Bharat Pannu (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

Please see updates at the end of this article; revised rules for finishing were disclosed on the afternoon of June 25.

In the ongoing Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM), Lt Col Bharat Pannu was in third position overall as of 2AM, June 25. The leaderboard of the race showed that he had covered 2784.61 kilometers in the days since June 16, when the event commenced.

In the lead was Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan who had pedaled 3169.06 km. Second and fourth places were held by cyclists from the UK; a cyclist identified as putters29 at 2792.32 km and Brad Lincoln at 2748.45km, respectively. The second, third and fourth places were thus separated by narrow margin. At 10.45PM on June 24, Bharat was in fact placed second. In a Facebook post on the approach to Day 9 of the race, Bharat noted that although much distance still remained, “  I can very gladly say that the toughest sections of the race are now over.”

The virtual version of RAAM follows the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the real race, announced on April 3. The subsequent virtual race is being hosted on FulGaz, an Australian cycling app. Participants pedal on a home trainer at location of their choice, the distance they log appearing on screen as movement across the US. RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, had 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 VRAAM.  The virtual race – like the real one – has a cut-off of 12 days. The total distance to cover in the real race is approximately 4800km. At the time of writing, 22 riders were listed on the VRAAM leaderboard (accessed via FulGaz website) of which 15 had gone past 1000km and 11, more than 2000km.

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

RAAM has a second race built into it – Race Across West (RAW) – which is smaller and runs along the initial portion of the race route. Major Sandeep Kumar, who is a keen cyclist and part of Bharat’s support crew, completed the virtual version of RAW – VRAW – successfully. He covered the distance of 1528km in five days, seven hours and 33 minutes. As of early June 25 on the VRAW leaderboard, he was placed 23rd overall and third among Indian cyclists (he features as sandeeptrooper). The first Indian cyclist to complete VRAW was Vivek Shah. He did so in four days, 10 hours and 33 minutes.  The second Indian cyclist at the finish line was Jitendra who completed in four days, 23 hours and 58 minutes. The fourth Indian cyclist to finish was Sachin Shirbavikar (seven days, 25 minutes). Praveen Sapkal (1342.74km) and Anand Verma (1143.37km) were still on their way. At the top of the VRAW heap was Simon Potter of the UK; he completed the race in three days, five hours and 11 minutes.

Unlike the real RAW which has a cut-off of 92 hours, the virtual race has the same duration as VRAAM – 12 days. This allows interested riders to take their shot at this smaller race any time in that duration. At the time of writing, the positions on the VRAW leaderboard were therefore still dynamic. For those supporting a VRAAM participant as member of his crew, the longer cut-off in VRAW is particularly useful.  With Sandeep having completed VRAW, fellow member of Bharat’s support crew and a former finisher in the eight person-team category at RAAM, Arham Shaikh, has since commenced his attempt at VRAW. As of 2.20AM on June 25, Arham had logged 909.18km as per the virtual race’s leaderboard. All three – Bharat, Sandeep and Arham – were cycling in Pune.

Arham Shaikh (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Sandeep said that VRAW had been a learning experience for him. “ I learnt a lot as regards managing nutrition and sleep, not to mention extended hours on the saddle. The event has raised my self-confidence and I will be looking for further challenges in ultra-cycling now,’’ he said. VRAW also gave him the opportunity to be at home and yet compete with good cyclists from around the world. “ It was the best I could reap from lockdown conditions,’’ he said. In the first 24 hours of the race Sandeep covered more than 350km. Thereafter he had a difficult phase due to an emergent knee problem that was then contained with the help of the team physio. From the third day onward things started to improve. “ It was however a grueling race for me,’’ he said. The main reason for this was the additional dose of elevation gain that the race designers introduced. It was probably done to compensate for the otherwise stationary nature of virtual racing with all that you need for support, at hand. According to Sandeep, in VRAW, the elevation gain freshly added was of the order of around 10,000m; it took cumulative elevation gain over the 1528km pedaled to around 25,000m. “ We were just climbing,’’ he said laughing. Similar tweaks have been done to the parameters of the significantly longer VRAAM too. In his earlier mentioned Facebook post, Bharat provided a break up of how the race had progressed (distance cycled plus cumulative elevation gain) till Day 8: Day 1 – 399km / 11,500m; Day 2 – 767km / 17,800m, Day 3 – 1,180km / 23,400m, Day 4 – 1,470km / 28,400m, Day 5 – 1,843km / 33,000m, Day 6 – 2,078km / 39,000m, Day 7 – 2,358km / 45,650m. The real race is known to have cumulative elevation gain of over 170,000 feet (51,816m).

According to Sandeep, he took some time to get used to the FulGaz platform. Up until the VRAW attempt, for his home-based training, he had been mostly a user of Zwift. The new technology required the group he was with, to correspondingly upgrade their computer and telecom hardware. Thus even as they didn’t leave India for a real race overseas, the virtual project wasn’t without its imprint on the purse. Then there was technology’s teething problems to sort out; primarily lags in updates registering on the app’s screen while the cycling was on. “ FulGaz listened. They were supportive and sorted the issues out,’’ Sandeep said.

Update 1: In a major revision to the rules of the race, VRAAM informed on June 25 via its Facebook page that any rider covering 3248km within the stipulated cut-off period would be deemed a finisher. The message read:

After careful consideration and a thorough review of the VRAAM course, in addition to the health and well being of all competitors we have made the decision to reduce the official race qualifying finish distance to 3248km.

To be an official VRAAM finisher competitors will need to complete the following;

Complete 3,248km by 11pm June 28th Sydney Eastern Standard Time

All results will be provisional until verified by FulGaz and VRAAM. Race Across America HQ will verify the official solo RAAM qualification distance within the next 48 hours.

The winner will be the competitor who has ridden the furthest distance by the end of the race.

When contacted, Sandeep said that the challenging parameters of the virtual race had been taking a toll on riders participating from various parts of the world. There was concern growing over how people may finish because after more than nine days on the saddle and the route proving tough, riders hopeful of finishing continued to stare at good distance still left to cover. In their urge to complete, sleep levels had been dropping. There was fatigue. A couple of good riders reported injury. It is assumed that these factors may have led to the revision of rules. “ Bharat has been fine so far. But we have to be careful because the onset of injury is typically sudden,” he said.  As regards podium finish, the understanding in Pune was that those pursuing it would have to keep riding past the 3248km currently assigned to finish. Cyclists riding the farthest by race’s close (the end of the 12 day-duration) would be best placed to claim space on the podium. As of 2.35PM June 25, the second and third positions on the VRAAM leaderboard had changed from what it was much earlier in the day. Bharat was back in second place having covered 3015.92km; a rider identified as mixirica from Brazil was placed third at 3012.28km. Putters29 had slipped to fourth (3001.14km). These positions continued to be bunched. Suzuki of Japan was way ahead at 3354.04km.

Update 2: Checked at 12.40PM on June 26, Bharat was in fourth position having logged 3326.76km. That placed him well past the 3248km, which is the revised distance to be deemed a VRAAM finisher. Mixirica (Brazil) was at 3352.45km and potters29 (UK) at 3354.59km; Suzuki was at 3573.46km. Meanwhile from among Indian cyclists attempting VRAW, Praveen Sapkal had finished in nine days, two hours and 38 minutes. Anand Verma was at 1329.96km and Arham, at 1240.03km.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Names from the leaderboard quoted in the article are as they appeared on the list. In some cases there was no gap between first name and surname; discretion had to be suitably exercised for the purpose of writing.)         

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