In June 2019, a young cyclist from Pune found himself unexpectedly on the saddle at the 3000 miles (4800 km) long-Race Across America (RAAM). He had sought to crew for a team but found himself accepted as a racer. It was an unbelievable opportunity; he hadn’t trained for it, he was a fan among some of the world’s best ultra-cyclists and he was pedaling the same route they were on. Arham Shaikh recalls his RAAM experience and his journey in cycling so far.
In 1990, Colin Needham, an engineer working for computer giant HP in Bristol, started the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It provides information on movies, TV programs, video games, home videos and content streamed online. Since 1998, IMDb has been owned by Amazon. The database has a page devoted to the top 25 Indian films based on sports. Placed eighth on the list as of August 2019, was the 1992 Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, the highlight of which was a bicycle race.
The movie was a hit at the Indian box office. Arham Shaikh wasn’t yet born when the film released. But it was this movie and its bicycle race that got the young man, born 1993 in Pune, wanting to do something in cycling. Getting to focus on the sport took a while. Growing up, he was into several activities. “ I believe it is one life and I have to do everything. If I am not learning I am as good as dead,’’ Arham said. Thanks to his being in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), his childhood lived up to that credo. He got to train in mountaineering; yachting, shooting and diving. As university student, he also got into rowing and kayaking. He was in the naval wing of NCC. His desire was to join the Indian Navy. But the fact that he ended up graduating in computer science as opposed to being an engineer restricted his prospects for selection by the navy. It must have hurt for Arham had even been best NCC cadet at the all India level, once. However that cycling bug didn’t let go. It hung on.
Arham’s father initially worked in the hotel industry and later, with the Baba Kalyani group of companies. His mother worked for Tata Motors. When he was in seventh standard, they bought him his first road bike – a BSA Mach 1. He asked his school coach what he should do to train and become a good cyclist. It was an unusual request; school coaches in India are typically generalists. Coach and ward had to figure out their way. Sole phase of proper structured intervention in between was a month when Arham trained at Kreeda Prabodhini in Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex. They trained competitive cyclists. Then in tenth standard, Arham finished on the podium at a national level road race. He was promised a good road bike at home but funds crunch ensured it remained a mirage. A few years later his brother acquired a Hercules hybrid. Hitting the roads with that, Arham gradually got introduced to the culture of randonneuring, which had by then taken roots in Pune. Although he tagged along on his own with the riders, he didn’t do a BRM officially at this stage. He was a bit too casual and unorganized in his cycling gear to meet the safety standards demanded by the organizers. They recognized his earnestness but politely emphasized safety more.
Towards the closing stages of graduation, Arham worked with the sole intention of saving enough money to buy a good road bike. He worked for a Pune based-bicycle retail shop called Cymour. Around this time, Divya Tate of Inspire India – she also oversaw randonneuring in India – had commenced the annual 400 mile (646 km) bicycle race called Deccan Cliffhanger. At a ride to Lonavala (a hill station roughly 65 kilometers from Pune) organized by Cymour, Arham got to meet Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. The latter asked Arham to crew for him at the 2014 Deccan Cliffhanger. Arham assembled the crew. Cymour helped Srinivas procure a new road bike – a Merida Scultura 300. “ It was a good race,’’ Arham said of the experience. That year, Chaitanya Valhal finished first; Srinivas placed second. Arham was sure he would try Deccan Cliffhanger sometime. Four months after he started working for Cymour, he received a Scott Speedster 30 as payment. Working for Cymour meant more than just getting that cycle. He learnt how to service and repair bikes, not to mention, he got insight into online sales. In 2015 Chaitanya became Arham’s coach. Arham went on to race at Deccan Cliffhanger in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – on all three occasions as part of teams (twice 2-person; once 4-person) he christened Relay Spirit; on all three occasions his team finished on the podium. He also made sure that besides participating in Deccan Cliffhanger, he crewed at one another race. The mix he followed every year was several short distance races, one ultra-distance event and an instance of crewing.
Meanwhile the basket of races at Inspire India grew. In 2017, Arham thought of attempting Ultra Spice, at 1750 kilometers (it also has a 1000 km version), the longest race in their collection. But the dates clashed with a short distance race he had signed up for in Ahmedabad. There was also another event smoldering at the back of his mind; one he had heard spoken of a lot in the cycling circles around Inspire India – Race Across America (RAAM), the event entailing a ride, 4800 kilometers long, from the US west coast to the east. In 2017, Srinivas became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo; Amit Samarth became the first Indian to complete it solo on the very first attempt. At a subsequent party at Divya’s house, Srinivas shared his RAAM experience. Arham was in the audience. It added to the pull RAAM had on Arham. But embarking on a RAAM project was unthinkable for him just then; it cost a lot. A year later, in 2018, Amit successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, a race over 9000 kilometers in length, almost twice as long as RAAM. Same year, Arham was asked if he would like to crew for Amit at Inspire India’s Great Himalayan Ultra. That good fortune of offers coming his way didn’t end there.
In October 2018, Lt Col Bharat Pannu informed Arham that he was set to go for 2019 RAAM and as far as he was concerned, Arham was part of his core team for crewing. Arham likes everything at a race except driving the crew car, which he finds limiting as regards learning. Bharat assigned the responsibility of navigation and rider care to him. The team was well prepared. Bharat left a month ahead of everyone else for 2019 RAAM. He needed to train in the US, get used to cycling there and acclimatize. The first lot of the crew including Arham was scheduled to reach California ten days before the actual race, scheduled to start on June 11. Unfortunately Bharat had an accident while training. That ended his dream of participating in 2019 RAAM. It was a last minute setback bringing the curtains down on months of preparation. Tickets had been booked and all that was left for crew to do was, fly from India to the US. Instead of canceling his ticket, Arham decided to proceed to America. He planned to approach any other team requiring a hand in crewing. The logic was simple – crewing puts you in the front row to observe race and rider. It tells you how RAAM unravels, how the challenge impacts rider and crew. It is great experience to obtain especially if you have your own plans to attempt RAAM in the future.
Arham posted his offer and cycling resume on RAAM’s social media pages and community hang-outs. He even wrote to Christoph Strasser, among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists and winner of RAAM multiple times. Inspire India – connected as they are to the RAAM ecosystem – pitched in to help Arham secure an opportunity to crew with a team. Amit Samarth put in a word for Arham to one of RAAM’s all-time greats – Seana Hogan. Back in time, Amit had crewed for Seana. Around May 27-28, Seana called Arham. However Seana couldn’t confirm straight away. Then Dr Lam Do of Team SuperMarrow called. They were riding for a charitable cause. On their website, the team describes themselves thus: We are a team of relentless individuals, comprised of Leukemia patients, their families, and their physicians. Together we will race across America. We bike with the common mission to raise awareness for Leukemia, and to help diversify the Be The Match Registry by registering more potential donors. Team SuperMarrow supports Asian American Donor Program. All net proceeds will go to Asian American Donor Program to help support stem cell education and registration programs. Dr Lam Do asked if Arham was still available. Arham recalled what Dr Lam Do said, “ we will be honored if you come aboard and help our team to finish. Those were his words.’’ Team SuperMarrow was to be an eight person-relay team at RAAM. Arham’s role was to be assistant crew chief. SuperMarrow confirmed in five minutes. RAAM was on, for Arham.
Next day, Seana called to confirm but it was too late. Arham recommended Ajay K, a teammate from Bharat’s crew for the job; he got it. A day before Arham was to leave, Dr Lam Do called telling him to pack his biking gear as well. Reason – Arham may have to race. Unlike attempting RAAM in solo category which requires prior qualification for eligibility, relay teams can pick up any cyclist they perceive as competent to be a team member. Nevertheless, Dr Lam Do’s announcement was a bolt from the blue. RAAM is a major race and Arham hadn’t trained at all. To compound matters, it was the month of Ramzan and its accompanying tradition of fasting was on. It isn’t the best period for a Muslim sportsperson to exert himself / herself. “ It was a weird time for me to say yes to racing,’’ Arham said. Five days after reaching the US, he was in Oceanside, California, fitted out in cycling gear and training with Team SuperMarrow. The team gave him a bike; it was a 54 centimeter-frame as opposed to his regular 52 centimeters. “ Usually cyclists take around three months to get acquainted with a new bike. I had eight days,’’ Arham said. On the bright side, he was given whatever gear he wanted. Back in Pune, only his parents and Chaitanya knew that he was going to cycle at RAAM. Chaitanya sent him a crash course on training.
On race day, having obtained official permission, Arham rode first with Kabir Rachure (rider from Navi Mumbai, he was attempting RAAM solo / he completed it successfully), then for 12 miles he rode with Christoph Strasser, a champion looked up to by many endurance cyclists in India. Team SuperMarrow was divided into two groups of four riders with four crew members; that’s eight cyclists riding on shift basis. One group completes its rotation first, then, the other follows. Arham was initially part of Team B therein. One member of Team B fell sick. Arham volunteered to do double shift. He was the youngest at 25 years of age; the rest were older ranging from 45 years to 72. The team’s previous experience in ultra-cycling was limited. The first few days were taxing. Mistakes happened. Past Durango, a team meeting was held to remind everyone of the need to work in harmony. At Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 feet; it is on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado), Arham’s exhaustion caught up with him. Some of his sessions on the saddle had been long. He was also doing night shifts. Amid this specter of inexperienced team whipping itself into shape, there was one positive. The team had provided Arham two bikes for the race. Both were top notch – a De Rosa and a Blue TT. “ They were the best bikes I had cycled in my life till then,’’ Arham said. Working diligently the team crossed all cut offs in time. RAAM spans the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland. Arham got the honor of leading the team into Maryland. In all, they took eight days, two hours and 19 minutes to complete RAAM. It was well within the nine days cut-off period allotted to relay teams at the event. Team SuperMarrow raised a good amount towards charity, Arham said.
2019 RAAM had been a learning experience for the Pune based-rider. It more than met his expectations. He anticipated crewing; instead, he got to race and finish as part of a relay team. At the time he spoke to this blog in July 2019, Arham was planning to attempt Dunes, a RAAM qualifier race scheduled for mid-September 2019. He was preparing to do that solo. Also in mind was a Half Ironman in 2020; maybe the one in Dubai. Plus, there was the idea of taking a shot at the Great Himalayan Ultra. Of Dunes and solo rides, he said, “ I don’t have the training yet to do a solo. I have to work on my patience. Ultras are not about going fast; it is about being consistent. That’s what I learnt from 2019 RAAM. If you are moving, you are doing it. Not to mention – stopping is also critical. RAAM shows you how small you are.’’
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Arham Shaikh in Pune.)