A 20-foot clown is probably not what you would expect to see while cycling. But Bengaluru-based Grinshina Kartik is sure that she saw one during her Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in August this year. PBP is one of several ultra-cycling events that has caught the fancy of riders across the country. The others in this series are London-Edinburgh-London, Race Across America, North Cape 4000, to name a few. India still has a long way to go in the ultra-cycling landscape in terms of participation. But a growing number of riders are now venturing forward to try and find their endurance limit through these races.
Not surprisingly, hallucinations, extreme fatigue, relentless training are a big reality for all of them. A side effect of the gruelling format of such multi-day events.
“Such events are demanding physically. I knew I had the strength in my legs. Most riders will also be able to go with little-to-no sleep for two or three days. But by the fourth day, the brain interferes. You start imagining things,” Kartik recounts of her experience. In spite of it all, she managed to finish first among all Indian women in the 2023 edition of PBP.
The oldest cycling event in the world, PBP is a 1,200km brevet (a timed, long-distance, road cycling event) that is held every four years. While there are various timed groups, the most popular one is the 90-hour limit where riders, such as Kartik, aim to complete the distance from Paris to Brest and back within that cut-off time. While Indian women have taken part in this event since 2011, this year was the first time they finished within the 90 hours mark.
The time pressure is just one part of it. Training your mind to not give up, and your legs to keep pushing through rolling hills, is quite another. Kolkata-based hotelier Sandip Roy knows this all too well. Like Kartik, Roy also finished the 2023 PBP event. He trained on a borrowed indoor-trainer (a machine that lets you attach your cycle to it and then vary the intensity of your ride) and rode in Shillong to get used to the elevation of the rolling hills of France. While in Kolkata, Roy managed to get out almost every day for an average 50km ride and spiced it up with longer 100-km rides on weekends.
“I trained to do my rides with less sleep. And during the course of the event, I must have slept a total of five-six hours,” says Roy for whom the key challenge lay in conversing with the locals “if we needed to ask for any help”. Another thing was handling the differences in temperature in a single day. “From 40-43°C in the day, it would often drop to 7°C in the night,” says Roy.
Beating unpredictable nature
Weather worries are not new in cycling events. Amandeep Singh faced a few while participating in North Cape 4000 – a cycling event that covers 4,200 km over 10 countries – in 2022. The completely self-supported ultra-cycling event starts from Italy and crosses Europe, before finishing in North Cape, Norway. Delhi-based Singh remembers the last day of the event when the wind was blowing at 70-80km/ hour.
“I wasn’t really able to stand or hold my bike and it was really dangerous to even stand and hold your ground, forget riding. I struggled for about eight hours in that weather condition and took shelter at some place before completing the ride,” Singh recalls of the ride. It looked like he’d have to give up. “I kept thinking that after doing 4190kms I was going to be quitting with just 30kms to go.” Singh’s biggest learning was probably just this, that in spite of all the training – he had almost a year and half for it – nature cannot be predicted. “You cannot win against nature and it’s not done until it’s done!” he says.
Singh’s preparation for North Cape 4000 involved 8-10-hour-long training sessions per week doing fast interval cycling, easy recovery rides and working out at the gym. He also did a 1200kms outdoor ride and lots of climbing workouts indoors. “It’s important to understand that long hours will not give better output until and unless your body recovers, so my focus was to recover and do consistent workouts, improve my fitness levels and get back the next day,” Singh explains.
Singh also remembers wanting to quit on multiple occasions. He missed the comfort of his home and family, and also had to ride hundreds of kilometres with no one for company, often seeing only 20 people in the whole day. A crew, in supported rides, can then come in handy.
With a little help from coach and crew
“The crew’s job is very vital. They aren’t just looking after your needs enroute, but guiding you, carrying all your things and cheering you on. They hardly get rest either,” says Mahendra Mahajan. Mahajan and his elder brother Hitendra, both doctors from Nashik, were the first Indians to complete the prestigious Race Across America, or RAAM, as a team of two in 2015. RAAM is often called the toughest cycling event covering 4,828 km from San Diego (on West Coast) to Annapolis (on the East Coast). More than the distance, it is the 17,362 meters of climbing that makes it a challenging task.
“When we participated, we had six crew members dedicated to each of us. Three of them would also do 12-hour shifts, before the next lot took over. And while we could focus completely on riding, the crew had to be extremely alert and attentive, because even a small navigation mistake from them could cost us riders valuable time,” says Mahajan.
Mahajan’s other advice is to trust your coach. Before the RAAM event, the brothers had participated in a few other ultra-cycling events and they had done so without any formal training plan. Getting a coach for RAAM was helpful as they could depend on him for everything from training and nutrition charts to strategy during the event.
“Our coach had given us a plan to switch riders every one to two hours. But we realised soon that this wasn’t helping us recover and we were falling short of the target. By the third day, we improvised and started doing shorter 30-minute sprints where we could push more and also recover while the other was riding,” he adds. This did not mean that the 30-minute was a strict rule. If one rider was in deep sleep (while resting in the crew car), the other would continue his ride for 10 more minutes.
Training partners, crews, weekly training schedules notwithstanding, what ultra-cycling requires ultimately is the mental strength to not give up and keep pushing – one pedal at a time.
Sohini Sen is a Delhi-based fitness enthusiast and writer.