CYCLING EVENTS RETURN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Getting back to cycling outdoors – that was a really good feeling. The air was less polluted and it was lovely to see greenery,’’ Anil Sharma, Chennai based recreational runner, cyclist and a coach for those aspiring to do the Ironman triathlons, said. Till his first forays onto the road after the lockdown was relaxed, he along with several others from Chennai Runners had kept busy working on their physical fitness with online sessions. He also cycled indoors using the home trainer.

Anil is a member of Madras Randonneurs. When lockdown struck in March 2020, the randonneuring calendar, which runs from November 1 to October 31, was curtailed. Randonneuring clubs in India try to do two to three Super Randonneur (SR) cycles. The classical SR cycle spans rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers (if you do all these rides, you become a SR). In Chennai, two SR cycles are done – the first in the period from November to March and the second, during June to October. “ My club could do its planned 200 and 300 kilometer-BRM. But the 400 and 600 didn’t happen because by March we were into lockdown,’’ Anil, who has been SR five times, done BRMs of 1000 and 1200 kilometers and been to Paris for randonneuring’s coveted ride; the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), said. He managed to do a 200k ride in the early part of 2020 before life funneled into lockdown.

By the time lockdown eased to the extent that BRMs could reappear, randonneuring’s 2020 calendar was almost over. The rides of September were essentially to help those who had set out to be a SR in 2020, complete their mission. “ It was a bit like back to back; clearing a backlog,’’ Anil said. Now things are much better. As part of the first SR cycle of the new 2021 calendar, Anil’s club has already held its 200 and 300 kilometer-BRMs; the 400k was due later in January and the 600k is planned. He did a 200k and a 300k; the first with his club, the second with Trichy Randonneurs to Koli Hills near Salem. The hill has a series of punishing hair pin bends. Anil loved this ride. “ Trichy is special for randonneurs in Tamil Nadu. Brevets measured out from Trichy take you to interesting places. The club also hosts these rides very well. Riders from elsewhere turn up for Trichy’s brevets,’’ he said, adding, “ unless the government reintroduces restrictions citing the pandemic, I think cycling is more or less back to normal.’’ One of the great advantages cycling has in this regard is that rides like randonneuring’s BRMs naturally respect many of the safety protocols required in times of pandemic, the most obvious of which is that cyclists are usually at a safe distance from each other. “ Physical distancing happens naturally in cycling,’’ Anil said.     

Domestic cycling events have been making a comeback. “ We restarted BRMs in September 2020,’’ Divya Tate, founder director of Audax India said. Audax India is the all India organization of randonneurs; it is recognized by Audax Club Parisien to conduct and oversee Brevets de Randonneurs Mondiaux (BRMs – self-supported, non-competitive endurance rides) and other Audax events in the country. The recommencement of activity happened at the right time. After months stuck indoors following lockdown, cyclists were waiting for an opportunity to get out and pedal. The clubs associated with Audax India were advised to decide locally after consulting relevant authorities, Divya said. This way, safe decisions could be made.

There were instances of rides planned and then cancelled. For example in Pune, BRMs of 300 kilometers to 600 kilometers were scheduled for December 2020 but were later called off because the Maharashtra government decided to introduce night curfew. Overall, the shorter BRMs were the easiest to resume. Early January 2021, Divya told this blog that while BRMs spanning 100 kilometers to 600 kilometers were happening under various clubs, the longer ones – 1000 kilometers, 1200 kilometers and 1400 kilometers – were yet to take off and would likely remain on the backburner for some more time. As she pointed out, the hesitation is not so much with the cycling community which is eager to get back on the saddle. The reluctance is an angle that accompanies the act of organizing an event; that is when you gauge potential risk, realize that somebody has to accept responsibility for anything going wrong and design ride accordingly. Further, longer rides require an entire ecosystem ranging from shops to eateries and ATMs to be functional along the way. They help support the riders with hydration and replenishment; they also serve as checkpoints and proof of rider having cycled the assigned distance. This ecosystem isn’t still available as smoothly as before at several places.  

According to Divya, the response to the BRMs arranged after lockdown relaxed, has been encouraging. While existing cyclists were happy to avail the opportunity; new cyclists have also turned up. One of the engaging side effects of the pandemic worldwide was enhanced interest in cycling. Industry officials have ascribed this spike in interest with accompanying jump in sale of bicycles, to the search for environment friendly personal transport and the pursuit of fitness with the latter being the more prominent driver in the premium category. The sudden rise in sales was sufficient to clean up available stocks, strain the supply of bicycles and create never before seen waiting lists. Amidst this increased interest in cycling, the membership base of Audax India also grew, Divya, who lives in Pune, said.

Besides being founder director of Audax India, Divya heads Inspire India, an outfit that organizes long distance bicycle races including ultracycling events like the annual Ultra Spice. The 2021 edition of Ultra Spice is scheduled for February 6. The pandemic has left its imprint on the mix of races it will showcase this year. Over time, the event had been gradually moving towards longer races. For 2021, the event will have two distance categories – 600 kilometers and 1200 kilometers. The still longer category of 1750 kilometers will not be there as its route traverses four states: Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Retaining that long route appeared challenging in times of pandemic. The 2021 edition will be limited to routes traversing Goa and Karnataka. “ The response in terms of registrations so far, has been good,’’ Divya said.

Among Indian cities, Bengaluru is known for its tradition of monthly bicycle races under the auspices of Bangalore Bicycle Championships (BBCH) and Bangalore Amateur Racing (BAR). According to Venketeswara Rao Navanasi aka Bikey Venky, well-known cyclist and coach from the city, BAR had its first race in September at Hoskote. The response was encouraging as racing aficionados were waiting to get out and cycle. “ We followed physical distancing and the timing was done using Strava,’’ he said. The happiness in being out was evident in BAR’s Facebook post after the event. “ Awesome turnout today for the first BAR race since February for the two rider time trial this morning! Elbow-bump greetings replaced shake hands and fist bumps. Thankfully, the suffering on the bike and the cake at the end are a constant at our lovely community event! Thanks everyone for turning up and making it a huge success!’’ it said. At the time of writing, BAR’s next race was scheduled for January 10, 2021. BBCH had races in November and December 2020; its January 2021 edition revolved around an Individual Time Trial (ITT) on the 17th with a MTB race on the following Sunday. Venky who is among prime movers at BAR, planned to take things slowly; organize one race a month and wait for the environment to be reliably stable before introducing more. “ If the response to the races held so far is anything to go by, I believe things are slowly beginning to look up,’’ he said.     

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

2021 CHENNAI MARATHON HELD AS SCHEDULED

Finisher’s medal from the 2021 Chennai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anil Sharma)

After months of no mass participation events and amateur running in general weighed down by the restrictions of lockdown, the New Year kicked off with a scaled down version of the 2021 Chennai Marathon held as scheduled early today morning (January 3).

“ The event went off quite well under the watchful eyes of officials,” V. P. Senthil Kumar, Race Director, Skechers Performance Chennai Marathon 2021, said. When asked about the number of runners who actually participated in the event, he said tallying that number would take a few days. Following the onset of lockdown in India in March 2020 and its subsequent phased relaxation, the 2021 Chennai marathon was the second major running event to put feet on the ground after the 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) of November. However while ADHM’s physical race was a competitive elites-only affair held in the safety of a protective bubble, the Chennai Marathon was non-competitive, open to amateurs, conducted on a motorsports racetrack away from the city with COVID-19 safety protocols in place and capped to a maximum participation of 1000-1500 runners.

Among those who ran in Chennai was Bengaluru-based amateur runner, Thomas Bobby Philip. A regular podium finisher at the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), he currently runs in the race’s 50-54 years age category. “ I didn’t find any of the safety measures in place intrusive,’’ he said when asked how the Chennai Marathon experience felt, compared to those from pre-pandemic days. He said that when he first heard of the event in Chennai and the return to some form of event-based running it promised, he was certain that he wanted to participate. “ It was a relief,’’ he said of event savored after months with none on runner’s plate. Bobby finished the full marathon in 2:57:12, which was better than his previous best timing at TMM – 2:57:40, registered in 2018. “ I don’t compare these timings as the conditions and circumstances are different,’’ Bobby said.

The Chennai Marathon followed the 3.4 kilometer-loop of a race track and atop the benefit of that contained environment, was also utterly pleasant for a barefoot runner like Bobby. “ The track served up one of the best barefoot running experiences I have had so far,’’ Bobby said. The course was fairly flat. According to him, the others from Bengaluru who got sub-three hour finishes were “ Tilak, Devi Shetty and Vinuth.’’ All of them belong to Pacemakers, the training group anchored by Coach K. C. Kothandapani. “ There were around 150 runners for the marathon, which started at 4.30 AM. You had to report to the venue 15 minutes ahead. Safety protocols were followed well and in the holding area we had circles marked on the ground for each runner to stand with adequate physical distancing from the other.  Government officials were present to make sure that protocols were followed,’’ Bobby said.

According to Anil Sharma, member of Chennai Runners, the organizers of the event, the idea of holding the 2021 Chennai Marathon began getting discussed – including with the authorities who would be granting the required permissions – around October 2020. The proposal was to hold an event with all COVID-19 protocols in place. The race track at Irungattukottai also offered a location outside city limits. “ The authorities were supportive,’’ he said.  Anil, who participated in the half marathon, provided an overview of the approach to the event. The first priority, given the times and conditions in which the event would be held, was to get a grip on the potential number of participants. It had to be manageable so that chances of infection may be limited. “ We introduced some restrictions including timing-based eligibility to participate. It ensured that those who registered were keen on running,’’ Anil said. Additionally participation was capped at a maximum of 1000-1500 runners. Bib collection was set for the day before the event and prior to collecting the bib, those registered and turning up had to get their temperature checked and provide a declaration that satisfied a checklist related to COVID-19.

On event day, upon reporting 15 minutes prior to the start time, there was another round of temperature check to secure entry. Masks were to be worn till the commencement of running. “ We had people on loudhailers frequently reminding participants to maintain physical distancing in the holding area,’’ he said. Volunteers also checked the same. Government officials were present to monitor the proceedings. On the 3.4 kilometer-race track two aid stations were made available for the runners. Post run refreshments were served in packets that the runners could pick up themselves; the same went for medals, which were hung on stands and could be picked up. There was a medical team and ambulance available for any health emergencies. “ We were a bit concerned about the race track ambiance because it offers no shade. The full marathon takes some time to complete and the half marathon was starting roughly two hours after the marathon had commenced. There was a chance of running in bright sunshine towards the concluding stages. Luckily, the day stayed cloudy,” Anil said. 

It is understood that at least one other major race organizer had a representative at the venue to observe the Chennai event, widely seen as an icebreaker for the slow return of road races. In December 2020, industry officials had mentioned that besides the 2021 Chennai Marathon there was an event in Hyderabad too slated for January.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This report is based on telephone conversations with the people spoken to.)