Prafulla. Besides, races in ultra-cycling tend to push a person to the limits of what he / she can do. She felt that rather than worry about his safety from far, it made sense to be with him on his races. That’s what prompted her to join the support crew for RAAM. A doctor – that too someone who knows you well – in the support crew, is a definite asset. Srinivas had seven people in his support crew; six who travelled from India plus an old friend from school who was based in the US. “ My focus in 2016 was to get to RAAM’s starting line. That I did. I was relieved when the race got underway,’’ he said.
The 2016 RAAM was an eye opener. “ My focus, which had been on reaching the starting line, wasn’t strong towards the finish. I was riding strong but not to race expectations. I didn’t have a strategy, no solid plan. I learnt by participating. In the thick of the race, I realized this is what RAAM is all about. I pushed myself to just 450 miles short of the finish. There was 26 hours remaining. But my mind started acting up and I succumbed to it,’’ Srinivas said. One of those unhappy with the outcome was Prafulla. She didn’t like the fact that they had thrown away 26 hours. She suggested that they take a look at the finish line, attend the post-race banquet and learn more. The team also decided that they would attempt RAAM again, the following year.
Gearing up for the 2017 RAAM, Srinivas and Prafulla began connecting with people who had completed the race before. One of them was Alberto Blanco, a former RAAM finisher. Back in 2011, riding a NeilPryde he had completed the race in fourth position earning the RAAM Rookie of the Year title. During this race Alberto had suffered a severe case of `Shermer’s Neck’ (complete shutdown of tired neck muscles). He cycled with a neck brace his crew fashioned from available materials, following onset of the problem. Incidentally, the history of Shermer’s Neck – a condition unique to ultra-cyclists – is strongly linked to RAAM. Michael Shermer after whom the condition is named was a finisher in the very first RAAM held in 1982 (at that time it was called Great American Bike Race). He returned for the 1983 edition and in that race, at about 2000 miles he discovered he was unable to keep his head up. He was forced to prop his chin up with the palm of his hand and keep cycling. He finished the race so. Despite enduring a great deal of pain till he finished the race, Shermer is said to have recovered fully within two days. Articles on the Internet say that Shermer’s Neck is usually reported within 300 miles to 1000 miles of a race and once it sets in, there is no way out except to cope with it. The brace Alberto’s crew fashioned, after he developed Shermer’s Neck, was meant to hold his head up because his exhausted neck muscles simply couldn’t do the job. In photos from the race, you see what appears to be a metal rod harnessed to cyclist’s waist and travelling up his spine and over his helmet, with a sling at its end to support the head. Alberto became Srinivas’s coach for the 2017 RAAM. Another finisher, Chris O’Keefe, took charge as crew chief. Chris had been a finisher in the 2016 RAAM, which he completed second in his age category. This time, Srinivas’s training had direction and a race strategy was being devised. There was analysis of the 2016 race to find out what had gone wrong.
What remained unchanged however was sponsorship. Some brands supported but the bulk of the expense was met using Srinivas’s own money and loans provided by friends. Chris and others members of the support crew allowed Srinivas to borrow cycling accessories he needed. They also didn’t hesitate to extend financial assistance. Hired expertise is integral to many endurance events. For instance, runners going for the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley often avail the guidance of those who have successfully completed the race or crewed in it, for a fee. Srinivas described his relation with Alberto and Chris as more of an emotional-connect than a formal arrangement; it is a description which reveals the comfort he felt. The support crew was 11-strong, including four persons retained from the 2016 attempt. “ This time we had a strong team. I felt strong and my focus was sharp,’’ Srinivas said.
A punishing race like RAAM takes a toll on bicycle. Typically, there is a lot of wear and tear that happens in bicycle racing. Bottom brackets, chain and cassette – they have to be replaced as required in the course of the race. You have to have at least two bikes for RAAM. Some participants go in with three. Srinivas decided to acquire a new NeilPryde to use as back-up for the earlier one. He got in touch with the CEO of the company, who provided it at reduced price; the bike was again a Bura SL. The team’s bike mechanic in 2016 and 2017 was Venkatesh Shivarama. Venkatesh a former state level cyclist and manager of the national cycling team, met Srinivas during the latter’s days in Bengaluru, spent getting a hang of distance cycling. Races brought them together; Venkatesh is deeply involved in races. He is not as much a fan of endurance cycling as he is of racing. Venkatesh also owns and operates Wheel Sports, among Bengaluru’s best known bicycle shops. Committed to cycling, it was his affection and respect for Srinivas as a person and faith in his ability that made him volunteer to be Srinivas’s bike mechanic for RAAM in 2016 and 2017. According to Venkatesh, when it comes to the bicycle, RAAM is not as punishing a race as say – the Tour de France, where multiple stages with tight cut-off times, repeated day after day, take a considerable toll on a bike. Given RAAM is a single stage race, the challenge is to cycle with very little rest and make it across the USA within the cut-off time of 12 days for solo cyclists. Further, what really inflicts damage on bicycles is riding off-road. RAAM is a road race and American roads are good. “ My daily task was to check the bike’s tyres and tyre pressure; ensure the tyres are in good condition. I had to make sure all the gear combinations and the Garmin GPS were working. Then there are the bike’s lights. When you are riding on the road, lights are very important. I used to replace them every 6-8 hours,” he said.
The 2017 race was a roller coaster. Although he started strong, somewhere past the 90 mile-mark Srinivas vomited three to four times. From thereon, his intake of food and fluids started dropping. His plan had been to sleep three hours during the day, every 24 hours. He took his first break for sleep at Salome in Arizona. However from time station five onward, his average speed began to decline and he was soon at the point where he himself told his crew members that he needed IV fluids. From being in the top 10, he had by now dropped to 27th position. “ Thereafter, it took me seven time stations to recover and get back to a semblance of riding normally. I felt recovered only by time station 16,’’ Srinivas said. Recovering well was critical. In endurance races, rider and crew feed off each other’s optimism. A struggling Srinivas had ended up making his crew lose faith in him. He had to regain their confidence. Cranking up their efforts, the crew fed him 450-500 calories and a liter of fluids every hour. About 10,000 calories and 20 liters of water were consumed every day. Everything was meticulously recorded. The hard work paid off. Towards the latter half of the race, Srinivas began registering negative splits or better speed in the concluding portions of a race. That was tremendously motivating, coming as it did after a couple of thousand kilometers covered on the road. He kept his focus from time station to time station, never thinking beyond the next time station on the course. “ I knew I was getting stronger towards the finish line,’’ he said. At one point in time, Srinivas improved his position in the race to almost seventh; he also overcame challenges, among them – a crash, the result of a pothole on the road. Tricky weather notwithstanding, his strength was on the flats. He flew along the prairies of Kansas. Eleven days, 18 hours and 45 minutes after commencing the race in Oceanside, Srinivas completed the 2017 RAAM in Annapolis, the first Indian to do so within cut-off time in the solo category. That June, Amit Samarth followed Srinivas to the finish line, becoming the second Indian to earn a solo finish at RAAM. Samim had to withdraw from the race in its initial phase itself.
Most people betray a sense of themselves in how they communicate. I got my first sense of Srinivas when I texted and called him up seeking an appointment. His text messages never exceeded two or three words; the conversations on the phone were short and to the point. During the interview, conducted in his office, his recollection of his life and his association with the world of words bordered impatience, as though he needed to get down and do something. Endurance cycling is a mosaic of distance and timing. I asked Srinivas if he would be happy pushing himself merely on distance like a touring cyclist does. No – he replied firmly. He needed to be pushed. He needed to ride hard. Only then would his energy get channelized, find release. Pushing the envelope is a must for what he sought as experience. That’s why grueling endurance races attract. His family has been supportive; they endured sacrifices. His wife became part of his support crew and when she does so – as at RAAM – their child is left behind in the care of grandparents. Further his training and periodic obsession with races, robs the family of adequate time together. “ No doubt, there is an element of selfishness I carry along, pursuing projects in endurance cycling,’’ Srinivas said.
RAAM done, Srinivas had set his sights on the solo category at the 2018 Race Across Europe (RACE). Prafulla was planning to be in the support crew. This race covers 4722 km across six countries. At the time of writing this article, it was scheduled to start at Boulogne sur Mer in France on June 30, 2018 and end at Tarifa in Spain on July 21. The 2017 RAAM had cost him around Rs 15 lakh as race expenses (many in the crew were self-funded), cost of training extra. RACE will cost around Rs 25 lakh; Europe is more expensive than America. As usual, Srinivas’s biggest worry in cycling even after finishing RAAM was sponsorship. It was eating his mind. He needed to be sure of his position by December 2017, if he is to feature at RACE the following year. “ I don’t know how some people manage to raise funds so well,’’ he said, pointing out alongside that a disadvantage he may have in this regard, is the transferable nature of his job. You are never long enough at any one place to socialize and network, build a community of friends. Supportive community and an ecosystem aware of sports, including endurance cycling, matter when it comes to finding resources for projects. As I took leave of him, these were the thoughts bothering India’s first solo RAAM finisher.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)