A ghost rider across Siberia
Amit Samarth, India's finest ultra-cyclist, has just become the first Asian to complete the Trans-Siberian Extreme, the toughest cycle race in the world. It all began on the highways around Nagpur
On 11 August, Amit Samarth, 38, began Stage 13 of the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, 2018, the longest ultra-cycling race in the world, at Chita, a city in the vast eastern reaches of Russia. He was cycling to the checkpoint at Svobodny, a distance of 1,400km (to put that figure in context, that’s the distance between Mumbai and New Delhi). He would reach the small town on the bank of the Zeya river on 13 August, tired, but well within the cut-off.
Nineteen days earlier, on 24 July, the race flagged off in Moscow. By Stage 13 Samarth had completed about 70% of the 9,100km long race across Russia, which ended in Vladivostok, a city far in the east. Somewhere along the way during that marathon stage, it began to feel as if he was no longer inside his own body, that he was turning, gradually, into an apparition, one that he named “ghost rider".
“It’s a state of mind where you are not afraid of anything as a result of hitting the road for hundreds of kilometres through day and night," Samarth says, chuckling. “I was riding at the back of the pack, which meant no company for hours and at times, days. It was madness. And then it struck me—only a ghost could pull off a feat like this."
The distance covered depended on the terrain, but Samarth regularly clocked up incredible numbers. If the terrain was simpler to handle, he’d manage around 600km in a day. If there were a lot of inclines or poor roads, he’d cover somewhere between 520-560km.
Mind games are just one challenge in successfully riding the Trans-Siberian Extreme. The 15-stage race through the Russian countryside, which was first held in 2015, runs over 25 days and across five time zones. The route weaves past cities, towns and villages, runs along the borders of Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. It traverses gravel tracks, through jungles and mountains, over black-top highways. It is one of the most arduous experiences on the planet. Only six invited riders lined up at the start this year. Four completed the race. In all, since 2015, there have been only nine finishes—which includes two hardy fellows who have completed it twice. Samarth became the seventh person, and the first Asian, to bag the coveted finishers’ medal.
This race was the culmination of a journey that started out on the highways around Samarth’s city, Nagpur. But he wasn’t always an ultra-cyclist. After obtaining a degree in medicine, Samarth worked in a series of healthcare initiatives, first in the private sector, as a health consultant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, then for NGOs. He was working as the chief operating officer of the Save A Mother foundation when they offered him the chance to head the organization.
“I was asked to take over the position of chief executive officer," he says. “By then, I had done some triathlons and a few half Ironman events, but due to the nature of my work, training had taken a backseat. I needed time off to chase what I loved, so once I came home (in 2015), I started training again and tried to get more people interested in keeping healthy."
He works now as a fitness coach, training clients in running and cycling long distances. He is also training and grooming the next generation of athletes from Nagpur. But Samarth started out by joining brevets, long-distance rides logging hundreds of kilometres. The community took notice of the blazing times he was pulling off during these informal rides. A friend registered him for the 643km Deccan Cliffhanger, from Pune to Goa, in 2015, without his knowledge.
“My first step into ultra-cycling was quite by accident," Samarth says. “My crew and I had no idea what to expect. But it was all very exciting—riding in the heat, climbing in the dark and even getting lost. I came in fifth. At the finish line I met the race director of Race Across America (RAAM). He had my attention immediately."
The RAAM is a 4,800km race that runs from the west coast of the US to the east. Samarth soon realized that the finances needed to take on the RAAM would be impossible to raise without a full-time job. He decided on the next best thing. He got first-hand experience of the race by crewing a cycling legend, Seana Hogan, in 2016. On his return, he pulled off a 1,000km brevet from Delhi to the Wagah border and back. It reinstated his belief that he could go the distance. He decided to share his vision with the ultra-cycling community of Nagpur and a few corporations, hoping to attract sponsors. Some of this community became his most ardent supporters.
The next step was to prove that he could sit in a saddle for days on end. As potential sponsors looked on, Samarth took on a 2,500km ride along the dusty highways of central India in September 2016, starting in Nagpur and reaching Hyderabad before turning back via Bengaluru, Kolhapur and Pune. He finished where he’d begun, five days and 5 hours later.
“I went without sleep for three nights," he says. “There was a lot at stake as it was half the distance of the RAAM. In that moment, I won a lot of support."
Funding fell in place. Samarth pulled off his first Ironman in Busselton, Australia, in December 2016. Two months before the RAAM, he moved to the US to train. But it was only as he lined up at the start that he encountered the pressure that comes with expectations.
“There was a huge responsibility to fulfil everybody’s trust in me, including the sponsors," he says. When the going got tough, Samarth did all he could to make the finish line: a sports bra packed with ice in the scorching Arizona desert; riding a couple of days through Colorado, loaded on antibiotics, while running a fever; duelling a storm in West Virginia; fighting off hallucinations towards the end of the race. By the time he got across the finish line, he had become the only Indian to pull off the race in the first attempt. From that moment on, he trained his sights on the Trans-Siberian Extreme.
Riding in Russia
“The muscle memory was there. I just had to focus on the training," he says. “I reached out to German cyclist Pierre Bischoff, who finished second in 2017. Only then did I realize that I was overtraining. I decided to focus on speed, endurance and nutrition."
This led to sleepless nights for his supporters, including his wife Mukul, mother Vijaya, and crew members Chetan Thate and Devnath Pillai, who trailed him for miles in the darkness during those tranquil, predawn hours. With the Deccan Cliffhanger title in his pocket this time around, second spot at the 615km Shivalik Signature and a 600km recce ride between Leh and Drass for the inaugural Great Himalayan Ultra, he was ready to finally tackle the brutal race alongside some of the meanest cyclists in the world.
“Before the race, Bischoff told me that my objective should be to ride safe, make the cut-offs and finish. Three of the riders had ridden the race before, so there was no point competing with them."
This only added to the—already huge—pressure to finish. The biggest battles, he would later realize, were against the elements—the terrain featured rolling hills, a cumulative elevation of 77,000km—and against loneliness. As engaging as the Russian landscape was in the summer, it didn’t fail to throw up a few surprises.
“The days were nice and warm," he says, “but there were times when the weather would turn and it would pour all night. Rain like I’ve never seen before. It battered us riders for some 800km. You had no choice but to keep riding in the freezing conditions."
“Over such long distances, you have to keep motivating yourself," Samarth says. “Sometimes it was a brief conversation with the crew members, or messages pouring in on social media from back home. There were songs such as Jhingat, from the film Sairat, that kept me going," Samarth says.
After 379 hours, 51 minutes and 44 seconds, he rode to the finish across the Russky Bridge in Vladivostok. It was well past sundown, and only a handful of people witnessed the moment, the finale of this long drawn-out tussle between Samarth and the ghost rider.