A WORKSHOP IN NAVI MUMBAI

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In the concluding months of 2020, an accomplished ultra-cyclist discovered the beauty in sharing his knowledge and skills through an extended workshop. Here’s an overview: 

Bala Sitaram Rokade bought her cycle about two years ago. She was into the active lifestyle. She had been running regularly since 2015, was training women interested in physical fitness and had become an ambassador for Pinkathon in the Seawoods area. At the time of purchasing the bicycle, she didn’t know how to cycle. “ I wanted to learn cycling,” she said. Having learnt it; prior to the pandemic-induced lockdown of March 2020, the maximum distance she cycled at one go was approximately 25 kilometers on that road much loved by runners and cyclists in Navi Mumbai – Palm Beach. In October 2020, as the relaxation of the lockdown progressed, Bala enrolled for a workshop on cycling that she came to hear of through the social media channels of Everest Cycling Culture (ECC). It spanned a few weeks. “ The workshop enhanced my confidence to cycle on the road and on Palm Beach. Within a fortnight of training at the workshop, I did my first ride of 100 kilometers,” she said.

The 100k ride was essayed as loops on Palm Beach, a pretty flat road. Bala covered the distance in around five hours. Following the workshop, Bala began attempting BRMs, which are self-supported long distance rides held with a cut-off time but no competition among participating cyclists. It is typically the first stepping stone for those aspiring to know the world of endurance cycling. Internationally, the tradition of brevets or BRMs is overseen by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP); each country has a local chapter that supervises rides within its domain. Bala did her first 100k (Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi) in 4:58 hours; the second 100k (Belapur-Khopoli-Belapur) in 5:18 hours and on January 30, 2021, a 200k BRM (NMMC building near Belapur-Dhapoli) in 12:58 hours. Officially, BRMs start from 200k; the 100k is classified as Brevet Populaire (BP). “ I wish to try becoming a Super Randonneur,” the 50 year-old said. To be a Super Randonneur or SR, a cyclist has to do BRMs of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers in one SR season.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

February 2021. At a small cafe in the subway below the Seawoods  railway station, Kabir Rachure recalled his predicament in the second half of 2020. “ I was bored,” he said. Among leading endurance cyclists in western India, Navi Mumbai-based Kabir has been a podium finisher at domestic ultra-cycling events and a finisher in the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM). Like others in the country, he had seen life in his neighborhood come to a halt with the pandemic and lockdown. Weird for ordinary human beings to behold, the specter of life brought to a standstill was weirder still for the cyclist used to training outdoors daily. In the initial phase, it was unsettling. Kabir trained indoors but the repetitive pattern of a bleak existence was boring. Past its strictest phase, as the lockdown started to relax and he recommenced his outdoor rides, Kabir thought of ways to overcome the ennui that still nagged him. Although there were virtual events organized by friends that he participated in and instances of Everesting (an activity in which, cyclists pedal up and down a hill multiple times till the cumulative elevation gain equals that of Everest – 8848 meters; it is done by runners too) he attended, he knew it would be some months before the old calendar of physical events in endurance cycling got restored. It left him with time on his hands and thoughts around how such time may be put to good use.

Everest Cycling Culture is a leading name in the bicycle retail business in Navi Mumbai. For some years now, it has functioned as a modern bicycle shop in the suburb of Seawoods. ECC anchors a community of cyclists replete with weekend rides covering modest distances. Kabir knew ECC well. Long before the lockdown  of 2020, he and the well known Nagpur-based ultra-cyclist Amit Samarth, had been speakers at a function organized by ECC. He had also given a talk at ECC after completing RAAM. In the period of the phased dismantling of the lockdown, Kabir realized that what would satisfy him is sharing and coaching. Thanks to his excursions in the field of ultra-cycling, he had built up a well of experience. Besides the grace in sharing, helping others improve their skills can be a sort of healing for the mind emerging from pandemic and lockdown. Not to mention – the timing seemed apt because in the wake of lockdown being relaxed, in India and elsewhere in the world, there had been a sharp surge in interest in cycling. The pandemic had highlighted the importance of physical fitness. Among avenues to stay fit, cycling ranked at the top because it mixed exercise with the joy of movement and at the same time ensured physical distancing, which had become an important aspect of pandemic-related safety protocols.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to AbdulRab Kazi, founder and admin of ECC, it’s online community of cycling enthusiasts is currently over 3000-strong and spread across 19 WhatsApp groups in Navi Mumbai. “Kabir has been associated with ECC since 2014-15. We were talking one day when Kabir broached the idea of a training workshop,” Kazi said. ECC quickly bought into the idea. Amateur cyclists typically need some guidance to gain confidence and give wing to their abilities. The workshop seemed ideal for that. “ We decided on a format that would have Kabir ride with the trainees at least three days a week and assign them homework for the remaining days,” Kazi said. ECC circulated the proposal on social media to their members. Alongside they also reactivated an old WhatsApp group they had. Called Wheelist, it was originally meant to address members nursing dreams of personal expeditions and projects. Those interested in the workshop were encouraged to come aboard Wheelist. The workshop was named: Train with Kabir. A fee of Rs 1000 was charged for the program to ensure that only those truly interested (and having suitable cycles) would participate. Around 17-18 applications were received. From that, 13 persons were selected to attend the workshop. It was a varied field ranging from abject recreational cyclists to those who had already done BRMs. It was also varied in terms of age. The diversity suited ECC because its aim is to get more people on the saddle and help them acquire the capability of riding 100 kilometers, comfortably and responsibly. As regards age, Kazi felt that in today’s times many people wake up to their capabilities late. Amateur running and cycling has plenty of people who picked up the sport in middle age. “ At ECC, we have a wide range of age groups, from 9-10 year-olds to those above 70,” Kazi said. Among those who applied and made it to the workshop was, Bala.

Another was fifty year-old Ajith B. Nair, who stays in Seawoods and works as a chief manager at State Bank of India. He had been living the regular working man-existence with physical fitness denied its due share of attention, when a physiotherapist he consulted for a knee problem, recommended cycling. Initially, he borrowed his son’s bicycle for the purpose. “ I liked the experience,” Ajith said. He joined the cycling community at ECC. About a year and a half ago, still unsure whether his new interest in cycling would become a serious engagement or not, the bank officer purchased an affordable hybrid bike – Riverside – from Decathlon. “ My goal on the days I cycled was to pedal for an hour or in terms of distance, about 20 kilometers. I hadn’t heard of BRMs and so knew nothing about them,” he said. However courtesy, the supported group rides offered by ECC, Ajith had to his credit a long bike ride of around 60 kilometers prior to reporting for the workshop. That was the longest distance he had covered. In the course of the workshop (it started on October 20), Ajith did a 70km-ride on Palm Beach. “ It was at the workshop that I got my first insight into what BRMs are,” he said. Ajith did his first BRM, a 200km-ride in November during the course of the workshop. In December, he did his second BRM, this time a 300km-ride. He plans to continue participating in BRMs. But the best thing that the combination of cycling, workshop and BRMs have done is that it has given him a hobby he can continue anywhere in India. “ BRMS are there in many cities now,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

A structural engineer by profession, Parag Kulkarni, 48, used to be a recreational cyclist.Owner of a Giant road bike, he was a member of the ECC cycling community. The longest ride he had done ahead of the workshop was of 100 kilometers; it was a supported outing with ECC of 70 kilometers complemented by a 30km segment on his own. According to Parag, in the early stage of the workshop, the participants along with Kabir, did a slightly long ride covering Palm Beach and the nearby Parsik Hill. This gave Kabir an idea of where each trainee was in cycling; he was able to customize inputs for each in addition to the general sharing of knowledge, which every workshop entails. Parag participated in his first BRM roughly three months ago, a 200km-ride that he completed in approximately 13 hours. Going ahead, he wishes to attempt being a Super Randonneur. But for that, he feels an emergent problem in cycling has to sort itself out. One of his BRMs (a 400k one) had to be aborted because of a couple of punctures, including one that ripped the tyre. Parag managed to hire transport and get himself and cycle back to Navi Mumbai. Unfortunately in the months after lockdown’s relaxation, the sudden surge in cycling and bicycle purchases had created a shortage of bikes and spare parts. Good tyres have become difficult to procure. It took him a couple of weeks to find a replacement for the damaged tyre and that meant no cycling for the period. The difficulty in finding spares also means that amateur cyclists pushing their limits may have to do so conservatively, for damaged parts are currently tough to replace.

Anup T. V was among the more experienced of the trainees. The 41 year-old forex dealer working with Kotak Mahindra Bank and residing in Sanpada, is a triathlete with a few Ironman events under his belt. It was around three years ago that he bought his first bicycle – a Firefox Rapide hybrid. The decision to take up cycling was mainly to check weight gain. He also became a member of ECC. In the ensuing months, he was one of the attendees at the talk hosted by ECC featuring Amit Samarth and Kabir; the former had completed both RAAM and Trans Siberian Extreme while the latter was preparing for RAAM. “ A day after this talk, I signed up for my first triathlon – the Ironman 70.3 held in Dubai in 2019,” Anup said. The journey to that event saw him acquiring a second bicycle, a road bike – Scott Addict 30. Following the Dubai Ironman, Anup participated in the 2019 Ironman Goa and a triathlon of 70.3 dimensions in Kolhapur. The last Ironman event he competed in was in New Zealand. Held in March 2020, it was a case of leaving an India before lockdown, competing in New Zealand and then returning to an India and world altered by the pandemic-induced lockdown. With ECC, Anup had done rides of 100 kilometers and more. Back in 2018 he also did a 200km-BRM on his hybrid bike, covering the distance in roughly 13:15 hours. During the course of the workshop, Anup did two BRMs of 200km each – from Navi Mumbai towards the Pune side, up Bhor Ghat and back. The first one he completed in approximately 10 hours, the second in 11 hours. Later he did a 300km-BRM in roughly 15:10 hours and a 400km-BRM in 23:15 hours. In November 2021, he plans to participate in the 600km category of the Deccan Cliffhanger, an event used as a RAAM-qualifier by many. Interestingly, despite his ability in cycling, Anup’s focus is not ultra-cycling; it is the triathlon. He has set his eyes on an upcoming Ironman in Lanzarote, Spain, which is reputed for its tough cycling leg. “ I would like to keep doing an Ironman every one to one and a half years,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Seventeen year-old Lenin Kennedy was the youngest trainee at Kabir’s workshop. Until then, he had been the regular recreational cyclist-sort, taking his bike out once or twice a week for rides approximating 20 kilometers on Palm Beach. Owner of a Dodge hybrid cycle, he was also a member of ECC and with the group, had done rides that were 50-70 kilometers long. The workshop has taken his relationship with cycling to another level. While many of the other participants at the workshop proceeded to participate in BRMs, Lenin couldn’t as his age didn’t make him old enough to enroll for one. So the youngster had his own 200km-ride on Palm Beach, which he completed in roughly nine hours. “ I am now interested in getting into professional cycling. I wish to take part in road races,” he said.

Fifty two year-old Prabhat Paranjpe, a telecom professional working with Reliance, has been a recreational cyclist for the past six years or so. His bike is a Trek 3 series MTB, purchased in 2013-14. “ I used to be a weekend rider,” Prabhat said. His rides usually covered around 50 kilometers; “ 25 kilometers one way,” as he put it. From Navi Mumbai, he used to ride in the direction of South Mumbai, Thane and Kalyan. A member of ECC, on his rides with them he cycled a bit longer. “ I didn’t know much about BRMs,” he said. What drew him to the workshop was a simple instinct. During group rides with ECC he had noticed others who were better  than him at cycling longer and faster. He wished to improve. He also wanted to give himself adequate motivation to graduate from being merely a weekend rider to somebody who cycled more regularly. “ I was hoping to bring in some discipline and knowledge,” he said. That seemed possible with the workshop because it was scheduled to be at least a month long affair (it eventually lasted some more to accommodate Kabir’s commitments as a cyclist). During the course of the training program, Prabhat did two rides that were longer than any he had attempted before. He did his first 100k ride; Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi, which he completed in roughly five and a half hours. The next was supposed to be a 200k BRM but Prabhat required some customization. The route of the ride from Navi Mumbai included the Bhor Ghat, which lay on the approach to Lonavala. Given he was on a heavier MTB with 21 (7×3) gears to boot, Prabhat was doubtful of how he would fare within the paradigm of a BRM. So Kabir suggested an alternative – accumulate 200 kilometers by riding from Navi Mumbai to Kasara and back. This Prabhat did; he covered the distance of 205km in approximately 13 hours, stops included. Unfortunately after the workshop, there was a minor loss of momentum in Prabhat’s cycling as the months of January and February had to be surrendered to business travel and recovering from illness. Past mid-February 2021, he said, “ I have just got back to cycling. I did a 50k this weekend and should be doing a 100k next weekend.” Not one to chase timings and such, he seemed interested in solo, self supported tours on his bicycle. “ Maybe I will ride to Pune next,” he said. 

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From the conversation with Kabir, a visible streak in the training process appeared to be sharing of his personal experience and nudging people towards attempting BRMs. As he pointed out, the physical ability to cycle is there in most people; what varies is the personal experience gained from cycling long and hard. That is what ultra-cyclists like him bring to the table at a workshop. Years of training and pedaling long distances have given them insight into how to endure extended hours on the saddle and tackle various situations related to person and bike as they evolve. In the latter context, the encouragement to try BRMs makes sense because they are self-supported rides; the rider has to manage challenges en route himself / herself. But in addition to the above and the general satisfaction he got from helping fellow cyclists improve, there was probably another reason why Kabir elected to coach. Although he and others from his generation in cycling continue to dominate ultra-cycling events in India, the gap between them and the next wave of talent has been narrowing. Kabir thinks that in general, the basin for this talent currently runs through Mumbai-Navi Mumbai, Nashik, Pune and Bengaluru. These are regions that have produced prominent names in ultra-cycling (riders and coaches), around who, other cyclists have since clustered or grown. Each successive wave of talent rides in having benefited from more opportunities to cycle and improve, than the generation before it. So at some point, it is inevitable that new names will hog the podium. Nobody wins forever. What genuinely endures in such reality is one’s accumulated bank of experience as a cyclist. It makes sense to share it.

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

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