Clinking glasses, merry chatter, loud guffaws, waves washing up on the beach – an evening of revelry is in progress. The warm light washes over many a tired face glowing with a sense of accomplishment. As both stories & the beer flow, some just sit quietly to register the fact that after all the hard work, all the preparation – it’s finally over. The venue is John’s Seagull restaurant on Bogmalo beach. It’s a celebration, arranged by Kingfisher, of over 38 hours and 643 km (400 miles) of cycling. Inspire India’s Deccan Cliffhanger Ultra cycling event Edition 4 presented by Oroboros culminated successfully.
The race flagged off at 5:00 am on 5 th November from Paranjpe’s Forest Trails, Bhugaon, Pune by some of Pune’s first names in cycling – Ulhas and Gayatri Joshi, who’ve been instrumental in the growth of the cycling culture in Pune, Divyanshu Ganatra who cannot see but has an incredible vision and has shown the way of no-limits to others, and Gagan Grover who partnered Divyanshu on a tandem bicycle ride in the recent Manali-Khardungla ride.
The SOLOs were flagged off first, followed by the 2 member teams, 3 member teams and finally the 4 member teams. A total of 32 SOLO and 21 team riders rode on with their crew vehicles in tow. From Pune, the route headed south with a tough climb to Mahabaleshwar, continuing to Dharwad over rolling terrain and finally descending the Anmod Ghat going through the scenic Anshi Tiger Reserve right into Goa. While the road condition had improved compared to the earlier editions, the first patch itself was the tough climb to Mahabaleshwar. While some targeted getting out of this area before the sun rose very high, others toiled through the sun, battling fatigue over the incline. In contrast, the last 100 km. the riders went rolling down the Anmod Ghat through the dense Anshi Tiger Reserve. Riders who led the race, raced through this patch during the night as cold weather, low visibility and high speeds combined to make it a thrilling ride towards the finish.
12 of the SOLO participants completed within the RAAM qualification time limit, 11 within Inspire India time limit, one didn’t finish within the time limit and 7 couldn’t complete the race. In teams, all but one finished within the time limits of 30 and 31 hours. Team ‘Sweat in Practice, Bleed in Battle’ crossed the finish line first at 04:34 am. The four person Pune team ‘Axis’ reached next and stood 2 nd in the category. Mumbai’s 3-person team ‘Wurli 545 Lost’ came next and claimed 1 st position in their category. They were followed by 2 member teams – ‘Cymour Relay Spirit’ (1 st ) and ‘Yellow Cycle’ (2 nd ).
This was a first since in the earlier editions, SOLOs reached first. In the SOLO category, Akshay Chougule – the youngest solo participant, finished first in the Men’s 18-49 category clocking 26:49. Mumbai’s Preet Singh came in second followed by Nashik’s Dattatray Chakor. The two-time Ironman Anand Patil, eldest amongst all SOLO riders, reached third overall and first in his category. In the teams,
This time, the Deccan Cliffhanger had the greatest number of SOLO woman participants till date – Ila Patil, Zaara Syed and Sania Patil. Ila achieved the stupendous distinction of being the first Indian woman to qualify for RAAM clocking 32:14. Zaara Syed with her very first attempt, successfully completed within the India Inspire time limits. Sania, unfortunately, couldn’t complete but we look forward to her being back next time. Maithili Jog was the only woman in the TEAM category and also the eldest woman in the entire race. Completing her stretch as planned, her team ‘Fantastic4’ won the first place in the 4-member team category.
Divya Tate, Director of Inspire India, ecstatically declared “I am so proud that The Deccan Cliffhanger Ultra cycling sees a growing number of women participate, and has been able to have India’s first woman qualify for the Race Across America”. Inspire India has been instrumental in creating an event where the participation grows stronger with each edition. Riders jump at this chance to push themselves and keep coming back in each edition. Divya Tate now plans to conduct a much longer Ultra starting 26 th Jan called ‘The Ultra Spice’ Race. This would go from Goa to Ooty and back and would have 500km, 1000 km and 1700 km segments.
While the race itself is very tough, the actual grind is the preparation part. Routine cycling, long distance rides, meticulous nutrition, and focused core strengthening exercises – it covered all. Add to it extensive planning for the specific route with the crew down to the minutest detail.
For RAAM qualifier Sundaram Narayanam (SOLO – Goa), having done 1200 km Brevets four times in the past, distance wasn’t an issue. The race was meticulously planned with the crew including the breaks. In his 29:10 hour ride, he rested for just 2:45 hours in short segments of 10-15 minutes. “We used power naps. A 5-10 minutes nap can recharge you for the next 6 hours”. With this done, he now plans to train for the 2017 RAAM. “Monday was officially a rest day all through my training. From Tuesday, I’ve started 43 km rides again. It’s essential for recovery” stated Sundaram matter-of-factly.
2-member team category winner Arham Shaikh (“Cymour Relay Spirit”) explained “Here, the first 100 km’s itself has 3 inclines. This is where most people get drained as the heat gets too much. We’d planned to complete this before the sun rose too high. We’d decided the average speed we’d cycle at, when we’d drink, when we’d switch, everything” said Arham. During the race, the team just executed it.
Maithili Jog (‘Fantastic4’) was in one of the 3 teams from the cycling group ‘Fantastic’. Her husband, Mahesh Jog had participated in the last edition with Maithili as crew. This time, Maithili, Mahesh and her brother in law Prashant, her sister and sister-in-law, colleagues (as crew) were all part of the race, making it a complete family and friend’s event. In March 2016, she cycled 25 km’s for the first time and a Pune-Mumbai cycling ride in May was her very first long distance ride. “When you’re in a group, you get inspired” says Maithili. To practice for this particular race, they divided the route into 4, planned who’d cycle when – which point at what time, and did actual rides starting at that exact time at the exact place.
But plans are not carved in stone. Injuries, bouts of sickness, exams, failed cars and other surprises transpired. This is where the grit of the riders and the crew came in – changing plans, re-adjusting targets, keeping your head down and moving on.
Rohit Khanna (‘Yellow Cycle’) exclaimed “At the last minute, our car didn’t start. We’d everything packed. So there we went finding a backup car, shifting everything, and rushing to the start line. We did reach in time but were shaken.” For Siddharth Gadekar (SOLO), his exams put him off training for a few weeks and he revised his target from 24 hours to 28. For Sundaram, an injury and a chest infection didn’t let him perform at his training speed. “I revised to just ensure I qualified for RAAM” , he said.
Ila Patil has done India and its women extremely proud. However, the journey hasn’t been easy. 2 weeks before the race, she fell, triggering a chronic knee injury. She knew she’d never regain full capacity. 3-4 days earlier, she caught flu. Feeling extremely low, the first battle was to reach the start line. “The race tested me in every way – emotionally, physically, mentally”. As she rode, she suffered from cramps, cold, fever. While normally she rode non-stop for 300 km’s, here she took prudent breaks every 1-2 hours for a quick massage rub and a bite. After conquering the tough Mahabaleshwar incline, while riding she started menstruating. “I’ve an increased respect for all female athletes. The things they go through and handle while managing practices, events, it’s unbelievable. We never talk about these things, but it’s time we did. So we can find better ways to cope”. When asked how it felt to be the first Indian woman to qualify for RAAM, she said “For me, it has been more of a personal journey. I never knew I could take this much. The accolades come from the people around me and it does feel good”. RAAM is quite far away for this gutsy girl who maturely says she needs to practice at least 50 qualifiers before she aims for RAAM. For women in India, she has a message “Go for it. Women have tremendous guts and great endurance. Why hold yourself back? If I can do it, you can too”.
The entire race is a journey of self-discovery. Everyone returns home changed – a different self from this race, a block shifted, a window opened. For Baban (‘Sweat in Practice, Bleed in Battle’), it’s the achievement of starting second from the last but ending first crossing even before the much younger and experienced ‘Cymour Relay Spirit’. For Rohit, it’s the utter peace of cycling at his own rhythm on the highway at night. As Maithili, Zaara, Ila and Sania bonded post the race, Zaara who is always taking one challenge after the other, casually asked 43-year old Maithili who was waiting for it to sink in that she’d gone farther than she ever thought she would – “So, what next? SOLO?” And Maithili’s mind responded differently. The “No way” turned to “Who knows?” The seed has been planted.
(You can read the pre-race report here : Saddle up – The Deccan Cliffhanger Race Beckons! )