A day into the Race Across America (RAAM) in June, ultra-cyclist Kabir Rachure, 33, realised he was in trouble. A shooting pain afflicted his left knee, forcing him to take a more conservative approach to the riding. And in order to protect it, he was now straining the other leg as well.
In spite of the setback, he had put in the work to grind out 450-odd miles (over 720km) since the start. But the climb up to Yarnell Grade in Arizona, an ascent of 1,800 feet over seven miles (about 11km), set the alarm bells ringing for Rachure and his crew. From podium aspirations on his third RAAM attempt, this was now being reduced to be an effort in attrition and survival.
“This was all very new for me, since I had never experienced knee pain like it in the past. The physios did provide relief and tried to make me comfortable on the bicycle, but I had to eventually manage it in the best way that I could. It was clear that in order to protect the knee, I couldn’t put in the effort that I would have otherwise liked to,” Rachure recalls.
Nothing quite prepared him for how things unfolded on Day 6 of the race. During a break that evening, Rachure observed his saddle and then turned to look at the spare bicycles mounted on top of his support car. As he compared the two bicycles, his eyes lit up.
“I realised that my bicycle’s saddle had shifted by a big margin and it was no longer aligned as per my bike fit. So I was essentially riding with a very different posture than what I normally do. It is what led to the knee pain. I had also lost close to 25% power while pedalling over all those miles,” Rachure says.
These are tiny margins that add up while tackling a behemoth like RAAM: a 3,000 mile (4,828km) race that runs from Oceanside, California, on the west coast of the United States to Annapolis, Maryland, in the east. Rachure would certainly know, having completed it on two previous occasions. During his second attempt last year, he finished seventh overall and third in his age category (18-49 years).
This time around, it took all of his nine years of ultra-cycling experience for Rachure to create history. His effort of 10 days 19 hours and 21 minutes won him a fifth placed finish—the first top-5 finish by an Asian rider at RAAM—and second place in his age category. It is also the fastest time recorded by an Indian cyclist at the race.
“Riding the RAAM is like gambling, a massive risk. You are so invested with time, preparation, finances, energy. You have a team that puts their life on hold to come crew for you. And it can all end in a crash or an injury. All of this is at stake for just a medal and a whole lot of self-satisfaction,” Rachure says.
Since the RAAM attempt last year, Rachure rode at the 24-hour World Time Trial Championships in Borrego Springs, California, in November where he finished 12th among 90 riders. The following month, he clinched the Deccan Cliffhanger, a 650km race between Pune and Goa, and the 1,750km Ultra Spice Race in January. He drastically improved his timing on both the races and considered signing up for RAAM.
His training has evolved over the years to become more efficient and consistent, as compared to the long hours that he used to spend cycling earlier. Rachure put in 10-12 hours of work each week while preparing for RAAM, with a special focus on cycling uphill, and negotiating speedy descents. A month before the race, he trained at altitude in Leh to increase his aerobic capacity; this also helped him with developing faster rates of recovery.
“I had targeted a finish in under 10 days. And that was possible if I rode for over 20 hours each day and got to every time station 15 minutes prior to my timing from last year,” he says. “This is mostly a team effort rather than one rider’s work. More than my own performance, I think the two previous attempts helped iron out my crew’s functioning. And that in turn improved my efficiency during the race,” he adds.
From the outset, Rachure’s aim was to build a gradual lead over the other riders and sustain the effort through the entire course. The weather on the whole was a lot kinder, especially in the Arizona desert, where he had once experienced heat of nearly 50 degrees Celsius.
“One of the toughest sections of the race is the Flagstaff climb in Arizona. It was cancelled this year because of a forest fire. I feel like it had a major impact on the result since a lot of riders usually struggle here. It’s all very unexpected and you need to be ready for anything,” Rachure says.
A healthy tailwind in Kansas aided his progress, before a storm brought him to a grinding halt. But he used the time effectively to catch up on rest, instead of battling the elements. Sleep deprivation and freezing rain made the going rough towards the end, but he eventually got to the finish line in good time, if not in under 10 days.
“Winning RAAM is my target, so I know this is not the end. And despite the issues that I faced during the race, I never struggled or experienced fatigue which tells me I have a lot more to offer. I know I am getting my personal bests after every race, so I don’t want to stop or celebrate until I have achieved my dream,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.