Welcome to the 4 th edition of the Inspire India’s Deccan Cliffhanger Ultra cycle race presented by Oroboros.
Its 5:00 am. Pune newspapers report a 4 o drop in temperature – Pune is now colder than Mahabaleshwar. As the general populace sleeps cuddled up in warmth, the shivering newspaper boys and doodhwallas on their rounds have another company today. A gang of 350 people on their way to Goa. The palpable excitement, the same electricity in the air that Goa with its sun and sand seems to evoke. The only difference – They are CYCLING.
The Deccan Cliffhanger is an annual 643 km (400 mile) race that flags off from Pune and culminates in Goa with a qualifying time limit of 38 hours (varies for Men, Women and Mixed teams). The grueling race has the cyclists’ race with a total elevation gain of 6000 Mt. from the Deccan plateau, across the Sahyadri Range crossing the high mountains of Mahabaleshwar, finally dropping through dense forests of Anshi Tiger reserve and finishing at the Bogmalo beach of Goa. The race is the first of its kind in India with international exposure and is an official qualifier for the one of the toughest ultra-cycling events –‘Race Across America’ (RAAM).
To clue in newbies to the world of cycling, long distance cyclists participate in various races known as BRMs or Brevets De Randonneur Mondiaux. These are rides of fixed distances that are to be completed within specified time limits and are non-competitive. Cyclists start with BRMs and graduate to Ultra cycle racing. Ultra-Cycling Races are competitive and have podium positions. The ‘Race Across America (RAAM)’ is one of the toughest ultra-endurance cycling event. Participants have to ride a distance of 5000 km from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast. It’s one long race and has to be completed within 12 days with an additional 21 hours for women and 50+ riders. In this challenging race, participants hardly sleep for 3 hours a day for the entire duration.
We chatted with Divya Tate, the brain behind Inspire India. She is herself an ultra-cyclist, India’s first woman Super Randonneur and India’s representative to ACP France. She oversees all the Brevets conducted in India since 2011. Divya has officiated at several RAAM events. It is at one such event that she noticed there were only 1-2 RAAM qualifier events from India. That is when she spoke to RAAM officials and got the Deccan Cliffhanger enrolled. She initiated the first edition of the Deccan Cliffhanger in Feb 2014.
As we spoke to her, the excitement in her voice was clear “What’s different this year is that the Deccan Cliffhanger event has scaled up like crazy” said Divya. The event started with a small group and with each edition it grows bigger. Not just the number of participants but even the experience of handling grows immensely. While the registration of the last edition was done in a small café using roadside tables, this time they’ve the sprawling campus of Paranjpe Builders’ Forest Trails for all the action. Have the riders also changed? Divya says “We see both – The experienced ones cycling for 2-3 years now. They’re surer – looking for sponsors, better equipped. Then there are the newbies who’re excited and all over the place. There’s room for both”.
The 4 th edition of the race flags off on 5 th November and is scheduled to complete by 6 th November. In this edition, there are 38 cyclists racing SOLO and 52 will race in the TEAM category. Teams range from 2, 3 and 4 members and each member rides sections. Every solo member and team is supported by a crew of 2-4 members. The crew will follow the riders across the route keeping them on track, providing logistical, mechanical and medical support and encouragement.
In this edition, Divya and her Inspire India team is strongly supported by adventure and sporting enthusiast partners. Oroboros with their lifelong passion for cycles, machine and people who ride them, Paranjpe schemes with Sahil Paranjpe who is a cycling enthusiast, Go pro cameras with their love for adventure, Cymour cycling who are super active in conducting bike tours, races and have their own biking team and Chaitanya Velhal’s Multifit with their passion for functional fitness have come together to bring this year’s event to the scale that we see. As the riders head towards Goa, Inspire India’s final sponsor Kingfisher prepares for the grand finale where these exhausted, triumphant fighters will rest, celebrate and rejuvenate.
The race has drawn participants from Chennai, Bangalore, Goa, Bombay, Nasik, Nagpur, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Baroda. Age-wise too, there is cross-section of participants with the youngest being 16 year old to the oldest at 68 years. For several, it’s their 2 nd even 3 rd time at the event. Past crew members have turned racers and past racers are now supporting as crew. Women too have registered their presence with 3 women participants- Ila, Zara and Saniya out of which Ila and Saniya have participated in the earlier editions as crew and team participants while Zara has participated in several marathons. The race seems to attract, bind and involve one and all.
Farhad Patel, Divya’s partner in Inspire India, reiterated this. He remarked that the cycling culture in Pune has undergone a massive change over the years. People started it for fun and then got hooked. Some pulled in their families as well. In fact, there is even an all-family team participating in the race. “You never know which riders to watch out for. There are always surprises” remarked Farhad. Michael Lehnig, winner of the last edition of Deccan Cliffhanger is back to defend his title. He’d finished in 21 hours 55 minutes last time. Not only that, he’d also coached the 2 nd and 3 rd title winners for the race. Chaitanya Velhal who has raced and won the race earlier and is an Ironman is in the crew for Sania Patil this year. Then there are the veterans like Samim and Mirza. Samim Rizvi from Bangalore has attempted RAAM thrice in the past and is planning for another go in 2017 after the Deccan Cliffhanger. Mirza Saaib Beg is a Super Randonneur with many podium finishes to his credit. Plus, there are always chances of an underdog emerging strong. So it’s definitely a race where bets aren’t easy.
With such a demanding race, Divya reiterated that safety is of paramount importance. Inspire India takes great care of this. The pre-race briefing sessions are mandatory. Riders and crew were provided information about the route, road conditions, check-ins at control points and important rules. Bike and vehicle inspections were being done in detail validating against specific checklists. 8 cars are getting ready to monitor the entire length of the route. In addition, the other fundamental of this event is its integrity – with cyclists and their crew investing every ounce of their energy, skirmishes may occur. Divya clarified “The race has zero tolerance for any false practices, any shortcuts”.
We caught up with the riders as they rushed around completing the pre-race checks. How do you practice? How do you prepare? What is your target?
The answers varied. For some like Akshay Chougule (SOLO) and Arham Shaikh (Team Cymor Spirit), they’ve been participating in events across the year. Akshay has been part of the Ironman Triathlon at Malaysia whereas Arham has participated in Nationals event in Amritsar. Others like Manish and Rohit (Team Yellow) have been practicing for 4 months and have even done a special dry run to Goa with the entire crew practicing switches. A few like Sundaram from Goa and Shunmuganathan from Chennai are part of cycling groups in their city who’ve helped them train. What every participant vows to have done is cycle daily – solo or as a team, long distance or city – the pedaling has continued.
The incentive to participate is equally varied. Rahul Kotabage from Mumbai took cycling up to bring a change in the rut. With confidence, he started riding farther and has now cycled across EU and UK. For him, the incentive to participate here has been the beautiful route. For Dr. Koparkar (Team FUNtastic Pune), cycling has been a step to regain his health and strength post a liver transplant. Shunmuganathan took up cycling 2 years ago to lose weight and today has completed 50000 km. With Zaara Syed, cycling was just a normal fitness routine. She was more into marathons. “I’ve entered it for the first time just to challenge myself” said Zaara. All she aims this time is to complete it within the 36 hours that qualify her for Deccan cliffhanger. If she does it within 34 hours, she will be the first woman from India to qualify for the RAAM. Fingers crossed!
What all participants unanimously agree on is the need of a great crew. As Rahul mentioned ‘The rider is just cycling. It’s the crew that keeps you on track. In my case, my crew understands me and will take care of me’. Crew members include family, fellow cyclists, other sport enthusiasts and medical experts. Zaara has a fantastic crew of 4 friends supporting her including her partner Shahid who’s Firefox’s number 1 dealer in India, friend Babaji who is constantly encouraging her, her best friend Junaid, lifesaver Sagar and Hasan. Pankaj who is part of Sundaram’s crew explained that each rider decides his breaks. “We’ve completely planned down Sundaram’s ride to ensure minimum breaks, on the go nutrition and power naps to reduce the overall time” informed Pankaj. Sounds tough, right?
But they’re off, pedaling away ably encouraged and supported by their crew and support staff. All of this preparation, this effort, towards what end? What is the prize they expect? For most, it’s pushing your body to its limits, testing your endurance, challenging yourself. No rat race this; this is the real thing. You race with yourself!
Stay tuned for more updates in our second blog where we join the racers as they reach Goa – hear their story their way. Read it here: DC: Ultra Cycling 2016 – Across the Finish Line!