300km brevet: Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai.
I am often asked by my curious non-cyclist friends as to what is this Randonneuring? And why do I have suddenly taken a fancy to it? They ask me this question because I often give them the slip on Saturday nights.
Randonneuring is essentially an endurance ride with a time limit. You can call it a cycle marathon in a way. It is not a race, though it has some clever time constraints. It’s a beautiful sport because it tests not just your physical endurance but your mental strength too. More over, Randonneuring helps build camaraderie amongst riders – we love to co-operate and help other riders without taking out the spirit of being self sufficient. To an extent, I am willing to make a concession and call it a ‘gentleman’s race’ – courtesies first and always.
The 300 km brevet started from Gateway of India at 5 in the morning. I made a point to reach early to finish all the formalities in time. We were seven riders who had signed up for this grueling ride and all of us were part of Mumbai Randonneurs. The mercury has been soaring for last two weeks and has been regularly crossing 40 degrees Celsius in afternoons. All seven of us had accordingly made our minds for what lay ahead of us – 307 km, 20 hours of completion time, and extremely hot riding conditions. We bid good bye to Anil Uchil who would come later follow in the official car and Sunil Gandhi, a fellow cyclist.
So be it, Mihir and self were the first ones to cast off after doing the formalities of bike inspection by the organizers and collection of brevet cards. Mumbai’s otherwise obscenely busy roads were deserted at this hour and we sped off towards our first control point at Lonavala, some 106 km away.
Once out of the city, I felt relaxed. It always does. I was cruising on the highway at an affordable 25kmph. At this rate I would reach the base of Bhor Ghats under 4 hours. Once I reached Panvel there was an added sense of comfort because I have done this route to Khandala and back umpteen times and knew the route by the back of my hand. I found company in Vivek, as Mohinder Singh and Sateesh crossed me on the JNPT by pass.
Vivek and self chatted in general as we negotiated the gentle sloping road stretch till Khopoli. For a moment it appeared to me as if it was just one of those Sunday leisure rides to Khandala and back. We were enjoying the ride sans the stress.
We reached Khopoli at 0830 hours. I saw Mihir saddling up and leaving; I gave him a shout. We took a picture together by Shivaji statue. Mihir along with the rest left for Lonavala.
I needed a 15 min break as I had already clocked 88 km and the next 18 km would be a tough climb. After a quick tea I set off. Before climbing the tough Bhor ghats I always look up at the summit once – as a mark of reverence. It is an 1800 ft climb, roughly 50% of which is covered in just less than 4.5 km – a very steep gradient indeed.
The sun was still not a hot ball of fire and that made the climb a bit tolerable. I continued with my usual steady speed of 6 kmph. What amazes me in the ghats is the sense of stillness. An unusual quiet hangs all around. The only things you can hear are the crickets. Often a lovely butterfly, would flutter close to you, and then go back into the thickets. When you pass by the bushes the crickets screeching would rise in a crescendo and it dies to a low ‘murmur’ when you cross. It amuses me to no end. I think those crickets in the bushes are cheering me – “Look! Here comes another one”, “come on Jolly boy you can do it” … Just when I was thinking about these imaginary multi-legged cheerleaders, I actually heard some faint shouts. I look up. I can see the red swift car – the officals car and can see Anil cheering up at the top. It lifts my spirits. This Bhor ghat climb turns out to be special. It does affect my speed too – it jumps to a whooping 7.5 kmph. Anil was clapping and motivating each rider to give his best. As I reached closer I saw more cycling enthusiasts but most of them were waiting for the real Pros whose race had started much later.
After negotiating an awful traffic jam up on the expressway, I finally make it to Lonavala controlle at 1020 hours. Mihir was waiting for me and we take a longish break to see the group of 200 odd pro riders pass Lonavala at an astonishing average speed of 40kmph. Within no time they were gone. Seeing them ride at this break neck speed had left me with a question mark on my face, hanging like a neon sign. I guess everyone could read that. After a quick sumptuous light meal of idlis (steamed rice cakes) we decide to set for Pune another 60 odd km away.
I started around 15 min earlier as Mihir had to sort out some work. The gentle downhill till Kamshet was awesome. I touched speeds in 40s. I felt like a pro myself. But the ecstasy was short lived - Some left over pro riders came and over took me, actually they zipped past me. And as the gradient settled down to a flat and then a gentle ascend at Kamshet, One of the pro rider turned and egged me to follow him. I had a long face like a cow then – didn’t have the heart to say – No boss, you carry on I will do my usual 6kmph climb now. He waited for me for a while to catch up, then got frustrated and he sped away. Upset and annoyed, I gently banged my fist on the handle bar – God why can’t I climb like him, at 25 kmph speed? For those who don’t know God is a clever, quick-witted creature who can put to shame even the most expensive lawyer in the world. He promptly showed me a montage of my decadent lifestyle gone by in the past decade which I had conveniently forgotten about. Yeah, yeah I get it. Don’t rub it on me! I struggled as the sun kicked in its full glory. The heat was a major factor to be reckoned with now. I could hear my breath and my pulse and the screeching of crickets play some kind of an orchestra in tandem. It was kind of weird.
As the last of the pro riders crossed me, the conflict over speed and cruise, ebbed away. I was my usual self cruising at a glorious 23 kmph with sweat dripping all over my face. Now I had entered the most difficult period of the ride where soaring mercury would seriously hamper my forward movement. Though, I was mentally prepared for it but today the heat was a couple of points over the average. After a few kilometers the speed dropped further. Lines on my forehead furrowed a bit deeper. How do I beat the sun?
The answer is don’t think about it. Think about something else, something you yearn from your heart. Twenty years back, when I was the lowest pitiable form of marine life at Naval Academy, the weekend cross country would be the most dreaded event of the week. You have to run 10 km under 40 minutes to be termed acceptable. While running then, I used to think of home which I missed the most and that gave a succor from the painful shin splints.
Presently, I began to think about Ibizza. Thouight-us Interruptis. You can’t fantasize in this heat. Can you? I settled for a coral reef island in a distant French Polynesia (minus the women) and that worked. Presently, 5 km passed by.
Mihir catches up soon after. He looks fresh and peddles with the same vigorousness as he was at 5 in the morning. Unbelievable. We rode together for some distance sharing water and energy drinks. And then he drifts further ahead to only wait for me couple of kilometers down for a quick lemonade break.
By the time we negotiated the right turn on to Pnue-Bangalore road, the heat was cruel and everything seemed to be set ablaze. Mihir confided that the temperature is around 44-45 degrees Celsius. That stretch of 20 odd km till CCD which is the half way point is the most will-sapping stretch of road. It is straight, has no trees and shades, and seems unending. I call it the PSYCHO stretch.
We finally reach Pune CCD, a cafeteria at 1330. I rode for 2 hours 50 min from Lonavala to reach here while Mihir did it in just under 2 hours 30 min.
The cafeteria was a much needed break. I was hungry and thirsty like an animal in an arid land. While I gorged on the food, Anil also reached Pune and joined us. Vivek had an unfortunate fall and broke the rear derailleurs. We did the formalities and paperwork. Soon afterwards, all the riders come in and it becomes a little soiree. For a moment, I forgot we were in a BRM. That get together was a good relief from the Sun outside.
Mihir and self left CCD at around 14:45 and by the time we bought water bottles and other replenishments it was already 1500 hours. The heat is not worth describing after a certain stage because there is nothing merciful left in its character and Pune’s rocky terrain added to that savagery. By now the only thought that rummaged my mind was heat. I tried to dismiss it with my old tricks but they seemed woefully inadequate.
I experienced a dip in my speed as I tried to negotiate inclines and strong burning headwinds. Mihir was riding ahead. A couple of kilometers down, Mihir hailed me for a quick water stop. That was rejuvenating in its truest sense. Rehydrated, we saddled up again and set off for Lonavala. Mihir sped ahead and I didn’t see him after that.
On the way back, someone passed by on motorcycle and cheered me – It was Saby Rodrigues. He had come as a pilot for the Mumbai-Pune race. We exchanged pleasantries and then he went by. By the time I reached Kamshet ghats, riding was becoming difficult not because of the heat but the strong headwinds. From there till Lonavala is a gentle positive incline. I was averaging a measly 15 kmph.
At around 1730, barely 5km before Lonavala I met with an accident that left me injured. Village people helped me out of the pit and one of them was kind enough to see me through till Lonavala because I was so dazed. I had taken multiple blunt hits on my thighs and a major swelling on my left hand and a broken finger.
Reached Lonavala Controlle at 8 minutes past 6. I was still not ready to give up because I knew it was a mostly downhill and flats till the end. Anil got some ice packs which did provide some temporary relief.
Mihir and self wanted to get down the ghats before dark. We left at seven and I was thinking I would be able to do it. But the downhill brought out the real pain. Each bump, expansion gaps on the road sent an excruciating numbing pain. I was barely able to apply brakes and control my speed. Once we reached Khopoli where the flat terrain started, I told Mihir to carry on. With a heavy heart we parted company. I watched him go - his tail lights and helmet lights blinking ferociously in the moonless night as he disappeared around a curve. Soon, the trio of Mohinder Singh, Sateesh, and Joshua come speeding down hill and they too disappeared in the pitch dark night speeding on the home run towards the finish line in Mumbai.
A faint sound of Muezzin from a mosque nearby summoned the faithful for the last prayer. The twilight was long gone and a pitch dark night engulfed the sleepy town. I sat down at a decrepit tea stall. Some curious children gathered around me. They were fascinated by the sight of a road bike. They had many questions and I tried my best to satisfy their queries. Soon, Anil came and with Vivek’s help they loaded my bike on the racks. Shiva, revved up the car, as we drove towards our end point which was just 50 odd km away. I closed my eyes and reminisced the whole day in double quick time. It was one hell of a joy ride.