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How ultra cyclists train for brutal Himalayan ultra races

Three cyclists speak to Lounge about how they have trained for the challenging Romantika Uz Beas ultra race in Himachal Pradesh

Ultra cycling races are some of the toughest sports to train for.
Ultra cycling races are some of the toughest sports to train for. (Istockphoto)

The first edition of the Romantika Uz Beas gave Sumer Bansal a good idea about why it is one of the toughest ultra-cycling races in the country. Twelve hours into the race, he had managed to negotiate most of the climbs over the first 150km of the route. But fatigue soon caught up, and after missing the cut off at a time station before Palampur, he decided to call off his attempt in the wee hours of the morning.

“I was a raw cyclist at the time, having finished just one other race in the past. The biggest mistake was miscalculating the nutrition, which will always catch up with you eventually. This race was always at the back of my head and I wanted to come back to attend to unfinished business,” Bansal says.

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On 11 March, he will return to the starting line for the third edition for the Romantika Uz Beas, alongside four other riders. All five will attempt to become the first cyclists to finish the challenging race, within the tight cut off time of 38 hours. The race starts at Hoshiarpur in Punjab, climbs all the way to the Atal Tunnel (which connects the Kullu and Lahaul Valleys in Himachal Pradesh), before descending to the plains once again for the finish near Adamwal in Punjab.

The Romantika Uz Beas is one of the toughest ultra cycling races in the country.
The Romantika Uz Beas is one of the toughest ultra cycling races in the country. (Courtesy Romantika Uz Beas)

Over a distance of 670km, cyclists will negotiate a cumulative elevation gain of over 15,000 metres. The numbers are daunting even for experienced riders like Kabir Rachure, who has finished the Race Across America (3,000 miles from the west to the east coast of the United States) on three occasions. He will be riding the Romantika Uz Beas for the first time.

“The climbing in this race is absolutely brutal. For example, an average rider takes over 15 hours to finish Everesting (an event where cyclists climb 8,848 metres, the height of Mt. Everest). The elevation gain during the Romantika Uz Beas is 1.75 times that of Everesting. And you are only going to get slower over the second half of the race due to fatigue and sleep deprivation,” Rachure says.

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To prepare for the uphills during the race, Rachure’s weekly training routine involved a cumulative elevation gain of around 4,000-5,000 metres in each of the past six weeks.Other participants, like Sahil Sachdeva, who hails from Bathinda and has been training under ultra-cyclist Amit Samarth, added more interval sessions on an indoor trainer. Over the past few months, he has logged a weekly mileage of 500-550km that includes long rides of 150-250km on weekends.

“The closest hills are over 250km away and the weather gets really foggy in these parts post November. So most of the training had to be indoors and on a trainer over the last six months. During previous races, the focus was on long rides, but this time around, a lot of the sessions were based on training for various degrees of gradients,” he says.

Bansal, who has finished races such as the Shivalik Signature and Race Across India, has taken on longer training intervals to build stamina and strength, in preparation for the long uphill climbs. He has also added more strength training sessions with heavier weights to the routine, with a greater focus on working out the lower body.

“On alternate days, I put in a lot of work at the gym where I’ve increased the sets for basic exercises such as squats and lunges to build strength for the elevation. The most important thing was to be consistent with the routine ever since I signed up for the race in November. It’s given me the confidence of putting on a better show this time around,” Bansal says.

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Last week,unpredictable weather in Himachal Pradesh saw heavy rain and snowfall and ifconditions remain the same, it is only going toadd to the challenge. in Himachal Pradesh over the past week is only going to add to the challenge of the relentless incline. This uphill nature of the route will need constant effort and have little scope for recovery, something that riders usually manage on the descents. Rachure believes fuelling will be critical during a race like this. Sachdeva plans on increasing his intake over the regular 7,000-8,000 calories he consumes each day during a race. Bansal will be loading up on carbs before and during the race through natural foods.

“Since you are pedalling hard almost all the time in order to climb, it is likely that soreness will set in a lot faster. Hydration is going to be the key for this race,” Rachure adds.

A non-stop effort will be essential to make the cut-offs in good time. But over the second half of the race, the lack of sleep will make it an onerous task to maintain focus, especially on the steep downhill sections. While riders have been training to tackle uphills on the mountain slopes, nothing can quite prepare them for the descents, especially in the outdoors. For instance, Bansal has his eyes on a section ahead of Mandi, which he feels will be a real test for riders.

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“The road is not very wide and the descent will be during the night. It’s going to be really fast and in freezing conditions with low visibility. And rain will make it even more difficult. So you will have to be really alert in spite of the exhaustion,” Bansal says.“Everything will become a challenge after 24 hours. The backing of a good support crew will be crucial for this race,” Rachure says.

With plenty of factors to consider and a constant battle against the clock, the odds are stacked up for the riders. But Sachdeva feels he is ready to take on everything that the race throws at him. “The most important thing is to line up at the start. Whether you finish or not is secondary because there’s a lot to learn,” he says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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