A hundred and fifty kilometres from the finish in Kibithoo, a town in Arunachal Pradesh’s north-east, Bharat Pannu’s mind started playing games with him. Eight days earlier, he had started his bicycle ride from Koteshwar in Gujarat, hoping to pull off a 3,800km ride across India, from west to east. He had had his fair share of challenges but nothing had quite prepared him for this final stretch that was now testing the limits of his endurance.
The road, for one, had gone missing. It was impossible to ride at a stretch on the crude dirt track and Pannu, 38, had walked close to 25km while towing his bicycle. He had already missed out on his goal of finishing the ride in eight days, 12 hours, part of his plan to prepare for the Race Across America (a 3,000-mile race from the west to east coast of the US). Progress was painstakingly slow, his mind stressed and body, fatigued. At the end of his tether, he wondered if it made sense to call off the ride.
“I was torn between pushing on and just ending it at that point—sheer mental torture. We were just not prepared for such bad roads. It took a massive effort to keep going. A distance that would have routinely taken me six-seven hours was eventually pulled off in 21 hours,” Pannu recalls.
At 2pm on 26 October, he finally finished his ride, in nine days, seven hours and five minutes. Although the timing is yet to be ratified by Guinness World Records, Pannu bettered the previous mark held by Naresh Kumar Rajendran, who clocked 11 days, 21 hours and 57 minutes for the same route in 2018.
Pannu, no stranger to endurance cycling, currently holds two other Guinness records. In October last year, he pulled off the fastest ride from Leh to Manali, a distance of 472km, in 35 hours, 32 minutes and 22 seconds. Five days later, he began his ride on the 5,942km-long Golden Quadrilateral highway network, completing it in 14 days, 23 hours and 52 minutes. On his first ride in 2019, he had taken on the 3,604km route from Srinagar to Kanyakumari.
“All these big rides have been a part of my preparations for the Race Across America. I couldn’t ride in 2019 after suffering a broken shoulder, while the race was cancelled last year due to covid-19. Hopefully I can go ride there next year,” says Pannu, a lieutenant colonel in the Indian Army who took up ultracycling around five years ago.
“There has been a lot of learning since the first ride—how the body starts behaving as the days progress, the nutrition that needs to be planned out, how the taste buds change with time and the hygiene that needs to be maintained to prevent saddle sores. Pacing yourself is also critical so that you don’t exert during the initial days and have enough energy to sustain the latter part of the ride. We still make mistakes but it’s a process,” he says. Since 2018, he has been training under an American coach, Tracy McKay, who has designed a programme keeping in mind his erratic work schedule. “It’s difficult for me to have a fixed training routine, so we focus on weekly goals as compared to daily targets,” he says.
For his latest ride, Pannu trained by riding 200-500km each week, almost 90% of it in the outdoors; the rest was on an indoor trainer. He would do two long rides of over 200km and shorter distances of around 100km four-five times each month. Besides focusing on mileage, he would include hill repeats and interval training. Off the saddle, his routine involved strength training about four times each week.
“In July, I was handed a new appointment, so I couldn’t train as much as I would have liked to. But after all these years, my body is tuned to riding these long distances. And I have developed the confidence that I can sustain multiple days of riding. All I needed to do was stick to the training plan to keep my body in shape,” he says.
The target was to ride about 450km each day, with about 280km of that during daylight hours, at an average speed of about 25 kmph. A crew of seven tailed him in a support vehicle, tending to his nutrition and helping with physiotherapy and massage sessions.
“I broke down the distance and kept running the numbers in my head, trying to figure out when I would make it to the next town. Of course, my crew is always keeping track of the route and my progress. But this habit keeps me engaged while riding and there’s really no time to think about anything else,” he says, adding, “The idea was to avoid taking risks since I wasn’t as prepared this time around.”
For the first three days, Pannu had to deal with warm weather and strong crosswinds. The daytime temperature got better once he crossed Agra, his efforts aided by a tailwind. But there were multiple delays in Bihar due to flooding. Bridges had been washed away in places, muddy patches slowed his progress. Road construction beyond Siliguri resulted in multiple diversions.
“It’s all about meeting your hourly targets and getting quality rest when needed. There will always be difficulties but that’s something you have to deal with along the way. At the same time, I believe anyone can do it— you don’t have to be superhuman to ride these big distances,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.