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How an Indian ultra cyclist is challenging the world's best

Cyclist Kabir Rachure plans to follow up on his ultra distance cycling exploits with his biggest challenge yet

Ultra distance cyclist Kabir Rachure
Ultra distance cyclist Kabir Rachure

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In June this year, cyclist Kabir Rachure, 31, achieved many firsts when he crossed the finish line at the Race Across America (RAAM). He took third spot in the solo male under-50 category with a timing of 11 days, 11 hours and 25 minutes. In doing so, he became the first Asian athlete to finish on the podium in the history of the 3,000-mile race and the first Indian to finish the race on two occasions. It was the culmination of a long journey in endurance cycling that started around seven years ago.  

Now, in search of a different challenge, Rachure has set his sights on the 24-hour World Time Trial Championships that will be held in Borrego Springs in the US in November.  “No Indian has done this race so far. And there’s no race like this in India, one where you push yourself and make a sustained effort over 24 hours while riding in the outdoors,” he says.  

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The route runs over an 18-mile loop in the middle of a desert with an elevation gain of 63 metres. While on it, riders have to be self-sufficient for everything, from their nutrition to attending to minor issues such as flat tyres. Support from the cyclists’ personal crews is available only in a certain section, where riders enter a pit lane, similar to what is seen in Formula One. This is located near the start point of the race. It is where they stock up on food and water, besides readying for adverse weather conditions that they may encounter in the hours ahead. In case of any major mechanical failure, cyclists can reach out to the race organisers for a ride to the pit lane, of course, at the expense of losing time.  

Rachure, like the other competitors, plans on keeping his pit stop brief. “I plan on making between 6-10 pit stops over the 24 hours. Entering the pit lane means dropping your speed to 20kmph, so you want to go in only when it’s really essential. But what is even more important is the efficiency of the team members because they can really save you time if they are organised. The idea is to take minimal breaks in order to maintain your average speed,” he says.

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Rachure spent five weeks on recovery after the RAAM effort, before getting back into training mode for his latest race. He has been riding between 9-11 hours each week on his indoor trainer. This, he says, is going to be even more critical during this particular race to tackle the monotony of riding in loops with the same landscape at all times. The focus has also been on strength work at the gym to add muscle before the race.  

“It’s a flat terrain and a time trial format, so you can go in with a slightly heavier body, which in turn will help you go faster. So I hope to put on about 4kg as compared to what I weighed before RAAM,” he says. “Besides that, I’ve been working on increasing my capacity to push because I’ll need to sustain the effort for 24 hours. So a lot of the focus is on Zone 3 and Zone 4 rides, essentially higher intensity rides in which you are pushing outside your comfort zone for as long as possible, rather than, say, doing short sprints,” he adds.  

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Rachure is no stranger to such a challenge. In 2020, he took on his first 24-hour ride, albeit indoors, where he logged a distance of 752km at the National Virtual Time Trial Championship while riding on his trainer at home. The next year, he bettered that mark to 763km. In the weeks ahead, he wants to do a couple of rides in the outdoors, looking to pull off a distance of about 250km in eight hours. “Physically surviving 24 hours is not a task anymore. But your legs still need to regain the muscle memory of taking on long rides. It’s more of a psychological boost to know that you’ve pulled off a big distance before the race,” he says.  

The experience that Rachure has gained from his previous races will be handy. This includes knowing what gear he needs to carry, the ideal hourly calorie intake and dealing with the cold of the California desert. His familiarity with the route will also be vital, considering he encountered a part of it during the RAAM. He hopes to go to the venue a week in advance to do a route recce. 

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“The road surface was quite rough when I had last ridden there, so the wheels and tyre pressure will matter a lot. There is also a lot of wind on the route and since it’s a loop, I’ll get both head wind and tail wind. Then, there is a steady climb as well as downhills. All these factors will be crucial to know when is the right time to push and where I can recover,” he says. “There are also 6-7 turns on the entire route, so a lot will depend on how swiftly I take them. Because by the end of it, you land up making about 100-110 turns, so even if you go a few seconds faster, you save 4-5 minutes on the whole. And that’s a difference of 3-4km overall,” he adds.  

Minor gains such as these will be vital in the larger scheme of things. The record for his age category is held by his idol, Austrian cyclist Christoph Strasser, who pulled off a massive 567.6 miles (about 913.5km) in 2018. “Strasser is part of the 500-miler club, which very few achieve. A realistic target for me would be between 750-800km,” Rachure says. 

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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