MAHENDRA MAHAJAN / LIFE, BEFORE AND AFTER 2015 RAAM

Dr Mahendra Mahajan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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

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

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

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

From K2K (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

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

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

From Kalindi Khal trek (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

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

Golden Quadrilateral (Image: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

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

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

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

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

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

From 2015 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan)

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

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

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

Photo: courtesy Mahendra Mahajan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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