Lt Col Bharat Pannu on his home trainer (Photo: courtesy Bharat)

As COVID-19 swept across the planet, many bicycle races got cancelled. Lockdown restricted access to the outdoors and people were forced to refashion their chosen sport for pursuing it indoors. Runners attempted marathons indoors; cyclists pedaled on their home trainers..

Computer programs promising virtual rides have been around for some time. Amid pandemic and lockdown, they zoomed in popularity. It wasn’t long before bicycle races embraced the technology.

In early April 2020, one of cycling’s famous events – the annual Tour of Flanders – had an online digital version, won by Belgian cyclist, Greg Van Avermaet. According to those who followed the race, the format featured a shortened distance of 30 kilometers compared to the event’s real distance of 250 kilometers. This was partly because the event was a demonstration of technological possibilities and partly because riding in race mode for three hours on the home trainer was considered challenging enough. On April 3, in an email communique to those who had registered to participate in Race Across America (RAAM), the event’s organizers informed that the 2020 edition of the race was being cancelled. Some 20 days later, on April 24, VeloNews reported that Australian journalist Rupert Guinness who was among those scheduled to attempt 2020 RAAM, had set the ball rolling for a virtual reality version of the race. The report said that more than 800 people from around the world has signed up with expressions of interest to race.

RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. It is also fairly well known in India now, having been attempted thrice by that pioneer – Samim Rizvi (he would try it four times altogether; in 2011 he finished just outside the race’s 12 day cut-off), before the Mahajan brothers (Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan) placed first in the two-person male under-50 category at 2015 RAAM. In 2017, Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath became the first Indian cyclist to complete the race within cut-off in the solo category; he was followed to the finish line by fellow Indian, Dr Amit Samarth. This year as RAAM goes virtual in mid-June, Lt Col Bharat Pannu will pedal his avatar across a digital American landscape comparable to the distance and elevation gains of RAAM. He will be racing in the solo category. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, has been training for RAAM for the past couple of years. His 2019 attempt was prematurely terminated following an injury he sustained while training in the US. The subsequent 2020 attempt appeared lost due to pandemic till it found an extra lease of life in Virtual RAAM (VRAAM).

Based in Bengaluru, Bharat will move to Pune for VRAAM, scheduled to commence on June 16. The virtual race has three categories – the full 3000 mile-length of RAAM, the shorter race built into RAAM called Race Across West (RAW / in this instance: VRAW) and the60, which involves riding one hour every day for the 12 days of VRAAM. The overall cut-off for VRAAM remains the same as in the real race – 12 days. According to the virtual event’s website, “ all ride distances will be stunning road segments in the USA. They will not be the actual RAAM course.’’ The virtual race covers a total distance of 4542 kilometers and entail elevation gain of 73,739 meters. The technology platform used is FulGaz. As per details available on the FulGaz website, the VRAAM route is composed of iconic and interesting rides from the US. It has also been mentioned that since the actual route of RAAM is not being followed, sometimes a segment may repeat. The real RAAM is done with support vehicles and support crew. Bharat had planned all that before the 2020 edition of the race was called off. His crew was largely drawn from the community of cyclists in Pune. They will be supporting him for VRAAM too. “ I would have liked the attempt to be staged at a venue accessible to the public. But the present circumstances don’t allow that. So it will be at a private location,’’ he said.

A view of Oceanside pier in California, traditional starting point of Race Across America (Photo: Rajeev G)

At the heart of the VRAAM attempt will be the present day home trainer. Bharat has been using a smart trainer for the past few years. While virtual reality means he avoids being physically present in the US, a multi-day endurance race like VRAAM will have challenges despite rider being stationary. In fact, one of these challenges relates to the physical restrictions associated with cycling on a trainer. In the outdoors where bicycle moves on open road, the cyclist meets every turn and climb with a body language that is freer and more versatile than what is possible when bike is rooted to one spot. As may be imagined, when the bike is locked into trainer and the whole contraption stays stiff and incapable of lateral flexion, dynamic movements of the sort possible in normal cycling become impossible. There will be no leaning into curves, no weaving, very little of standing up and pedaling. You are limited to an utterly linear delivery of power. Repeating this over a long period of time takes a toll. The issue of saddle sores could be more pronounced in this kind of cycling because you don’t have room for postural adjustments that allow relief. “ When riding your bike outside, the bike moves and flexes in response to your body, kind of like a dance… a stationary bike doesn’t move, so there may be a bit more friction and as the rider moves side to side…,’’ Tracy McKay, Bharat’s US-based coach pointed out. The neck is another critical part that endures stress during distance cycling. Extended hours of cycling are known to fatigue the muscles holding the head up. For VRAAM, Bharat will have the computer screen showing his avatar, hooked up to a TV screen for bigger image. Slip into his saddle and imagine it – you can’t keep that TV screen in poorly thought through location and endure the resultant strain on the neck endlessly. You have to plan its position well; as Bharat said, keep it in line with his most comfortable riding position, maybe at an angle that is tad lower than normal to be easy on the neck.

The biggest challenge is none of the above. Human beings thrive on variety, multiple stimuli and three-dimensional eyesight. The actual course takes you through mountains, arid country and plains. All of these settings have very palpable ecosystems. They challenge the rider but also retain variety in the experience. Confined to where he is, Bharat will have little change in weather and no change in surroundings. His perception of world he is cycling through will be the two dimensional display of a computer program. Advanced smart trainers exist that allow lateral flexion to an extent and also simulate feel of terrain. But replicating the outdoor experience entirely and convincingly is still a long way off. “ VRAAM is basically a mental challenge,’’ Bharat said. What he may end up battling the most is – monotony. “ As always the mental aspect is the real challenge…VRAAM provides some visual stimulation to provide sense of change and progress. At the same time riding in stationary (format) with all creature comforts available may prove very tempting to step away from the bike more often. The brain creates interpretations of what we are experiencing to help manage and safeguard our well being. For the riders, staying on the bike must be more important and valuable than getting off the bike,’’ Tracy said. He also pointed out that hydration / nutrition requirements for VRAAM will be different.

Given he will be pedaling in contained ambiance Bharat estimates he won’t have to worry of outdoor risks like traffic, taking a tumble or falling off the bike. “ I believe I will be therefore taking less rest and keeping the momentum going,’’ he said. According to Tracy, VRAAM and RAAM are similar and different at once. “ VRAAM should not be looked at as a simple video game… it is not a training event. It is its own unique challenge that’s never been done. Technology allows riders and their crews to look at rider data heart rate; elevation, relief, load, etc. it will be tough! Good Training for RAAM, yes and vice versa…’’ Tracy said.

Major Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Besides Bharat who will be attempting RAAM in the solo category, there is Major Sandeep Kumar who will be participating in VRAW. Sandeep started out in running; he was part of a group from the army that did 50 half marathons in 50 days. He moved on into ultrarunning and the triathlon. In 2016, he secured podium position at a triathlon of full Ironman dimension, held in Chennai. “ I was doing cycling also during this period but it is a sport requiring time and attention and I didn’t have enough to spare given the nature of my work,’’ he said. Becoming part of Bharat’s crew for the 2019 edition of the well-known Indian ultracycling event, Ultra Spice, changed that. The race provided the army officer a ringside view of what went into ultracycling. Sandeep was included in Bharat’s team for 2020 RAAM, as crew member overseeing nutrition. Then pandemic struck and RAAM got cancelled. When VRAAM was announced, he decided to support Bharat and also attempt the shorter VRAW. “ We were already training on smart trainers. So attempting VRAW made sense. However cycling indoors for long will be challenging,’’ he said. Additionally, there are three members of Bharat’s original support crew for RAAM who will attempt the60. Unlike in RAAM, a race roster wasn’t available for VRAAM making it a bit difficult to ascertain if there are other Indian starters besides the said five.

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

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