Amit Samarth; from a trip to Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

In July 2018, Amit Samarth is scheduled to attempt the 9100 kilometer-long Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme in Russia. Last year (2017), he was the second Indian cyclist to complete Race Across America (RAAM) in the solo category and the first Indian to do so in the very first attempt. He is also an accomplished triathlete and runner. This is his story; the story of an unusual doctor.

June 19, 2018.

Late night, the highway from Nagpur to Raipur lay bathed in darkness save the odd street light and the headlights of passing vehicles.  Indicators flashing on the car’s dashboard showed that the vehicle’s hazard lights were on. Soft music played on the car’s speakers. None listened to it. Besides its four occupants, the car carried a crate of bottled water and energy drinks. On the door accessing the boot of the car, was an empty bicycle rack. The two wheels on carbon frame it held till some time back, was now object in motion some 15 feet in front of the car. Settled into a steady, smooth cadence, the cyclist sat crouched on the road bike, his arms on the bike’s aero-bars for aerodynamic efficiency. At the car’s steering wheel, Makarand maintained steady speed. He had been told to stay adequately away from the bicycle for cyclist’s safety and yet be near enough to illuminate the road ahead for him.

A ten kilometer-loop past the highway’s toll plaza was the cyclist’s training ground for that night. The car’s speedometer rarely dipped below 40 kilometers per hour; on occasion it seemed to touch fifty. Sixty kilometers covered so, cyclist and crew were back home by midnight. The late night training was essential because early next morning Dr Amit Samarth – endurance athlete and 2017 finisher at Race Across America (RAAM) – had a flight to catch, to Delhi. There was a meeting due in the national capital with a potential sponsor and no guarantee that he would be able to train that day. The countdown to the 2018 edition of Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme was well underway and only three weeks remained for Amit’s departure to Russia for the 9100 kilometer-race.

From the 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Amit is a doctor. His trajectory in life and medicine don’t match paths usually chosen by Indian doctors.  Born 1980, Amit grew up in Nagpur. His father, now retired, worked with Syndicate Bank. His mother worked as a school teacher, was school principal, ran a department store and now manages a gym on the first floor of their house, which caters exclusively to women. A few attributes qualified Amit’s school years – he played games but wasn’t seriously into sports; he was chubby and fat to the point of being mocked, he was a good student. His academic scores at the time of exiting school were high enough for admission to medical college. The first turning point was the period between finishing school education and moving to medical college. He joined a gym to reduce weight. Within a month, he discovered that he liked to pump iron. Soon after he became a medical student, he started applying whatever he learnt, to his body and his eating habits. From almost 98 kilos, he transformed to being lean, muscular body builder. So much so, that people recommended he go for body building competitions; he was once Vidarbh Sri, a local title won in body building. The next turning point – in retrospect – would seem the period following medical studies. After completing his MBBS, Amit worked as Medical Officer at the P.D. Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai and Max Health Care in Delhi. Then he got a chance to work with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as part of their health care consulting group. He shifted to Hyderabad. By now he was no more body builder; he was however “ fitness-conscious.’’  Work with PWC took him to Assam and Dhaka; at the latter, he was attached to the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB). This line of work in public health and community medicine captured his interest. It also took him away from the Indian mainstream as regards career choices within the medical profession.

Cycling in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Amit proceeded to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, US to do a one year program specializing in public health.  Upon completing the course at Johns Hopkins, he returned to India. “ I like Nagpur and India. This is where all my friends are. This is my ecosystem. So I returned,’’ he said. His parents, who had taken pride in his academic performance, his well-paying jobs after MBBS and eventual passage to the US for higher studies, were disappointed by that return to India. Amit found himself back in Hyderabad, this time working with Access Health International. A couple of factors intervened to change the course of his life. He started learning taekwondo, going on to become a black belt in the martial art. His trainer was Mohammad Malik. Malik introduced Amit to running. Slowly, he progressed from 10 kilometer-runs to running the half marathon. Following podium finish at a local half marathon, he shifted to running the full. Among people he met at Hyderabad Runners Group was Sunil Menon, currently a well-known coach for triathlon, including Ironman events. At that time Sunil was yet to attempt an Ironman. Sunil’s interest in the triathlon rubbed off on Amit. He decided to attempt a Half Ironman. As luck would have it, Access Health had its office in the campus of Indian School of Business (ISB). It was home to a nice swimming pool. Amit began learning to swim; he also started to perfect his cycling. “ So if you look at it closely, I am not that old as a cyclist. Probably six to seven years – that’s all,’’ the RAAM finisher said.

Both Amit and Sunil had registered for the 2011 edition of the Half Ironman in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately Amit fell ill. But he went to Sri Lanka and cheered Sunil, who completed his first Ironman event.  Amit’s graduation to that league happened six to seven months later at the Half Ironman in Phuket, Thailand. This chapter of running and triathlon is important when it comes to profiling Amit. The world knows him as a cyclist. But to date, he has run over 100 half marathons and completed eight full marathons, 11 Half Ironman events (at the time of writing he led Indians in points accumulated from Half Ironman events) and one full Ironman. His best timing in the full marathon was at one of the editions of the Mumbai Marathon – 3:19. His best timing so far in the Half Ironman is 5:28. The lone full Ironman he participated in – in Busselton, Australia (the event is called Ironman Western Australia) – he completed it in 11:50.

Cycling in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

From Access Health, Amit shifted to Sugha Vazhu, a not for profit company that aims to improve health conditions in India by developing and delivering primary healthcare solutions in collaboration with its knowledge partner, IKP Centre for Technologies in Public Health (ICTPH).  Amit shifted to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu for this work.  He continued his running and training for the triathlon here. It was during his tenure at Thanjavur that the organization he founded (his friend Anirudh Pandya helped him) and is now identified with in Nagpur – Pro Health Foundation – had its genesis. Pro Health has four goals – it organizes sports events; identifies talent, creates sports infrastructure and promotes healthy lifestyle. Amit became one of the founder organizers of the Thanjavur Marathon. Amit has good memories of Thanjavur. In 2014, he left Sugha Vazhu and joined Save a Mother Foundation as its Chief Operating Officer. His work was mostly in Hubli (north Karnataka) and Telangana. Among those he met in Hubli was Vivitt Walve, an engineer who did his higher studies in the US. Vivitt is passionate about cycling. An early morning in Hubli, he was on a hill road teaching his friend to drive, when he saw Amit training. A fortnight later, Amit visited the shop Vivitt had in town, to procure a bicycle tube. They got talking. Prone to initiating sports activities wherever he is, Amit commenced Hubli Fitness Club. “ Amit was mentor. There were 13-14 of us involved,’’ Vivitt recalled. In those days of Hubli and Save a Mother Foundation, Amit the ultra-cyclist was yet to be.

June 2018; Amit Samarth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Work with Save a Mother Foundation entailed much traveling. Amit didn’t like losing his personal time. He also wished for adequate time on hand to train. In the meantime, with Amit too busy at work, Pro Health went into hibernation.  The doctor feared that his life in sports had died prematurely.  All this led to his decision to leave Save a Mother Foundation. He shifted back to Nagpur and started organizing marathons. The events were held under the banner of Pro Health Foundation. He also commenced coaching, including coaching for Ironman. He was Nagpur’s odd doctor. His batch-mates in medicine were into successful careers, some of them running their own clinics and hospitals. Amit was coaching for sports and organizing running events. He maintained no medical practice. At his home, aside from the board announcing Pro Health Foundation, you don’t find any board mentioning doctor within.

June 2018; a training session of Pro Health Foundation underway at Nagpur University’s sports complex (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The universe works in surprising ways. Of all the things he had done till then, one event he participated in sparked a streak. Earlier during a visit home from work in Hubli, Amit had heard of a 200 kilometer-brevet being organized in Nagpur. “ I remember him coming home excited and telling us about this,’’ Mukul, Amit’s wife, said. Amit registered for the event.  Part of cycling’s sub culture called randonneuring, brevets are non-competitive. But participation in these bicycle-rides spanning distances from 200 kilometers to over 1000 kilometers is part of the journey to becoming an ultramarathon cyclist. When the said brevet in Nagpur happened, Amit finished it way ahead of others.  “ I went to pick him up at the finish line and found him standing there quite confused because there wasn’t anyone else around,’’ Mukul said.  That finish was noted in Nagpur’s cycling community. Suggestions emerged that he try bigger distances and according to Amit, as is typical of small communities suddenly confronting visibly different athletic performance, the suggestions were laced with challenge. Without Amit’s knowledge, his friend Sachin Paliwar registered him for the 2015 Deccan Cliffhanger, a race in India that is also qualifier for RAAM.

Seana Hogan starts her race at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Deccan Cliffhanger is an annual 400 mile (643 kilometers) ultra-cycling race from Pune to Goa. Prior to it, Amit had done only the 200 kilometer-brevet. Nagpur based-cyclist Devnath (Dev) Pillai has known Amit since 2015. “ I don’t think at that point in time, Amit considered himself an endurance cyclist in the strict sense of the term. But if you challenge the wrong guy, he will end up doing it,’’ Dev said. Amit completed the 2015 Deccan Cliffhanger successfully qualifying for RAAM in the process. But he still did not take RAAM seriously for his research showed that the event was expensive. He put RAAM in the freezer and continued to take part in brevets. “ There was this 1000 kilometer-brevet from Delhi to Wagah border and back. I did that in decent time. Following this, people began to say that I may be RAAM material,’’ Amit said. While researching RAAM on the Internet, he had connected with Australian cyclist, Steven Bervering. Steven recommended a book on RAAM. He also suggested that Amit crew at RAAM to know the race better; it was something Amit’s friends in Nagpur too had been telling him to do. Amit wrote to veteran US cyclist, Seana Hogan, asking if he could be part of her crew for 2016 RAAM. Seana is a legend at RAAM. Now in her late fifties, she is a six time-winner of the race in the solo women’s category and has also held the fastest time among women. Seana accepted Amit’s request to be part of her crew. He and Vivitt flew to the US for the purpose. Being part of Seana’s support crew was valuable experience. “ At RAAM you can expect the unexpected. Patience is a very important quality to have. You lose patience, your whole game goes for a toss,’’ Vivitt said. Besides getting a taste of real crewing with ringside view of how RAAM progresses, the duo also obtained insight on commercial aspects. For instance, they realized that despite her several years at RAAM, Seana too used the year preceding a race to assemble sponsors and funding. Family was part of her crew. “Seana helped by showing us what we needed to learn for participation at 2017 RAAM,’’ Vivitt said.

Vivitt and Amit just before the 2017 RAAM got underway in Oceanside, California (Photo: Rajeev G)

Bhanu Rajagopalan runs an advertising agency in Nagpur. The first time he met Amit was when Anirudh Raich, who runs a bicycle shop, came to meet him along with the doctor organizing a marathon in the city. “ Amit had just returned from Hubli and he was organizing this run for which he needed help in marketing,’’ Bhanu recalled. He quickly sensed that Amit had extraordinary capability; there were all those half marathons, marathons and Half Ironman events he had been to. Amit told Bhanu that the fee he was charging for his marketing services was high. “ I told him to forget the money and agreed to take up the work,’’ Bhanu said. He remembers telling Amit to think big (that’s something Amit corroborates; according to him, Bhanu told him that if he wanted to do big things in life, then he should become a brand to reckon with, himself). According to Bhanu, he decided to support Amit till the 2017 RAAM got over.

Bhanu discussed Amit’s case with Jeetendra Nayak, an industrialist from Nagpur. Jeetendra is chairman and managing director of Minar Hydrosystems, a company having its core strength in hydraulic cylinder technology. “ Jeetu Nayak, besides being industrialist is an aggregator of philanthropists. If you give him a cause, he will give you his time. Plus he brings to the table other people wishing to contribute to the cause,’’ Bhanu said. Among those who supported so were Dinesh Rathi of DRA Consultants Ltd and Prashant Ugemuge of Vidarbha Infotech Pvt Ltd. Although Amit had continued long distance cycling after his RAAM qualifier, there is a big gap between brevets in India and RAAM, which spans roughly 4800 kilometers and takes rider across varying terrain and weather conditions in the US. Some of those assembling to fund Amit for RAAM wanted to be convinced he was up for the challenge. “ In 2013 a few of us had come together to do a fund raiser for the new hospital Dr Prakash Amte wished to build. So we had a group of like-minded people in place. Bhanu introduced Amit to us. The first thing we noticed was his humility. But we didn’t know his capability. We therefore put forth a challenge requiring him to attempt a course half the length of RAAM in India,’’ Jeetendra said. . In September 2016, Amit cycled Nagpur-Hyderabad-Bengaluru-Hubli-Kolhapur-Pune-Aurangabad-Nagpur. The aggregate distance was roughly 2500 kilometers; Amit completed it in five days, five hours. He did that on a Trek 1.1, his first road bike, one he still owns. “ For me, this ride was the turning point; over those five days he slept for only about eight hours,’’ Jeetendra said. Then, even as he proved to his supporters that he had what it takes to attempt RAAM, Amit slipped into self-doubt.

June 2018: a training session of Pro Health Foundation underway at Nagpur University sports complex (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

His dilemma was simple. His life and career had evolved very differently from what MBBS conventionally means. Specialization in public health had narrowed his options in India. On top of it, when you train for something as demanding as RAAM and more of your time is consumed by it, the earnings stream gets squeezed further. “ Only 227 people have completed RAAM in their first attempt in the last 37 years. There is no prize money. That is the RAAM equation – you spend a lot and get nothing for it. I had that question perennially in my head – why me?’’ Amit said. Mukul, who is an architect, realized her husband’s worry. Born into a military family and growing up in Nagpur, she knew Amit from 2001. They got married in 2010. Post marriage she took on freelance interior designing assignments. To help in the financially tough pre-RAAM phase, she increased her work load so that Amit can train in peace. Amit spent the months immediately following that 2500 kilometer-ride and the early months of 2017 battling his thoughts. As RAAM drew closer his head cleared up. From “ why me?’’ it transformed to “ why not me?’’

2017 RAAM, Amit commences his race at Oceanside; ahead lay 4800 km of the United States (Photo: Rajeev G)

One of the learnings Amit brought back from RAAM 2016 was how taxing and monotonous the event can be on cyclist’s support crew. They may not be on the saddle but they share a lot of the strain. Once it starts, RAAM runs at one stretch. It is up to cyclists and their crew to decide how much they should rest within the overall cut off time. Crew members end up as sleep deprived as cyclist. Driving a car is fun when the vehicle is allowed its natural speed. Tailing a cyclist as support vehicle requires car to be driven slowly; imagine doing that for 4800 kilometers. Amit realized that these situations and the celebration of solitude endurance races generally are can be particularly trying on Indians who are accustomed to active community life. Hiring crew locally in the US costs money. Further, the crew needs to be composed of people who know him well. So Amit envisioned crew from India working in an ambiance they are used to. Mukul would be part of it, as would be Vijaya Samarth, his mother. Vivitt, who had crewed with Amit at RAAM 2016, would be crew chief. “ The race will take a toll on me. If the crew also becomes serious and boring, what’s the fun? I wanted a crew that would both work and be happy,’’ Amit said.

2017 RAAM; Amit and his support crew (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Two months before RAAM, Amit and Mukul moved to the US. For the most part, he trained in Boulder, Colorado. Then a problem arose. Dev and Chetan Thatte, who knew cycles and cycling well and were to be part of the crew, saw their application for visa rejected. It impacted the technical expertise resident in the crew. “ In India, Amit was being crewed by Chetan. He is a person who is willing to do anything,’’ Vivitt explained. The sudden unavailability of Dev and Chetan meant a search for new hands. Jeetendra summed up the situation. “ My wife and I had planned to go the US to see RAAM and cheer Amit. But when visas were denied for some of the original crew members, we stepped in to crew. Further, Amit asked me to be involved because he wanted a senior person who can help keep the crew together. If by some chance, the crew splits, then it impacts rider’s morale and efficiency,’’ Jeetendra said. Word was spread about the need for hands. Vivitt who had studied and cycled in the US worked his network. Two Indian students in the US responded to his call – Rushabh Ingle and Devesh Thakker. For some of those enrolled as crew it was a case of coming for a few days and then returning. So, one car from the three support vehicles that the team had was also used for trips to the nearest airport and back, ferrying volunteers. In all, the crew included Mukul, Vijaya, Renuka Nayak, Jeetendra Nayak, Vivitt, Suruchi, Sachin Paliwar, Sachin Kuthe, Ravi Nayak, Doug Dunton, Mridula Kini Dunton, Lalit, Devesh, Rushabh, Krish Srikant, Anand Supner, Anurag Kulkarni, Bhanu, Nikhil Chauhan and Dinesh Rathi. Mukul reckons that about ten of them stayed all through. Also in the team was Amit’s son, Ayan. It was as Indian an ambiance as Amit would have wished.

June 2018, Vijaya Samarth fixing the bike rack on the car ahead of Amit’s training session on the Nagpur-Raipur highway (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vijaya’s emergent role in Amit’s cycling ecosystem was visible at Nagpur, the night of June 19, 2018, when Amit was leaving to train on the highway to Raipur. A proactive person, it was she who fitted the bike carrier on Makarand’s car and handed over first aid kit and carton of water. She was still awake at midnight, ready with dinner when cyclist got back home from training. Back at 2017 RAAM, Vijaya and Renuka anchored the team’s kitchen, in many ways the heart of any Indian operation. They were stationed in the big recreational vehicle (RV) at the very rear of the support column, the food they made ensuring everyone had a taste of home cuisine amid all the stress and strain. “ Ours was the happiest team at RAAM,’’ Vijaya said. In the middle of the relatively scattered column was the vehicle which shuttled between lead car and van, passing supplies and also running errands like those airport visits. The lead vehicle loyally tailed cyclist. Mukul stayed in the lead car. Two groups were detailed to work shifts in that vehicle; she was part of one. They stayed in constant touch with Amit on the cycle using a communication system, conversing with him and playing songs to keep him awake. “ There will be occasional friction between cyclist and support crew and between members of the support crew. But we worked to make sure that none of the stress we felt reached Amit. The mission was to ensure that he reaches the finish line in time. To the crew’s credit, we didn’t pick up a single penalty,’’ Mukul said. Violation of race rules by crew members can result in penalties including time-penalty that sees riders being held back or delayed.

Things go wrong despite best intentions. Thanks to his training at Boulder, which is at an elevation of 5400 feet, Amit cleared Wolf Creek Pass (10,857 feet) in the early part of RAAM, quite well. But in hot Arizona, he struggled. A resident of Nagpur and its punishing summer, Amit can handle heat. Bhanu recalled Amit cycling from Nagpur to Hyderabad and back in the scorching summer of Central India. However at RAAM 2017, a brief mismanagement of the distance between support vehicles and cyclist ensured that he didn’t have access to more water when he needed it. Result – he got dehydrated in Arizona. “ Arizona is warm. What makes it tough is that the rocky terrain reflects light and heat,’’ Mukul said. Amit’s dehydration progressed to fever. It slowed him down considerably. His condition improved as he got to Kansas but new challenges cropped up in the form of weather conditions. Good fortune returned at the race’s final climb up and over the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia (the section is called Four Sisters), a challenge confronting exhausted riders towards the concluding portions of RAAM. To thank herein was Sachin Kuthe, a senior official with BMW in the US, who readily agreed to help when his friend, Bhanu, mentioned Amit’s bid to complete 2017 RAAM.

From the 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Sachin had the foresight to get Amit over from Colorado and train on the West Virginia section of the RAAM route. Impressed by how Amit fared, Sachin had then convened a meeting of the crew and spread the message that Amit would succeed if the crew got its act together. Now, tired from the few thousands of kilometers he had cycled and recovered from recent fever, Amit repeated those Appalachian gradients smoothly. At Annapolis, he became the second Indian to complete RAAM solo, after Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. Amit finished the race in 11 days, 21 hours. Importantly, he was the first Indian to finish RAAM in the first attempt. “ There is not a day I don’t think of RAAM. It is special for me,’’ Amit said. At the airport, ahead of boarding the flight back to India, the airline he had booked with insisted on a heavy fee for excess baggage. Amit was short of money. “ They told me that if I don’t have enough money, I should leave my bicycles behind,’’ he said. Eventually friends in the US pitched in and helped raise the required money at short notice. June 2018, exactly a year after 2017 RAAM, he was weeks away from a whole new adventure. At 9100 kilometers, Trans-Siberian Extreme is almost double the distance of RAAM. “ Everything that is going to unfold beyond 5000 kilometers on the saddle is uncharted territory for me,’’ Amit said.

There are differences between RAAM and Trans-Siberian Extreme in how they are organized. In the latter, there are only about a dozen participants in 2018. Every cyclist’s track record in ultramarathon cycling is checked before acceptance. Upon paying the registration fee, Amit was told to report in Moscow with bicycles and just one person for support crew. As before, keeping the Indian nature in mind, he has decided to take two – Dev and Chetan. Everything else from food to support vehicle, drivers, bicycle spare parts, technicians – it is all being provided by the organizers. Unlike RAAM, the 9100 kilometer-long Trans-Siberian Extreme is a stage race with cut-offs for every stage. There is also a rest day in between. The race begins on July 24 and ends on August 17. On Amit’s side, two similarities prevail across RAAM and Trans-Siberian Extreme. According to Vijaya, at the time of RAAM, she had told Amit that he should give it his all. Finish it and come back; else, don’t – that was her attitude. “ I have told him the same for Trans-Siberian Extreme,’’ she said. The other similarity, carried over from RAAM is – search for funds. Trans-Siberian Extreme costs much less than RAAM but it still costs and that money requires to be raised. June 19 evening, on the way to Nagpur University’s sports complex where coaches from Pro Health train amateur athletes, Amit said, “ I wish I had long term sponsors. Then I can focus on training.’’ For now, he said, he looks beyond funding and focuses on project. “ Focus on what lay beyond the challenges. You need guts to attempt these races. Funds will follow. It is all about how badly you want it,’’ he wrote in later. According to him, even at RAAM, aside from maybe elite athletes who have sponsors, most others are supported by their communities and have their struggles with funding. A leading business conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai has provided a third of the funds needed for Trans-Siberian Extreme on condition that if Amit doesn’t piece together the balance, then their money must be returned. Nagpur based-Plasto Group of Companies has also contributed.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Despite completing RAAM, Amit does not consider himself, a cyclist. He sees himself as an endurance athlete. In his matrix of assessment, the triathlon tops as endurance sport. Post Trans-Siberian Extreme one of the things he would like to do is – improve his timing in the full Ironman; bring it to below 10 hours. He would like to improve his timing at RAAM (as many RAAM cyclists do) provided sponsors step in to support repeated RAAM attempts. Amit also wants to contribute to society. He currently trains over 150 amateur athletes of all ages under Pro Health. From their ranks have emerged good finishers at several domestic races (including positions on the podium) and the first Comrades finishers from Nagpur. Then, there is the city. While it is true that the nearest hills are some distance away, Nagpur is flat and hot enough to prep for endurance oriented distance running and cycling, even swimming; Amit’s trainees use one of the local lakes for open water swimming. Organizing a triathlon in Nagpur is on Amit’s radar. He also wants Pro Health to work more and more at the grass roots level. There is a training engagement in sports with youngsters from tribal communities, going on at Hemalkasa. “ I don’t want to add scale. I would rather add depth,’’ Amit said. At the apex of all these plans is a training academy for athletes.

Amit at the finish line of 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Both Bhanu and Jeetendra Nayak said they now wish to see Amit graduate to a sustainably funded model as regards his races; maybe a combination of corporate support and crowdfunding. According to Jeetendra, he continues to stay engaged with Pro Health Foundation in the Hemalkasa program. He helps fund it. Bhanu believes a person like Amit with his mix of training in medicine, specialization in public health, work at Pro Health Foundation and capability for endurance sport should ideally be supported by government. But then in the run up to RAAM and finding funds for it, the sports ministry informed it had no schemes under which Amit could be helped. That was a major disappointment. It is tempting to imagine that the work Pro Health is doing falls in the realm of public health, which Amit specialized in. Unfortunately that is not how the healthcare industry is structured. Within its fold, fitness and sport were traditionally categorized under physical medicine. In more recent times, as an extension of the same, specialists in sports medicine have emerged. When contacted, the CEO of a large hospital chain pointed out that probably where the likes of Amit – combining medical background, public health, fitness and endurance sport – click, is in policy making.

Amit Samarth’s journey continues.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is primarily based on a conversation with Amit Samarth in Nagpur. Inputs from others have been suitably added. Timings at races as well as the number of half marathons, full marathons and Ironman events participated in, are as mentioned by interviewee. At the time of publishing, Amit had a crowd funding program underway on Ketto to help him fund his participation in the 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme.)


Commander Abhilash Tomy KC (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Commander Abhilash Tomy and is being used for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

The 2018 GGR starts on July 1. It entails solo nonstop circumnavigation. Commander Abhilash Tomy KC is among participants. Rules of the 2018 GGR require technology levels aboard participating sail boats to be at the same level as in 1968. This return to purity in sailing is one of the challenges and attractions of the latest GGR.

In a few days from now the 2018 Golden Globe Race will commence from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France.

The race features solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat.

Among the participants is Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat. GGR 2018 is a repeat of the original GGR of 1968, which produced the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat; the distinction went to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston of UK, who accomplished the voyage in the India built-Suhaili. For the 2018 edition of the race, Abhilash will attempt his second solo nonstop circumnavigation in the Thuriya, a replica of the Suhaili. The Thuriya was built in Goa at Aquarius Shipyard, the third sail boat for circumnavigation – after INSV Mhadei and INSV Tarini – the yard has built. In terms of design, the Suhaili – and thereby the Thuriya – is not a fast boat. In the 1968 GGR, the Suhaili had cut the image of patiently soldiering on. The boat’s design lays greater emphasis on stability and safety. It was the only design to complete the 1968 GGR, keeping aside the potential of Bernard Moitessier’s steel boat, the Joshua, which under the command of the maverick French sailor executed a splendid voyage but set a direction of its own (for more on the Thuriya, her design and why Abhilash chose this design, please click on this link:

Last reported on this blog in April, the Thuriya was shipped to Rotterdam in Netherlands aboard a freighter, from Kochi. From Rotterdam the Thuriya proceeded to Medemblik to have her mast refitted, get some repair jobs done and to take on supplies. She then sailed to UK to participate in the Suhaili Parade of Sail at Falmouth. In the 1968 GGR, Falmouth was from where the Suhaili started her voyage and concluded it. From Falmouth the participants of 2018 GGR sailed in a friendly race – the SITraN Challenge Race – to Les Sables-d’Olonne in France. The race village there opened on June 16. The 2018 GGR will start around noon, July 1.

On Friday (June 22) Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) – the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation in a sail boat and Abhilash’s team manager for 2018 GGR – told this blog that the Thuriya’s safety inspection, mandated by race regulations, happened earlier that day. “ Everything went well. A few minor adjustments are required, that’s all,’’ he said. According to him, the Thuriya has performed well at sea, so far. Final adjustments and stocking of supplies will continue till close to departure. “ That is normal,’’ he said. All three members of Thuriya’s core team – Abhilash, Dilip and Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius Shipyard – were in Netherlands for refitting the sail boat’s mast and other equipment, which had been dismantled for transport from India. Besides this, the boat was given coats of underwater anti-fouling paint and equipment-tweaks to bring her in line with 2018 GGR regulation, like not having telescopic poles for her sails. “ We had to convert that to non-telescopic,’’ Dilip said.

From left: Ratnakar, Abhilash and Dilip on the Thuriya, the day the sail boat was launched at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The work was largely done by Abhilash, Dilip, Ratnakar and Johan Vels, a former boatyard owner, who is known well to the team that has worked on India’s circumnavigation projects. Where more hands were required, the team hired external assistance accordingly. Ratnakar has since returned to Goa. Once the 2018 GGR begins and Abhilash and Thuriya are off on their voyage, Dilip will sail to UK in the Suhaili with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Thereafter he will sail with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to Iceland, Greenland and Northern Ireland before returning to Goa in September. As Abhilash’s team manager, he will have to be available for the race managers to contact anytime.

According to Dilip, the Indian Navy has supported Abhilash’s second attempt at solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR by providing a sizable portion of the funds required on loan-cum-grant basis. Besides funding from the navy, Thuriya and Abhilash were also afforded some buoyancy by gestures like the boat’s self-steering mechanism being gifted by its manufacturer and some of the onboard electronics being contributed by a Dubai-based company.

Rules of the 2018 GGR require technology levels aboard participating sail boats to be at the same level as in 1968. This return to purity in sailing is one of the challenges and attractions of the latest GGR. In the 1968 GGR, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had completed the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat in 312 days. He was also the only finisher in that race. In the annals of modern circumnavigation, the voyages of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and the late Sir Francis Chichester (first solo circumnavigation via the clipper route in 1966-67 and fastest circumnavigator at that time; nine months, one day) are important. They provide reference points for countries pursuing circumnavigation dreams.

Both Dilip and Abhilash earned their place in the ranks of solo circumnavigators thanks to the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama program. Besides gifting India its first solo circumnavigator and solo nonstop circumnavigator, the project recently saw the first circumnavigation done by an Indian all-woman crew. The sail boats used for all these voyages were built in India. Sagar Parikrama was the brainchild of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd).

Asked what he felt about a product of Sagar Parikrama among those at the start line of 2018 GGR, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in, “   I think of how far we have come since the first Indian in an India built boat in 2009-10, my toils and travails during the previous quarter century to make it happen. I persisted because of a strange conviction that the sea and India had a very primeval, symbiotic relationship which had been one of the props of ancient Indian civilization, its contribution to a world community starting with the Indian Ocean. Such geographic advantage is not given to many people on God’s earth. And then we squandered it through a strange diktat based on the primacy of caste over the sea. For more than a thousand years we became – the elite certainly did – strangers to the sea. Someone else stepped into the vacuum and reaped the benefits of a sea based civilization, a sea based international order. We had to get back there. We had lost our sea legs. How do we regain them? We have to start from the top because this is an expensive business, getting the young back to the sea for their recreation and leisure in a big way. That was my thinking. My persistence prompted Sagar Parikrama; at least I think it did.

This photo has been downloaded from the Facebook page of Commander Abhilash Tomy. No copyright infringement intended.

And now after two solo circumnavigations, another by a team of six women, here is Abhilash poised to race solo around the world, once again in an India built boat against sixteen other stalwarts. The outcome will not matter to me. He will complete the race and help put India back a little more where she has always belonged, among sea based civilizations. So help me God. Besides mucking about at sea in a small sailing boat is always great fun, a tremendous learning process about the great natural forces which sustain Homo Sapien.’’

An iconic take-away from the 1968 GGR is the competition that happened between Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the Suhaili and the late Bernard Moitessier of France, sailing in Joshua. Although he started much after Suhaili and had the fastest time among the racers, Moitessier didn’t go back to England to complete the race. Instead, upon rounding Cape Horn and returning to the Atlantic, he continued eastward to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific beyond, terminating his voyage in Tahiti. He is said to have done this to protest the commercialization of long distance sailing. While there is a Suhaili replica at 2018 GGR in the form of Thuriya, there is no replica of the Joshua participating in the race. At ceremonies related to 2018 GGR at Falmouth, the Suhaili was joined by Joshua and Gypsy Moth IV, the sail boat Sir Francis Chichester used. All three boats were berthed on the same pontoon. In November 2015, when the new UK passport was launched, the Gypsy Moth IV was among heritage motifs selected to feature in it. An August 2017 report in Yachting & Boating World says that there are plans underway to have “ a second class of Joshua steel-built one-design yachts.’’ Both the Suhaili and Joshua are there at Les Sables-d’Olonne in the countdown to 2018 GGR. Also present is Pen Duick VI, one of the boats sailed by the late Eric Tabarly, the famous French long distance sailor.

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


Christoph Strasser (This image has been downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page / no copyright infringement intended)

Austria’s Christoph Strasser has won the solo category of Race Across America (RAAM) for the fifth time.

The win puts him on par with the late Jure Robic of Slovenia, who won RAAM five times in the men’s category; in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. The record for the maximum number of solo wins – six – is held by Seana Hogan of the US.

According to the event’s official website, Strasser – he holds the record for the fastest time to finish at RAAM – completed the 2018 edition of the race in eight days, one hour and 23 minutes.  As per information available on the Internet, this would be his third fastest finish at the event. He previously won in 2011 (eight days, eight hours, six minutes), 2013 (seven days, 22 hours, 52 minutes), 2014 (seven days, 15 hours, 56 minutes) and 2017 (eight days, nine hours, 34 minutes).

RAAM is approximately 4800 kilometers long. It spans the United States, commencing from Oceanside in California and ending at Annapolis in Maryland. The first Indian solo finishes at RAAM happened last year (2017). Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath earned the distinction of being the first Indian solo cyclist to complete RAAM. He was followed by Dr Amit Samarth, who became the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category on the very first attempt.

This year there are no Indian racers in the solo category at RAAM.

Austria’s Christoph Strasser takes a selfie at the start line of RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Placed second after Strasser at the currently on 2018 edition of RAAM, was Luxembourg’s Ralph Diseviscourt who had completed 2727.9 miles (4390 kilometers) – when checked at 11.36 AM, June 21 in India – eight days, eleven hours and seven minutes since the solo category of the race started in the US. In third position overall was the leader among women, Nicole Reist of Switzerland who had cycled 2625.7 miles (4225.6 kilometers).

Placed fourth in the solo category and third among men, was Michael Conti of the US who had covered 2412.8 miles (3883 kilometers).

Veteran cyclist Seana Hogan was at 2172.7 miles (3496.6 kilometers). She was followed closely by Kathy Roche-Wallace of the US at 2142.7 miles (3448.3 kilometers). Seana holds the record for the most number of solo wins by a rider, male or female, at RAAM – six, in the women’s category. She won in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998. She also holds the transcontinental record among women having cycled the distance in nine days, four hours and two minutes.

Austria’s Mauerhofer Thomas, placed third overall among solo cyclists when RAAM 2018 was last reported on this blog, had retired from the race.

Update: Nicole Reist of Switzerland finished RAAM 2018 in nine days, 23 hours, 57 minutes to top the solo category among women.  Luxembourg’s Ralph Diseviscourt completed the race in nine days, 12 hours, 33 minutes to place second in the solo category among men. Seana Hogan finished the race in 12 days, nine hours, eight minutes with Kathy Roche-Wallace following closely at 12 days, 11 hours, 22 minutes.

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


Earlier at the start line in Oceanside, California; Christoph Strasser commencing his race at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Since the event’s first edition in 1982, barring three years, winners in the solo category at Race Across America (RAAM) have finished the roughly 4800 kilometer-ride across the United States, in eight to nine days.

Of the three exceptions, 2013 and 2014 were notable for time to completion dipping below eight days.

In 2013, Austria’s Christoph Strasser marked his second triumph (he has won RAAM four times so far), completing the event in seven days, 22 hours and 52 minutes.

In 2014, he brought that timing down further, winning RAAM in seven days, 15 hours and 56 minutes.

Going by the above, Sunday (June 17 in India) would be half way to past half way – in terms of time taken to completion – for the leaders of RAAM’s 2018 edition.

Checked at 10.03 PM on Sunday – that is four days, 21 hours and approximately 33 minutes after the race commenced in the US – Strasser was ahead of the rest, having covered 1980.1 miles (3187 kilometers).

Earlier at the start line in Oceanside,California; Nicole Reist commencing her race at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Placed second with 1703.4 miles (2741 kilometers) covered, was Luxembourg’s Ralph Diseviscourt. He had finished RAAM in 2016 becoming in the process, the first person from his country to do so.

In third place overall was Austria’s Mauerhofer Thomas, who had covered 1654.3 miles (2662 kilometers).

Against the gap of nearly 280 miles separating Strasser from the rest, three riders appeared clustered around the segment of 1700-1600 miles covered. Besides Diseviscourt and Thomas, the third person was Switzerland’s Nicole Reist. The leader at this point among woman cyclists, she had covered 1612.8 miles (2596 kilometers).

Kathy Roche-Wallace of the US had covered 1225.4 miles (1972 kilometers) while Seana Hogan, also of US, was at 1199.4 miles (1930 kilometers).

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


Nigel Smith (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nigel Smith is a Level 3 Cycling Coach, accredited through his National Federation, British Cycling, in the UK. He is currently based in Mumbai. He brings to his views on Indian cycling, the quality of the outsider’s perspective. As with many sports in India that is a valuable point of view, for you see things as they are, in ways residents lost to life within, don’t. Excerpts from a recent conversation with Nigel, an afternoon at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC):

In the time you have spent here, what is the dominant aspiration you have seen Indian cyclists seeking advice for? I define aspiration here in terms of attributes like distance, endurance, speed, track, trail, touring.

In terms of the cyclists that I am currently working with or have been receiving enquiries from, certainly in Mumbai, the dominant performance aspiration is around triathlon. If I look at the sport from the perspective of mass participation, then if you move up from leisure cyclist to someone with aspiration, maybe among the first things you would attempt is one of the BRM (Brevets Randonneurs Mondiaux) events. These are not competitive. They are more around completion of event. Beyond that I am working more and more with triathletes. There are those who are looking at their first triathlon of Olympic distance and they are looking at getting it done in three and a half hours. Conversely, I am also working with a lot of people who have stepped up to half Ironman distance and rather than looking at a completion type-goal, they are looking at setting themselves a target like six and a half or seven hours. Those people are seeking my guidance as a specialist coach in cycling. So perhaps they tackled Olympic distance doing all the training themselves; now, they have set themselves a bigger goal with time target attached. I also get calls from people who are looking to challenge themselves more.

Nigel; from a race in India (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

You had expressed dismay last year at the popular fascination for Race Across America (RAAM), even as races like Tour de France and other similar European races exist. Why do you think this has occurred in the Indian context? Is it a case of herd following established precedent or is it a case of Indian – as person in given context and exposure to cycling – assuming what he / she may be naturally good at? If the latter, then are we making a mistake overlooking fast paced, multi stage, severely competitive formats like the Tour and its ilk?

Yes and yes (laughs). From my perspective as a foreigner who has lived in this country for nearly three years, I feel the fascination for RAAM could be born out of previous exposure. Perhaps the RAAM imagery ties in with what the Indian cycling population has been previously exposed to. If you are somebody who has been exposed to BRMs, the logical step would be to do the 200, 300, 600 BRMs and the next challenge on the horizon could be RAAM. Similarly I see people wanting to do things like Deccan Cliffhanger and maybe challenge themselves to do it solo. That is another personal goal beyond just doing BRMs. It is also interesting that goals are more around completion rather than racing. I see the general Indian population very interested in challenging themselves personally as opposed to pitching themselves against other people. I do not know whether that is an Indian mentality or not. Certainly if you put a cricket ball in their hand, they want to win! It is the same with running. I meet a lot of runners and their interest is in completing a marathon as opposed to racing people in their category. It could be because mass organized endurance sport is still in its infancy here. The competitive nature has yet to come to the surface. It is there; I have seen some wonderful performances. But the current trend is more towards challenging oneself rather than pitching self against others.

From a cyclist’s point of view, what is the difference between a RAAM and a Tour de France? What is your view on the level of competition at these events? How differently do these two races impact rider in terms of personal strain?

RAAM is predominantly an exercise in personal endurance. Whilst the athletes are trying to complete the distance faster than each other, they are not directly ‘racing’ each other. Effectively, it is an ultra-long time trial where you must keep your effort well below threshold, whilst trying to be as fast as possible, supported by relatively very little rest and managing the accumulating effects of sleep deprivation. It’s about 30 per cent longer than Tour de France but completed in less than half the time, since there are no scheduled daily ‘start’ and ‘finish’ points.

By comparison, a Grand Tour, such as the Tour de France, requires a few hours – up to six – a day but is ridden at a higher intensity and a wider range of intensities in a wheel to wheel ‘race’ scenario. The winners of each 21 stages, whether it be a flat – sprint – stage or a mountainous stage will inevitably have to dig far deeper and produce far greater performances – in terms of producing ‘numbers’ or riding at their limit, then recover overnight and repeat for 21 days.

The supreme athlete that is Christoph Strasser averages about 16 miles per hour (26 kilometers per hour) for his solo RAAM efforts. A Grand Tour winner will average about 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), though they do have aerodynamic help with drafting and so on.

At the 2017 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

To go back to a point you mentioned earlier, what do you think needs to be done to move from challenging oneself to competing with others?

From an individual point of view, the first thing would be to ride with other people; ride in groups. Challenge yourself and understand what it feels like. Perhaps read up a little and talk to a coach – find out what must be done to handle the greater workload. And then obviously, you got to find competitions. Competitive cycling can be found only in certain pockets across the country. What they are doing in Karnataka is very well organized. You have a wonderful series of events across all terrains. It is attracting hundreds of riders every month to compete, not only against themselves but also against each other, across different age groups, male and female. On the other hand, here in Mumbai, we are not getting that. So to go back to the original question – what should people do? – It is a case of: you need some governance from the CFI (Cycling Federation of India) to bring together a state by state policy for racing, training camps and such. You have to make things more organized and uniform across the country.

There are bicycle races being held in India. What is your view on the Indian racing calendar as means to grow for someone wishing to be a proficient bicycle racer? Do we have the required distances; the required types of races? Are there gaps / shortcomings and if so, what would they be?

The number of races available – if you are prepared to travel – is more than adequate. What invariably happens is that races are not published at the beginning of the season. I understand, as is the way of the world here, people have to get permissions – from local authorities, the police and sponsors and everything happens at the last minute. Consequently it is very difficult to plan your race calendar because you don’t know what is going to come up. If you have an annual calendar published in advance, then you could have all the best cyclists in the country going to the same races and competing against each other rather than three or four times a year, maybe once a month. The way races are promoted also play a part. In Bengaluru you have a wonderful set up with very good cyclists and great competitive racing. Prize money? Zero. They go there for the racing. On the other hand in Mumbai, we have races where the prize money is close to a lakh of rupees. You get riders coming from all over in big teams and racing very badly because somebody has to win that money and share it with the team. That promotes poor racing, negative racing and dangerous racing. They are not racing for the love of racing. They are racing because they want the money. If racers across the country agreed that for any race, prize money does not exceed a certain level, then you start getting people going to the races because of the quality of organization, management and safety; not because there is a lakh of rupees at the end of it.

To your mind, what is the ambiance that has been most successful at growing talent in cycling? India has a big bicycle industry and no internationally known racers. What is it about the European cycling context that made it churn out so many champion cyclists?

There is nothing special or unique about what happens in Europe. Whatever is going on across Europe – whether it is UK, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, it is going on across America, Australia, New Zealand and some Asian countries – it is structure, process, organized calendar of races and a good club system. Here in India, there is no real club system where you have a club that is affiliated to the regional body, which is affiliated to the national body, you pay your subscriptions, you have your club kit, though your club you get exposure to local events, riding with other riders, organized training rides as a group. All of that goes on across every European country, every western country. Above that, they have a recognizable structure from their national body down to club level, which allows riders who are good, to enter local, regional and national races, then to be recognized by the national federation, go to a talent camp, be spotted, be put on to an academy and be sent abroad to race for a while. If they are good enough they will succeed. If not, they will come back. Right now as we speak, Naveen John is in Belgium trying to get the best racing experience he can. He is living and racing within that structure. There is no reason why that structure cannot exist in India. It is just a case of the national body and the state bodies putting their heads together and doing something about it.

Riding on cobbles in Belgium, during the 2012 Tour of Flanders Sportive (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

I would imagine that when Naveen’s team goes to Europe to race, the national federation has very little to do with it. It is an initiative by cyclists who are keen to improve and the sponsors backing them. Let me mention an old incident that happened in Mumbai – almost 15 years ago. A climbing club here pioneered a competition. One of its early editions was extended support by the apex body in climbing globally but the support was shot down by domestic authorities who felt they were being circumvented……

That is entirely in line with what I perceive about cycling. Another example would be – by 2010, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, we had a world class velodrome in Delhi comparable to velodromes in Manchester, Glasgow and the one used for London Olympics as well. That was eight years ago. You would think that by now you would see the green shoots of development in bicycle racing, courtesy such facilities. But where are they?

How much initiative are clubs allowed to enjoy in the UK? To what extent must the national body be involved if a club team desires to compete overseas? What is the structure there?

My club in the UK doesn’t race abroad but there are plenty of other clubs in the region that travel to Belgium or France to do events. All we need is a race licence that is given by the national body. So if I am a member of a club, that club is affiliated, I am a member of British Cycling, I have a British Cycling race licence – that is enough. My coach in the UK; once a month he and his team mates would go across to Belgium for the weekend, race and come back. I can go and join them because I have the required race licence.

As a foreign coach in India, you have the benefit of seeing what is going on from an outsider’s perspective without being invested too much internally, which is what bogs people here down. It is obvious from your comments that Bengaluru seems to have the most evolved bicycle racing scene in India. What is it about Bengaluru that works in its favor?

I don’t know the history of how the set up in Bengaluru started. But I imagine there was a large community of individuals attached to certain bike shops and brands, who got together and made some things happen. Second, Bengaluru has access to some fantastic roads for good riding. In Mumbai, if I want to do some good riding, I have to get beyond Thane, beyond Kalyan and be on the Nasik highway. That’s an hour’s drive before I even get the bike out of the car. So if I have to meet up with some good riders, get some rolling roads and get some good riding done, that’s an hour’s drive away. And to get everyone to do that, to organize that – it’s not going to happen. We are kind of hampered here by living in a sprawling metropolis.  I know from riding around that the roads are difficult, the policing is difficult. We are hampered by the infrastructure that we are living in. However there are some guys in Delhi who put together some interesting events. So it can be done.

Speaking at the 2017 India Cycling Festival (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

You work with Scott India’s team. Can you describe the coaching work you do through Scott India?

When I started working with Scott India they had just signed up 10 or 12 cyclists for their supported-athlete program. They brought me in to oversee the coaching side of it. From Scott’s point of view, they are investing in a group of athletes across the country but they have no way of making sure whether they are training correctly or have someone to talk to and work with. I was providing that role initially. Over the years, a number of athletes have come and gone from the program. We are now in the process of refining what the athlete program should look like and how it should function. So the first question is: how do we select? There are some selection criteria we are laying out now. Plus there will be some performance benchmarking. We are looking to try and lend some professional elements to it. The rider has to deliver. We will give them as much support as we can. But they are responsible for their performance. So if I am working with a rider who I am going to see rarely because they live in the very north of the country, then all of it is coaching remotely. As a coach I need to make sure that I am instructing them well not just on the sessions they are doing but on how they are riding, the skills and techniques they are supposed to perfect. They should send me the data using whichever platform they are using so that I can monitor. We look at cadence, power, heartrate etc. I might ask them to send me video footage of themselves so that I can see their technique. From all this we try and optimize the training program required for that particular athlete. The more you work with them, the better you understand their specific goals – short, medium and long term. We work out what their race program should look like, when they should be at the gym, what they should be doing at the gym and for how long. I try and take out all the myths. There is a lot of information on the Internet which can be assembled the wrong way. I help them get it right. I try to get them thinking in terms of annual plan, break it down to phases and then, what they should be doing in each phase. It all has to be structured and it has to follow a goal oriented plan. That is what I help with.

One of the things cyclists from here would look for, when they join a program of the sort you outlined, is opportunity to race. Not just races here, but races overseas. Is that built into Scott India’s imagination of the program or is the current position one of laying the ground work and visualizing participation in races only after the basics have been met?

Yes. So going back to the structure of the athlete program, the first thing is – we have the selection criteria. That is based on age, physical attributes, physical potential and also for want of a better word, professionalism; because these guys are going to be brand ambassadors. They have a responsibility to represent the brand in the right way. They also have a responsibility to take care of themselves and train according to the program that has been given to them. If they have those mental and physical attributes, then they are on the program. The program will dictate a certain number of races they need to be doing each year. Broadly speaking, we are looking at state championships, national championship, regional races and one or two larger Indian races. You give them a race program. If that goes well what we are trying to do at Scott India is – how do we utilize Scott’s global reach to the best advantage of these riders? There is the Mitchelton-Scott World Tour Pro Team. They also have an under-23 continental level team that is currently racing in the under-23 Giro d’Italia. They are registered in China. So it is a UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Asia-registered team which does a lot of racing in Europe. What we are trying to see is whether we can work out a pathway to connect the best athletes on the Scott India training program to a training slot on the under-23 team so that they at least get to live like an under-23 full time athlete. They are parachuted in for a period of time and they can experience it. We haven’t got someone to that level yet and the law of averages says we have to see a lot of riders first before we find someone who fits the bill. But that is the goal – to get someone, who in one or two years, maybe even next year, gets to train with these guys. They will be pitched against the best under-23 Scott riders. If that team of people reckons that our trainees have the required talent, they get invited back for a race program and then it takes on from there. My goal is to train our Indian cyclists to the level where they get aboard an under-23 semi-professional team.

From one of the many hill climb events that fill the late season UK cycling calendar. This particular event was promoted by the BEC Club in South East London, 2014 (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

We discussed the Indian fancy for RAAM earlier. If we traded that fancy for a fast paced, highly competitive, multi-stage format like that of Tour de France, how far would you say are Indian cyclists from making a beginning in that direction? Do you see the necessary ingredients to attempt that journey?

We are seeing Indian cyclists competing at RAAM and they are just completing it. That is the accomplishment. I have had this conversation multiple times: my question to any youngster imagining Tour de France is – what do you think the guys on Tour de France teams have achieved? A typical world tour team is 25 riders of which, eight get to ride Tour de France for that team. That means there are 17 riders that aren’t riding Tour de France, who would be riding the smaller races. Some of them will ride three week-grand tours. Some of them won’t. All those riders were picked from pro-continental teams, which is the next tier down. Typically they could be under-23 teams or smaller pro teams. A rider has to be very, very good at pro-continental level to get picked for the tier above. Below pro-continental is continental. There is probably about half a dozen continental level teams in the UK. They are a very small set up, they do a lot of domestic races and they occasionally go to northern Europe to do small stage races there. To get onto one of these teams you got to be probably at the level of an Indian national champion. So if you look at what Naveen is doing – he is the best of the best among Indian riders – he is right now racing at that UCI continental level in Belgium for however many weeks he is out there. He is very open and it is great that he is sharing everything that is happening. We can see how well he is doing against regular club guys, academy regulars and under-23 sorts. That’s the best from India. That’s where India stands. So if an Indian cyclist thinks he wishes to race professionally or at least at that level where expenses are taken care of, you got to be better than that. The first thing to do is get from whatever level you are at in India, to Naveen’s level.

In your assessment what is the distance between Naveen and the rest in India?

It’s bridgeable. It’s not massive. Certainly from the racing scene in Bengaluru, Coimbatore and some of the other races, I would say – there are very good cyclists. But again, they need the structure and support system to close that gap. They need to be able to visualize where they are now, where they wish to be and what steps they should take to go beyond it. After that they can think of what races they should do outside India. It is one step at a time. It will be great if in the next couple of years – with what Naveen is doing – if we go from one Naveen John to maybe five or six. And then maybe one of them will break through and something will happen. We need to create that structure, that process and that support network.

It is very common in India to link our lagging behind in sports to economic development. In the case of bicycles, despite big volumes traditionally produced in India, it is less than two decades since we have had modern cycles being available. Would you accept that as a valid excuse for where we find ourselves in, in bicycle racing?

No, no. Because by exactly the same argument, running in the city is a bigger sport and running costs only a pair of trainers. You have wonderful races in running all through the year in India. But we don’t see performance. So no, I don’t buy equipment as a valid excuse.

So it boils down to passion and how much you will drive yourself to get to that level….

Yes. Again I will use my native country as example. We had the big running boom in the 1980s. The first London Marathon was in 1981. Within a few years hundreds of thousands of people were running and thousands of them were running sub-three hour-marathons. It just exploded, talent grew and the performances were a match for any other nation. I can’t tell you why this hasn’t happened in India.

From the Mumbai Championship (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

There is a lot of premium attached in India to well settled life; pursuit of this ideal shapes Indian existence. An Indian youngster – especially one who isn’t wealthy – going into cycling or any sport other than cricket, is written off as walking a risky path. Sometimes even social acceptance is denied. How secure in the mind is the average youngster in Europe wishing to go into cycling?

Certainly they will get social acceptance. You can take up any sport in Europe, join a club and there will be hundreds of similar minded others. But you don’t necessarily take up sport thinking at the back of your mind, that there is livelihood in it, that it is going to be your job. However you may find that you are very good at it because the structure is there; there is the talent spotting and coaching structure. If you do get spotted, you may get invited to play for a team in a higher league or be better supported, whatever the sport. Through that you get opportunities to develop further. The only time you have a sport versus academia issue is when you get guys who are around 18 years of age and there is the question – do I choose sports or do I go to university? Some sports lend themselves to training and academics side by side. Athletics is one. Maybe if you are a football or rugby player that is not possible. Depending on the sport, you make a choice. Most people say: I am 18 years old; I will give sports a shot. If it fails in the next three years, I can always go to university when I am 21. I am not going to lose that much of my life through trying sport.

So would you say that a flexible approach to education and a flexible education system is critical for developing sports? Being able to take a break from studies and going back after a gap….

A lot of people do that. I read about a lot of people who get a seat at university and then ask to defer it for a year. You try to improve in the sport of your choice during that period and if it doesn’t work out, then you go back to academics.

What would be the most important pieces of advice you would give a youngster in India wishing to be a good, strong bicycle racer?

Whatever you do, you got to get the basics right. First, you don’t need the most expensive equipment. A basic heart rate monitor for instance, will suffice. Second, learn to ride the bike properly in terms of bike handling, developing smooth cadence and technique of pedaling; you got be able to do 90 rpm for hours at a time with relaxed shoulders, using your core to keep you upright and eventually you have to be good at bike handling. Third; rest. In training, there will be hard sessions and light sessions. But you must rest. The harder you train, the longer you have to rest. It is very difficult to pull back riders who are thinking I have got to train hard; I have got to train hard. At some point, you haven’t got to train hard, you got to train easy. You have to let yourself recover.

From Nigel’s first bicycle trip to the Alps in 2007 (Photo: courtesy Nigel Smith)

What got you into cycling and what got you to being a coach for cycling?

The first is easy – it was a broken ankle. I was a regional level club athlete for 25 years. I used to do 1500m, 5000m and steeplechase in summer and cross-country races in winter. This was interspersed with road races. Then I broke my ankle. I returned to running, got back to training and then realized that it was going to take me another year to get back to the fitness level I used to be at. I was 35 years old and I decided – realistically I wouldn’t get any faster. The only thing left for me was to either improve my half marathon personal best or try the marathon, which I wasn’t interested in. So I took up cycling in 2007 because I wanted a sport that would keep me fit and also be fun to indulge in. The competitive drift slowly occurred and I found myself chasing benchmarks. I soon progressed from doing a couple of rides a week to joining a club, competing, racing and so on. Up until 2015 I had a full time job in consumer goods product development.  From 2013 to 2015 I used the services of a full time cycling coach. I enjoyed working with him. In 2015, my wife and I moved to Mumbai for her career. I resigned my job and the question cropped up – do I want to use this time to do something I love? I took the opportunity to avail the coaching classes available with British Cycling. That has taken me two and a half years.  I have got to level three, which is the highest level.

The wonder of a UK club is that the people coaching you are genuinely qualified to help you get better. I was lucky to learn from some really good people over the last 37 years whether it was athletics and running or cycling. Working with British Cycling has taken that to another level. They have worked with British Academy, British pro teams, British Olympic development team and other global federations. The tools and details they gave me, I am now passing on to those training with me. All I am doing is, help my trainees create a structure for themselves such that they can be the best they can be because I cannot influence the state or national structure. I have written to the national body three times and that was it. However I can work with athletes and help them.  It brings us back to the beginning of our conversation – what is missing is that structure. You give the athletes the training, the coaching and advice and then if they have a structure in their sport, they can thrive.

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


Sree Sivadas (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2015, Sree Sivadas – then 48 years old – decided to attempt the triathlon. She had just learnt to swim; she didn’t know cycling.

The brain is everything.

Wikipedia describes the nervous system as that part of an animal coordinating its actions by transmitting signals to and from different parts of its body. Needless to say, this function is vital for sports. At the center of the nervous system and reigning as the most complex organ in any vertebrate’s body, is the brain. Thanks to advancements in science, the brain is understood much better now; yet it is also mystery awaiting science. The operation of individual brain cells has been comprehended in detail but the way they cooperate is still a subject of study.

The brain is well protected. There is the skull and then, the brain and the spinal cord are encased in three membranes called meninges. There is also the cushion and protection provided by cerebrospinal fluid. As with all inventions, language would have been impossible without the brain. Human language is very sophisticated. In Greek, `meninx’ means membrane. In medical parlance `itis’ denotes inflammation. That’s how meningitis, the medical condition caused by inflammation of the meninges, got its name. Sometime in the beginning of the 1980s, an eighth standard student came down with meningitis in Mumbai. Hers was a miraculous recovery. The medicines she had to take included steroids, a category notorious for its side effects. Sreedevi (Sree) Sivadas recovered from meningitis but at the cost of how she looked – she started to pile on weight. It wasn’t long before she realized she had to do something about it.

From a trek (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

Walking has never been a glamorous activity. Walking is so fundamentally human – it is what defines us; the idea of it as distinct activity takes some getting used to. Runners typically view themselves as superior to walkers just as climbers and mountaineers do, to hikers. Young people living the age of distinction aren’t known to celebrate ordinary things like walking. Sree’s father – he moved to Mumbai from Kerala in 1963 – worked at Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers (RCF). Not a very sporty person – Sree’s interest in sports never exceeded recreational level – and beset with need to reduce weight, the school girl joined morning walkers in Chembur, the Mumbai suburb where RCF has a residential colony. For those conscious about standing out from the rest, it was an unusual sight – school girl walking for exercise; most others engaged so alongside were senior citizens. Sree wasn’t bothered. She also enlisted for taekwondo, making it to green belt.

This phase was followed by a shift of residence to Vashi. Soon after her college education, Sree worked briefly at RCF. Then she wrote the staff selection exam conducted by the central government and was initially offered a job with the department of defence. Her posting was at Nhava Sheva, at that time an outpost away from Mumbai with port and defence installations for address. She elected to join India Post instead. She had a secure job. Marriage followed. In 1994, Sree got married. Her husband, Sivadas, ran his own business in engineering goods. A year later, their daughter was born.

In 1996, Sree joined the gym. She worked out in the early morning hours. The confines of a gym – that wasn’t something Sree liked. “ I got bored of the gym. So I shifted to aerobics,’’ she said. Then she got into kick boxing, eventually settling for a combination of activity with gym visits twice a week. But the activity she liked the most – and which probably explains the drift away from gym – was none of this. What Sree genuinely liked and did the most was a cousin of all the walking she did as a student seeking to lose weight – trekking. She liked the outdoors. It was a friend – Anitha Varghese, who worked at National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) – who got her into trekking. Sree is now a life member of Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI); she joined the outfit in 2005. She did a lot of treks – short and long ones – through YHAI.

October 2015; learning to cycle at Borivali National Park (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

In 2004, thanks to Anitha again, Sree became curious about Mumbai’s annual marathon. For two years – 2004 and 2005 – she participated in the seven kilometer-Dream Run. In 2006, without any prior training, she attempted the event’s half marathon segment. “ I didn’t know a thing about running,’’ she said of how she went in for the event. She is aware of how politically incorrect such an approach seems in world where running has become an industry driven by logic and protocols.  Equally, an aspect of world where human activity has become edifice wrapped in perfection and achievement, is that nobody wants to fail. The less you are prepared to fail, the less you try anything new. Sree doesn’t mind trying new things. “ I don’t dwell on failure,’’ she said.

In Mumbai, elevators speak a lot. The elevator at the city’s General Post Office (GPO) screamed heritage building and go-find-who-John Begg-is. As the old, elegantly cast metal cage ascended in shaft open to world, you saw and heard machinery at work; something you don’t, in the secluded ambiance of modern elevators. By 2018, it was 81 years since Begg, Scottish architect known for his Indo-Saracenic architectural style, died. Mumbai’s GPO is his design. Sree, personal secretary to the Post Master General, had her office in one of the building’s turrets. The small room was circular in lay out. With its sunlit windows, the room had a faint Disneyland feel to it; like being in a fairy tale castle albeit one with a heavy touch of government office to it. In appearance, Sree is hardly the sought you would associate with sport. The way it is being promoted, sport is increasingly competitive even at amateur level. As performance becomes main goal and room for error shrinks, the approach smacks of going to office. Conversation with Sree is comfortable; you don’t sense office. She completed that 2006 half marathon in three hours, forty minutes. That is a very slow time. The evening of the half marathon she went for her regular dance classes.

Roughly two years later, in 2007-2008, a 40 year-old Sree began addressing another shortcoming in her life. She didn’t know how to swim. She joined for classes in swimming, learning the skill from scratch. There is however one problem in self-navigated learning. You may be good at breaking the ice; you may not be as good at sustaining the learning. “ I joined for classes, learnt the basics and then I dropped out,’’ Sree said. During this time, she also kept running, pursuing it as best as she could; general awareness of her abilities for guide. Then in 2010, tragedy struck. Her husband died of cancer. The disease developed rapidly. There was little time to respond through treatment.

At the Wada duathlon (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

“ Have you met Sree Sivadas?’’ Naushad Asanar asked. He is a senior member of Soles of Cochin, the Kochi-based runners’ group. The conversation was about triathlon, which entails swimming, cycling and running. Naushad mentioned how Sree, having just got into swimming and not knowing how to cycle yet, had enrolled for a triathlon. It put her on a voyage of discovery. According to Sree, her journey to greater intensity in amateur sport had nothing to do with escaping grief. In the years following her husband’s demise, she soldiered on doing the things that interested her, keeping her life interesting. In 2014, as a continuation of her curiosity for running, she joined BNP Green Runners (BNP stands for Borivali National Park). This was the first group of runners she was joining and they introduced her to more systematic training methods. In 2015, Sree met Naushad, Vijayan Pillai and Mathew Mapram – all runners from Soles of Cochin – at Mumbai Ultra, where she was assisting as volunteer. Held every year, Mumbai Ultra is a non-competitive 12 hour-run (5AM to 5PM); it is run on a six kilometer-section of road earmarked for the purpose in the Shivaji Park-Worli Sea Face area. A good swimmer, Naushad had done a triathlon in Goa. During their conversation he suggested that Sree try the Goa triathlon. Sree resolved to give it a shot. At that time, she had rudimentary knowledge of swimming and was still learning to balance on a cycle. “ I just went for it as I was interested in doing all the three disciplines together. I just wanted to try it out,’’ Sree said when asked how she decided on attempting the Goa triathlon after that conversation at Mumbai Ultra.

In October 2015, Sree started to learn cycling. “ I began with a small bicycle meant for children. I learnt it slowly at the Borivali National Park,’’ she said. BNP – as the park is known in running circles – sees a lot of regular walkers and runners. Sree was dismissive of the specter of her learning to cycle on kid’s bike amid all that humanity. If you want to learn something new, you have to go through the process. “ It took me two to three months to get the hang of riding a bicycle. Then I shifted to using a bigger bicycle which I rented at BNP,’’ she said. Later that same year, she bought her first bicycle – a Schnell mountain bike. In the meantime, she also registered for the triathlon in Goa. As a stepping stone to Goa, she decided to do a duathlon – 10 kilometers of running and 40 kilometers of cycling – that was due in Wada, less than 100 kilometers away from Mumbai. “ Even now, I can’t hop on to a bicycle like those who learnt cycling in childhood do. I have to keep the bike stationary, get on to it and then start pedaling. If the surroundings become too congested or traffic gets too gnarly, I grow concerned,’’ she said outlining her competence on two wheels. Wada was tough for her. The cycling there was a combination of road and trail. Newly entered into cycling, she finished long after everyone else did. “ I think everyone was surprised to see me approaching the finish,’’ she said. Sree’s learning was exactly that – she finished! In her mind, Goa seemed doable.

Sree at a triathlon; shouting her bib number after every lap (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

The Goa event required swimming 1.5 kilometers in the sea, 40 kilometers of cycling and 10 kilometers of running. She started to train again in swimming, electing alongside to stick with the breaststroke as she was comfortable with that style. About the sea, her coach and friends assured her that her worry was “ psychological.’’ Although ` psychological’ is frequently thrown around in India as panacea for beginner’s fears it addresses much less than it proposes to. There is more to sea-swimming than overcoming fear of depth and distance. For example, as distance increases both the swimming style used and strokes deployed therein have to be hydrodynamic and efficient. Rather than fearless mind making you confident (which is the usual Indian argument), it is good technique that makes you confident and thereby, less afraid. In February 2016, at the event in Goa, a mere 100 meters out to sea, Sree panicked.

One attribute about the Goa triathlon, you hear often, is that it is well organized. That helped Sree. In the sea, overcome by fear, she made for a lifeboat nearby. She hung on to it for ten minutes. Then the organizers asked her if she wished to continue. She said yes. “ Thereafter I faced no problem. The sea also helped; it is more buoyant than the waters of a swimming pool,’’ she said. However the event wasn’t without mishap. Shortly after she commenced the cycling leg, she crashed and broke a tooth. “ I still remember. There was a photographer watching all this. He picked up the broken tooth and gave it to me,’’ Sree said. Although she completed the cycling, her knee was swollen. The running was therefore difficult. But as at Wada – she completed the event. She finished in approximately five hours, forty five minutes. “ It was a feeling of mission accomplished,’’ she said. Less than five months after Goa, Sree completed the triathlon in Chennai organized by Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). “ Thankfully that went off without any accident. I didn’t fall from my cycle,’’ she said laughing. The swimming for the CTC event was in a big abandoned quarry. According to her, the cut off for the Chennai event was seven hours. Sree said she finished in roughly five hours, thirty minutes. In November 2016, Sree completed a triathlon in Pune, designed to Olympic distances. Here the swimming was in a lake and the cycling was in the hills. “ This one was really tough for me,’’ she said. Sree completed the event. She took way beyond six hours for it. “ I just managed to finish, that’s all. I was not prepared for the cycling route,’’ she said.

At the Goa triathlon (Photo: Sree Sivadas)

Three triathlons old, the unassuming India Post staffer, begins her day around 4 AM. Depending on the day’s choice of workout, she trains for about two hours and gets back home by 6.30. On weekends she trains for three hours. To help her use time efficiently, she has bought a home trainer that allows her to cycle at home. She is also moving away from breaststroke as preferred swimming style at triathlons. Breaststroke leaves the legs feeling tired and at a triathlon, all the three disciplines involved, require use of legs. If a swimming style – like freestyle – can be more efficient, it makes sense to learn it. She has also realized how flawed her bicycle purchases have been. From the Schnell MTB she progressed to a Fuji hybrid. But a bike fit she got done at a 2017 cycling expo in Mumbai, showed her that both cycles were not of recommended frame size. Some of the difficulties she continues to face in cycling probably stems from this. Meanwhile, the legacy of those steroids from childhood linger. At one point in her childhood, the injections had been a dozen a day. Then it was brought down to eight, finally six. “ I have always been on the heavy side,’’ Sree said.

For future project, she hopes to do a Half Ironman someday, provided she can balance the training with her work schedule. Triathletes are often the most meticulous and disciplined of athletes. Viewing life differently, Sree hasn’t allowed the sport she has got into or the projects she has signed up for, to reduce her life to a matrix of goal-setting and achieving. “ I don’t fret if I can’t keep up a training schedule. I do the triathlon for fun. I hope one day I can attempt a Half Ironman overseas,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Timings at races are as mentioned by interviewee.)


Austria’s Christoph Strasser takes a selfie at the start line of RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

This report mixes an on the spot account of the start of RAAM 2018 with relevant background information. Rajeev G, was at Oceanside for this blog.

The 2018 Race Across America (RAAM) began from Oceanside, California on June 12.

The race, which traverses the United States from Oceanside on the west coast to Annapolis in the east, entails cycling a distance of approximately 4800 kilometers. The race ends on June 25. Last year’s winners in the solo category for men and women were Christoph Strasser of Austria and Sarah Cooper of the US.

Strasser, one of the leading ultra-distance cyclists in the world today, is racing at RAAM this year too.  While Sarah Cooper is not listed for 2018, a name to watch out for among women doing RAAM solo would be Switzerland’s Nicole Reist. Also participating is Seana Hogan of the US, veteran cyclist and six time winner at RAAM who is seeking to improve her record in the fifty plus age category.

San Diego based-engineer, Rajeev G, was there at Oceanside to witness the start of RAAM. “ Strasser was the last rider to start. He looked very relaxed and was smiling and laughing at the start line,’’ Rajeev wrote in. Strasser who has dominated RAAM in recent years, paused to take a selfie at the start line before pedaling off into the race.

Kathy Roche-Wallace at the start line of RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Christoph Strasser commences his race at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Unlike many of the other riders, Strasser did not seem to have a dedicated fan club or many supporters in the crowd at Oceanside. However everyone knew who he was and you could sense awe in the crowd. Thanks to her crew members, Nicole Reist enjoyed the loudest cheering. She was one of the early riders to start. “ Reist had the most vocal support of anyone,’’ Rajeev noted. According to him, Seana Hogan was one of the first racers to start (apart from all the RAAW riders of course). “ She was clearly very popular; terrific acknowledgement from the crowd as her name was announced. Seana was in good spirits at the start as well. She left rather quickly after reaching the starting line,’’ he said.

Rajeev had been at the start line in 2017 too.

Compared to last year, he felt that the ambience was subdued this time around. “ Hanging around near the start, I met Bob and Darlene Mckenzie from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bob was scheduled to ride as part of a four-person team (Team RAAM Polio). Darlene was his crew chief; she claimed that is the tougher job. They watched the start for a while before heading to the airport to pick up Bob’s three Austrian teammates. Darlene mentioned that there are fewer solo riders in this year’s RAAM, but neither of them knew why,’’ Rajeev wrote in.

Seana Hogan starts her race at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Nicole Reist at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

He added, “ Bob had a pretty interesting story. He only picked up road riding close to his 60th birthday six or seven years ago. He told me that he was totally unathletic before that. Apparently since he took up cycling, he has lost fifty pounds and completed almost 300 centuries (100 mile-rides). 2018 will be his third time doing the RAAM team race, each time with a four person-team. Last year his team had finished in just over seven days. This year, the goal is to finish in under seven days.’’

In 2017 Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath had become the first Indian to complete RAAM, followed by Amit Samarth. This year there are no Indian cyclists in the fray. Sundaram Narayanan from Goa, who had registered to participate in the solo category, withdrew following injury while training in San Diego.

At the time of writing this report (June 14, 3.35 PM in India), Strasser was leading the solo riders having covered 716.8 miles. Nicole Reist was at 583.3 miles and Seana Hogan at 501.1 miles.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article has inputs from Rajeev G, engineer based in San Diego. He provided the view from Oceanside.  All photos used herein have been provided by Rajeev.)


Bongmusa Mthembu of South Africa emerged overall winner at Comrades 2018, held this Sunday.

He finished the race in 5:26:34 hours.

Joseph Mphuthi, also of South Africa, finished second with a timing of 5:35:09. Britain’s Stephen Way finished third, completing the ultramarathon in 5:35:27.

For Mthembu, it was his third win at Comrades.

He had previously won in 2014 and 2017. Last year he completed the race, which was run uphill, in 5:35:34.

Among women at Comrades 2018, Ann Ashworth of South Africa won with a timing of 6:10 hours.

In second place was Gerda Steyn of South Africa (6:15:34) while Alexandra Morozova of Russia (6:20:21) placed third.

Surat-based Sandeep Kumar appeared the fastest among Indians who participated in the event. He completed the 90.184 kilometer-ultramarathon in 7:30:17, ranking 628 overall, 601 among men and 376 in his category.

This was the 93rd edition of Comrades, the world’s biggest and oldest ultramarathon. As per the event’s official website featuring results, 16,844 runners participated in 2018. According to news reports, Bongmusa Mthembu is the first South African to win Comrades back to back since Bruce Fordyce in the late 1980s. Fordyce holds the record for the most number of wins – nine. Eight of those wins were consecutive. Participating in the period from 1977 to 2012, he ran the race 30 times.

A total of 161 runners from India had registered to participate in the 2018 edition of the race, run annually between Durban and Peitermaritzburg in South Africa. This year, the run was downhill from Pietermaritzburg to Durban with finish at Moses Mabhida Stadium in the coastal city of Durban.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)


Sundaram Narayanan who was scheduled to participate in the 2018 Race Across America (RAAM), has pulled out of the event.

In a mail received early Saturday (June 9) morning, Sundaram informed that he suffered a crash while training in San Diego, California.

It resulted in a fracture to his left thumb.

“ Hence I withdrew from RAAM 2018,’’ the cyclist from Goa, wrote.

Sundaram was to race in the solo category.

He and his support crew were registered as Team Sundaraam.

When contacted, Dr Pankaj Mhatre, Crew Chief of Team Sundaraam, said that following the cyclist’s injury, they had sought opinion from various doctors.

“ Opinion is that RAAM is not possible for him this year,’’ he said.

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


Sundaram Narayanan (Photo: courtesy Pankaj Mhatre)

Sundaram Narayanan is the sole participant from India at the 2018 edition of Race Across America (RAAM), which commences at Oceanside, California on June 12. The cyclist from Goa will be racing in the solo category.

RAAM is a 4800 kilometer-long ultramarathon bicycle race that traverses the United States from its west coast to the east.

Across RAAM and the shorter Race Across West (RAW), three Indians had registered to participate in 2018. As per indications on Wednesday, June 6 (with less than a week left for commencement of race), Sundaram alone remained in the fray. He was already in the US. Last year Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath had become the first Indian to complete RAAM solo. He was followed by Dr Amit Samarth. Sundaram had been part of the support crew for Srinivas Gokulnath in 2017 (for more on Srinivas Gokulnath please click on this link: Crewing is widely advised as means to familiarize oneself with demanding endurance races like RAAM. Many racers crew before they get down to attempting the race themselves.

Sundaram’s team – registered under the name Team Sundaraam – has nine members, all of them passionate about cycling. They include Dr Pankaj Mhatre who is the crew chief, Vinod Pai, Rick Zwestch, Ajay Dongre, Raghav Gowda, Rutvik Khare, Chakravarthy Birur, Venkatesh Shivarama, Dhanasekhara and Niranjan Upasani. Five of them have previous RAAM experience. Family members of solo racers have often featured as part of support crew. Sundaram’s wife Harshal, who is a nutritionist, will be joining the crew, Dr Pankaj Mhatre said.

Participating in RAAM is an expensive affair.

Sundaram was supposed to participate in the race in 2017 but could not due to insufficient funds. His team then decided to have him crew and gain experience. According to Dr Mhatre, Sundaram got into serious cycling some time in 2012. At that time, like many in India, he used a basic mountain bike. His interest in road biking grew by leaps and bounds. He achieved multiple Super Randonneur titles, was attracted to RAAM and qualified for the race twice. His RAAM project has been on since 2015. A medical physicist by profession, Sundaram has been in Goa since 2012.

For RAAM, Sundaram will be using two bikes and three wheel-sets. To ride, he will have at his disposal a Merida Scultura 5000 and a Merida Scultura 4000, upgraded to Ultegra group-set.

The 2018 RAAM begins on June 12 and ends on June 24.

Christoph Strasser of Austria, who won last year’s RAAM, is registered to participate this year too (for a report on his win last year please click on this link: In October 2017, Strasser – he is a four time winner of RAAM and holds the record for the fastest time – was in the news for smashing the 24 hour-track cycling record; he rode 941.873 kilometers in 24 hours at a velodrome in Grenchen, Switzerland. According to news reports, he completed 3767 laps of the 250 meter-track at an average speed of 39.42 kilometers per hour.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For an article on Samim Rizvi, the first Indian participant at RAAM, please click on this link: