Just another day on the bike

2 minutes left in my last 4 minute interval for the day. I can feel the pain in my legs, with my heart racing at over 170 beats per minute. I needed to give it all I had, and that’s exactly what I did. Put my head down and kept stomping on the pedals, ramping up the intensity with whatever little bouts of extra power I was able to put out. 2 minutes became 30 seconds, 30 became 10. Despite the lactic acid that had already built up in my muscles, I made an acceleration that would take me through to the end of the interval. 5 seconds to go, and suddenly my surroundings turn black, and a warm gust hits me from my left. It came and passed within a second, but it frightened the shit out of me. What just happened?!

It’s been 2 days into my changed schedule. I’ve started getting training from a professional coach, and today’s workout required me to do 6 intervals at VO2 max. That’s 4 minutes of all out effort, repeated 6 times. Is it hard? You bet. It’s one of my most dreaded workouts, and nothing beats the feeling of successfully completing VO2 max day.

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The ORR.

On such intense days, I usually take the Outer Ring Road (ORR). It’s an 8 lane road, and is very convenient as I get a whole lane to myself. There’s very limited traffic, with the occasional car or truck passing me every few minutes, and the road keeps going for as long as you need it to. 3 of my intervals were done on the way out, and the remaining 3 were saved for the return.

The best motivation to get your intervals done for the day is the satisfaction of having earned your milkshake. That’s what keeps me going, day in and day out. With just one interval to go, I could see light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of a whole litre of banana milkshake calling my name from home. I was more motivated than ever to absolutely smash this interval. And that is when tragedy *almost* struck. An atheist was left thanking god.Jpeg

As I was busy hammering the pedals to get my intervals done with, my head was down for about 2 whole minutes. I was concentrating every bit of my energy on how to expend every watt I could produce to bring more speed in my wheels, and I had forgotten to look up at the road ahead. The ORR is usually empty, so it never occurred to me that I had ridden more than a kilometre without even looking up to see where I’m going. I was concentrating on my speedometer, calculating the time left and making mental notes on how I needed to find extra bits of energy when that precious one second flew by.

The sudden dark surrounding was the shadow of a truck that was parked on the side of the road. The warm gust was the heat from its engine. I had passed WITHIN AN INCH of the truck! Wow.

It took me a minute before I could realise the dearth of the situation. The implications of a crash, had it happened, would be more than severe. I was travelling at around 45 kilometres an hour. With that velocity, going head on into a still truck would have broken my bike AND my bones. It would ruin my plans for the entire year. It would set me back so far in my training, that no banana milkshake in the world would be able to cure my depression. I thank my lucky stars for avoiding that collision. I even thanked God, despite being a non-believer.

What’s happened has happened, and what’s been avoided has been avoided. It took some time for me to come back to terms with reality, with the fact that I came out of that situation with nothing more than a brain fart. I managed a smile.

There’s a reason behind why I’m writing this. I’ve always advocated the “eyes on the road” principle, whether I’m riding a bicycle, motorcycle or even driving a car. My eyes are always on the road. Never did I expect to encounter a situation such as this one, where if I looked at myself from a third person’s point of view, I’d be giving endless gyaan to myself about what the correct way to ride is, and how I’m stupid for not concentrating on the road. Heck, I’ve already given this gyaan to every junior that’s accompanied me at training. But here’s the real deal. I was so absorbed by my interval and the numbers that I was putting out (speed, heart rate, cadence and time), that I neglected what should have been on top of the priority list: safe riding. I think I’m extremely fortunate to learn my lesson the easy way, but this lesson is something that’s going to stay.

Moral of the anecdote? Safety First.

U-23 Mass Start @ Aligarh; Road Cycling National Championships 2016.

Kerala Nationals, February 2016.

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The finishing sprint at Kerala. I’m the blue jersey at the back with the terrible sprint form.

The event that I had been targeting for months just finished, and the winners are being called on to the podium. The names are called out while I clap half heartedly, seeing the very same guys that I raced against for 3 hours take their places on the podium. I had finished less than a few meters behind them, but that’s all it is that differentiates the winners from the rest. I was a mere spectator as they celebrated the podium. The if’s and but’s of the finish, and how I could have beaten them had I timed my sprint better kept playing in my mind, while the longing to be up there on the podium probably showed in my eyes. It was a tough race with a respectable result for my first attempt at the Road Cycling National Championships, but I wasn’t happy.

Fast Forward 9 months. I arrived at Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh for my second shot at the National Championships. Training in Belgium has equipped me with a race trained mind; a determined heart and what I think are stronger legs. My aim was to be on the podium this year.

Aligarh welcomed us with friendly, noisy locals who were star eyed at seeing so many race bikes in their small town. The whole place turned into a cycling festival. The school children, milkmen, newspaper delivery guys and even old men on cycles got a huge kick out of overtaking me while I carefully tried to pick the smoother lines on the road while I was out grocery shopping/ shifting rooms/ whatever. The cars and bikes got their kicks out of being noisy A-holes. I’m not even kidding, they honk more often than they brake. And that is saying something, considering that the traffic is really bad with narrow, bumpy roads and sub-zero levels of road sense.

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Me trying to force a break with the peloton looming behind us in the smog.

Aligarh also had some insanely high levels of smog. So much so that the photographers at the event [read: “Sports Anonymous”; you can find their work on facebook and instagram] got some really good pictures while cyclists sped out towards them with a foggy [read: smoggy] background. The air was bad, some say even worse than Delhi. That’s not a good thing for a highly aerobic sport like the one I’m into.

What was even worse than the smog though, were the bananas. If there’s such a thing as a banana maniac, then I’m sure to be well placed on that list. I believe that bananas are enough proof of the fact if there is a God up there, he still loves us at least a teensy little bit. Not the Aligarh bananas though. God probably dislikes those buggers. The bananas were unappetizing, and always either too raw or too ripe.

 

8th November, 2016.
It’s Race Day.

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At the start line

It’s 8:00am and we’re all lined up and ready. The CFI Officials give us the regular “Safe chalao, keep to the left side of the road, cheating mat karo and good luck” and start the proceedings for the day. The route was simple; a 10 kilometer stretch of highway was blocked out from traffic very expertly with more than adequate support from the U.P Police department and we did laps up and down it. So every lap was 20km long. Our race would last 6 laps, or 120km.

The race started off at a decent speed; we did around 42kmph for the first 45 minutes. A relatively quick start like this one does 2 things in a race.
Firstly, it eliminates all the guys who never had a shot at doing anything meaningful in the race anyway. So it reduces the size of the bunch to just the important guys in the race, which in this case meant close to 30 riders.
Secondly, and more importantly for me, it gives me time to analyse the competition. I was up against 3 big teams. Rajasthan, Karnataka and Haryana all had 5-6 guys each on their respective teams. Donning their usual yellow jerseys, Rajasthan came into the race all guns blazing. One of their riders, Dinesh, had earlier won the Individual Time Trial Gold Medal. I was vary of the fact that such riders have good chances in highly tactical races such as this one. Karnataka, in their neat white jerseys with the state border outlined on the back also seemed like a strong team. They were the dominant force at Kerala Nationals, and I knew that I had to keep a close watch on them. Team Haryana was sitting at the back of the bunch. Their shiny new red and white jerseys stood out quite prominently. I didn’t know what to make of them yet, but I knew that they were quite comfortable at the back. Apart from these 3 teams, there were two strong guys from Delhi, and the one odd rider from other states.

I didn’t have a team to support me, but I had 4 friends in this race. Aman Punjani is an 18 year old strong lad from Telangana who assured me that he would be of service to me in the race if required. Sarvesh Sangarya is Bangalore’s well known star boy. He was looking for victory, so I couldn’t expect any help from him. Rajneesh Mishra, a 20 year old Bihari friend of mine pledged allegiance with me before the start of the race. We both knew we wouldn’t have the comfort of a team in the race, so we decided to help each other out if necessary. Monty Choudhary is one of the 2 Delhi boys in the race. He also is a good friend, but only when we’re not racing. We’re competitors when we get to the start line.
So all in all, I had the support of about one and a half people. Full support from Aman, and a mutual understanding with Rajneesh.

There was a lone breakaway in the beginning of the race, which was part of the reason why we started off reasonably fast. The rider who got away, and stayed away for about a whole lap, didn’t bother anyone in the bunch though. We always knew he was going to be pulled back in. It was only after the first two laps that the real moves started being made. Rajasthan and Karnataka kept sending their riders up to force a break. My plan for the race was simple. Close down any attacks quickly, and if there is a break with both Rajasthan and Karnataka, BE IN THAT BREAK.

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Bridging gaps during the course of the race

Twice, it so happened that there were breaks attempted with guys from both these teams. Both times I dug deep and bridged to them, helping take turns in front as well so as to put some distance between us and the bunch. But both times, we were slowed down by one person who wasn’t willing to work as much as us, and the bunch caught back up.

I had two bottles with me. One with plain water and one with electrolyte. Come the 4th lap, I had an eye out for a team official who could feed me a bottle of water. I could always go to the back of the peloton and ask the CFI officials for a bottle, but I wasn’t willing to take that risk. The front of the pack was too unstable, and I needed to be right up there to track all moves made by the big teams. They were keeping a close eye on me, and I needed to do the same. I was afraid that if I moved back in the bunch, the big teams would open up a small break and slow the rest of us down. Nobody would be willing to work with me to reel in any breakaway. So I decided not to fret too much about a 3rd bottle of water, with the hope that I would find someone at the side of the road to give me a bottle.

The 4th lap was also the one when Rajasthan sent a lone breakaway up the road. Their man was time trialling fiercely around 500 metres ahead of the bunch before I realized that I would have to start working to get him back. I took a long, fast turn in the lead and brought the bunch up to around 45kmph. Then I swung out left to get the next guy in line to do some work. And what do I see? There’s a Rajasthani who swiftly slows the pace down, putting to waste whatever little effort I made. Of course he was going to slow us down, and the Karnataka rider in line behind him just didn’t seem to get it into his head that he should be taking a turn in front after I do, irrespective of whether or not there’s a Rajasthani ahead of him. It took a painfully long time for me to realize that the Karnataka guys were burnt out. They didn’t like the fact that there was a lone break up the road, but their domestiques didn’t have the legs to do much about it. For the next 6 kilometers I kept trying to bring a chase group together, but it just didn’t work. Nobody seemed as worried about the break as I was. And I knew that if this solo rider was allowed to widen the gap any more, there was no catching him; not with the Rajasthani team slowing things down so professionally.

Time to make a big call in the race. I looked back and called out to my mate Rajneesh. My first choice would’ve been Aman, but Aman had already come up to me in the 3rd lap with a grimace on his face. He told me he was having a rough race and wouldn’t be of much assistance. He spent the rest of the race latching on to the back of the pack. So Rajneesh came up to me. At first he didn’t understand why I was so hell bent on being the one doing all the work to reel back the breakaway. Then I explained it to him. He understood, and I thanked god. I gave him a push to give him a burst of speed, and working together we came within 50 metres of the breakaway. That’s when one of the Rajasthani’s in the bunch sounded a wolfwhistle and signaled to his friend in the break to come back into the pack. Admirable camaraderie. Relieved, I finally got a chance to blow out a snot rocket and wipe some sweat off my forehead.

Pro tip: Snot is your enemy, sweat is an ally.

Soon enough, we were into the 6th and final lap. The speed was not high. The bunch was relatively big. I stayed out close to the front as I wanted to personally make sure no such breakaway goes again. I was expecting a bunch sprint at the end. I didn’t want one though, I wanted a break. So when a Haryanvi made a sudden jump with 8km to go, I didn’t need to think twice. I caught up to him with a 10 second sprint, and we pulled hard for about a minute. That’s when I realized that the bunch had been distanced by a bit. 8km to go, and I’m in a break with someone who’s willing and strong enough to work! This is EXACTLY what I wanted!

I had never noticed this guy anywhere in this race until now. I didn’t know him from before either. But he seemed like a strong, sensible guy. We took equal turns in front, and maintained about 43kmph in the headwind section. Then we hit the U-turn. The bunch was less than 20 seconds behind us, with people making attempts to bridge the gap. We had to make our break stick, it was now or never. 5km to go, with the wind slightly favouring us now. We maintained a speed of 45kmph, and within 2km, the bunch was nowhere to be seen behind us. It could have been partly because of the smoggy atmosphere, but that gave me a huge confidence boost. We didn’t stop pedaling hard though. Keeping our feet on the gas, we maintained the high speed until we were about 800 meters from the finish. That’s when it first hit me.

As I pulled out to the right to let Mr.Haryana take his turn in front, my left thigh cramped while I got into his slipstream. I grimaced, but made sure not to make any sound, for I didn’t want him to hear anything. He took a short turn in front, and then I did the same. As soon as I pulled out of my turn though, he attacked. We still had about 350 meters to the line. He went too soon. I knew I could beat him in such a situation.

I immediately got off my seat to sprint back into his slipstream, and then sprint past him closer to the line, and that’s when the killer blow struck. My left thigh cramped real bad, and I had to sit back down on my seat. He had opened up a 10 meter gap by then. Still sitting, I pulled really hard to bridge that gap. I got achingly close to him, and was getting closer by the second. But I ran out of road by then, as he crossed the finish line about 3 bike lengths ahead of me. It was over, I came out second best.

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At the finish line

His name is Saurav, and he seems to be a friendly guy. We exchanged pleasantries after the finish, and he gave me his bottle of water which I promptly finished without a second thought. As much as I hate playing the tale of ifs and buts, I have to but wonder whether I would’ve cramped if I had enough water. That’s probably where I lost the race. A 120km ride usually requires 4 bottles of water, and I had just the 2 in this race.
Lesson learnt: Make your own arrangements for feeding and be very meticulous about it.

 

The Telangana Squad was extremely happy at the fact that I had won a medal. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.

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Post races smiles and.. am I smiling?

Me? It sucks to have missed out on the gold. But truth be told, if someone had come up to me before the race and told me that I would be winning silver, I probably would have taken it. And that’s where I need to improve. I think aiming for the podium was a stupid move. I should have aimed for gold.

 

As for the others, Sarvesh punctured in the second lap and couldn’t catch up with the bunch after. Rajneesh (Bihar) and Monty (Delhi) probably finished within the top 15. Aman, on the other hand saved up for a strong finish, winning the 5th position.

 

—X—

Race day#7 – the Sinaai Kermesse

While in Belgium, our training schedule is given to us by NJ (Naveen John). The training is divided into blocks, with weekly targets to be achieved. One of the targets I needed to reach for this week was 20 hours of time on the bike. 20 hours over 6 days, that averages over 3 hours a day. If you catch yourself thinking on similar lines as I did – “Hmm, 3 hours a day, not too difficult”; then let me give you some more stats to base your judgement upon. Over the course of a 3 hour ride, we cover nothing less than 90 kilometres. So a 20 hour week would mean above 600 kilometres on the bike in the week. All you non-cyclists out there might now be thinking “Woah that’s quite a lot”. But know this, all the cyclists out there who are reading this should also be thinking the same. Because 20 hours a week didn’t sound like a tough target to me until I was 3 days into the week. I needed to cover 12.5 hours over the next 3 days, including the race which I was going for on the final day.

I had two options on how to work towards the target–

  • I could do bulk workouts on Thursday and Friday, catch up on the required numbers and then go into the race on Saturday. But this would mean going into the race with tired legs, and that is something you would never want to do, especially in Belgium.
  • Do a 5 hour ride on Thursday, 3 hours early in on Friday, and then recover well for the rest of the day before going to race. Going according to this plan was a slight risk, because you can never say how long you’re going to last in a race out here. To reach my target, it was essential that I spend a lot of time in the race.
    Going to the race with strong legs was of utmost importance though, and I opted for plan 2.

Saturday, 23rd July, 2016.

I’m trying to keep race day mornings similar to each other, to ensure minimal confusion on race days. I eat breakfast, wash my bike, have a bath and then eat my pre race meal/ lunch. Like most bike racers out there, I’m a little OCD when it comes to bike maintenance, which is why bike washing always takes more time than expected. I always notice dirt/ grease in new nooks and corners and end up spending way too much time cleaning them. Apart from that, taking the grease off the chain and cleaning my gear shifters, wheels and frame takes no less than 45 minutes for me.

So after a long morning of obsessive compulsive bike washing, I suddenly realised that I’m running out of time. A bath and bowl of oats were squeezed into the next 15 minutes and I’m ready to leave for the race by 1pm. Only Arvind Panwar and I were racing today, so we set off to find the race. It was 30km away from our farm, and we took exactly an hour to find the start point. Yes, in case you were wondering, that one hour is included in my weekly target.

The race starts only at 3 pm, so we have an hour’s time to settle down. We have some fruit, keep ourselves hydrated and pay the race fees to collect our bib numbers. My previous experiences taught me that an average race here would have anywhere between 50-80 riders. For this race, however, we got bib numbers 113 and 114. And there were more people in line after us, an unusually large turnout today! After pinning on our numbers, we headed out to warm up. We did two lengths of the home straight, which was the longest straight section that I have seen in all my races over here. Not being able to see any of the corners of the race course, we headed to the start line with little knowledge about the course. Boy, were we in for a surprise!

The race started at 3pm sharp, as usual. The bunch accelerated to speeds over 55kmph right from the start, as usual. Despite the unusually long straight stretch of road, we hit the first corner of the race in no time (as usual). This is where we received our first shock. From around 55kmph, the bunch slowed down almost to a complete dead stop to take the turn. Confused, it took me a while to reach the corner after the guys in front of me were able to negate their way ahead. The right turn led us to a heavily cobbled road, with a thin bike path on its right. The bike path, unlike the main road, was a paved one. So obviously, all the riders preferred to take it instead of the deadly cobbles. This caused the biggest bottleneck I’ve ever seen in a cycle race! Once we managed to get on the bike path, everyone was making a full sprint to stay in touch with the guys in front of them. Effectively within one corner, a bunch of cyclists who were using the full width of the road thinned down to one long line of guys desperately trying to stay in touch with the wheels ahead of them. Some of the riders missed the bike path, and went onto the cobbles. Included among those was my teammate, Arvind. He was a few bike lengths ahead of me before the turn, and it was disheartening to see him struggle on the cobbles while the rest of us sped past him. This section of the road went on for a little over a kilometre, and by the time we reached our next right turn, I was pretty sure that Arvind would have a tough time working his way back up in the bunch.

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The bottleneck at the first right turn. How comfortable does the bike path look compared to the cobbles?

The race then took us into a deserted looking town. We took another right turn in that town and before we knew it we hit another section of cobbles. This time though, there was no bike path beside it, and we all needed to man it out while our entire bodies started vibrating. There was a relatively chubby guy ahead of me and I must admit, it was a treat to watch his buttcheeks vibrate along with the muscle on his arms. It was more than a kilometre into the cobbles, including a sharp right turn, before we hit the smooth paved road again. I apologised profusely to my bike for the beating that it had taken, and was going to take for the rest of this race. We had fourteen laps to complete. And those cobbles on every lap of the race meant that my bike was in for a tough time.

Three laps into the race, there was a sudden screeching of brakes ahead of me, accompanied by riders swerving right and left. I was forced to do the same, as I swerved left while my rear wheel skidded on the concrete road. A rider had hit the ground, probably from getting entangled with the wheel ahead of his. He went down hard, and at quite a high speed, which is why it was surprising to see all the other riders managing to avoid going into him. I consider myself to be a skilful bike handler, but the guys here are just as good as me, if not better! Every single rider avoided crashing, and what could have been a big, messy pile-up of bikes and athletes turned into a test of our reflexes- one that we all passed with flying colours. The guy next to me says “That’s not the last of them for sure” and I smile politely. I’m usually not afraid of crashing, but on the cobbles? Hell yea I am. “Usspe girenge toh cycle chod, chattees haddiya alag tootenge” (If you crash on the cobbles, apart from your cycle you’ll break at least 36 bones in your body)

The very same lap, we hit the cobbled section and the vibrations my cycle was taking took its first toll on my race – one of my water bottles fell off the bike. We had no support crew for this race to hand us extra water, so I was carrying 3 bottles with me, hoping that they would suffice for the duration of the race. The bottle of water that I lost was untouched till then, filled to the brim. 3 bottles became 2.

It was soon after that when I noticed that someone moved past me in the same jersey as I was wearing. Arvind Panwar! Our national champ made a show of strength to get back into the bunch and start moving forward. I forgot to mention this to him after the race, but I was truly impressed to see him back in the race and doing well. The pretty girls who come to watch these races sure do have a positive effect on his desire to do well out here.

The race went on, and I was doing well. I learnt how to tackle the cobbles better and was moving forward in the race every time we hit that section. We were averaging a whopping 45kmph, but surprisingly I felt strong and stayed in the bunch, never really moving backwards. It was in the 6th lap of the race when my hands started to hurt while riding over the cobbles. Blisters. Painful ones, at that. So much for feeling like a natural rider of the cobbles!

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That blister though.”Who asked you to ride without gloves?”

The very next lap, Arvind comes up next to me and says “ab 7-8 lap hi bache hue hai, aaj race poori karni hai” Only then do I realise that I’m actually in this race with a true chance of finishing! I don’t get too excited though, and decide to take the race lap by lap. And very promptly, the cobbles took toll #2 on my race. I lost my third bottle, which had electrolyte in it. It was still half full, and I very clearly remember the moment when I saw it fall out. If you watched it in slow motion, my facial expressions would make a perfect video for “aaj jaane ki zidd naa karo”. I’m left with just half a bottle of water for the rest of the race. I use it very sparingly, only to wet my mouth when required.

The race doesn’t lose speed, and soon we have just 2 laps left. I stay focussed because I know that this is when attacks fly off the front of the bunch. This is the easiest time to get dropped from the race, and also the worst. My intuition is spot on, and attacks start flying left right and centre. I struggle to keep up, using every watt of power that my legs can produce. It took everything I had to stick to the front group of the peloton, while people were getting dropped off the back. But I managed to stay with them! Long story short, I stayed with the bunch till the end, and finished the race. What a success! Through the pain and fatigue, I’m unable to control a smile that spreads ear to ear. My goal in Belgium was to be able to finish a race, and here I am within my first month with my first finish!

Our race stats were as follows:
112km @ 44.9kmph.
Time elapsed- 2 hours and 31 minutes. This, along with the 2 hours of commute to and from the race made sure that I reach my weekly target!
Position – 78th out of 127 riders. Arvind finished ahead of me, in 65th place.

A celebration has been earned! We headed to Paris to watch the final stage of the Tour de France the very next day. Here are some of our pictures from there 🙂

Race day #5

18th July 2016

It’s 9:30pm and we Indians are having dinner when a big man in a white shirt walks in with a pack of marlboro’s well balanced on top of his chest pocket. In the limited English that he speaks, he manages to convey his message to us. “Tomorrow we leave at 12:20. Be ready, lots of money to be won at race” he says while rubbing his fingers to show us how good that money is going to feel in our hands. Only now, while writing this do I realise that his English is not the problem, it’s his accent. Boy do we have a tough time communicating with Staf Boone! Staf is the man who runs the cycling team that we are guest riding for. He had arranged for transport for tomorrow’s race, which is 40km from our home.

19th July 2016

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Few of the guys we’re staying with at the farm.

The farm we stay at has a lot of people now. There’s Michael and Naglis who are permanent residents of the house, but they operate without getting in anyone’s way when it comes to cooking and washing clothes, so they are cool. Other than them, there’s a South African, an American couple, an American single, a Ukrainian and us three Indians. Word has it that we might be joined by an Englishman soon. Everyone at the house secretly wishes it’s not true. We have enough people already!

Today morning involved an elaborate bike cleaning session followed by a hurried meal with lots of people cooking up their pre-race foods. I had a bowl of oats with kidney beans, bananas and honey. Kidney beans, haha, I’ve become angrez already! Ok I’m just showing off, I meant to say rajma only. Oats have become my favourite pre-race meal. Healthy, easy to eat, easy to cook and easy to digest as well! Not too heavy on the stomach, but not too light either. Just perfect.

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Aaaand yes, it’s a Mercedes!

We all then packed our bikes on to the cars and headed towards Brugge- the city by the beach. Makarand and I were travelling with Willy in his Nissan van. Willy is one of Staf’s friends and he doesn’t speak a word of English. But we didn’t need to communicate much to figure out that he’s one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve met out here. When we stopped to fill gas, he asked me if I wanted a cola. I usually politely accept (yes, accept) such offers, but not before a race. I politely declined. He went on to get himself and Makarand a Coke each, and me a bottle of water. The sun was scorching at this time, and I genuinely appreciated his thoughtfulness.

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Travelling in Willy’s Van! Couldn’t get him in the frame though. So sorry, Willy.

We arrived well in time for the race. Got our numbers and got on our bikes for a little warm up round. The race course was a beauty. I immediately realised that it’s going to be a fun race. There were nice long stretches of straight road followed by some graceful corners. No tight turns for a change, which meant there would be less sprinting out of corners. A second turn took us onto a winding country road with farms on either side. This road led back to the start point, which was in the market area of the small town. About 7km to the lap, 16 laps total.

My previous three races were painfully depressing. I was unable to break the 30 minute barrier, and got pulled out of all them way too soon. For this race, I shook things up a little in training. Did some different intervals and also started riding in bigger gears, pushing harder on the pedals than I regularly do. Going into this race, I decided to work with baby steps toward the ultimate goal of finishing a race. I set myself a 40 minute target, hoping to break the 30 minute jinx.

Pre-race start was an intimidating time. Someone was talking about this race having quite a few big name riders, and I hate hearing stuff like that. I saw a few guys with thighs twice as big as mine. I saw a BMC team car. I saw a professional looking cycling team bus with loads of shiny frames and deep section wheels in it. I then saw a girl on a city commute bike and asked myself why I don’t compete against people like her instead. Shake of the head and off to the start line- time for the suffer fest!

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At the start line.

 

The race began just as I expected. Attacks flew off the front right at the beginning and we saw a high pace immediately. We hit the long straight road and the bunch was travelling at 55 k’s an hour. I usually end such sentences with exclamation marks, but I’m so used to that speed already that it doesn’t get more than a full stop now. We proceeded to take the first corner, and then the next to hit the country roads. Suddenly I begin to feel like I’m able to keep pace with the group without much problem. I take a look at my speedometer and see that we are travelling at 44kmph. “The guys in the lead seem to be chilling for a bit, brace yourself for the upcoming speed storm” I think to myself. I quickly had a sip of water and braced myself. I was, of course, right about the speed storm. Good that I was prepared for it!

People who finish races in Belgium eat about 4-5 energy gels per race, accompanied by 3-4 bottles of water/electrolyte. While pinning my number on for this race I realised that I forgot to bring my energy gels, and have only one in my bag right now. With a pinch of salt, I decide to just head for the race and see how it goes. At the start line, in the midst of all that intimidation, I forgot to have that one gel as well. It was in the middle of the second lap that I remembered about it and took it out of my back pocket. It usually tastes real good, but in a fast paced race, your tongue doesn’t really work that well. So I gulped it down with a sip of water and carried on.

In the middle of the third lap I take a look to see how much time has passed since we started racing. 24 minutes. “Okay, keep at it, you’re feeling strong today, you will last 40 minutes for sure”. 24 turned into 34 and then at my next look I was already at the 50 minute mark. Wow, this is my best race so far, and I’m not done yet!

There was a main breakaway with 9 guys which was about a minute ahead of our peloton. Some guys then tried to chase them, which led to a group of 7 of us being distanced by around 60-70 metres. Among these 7 were two of my teammates- Sam, arguably the strongest rider who stays at the farm with us, and Arvind (Indian National Champion, in case you forgot). The other four were doing no work at all to bridge the gap to the peloton, and it was left to us to get back within reach of them. This is the point in the race where I redeemed myself in my own eyes. I did a huge portion of the pulling in order to get back to the bunch, which we then managed to do successfully.

The race went on and we kept doing lap after lap. My speedometer was showing an average speed above 44kmph. It was also showing the time. Crossed the one and a half hours and was still carrying on! It was 1 hour and 45 minutes into the race when I finally got dropped. I was riding behind the wheel of a guy who had a shiny orange Giant Propel (one of the top bikes an amateur can lay his hands on). There was a sudden increase in pace up ahead, and people from behind me started sprinting past while this guy on the propel wasn’t able to up the speed. A sudden glance behind and I realise that there was no one else behind me. The guys who sprinted past are already about 20 metres ahead by now. It’s now or never, I got off my saddle and made a sprint to catch up to them. 6 pedal strokes later my legs are in absolute agony, screaming for relief. I’m still not close enough to the bunch to make contact. I get back on to my saddle and try to pull as hard as I can to make that all important contact and then bask in the benefit of their slipstream. But I was travelling backwards by then. There was no way I was catching up to those guys. My race ended there. A tough one, but a very fulfilling one. I’ve finally seen some good form and more importantly- made progress. Look forward to the next race now!

Race day #1 in Belgium: The Knesselare Kermis!

A race day for me has always meant a 5am alarm followed by morning chores, warm up and then race. In preparation for my visit to Belgium, I expected more of the same; just on a much more regular basis. Little did I know that bike racing over here is completely different from what we have at home. Before I get into those details though, there is somebody who I need to introduce to you.

Naveen John (or NJ, for short) is an Indian cyclist who began riding back when he was at college in the United States. Being the 2015 Indian National champion, 2016 has seen him sign for an Australian UCI Continental cycling team. This makes him the first Indian to become an international professional cyclist. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that him and his team will be competing against the very top athletes in the world of cycling.

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NJ looking all stud-ly

NJ also happens to be the person who put this Belgium training program together for us. From getting in touch with the team who accommodate us, to bringing the group of four riders together, helping us out with our Visa’s and flight tickets and also advising us on how to train for the races over here, he has been instrumental in each step. He has worked tirelessly to make this trip happen, despite having training goals of his own for his travel to Australia to be with his new team. Why is he doing this? Because he has taken it upon himself to lift the standard of Indian Cycling. How often is it that you find such a noble person? Not very. If this was a speech I was giving on stage and not a blog post, this would be the part where I say “Can we get a round of applause for NJ?” and you start clapping to show your appreciation for his hard work and dedication. But it’s not, so allow me to write on.

NJ and two of his teammates had come to Belgium last year for training and racing; just as we have this year. So he knows more about this place and the races over here than any of us do. We had a call with him on Sunday, 3rd July, where he spoke to us about the races over here and what sort of attitude we should take to our first race. It was during this conversation that he told us that we should be able to last about 30-60 minutes (out of the 150 minutes that it usually takes to finish a 100km race) in our first race, before we get dropped and pulled out of the race. I controlled the urge to tell him that I felt we would last much longer than that, maybe even finish the race with the main bunch.

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The ‘view’ from my room at 9:40pm

Anyhow, back to the main story- race day in Belgium. It’s nothing like the ones in India. For starters, races happen only after 3pm over here. That’s when the weather is most suitable for racing. Our first race was happening at a place called Knesselare, and would start at 6:30pm. Yes, 6:30PM. The sun is out from 5:30am till 10:30pm over here, which gives us 17 hours of sunlight per day; ample time to finish our race and get back home before sundown.

Tuesday, 5th July, 2016.

Race day began with a relatively late morning. After a breakfast and bike cleaning session, we had an easy morning followed by lunch and a trip to the supermarket to buy supplies for the house. Knesselare is 24 kilometers away from where we stay, and we were riding to the start point. So we left at 4:45pm and reached at 5:30pm. Perfect time to get set for the race.

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The KingsNorth International Wheelers guest riders. From Australia, India and South Africa.

Every race has a local bar/ restaurant/ club where all the pre-race formalities take place. Knesselare has a small pub where we had to pay our race fees to get our bib numbers. Walking into the pub, we find a lively atmosphere with quite a few people enjoying beer and wine. These people were limbering up to spectate the race. Walking toward the far end of the bar to the registration counter included some friendly smiles and greetings with a few ‘good luck’ wishes. Pepped up by the race-friendly atmosphere, we pin our numbers on to our jerseys and head out on our bikes to keep the body nice and warmed up.

 

For those of you who read my previous post, you already know how punctual the Belgians are. Our race started at 6:30pm to the dot. The route was an 8.67km lap with some sharp turns, fast straight roads and two sections with strong crosswinds. The roads are not very wide, with many sections being just a single lane with fields on either side. The race is well protected from traffic by police officials and volunteers who make sure that no external stimulus harms the proceedings for the day.

Within a minute of the start, the bunch was already hitting speeds of 45kmph. I gladly sat pretty behind a few riders and just matched their speeds. Very soon in the race, we hit our first right angle turn. Now with a pack of about 100 riders, not everyone can sail through the turn. The guys who are right in front of the pack never use their brakes, and just fly by every turn that comes their way. The ones who are sitting in the bunch however, need to brake in order to accommodate the numerous riders trying to take the turn together. This means that the people in the lead get an advantage while going into turns, and the rest of us need to make a sprint to catch up to them. This happened for all four right angle turns on the course, every lap.

Another major difference in the racing over here versus the racing back at home is- The speed never goes down over here. Riders are pedalling as hard as they can throughout the course of the race. After our first right angle turn, we hit a straight road where the bunch started travelling at 53kmph. Then we hit another turn, which meant slowing down to about 25kmph to take it without flying off the road, and then accelerating out of the turn to another 45-50kmph. To say I was shocked to see such high speeds would be an understatement. But I was prepared for it, as I heard one too many people speak of the racing over here. So I kept going, matching the riders for speed, accelerating out of corners and trying to move forward in the huge bunch. Before I even knew it, we finished one lap of the race.

The speed, as expected, didn’t slow down even for a bit. The second lap, if anything, was even faster. The riders got used to the turns, straights and crosswinds, and could tackle them so much better already. I took a glance at my speedometer to see that we were averaging 45kmph. It didn’t strike me then, but that is the speed that the riders average in similar conditions on stages of the Tour de France and other major professional races. 45kmph, despite all the sharp turns, braking and sudden accelerations! I’ve never been in a race this fast, and in the adrenaline and heat of the moment I found myself smiling in the middle of the race.

My legs were fresh from one week of easy riding and resting during the travel to Belgium, so I felt good and motivated to keep moving forward. By this time, we finished our second lap and were well into our third. I was behind the wheel of one of my teammates who was pedalling hard to move up in the bunch, so I went up with him, pedalling just as hard as he was. A few minutes later after another right angle, we arrived at the crosswind section, where a rider went past me from my right. So I grimace a little while putting out a little more power to keep up to him. Before I realise it, another rider passes me, and then another. All this while I’m still trying hard to keep up with these guys, but it felt like I was travelling backwards! I look behind me and see that there are only about five riders there.

Have you ever had a puncture? A major puncture? Have you ever noticed how fast the air goes out of the tire? That’s exactly what the next one minute felt like for me. All the power I had just drained out within that minute. Despite my frantic efforts at trying to keep up, the five guys behind me also moved up and left me and another rider a few meters behind them. I looked at the pain on his face and realised that my face probably looked exactly like that. I looked up to see the bunch had gotten a few more meters ahead of me, and that’s when I understood that I won’t be able to catch up with them. I took a look at my speedometer and saw the following readings:
Average Speed- 44.6kmph
Distance- 22.3km
Current Heart Rate- 193bpm
Time elapsed- 30 minutes. 30 MINUTES! As much as I hate to admit it, I thought NJ was under-estimating our abilities. But he had us spot on. Touché.

Along with the other rider who got dropped, I pedalled hard through the rest of the course till the end of the lap, where one of the race officials called us out and told us that our race was over. He even apologised when he saw my smiling yet dejected face. You’re not allowed to carry on in a race if you get dropped. Either you’re in the main bunch, or you’re out. I got out on the third lap, and that sets the benchmark for me to work on improving in future races.

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Arvind Panwar enjoying watching the fast pace of the race after we got pulled out.

My teammate (and current National Champion) Arvind Panwar lasted another lap, and got dropped at around the forty minute mark. Us Indians sure as hell have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to International cycling. That’s what our journey to this bike racing crazy nation is all about, and these two months are going to raise our fitness levels much more than any amount of racing in India would do for us.

So that’s what racing in Belgium feels like. I’m sure that my stay over here will make sure that I emerge as a stronger, more knowledgeable rider. I’m looking forward to my next race already. 🙂

 

P.S- If any of the technical aspects of bike racing went over your head, feel free to ask questions. I’ll be more than happy to clear any doubts and spread a little cycling knowledge.

Welcome to Belgium

A little backstory- With one week to go for my Belgium trip, there was a slight hiccup in my planning. I had a broken front shifter (brake/gear changer) on my bike and needed a replacement. It was available in India, but would cost me Rs.11,000. So I looked it up online and realised that I can change both shifters on my bike for the same cost. Considering the fact that my rear shifter was in terrible shape as well, I opted for the latter. Only problem- I would have to ship the new shifters to Belgium, since it wouldn’t arrive in India before my travel date.

30th June, 2016.

So we arrive at the farm in Ghent, Belgium and the first thing I look for is my parcel. Arvind Panwar (my teammate from India who also happens to be the present National Champion) had also ordered for some bike spares off the same website, and we both were expecting the stuff to be at the farm by the time we reach. After some asking around, only in the evening did we get to know that the parcels couldn’t be delivered without our authorisation, so they are sitting pretty at the local press shop. We rush across to the shop to pick it up, but we’re 15 minutes late. The shop (and pretty much every other place here) closes at 6pm sharp. The people over here are punctual to the minute. I get the feeling they wouldn’t work a few extra seconds even if a promotion depended on it. Truth be told, that’s a quality I appreciate. Only times I don’t approve of it are when it gets in the way of me completing my work. Which is exactly what happened the next day.

1st July, 2016.

Our schedule for the next day included-

1-      Getting our parcel from the press shop (check)

2-      Fitting our bikes with the new parts (umm.. this took a while)

Fitting the shifters on both our bikes, mine as well as Arvind bhaiya’s, required two tools that we weren’t carrying. So after a long morning of cooking, eating, bike fitting, more cooking and more eating, we realised that we need to hit a bike shop to get things sorted out. The nearest one to us is called Plum (and pronounced as ‘Ploom’) so we decide to head over there. Now if you’re wondering how we got there when our shifters weren’t fitted in, then that’s exactly how we got there- with our shifters not fitted in! I had to ride my bike 5km into the city without brakes and gears. Every time I needed to stop, I had to jump off my bike. Luckily, I was brought up in India, which instilled adequate skill in me to do so. Jumping off running buses and travelling to school on a bike with hardly any brakes on it sure has its plus side.

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Riding around Ghent with no brakes/ gears.

We rode into one of the towns few market areas to find our bike shop. And by jolly it’s a beautiful one! The entrance to the store is a green carpet walk for about 30 metres with vintage bikes, accessories and photo frames up on display on either side of us. The store itself is probably bigger in size than the function hall where you attended your third cousin’s marriage. It’s got everything you need, including an attendant who used to work for BMC Racing, and has serviced bikes ridden by guys like Greg Van Avermaet and Teejay Van Garderen. All in all, it’s a beauty and anyone who’s even remotely into cycles could spend a whole evening there and still not go through all the stuff they’ve got.

But our focus was on getting our bikes fixed quickly, since it was already evening and we had no idea about what time these guys shut shop. So our star struck eyes guided us on the route through the store to the bike service area, which is right at the end of the store, and is as big as a tennis court. We knock on the door and explain our problem to the technician. It’s an easy fix for him; he should be able to set our bikes up within a twenty minutes. But he looks at us with a poker face and says sorry. He won’t be able to fit our bikes today, because the store closes in fifteen minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES! I put on my usual puppy face to say “please, we really need our bikes up and running for tomorrow” which always works in India, but it had no effect on this guy. I try “It can be done in 20 minutes if we hurry” but no luck. I accept defeat, as I know that I’m dealing with a different breed of people- people who are adherent to time. People who I’ve had no experience of working with back in India because of “haan paanch minute mein pahunch gaya” being as commonplace as it is.

Out of luck at Plum (Ploom); we soon learn that there’s a Decathlon somewhere around the place and it shuts at 7:30pm. It’s 6:45 already so we rush. After a little trouble finding the place, we get there. Walk in and rush straight to the bike service station. Quickly explain our issue, and not so surprisingly the guy gives us a poker face with the exact same answer. “I’m sorry, we close in fifteen minutes and we can’t fix your cycles today.” Facepalm.

Resigned to the fact that our bikes can be fixed only tomorrow, we use those 15 minutes to scan the store. If you thought Decathlon India has big stores, think again. The one out here has a ground floor that’s as big as the stores we have at home. And it has a first floor on top of it too. This makes it twice as big as the stores in India. And twice as big means twice as cool! The range of stuff you can buy over here isn’t limited to only decathlon products. It’s got brands like Shimano, Nike, Asics and many more. 15 minutes is not enough to scan even one aisle of my favourite section- the cycling one. We’re coming back tomorrow for sure! 🙂