GORAN KROPP / A RIDE AND A CLIMB

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Sometimes an expedition attracts because of how it was imagined. Assigning purpose – engaging in adventure for this cause or that – is well heard of. But what about the quality of adventure itself? For example, the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project engaged beyond circumnavigation because the sail boat at its center was made in India. It wasn’t just competence at sailing that was being put to test; it was a test of competence at boat-building too. As people try various permutations and combinations, we look at an individual – now no more – who did something interesting years ago.

The first time I came across Goran Kropp was in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which narrated the events leading to the death of several climbers on Everest in 1996.

I read the book years ago.

Grasping the full magnitude of Kropp’s adventure was beyond me then. I was focused on Krakauer’s narrative, Everest and climbing. Many years later, I looked up Kropp again on Wikipedia. He had died in 2002, aged 35, some six years after the events of Into Thin Air.

Back in 1996, Kropp packed all his gear and equipment on to a trolley, attached it to a specially designed bicycle, pedaled all the way from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest without bottled oxygen or guides and then, cycled part of the way back home. This time, as I read it in renewed light, the enormity of Kropp’s adventure hit home; along with the sustained use of human powered-locomotion in what he accomplished on that trip. A photo on the relevant Wikipedia page showed him cycling with trolley attached. The page informed that he left Stockholm for Nepal on October 16, 1995 with 235lb (106kg) of gear and food. There was no mention of when he reached Kathmandu; the page said that he reached Everest Base Camp (EBC) in April 1996. Besides climbing Everest successfully in 1996, Kropp ascended it again in 1999.

Everest wasn’t the only milestone in Kropp’s brief life. The first major peak he climbed was Lenin Peak (23,405 feet) on the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; this was in 1988. The following year he climbed five peaks in South America, three of them more than 6000 meters in elevation. In 1990, Kropp and Danish climber Rafael Jensen reached the summit of Muztagh Tower (23,861 feet), a tough peak from the 7000m-category, in Pakistan. Then he climbed Pik Pobeda (24,406 feet) in Kyrgyzstan. In 1992, he reached the top of Cho Oyu (26,864 feet); Wikipedia mentions: he drove his Range Rover all the way to Nepal; it was perhaps prelude of things to come.

1993 was likely Kropp’s defining year. In some ways, what he accomplished in this year makes his 1996 adventure that much more solid, for Everest although very high and tough for anyone to climb, is not counted by mountaineers among the truly hard 8000m peaks, particularly when attempted via its regular routes. K2 (28,251 feet) on the other hand, is rated a really hard climb. In 1993, Kropp climbed K2 solo and without using bottled oxygen. Same year he also climbed Broad Peak (26,401 feet); Wikipedia describes it as “ a fast, nonstop solo climb.’’

Kropp was born, December 11, 1966. After finishing school, he had served in the Swedish military with the Parachute Regiment, a special operations unit. He died September 2002, from head injuries sustained in a fall while ascending a climbing route in Vantage, Washington. Accounts of his expeditions – especially that combination of a long bicycle ride and a mountain climb – survive.

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

LOOKING BACK AT 2007 RAAM / JOHN SPURGEON AND SINGLE SPEED

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

As cyclists gear up for the 2019 edition of the 4800 kilometer Race Across America (RAAM), some may recall a unique milestone witnessed at the event almost 12 years ago.

Race Across America (RAAM) is among the toughest endurance races out there.

Stretching right across the US, its route is not only long but also entails changes in terrain (mountainous and flat) and weather.

In June 2007, a couple of days after the late Slovenian cyclist Jure Robic won that year’s RAAM in 8 days, 19 hours and 33 minutes, a cyclist from Oregon crossed the finish line at Annapolis. John Spurgeon took 12 days, 2 hours and 11 minutes to cycle the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland, reports on the Internet said. What made his race unique was that he covered the entire distance on two single speed bicycles. Between the two, their gearing was different. But neither bike had multiple gears as is the overwhelming choice at races today. Spurgeon was the first cyclist to complete RAAM on single speed bikes. At least one write-up on his ride across the US in a dozen days, said that back in 2007, most racers at RAAM had 21 gears to play with.

Both the bikes used by Spurgeon at 2007 RAAM sported steel frames and were custom-built in Portland. One was made by Ira Ryan; the other by Sacha White. The Ira Ryan bike with 40×15 gearing was kept for rides on flat terrain. The other, with 39×16 gearing was used for stretches involving climbs. It has been mentioned in comments posted on the net that Spurgeon was inclined towards using a fixed wheel bike and had to be convinced that a free wheel would be better suited for long, endurance races capable of punishing one’s knees.

Riding bicycles since childhood, Spurgeon got seriously into cycling only around 2000. Despite what he accomplished at RAAM, there isn’t much on Spurgeon on the Internet. There was however an interview with him in the book The Ride of Your Life by David Rowe, published in 2009. It mentioned that Spurgeon still called himself a recreational cyclist dabbling in triathlons, road racing, cyclocross, randonneuring and ultra-cycling. His first ride of over 100 miles was in 2003. At the events he participated in, he used fixed gear and single speed bikes. About RAAM, Spurgeon says that both the bikes he used held up well. As regards the choice of single speed, he says, “ Sexy, simple bikes that give you a hell of a workout….what more could a person want? Maybe speed, but I’m slow, so I get to save face to boot. Of course, that doesn’t really work at ‘cross with all those studs on their single speeds.’’

For his accomplishment at 2007 RAAM, Spurgeon received the Ian Sanbach Award for ` Most Inspirational Racer.’

RAAM, being combination of distance and bicycle race, makes it easy for us to view single speed in perspective. If you can step back some more and imagine the distance involved in a whole journey around the planet, then nothing probably beats those cyclists who set out from Mumbai in October 1923, pedaled around the world and got back in March 1928. Years later, the story of their trip became the subject of a book: With Cyclists Around the World. The book estimates the distance they traveled at around 44,000 miles (70,811 kilometers); figure mentioned on its jacket. For comparison, bear in mind, the length of the equator is 40,075 kilometers while modern day circumnavigation rules consider the job done at 29,000 kilometers.

If you go through the vintage photos published in the book, all you see are single speed, steel roadsters; some of them replete with heavy chain cover.

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

VEDANGI’S QUEST / 29,000 KM IN SIGHT, 16 KM RESERVED FOR FLAG-IN AT PERTH

Vedangi Kulkarni; from the India segment of her journey (Photo: Sumit Patil / This photo has been downloaded from the Facebook page of Sumit Patil)

As of December 22 morning, Vedangi Kulkarni currently attempting solo circumnavigation of the world unsupported on a bicycle, had 235 kilometers left to complete the India leg of her journey.

She was expected to finish the India segment in Kolkata, later in the day.

According to Vedangi’s website 158 days have passed since she started her journey from Perth Australia.

Her father, Vivek Kulkarni, informed that by the time she reaches Kolkata, Vedangi would have covered 29,000 kilometers as per the rules of circumnavigation. She will leave 16 kilometers to cycle in Perth, the starting point of her journey.

The segment of her trip cycled in India saw some route changes. She was earlier expected to head straight south from Ahmedabad (where she commenced the India leg) to Kerala and onward to Kanyakumari, which she did not. Instead, having cycled from Ahmedabad to Bharuch, Thane, Nigdi (Pune), Kolhapur, Belgaum, Davengere, Tumkur and Bengaluru, she moved towards Chennai and Nellore; eventually making her way to Kolkata.

Vedangi reached India after cycling through Australia, Canada, Europe and Russia.

The change presented by the Indian environment featured in one of her Facebook posts.

Not long after starting the India leg, she wrote, “ current stats suggest that I only have a little less than 3000 km to go. But by the looks (and feel) of it, none of it is coming easy. It’s all chaotic, in every imaginable way. I’ve got the sun furiously shining over me, burning my desire to cycle or digest food properly, especially after my body getting used to the sub-zero Russian winter and I have got the crazy traffic coming from all over making it impossible to switch off even for a second into peaceful auto-pilot mode.’’ Much later as she reached Andhra Pradesh, Cyclone Phethai caught up with her forcing cyclist to take a day off given the weather. In its aftermath and nearing the end of her circumnavigation project, she noted, “ I now know that I’m ready for anything and everything that comes my way, physically or mentally. There’ll always be a way to reach the goal, and not give up. As they say, fall down seven, stand up eight, eh? So we’ll be back on road tomorrow, now that the cyclone has passed and get those long miles in! The finish is so close yet so far!!’’

When she pedals into Kolkata, Vedangi – 19 years old and currently attending university in the UK – would be on the cusp of making history. Upon project completion in Perth, she will be the youngest to accomplish solo unsupported circumnavigation on a bicycle and the first Indian woman to do so, Vivek had said earlier.

Update: Vedangi has reached Kolkata, Vivek informed early morning December 23.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This report will be updated once Vedangi reaches Kolkata. For more on Vedangi please refer the blog’s story list, select from archives or simply scroll down.)

“ IF A RIDER STILL WANTS TO BE PART OF THE TEAM, THE DOOR IS OPEN’’ – NIGEL SMITH, HEAD COACH, SCOTT SPORTS INDIA

Nigel Smith (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Scott Sports India recently announced its first road bike team. This blog spoke to Nigel Smith, Head Coach, about how the team was selected, how many members the team may eventually have and what his expectations are.

Excerpts:

How was this team selected? What was the process involved?

First of all we put out on social media dates of the selection trials and where they will be held. We invited riders from all over the country to apply. Then based on the riders’ cycling CVs and the answers they gave us in that application process we were able to select approximately 20-25 riders to come for the selection day trials. We knew that within those 20-25 were some were very, very good national level cyclists. Then we subjected the best 20-25 riders to the day one of the trials. What we very quickly realised was – we weren’t going to be able to either pick the right riders or the strongest riders in one day of trials. There were so many, so close on performance that we found we had to have a second round. So we invited the ten best back for a second round. What we were looking for then – it wasn’t just physical performance; it was attitude. It was also about what they spoke about during the interview that we had with each of them after the trials.

What I was looking for from a physical point of view was – okay they have come back after round one, they know exactly what they are going to be doing. We tried to give them even more coaching, even more instructions. We tried to give them as much encouragement as we could so that they could better their previous performance. Some of them stepped up and improved across all the tests and others didn’t. So that immediately – as a coach – it is giving me information as to why a good rider is not as good as this time or has got better. And then you ask them questions during the interview. How did you prepare for this; how did you taper for this event? Some of them said…based on the trials we did earlier, this is what I went back and did; I know this is what I would be asked to do, so I went back and prepared. The ones that prepared showed improvement. The ones that didn’t either showed flat performance or reduced performance.

So we were looking for attitude, we were looking for awareness of what we were asking them to do. It is almost like – I was asking them an open ended question and then sitting back and letting them talk.

When you mentioned that you were looking for attitude does it mean that benchmark performance was secondary to attitude because given right attitude, you can always work with it and improve performance?

Yes. We have a general benchmark in terms of performance. So, there were various benchmarks set for tests that we asked them to do. So they did peak power test, 30 second-sprint and a four minute endurance effort. We had a very good idea of what a good athlete should be able to do. Some riders would hit two out of three but their attitude was such that they could tell us what their weakest of the three was. And they could tell us why they thought it was.  So, then immediately as a coach you have an engagement with those riders. Okay these riders have thought about what they did. They understood that, let’s say, the 30 second-effort wasn’t their strongest and then they give the potential reasons as to why. And then you realise that this guy is thinking about what he is really doing, he is not just following instructions. He is actually mentally digesting what he is trying to do. He has thought about it and is downloading and debriefing. That indicates the rider can be coached. You could have the strongest rider. But then he may just talk to you and everything I am suggesting he is not responding to; he is not willing to accept. He is trying to argue not just with me but other Scott team members. Then they can’t be team players.

You have unveiled three athletes for now. Is that the final number or will the team grow?

We wanted a team of five. The three we picked were based on merit, from the trials. As regards the remaining spots – it was close among 4-5 riders. We didn’t feel it was fair to pick two other riders because potentially we would get the decision wrong for want of performance. We are leaving it open. There is nothing to stop us from adding riders in the next three months. If a rider still wants to be part of the team the door is open. There are four or five we are looking at. We want to see who has taken the acceptance of not being on the team with a positive frame of mind and is going to go out and do something about it. And in the next race they do they make it very clear that we can’t not have them in the team. Others may go away and sulk about it. They may not want to be part of it. So, it is performance and attitude. And of the other riders we are looking at, one or two will hopefully outperform the others and it makes my decision easy.

Is there an ideal number you are looking at?

Originally we felt that it would be a team of five.

So we are potentially looking at another two.

The guys we now have are road racers as well as time trialists. They are strong in both the disciplines. Road racers are going to be strong time trialists and very strong time trialists are going to be good road racers. Now with the team at present we have got two small guys. Naturally their physical attributes lend themselves to be very good road racers for very hilly races. That’s where we expect to see results. But that’s not to say they can’t win flat races. There is no preconception about what the riders are right now or what we want them to focus on. They are strong riders; they will find their niche.

Going ahead what will be Scott India’s blueprint for training this team?

I have got a look at what they have been doing. I have got a very good idea of their current physical performance. I need to look at the work they have been doing and what we can change that gives us the best opportunity to improve further and then how we can maintain that. We will be looking at the number of hours of riding per week, number of kilometres a week,  number of hours riding at threshold, number of interval sessions, how many reps they do per session. I will be looking at all of that and then hopefully find the areas we think may give them better opportunity to improve further. But obviously we want them to improve throughout the year. So then into that – I have got to build tapering programs. Sometimes the riders won’t even be racing tired because it may be a designated B race. I have got to look at what they have been doing, what they want to do as well. We have got to take into account rider aspirations – this is what you told me you have done before, where is your focus now. And then I sit down and have a chat with the rider and together we understand what are the demands of the event you wish to focus on, how much work is it going to take. And the training programme will write itself, rather than me telling the rider what is to be done. You get the rider to think about it and then work it out for themselves. As a coach I just articulate it for them.

Nigel with the cyclists selected to be part of the Scott Racing Development road bike team (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Typically when one talks about team one thinks of it two ways – first, there is the opportunity to remain in the team based on your performance, second, the other is the contractual obligation; that you signed in for so long. In this case, how does it work?

I am not directly involved in the contractual process but I am aware of it. As per my understanding all contracts are for one year and they are renewable on an annual basis based on the factors you mentioned. There is a brand element; performance element, there is an element of how they have behaved off the bike and what they have done to improve themselves, so we look at the whole thing. At the end of the year we may have a scenario where a rider has not delivered any personal results but has been absolutely selfless in his help to his fellow teammates. And so, that shouldn’t go against a rider who has perhaps won two races and then done nothing for the rest of his teammates throughout the year. We understand all of that. A rider may be winning but off the bike he may not be living up to the social media requirements of the brand. Ultimately, this is Scott. They have an obligation to put out stuff on their Facebook page on their Instagram pages because they are representing a brand. The brand is investing in them. They have an obligation to help that brand.

You have been here for a couple of years. Now you are starting off your journey with a team in place. You have seen the basic raw material that you work with in other places. How good is this basic raw material that you have found in India now?

The physical attributes are certainly of very high standards. We know what the current best in India looks like. We know how that fares on an Asian and international platform. What this program is designed to do is to get as many riders as possible up to the best in India current standard and then see who can go on from there. There’s an expectation that we can maybe get a rider, not this year, may be in two years’ time, may be three years’ time to go out and be better than what we have seen an Indian perform before, outside this country.

And you would say that you are pretty happy with the basic raw material that you have?

Yes. The other thing is – the program is rolling. It is a competitive environment. Not all riders are going to get their contracts renewed year on year on year. When other riders see how good you need to be to get on the team they will train harder. And then we have an even higher standard of riders to select from. That improves the standard of the team and makes the team stronger so that riders have to perform even better. I am not naïve to think this isn’t going on in other parts of the country. More informally, there are going to be other teams training harder and everyone is trying to get better. So the standard will naturally, I think, get better and better.

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

ULTRA-RUNNING / FIRST INTERNATIONAL MEDAL FOR INDIA AND A NEW WOMEN’S RECORD

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the 2018 International Association of Ultra Running (IAU) 24 Hour Asia & Oceania Championships held in Taipei in the first week of December, Ullas Narayana covered 250.3 kilometers and bagged a bronze medal, India’s first international medal in ultra-running, an official statement from Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said.

Competing in the same event, Sunil Sharma completed 202.6 kilometers to help India secure a bronze medal in the team event.

According to information on the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) website, twenty-one women and 25 men were slated to compete in the championship, representing Australia, Chinese Taipei, Japan, India, Jordan, Mongolia, New Zealand and The Philippines. India and Jordan were marking their debut at the continental event. In all, 65 runners – including those competing in the open race – were scheduled to take part.

Days after the event in Taipei, at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run held under the aegis of AFI over December 15-16 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, Apoorva Chaudhary created a new national best covering 176.8 kilometers in the women’s 24-hour event.

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: courtesy Sunil Shetty / NEB Sports)

It was only her third ultramarathon.

She became the fourth Indian woman to run more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) in 24 hours after Meenal Kotak (175.4 kilometers), Hema Saini (172.3 kilometers) and Aparna Choudhary (169.2 kilometers).

The AFI statement also informed that Pranaya Mohanty from Bengaluru – in another 24 hour-race – had become the third Indian to exceed 200 kilometers in the men’s category, covering 206.8 kilometers.

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

THREE YEARS AND RAAM

Kabir Rachure (Photo: (Shyam G Menon)

In 2017, we saw an Indian cyclist complete Race Across America (RAAM) solo, for the first time. He was followed to the finish line same year by another Indian who became the first from the country to complete RAAM solo in his first attempt. The new challenge is improving the time Indians have taken to complete the race solo. Not to mention – for anyone participating, completing RAAM within cut-off is itself a challenge because it is a test of rider and support crew. Among those in the fray for 2019 RAAM is Kabir Rachure, a lawyer from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. His support crew will be anchored by his sister, Sapana. This is their story:  

In 2015, a young man walked into the Vashi shop of Everest Cycle Co and picked up a popular Firefox hybrid model called Momentum. He wanted to get into cycling. It is something his sister too remembers; the explanation he offered then was very much rooted in recreational cycling. What unfolded was different. Three years later, Kabir Rachure is gearing up for Race Across America (RAAM), one of the toughest endurance races in the sport.

Kabir was born 1990 in Udgir town of Maharashtra’s Latur district. His parents are farmers. His father is additionally a political worker; he was once attached to political circles around George Fernandes, the prominent Indian politician and trade unionist who served as minister in the central government. Kabir grew up in Udgir. He did his schooling there till the twelfth standard. For sports, he indulged in kabaddi and cricket. After twelfth, he shifted to Navi Mumbai. His elder sister, a lawyer, was practising at the High Court in Mumbai. Kabir followed in her footsteps. He studied LLB and upon completing it in 2013, joined his sister’s practice. Between reaching Navi Mumbai and becoming a lawyer, a small but significant shift happened in Kabir’s life. He began working out in the gym. Alongside, he also commenced running ten kilometers every alternative day. Today, fellow cyclists reckon that physical fitness has played a role in Kabir’s relatively rapid progress in cycling. Back in the days when he began frequenting the gym, it was the time of triathlon’s ascent in urban India. There was the triathlon as emergent picture of fitness for those who cared to be in outdoor sports; there was also news of Indians completing Ironman events. In particular, Kabir recalls the story of Milind Soman, model, actor and triathlete. It was amid these new trends and his curiosity for them that Kabir bought the Firefox Momentum.

Kabir; from 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

In August 2015 Kabir did his first ride of some distance – from Kharghar (where he stayed) in Navi Mumbai to Chembur in Mumbai, and back. The following week, he embarked on a ride in excess of 100 kilometers. He was targeting 180 kilometers but after 12 hours of cycling, found himself at the 150 kilometer-mark. Young and impatient, Kabir decided that the fault was cycle’s – he had underperformed because his bicycle wasn’t good enough. Some days later he was at Everest Cycle Co to service his bike, when shop personnel told him of BRM (Brevets des Randonneurs Mondiaux). A brevet is the name given to a randonneuring event, which in turn is a long distance cycling sport with origins in audax cycling. Enrolling for a 200 kilometer-BRM, Kabir covered 100 kilometers in approximately four and half hours and the whole course in 10 hours, 40 minutes. In December 2015, within months of buying his first bicycle as an adult, Kabir completed the 300 kilometer BRM – from Mumbai to Nashik and back – in 17 hours of cycling. “ Now I was pretty confident of both my interest in cycling and my ability in the sport,’’ he said. In January 2016, he registered for the 600 kilometer brevet from Mumbai to the hill station of Mahabaleshwar and back. There he met with the first reality check to his rapid progression. He had to withdraw from the ride at around 400 kilometers. It was DNF (Did Not Finish). “ I lacked experience and mental strength. I was also very bad on climbs,’’ Kabir said.

Kabir with his sister, Sapana. She anchors his support team at races (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

There is a seven year age gap between Kabir and his elder sister, Sapana Rachure. She always looked out for Kabir. Mumbai’s community of lawyers has for long harbored some serious cyclists. One of them who had been on the Mumbai-Mahabaleshwar-Mumbai BRM told Sapana, “ your brother cycles well despite having only a hybrid. Imagine what he would do if he has a road bike.’’ Sapana was aware of Kabir purchasing the Momentum and thereafter participating in cycling events. When he bought the Momentum, he had told her that it was for recreational cycling. The comment by fellow advocate hinted to Sapana that something bigger was likely afoot; something that held promise. Sapana had no background in sports or cycling. She asked Kabir about the DNF, why it had occurred and what a road bike is. When he outlined the limitations the hybrid posed, she said, maybe they should spend and get a road bike. With her support, Kabir invested in a brand new road bike – a Scott Speedster, which he picked up from the Seawood outlet of Everest Cycles dedicated to selling performance and lifestyle bikes. He then registered for the 600 kilometer-BRM organized in Nashik by Dr Mahendra Mahajan. In 2015, Mahendra and his elder brother, Dr Hitendra Mahajan, had been the first Indians to complete RAAM in the US, as team of two cyclists. “Dr Mahajan was an inspiring person,’’ Kabir said. This brevet was Kabir’s introduction to RAAM; the race in the US would become a subject of great interest to him. He completed the 600 kilometer BRM within cut-off, in 39 hours and 52 minutes but not before he realized that he had much work to do improving his efficiency on climbs. “ I was still struggling on ascents,’’ he said. BRM done, Kabir got down to researching RAAM. The process brought him to Deccan Cliffhanger (DC). It is a 646 kilometer-long race organized annually on the Pune-Goa route, which serves as one of the qualifiers for RAAM in India. At the time Kabir came across information on DC, he had eight months left to prepare for the event’s upcoming 2016 edition.

From the 2016 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

In July-August 2016, Kabir registered for the event. He trained mostly by going for BRMs. Plus he put in some extra effort in the run up to DC. One person he had got to know of while searching for information on DC, was Samim Rizvi. Samim, who grew up in Mumbai and later relocated to Bengaluru, was among first riders from India to attempt RAAM solo. Unfortunately despite several attempts, completion within cut-off has eluded Samim. The best he managed at RAAM was a finish slightly outside cut-off time. However he was a pioneer as regards RAAM attempts from India. Samim was there for the 2016 DC. This RAAM qualifier (RQ) was Kabir’s first tryst with a supported race; one in which rider had to have crew, trailing him in a vehicle (brevet in contrast is self-supported but given it is not a race features camaraderie and informal support among riders). When Kabir spoke of DC at home, Sapana knew that she had to stand by him; pitch in to support. She decided to anchor his support crew for DC. She and two of his trusted friends – Tushar and Ratnadeep; all of them lawyers – assumed the role. None of them were cyclists. They had little idea of what crewing for ultra-cycling entailed. “ As lawyers, our first instinct was to study the rules of the event so that Kabir does not get penalized for flouting any norms. Aside from knowing those rules, we had no idea of what support crew in ultra-cycling must do. We learnt on the go,’’ Sapana said.

Kabir; after completing the 2016 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger. He missed RQ by 28 minutes that year (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Serious cyclists, particularly those into competitions, use cycling shoes. These shoes typically have stiff soles and rigid upper; they help transfer power efficiently to the pedals and also assist in keeping the legs free of cramps. They come with cleats and the lock-in facility the shoes offer with compatible pedals, keeps cyclist’s legs firmly connected to the pedal. This arrangement engages muscles in the legs more comprehensively. A full rotation of the bicycle’s crank involves downward and upward movement. Cycling without specialized shoes, most of us deliver the downward thrust and count on the momentum of repeated movement to keep the upward half of the rotation going. The upward half is not a conscious pull. With shoes that lock-in, the upward movement becomes a pull making cadence so much more efficient. The 2016 DC was Kabir’s first race with cycling shoes on. The race started well for him. The crew trailed him taking care of food and hydration, counting on Kabir to tell them what he wanted. “ There was none of the gravity of ultra-cycling and the close attention to food and hydration one must give. Close to lunch time we asked Kabir what he wished to eat and he said, maybe rice and lentils. We stopped to pack him lunch at a roadside dhaba. During that period Kabir was cycling alone for about 45 minutes with little to eat and just one bottle of water on him. When we stopped to have lunch, we found a tree with shade and sat down to eat as in a picnic,’’ Sapna said.

From 2018 Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

After 300 kilometers, Kabir developed pain on his right knee. One likely reason for the trouble was – he hadn’t got used to shoes with cleats. Cycling shoes, the lock-in mechanism, finding a sweet spot to deliver thrust in the arrangement – all this takes a while to figure out. In activities like running and cycling, which feature movements repeated over a long period of time, small niggles and flaws can work their way up to becoming bigger concerns. Slowly the pain Kabir felt in his knee started worsening. The knee gathered swelling making progress difficult. At the same time, parachuted into crewing with no prior experience of it, Sapana had not studied route details or asked around for the same. Trusting their sense of geography, the crew kept telling tired cyclist that he was heading from high Deccan plateau to Goa by the sea and therefore, it should be all descent closer to finish. What they didn’t know was that the race harbored climbs even in its closing stages. One hour before cut-off, Kabir had 32 kilometers left to cover in the race. At this point, he was forced to slow down. The knee was in a very bad shape. He completed the race well within Inspire India’s cut-off time of 38 hours but missed qualifying for RAAM by 28 minutes. He was quite upset by the outcome. That year, Samim too didn’t finish DC. Meeting Samim at DC, however helped Kabir get more information about the race in distant US – RAAM. Notwithstanding failure to qualify, the RAAM project was on.

Cooling off; from 2018 Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Ultra-cycling is engaging drama. The long distance involved along with variations in terrain, weather and overall condition of rider make it an interplay of variables and thereby distinct from a regular time trial. Ultra-cycling events don’t end in a few minutes or few hours like time trials and short road races do. They can stretch for long hours, days, sometimes weeks. In ultra-cycling, support crew is important. One reason for this is that ultra-cycling events can push rider to the edges of his / her mental equilibrium. Their capacity to take sound decisions may become suspect. Support crew that keep their wits about themselves and think for rider and team, is crucial under such circumstances. Kabir had developed a good rapport with Dr Mahendra Mahajan. When the Mahajan brothers decided to attempt a long ride along the Golden Quadrilateral – a highway network (approximately 5900 kilometers long) connecting the large cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi – Kabir was included in the support team. The ride was in relay format; similar to how the brothers had executed their ride as two-person team at 2015 RAAM. “ The Mahajan brothers completed this ride in 10 days, eight hours. This experience was an eye opener. It provided me insight into how people work as a team, how determined riders and crew can be. The experience helped me mature in my perspective towards endurance cycling,’’ Kabir said.

Kabir with his support crew at one of the editions of Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

In the meantime, Samim had resolved to try RAAM in 2017. He asked Kabir to be part of his crew. Mahendra Mahajan supported the idea. He felt that if Kabir intended to attempt RAAM at some time, then getting a taste of what it is like to crew at the race would be valuable experience. For team heading to ultra-cycling events, it is important to have an idea of challenges along the route. For this, riders do considerable research. But nothing beats being on the route earlier for an understanding of what to expect while racing. RAAM aspirant crewing at the event ahead of participating as racer is therefore common practice. Crewing for other cyclists, not only shows you how rider fares as race progresses, it also tell you how support team works and provides you a window to see what the management and logistics challenges are.

That year, Col Srinivas Gokulnath of the Indian Army (he was based in Nashik) and Dr Amit Samarth from Nagpur were also among solo riders attempting RAAM. As it turned out, Srinivas (2017 was his second attempt at RAAM) became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo (11 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes) while Amit became the first Indian to finish it in his very first solo attempt (11 days, 21 hours, 11 minutes). Samim unfortunately suffered a DNF in the initial stages of the race, somewhere past 900 kilometers. The DNF spelt premature end to Kabir’s stint at crewing. Advised by Mahendra Mahajan to not give up the opportunity he had to see the race route; despite Samim’s DNF, Kabir took a car and went as far as Durango in Colorado before heading back to California and thereafter, India.

From 2018 Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Now fired by his own RAAM dreams, Kabir on return to Mumbai began pestering Divya Tate of Inspire India (organizers of DC) with queries on how best to prepare for DC. He wanted that RQ – finish within 32 hours at DC – badly. Among riders at 2017 DC was Amit Samarth, who just a few months earlier, had completed RAAM. At the 2017 edition of DC, near Mahabaleshwar, Kabir’s crew told him that only Amit and Akshay Chowgule were ahead of him on the route. As the race progressed, Akshay had to exit because of disqualification. Catching up with Amit, Kabir knew, was out of the question. Amit is a strong, motivated cyclist. Towards the final 100 kilometers of the race, Yagnesh Ahir from Ahmedabad also got ahead of Kabir. But Kabir secured third place and a finish in 28 hours, 50 minutes. He had his RQ. Divya reminded him that his journey was only starting. She asked him to attempt another event she was organizing – Ultra Spice; from Goa to Ooty and back. The approaching edition would be the second of Ultra Spice and nobody had completed the race yet. Early 2018, there were five participants for Ultra Spice – Srinivas, Lt Col Bharat Pannu, Sumit Patil, Vasant Manivanan and Kabir. Kabir’s support crew for the event included Mohan Subramanyam, a senior cyclist from Bengaluru who was quite familiar with the Ultra Spice-route and Peeyush Manjrejkar and Dibyojyoti Banerji (he is Kabir’s brother in law), both ultra-runners from Navi Mumbai. At about 1200 kilometers into the race, Kabir’s team got a call from Divya asking if they had seen Bharat; she had been unable to contact his team. When they finally met him, Bharat was not doing well. So they continued, keeping Bharat in eyesight till around 90 kilometers to the finish line, when Kabir pulled ahead. Kabir completed the 1750 kilometer-race in 112 hours, 51 minutes placing second. This was yet another RQ; he was now eligible for a couple of attempts at RAAM.

From the 2018 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

By now, Kabir’s cycling was on a different plane. In April 2017, he had met Miten Thakkar, a certified cycling coach based in Mumbai. Miten (he has coached the Mahajan brothers) is now Kabir’s coach. Miten brought structure and focus to Kabir’s training. Besides such aspects like interval training, tempo rides and endurance rides, Kabir’s training also paid attention to improving his VO2 max and strengthening muscle groups relevant to cycling. On the equipment side, the number of cycles in his inventory rose. Besides the Scott Speedster, he now owns another four road bikes. The purchases have been done paying attention to the need for specialist racing bikes and endurance bikes at events like RAAM, which present variation in terrain. For racing he has a Specialized Alize and a Lapierre Air Code; for endurance, he has a Lapierre Pulsium and a Colnago C60. In May 2018, Divya spoke to Kabir of a new race she was organizing in Ladakh called Himalayan Ultra. Altitude has for long been a fascination when it comes to structuring running events in India; this was to be cycling’s equivalent. For the 2018 inaugural edition of Himalayan Ultra, there were five participants in all including Amit, Sumit Patil and Kabir. The cut-off time for the race spanning Leh-Kargil-Leh was 37 hours. There was also mandatory sleep time of three hours; it was the first RQ in India with sleep time required so. Kabir availed that sleep time at Kargil after cycling in from Leh. On the return leg, he overtook Amit, who wasn’t in good shape. Kabir won the race in 33 hours, 20 minutes (excluding mandatory sleep). “ This race has been a source of strength for me in the approach to RAAM,’’ Kabir said. But it was Amit who did the incredible. Not feeling well he had to take time off for medical attention. He returned to the race and finished it in second place, covering the distance within cut-off.

At 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

A week before we met for conversation in the Navi Mumbai township of Kharghar, Kabir placed third in the November 2018 edition of DC. On the radar next was, 2019 Ultra Spice in January and then, 2019 RAAM in the US. For RAAM, Kabir hopes he can improve the time Indians have taken so far to complete the race in the solo category. He would also like to feature among the faster rookies. His support crew will be anchored by Sapana. Her understanding of ultra-cycling has evolved much since that first DC. “ Looking back I tell people that they should never commit the errors we did then,’’ she said. Today, Sapana keeps herself informed as best as she can about ultra-cycling and races therein. So far she has been crew chief for Kabir at five ultra-cycling events and in four of them, he had podium finish. For 2019 RAAM her priorities include making sure race rules are observed without fail (RAAM is a stickler for rules, especially those related to safety), proactively dealing with hydration and nutrition and ensuring everyone in the team is on the same page. Besides Sapana; Tushar, Ratnadeep, Peeyush and Dibyojoyti will also be there in Kabir’s 2019 RAAM crew.

RAAM is an expensive affair. In addition to multiple bikes and sustained training, it requires a whole team and hired support vehicles traveling the breadth of the US from the west coast to the east. Kabir hasn’t found any sponsors for his RAAM effort yet. He believes that sponsors will back athlete only after a big race done. The initial struggle is yours to bear. So for his first big race – RAAM – he plans to rely on personal funds and crowd funding. Besides sponsorship also brings pressure; the sort that can distract you from the main job of focusing on race, sticking together as team, keeping cyclist going for several days through challenging conditions and reaching the finish line within cut-off time.

Kabir will leave for the US in early May 2019, a month before RAAM.

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

TOR DES GEANTS / “ IT’S SOMETHING ELSE’’

Grant Maughan; at 2018 Tor des Geants (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

2018 has been a packed year for endurance athlete, Grant Maughan. Some of the races he participated in (Barkley, Last Annual Vol State, Badwater 135, Angeles Crest 100) and his ascent of Everest – he has written about, on this blog. In September he was at the 2018 edition of Tor des Geants in Italy’s Aosta Valley. In this article by invitation, Grant describes his experience at the punishing race:

It probably sounds clichéd, but Tor des Geants is about the toughest race out there.

Everything about it is on the cusp of extreme: distance, elevation, altitude, weather, sleeplessness, etc. At 330 kilometers (+200 miles) and with over 24,000 meters (+80,000 feet) of climbing it’s something for the die-hards. By the way, the climbing is hard but not as hard as the 24,000 meters of descent which threaten to turn your legs into pool noodles and afterwards into petrified wood.

The Tor takes a toll (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

The time limit is 150 hours, which may sound generous but in fact means most have to hustle. The course is basically a saw-toothed up and down of robust towering mountains that lead you over high exposed cols (saddles, passes), across high vales and into deep verdant valleys. There are some sketchy airy sections to tip toe around, semi via ferrata fixed rope / cable / steel steps and steep slippery downhills covered in small pebbles that act like ball bearings under your trail shoes threatening to send you surfing off precipices like a late paddle into a dredging wave at Teahupo’o. I heard of one major accident. Surprisingly, not others…

The sleep deprivation is probably the most difficult for the majority of runners. You have to sleep at some point and are not supposed to bivy on the trail. But some of the aid stations were full of sleeping people meaning you had to keep going. I didn’t sleep for the first two days after being told “no space” many times and told I couldn’t even rest my head on the table at aid stations. At some points I thought it seemed dangerous to send people over high passes in the middle of the night when they were weaving and stumbling from lack of sleep. I grabbed a couple of hours here and there and managed to keep semi alert though you never feel on top of it.

Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan

It was warm this year and a couple of days were downright sizzling. I have never sweated so profusely while climbing and spent days in sodden clothing and shoes. As soon as you stop you get chilled at altitude and night time was very uncomfortable in damp clothing. You become so putrid you can hardly stand yourself. There are opportunities to clean up at the “Life Bases” (major aid stations) where your one drop bag is transported after leaving the previous one. But these are 50 kilometers apart which can take a long time to get to in this sort of terrain.

After a huge year of events I just plugged along and tried to stay consistent, which seemed to work just fine. I found my fitness actually changed whilst underway. But my feet felt like I had stepped in a couple of bear traps and then dipped them in volcanic lava. They were in agony. My hands also suffered from clutching the trekking poles and I still have a lot of numbness a week later. I took a couple of good diggers, which is not hard to do in the technical terrain and took bark off many limbs. The best one was on the first downhill when I went over head first in a rock field and a Frenchman picked me up by the scruff of my neck out of the boulders. He asked me what I was doing and I told him my shoes were too big and I tripped over the toes (not too far from the truth)…

Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan

The scenery is jaw-dropping in the Italian Alps and the quaint ancient villages interspersed in the middle of towering spires of granite and lush green fields is something to see, even with bleary eyes. Entire towns are involved in this race when it comes through. It’s very heartening to have their help and support when you are depleted and alone for days.

It took me over 133 hours to finish and I didn’t spend much time lingering. I came off the last mountain in the middle of the night listening to my trekking poles “tic, tic” on cobblestones along darkened lanes. The final stretch through the esplanade under the soft glow of lights as locals and supporters cheered and back slapped me was humbling indeed. It’s always good to finish but in this case I could hardly go any further. Jobie (Susan Jobe Maughan) met me at the end and I limped over to the local pub where the owner bought us a beer and a Lemoncello. After one I could hardly talk. I literally slept for days afterwards…

Tor des Geants, it’s something else.

(The author, Grant Maughan, is a freelance super yacht captain and endurance athlete. A prolific ultra-runner, in 2016, he was joint winner in the 333 kilometer category of La Ultra The High held annually in Ladakh. Please look up the blog’s story list and archives for earlier articles by Grant and an interview with him.)