My year on the Saddle

The call(ing)

It all started when I received that call from Vaibhav. “Dude, we are planning to buy cycles.” He wanted me to join him, along with Varun and Sumedh bhaiya in this new sport. He talked about buying good bicycles from some bike shop in Nagpur.

My first thought was – I already have a ‘gear-wali’ bike, do I need a new one? But my curiosity lead me to Nagpur, to try out bicycles with price tags equalling those of motorcycles.

Me with the brand new Marin

The whole process was more confusing than exciting. We visited the bike shop multiple times and every time we found ourselves further away from making a decision. I remember thinking if it was worth buying such an expensive bicycle?

After multiple trials and various consultations, we zeroed in on the bicycles we would ride. I chose the Marin San Rafael DS1. Probably for the first time in my life was I riding a cycle that was the right size for me and was correctly adjusted for my body. The new shiny bike was buttery smooth to ride with shock absorbers and was a breeze to ride with 24 combinations of gears available to me.

The First Rides

The first ride was a 10K with Vaibhav. We had planned to meet halfway between our houses and ride together. We were exhausted and delighted at the same time. The fact that we cycled whole 10 kilometers was unbelievable.

I followed this up with a few more rides, gradually increasing the mileage. These weren’t very frequent. But in a week or so I had already doubled the distance of my longest ride, and was gearing up for that milestone of 25KM!

I took her out for a spin that night and kept zig-zagging the streets of Wardha. Gradually the number on my bike computer was increasing. I was constantly calculating the distance from my current location to my home, the distance I need to cycle to complete 25km, the distance I had already covered, the potential routes I can take to complete it.

Finally, when I was sure to complete the 25 when I get home, I headed back. Just a kilometer before the I was to achieve this glorious milestone, the unexpected happened – cramps! My left calf muscle was in spasm. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was less bothered by the pain and more by the fact that I may not be able to reach home to complete my first 25K ride. I was so worried, that I didn’t even get off the bike and just slowed down and allowed the spasm to pass. I made it home to immense self-satisfaction.

I quickly saw myself doing much longer rides, with more ease. The release of endorphins that came with each ride kept me riding further. And soon enough I found myself enrolled in my first Brevet.

The 200 Brevet (Strava Link)

Brevets are events where you need to ride a specified distance in a predetermined time. I choose the mildest variety – 200 KM in 13.5 hours. I was about to ride three times my longest ride so far.

200 BRM
I am a Randonneur!!

The brevet was to start at 5 in the morning. I had no strategy, no plan, no clue. But I don’t remember ever doubting myself. The ride started off well, with me reaching the first checkpoint at 40km in under 2 hours. I remember finishing the first hundred in 5 hours and being pleasantly happy with myself.

But fatigue started to set in as we started to approach the lunch checkpoint at 140km. Those last 60 km were among the hardest cycling experiences I had. But then again, what fun would a brevet be if it wasn’t challenging? I ended up stopping every 10-15 km. Napping under trees at times.

Sanjay Bhai, a fellow rider from Wardha was with me and was in severe pain. His knee seemed to have given way. We kept going with just each other’s motivation. We finally made to the finish point with a little under 2 hours to spare.

I was a Randonneur. Just a couple of months ago I wouldn’t even go a few kilometers on a bicycle and here I was riding for hundreds of kilometers.

The 300 Brevet (Strava Link)

I was thrilled by my accomplishments in the 200 brevet. I had never in my wildest dream imagined that I would ride such long distances. High on this success, I registered for the next big brevet.

The 300 seemed a little daunting, but I felt confident. Again, I reached the lunch point at 120 km in about 6 hours. And then I got a little callous. I took a long break of almost an hour here. I started off still unaware about the blunder I had just committed.

An hour into the next stretch, I had a flat. Although I had more than 1000 km under my belt, I had never repaired a flat in a real world situation. I was able to change my tube and was soon back on the road. But I had lost another half hour here.

To add to my conundrum, I started experiencing cramps. Again, my mileage was not the measure of my technical experience. But luckily, a few fellow riders from Hyderabad were around to help me with a little salt and moral boost.

Slowly it dawned upon my that I was behind schedule. I was on the steep ghats of Multai and my inexperienced legs were giving way. On a particularly steep climb, I was forced to get off my bike and walk.

300 BRM
On the Multai Ghats during the 300 Brevet.

I saw riders on their way back and I still had 10 km to go for the next checkpoint. Some rider on the other side of the road nudged me to hurry up – the checkpoint was to close in 30 mins. Time, terrain, my body, they were all against me. I pushed hard and finally reached the checkpoint with just 5 mins to spare.

The return journey should have been a breeze, but the climb had taken its toll. My knee had started to pain. I kept applying analgesic spray to calm it. To add to my misery, I had no one with me or behind me and it was getting dark. I had no motivation left in me. I stopped a couple of time to eat. Sometimes, just due to boredom.

But after a very monotonous ride for about 8 hours, I finally saw familiar ambiance of Nagpur. I completed with just half an hour to spare.

Riding 300 km at a stretch was incomprehensible to many. Most of my relatives and friends showed their surprise and astonishment. This only boosted my moral.

The Knee

By the time I reached Wardha, I was unable to move my knee. I gave it a few days rest and found the pain to have gone by the end of the week. A few riders from Wardha were planning a ride to Yawatmal. We were to make this 80 km ride, stay there for the night and ride back the next morning. Easy pickings, I thought. How wrong I was. Yawatmal has a steep ghat just before you enter it. And my knee started to act up again.

I somehow got back the next day and was advised rest. I was out of the saddle for the next 2 months. These two months was the time I had almost given up on cycling. I had every reason to. But I had started to enjoy cycling. I was too motivated to give up. I started doing short rides to test my knee. And it held up well.

Spreading the Love

Cycle Mela
The Bicycle Mela at MGIMS

Cycling alone is a dry and drab chore. The initial group of guys had either stopped cycling or cycled too infrequently. I had to get others interested in this sport. I turned to the Medical College where I teach. I arranged a session on ‘How, Why and What of cycling’ at the institute to demonstrate what people are doing on the saddles. I had the bike shop owner from Nagpur, Mr. Aniruddha, ride down to Sevagram to inspire the students and faculty.

Group Rides
One of the group rides to Bor Dam

I was able to persuade the management to provide interest-free loans to the student and staff to procure bicycles. Soon enough the campus saw quite a few students and even senior faculty dawning pedal powered two wheelers. I was thrilled. This seemed like the beginning of the change towards a campus where everyone rode bicycles. Where bicycling was cool.

We started having group rides on Sundays. These rides are fun rides. We have a very heterogenous group – Medical Students, Postgraduates, Junior level faculty and even Senior Professors! But the group has found its homogeneity and gelled well on the bikes.

The Stormtrooper

The Stormtrooper
The Stormtrooper

The knee injury confounded by some general chatter at the local bike shop had me thinking if my bike was right for the long distance riding that I intended to do? I was obviously looking at the shiny, sportier bikes. This time around I knew what I was looking for. I was able to point out at specific models, was able to understand the subtle differences between frame geometries, understood the difference made by the width of the tyre. This time I was not looking for comfort. I was looking for efficiency, speed.

Again, I started testing bikes. The local bike shop had to arrange test rides on bikes that they had already sold as these bikes were too expensive for them to stock. After multiple rides, extensive research on the internet and having calculated the right size for me, I ordered the Trek Domane. The Domane is built for endurance rides. It would help me ride further with much less effort. Owing to its pearly white and black look, I christened him – The Stormtrooper.

The failed 200

With the renewed enthusiasm with coming of the Stormtrooper, I began my riding again. Gradually increasing ride distances and speeds. Soon enough I was doing 100 km rides on the weekends. I took a 150 km ride to Nagpur and back one weekend, a ride with similar distance to Warora and back on another. The new gang confounded my efforts.

My father and a colleague Dr. Abhishek also wanted to participate in the 200 km brevet. I tagged along and registered for the Sevagram 200 brevet. This brevet was coming to my home! I was excited. With the help of a few students and friends we setup the 100 km check point.

At the 100km mark at Sevagram
With my father and Dr Abhishek at the 100km mark at Sevagram

We reached the 60 km check point well in time. The next stretch of 35 km was home turf. These were the roads that we rode daily. We knew every bump, every turn, every pot hole. What was unpredictable was the winds. And they wreaked havoc on us this day. With the strongest head winds I have faced, finishing this stretch became almost impossible. I was both mentally and physically exhausted. Finally we reached the Sevagram check point. This was such a relief. I could see our home a couple hundred meters away. Diti and Shaily were there to receive us and that felt like a good end to torturous ride.

Dr. Abhishek though was suffering. He had unbearable pain in his knees. My father although tired, was determined. We spent a long time here relaxing. The return should be easy.  The very winds that were against us, would propel us forward. Pushing each other, we left Sevagram behind.

It had been only a few kilometers and I got a call from my father. He has had a puncture. I reached the spot, and with what ever strength I had left, tried replacing his tube. I took my mini-pump and tried pumping only to find it didn’t work. We were stuck here without air in the tyre. Soon, Mihir crossed us. Even he didn’t have a pump, but he too had a puncture!! Now even he was stuck with us.

My father hitched a ride with both the puncture wheels and we waited for him to return. By the time he returned, we had lost a lot of time. The finishing of the brevet wasn’t worth the effort that I had to put in. I had nothing new to achieve.

So when my father came back, I told him that we can do this again some other day. But he was adamant. He continued and I quit. He met Dr. Abhishek at the 140 km mark and soon he had another flat. They fixed it but couldn’t reach the check point in time.

Just when I thought I was ready for the next level, I had failed at the very basic one. Physically I was just fine, but I wasn’t mentally strong to continue.

The 400 Brevet (Strava Link)

400 BRM
At the end point during the 400 brevet

Not giving this setback a lot of thought, I started thinking of the goal that I thought was unachievable for me – Super Randonneur. Completing any brevet gives you the title of Randonneur. But if you can complete a 200, 300, 400 and 600km brevet within a single brevet calendar year (November – October), you are bestowed with the title of Super Randonneur! Only if I could do the 400 km and 600 km brevets before the end of October. Nagpur did have a 400 and 600 lined up in September and October. With out giving it much thought, I registered for the 400 km event on 11 September. My father, also an avid cyclist, had also decided to give randonneuring another try. He enrolled in the 200 km night brevet that started in the evening and finished with the 400 km brevet. A few students (Nikita, Sumedh, Wilfred) from MGIMS had also enrolled. Apart from achieving a personal goal, I had also achieved infusing cycling at MGIMS.

I reached the start point well before the time that day. I was confident of completing the brevet. The gang started at 5 in the morning. I had travelled less than 10 km and I started feeling exceeding difficult to maintain a good speed. I got down only to find the pressure in the rear tyre very low. My heart sank. Punctures are kryptonite we randonneur dread. I found that there wasn’t a puncture but the valve was not tight enough and was letting the air leak out. I tightened it and pumped it up. Soon I found Yash and Sachin (both very fast riders) joining me. They had started late and had caught up with me.

The road ahead was a climb and the winds were against us. Yash, who competes professionally, saw this brevet as a training activity for his longer races. We started drafting him to avoid the headwind. For the next 200 km, Yash propelled us and saved us from the dreaded winds.

But the roads did us in. For almost a 100 km, the roads were non-existent! We endeavored through the bad roads to reach the 200 km within 10 hours. But the effort had taken its toll. I could no longer keep up with the other two and fell back. I reached the next checkpoint at Paratwada only to find that Yash had quit! He had started developing pain in his knee. I could feel his pain.

I continued for the next 50 odd km to Amrawati alone. Taking many stops and feeling exhaustion creep in. I plugged in a Sherlock Homes audiobook to keep me going.

I met Sudershan with 150 km left to go. We decided to ride together. Both equally exhausted, we took frequent breaks. We had the time and didn’t feel the need to hurry. The pleasant breeze was making us sleepy. We slept on petrol pumps, under street lights, at check points.

We reached the 300 km check point to find the last of the 200 km riders leave. I was happy to find that the gang from MGIMS was doing well and had left a few minutes ago. It is here that I realised that something was wrong with my hands and I would not even do simple tasks like opening the cap of a bottle. The bad roads coupled with the vibrations had probably injured my nerves. But I didn’t have the energy left in me to be alarmed.

Soon after the 300 km check point, was a steep ghat. We though that we will have to walk this one out. But to my surprise, we could, very slowly, ride it out. With the ghat behind us and the remaining route being a decline and still a lot of time on hand, we confidently pushed ahead. I soon realised that even on slopes, Sudershan was able to ride ahead of me. I thought I was simply tired. With about 25 km to go, I lost Sudershan.

I reached the outskirts of Nagpur with the break of dawn. This is when I realised I was not just tired, the pressure on the rear tyre was low again. I didn’t have the energy to fill it up and risk the valve completely fall apart. I decided to continue riding.

As I entered Nagpur, I had Ravi Kiran, a fellow randonneur from Hyderabad, join me. We rode the final few kilometers together talking about the ride and the roads. And soon enough I was at the finish point at the Nagpur airport.

What an achievement!! I was on the top of the world. I could not believe that I had indeed cycled for 400 km. We had quite a celebratory party with so many new randonneurs.

The Race

On 2nd October, there was a 50 km cycle race in Sevagram. I had done long distances on cycle, but never had I competed against anyone in a race. This was a different ball game. I enrolled in anyway. I thought that would be a good practice and moral boost just before the 600 brevet. What competition will I have at Sevagram? I was hopeful that I could even win this race. Wilfred, second year medical student and one of the regulars in our group rides also enrolled.

This race was supposed to start at 7 in the morning. At 7, I couldn’t see anyone. I called the organiser and met up with him. He informed me that we were still waiting for some of the participants to arrive and will start in 30 minutes. We decided to take a warm-up ride. We did a small 10 km ride and came back to find quite a few professionally dressed cyclists. I knew my chances of winning had fallen substantially. But I wasn’t here for the win. I was here for the experience.

During the 50 km race
During the 50 km race

The race finally started an hour late. I pedaled hard and too a small lead. But soon enough the bunch of pros had overtaken me. My new goal was to keep up with them. I didn’t want to lose the peloton. I put in all my effort to stay with them. Although I did lose them a few times but was always able to catch up.

I was with them through the end, ahead of them a few times. This was such a boost to my confidence! Finally, with just 1 km to go, I could sense the guys around me getting ready for the final sprint. With the last couple hundred meters left, we started to sprint. I put in all the energy I had in me to get as fast as I could. I had exhausted my reserves and the finish line wasn’t still there. I just put my head down and continued as fast as I could. To my surprise, I wasn’t at the end of the peloton. I was somewhere in the middle. Although I had screwed up the finish by pressing the brakes to avoid the crowd around, I had finished 7th!!

I was just a couple of seconds behind the guy who came first, and he had a decade of cycling in his feet. So I was well placed and very satisfied with myself.

The 600 Brevet + Super Randonneur (Strava Link)

Although daunting, the 600 km brevet had to be done. I was too close to being a Super Randonneur to give up now. The numbness in my hands had almost recovered and I was all fired up!

I enrolled in the 15 October brevet at Nagpur. This brevet was overshadowed by Sayi. He would become Super Randonneur for the sixth time in this calendar year if he successfully completed the Nagpur 600 brevet. I was humbled. But this brevet also had the all too familiar riders who were with me in the 400. Its always comforting to have the company of these riders.

I reached the zero mile start point a few minutes late, but over the period of 40 hours, a few minutes should not make much difference. I rode fast and quickly caught up with the bunch. I reached the 100 km check point in 4 hours and 30 minutes.  I couldn’t find Sachin anywhere and had counted on him to help me power through. I was informed that he started almost 45 minutes late and should reach the first check point soon. He reached as I was leaving the checkpoint.

The next checkpoint was another 120 km away and the heat had started to pick up. I pedalled alone for the next 50 odd km when I saw Sachin riding in. I joined him. Soon after Badnera, we had to get off the highway on to a smaller road. This road was rougher and riddled with pot holes. The heat along with the bad roads made the ride very annoying. We persevered to reach the 220 km check point at around 5 in the evening.

We were now told that the real bad roads lay ahead. This was irritating! When the brevet route was being decided, a lot of us had raised concerns about the roads. The committee had physically verified the road and had asked us not to fret. Apparently riding in a car doesn’t really help understand the problems of the road for a cyclist.

We continued. Sachin would continually question ‘Why are we doing this?’, ‘Who is their right mind would ride 600 km and endure all this?’, ‘Aren’t their better way to enjoy  cycling?’. These questions also flashed across my mind, but I knew the answer perfectly well, as I am sure even he did, we were doing it for the glory, for the satisfaction, for the title – Super Randonneur.

600 BRM
At Washim with Sachin and Yuvraj.

We reached Washim (285 km) at around 10 in the night. We were received by a horde of enthusiastic volunteers. Fantastic reception. We had our dinner there. At around 11 we left for Malegaon, the unmanned 300 control and hoped to come back to Washim to catch some sleep. There were arrangements for us to sleep in Washim, beds and blankets! This was luxury. But the anxiety of getting late got us up before the 2 o’clock alarms we had set for ourselves. We hopped back on the bikes, half drowsy, bracing for the bad roads to come.

We took another nap at a temple and then another one in-front of a closed shop and finally reached the next check point at the break of dawn. We were pleasantly surprised to find Sayi here. I thought with all his experience in randonneuring, he should be miles ahead of us. But he seemed to be in no hurry. He was enjoying the experience. He would notice the fields around, stop and talk to people. We, on the other hand, focused completely on the number of kilometres remaining to reach the next check point.

The day was exhausting. The sun was relentless. And the head wanted to give up. But we motivated each other and pedalled on. At one point I had a lot of time to complete the brevet. But will so many breaks due to the heat, I started to feel the pressure. I met Sanjay Bhai and Ankit at Talegaon and joined them. The daunting task of climbing the ghat after Talegaon remained. We huffed and we puffed and finally reached the top of the ghat. We found Sachin sitting there completely exhausted. He tried to get the KOM for the ghat (he didn’t).

The journey ahead was a gradual down slope. We stopped about 30 km from the next check point thinking that we had more than 2 hours to reach it. Soon we saw Sachin hurrying past us, egging us. We only had an hour and a half left to cover that 30 km. We decided not to stop anywhere and with renewed zeal reached the check point with time to spare.

The final 50 felt like a breeze. Nagpur is located at a much lower altitude and there were big declines all the way. I reached the familiar roads of Nagpur by 7:30 in the evening, with just 15 km to go. The traffic slowed me down, but I knew that I will still reach well before time. Finally after maundering around some wrong side riders and waiting patiently at the traffic signals, I reached the end point with 30 mins to spare.

Super Randonneur

I had done it. I was finally a Super Randonneur!

You can’t do long distance rides based just on your physical fitness. Your mental determination is equally vital. What is even more important is the company you have. These rides can get very lonely very fast.

My first year on the saddle was a rollercoaster ride. I have experienced excitement, pain, pleasure, failure, friendship, achievement, appreciation and acknowledgment. Here is to all this and a lot more the next year!