Two years after she first took to cycling, Niharika Reddy decided to sign up this year for her longest ride yet. It was for the 10th edition of the Deccan Cliffhanger, which is considered India’s ‘signature ultracycle race’. The race was also going to be the first time she'd be racing solo, having competed as part of a team of two in the past. But besides getting to the finish within the cutoff, her other hope was to target the time record at the race.
The ultra cycling race runs over 643km from Pune to Goa with an elevation gain of 5,907 metres. Negotiating traffic on the busy national highways, weathering the elements, and fighting off fatigue and sleep are just some of the challenges Reddy was up against. At 17 years, she was also the youngest rider at the race, which began on November 25.
“I had to write to the organisers to make an exception for me, since participants must be at least 18 years old. Only after looking at my cycling experience was I allowed to race,” Reddy says. But by the time she got to the finish line, she had done enough to prove her worth. Her timing of 31 hours 55 minutes (it included a 30-minute grace period handed out to all riders due to bad road conditions) not only got her top spot in her category, it was also the fastest time by an Indian woman at the race.
“Towards the end of the ride, I realised the record was not possible. So I just decided to focus on finishing within the cutoff time. But after they adjusted our final timing, I was delighted to learn I had the record,” she says.
During her early days of cycling, the activity was a means to strengthen Reddy's leg after recovering from an injury. However, just three months later, she had her first experience of taking on long distances during a leisure ride between Mumbai and Hyderabad. She enjoyed the entire effort and in September last year, she started training under experienced ultra cyclist, Kabir Rachure, who has multiple podium finishes against his name in India as well as the Race Across America (RAAM).
The Deccan Cliffhanger last year was Reddy’s first race, where she teamed up with uncle, Sudhakar, to finish in a time of 30 hours 54 minutes. The duo also rode at the Great Himalayan Ultra in Ladakh in August this year, though they finished outside the cutoff time.
“There was a lot to learn from those two races that went beyond just the physical effort of riding. I realised that these races demand a lot of patience, crucial especially since I am a very short-tempered person. So I figured that remaining calm and in the present was key, everything else could wait until it was done,” she says.
While gearing up for the Deccan Cliffhanger, a majority of her rides happened on an indoor trainer. The focus was on power training on flat and rolling terrain, and tackling elevation gain to train for the climbs, each session lasting between 1-1.5 hours for five days of the week. Sundays were reserved for long rides between 4-6 hours, while Monday was spent recovering.
“This was all very different from when I trained to ride as part of a team. There was an increase in intensity when it came to the training and longer hours in the saddle. I also prepared to deal with the fact that I was going to ride the entire distance on my own, which can be a very lonely affair with little time to rest and recover,” Reddy says.
A month before the race, she planned a 400km practice ride between Panvel and Panchgani. But at the 160km mark, she experienced pain in the back and saddle sores, and had to call it off. It was a setback for her preparations, especially since her progress had been tedious, her average speed way short of what was needed to pull off the Deccan Cliffhanger within the cutoff time. But two weeks later, she regrouped to give it another go and finished the ride with just an hour off the saddle. “It was only after finishing that ride that I realised I had a good shot at finishing the race,” she recalls.
At the start line of the Deccan Cliffhanger, Reddy was a bundle of nerves, unsure of how the race would pan out against the more experienced riders. She pushed right from the start and put in a consistent effort until Panchgani, building a sizeable lead on the competition before backing off on the downhill to Satara. Her crew comprised of experienced riders who helped her maintain pace and ensured that her fuelling was on point. After a well-earned break just short of Kolhapur, she continued her push to make the most of the daylight hours.
“My crew helped make it a very smooth ride. Their updates were critical when it came to understanding my progress and how I needed to ride during the next hour. It helped me get my calculations spot on,” she says. “Besides, they would engage me in conversations and banter, just the right distraction that helped me tackle the distance, especially the bad roads that we encountered. It was only towards the end that I experienced saddle sores and wasn’t able to ride as well,” she adds.
The climb to Amboli Ghat seemed endless and tested her patience at the dead of the night. The heat and the fatigue made the going rough towards the end, especially with the morning traffic she encountered around Panjim. Reddy lost time but did enough to pull off a strong ride with an off saddle time of just 54 minutes during her first solo race. As for what's next, she says, “The cycling will be on hold, since I’ll be preparing for my Board exams now. But I hope I can get faster next year.”
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.