Wednesday, 13 December 2017

2017 U23 National Championships Road Race: Re-entering the tunnel

Day 3: The Road Race

I lined up at the start line at 11:30AM, along with 80 other U23 cyclists. We were to tackle the 120km long road race. The race had no major climbs and I was half certain that it would end up in a bunch sprint. There was a quarter-certainty that a long range attack would survive and a final quarter that a breakaway emerging from the messy, chaotic and fast attacks in the final 10-kilometres would survive. I was hoping for the race to play out like the latter scenario.

After waiting for the Indian equivalent of 5 minutes, we were flagged off at 12:20PM.

I had not raced with most of the field earlier. So I borrowed a page off of Gino Bartali's playbook and memorized the race numbers of the top-10 finishers in the ITT - 352, 449, 116, 161, 117, 542, 385, 293, 395 & 444. My strategy for the first 110kms of the race was to follow any moves made by the first 3 guys, or any move consisting of 2 or more from the ITT top ten.

We exit the city after 3kms in and we hit a kilometre long riser. I see 116 moving up, so I jump on his wheel and stay there all the way till the summit of the climb.

Over the next 10 kilometres, there were a flurry of attacks going off the front. Usually a group of 4 or 5 guys try to get away, but then a couple of guys try to bridge the gap and bring the whole field with them. During this time, I stay near the front narrowing my eyes to figure out the race number of the guys who are attacking and cross-referencing it with the list in my mind.

".uhh..that's 358 and 414 attacking..not a good time to eat the wind, time to just stay in the bunch."

"Who's that going up ahead? Looks like 243, 76, aaaannndd 122. Are they in the list? Nope. I'll just rest up."

At the 20km mark, I notice that we are riding into a headwind and a right-hand turn beckoned us in 500 metres. A quick lesson in geometry reminded me of the crosswinds coming up ahead and my spidey-senses tingled on realizing the chances of echelons.

I take the turn at about 20th wheel. A far way back, when I see 449 and 116 attacking up the road. I realized that this was a good move and I couldn't afford to sit out. I shift down a gear, then an another. And another. I bridged up to the guys and head directly to the front to keep a high pace.

"IT'S A CROSSWIND! LET'S EFFIN SPLIT IT!", I yell at Aman (449) and Punay (116). Aman nods in agreement and takes a turn. But then Punay comes to the front and rides his way into the wind, bringing along the entire field with him!

"What the.."

Frustrated by what just happened, I attack again, slightly panicking that I am burning too many matches. But this time too, the guy who followed me takes a pull into the wind rather than against. I was writhing in anger and had a huge urge to stop the race, sit everyone down and give them a lesson in 'Physics of Bike racing 101'.

I regained my composure thinking about what Dravid would do in such a situation, and went back to the previous pattern of sighting race numbers from a comfortable vantage point.

40kms in, we hit the town of Mahalingapura where the road-side was lined up with the residents cheering us. Always a great feeling to race in crowds.
At this point, I am all the way at the back of the peloton,which is now down to about 60 guys.

We hit a couple of corners and I see guys panicking while taking the corners at a speed above 30kmph. I mildly panic looking at the small gap that has opened to the front of the race. I put in a small effort and join the front bunch. I see the U-tun approaching in 500 metres, and I go all the way to the front to avoid any crashes.

We return to Mahalingapura and I gamble to try and take advantage of the same corners from earlier. I attack hard and two guys follow me. We start working together and I decided to increase my chances by doing the lion's share in the front. But we were riding into a headwind at this point, and we could never get more than 15 seconds.

As soon as we were caught, I put in another attack to try and filter the field and take the strongest guys with me. But nobody follows and a quick probability calculation revealed that I was better off staying in the bunch, what with over 45kms remaining and into a headwind.

I look around and realize that 116 is chilling all the way at the back of the bunch. Now this guy had all the makings of winning today's race - a big engine, strong teammates and suitable course. So I figured my best chances of a good result would come by watching him till the final parts of the race, and I slotted behind him.

80 kilometres into the race, the mercury had soared past the 38 degrees mark and salt lined up alongside many cyclists' jerseys. We began taking in feeds from the team mechs and also from the race organizers who were handing out disposable water bottles. So many water bottles thrown over the countryside, tens, hundreds this day, one of the real contradictions of our sport. Not that anyone cares much now, it’s just survival, watch the potholes, clear the debris by the edge of the battered road, watch for those attacks.

30kms from the line, we hit a small hill of 800 metres at 5%. I move to the very front of the bunch to place well going into the 2 kilometre long descent that followed. I move up on the right hand side of the road and there's a nasty crash on the left side of the road. Phew! Good decision to move up there.

In the descent, 116 puts in a massive attack. I scramble to follow his wheel, but momentum is working against my slender 58kilo frame and for his 70+ kilo frame. I grit my teeth and with the help of a couple of Karnataka riders, we shut him down. Close call!

 With 25 kilometres to go, we cross the finish line, heading out for 12.5kms and back. At this point, everyone is on the limit and trudging along at 27kmph. I had a craving to attack now, but I knew that it would be suicidal and the last 10kms were when the serious moves would stick.

With 17kiloetres from the finish, the pace picks up and there's one guy dangling 200 metres ahead of the peloton. Having him there is good for the bunch, good for me and bad for him, as he provides the motivational carrot to race for.

However, with 10kms to go he has extended his lead to 20seconds and posed a serious threat to the race. Realizing that the carrot had turned into a stick, the pace in the peloton picks up and we are storming at over 42kmph. It also helped that we had a tailwind all the way to the finish from this point.

With 8 kilometres to go, the gap was at 16 seconds.

With 6 kilometrtes to go, the gap was at 14 seconds.

I was neatly tucked in behind Punay's (116) wheel at this point and I expected him to -
1) Attack in the last kilometres OR
2) Sprint for the win

To which I had intended to
1) Counter his attack when he got caught OR
2) Stick in his draft and come out at the latest time as possible.

With 5 kilometres to go, he moves up alongside Aman (449) and says a word or two. I guessed that he was calling on him to attack together. I quickly jump on Aman's wheel, ready to follow the move. But I am surprised when I see that Aman holds his position while Punay went all the way to the front and raises the speed. By over 4kmph!

I felt the heat of the race over the next couple of kilometres when I had to battle against 3 guys, all of whom coveted Aman's wheel which I was dead set on sticking on to. After a few elbow-bumps and short bursts of angry grunts, I managed to dissuade everyone else from attempting to steal my position.

In the final 2 kilometres, I entered tunnel-vision mode. All the thoughts and calculations in my head were focused solely on getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. This was an incredible feeling which I had not felt in a long time, and I was glad it was back!

As soon as we touched the final kilometre, there was a massive crash on my right. I thank the alignment of stars that had me riding in the left-hand side of the road.
With 500 metres to go, I realizing I am sitting in about 12th wheel, waiting for Aman to start his sprint.

I knew that he was a better sprinter than me, but I was determined to empty my tank to the finish line and get the best possible result.

With 300 metres to go, a few lead-out guys have pulled off and we are now in the top 10 wheels. I see the barriers on the edges of the road and wonder if Aman is starting the sprint too late. I see the banner on top of the finish lone approaching soon. I have one finger one my shifter ready to launch me for the final 8 seconds burst of speed and energy. And two fingers on the brakes, if the need arises.

150 metres to go and Aman jumps. Time to go! He launches his sprint towards to left side of the road. On any other day I would have followed his wheel because he was a sprinter. But at that moment a voice in my head said "Go right!". So, I swerve slightly to the right.

0.2 seconds later I witness the horrible sight of Aman crashing into 2 or 3 guys ahead of him. We were going at well over 50kmph and I was well aware that that would have been an awful crash.

No time to ponder though, I see the finish line just seconds away but also worryingly notice the huge swarm of spectators who were spilling onto the middle of the street at the finish line. A cold fear approached me at this point as I wondered if I would accidentally sprint into the crowd. I quickly glance under my let elbow and noticed I don't have anyone behind. I swerve slightly away from the crowd.

In the final 100 metres of the race, all the energy I had managed to conserve over the previous 119 kilometres came into play and I crossed the line feeling absolutely exhausted and not sure where I had finished.

Despite exhausted, I managed to look up ahead and I counted 5 guys ahead of me.

At the start of the race, I was worried that I was not strong enough to finish in the top-20. Compared to that a 6th place finish had me elated and I was overcome with joy and relief.

I go back to the hotel still reeling from the effort of the race and soaking in the 'race high'. While I would have liked a podium finish, under the conditions, I was more than happy to have finished 6th.

I was all set to pack up my bags when I got the metaphorical motivational slap from my flatmate and former teammate to line up for the elite Criterium race tomorrow.

To be continued..

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

National Championships 2017 : Days 1-2

The 2017 Indian Road National Championships were held from October 28th to October 31st. On the night of the 27th, I was quite excited about the upcoming three races. And by ‘excited’ I mean ‘terrified’. Same feeling, really; what’s the difference between butterflies in your stomach and tiny, exploding wasps?

Day 1: Time Trial Day
In the 40km U23 Time Trial, I was aiming to improve on my previous results - 7th in 2015; 8th in 2016.

But come raceday, I was too stressed out. I screwed up my warm-up strategy for the race. And I lined up stressing over the fact that I had screwed up my warm up.

Knowing I did not warm up properly distracted me from my pacing, and I then proceeded to screw up my pacing strategy. I went too hard too early.

Knowing I did not pace properly in the beginning, I forgot to drink and my mouth felt painfully dry halfway through the race.

Knowing that I had messed up so bad, I felt absolutely miserable being on the bike. At that moment I wished I was anywhere else, eating a plate or two or three of Masala Dosas. I staggered across the finish line, only at the 21st position.

In the hurt locker! PC: Chenthil Mohan

I got back to my room that evening and spent a lot of time with my head in my hands wondering if it was worth at all to continue the next day. The 'Race of Truth' had revealed that at least 20 guys were stronger than me in the field.

I spoke with my coach, Lee Rodgers (, about this and he offered some much needed advice. He asked me to look at how lucky I am to be healthy enough and having the opportunity to do something I love, that is racing my bicycle. He mentioned that I had nothing to lose by lining up tomorrow and I also had the advantage of not having any expectations from me.

This helped me dust my knees and get to work to prepare for the 120km road race the day after.

Day 2: Recovery day

I love cricket.

I love the tactics and nuances involved in a long drawn out 5-day test match. I love the thrill that builds up towards the end of a One-Day international. And I love the unpredictive nature of the T20 games.
Having followed the game on television from as long as I can remember, the commentaries of the game have a relaxing effect on me and the role models of the "Gentleman's game" help regain my focus and motivation in my own game.

On the rest day, I finished my morning spin with leg openers and then prepped my bike for the race next day. Following which, I spent the majority of the afternoon and evening watching replays and highlights of International Test Cricket.

I spent hours watching replays of especially one particular series - the 2011 Test series between India and England - the Titanic of the Indian Test team. Any ardent Cricket fan will remember this series for Rahul Dravid's Herculean effort. 
As I watched him play for day's on end, I was motivated by his drive to give his best despite being part of a sinking ship.

The series in one photo!

I decided to go into the race tomorrow with the mantra - "What would RD do?"

To be continued..

Racing bikes, while fun at its core, involves a lot of people, myself included, who off the bike are lovely, but on the bike can become easily irritated and loud. Rightfully so, for the most part. If you were going about 30mph through a turn covered in crosswalk paint while it was just starting to rain, you would be pretty stressed out too, and GOSH DARNIT HOLD YOUR LINE YOU FRED.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Training Camp - Week 1

It's been one week since I landed in the town of Jamkhandi for a training camp. This camp is for the National Championships happening at the end of this month. Here's a quick recap of this week -

The journey to Jamkhandi involved a 10-hour long overnight bus from Bangalore to the city of Bijapur. The night before, I had googled a Taxi service in Bijapur to get a drive to Jamkhandi. After a lengthy and testing round of negotiation, I brought down the fee from 1300 to 1200 rupees.
Reaching Bijapur early in the morning, I got into the taxi after loading up my bike bag with the Time Trial bike and a borrowed indoor-trainer.

In the 60 kilometre drive, I was welcomed by the sights of endless grain fields, wind-turbines in the far off distant small hills and in the nearby footpaths, people performing their early morning ritual of open-air defecation. Feeling a bit grossed out, I proceeded to look at fields and wind-turbines on Instagram.

Jamkhandi hosted the national championships in 2014 and is set to host this year's edition too. While the nearby city of Bijapur hosts many talented cyclists of the country, the little sister town does not lag behind either.

Upon reaching, the town, I checked into a hotel based on the recommendation of a fellow Bangalore cyclists, Gagan, who too is training for the nationals. I carried the confidence from the taxi-negotiation into the hotel reception desk and was surprised to have them bring down the rent from 4500 to 3750!

Filled with this high, I headed out for lunch at one of the local homemade restaurants, commonly referred to as "Khaanavali". These places make some of the healthiest, cleanest and spiciest meals at a very affordable rate. For a meager amount of 50 rupees (70 cents), the menu consisted of unlimited amounts of Chapatis, Sorghum rotis, vegetable curry, lentil curry, rice with sambhar (lentil soup) and curd.
Feeling quite chuffed with how good the day had sailed through, I hit the bed of my hotel for a short nap, soon after which the power went off. This region of Karnataka is infamous for it's extreme weather. And I experienced this at that afternoon as temperatures soared to a mighty 40 degrees!

The next morning, I was joined by Naveen Raj, a friend of mine. He is one of Bangalore's best cyclists and currently the second fastest finisher of a Speculoos jar I've come across.

Once he set up his bike, we went looking for breakfast and ordered 2 plates of Idlis at the nearby hotel. Halfway through Naveen's Idli, I noticed him pulling out a black-coloured object from his Idli. Not wanting to seem rude by asking, I assumed it was a piece of lentil that somehow got mixed in. "Special idlis", he mentioned and chuckled. "Oh, you mean they come with protein-packed lentils in them?"I asked. "No mate, that was a cockroach leg that I removed." he remarked. Both Naveen & I are very similar in personalities and we expressed out displeasure of this situation by quietly finishing our meal and making a mental note to never return to the place again. Special Idlis indeed!

Over the next three days, life followed a similar routine -
1. Wake up
2. Closed-room defecation
3. Head out for a training ride with Naveen.
4. Stop and check if my wheels are rubbing against my brakes.
5. Return, shower and stretch.
6. Head out for lunch.
7. Wait out the afternoon power cut.
8. Clean the bike.
9. Head out for dinner.
10. Check my brakes before going to bed.

On the fourth day, my routine was disrupted. In the midst of post-ride nap where I was dreaming of Climbing up the Nandi hill at 25kmph, I was woken up by a severe case of Bijapur-Belly. I watched in disappointment as fluids and my form went down the drain, quite literally.

Things turned to worse when I developed a high fever that same evening. Despite the weather being 36 degrees hot, I had to pull on 4 layers of clothing to not shiver.
After 3 liters of ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution), 30 hours of sleep in 2 days and 4 paracetamols, I was back to normal health.

The next day, I lined up for a 40 kilometre Time Trial which was the selections for the state team. Anyone who has ever done any kind of time trial knows that it is more of a mental battle than a physical one. You feel great and invincible if you are catching up to the cyclists ahead of you. On the other end of the spectrum, you question if your brakes are rubbing or contemplate retirement when guys behind you catch up. I contemplated retirement twice today but I knew I was not in the best shape due to the illness.

I was fast enough only to get on to the reserve squad of the state team. Feeling dejected, I returned to my room and took a short nap. I woke up and sluggishly made my way to grab some water. I sluggishly noticed a bed bug underneath my left elbow. I sluggishly panicked and informed the hotel owner about this, who insisted that it couldn't have been a bed bug.

"It had six legs, was sucking my blood and I found it on my bed." I insisted, "No no, it's impossible to find a bed bug in this hotel." he replied. Not-so-sluggishly I told him he was wrong and spent the next 4 hours with Naveen turning out room upside down looking for further infestation. In the 5th hour, both of us reported a clean-sheet and went about the usual routine peacefully.

My first part of the training camp came to a positive end after a few frantic phone-calls to various other teams. I finally managed to get a spot for the national championships and I will be heading into the second week tomorrow.

To be continued..

Friday, 6 October 2017

Tour of Glory - Stage 2

After the 96km race and 100km transfer yesterday,we were checked into the quaint coffee town of Chikmagalur, which is nestled in the lush Malnad region of Karnataka. After a good night’s rest, we lined up for the second stage of the ‘Tour of Glory’.

The stage started in the town of Aldur. Today was 84kms in length with a total elevation gain of 1200m. Apart from the jampacked elevation gain, the special feature of today’s race was that there wasn’t even a single straight flat stretch for more than a kilometre in length. The kind of route that reminds me of the Belgian Classic race – Liege Bastogne Liege

We were flagged off at 8:30AM and soon me and KKR headed to the front to take advantage of the technical descent to try and split the field. We were joined by 10 or so of the strongest riders and we began to take turns in the front.

Photo Credits: Deepak Sondur

While the headwinds of yesterday’s stage tested everyone’s perseverance, today’s course tested everyone’s bike-handling and attentiveness – with its continuous rolling terrain, the occasional traffic and more than occasional cow-crossings.

As we approached the KOM climb of the day which was 1.5kms in length, there was one cyclist, Shiven, 15 seconds up ahead of us. I rode in the front to not let him get too big of an advantage. But as soon as we hit the base, KKR kicked off. I followed in hot pursuit, but I did not have the legs to bridge across and towed in behind Naveen and Adarsh. We crossed the KOM line about 12 seconds behind and worked together over the next 2 kilometres to bring them back in.

In the following short ascents, descents and cow-dodgings, the lead group thinned down to 4 - Me, Naveen, KKR and Adarsh. We agreed to a mutual ceasefire and took turns riding tempo so as to build a lead on the bunch behind. I tried to attack at the 45kmsmark, but I did not have the legs and was soon reeled back in.
PC: Deepak Sondur

Over the next 6-7 kilometres, we were witness to the spectacular views of the Malnad region, which is nestled in between the western ghats and I was in awe of the route selected by the race organizers!

As we hit the next short climb, I was witness to the rear wheel of Naveen Raj, which was nestled behind KKR who was setting a high pace and I was in awe of the pain being dished out.

I was glad I had survived this climb, but I realized that my legs were fatigued from the hard week’s training the week before and I was worried if I could stay with the leading duo till the finale.

At the 60km mark, we hit a 4km climb and my body had reached lactic-acid saturation. I let go off the wheel in front of me, which unfortunately also meant that I let go off my 3rd place on GC.

I rode the rest of the route at my own pace and counted down the kilometres and counted up the number of cows I came across till the finish line. 76 in total. Disappointingly, I have dropped down to 4th on GC, but there’s still one day and 1800m of elevation gain to make it up. 

PC: Deepak Sondur

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Tour of Glory - Stage 1

Tour of Glory:
Today was the first stage of the ‘Tour of Glory’. The ToG is India’s first Stage race and I signed up for it to prepare for the national championships happening at the end of this month. The Tour consists of 3 days, covering 250kms, a total elevation gain of 3000m, and headwinds a-plenty.

We rolled out from Hotel Palms Resort to ride the 7kms neutral to the start line on Nelamangala. The stage would be a 96kms flat day. 23 of us lined up at the start line, eager to get to the finish line as soon as possible and we were flagged off. I had two of my former-teammates in the race – Kiran Kumar Raju and Naveen Raj and I knew that they would be the strong guys to look out for.

At the start of the race! PC: Deepak Sondur

As soon as we started, KKR went to the front of the field and lifted the tempo, reducing the width of the peloton to 1 cyclist ( or 0.75 human) wide. Approaching the next uphill, I decided to put a dig in to reduce the field even further. Following this there were only 8 or 9 of us left in the front bunch.
At around the 15kms mark, KKR launched another move, and was covered by me, Naveen Raj, Master’s racer Bikey Venky, Chennaiite Adarsh Saxena and the MTB rider Shiven.
We began to work together over the next few kilometres, setting a high tempo knowing that the podium for the day would be decided amongst us.

The lead bunch at this point. PC: Deepak Sondur
A game of cat-and-mouse:
Adarsh felt he had the legs to rip apart the already reduced bunch and started to attack at the 25kms mark, encouraging me, KKR and Raj to work together and drop everyone else. 

As attacks flew up the road, I forced Shiven to chase KKR and Raj. Once I realized that he couldn’t bridge across, I attacked and decided to bridge across. But I was stuck in the dreaded no-man’s land - t o o  s l o w  t o  r i d e  a c r o s s  to the front group and toofasttobecaught by the group behind, all the while with a stiff head-wind!

Behind, I saw Adarsh attacking Shiven and bridging across to me. We then worked together but the duo up ahead was too fast to catch up. 

Limiting the losses:
I took the lead during the ascents, Adarsh did on the descents and we shared the workload during the flat sections. But the initial attacks took a toll on Adarsh and I ended up doing most of the work
Over the next 30kms, there were only 2 things in my mind.
2. The tail-wind at the 82km mark. I kept looking down at my Garmin every 30 seconds wishing the distance would go by faster. I realized I was letting the numbers get to me and I switched to a different page which had my power and HR numbers.
When I did so I was shocked to find that despite riding at a tempo pace, my HR was at a mighty 186bpm – way into my threshold region. A rough tissue paper calculation revelaed that I would burn out soon at this effort! 

I put two fingers beneath my neck and physically measured my HR. A second rough calculation revealed it to be at 150bpm. Which is when I realized that my Garmin had accidentally paired with Adarsh’s HR monitor!

 I kept my hydration and nutrition well in-line and was also aided by the well-organized race support crew feeding me at the right times. At the 75kmsmark, we were about 8mins behind the leading two, who were working in tandem!
As we hit the 82kms mark and turned around, a tail-wind blew over us and a new-wind blew over Adarsh and he began to take turns in the front.

 We eventually finished the 96kms stage, about 5.5mins behind the winner – Kiran Kumar Raju.
Tomorrow, we have a 90kms rolling route with 900m of elevation gain in the scenic and picturesque route of Chikmagalur!

Here's another account of today's race from the talented Bikey Venky.