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When it comes to long distance cycling in India, the Mahajan brothers hold a special place. In 2017, we had the first Indian solo finish at Race Across America (RAAM) and the first solo completion of the race by an Indian cyclist attempting it for the first time. Two years earlier, in 2015, the Mahajan brothers had completed RAAM as two-person team. They put Nashik on the map in distance cycling and have since been a name you come across regularly in the sport. Dr Mahendra Mahajan, the younger of the two brothers, spoke to this blog of his latest achievement, the brothers’ upcoming expedition to Everest and trips past, including RAAM.
On November 15, 2018, World Ultracycling Association (WUCA) added a new record to its list. It congratulated Dr Mahendra Mahajan and his crew for setting a WUCA record for India N to S (north to south). Starting on November 5, 2018 from Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley, Mahendra reached Kanyakumari at the southern tip of peninsular India in10 days, 10 hours and a minute.
Kashmir to Kanyakumari (K2K) had its set of challenges. The start from Srinagar was delayed due to rain and snow. When the journey got underway it was in very cold conditions. This was followed by the need to tackle a landslide between Banihal and Ramban and stretches of terrible road all the way to Udhampur. Near Agra, Mahendra developed knee pain, which kept getting worse. By the fifth day of cycling, he was on painkillers. But the knee was perhaps the least of his troubles. Some 20 kilometers past Narsinghpur in Madhya Pradesh, a speeding pick-up truck laden with tomatoes smashed into his support vehicle. The latter was parked well to the left side of the road and Mahendra was inside speaking on the phone when the accident occurred. Luckily nobody suffered serious injury. But the vehicle – a Toyota Fortuner SUV – was completely damaged. One of two support vehicles, it had to be towed to a nearby dealership and left behind so that K2K may continue. The journey of roughly 3700 kilometers progressed with second support vehicle.
At Nagpur, where local cyclists – including Amit Samarth – met the expedition, Mahendra’s knee was examined by an orthopedic doctor. He approved the decision to cycle on with painkillers. However the knee stayed troublesome. Then came a fall at Hinganghat in Maharashtra which – fortunately – was light on injury; he bruised his palms, that was all. He also switched to taking painkillers an hour ahead of cycling so that the medicine’s effect was adequately felt. At 5.45 PM on November 15, cyclist and support crew reached Kanyakumari. It was the latest feather in the cap for the Nashik-based dentist. Previously Mahendra and his elder brother, Dr Hitendra Mahajan (he is an anesthesiologist) had been the first Indians to complete Race Across America (RAAM) as two-person team in 2015. Subsequently they also had a project pedaling the length of the Indian highway network called Golden Quadrilateral.
In 2019, the duo will attempt a slightly different expedition, one that could be deemed an Indian take on the smashing precedent set by Swedish adventurer, the late Goran Kropp. In 1996, Kropp had cycled from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest and cycled back part of the way. In 2019, the Mahajan brothers hope to commence their expedition from Gateway of India, a monument by the sea in Mumbai. They will cycle from Mumbai to Kathmandu, do the regular walk-in from Lukla to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and then attempt Everest.
At his clinic in Panchavati, Nashik, Mahendra said that climbing Everest has been a longstanding desire for the brothers. Their roots are in trekking and Hitendra has additionally done his basic and advanced mountaineering course and been on expeditions in the mountains. Mahendra isn’t a mountaineer but he has done high altitude treks including Kalindi Khal, which nudges 20,000 feet. Fund-raising for the expedition – it is called Sea to Sky – is currently on. It is a costly outing with expenses estimated at around seven million rupees. According to Mahendra, Pune-based automobile manufacturer, Force Motors, will be one of the sponsors. “ If we don’t succeed in raising that much money, we will cycle to Kathmandu together and probably have one of us – most likely my brother – attempt the summit,’’ he said. The bulk of expedition cost pertains to commercial charges for attempting Everest; hence the option of reducing number of climbers to one. At the time of writing, the date of departure from Mumbai was yet to be firmed up. Given May is traditionally the window to climb Everest, Mahendra estimates that they would require to leave from Mumbai sometime in early April 2019, factoring in adequate time for the road journey and acclimatization at altitude. A potential advantage of combining cycling with mountaineering is that the former, which is good for cardio-vascular conditioning should improve their chances to acclimatize well for the climb to follow. The brothers have back-ended their expedition into spreading awareness about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Supporting socially relevant themes is not new for the Mahajan brothers. In 2010-2011, following several years of trekking in the Western Ghats and the Himalaya, it was their association with a NGO – Kalpataru Foundation – operated by an ophthalmologist friend, which got both brothers into cycling. The NGO had its camps in the Trimbakeshwar area of Nashik and Mahendra used to cycle to the location. In 2011, on World Environment Day, he had his first shot at long distance cycling (along with Hitendra), tackling the roughly 150 kilometers from Thane near Mumbai, to Nashik. Following this, Hitendra headed north to do the prized Manali-Leh-Khardung La ride (popularly called MLK, Mahendra is yet to attempt this). He did well on that bicycle trip at altitude. Subsequently, a fellow doctor mentioned Tour of the Dragons in Bhutan. Its 268 kilometer-long route entailed crossing four high passes. The brothers decided to try this event, together. In Bhutan, they rented three bicycles; two to ride, one for back up. On race day in September 2012, Mahendra reached the final cut-off with 15 minutes to spare; he was in Thimphu 16 hours and 27 minutes after commencing the trip. Hitendra finished a bit after cut-off time.
Mahendra was in good shape now. At the start of the year, he had run his first full marathon – the Mumbai Marathon – in four hours, 27 minutes. Post Tour of the Dragons, he ran it again in January 2013, covering the distance in 3:59:59. He then thought of participating in MTB Himalaya (it is an annual mountain biking competition in Himachal Pradesh) but it didn’t materialize. By October 2013, Mahendra was hearing of BRMs. At that time Nashik didn’t have a robust community of cyclists. The only person participating in brevets was Mohinder Singh Bharaj, a senior cyclist. In less than two months after he first got to know of BRMs, Mahendra (as well as Hitendra) was a super randonneur. You become one if you do brevets of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers in one year. Along the way, he first upgraded from the MTB he was using (Trek 3700 and 4300; both owned by Hitendra) to a Giant hybrid and then, two days before his 600 kilometer-BRM, bought a Scott Speedster road bike. Once he was super randonneur, he decided to take a shot at the 2014 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (DC). That was when he came to know of RAAM – the 4800 kilometer-long bicycle race in the US – and DC’s role as RAAM qualifier (RQ). “ At that time RAAM wasn’t an aim in our mind. It evolved to one after we realized that there were only four RAAM qualified cyclists in India then,’’ Mahendra said. Among those qualified so, were Kailash Patil, Sumit Patil and Samim Rizvi. Of them, Samim had attempted RAAM twice (till then), Sumit once.
“ DC was a gamble for us,’’ Mahendra said. But as it turned out, he covered the race’s first 500 kilometers in roughly 20 hours, leaving him approximately 150 kilometers to cycle in 12 hours. “ That was when I realized that RQ is achievable,’’ he said. Both brothers qualified for RAAM. They stood second and third. In March 2014, the Mahajan brothers and Mohinder did a 1000 kilometer-brevet from Delhi to Wagah and back. With DC and 1000 kilometer-brevet done, cycling circles in Nashik started encouraging the Mahajan brothers to attempt RAAM. Force Motors stepped in as one of the sponsors. Meanwhile new bikes were required. Hitendra uses a small frame; Mahendra who is taller, requires medium or large. They needed two bikes each. Unable to afford top brands, they settled for Fuji; they got a discount too as they were buying four cycles at once. While frame sizes were different, they kept components as much interchangeable a possible. They also upgraded the wheels. At the suggestion of Divya Tate (she runs Inspire India, organizers of DC), Hitendra headed for the US to crew for a four person-team at 2014 RAAM and gain insight into what sort of a beast the race is.
Training for RAAM started in September 2014. It was the brothers’ first taste of scientific training; the credit for that goes to their coach, Miten Thakker. He divided the nine months they had on hand, into three parts – endurance, variations with tempo rides and intensity. Mahendra recalled that his speed at peak training was nearly on par with that of cyclists heading to the nationals. Among instances of hill training, they used to do the Kasara Ghat four to five times. “ My best timing on that stretch was 19 minutes, eight seconds,’’ Mahendra said. Finally, training done, Miten guided them into the phase of tapering. To feed the mind, the late Bhishmaraj Bam helped with counseling and motivational talks. In 2015 when the brothers headed to race in the US, it was Mahendra’s first visit that side. Budget constraints meant they could be in the US only 10 days before the race. Two of their crew members from India – Miten and Pankaj Marlesha – were into bicycle racing. The rest were trekkers and friends from college days. Miten had chalked out race strategy based on the strengths and weaknesses of the two riders. All that went for a toss. “ Within the first 150 kilometers of RAAM I had cramps. Coastal California was comfortable but 100 kilometers inland the weather altered; the heat was terrible. I didn’t hydrate well and pushed my limits early. The whole race would have ended there. Luckily my brother stepped in when I suffered cramps. He cycled for 5-6 hours giving me time to recover,’’ Mahendra said. Slowly, a sustainable relay pattern emerged. “ I sweat a lot and can tolerate cold. Hitendra sweats less and tolerates heat. That seemed potential thumb rule to tackle terrain and weather conditions,’’ Mahendra said.
Couple of days into the race, in Utah, Hitendra suffered a fall. He bruised his arm badly; two finger nails ripped off. But he continued. It was a team with peculiar perspective of racing. Given the riders were doctors, there were several doctors in the support crew too (four of them would form a team and attempt RAAM two years later). Every injury, every sign of fatigue and every indication of the human body adapting to RAAM – it became subject of medical interest. On the fourth day, Mahendra had a fall. “ In both falls, the cycle started to twitch. There was nothing visibly wrong; just the bike going out of control. I knew something was going to happen. I could sense the fall setting in. Two approaching vehicles also noticed it and stopped to stay clear of cyclist. I then chose the best place to fall and crashed there,’’ Mahendra said. The reason for the “ twitch’’ is unclear. One similarity remained across both falls – they were on downhill sections and the bike was moving at high speed. Mahendra reckons that it may have something to do with all the four bicycles the team had picked up, being endurance models. These models are not designed to handle speed. Their geometry is more suited for sustained riding and climbing. The “ twitch’’ may have been the product of wind turbulence and aerodynamics playing with wrong bike in the wrong place. All this notwithstanding, that year, the Mahajan brothers became the first Indians to complete RAAM. They placed first in the 18-49 years age category. In February 2018, the brothers were among recipients of the Shiv Chhatrapathi Award, instituted by the state government of Maharashtra.
Doing RAAM in two-person format slots you uniquely. A two-person team gets nine days to complete the same distance that a solo rider is allowed to do in 12. Mahendra believes that the flavor of RAAM done as two-person team is closer to solo than it is to attempting the race in team size bigger than two. In team of two, you have to watch out for the other person. When one person is not fully fit, the load shifts to the other in a two-person outfit; there is no further distribution of load as is possible in four-person team. “ For example, sleep is important for recovery. If you finished your turn in a two person-relay and found that your partner is still sleeping, you don’t wake him up and tell him to cycle. You continue for some more time and wait for your partner to wake up because a well recovered person cycles stronger and longer,’’ Mahendra said. The limited room for transferring load and definite instances of additional workload handled alone, makes two-person team closer to solo. It is possible that you come off two-person endeavor wondering if you can try something solo. This may have been among reasons nudging Mahendra towards attempting a record breaking Kashmir to Kanyakumari (K2K) solo ride in 2018. As to whether he would attempt RAAM solo any time, his reply was cryptic. “ It is too late for 2019,’’ he said.
There were also other trends at play. Mahendra would like to take a shot at cycling in the Masters circuit. In a drift towards simpler sports, he also finds himself increasingly drawn to running. “ In cycling, there are things you must plan and get ready before setting out on a ride. It takes time. You also have to address the issue of mechanical wear and tear on your bike; you spend much time at the bicycle shop. Running is comparatively simple,’’ Mahendra said. He will be running the full marathon at the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon.
It was late evening; November 13, 2018. As my bus cruised along on the highway from Nashik to Kasara, a clutch of cyclists straining their way up the Kasara Ghat road came into view. It was the road Mahendra had spoken of mere hours before; the one the brothers had trained on for hill climbs, in the run up to 2015 RAAM. Nashik lies in northern Maharashtra. It is 1916 feet above mean sea level. From cycling’s point of view, there are flat roads as well as gradients here; the hills of the Western Ghats are not far from the city. The road from Kasara to Igatpuri and Nashik has long been a favorite with cyclists for hill training. There are other roads too in the region, offering gradients. Unlike Mumbai, which is at sea level and has hot, humid weather, Nashik is comparatively temperate and it has a winter, one that is certainly cooler than Mumbai’s. All this makes Nashik suitable for endurance sports like cycling. Plus from most accounts, the Mahajan brothers not only put the city on ultra-cycling’s map, they also fostered an atmosphere of easy interaction. That is a blessing in competitive sports, where people can be pretty tightfisted with information and knowledge.
However the biggest advantage Nashik has is something else. Nothing kills cycling in India as vehicular traffic does. Although the number of vehicles in Nashik has risen steadily, the lay-out of the city is such that cyclists usually manage to clear urban crowding and exit to wider, less congested roads in a short while. This is unlike the predicament in Indian cities with more cyclists like Mumbai, Pune or Bengaluru, where it takes a long time to leave city and its traffic behind. You set aside a few hours every day for cycling and lose the bulk of it managing escape route from city. What a way to live – I thought. Outside the bus window, scenes of sunset and life winding down to rest, flashed by. We were moving smoothly, efficiently. I plugged them earphones in to listen to some old Pearl Jam.
Then, as Mahendra had warned me it would happen, the bus reached Kalyan-Bhiwandi ahead of Mumbai and got stuck in traffic.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Mahendra Mahajan.)
For years, Lt Col Bharat Pannu lived a bland life. Then he discovered cycling, enjoying in particular the challenge of cycling long distances. A 2016 transfer to Nashik fueled the passion further. His progression in the sport has been rapid. In 2019, he will attempt Race Across America (RAAM).
There’s a story Bharat Pannu told.
In 2016, soon after shifting to Nashik he rushed to meet Col Srinivas Gokulnath, who had that year participated in Race Across America (RAAM). RAAM is a brutal test of endurance; it stuffs roughly 4800 kilometers of cycling – from the west coast of the US to the east with all accompanying geographical and climatic variations – into a requirement to cover the distance in a maximum of 12 days. Having heard of Srinivas, Bharat wanted to meet him. “ I considered myself a cyclist because of what I did in Jammu. So I introduced myself and expressed my desire to do something in the field of cycling. He asked me what my goal is. I thought a while and blurted out: Tour de France!’’
For Bharat, it had been a long ride to Jammu waiting for the universe to show him something he could excel at. His father Ram Mehar Singh retired as a subedar from the Indian Army; his mother Sarbati Devi is a homemaker. An only child, Bharat was born May 1982 in Julana in Haryana. As with children in army families, Bharat’s education happened across towns in India; wherever his father was posted to. There was Secunderabad, Tezpur, Pathankot, Ambala; by the time he reached Pune, Bharat was studying mechanical engineering at the Army Institute of Technology. “ Throughout I was the typical good student, as defined in India. It was all about being good at studies and very little, practically no sports,’’ he said. Sole exception was a work-out that manifested as related requirement. School students in India avail tuitions in addition to regular study at school. Although minors in age, they too end up commuting like their office going-parents, traveling from one location of study to the next. In country measuring itself more and more by the capacity to afford, this is the stage when life is about you and a bicycle. Later, most people won’t sit on anything less than an engine. Bharat sometimes covered 30-40 kilometers on his bicycle – a Hero Ranger Gen X – linking the dots that were school, tuition classes and home.
Once he completed his engineering in Pune, he worked for a very brief while at Forbes Marshall, a company in the city. Then, a project he had been on for quite some time, bore fruit. Seeking to join the army, he had earlier taken the admission test for the National Defence Academy (NDA) multiple times and been rejected every time at the interview stage. Through college, he had therefore kept himself involved in activities that may improve his skills to communicate and interact. A couple of months into his first job, he got his call letter from the army and moved to join the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun. Here too, as in school, he wasn’t a cadet particularly competent at sports. He did his expected share of participating in games and physical training, wherein luckily, one strong point graced him – he turned out to be a good runner. “ In the army, there is a saying that if you are good at running then you are good at everything,’’ Bharat said. On June 10, 2006, he was commissioned as an officer in the army’s Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME).
Bharat’s first posting in the army was a stint at high altitude, in Sikkim. From there he moved to Arunachal Pradesh. Given altitude, sport for recreation was mostly chess, carom and volleyball, the last mentioned, viable only in summer months. In 2008, he was posted to Hissar in Haryana and after close to two years there, in 2010, was posted to Leh in Ladakh. From Leh, Bharat shifted to Secunderabad where he did his advanced course in aeronautical engineering. His job profile now altered to helping take care of the army’s aviation assets. All this time, Bharat’s appetite for physical activity was limited to what was compulsory under army rules – mainly the daily games parade, when officers and soldiers played together for bonding and team building. Plus he kept up that regular running, at times leading his unit to wins at cross country competitions. From Secunderabad, the army posted him to Bareilly and eventually, Jammu. His life began changing. There was a sports complex near where he stayed in Jammu. Bharat joined his colleagues to play badminton. “ Sports became a matter of interest for me in Jammu. It started with badminton. Then upon seeing others cycling, I bought a Raleigh MTB and joined them. Our camp was at Nagrota and we had good roads with rolling terrain in the vicinity. Probably because of my running, I seemed to do well in cycling too. All my rides were with colleagues from the army. Interaction with civilians has been little for me. The army is a self-contained ecosystem,’’ Bharat said.
In September 2016, he was transferred to Nashik, home to the Combat Army Aviation Training School. Within days he was before Srinivas. According to Bharat, Srinivas – he knew well the hard work required to be cyclist in the proper sense – asked him how much he cycled. Bharat replied: about 100 kilometers a week. Srinivas encouraged him to cycle more; he recommended BRMs. Bharat promptly registered for one, a move that also brought him in touch with Dr Mahendra Mahajan, who with his elder brother Dr Hitendra Mahajan, had been the first Indians to complete RAAM (as two person team) in 2015. It is a bit difficult putting in perspective what drove Bharat to commit himself so to cycling. He reckons that Jammu was some sort of a late awakening in sports for him. He also admits to craving for some of the recognition that visits people accomplishing things in life. Cycling appeared a path opening up; he grabbed it. Bharat joined duty in Nashik on September 8. By October 28, he had spent over Rs 150,000 and acquired a Trek Emonda S6 road bike. “ I was in no frame of mind to stop myself,’’ he said.
That November – he had taken leave the whole month to use up the holidays he hadn’t availed – Bharat cycled to Pune. It was November 5. Within the first 10 kilometers he got his first puncture. He replaced the affected tube with a spare one and carried on. Roughly 60-70 kilometers before Pune, he got his second puncture, which he repaired himself. November 6, he rested in Pune. The next day, he returned to Nashik. By now he was part of the city’s BRM group and nursing dreams of becoming a super randonneur (completing 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometer-brevets in a year). One day after he texted seeking company for a ride to Trimbakeshwar, Darshan Dubey responded. It was the beginning of a solid friendship; Darshan, the more experienced cyclist of the two. Born 1989, Darshan grew up in Nashik. His curiosity for distance cycling was prompted by a 2014 magazine article by the Mahajan brothers on their experiences in cycling; Hitendra had written about Tour of the Dragons in Bhutan and Mahendra had written about his BRMs. “ I read that and thought maybe I too can do something,’’ Darshan said. He bought a Hercules Atom steel frame bike and for a while struggled doing long rides on the heavy cycle with no proper bicycle gear and apparel. A visit to Decathlon – the sports goods retailer – eased the apparel issue and helped extend the distances he covered. Then he stumbled on GCN network on the Internet. It showed him the predicament he had got himself into – there was more to bicycle than just buying one; there was intended application and bike suited for it, there was bike geometry, there was bike sizing. By now, he had also got to know a group called Nashik Cyclists. Although his parents were skeptical about upgrading, Darshan managed to buy a Montra Unplugged 1.1 road bike; it was the cheapest Montra road bike and had a seven speed-cassette behind. Then a move to crowded Mumbai for higher studies put the brakes on cycling. “ Still I cycled whenever I could,’’ Darshan said. In January 2016, he did a 300 kilometer-brevet; Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai.
In October, he was visiting Nashik when Bharat’s text landed in local brevet circles. “ I responded not knowing a thing about Bharat. That’s how it is in cycling, that’s how you meet new people,’’ Darshan said. Also joining in for the ride to Trimbakeshwar was Venugopal Nair, Nashik based-cyclist who had done a bunch of brevets. Not long after Darshan returned to Mumbai after the Trimbakeshwar ride, he got a call from Bharat about an upcoming 300 kilometer-BRM from Dhule to Nashik and back. BRMs are not races. On that outing, Bharat was the first rider to report back to Dhule after completing the route. According to Darshan, the organizers and riders complimented Bharat. Being from the army, he had the endurance required for long rides. All he needed was being comfortable on the saddle for long durations. Darshan remarked that Bharat should face no problem completing Deccan Cliffhanger (DC), the annual race on the Pune-Goa route which also serves as RAAM qualifier (RQ). Darshan had crewed earlier for a cyclist at DC. Bharat added DC to his list of things to do, while in Nashik. The 300 kilometer-BRM was followed by a 200 kilometer-BRM on November 20 – it was Nashik–Saputara-Nashik – which Bharat completed successfully within stipulated time. A week later, on November 27, he did a 300 kilometer-BRM – Pune-Mahabaleshwar-Satara-Pune. November 2016 was a month of getting BRMs done. A stroke of luck in taking leave right then was that it was a convenient month for Darshan too. At that time, Darshan was pursuing his MBA from Wellingkar Institute in Mumbai. November suited him to join Bharat on rides. “ I got a good friend in Darshan, someone more motivated than I to ride. He was the force taking me ahead,’’ Bharat said. Post November, the routine of office returned and with it; although weekly mileage had clearly risen, Bharat’s regular riding was mostly Nashik to Trimbakeshwar and back.
Around December 15, Bharat got a call from Darshan informing that Divya Tate of Inspire India was organizing a new race in January 2017 – Ultra Spice from Goa to Ooty and back – with three distance categories of 500, 1000 and 1750 kilometers and RQ to boot. Bharat estimated he was probably ready for 500 kilometers. Darshan agreed to take care of securing support crew. Later they shifted to 1000 kilometer-category because the 500 kilometer-race wasn’t assigned RQ. According to Bharat, there were only three participants in Ultra Spice that year, one in each distance category (the rider for 500 kilometers did not turn up on race day). The pre-race briefing was therefore a chat across a table. It was Bharat’s first race with support crew and he had no idea yet of what the race entailed; he had no specific strategy or nutrition plan in place. “ When Divya asked me about my race strategy at the briefing table, I had that old Tour de France-look on my face. It must have worried her for besides my personal safety she had a race’s reputation to protect,’’ Bharat said laughing. In his mind, Darshan who was anchoring Bharat’s crew, felt 1000 kilometers was ambitious. “ I was keeping my fingers crossed,’’ he said. However Bharat went on to complete the 1000 kilometer-course in 55 hours, 35 minutes with less than two hours of sleep en route. It was RQ; he was the only finisher in this first edition of the race. In retrospect, he admitted, what he did exposed the novice in him – ideally, it should be adequate sleep, recover, proper nutrition and let the body deliver. Following Ultra Spice, Bharat believes, he started to be taken a bit more seriously in cycling. He explained it so – cycling circles perceived him as rider who accomplished RQ at Ultra Spice despite no proper strategy and nutrition plan. So what would it be like if he had those in place? It hinted of potential. His cyclist friends in Nashik became even more supportive. “ After this race, a new chapter commenced,’’ Bharat said. He began thinking of attempting an ultra-cycling event outside India. Once again, the fuel driving it was need for recognition; achievements within the country are not as celebrated as those outside. He was candid in admitting that.
Some months earlier, in August 2016, Ammar Miyaji from Nashik had attempted Race Around Austria (RAA). RAA is not as long as RAAM but within its compact proportion of a ride along the perimeter of Austria, it packs a punch with steep roads and sizable elevation gain. Divya had been part of Ammar’s crew for RAA. The original idea, Darshan said, was for Bharat to attempt RAA’s 1500 kilometer-race, which was RQ and open only to solo riders. But when they approached Chaitanya Velhal to be coach, Chaitanya was skeptical. Not one to back off, Bharat came up with the suggestion that he and Darshan attempt RAA’s 2200 kilometer-race as two-person team. Lacking comprehension of how such a team works, they consulted Dr Mahendra Mahajan. He explained the process and also recommended that they get a coach. The schedule was tight. The duo decided in March, met Mahendra in April and the race was due in August. At their request, Divya came aboard as crew chief. Chaitanya joined as coach. Of the three months available, Chaitanya effectively had two for use. July being a month of rain would be wash-out. Divya’s challenges included finding crew members who spoke German because local knowledge and ability to engage when needed are always helpful. But most important was finding someone in Austria who would make the team feel comfortable on the ground.
On Strava, Darshan found the Moshammer family residing in St Georgen Im Attergau, where RAA starts. Having done RAA himself, Hannes Moshammer helped with valuable tips besides hosting the team at his house once they reached Austria. The race route was along the countryside. To practise for RAA’s steep climbs, Bharat had relied on the gradients around Nashik. Darashan, having been transferred to Bengaluru on work, had a tougher time. Exiting Bengaluru’s urban congestion and finding space for practice is itself time consuming. As for bikes, Bharat took his Trek Emonda fitted with new wheels for improved rolling; Darshan had his Fuji SL 2.3 (a carbon frame bike, he had used it at the Dhule-Nashik BRM). Gear ratios on both bikes were altered to suit climbing. Ahead of race, the two cyclists rode up the last of RAA’s nine mountain passes. “ Not one instance of hill training we did in India was comparable to the climbs we faced,’’ Bharat said. The highest elevation in RAA was only 12,800 feet. But the roads connecting these heights had gradients more severe than what Indian roads did. As race progressed, the Moshammer family tracked the team on a daily basis. Austria is a small country. Every day, the family drove from where they stayed to some point on the route and cheered the Indians as they cycled past. Between Darshan and Bharat, they had set a goal of completing RAA in 100 hours. At the 86th hour, they were left with roughly 350 kilometers to complete. They motivated themselves and got the race wrapped up in 99 hours, 53 minutes. Race cut-off was 108 hours. “ We finished fifth in the two-person category,’’ Bharat said. Post RAA, the cyclists got a rousing welcome in Nashik. Bharat was also commended by the army. Among those who attended the awards ceremony at RAA’s close had been Christoph Strasser, Austrian ultra-cyclist and five time winner and record holder at RAAM.
Back from RAA, Bharat trained for the January 2018 edition of Ultra Spice and completed it. He had issues with his bike; he also suffered neck pain. “ Despite being competitor, Kabir Rachure looked out for me on this race,’’ Bharat said. On completing Ultra Spice, Bharat was firmly resolved that he should attempt RAAM. In February, he made up his mind to enroll for the race. But there was one thing to do before formally participating in RAAM as rider. He required getting a sense of the route and seeing, firsthand, what riders endured traversing the breadth of the US.
Bharat wrote to teams attempting RAAM in 2018 for berth as crew member. Team Sea to See responded positively. Dedicated to proving that those who are blind can succeed in any field, they envisaged combination of one visually challenged rider and one with normal eyesight cycling together on tandem bikes. The team had eight cyclists participating. Bharat was accepted as navigator. “ Going with a team is better as chances of completion are higher. You get to see the whole RAAM route,’’ Bharat said. The team – Bharat included as navigator – completed 2018 RAAM successfully. “ Team Sea to See was a very good learning experience,’’ he said. Now it was time for Bharat to focus on his own preparations for attempting the race solo in 2019.
At his house in Nashik, to a side in Bharat’s room was a Scott road bike mounted on a trainer. It was one of three bikes acquired recently – a Scott Foil 20 and two Scott Addict 10; the former for flats, the latter for climbs. Below, on the ground floor of the house, was a wooden chest of drawers with rack on top holding three bikes; one of them being his old road bike. The chest contained bicycle accessories and tools. Bharat’s parents stay with him. “ Had it not been for their presence here, I wouldn’t be able to live as I do,’’ he said. For a long time, his parents didn’t know exactly what he was doing, disappearing every now and then with his bicycle. The turning point was RAA. Some days before leaving for Austria, he had to tell them what was underway. Now they are aware of his fascination for cycling. Ram Mehar Singh hasn’t yet crewed for his son but he hoped to be at a race one day. Sarbati Devi is set to be part of Bharat’s crew for RAAM. She will handle food in the run up to RAAM (Bharat will reach US about a month before the race to train and get used to the weather there) and once race starts, she will be in one of the support vehicles preparing homemade food for her son. Darshan too is headed for the US as part of Bharat’s RAAM crew.
It was close to midnight, November 12, 2018. Bharat – now a Lieutenant Colonel – had just returned from a party at his friend’s house. He was expected to continue the conversation with this blog from where he had left off ahead of party. But with work, cycling, training at the gym and socializing – all going on, he was tired; early next morning seemed better option to chat. That was when Tracy called. It was night in Nashik; daytime in the US. Until some months ago, Bharat had been training under Mumbai-based cycling coach, Miten Thakker. However Miten was unsure whether he would be able to accompany Bharat to the US for RAAM. So in April 2018, Tracy McKay entered the picture. They met on Facebook. Tracy had completed RAAM in 2002 as part of a two-person team (they took eight days, three hours, placing second overall). In 2004, he made an unsuccessful solo attempt. In 2005, he was team strategist / crew chief for Chris MacDonald who cycled solo and finished second overall besides winning Rookie of The Year.
Based in Birmingham, Alabama, Tracy took on the role of Bharat’s coach and crew chief for RAAM. In a brief email exchange, Tracy outlined the challenges in RAAM. An event of this dimension will see participant running after many things. Among the first challenges therefore would be getting distracted from the main task of training and preparing. “ Much time can be taken in publicity and marketing by rider. Someone must take charge of this while rider prepares…sleep, ride, sleep, ride, sleep, ride – it slowly becomes a full time job outside of what they currently do,’’ he said. Then there are the physiological challenges posed by terrain and weather during RAAM. For example, in the desert the heat must be mitigated with IV fluids and there should be a strategy on when to ride. However what makes RAAM what it is, is the mental test and introspection it throws up. While the brain is designed to keep us away from harm and pain, each pedal stroke in ultra-cycling moves rider closer to discomfort till it builds up to a level you didn’t expect. You prepared, sacrificed, friends and family are invested in you – and then RAAM brings its reality. “ There is a great deal of self-examination, self-doubt. It becomes a roller coaster; it becomes a roller coaster for the crew. There will be moments where you want to quit, where the crew may even support it. But it is not required. Everyone must understand that this is the unexpected part of RAAM you must prepare for,’’ he said. As for any benefit in RAAM aspirant having done RAA before, he said, RAA can be compared only to other races of similar distance. RAAM is much longer. There can be no comparison between the two. Asked if there is any “best’’ personal quality or trait that a rider can bring to RAAM, he said a single quality won’t suffice. Self-concept / humility, sense of humor, ability to fail and try again (not out of vanity but from what you learnt from failing) and detachment – these may help, Tracy said.
Some weeks before I met Bharat, the 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger occurred. Bharat completed it successfully in 26 hours, five minutes. At the time of writing, Bharat had Tracy’s instructions to follow, Ultra Spice (1750 kilometer-category) to tackle in January and thereafter, by mid-2019, RAAM in the US.
Update: News reports of January 30, 2019 said that Lt Col Bharat Pannu completed the 1750 kilometer-category of 2019 Ultra Spice (an annual ultra-cycling event organized by Inspire India, from Goa to Ooty and back) in record time of 95 hours. This is an improvement over the previous record of 98 hours held by Col Srinivas Gokulnath.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)
Sometimes an expedition attracts because of how it was imagined. Assigning purpose – engaging in adventure for this cause or that – is well heard of. But what about the quality of adventure itself? For example, the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project engaged beyond circumnavigation because the sail boat at its center was made in India. It wasn’t just competence at sailing that was being put to test; it was a test of competence at boat-building too. As people try various permutations and combinations, we look at an individual – now no more – who did something interesting years ago.
The first time I came across Goran Kropp was in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which narrated the events leading to the death of several climbers on Everest in 1996.
I read the book years ago.
Grasping the full magnitude of Kropp’s adventure was beyond me then. I was focused on Krakauer’s narrative, Everest and climbing. Many years later, I looked up Kropp again on Wikipedia. He had died in 2002, aged 35, some six years after the events of Into Thin Air.
Back in 1996, Kropp packed all his gear and equipment on to a trolley, attached it to a specially designed bicycle, pedaled all the way from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest without bottled oxygen or guides and then, cycled part of the way back home. This time, as I read it in renewed light, the enormity of Kropp’s adventure hit home; along with the sustained use of human powered-locomotion in what he accomplished on that trip. A photo on the relevant Wikipedia page showed him cycling with trolley attached. The page informed that he left Stockholm for Nepal on October 16, 1995 with 235lb (106kg) of gear and food. There was no mention of when he reached Kathmandu; the page said that he reached Everest Base Camp (EBC) in April 1996. Besides climbing Everest successfully in 1996, Kropp ascended it again in 1999.
Everest wasn’t the only milestone in Kropp’s brief life. The first major peak he climbed was Lenin Peak (23,405 feet) on the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; this was in 1988. The following year he climbed five peaks in South America, three of them more than 6000 meters in elevation. In 1990, Kropp and Danish climber Rafael Jensen reached the summit of Muztagh Tower (23,861 feet), a tough peak from the 7000m-category, in Pakistan. Then he climbed Pik Pobeda (24,406 feet) in Kyrgyzstan. In 1992, he reached the top of Cho Oyu (26,864 feet); Wikipedia mentions: he drove his Range Rover all the way to Nepal; it was perhaps prelude of things to come.
1993 was likely Kropp’s defining year. In some ways, what he accomplished in this year makes his 1996 adventure that much more solid, for Everest although very high and tough for anyone to climb, is not counted by mountaineers among the truly hard 8000m peaks, particularly when attempted via its regular routes. K2 (28,251 feet) on the other hand, is rated a really hard climb. In 1993, Kropp climbed K2 solo and without using bottled oxygen. Same year he also climbed Broad Peak (26,401 feet); Wikipedia describes it as “ a fast, nonstop solo climb.’’
Kropp was born, December 11, 1966. After finishing school, he had served in the Swedish military with the Parachute Regiment, a special operations unit. He died September 2002, from head injuries sustained in a fall while ascending a climbing route in Vantage, Washington. Accounts of his expeditions – especially that combination of a long bicycle ride and a mountain climb – survive.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)
As cyclists gear up for the 2019 edition of the 4800 kilometer Race Across America (RAAM), some may recall a unique milestone witnessed at the event almost 12 years ago.
Race Across America (RAAM) is among the toughest endurance races out there.
Stretching right across the US, its route is not only long but also entails changes in terrain (mountainous and flat) and weather.
In June 2007, a couple of days after the late Slovenian cyclist Jure Robic won that year’s RAAM in 8 days, 19 hours and 33 minutes, a cyclist from Oregon crossed the finish line at Annapolis. John Spurgeon took 12 days, 2 hours and 11 minutes to cycle the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland, reports on the Internet said. What made his race unique was that he covered the entire distance on two single speed bicycles. Between the two, their gearing was different. But neither bike had multiple gears as is the overwhelming choice at races today. Spurgeon was the first cyclist to complete RAAM on single speed bikes. At least one write-up on his ride across the US in a dozen days, said that back in 2007, most racers at RAAM had 21 gears to play with.
Both the bikes used by Spurgeon at 2007 RAAM sported steel frames and were custom-built in Portland. One was made by Ira Ryan; the other by Sacha White. The Ira Ryan bike with 40×15 gearing was kept for rides on flat terrain. The other, with 39×16 gearing was used for stretches involving climbs. It has been mentioned in comments posted on the net that Spurgeon was inclined towards using a fixed wheel bike and had to be convinced that a free wheel would be better suited for long, endurance races capable of punishing one’s knees.
Riding bicycles since childhood, Spurgeon got seriously into cycling only around 2000. Despite what he accomplished at RAAM, there isn’t much on Spurgeon on the Internet. There was however an interview with him in the book The Ride of Your Life by David Rowe, published in 2009. It mentioned that Spurgeon still called himself a recreational cyclist dabbling in triathlons, road racing, cyclocross, randonneuring and ultra-cycling. His first ride of over 100 miles was in 2003. At the events he participated in, he used fixed gear and single speed bikes. About RAAM, Spurgeon says that both the bikes he used held up well. As regards the choice of single speed, he says, “ Sexy, simple bikes that give you a hell of a workout….what more could a person want? Maybe speed, but I’m slow, so I get to save face to boot. Of course, that doesn’t really work at ‘cross with all those studs on their single speeds.’’
RAAM, being combination of distance and bicycle race, makes it easy for us to view single speed in perspective. If you can step back some more and imagine the distance involved in a whole journey around the planet, then nothing probably beats those cyclists who set out from Mumbai in October 1923, pedaled around the world and got back in March 1928. Years later, the story of their trip became the subject of a book: With Cyclists Around the World. The book estimates the distance they traveled at around 44,000 miles (70,811 kilometers); figure mentioned on its jacket. For comparison, bear in mind, the length of the equator is 40,075 kilometers while modern day circumnavigation rules consider the job done at 29,000 kilometers.
If you go through the vintage photos published in the book, all you see are single speed, steel roadsters; some of them replete with heavy chain cover.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)
As of December 22 morning, Vedangi Kulkarni currently attempting solo circumnavigation of the world unsupported on a bicycle, had 235 kilometers left to complete the India leg of her journey.
She was expected to finish the India segment in Kolkata, later in the day.
According to Vedangi’s website 158 days have passed since she started her journey from Perth Australia.
Her father, Vivek Kulkarni, informed that by the time she reaches Kolkata, Vedangi would have covered 29,000 kilometers as per the rules of circumnavigation. She will leave 16 kilometers to cycle in Perth, the starting point of her journey.
The segment of her trip cycled in India saw some route changes. She was earlier expected to head straight south from Ahmedabad (where she commenced the India leg) to Kerala and onward to Kanyakumari, which she did not. Instead, having cycled from Ahmedabad to Bharuch, Thane, Nigdi (Pune), Kolhapur, Belgaum, Davengere, Tumkur and Bengaluru, she moved towards Chennai and Nellore; eventually making her way to Kolkata.
Vedangi reached India after cycling through Australia, Canada, Europe and Russia.
The change presented by the Indian environment featured in one of her Facebook posts.
Not long after starting the India leg, she wrote, “ current stats suggest that I only have a little less than 3000 km to go. But by the looks (and feel) of it, none of it is coming easy. It’s all chaotic, in every imaginable way. I’ve got the sun furiously shining over me, burning my desire to cycle or digest food properly, especially after my body getting used to the sub-zero Russian winter and I have got the crazy traffic coming from all over making it impossible to switch off even for a second into peaceful auto-pilot mode.’’ Much later as she reached Andhra Pradesh, Cyclone Phethai caught up with her forcing cyclist to take a day off given the weather. In its aftermath and nearing the end of her circumnavigation project, she noted, “ I now know that I’m ready for anything and everything that comes my way, physically or mentally. There’ll always be a way to reach the goal, and not give up. As they say, fall down seven, stand up eight, eh? So we’ll be back on road tomorrow, now that the cyclone has passed and get those long miles in! The finish is so close yet so far!!’’
When she pedals into Kolkata, Vedangi – 19 years old and currently attending university in the UK – would be on the cusp of making history. Upon project completion in Perth, she will be the youngest to accomplish solo unsupported circumnavigation on a bicycle and the first Indian woman to do so, Vivek had said earlier.
Update: Vedangi has reached Kolkata, Vivek informed early morning December 23.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This report will be updated once Vedangi reaches Kolkata. For more on Vedangi please refer the blog’s story list, select from archives or simply scroll down.)
Scott Sports India recently announced its first road bike team. This blog spoke to Nigel Smith, Head Coach, about how the team was selected, how many members the team may eventually have and what his expectations are.
How was this team selected? What was the process involved?
First of all we put out on social media dates of the selection trials and where they will be held. We invited riders from all over the country to apply. Then based on the riders’ cycling CVs and the answers they gave us in that application process we were able to select approximately 20-25 riders to come for the selection day trials. We knew that within those 20-25 were some were very, very good national level cyclists. Then we subjected the best 20-25 riders to the day one of the trials. What we very quickly realised was – we weren’t going to be able to either pick the right riders or the strongest riders in one day of trials. There were so many, so close on performance that we found we had to have a second round. So we invited the ten best back for a second round. What we were looking for then – it wasn’t just physical performance; it was attitude. It was also about what they spoke about during the interview that we had with each of them after the trials.
What I was looking for from a physical point of view was – okay they have come back after round one, they know exactly what they are going to be doing. We tried to give them even more coaching, even more instructions. We tried to give them as much encouragement as we could so that they could better their previous performance. Some of them stepped up and improved across all the tests and others didn’t. So that immediately – as a coach – it is giving me information as to why a good rider is not as good as this time or has got better. And then you ask them questions during the interview. How did you prepare for this; how did you taper for this event? Some of them said…based on the trials we did earlier, this is what I went back and did; I know this is what I would be asked to do, so I went back and prepared. The ones that prepared showed improvement. The ones that didn’t either showed flat performance or reduced performance.
So we were looking for attitude, we were looking for awareness of what we were asking them to do. It is almost like – I was asking them an open ended question and then sitting back and letting them talk.
When you mentioned that you were looking for attitude does it mean that benchmark performance was secondary to attitude because given right attitude, you can always work with it and improve performance?
Yes. We have a general benchmark in terms of performance. So, there were various benchmarks set for tests that we asked them to do. So they did peak power test, 30 second-sprint and a four minute endurance effort. We had a very good idea of what a good athlete should be able to do. Some riders would hit two out of three but their attitude was such that they could tell us what their weakest of the three was. And they could tell us why they thought it was. So, then immediately as a coach you have an engagement with those riders. Okay these riders have thought about what they did. They understood that, let’s say, the 30 second-effort wasn’t their strongest and then they give the potential reasons as to why. And then you realise that this guy is thinking about what he is really doing, he is not just following instructions. He is actually mentally digesting what he is trying to do. He has thought about it and is downloading and debriefing. That indicates the rider can be coached. You could have the strongest rider. But then he may just talk to you and everything I am suggesting he is not responding to; he is not willing to accept. He is trying to argue not just with me but other Scott team members. Then they can’t be team players.
You have unveiled three athletes for now. Is that the final number or will the team grow?
We wanted a team of five. The three we picked were based on merit, from the trials. As regards the remaining spots – it was close among 4-5 riders. We didn’t feel it was fair to pick two other riders because potentially we would get the decision wrong for want of performance. We are leaving it open. There is nothing to stop us from adding riders in the next three months. If a rider still wants to be part of the team the door is open. There are four or five we are looking at. We want to see who has taken the acceptance of not being on the team with a positive frame of mind and is going to go out and do something about it. And in the next race they do they make it very clear that we can’t not have them in the team. Others may go away and sulk about it. They may not want to be part of it. So, it is performance and attitude. And of the other riders we are looking at, one or two will hopefully outperform the others and it makes my decision easy.
Is there an ideal number you are looking at?
Originally we felt that it would be a team of five.
So we are potentially looking at another two.
The guys we now have are road racers as well as time trialists. They are strong in both the disciplines. Road racers are going to be strong time trialists and very strong time trialists are going to be good road racers. Now with the team at present we have got two small guys. Naturally their physical attributes lend themselves to be very good road racers for very hilly races. That’s where we expect to see results. But that’s not to say they can’t win flat races. There is no preconception about what the riders are right now or what we want them to focus on. They are strong riders; they will find their niche.
Going ahead what will be Scott India’s blueprint for training this team?
I have got a look at what they have been doing. I have got a very good idea of their current physical performance. I need to look at the work they have been doing and what we can change that gives us the best opportunity to improve further and then how we can maintain that. We will be looking at the number of hours of riding per week, number of kilometres a week, number of hours riding at threshold, number of interval sessions, how many reps they do per session. I will be looking at all of that and then hopefully find the areas we think may give them better opportunity to improve further. But obviously we want them to improve throughout the year. So then into that – I have got to build tapering programs. Sometimes the riders won’t even be racing tired because it may be a designated B race. I have got to look at what they have been doing, what they want to do as well. We have got to take into account rider aspirations – this is what you told me you have done before, where is your focus now. And then I sit down and have a chat with the rider and together we understand what are the demands of the event you wish to focus on, how much work is it going to take. And the training programme will write itself, rather than me telling the rider what is to be done. You get the rider to think about it and then work it out for themselves. As a coach I just articulate it for them.
Typically when one talks about team one thinks of it two ways – first, there is the opportunity to remain in the team based on your performance, second, the other is the contractual obligation; that you signed in for so long. In this case, how does it work?
I am not directly involved in the contractual process but I am aware of it. As per my understanding all contracts are for one year and they are renewable on an annual basis based on the factors you mentioned. There is a brand element; performance element, there is an element of how they have behaved off the bike and what they have done to improve themselves, so we look at the whole thing. At the end of the year we may have a scenario where a rider has not delivered any personal results but has been absolutely selfless in his help to his fellow teammates. And so, that shouldn’t go against a rider who has perhaps won two races and then done nothing for the rest of his teammates throughout the year. We understand all of that. A rider may be winning but off the bike he may not be living up to the social media requirements of the brand. Ultimately, this is Scott. They have an obligation to put out stuff on their Facebook page on their Instagram pages because they are representing a brand. The brand is investing in them. They have an obligation to help that brand.
You have been here for a couple of years. Now you are starting off your journey with a team in place. You have seen the basic raw material that you work with in other places. How good is this basic raw material that you have found in India now?
The physical attributes are certainly of very high standards. We know what the current best in India looks like. We know how that fares on an Asian and international platform. What this program is designed to do is to get as many riders as possible up to the best in India current standard and then see who can go on from there. There’s an expectation that we can maybe get a rider, not this year, may be in two years’ time, may be three years’ time to go out and be better than what we have seen an Indian perform before, outside this country.
And you would say that you are pretty happy with the basic raw material that you have?
Yes. The other thing is – the program is rolling. It is a competitive environment. Not all riders are going to get their contracts renewed year on year on year. When other riders see how good you need to be to get on the team they will train harder. And then we have an even higher standard of riders to select from. That improves the standard of the team and makes the team stronger so that riders have to perform even better. I am not naïve to think this isn’t going on in other parts of the country. More informally, there are going to be other teams training harder and everyone is trying to get better. So the standard will naturally, I think, get better and better.
(The interviewer, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)