THREE YEARS AND RAAM

Kabir Rachure (Photo: (Shyam G Menon)

In 2017, we saw an Indian cyclist complete Race Across America (RAAM) solo, for the first time. He was followed to the finish line same year by another Indian who became the first from the country to complete RAAM solo in his first attempt. The new challenge is improving the time Indians have taken to complete the race solo. Not to mention – for anyone participating, completing RAAM within cut-off is itself a challenge because it is a test of rider and support crew. Among those in the fray for 2019 RAAM is Kabir Rachure, a lawyer from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. His support crew will be anchored by his sister, Sapana. This is their story:  

In 2015, a young man walked into the Vashi shop of Everest Cycle Co and picked up a popular Firefox hybrid model called Momentum. He wanted to get into cycling. It is something his sister too remembers; the explanation he offered then was very much rooted in recreational cycling. What unfolded was different. Three years later, Kabir Rachure is gearing up for Race Across America (RAAM), one of the toughest endurance races in the sport.

Kabir was born 1990 in Udgir town of Maharashtra’s Latur district. His parents are farmers. His father is additionally a political worker; he was once attached to political circles around George Fernandes, the prominent Indian politician and trade unionist who served as minister in the central government. Kabir grew up in Udgir. He did his schooling there till the twelfth standard. For sports, he indulged in kabaddi and cricket. After twelfth, he shifted to Navi Mumbai. His elder sister, a lawyer, was practising at the High Court in Mumbai. Kabir followed in her footsteps. He studied LLB and upon completing it in 2013, joined his sister’s practice. Between reaching Navi Mumbai and becoming a lawyer, a small but significant shift happened in Kabir’s life. He began working out in the gym. Alongside, he also commenced running ten kilometers every alternative day. Today, fellow cyclists reckon that physical fitness has played a role in Kabir’s relatively rapid progress in cycling. Back in the days when he began frequenting the gym, it was the time of triathlon’s ascent in urban India. There was the triathlon as emergent picture of fitness for those who cared to be in outdoor sports; there was also news of Indians completing Ironman events. In particular, Kabir recalls the story of Milind Soman, model, actor and triathlete. It was amid these new trends and his curiosity for them that Kabir bought the Firefox Momentum.

Kabir; from 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

In August 2015 Kabir did his first ride of some distance – from Kharghar (where he stayed) in Navi Mumbai to Chembur in Mumbai, and back. The following week, he embarked on a ride in excess of 100 kilometers. He was targeting 180 kilometers but after 12 hours of cycling, found himself at the 150 kilometer-mark. Young and impatient, Kabir decided that the fault was cycle’s – he had underperformed because his bicycle wasn’t good enough. Some days later he was at Everest Cycle Co to service his bike, when shop personnel told him of BRM (Brevets des Randonneurs Mondiaux). A brevet is the name given to a randonneuring event, which in turn is a long distance cycling sport with origins in audax cycling. Enrolling for a 200 kilometer-BRM, Kabir covered 100 kilometers in approximately four and half hours and the whole course in 10 hours, 40 minutes. In December 2015, within months of buying his first bicycle as an adult, Kabir completed the 300 kilometer BRM – from Mumbai to Nashik and back – in 17 hours of cycling. “ Now I was pretty confident of both my interest in cycling and my ability in the sport,’’ he said. In January 2016, he registered for the 600 kilometer brevet from Mumbai to the hill station of Mahabaleshwar and back. There he met with the first reality check to his rapid progression. He had to withdraw from the ride at around 400 kilometers. It was DNF (Did Not Finish). “ I lacked experience and mental strength. I was also very bad on climbs,’’ Kabir said.

Kabir with his sister, Sapana. She anchors his support team at races (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

There is a seven year age gap between Kabir and his elder sister, Sapana Rachure. She always looked out for Kabir. Mumbai’s community of lawyers has for long harbored some serious cyclists. One of them who had been on the Mumbai-Mahabaleshwar-Mumbai BRM told Sapana, “ your brother cycles well despite having only a hybrid. Imagine what he would do if he has a road bike.’’ Sapana was aware of Kabir purchasing the Momentum and thereafter participating in cycling events. When he bought the Momentum, he had told her that it was for recreational cycling. The comment by fellow advocate hinted to Sapana that something bigger was likely afoot; something that held promise. Sapana had no background in sports or cycling. She asked Kabir about the DNF, why it had occurred and what a road bike is. When he outlined the limitations the hybrid posed, she said, maybe they should spend and get a road bike. With her support, Kabir invested in a brand new road bike – a Scott Speedster, which he picked up from the Seawood outlet of Everest Cycles dedicated to selling performance and lifestyle bikes. He then registered for the 600 kilometer-BRM organized in Nashik by Dr Mahendra Mahajan. In 2015, Mahendra and his elder brother, Dr Hitendra Mahajan, had been the first Indians to complete RAAM in the US, as team of two cyclists. “Dr Mahajan was an inspiring person,’’ Kabir said. This brevet was Kabir’s introduction to RAAM; the race in the US would become a subject of great interest to him. He completed the 600 kilometer BRM within cut-off, in 39 hours and 52 minutes but not before he realized that he had much work to do improving his efficiency on climbs. “ I was still struggling on ascents,’’ he said. BRM done, Kabir got down to researching RAAM. The process brought him to Deccan Cliffhanger (DC). It is a 646 kilometer-long race organized annually on the Pune-Goa route, which serves as one of the qualifiers for RAAM in India. At the time Kabir came across information on DC, he had eight months left to prepare for the event’s upcoming 2016 edition.

From the 2016 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

In July-August 2016, Kabir registered for the event. He trained mostly by going for BRMs. Plus he put in some extra effort in the run up to DC. One person he had got to know of while searching for information on DC, was Samim Rizvi. Samim, who grew up in Mumbai and later relocated to Bengaluru, was among first riders from India to attempt RAAM solo. Unfortunately despite several attempts, completion within cut-off has eluded Samim. The best he managed at RAAM was a finish slightly outside cut-off time. However he was a pioneer as regards RAAM attempts from India. Samim was there for the 2016 DC. This RAAM qualifier (RQ) was Kabir’s first tryst with a supported race; one in which rider had to have crew, trailing him in a vehicle (brevet in contrast is self-supported but given it is not a race features camaraderie and informal support among riders). When Kabir spoke of DC at home, Sapana knew that she had to stand by him; pitch in to support. She decided to anchor his support crew for DC. She and two of his trusted friends – Tushar and Ratnadeep; all of them lawyers – assumed the role. None of them were cyclists. They had little idea of what crewing for ultra-cycling entailed. “ As lawyers, our first instinct was to study the rules of the event so that Kabir does not get penalized for flouting any norms. Aside from knowing those rules, we had no idea of what support crew in ultra-cycling must do. We learnt on the go,’’ Sapana said.

Kabir; after completing the 2016 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger. He missed RQ by 28 minutes that year (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Serious cyclists, particularly those into competitions, use cycling shoes. These shoes typically have stiff soles and rigid upper; they help transfer power efficiently to the pedals and also assist in keeping the legs free of cramps. They come with cleats and the lock-in facility the shoes offer with compatible pedals, keeps cyclist’s legs firmly connected to the pedal. This arrangement engages muscles in the legs more comprehensively. A full rotation of the bicycle’s crank involves downward and upward movement. Cycling without specialized shoes, most of us deliver the downward thrust and count on the momentum of repeated movement to keep the upward half of the rotation going. The upward half is not a conscious pull. With shoes that lock-in, the upward movement becomes a pull making cadence so much more efficient. The 2016 DC was Kabir’s first race with cycling shoes on. The race started well for him. The crew trailed him taking care of food and hydration, counting on Kabir to tell them what he wanted. “ There was none of the gravity of ultra-cycling and the close attention to food and hydration one must give. Close to lunch time we asked Kabir what he wished to eat and he said, maybe rice and lentils. We stopped to pack him lunch at a roadside dhaba. During that period Kabir was cycling alone for about 45 minutes with little to eat and just one bottle of water on him. When we stopped to have lunch, we found a tree with shade and sat down to eat as in a picnic,’’ Sapna said.

From 2018 Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

After 300 kilometers, Kabir developed pain on his right knee. One likely reason for the trouble was – he hadn’t got used to shoes with cleats. Cycling shoes, the lock-in mechanism, finding a sweet spot to deliver thrust in the arrangement – all this takes a while to figure out. In activities like running and cycling, which feature movements repeated over a long period of time, small niggles and flaws can work their way up to becoming bigger concerns. Slowly the pain Kabir felt in his knee started worsening. The knee gathered swelling making progress difficult. At the same time, parachuted into crewing with no prior experience of it, Sapana had not studied route details or asked around for the same. Trusting their sense of geography, the crew kept telling tired cyclist that he was heading from high Deccan plateau to Goa by the sea and therefore, it should be all descent closer to finish. What they didn’t know was that the race harbored climbs even in its closing stages. One hour before cut-off, Kabir had 32 kilometers left to cover in the race. At this point, he was forced to slow down. The knee was in a very bad shape. He completed the race well within Inspire India’s cut-off time of 38 hours but missed qualifying for RAAM by 28 minutes. He was quite upset by the outcome. That year, Samim too didn’t finish DC. Meeting Samim at DC, however helped Kabir get more information about the race in distant US – RAAM. Notwithstanding failure to qualify, the RAAM project was on.

Cooling off; from 2018 Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Ultra-cycling is engaging drama. The long distance involved along with variations in terrain, weather and overall condition of rider make it an interplay of variables and thereby distinct from a regular time trial. Ultra-cycling events don’t end in a few minutes or few hours like time trials and short road races do. They can stretch for long hours, days, sometimes weeks. In ultra-cycling, support crew is important. One reason for this is that ultra-cycling events can push rider to the edges of his / her mental equilibrium. Their capacity to take sound decisions may become suspect. Support crew that keep their wits about themselves and think for rider and team, is crucial under such circumstances. Kabir had developed a good rapport with Dr Mahendra Mahajan. When the Mahajan brothers decided to attempt a long ride along the Golden Quadrilateral – a highway network (approximately 5900 kilometers long) connecting the large cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi – Kabir was included in the support team. The ride was in relay format; similar to how the brothers had executed their ride as two-person team at 2015 RAAM. “ The Mahajan brothers completed this ride in 10 days, eight hours. This experience was an eye opener. It provided me insight into how people work as a team, how determined riders and crew can be. The experience helped me mature in my perspective towards endurance cycling,’’ Kabir said.

Kabir with his support crew at one of the editions of Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

In the meantime, Samim had resolved to try RAAM in 2017. He asked Kabir to be part of his crew. Mahendra Mahajan supported the idea. He felt that if Kabir intended to attempt RAAM at some time, then getting a taste of what it is like to crew at the race would be valuable experience. For team heading to ultra-cycling events, it is important to have an idea of challenges along the route. For this, riders do considerable research. But nothing beats being on the route earlier for an understanding of what to expect while racing. RAAM aspirant crewing at the event ahead of participating as racer is therefore common practice. Crewing for other cyclists, not only shows you how rider fares as race progresses, it also tell you how support team works and provides you a window to see what the management and logistics challenges are.

That year, Col Srinivas Gokulnath of the Indian Army (he was based in Nashik) and Dr Amit Samarth from Nagpur were also among solo riders attempting RAAM. As it turned out, Srinivas (2017 was his second attempt at RAAM) became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo (11 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes) while Amit became the first Indian to finish it in his very first solo attempt (11 days, 21 hours, 11 minutes). Samim unfortunately suffered a DNF in the initial stages of the race, somewhere past 900 kilometers. The DNF spelt premature end to Kabir’s stint at crewing. Advised by Mahendra Mahajan to not give up the opportunity he had to see the race route; despite Samim’s DNF, Kabir took a car and went as far as Durango in Colorado before heading back to California and thereafter, India.

From 2018 Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Now fired by his own RAAM dreams, Kabir on return to Mumbai began pestering Divya Tate of Inspire India (organizers of DC) with queries on how best to prepare for DC. He wanted that RQ – finish within 32 hours at DC – badly. Among riders at 2017 DC was Amit Samarth, who just a few months earlier, had completed RAAM. At the 2017 edition of DC, near Mahabaleshwar, Kabir’s crew told him that only Amit and Akshay Chowgule were ahead of him on the route. As the race progressed, Akshay had to exit because of disqualification. Catching up with Amit, Kabir knew, was out of the question. Amit is a strong, motivated cyclist. Towards the final 100 kilometers of the race, Yagnesh Ahir from Ahmedabad also got ahead of Kabir. But Kabir secured third place and a finish in 28 hours, 50 minutes. He had his RQ. Divya reminded him that his journey was only starting. She asked him to attempt another event she was organizing – Ultra Spice; from Goa to Ooty and back. The approaching edition would be the second of Ultra Spice and nobody had completed the race yet. Early 2018, there were five participants for Ultra Spice – Srinivas, Lt Col Bharat Pannu, Sumit Patil, Vasant Manivanan and Kabir. Kabir’s support crew for the event included Mohan Subramanyam, a senior cyclist from Bengaluru who was quite familiar with the Ultra Spice-route and Peeyush Manjrejkar and Dibyojyoti Banerji (he is Kabir’s brother in law), both ultra-runners from Navi Mumbai. At about 1200 kilometers into the race, Kabir’s team got a call from Divya asking if they had seen Bharat; she had been unable to contact his team. When they finally met him, Bharat was not doing well. So they continued, keeping Bharat in eyesight till around 90 kilometers to the finish line, when Kabir pulled ahead. Kabir completed the 1750 kilometer-race in 112 hours, 51 minutes placing second. This was yet another RQ; he was now eligible for a couple of attempts at RAAM.

From the 2018 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

By now, Kabir’s cycling was on a different plane. In April 2017, he had met Miten Thakkar, a certified cycling coach based in Mumbai. Miten (he has coached the Mahajan brothers) is now Kabir’s coach. Miten brought structure and focus to Kabir’s training. Besides such aspects like interval training, tempo rides and endurance rides, Kabir’s training also paid attention to improving his VO2 max and strengthening muscle groups relevant to cycling. On the equipment side, the number of cycles in his inventory rose. Besides the Scott Speedster, he now owns another four road bikes. The purchases have been done paying attention to the need for specialist racing bikes and endurance bikes at events like RAAM, which present variation in terrain. For racing he has a Specialized Alize and a Lapierre Air Code; for endurance, he has a Lapierre Pulsium and a Colnago C60. In May 2018, Divya spoke to Kabir of a new race she was organizing in Ladakh called Himalayan Ultra. Altitude has for long been a fascination when it comes to structuring running events in India; this was to be cycling’s equivalent. For the 2018 inaugural edition of Himalayan Ultra, there were five participants in all including Amit, Sumit Patil and Kabir. The cut-off time for the race spanning Leh-Kargil-Leh was 37 hours. There was also mandatory sleep time of three hours; it was the first RQ in India with sleep time required so. Kabir availed that sleep time at Kargil after cycling in from Leh. On the return leg, he overtook Amit, who wasn’t in good shape. Kabir won the race in 33 hours, 20 minutes (excluding mandatory sleep). “ This race has been a source of strength for me in the approach to RAAM,’’ Kabir said. But it was Amit who did the incredible. Not feeling well he had to take time off for medical attention. He returned to the race and finished it in second place, covering the distance within cut-off.

At 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

A week before we met for conversation in the Navi Mumbai township of Kharghar, Kabir placed third in the November 2018 edition of DC. On the radar next was, 2019 Ultra Spice in January and then, 2019 RAAM in the US. For RAAM, Kabir hopes he can improve the time Indians have taken so far to complete the race in the solo category. He would also like to feature among the faster rookies. His support crew will be anchored by Sapana. Her understanding of ultra-cycling has evolved much since that first DC. “ Looking back I tell people that they should never commit the errors we did then,’’ she said. Today, Sapana keeps herself informed as best as she can about ultra-cycling and races therein. So far she has been crew chief for Kabir at five ultra-cycling events and in four of them, he had podium finish. For 2019 RAAM her priorities include making sure race rules are observed without fail (RAAM is a stickler for rules, especially those related to safety), proactively dealing with hydration and nutrition and ensuring everyone in the team is on the same page. Besides Sapana; Tushar, Ratnadeep, Peeyush and Dibyojoyti will also be there in Kabir’s 2019 RAAM crew.

RAAM is an expensive affair. In addition to multiple bikes and sustained training, it requires a whole team and hired support vehicles traveling the breadth of the US from the west coast to the east. Kabir hasn’t found any sponsors for his RAAM effort yet. He believes that sponsors will back athlete only after a big race done. The initial struggle is yours to bear. So for his first big race – RAAM – he plans to rely on personal funds and crowd funding. Besides sponsorship also brings pressure; the sort that can distract you from the main job of focusing on race, sticking together as team, keeping cyclist going for several days through challenging conditions and reaching the finish line within cut-off time.

Kabir will leave for the US in early May 2019, a month before RAAM.

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

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