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How ultra cyclist Kabir Rachure completed one of the toughest Himalayan races

This year, Kabir Rachure became the first person to finish the Romantika Uz Beas, one of the toughest ultra cycling races in the Himalaya

Kabir Rachure finished the Romantika Uz Beas ultracycling race.
Kabir Rachure finished the Romantika Uz Beas ultracycling race.

Half way through the Romantika Uz Beas (RUB), a 700km ultra cycling race between Hoshiarpur and Manali, ultra cyclist Kabir Rachure was in a dilemma. After having pedalled for around 20 hours, he had reached the turnaround point at Manali well within the cutoff time, with about 30 minutes to spare. He had now to ride the same distance back to the starting point. However this time around, he had just 18 hours to make the total race cutoff time of 38 hours. It was a situation that he hadn’t experienced in a while. 

“The last time I experienced such tight cutoffs was during the Race Across America in 2019. It wasn’t like I had any physical issues or was short on energy or didn’t want to ride at that point. But I knew how long it had taken to get to Manali. So when I analysed the data, I realised I was not going to make it back to the finish in time. That’s what made me feel quite defeated mentally,” Rachure, 33, says. 

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As he sat there under a lazy morning sun tucking into khichdi, he thought intently. He was clear that there was no glory in just finishing a race, even though no one else had managed to do it in the past two editions. Either he did it within the given time of 38 hours or simply called it off. But he then observed his crew working overtime, one servicing the bicycle, another taking stock of his gear. And their actions made it evident that he had it in him to finish the race.

“My crew has seen me ride through all kinds of situations, so I thought maybe my estimate was all wrong. Here on, I simply decided to go with what they had to say and pushed ahead,” he says.

By the end of it, Rachure had done enough to become the only finisher of RUB, a race that has gradually gained the reputation of being India’s toughest ultra cycling race. His time of 37 hours that included three hours off the saddle was an hour short of the cutoff. And though he celebrated the win, he admits his estimate before starting out had been all wrong. “My target was 34 hours. But only once the race got underway did I realise I had not assessed the terrain very well,” he says. 

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RUB features an elevation gain of 13,000 metres over 670km. Another Indian race at altitude, the Great Himalayan Ultra (GHU) in Leh, has an elevation gain of 10,000 metres over 600km and features rolling terrain and gradual climbs. Rachure has won the GHU on three occasions in the past and has the experience of racing in the mountains. Yet, the RUB was a different proposition.

“In RUB, the gradients are quite steep and irregular. While pushing on climbs, there’s lactic acid build up in the muscles. And one way to release it is by pedalling at an easy pace. But the RUB route offers very few opportunities to do this, since it’s all ups and downs. So that certainly hampered my progress,” he says.

Rachure started on March 11 alongside four other riders. They experienced strong headwinds over the initial section that slowed them down considerably. A stomach issue further compounded Rachure’s misery. But by the 60km mark, he had gone past the others to take the lead. 

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Bad roads meant that all riders were ferried 30km in a car—the total 700km distance was consequently reduced to 670km—in a certain section between Raintal and Kangra in Himachal Pradesh. By the end of that shuttle, Rachure realised that the roads were in terrible condition, which affected his speed considerably, especially on the downhills. “My speed would drop from 60 to 20 kmph while descending. So I figured it was likely to get quite tricky going ahead,” he says. 

A testing climb took Rachure to Kandi Pass, the highest point of the race at 2,057 metres. After a sleep break of 40 minutes, he set out at first light on a downhill section, with all kinds of thoughts running in his head as he arrived in Manali. However, the crew changed his mind and he continued his chase to the finish, focussing on the next time station instead of the end goal. 

“I knew I was going to be slower on the second half of the ride due to the fatigue and sleep deprivation. And now I had far less time to make the entire distance back. The idea was to just be on the bicycle as long as possible. If I didn’t manage to finish the race in time, it would simply be a wakeup call that I needed to put in more effort,” he says.

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On the return, making the cutoff at Kandi Pass came as a relief. Rachure now had a feeling that things were on track. After a speedy descent, the climb beyond Mandi tested his perseverance. Though just 4km long, it posed an average gradient of 10%, which rose to a steep 20% across certain patches. All his uphill work as part of training was put to test as the sun set in the distance.

“While I had prepared for this kind of climbing, negotiating it after 9,000 metres was something else. A lot of riders are strong climbers, but it’s a mental game after a point. It all comes down to how patient you are on the climbs and how you keep at it without bothering about the speed. I feel that’s what clicked for me,” he says. 

The final stretch was all about fighting sleep deprivation, but Rachure got to the end in the dead of night in Hoshiarpur, a memorable finish celebrated by an enthusiastic bunch of admirers.

“If you keep your own targets and race, things will work out eventually. But I really do feel the cutoff time was stringent and the organisers should consider increasing it. Of course, I’m only qualified to say this now, since I’ve finished the race,” Rachure says. 

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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