The Road to Paris Brest Paris - 2015
Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – (From ‘Vasudha’ – The Earth, ‘eva’: indeed is and ‘Kutumbukam’, family) is a Sanskrit phrase originating from ancient Indian texts, which means – ‘The world is one family’ – source: Vedic Scripture – Maha Upanishad. ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is used by organisations and leaders in their messages and mottos and most of the time we appreciate the words but to understand a message one needs to… experience it.
Sometimes it takes a grand setting a magnum opus a play at the world stage to be truly exposed to the depth and scale of a philosophy, a concept and a message – it took a Mahabharat for Arjun to understand the message of Gita.
It was 2007 and I was visiting the world’s biggest cycle company’s headquarters in Ludhiana, India to solicit sponsorships for Federation Cup – India’s domestic football championship to be telecast on Zee Sports where I worked at that time. My mentor and boss at work Satish Menon was very excited to be at Hero Cycles as he is a cycling enthusiast and I was a bit amused to see him getting excited about various models and all discussions in the pitch somehow leading to cycling! We did get the sponsorship and visited the Hero Cycles unit a few times post that, Satish was like a child to see cycles being manufactured – the robotic arms at the welding stations, the paint shop, the wheels. I was happy to fake a bit of excitement too but I did not understand then as to why Satish was so excited.
It was 2012 a new housing society in Greater Noida, the place was filling fast with new occupants mostly young professionals who were looking to build a community. This is when I met Ashwani Attrish who proposed that with a great urban infrastructure, wide roads and no air pollution, Greater Noida is a good place to start cycling. The idea was quickly actioned and a cycling group was formed who procured Firefox Hybrids and we started the morning rides on the slip roads of Yamuna Expressway, with 15 to 20 Kms of cycling every day experiencing sunrise, the morning dew on grass blades, the song of birds and inhaling fresh air imbued with smell of paddy flowing from the fields on both sides of the road was an experience that we were not tired of talking to our friends and we thought what can be more wonderful than this.
The slow friendly and invigorating rides and our Facebook updates led us to connect with Noida Cyclists – formed by Anuj Srivastava and soon we realised that there is more to experience as we got introduced to Gagan, Yogen and Anju Khosla as they conducted a workshop for their maiden event – Desert 500 Ultra Cycling.
We met Colonel Spotty Dhawan and Tirath Singh and other riders from GKB and other Delhi Cycling groups and were amazed to hear the stories of ultra-cycling and distances of 300 kms and more which were way beyond our imagination. As Tirath explained to us the importance of good cycling gear he showed us his saddle which was priced the same as out hybrid bikes. Though I was not sure if I had the fitness to go for the ultra-cycling challenges but if I told myself that if I had to I would need to invest in a good road bike and I looked at Ashwani and said – gaye dedh laakh!! Which meant so we are spending a bomb soon!! Ashwani was in splits and he said Ready Tayyar – which is his trademark war cry!
A few weeks later with guidance from Yogen and timely help from Rajesh Girdhar we had our new Trek Road bikes and Ashwani and I were on the road to experience a new high and as I write this piece I realise what a high it has been.
We successfully completed the 250 KM category in Desert 500 – held in 2012 November where Ashwani, I and Nauhar rode together and met cyclists from all over India and a few international participants, It was a new experience a new realisation of what we are capable of and what was unimaginable two months ago was accomplished with right guidance and training and I still remember the message given by Gagan Khosla at the Desert 500 Workshop: in cycling the legs are piston and heart is the engine ! This made us coin the line ‘Chalao Dil Se’ - ride with all your heart or ride your heart out! For the cycling club of our society which we called Cycling Paradiso – named after our apartments – ATS Greens Paradiso
So as it became a matter of heart, so it dawned on to us - the heart wants what the heart wants'. Anything else just wouldn't do...” so it was Chalao Dil Se and all of us in India know – Yeh Dil Mange More …
And many more it was for us with we being introduced to Team T3 who organised Brevets in Delhi, a format where riders have to ride unsupported and do distances of 200, 300, 400, 600, 1000 and 1200 Kms in a given cut off time. This format was organised by Audax India Randonneurs under the aegis of ACP France – the parent body which controls all brevets in the world from 1891 onwards.
Inspired by Chiro Mitra and Shubho Bagchi of team T3 then and other riders Rajiv Kr Singh, Rajiv Dubey, Ashwin and Usha Bhatia. Adil Nargolwala and many others we did complete the series of rides to be titled Super Randonneurs in 2013. This entailed riding 200, 300, 400 and 600 KMs in a given season.
As we got exposed more and more to the every growing fraternity of cycling in India I rode in Mumbai and made many friends there including Anil Uchil of Mumbai Randonneurs who is doing a sterling job.
Ashwani my riding partner was in the meantime growing stronger and stronger, While I was content with the Super Randonneur title, Ashwani was unstoppable and was doing 600s and 1000s, I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to attempt a 1000 but Ashwani assured me that I would be able to complete longer distance and thus I mustered the courage to test my endurance with 1000 KMs brevet – Delhi-Atari-Delhi in March 2014 organised by Delhi Randonneurs, this was attended by some very accomplished riders like Mahajan Brothers from Nashik who recently made India proud in the RAAM and got a mention from PM in his radio address and two riders from Russia who specially flew in for this 1000 kms ride. All the riders successfully completed this, I rode with Mukesh Sharma to the finish line and having broken the mental barrier i started believing that I can last a 1200 Kms brevet too.
It was May 2014 and I completed 18 years of working where I had stints in corporate jobs and business partnerships. I had discussed with my friends and family that I wanted to take a break from my job and reflect upon my journey thus far and live free - travel, drive and ride my bike without worrying about the next power point as I stopped seeing any power or any point in it. I was lucky to have my family and my wife Preeti supporting me in this and I said goodbye to corporate way of life in June 2014 I drove with my family from Delhi to Ladakh via Srinagar-Leh, all the way to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake and returned via Leh-Manali; a journey which took us 15 days and gave us the most awe-inspiring views of Ladakh – the land of high passes. No words can describe the range of hues in displays in the changing landscapes, myriad forms that mountains exhibit and the sheer volume of snow and ice which is - if not consternating then it certainly challenges the wits of the driver in you.
We drove at ease, stopped at every opportunity that we had to soak in as much as we could but if there was ever a place that you can never have enough of – this is it.
After we returned from this road trip I could not get over the experience and as we marveled over the pristine untouched wonders of the nature as captured in thousands of pictures, I decided that this is one place I need to go back to again, as soon as I can.
There’s this Swedish proverb: Those who wish to sing will always find a song! So the Times of India I picked that day had this advertisement saying today was the last day for the passion seekers who wished to apply for the Manali to Leh cycling expedition under the aegis of Times of India. I realised here is the song that I need to sing and what better than being part of the choir!!!
I was lucky to make the cut and trained under the Times of India’s Experience Architect who seemed like a no nonsense hard task master with quite a reputation, a veteran of the terrain with over 30 trips to Ladakh – a man with a very clinical approach – Rajesh Kalra. This was such a dry mentor to have I thought as I interacted with him on the WhatsApp group as he would be chiding us on lack of height gain rides and smother the innocent questions some had on the laundry service in tents at 15000 feet, with shut ups disguised as - get real guys!!! But then looks are deceptive…we were to learn soon!!
September 2014, The 480 Kilometers from Manali to Leh on our cycles was a life changing experience for all 17 riders as we overcame our internal fears and limitations set by our mind to successfully complete this tour crossing 5 high passes with the highest being Tang Lang La at 17600 feet. This tour also brought together 17 strangers together as friends, as we shared our experiences during the training period and the bonding that resulted during the ride continues even today as we have kept the WhatsApp group alive and it helps us in staying connected and looks like we will never get over with this ride of our life! Thanks Rajesh Kalra for picking and keeping this bunch together, I’m absolutely privileged to be part of this.
The Manali Leh ride on MTB helped me get over the fear of climbs and with high altitude exposure I was experiencing a new surge of zest in my ride with my lungs having improved oxygen carrying capacity, I was riding much faster and easier on flats on my road bike.
With the new found confidence I decided to ride the Tour of Nilgiris – a 900 Kilometers multistage tour in South India, which takes the riders through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though the registrations had closed but I was lucky to find a slot with the help of Sridhar Pabbisetty and Deepak Majipatil the co-founders of TFN (Tour of Nilgiris) TFN involved a lot of climbing on road bike including the dreaded Kalahatti which is uncategorised hors category climb and tests quite a few riders – TFN only takes riders post screening so having made the cut I wanted to ensure I did pass the kalahaati challenge. I trained for it with climbs in Uttarakhand and Himachal and decided to do the 1000 KM brevet in November 2014.
The 1000 km Delhi-Atari-Delhi in November last week was completed in about 62 hours thanks to some great planning by Anil Puri who was leading the ride for most of the time in the peloton where I, Anil, Abhishek and Ben rode together. I was humbled when Delhi Randonneurs recognised our riding and announced a brevet named after me and Anil subsequently, it indeed was an honour and humbling experience also brought me a lot of happiness as two of my Manali to Leh riding friends Gurleen and Amit joined me in this ride, which was their maiden brevet. It was after this 1000 KMs brevet that I got serious about Paris Brest Paris - (PBP), is one of the oldest cycle race/ride in the world, this started in 1891 under the ACP France, it used to be race earlier but is now a brevet and open to amateurs, held once in 4 years where one has to complete 1230 kilometers under 90 hours on a route with cumulative elevation gain of 11000 meters! India’s first participation in PBP was in 2011 and we saw 11 riders participating and 2 finishing the brevet. Audax India Randonneurs under the leadership of Divya Tate has since then come a long way with more than 20 Randonneuring clubs in India and more and more Super Randonneur titles being earned every year.
The TFN was in December 2014 it starts on Dec 15 in Bangalore and concludes on Dec 23 in Munnar, this is India’s best organised road cycling multi stage tour, with competitive sections and draws close to a 100 riders from all over the world. I felt extremely proud to be riding this tour and on my strong finish. The camaraderie alone is worth the tour the scenic routes, the food and the challenge is a bonus. I met some wonderful people here from across India and overseas. Pete Burridge my room partner I look forward to seeing you again and I must mention Dr. Anant Joshi who surprised and inspired me with his riding prowess in TFN – he’s the celebrated Ortho Surgeon and in his sixties, seeing him ride on Kalahatti with his music playing on speakers made me realise, age is just a number.
With 2014 coming to an end and with a variety of cycling tours undertaken I was feeling content but also a bit under motivated to continue the grueling training sessions and riding brevets and tours. So I took a break from training for a few months and when I picked up my bike again for a Brevet in March I found I was struggling, I was cramping on a 400 brevet and the Super Randonneur Series that I had to ride to participate in PBP looked like a challenge ! Just staying away from training for a few weeks/months can reduce ones fitness and it becomes a fresh start again.
So I had this daunting challenge to rebuild my fitness to earlier level and the weather wasn’t conducive in Delhi for cycling as we were approaching summers by end march 2015. I had little choice so I started training in the evenings and early mornings, to build endurance on shorter rides I mixed a lot of MTB training sessions, I also started training in the gym with my trainer to work on my strength so that I can last a 80 plus hours ride without strain on my back, shoulder and neck muscles. Thanks to my trainer Naveen at Gold’s gym I was doing quite fine on longer rides and my last 600 brevet - Mumbai Dhule Mumbai on June 20th was a good test, as this route had a lot of climbs and rains and heat, I wasn’t at the same level as December but I was confident that I was ready for PBP. I wanted to spend some time doing high altitude training to gain more fitness but had to contend with riding in NCR as I could not manage a trip to mountain/Ladakh post June. I missed Ashwani during this training as he was nursing an injury and was not riding for some time, but his messages continued to push me.
With a satisfactory training behind me I reached Paris for PBP on August 12, 2015. PBP was the platform, the world stage that I mentioned earlier. It is at PBP that I began to experience and understand the meaning of Vasudhevae Katumbakam.
I stood in the line for bike check on Aug 15 with fellow Indian riders and 6000 other riders from 65 countries, it started sinking in that I have made it to one of the oldest and prestigious cycling events in the world. Most of the riders did not speak English but everyone connected and communicated either in broken English or just by speaking their own language, and amazingly we all got across to each other because it’s not the spoken word but the spirit of cycling the joy of being at PBP that was helping us connect and interact. The world indeed is one family, one family connected by common Joy, by a simple machine a cycle, by now I had started understanding as to why Satish Menon was always so excited in 2007 when he discussed bicycles.
On the bike check day all the 6000 riders were in their respective National Randonneuring Jerseys excitedly sharing their stories and displaying their bikes, we saw regular road bikes and special bikes like recumbents, trikes, tandems and elliptical bikes. There were a few vintage bicycles and some riders with multiple PBPs behind them, it was truly the Mahakumbh of randonneuring and I was pinching myself and telling myself that yes its true, I have made it to PBP.
Our excitement was a notch higher than a few others around as it was India’s Independence Day and the Indian contingent got together and sang the National Anthem in the National Velodrome - Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
The NCR Delhi contingent (I, Parikshit, Bipin and Gautam) experienced very proud moments as we took out the National Flag to pose with it, we had requests from riders all over to be part of the frame and we got a lot of cheering for us being from India, I felt extremely proud about being an Indian and the response that India gets overseas gives me goose bumps, it makes one realise that our reputation as a Nation, its heritage and culture has contributions from our citizens and heroes for more than 5000 years and we should be very proud and keep adding to that respect and reputation by whatever role that we can play in building the goodwill/respect and reputation further.
With bike check in place and the PBP Jersey, Frame number, Brevet cards allotted and all other formalities completed we rode back to our hotel nearby and made a few last minute adjustments to the bike and packed all the stuff required for a long ride including – Spare batteries, extra lights, energy bars, rain jackets, spare tubes a spare tyre and medicines.
August 16 at the start line for PBP 2015, the most awaited moment was here, the riders were being flagged off from the National Velodrome - Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in a wave of about 300 each with 15 minutes gap in each wave’s starting time. I reached the velodrome at about 2 pm and had the meals as I had taken a meal voucher during my registration, it was a light meal of greens, soup and some bread. My start time was 1745 for frame number H268, I felt very relaxed and fit and as I got my brevet card stamped and waited in the H arena I met riders from Madras Randonneurs, from Japan, Russia, China, France, Italy, USA, UK and many more countries and we were clicking pictures and cheering each other as we waited for the flag off. We were provided with an ankle timing chip which was to recorded out timing at each control point, the timing was further noted by officials on our brevet cards, The brevet cards were securely placed in waterproof covers and worn around our neck so as we don’t lose them as most of us know that if one loses one’s brevet card in a ride, the ride is not homologated.
Exactly at 1745, We started with loud cheers from the crowd lined on both sides of the starting point and this collection of people continued throughout the PBP and we were cheered with loud chants of Bravo Bravo, Allez, Bon Courage and Bonjour, I tried to respond to every cheering group by waving and saying Merci. The thunderous welcome and spirited celebrations and cheering made all the riders feel like they were super stars, the experience of riding in France in PBP cannot be equalled in any other amateur event anywhere in the world. The French love cycling and their guests. We in India believe in Atithi Devo Bhava (Guest is like God), I don’t know what’s the French for this but I experienced the French version and I’m touched and grateful for the warmth and support we received
The first stop was at 140 kilometres at Mortagne-au-Perche (services only) and as I was riding at a good speed in the rolling terrain I was wondering how will I refill the water as there were no roadside shops every few kilometers as we have in India, at about 70 KMs I was done with my water and as I spotted a friendly family with a table full of water container and some cakes and chocolates. I was hailed by them, and they filled my bottles and I had a chocolate and a cake piece here and to my absolute delight I wasn’t asked to pay any money. This continued throughout the ride, town after town, and village after village at any time of the ride – even at late nights and early mornings we saw families offering supplies and refreshments without charging and we continued seeing cheering and large cycle installations to welcome us. The experience overwhelmed me and I tried to respond back to every clap every chant of bravo bravo as long as I could, Vasudhevay Katumbakam is an Indian Philosophy and I experienced it in France! Mind you no one spoke English but we always got through each other, we always managed to express our gratitude and they showered their warmth and love.
In Europe the sun sets way after 9 pm in August and as it was still daylight I continued pushing without any further stop and reached the Moraine-au-Perche at about 2300 hrs, I stopped much before the official control at a local eatery and as it was getting cold, I wore my head buff and ordered the only available choice - steak sandwich with coke. This was well done and I still can’t forget how tasty it was! I loved the hot steak sandwich and as I was getting up to move towards my cycle parked outside I felt a pain in my right knee, this was peculiar as I have never had any issue and I have done much faster and tougher rides. The pain was bothering me as I was finding it difficult to pedal fast, I noticed I had done about 27.5 KM/H average speed by that time and about 1000 meters of elevation gain in strava. I decided to show the knee to the medical team at the service control, they applied an ointment and gave me a little massage, it relived my pain for the moment but I decided to check my cleats and reposition them, but the cleats bolts were worn out and the star screw driver could not open the cleats bolts. So I decided to continue riding slowly till the next control point which was Villaines-La-Juhel at 220 Kms. My strategy thus changed from as early as possible Finish to going easy and avoiding aggravating the knee pain and sort it as I ride.
I reached Villaines-La-Juhel with about 3 hours before the control closed at 5:44 A.M it was still dark do I decided to rest till it was day break and I rested here for half an hour had some tea and refreshments and pushed for Fougeres which was at 310 Kilometres, the pain in my knee was still troubling me and since I could not do much to my cleats I decided to change my saddle height and position. This helped in shifting the angle of impact and the pain slowly subsided and by the time I reached Loudeac at 480 Kilometers the pain was sorted and I could pedal freely. It seemed like a few mm change in saddle position during bike assembly in hotel might have resulted in the pain. At Loudeac I met Sunder and Divya who was helping us with ride support and had our bags, I was booked in the hotel LE France a few meters from the control point, I decided to shower and sleep for a while then I changed to fresh riding clothes and had the wonderful coconut rice and other refreshments that Divya gave me and left for Carhaix and reached with 3 hours to spare.
I continued this strategy of keeping 3 hours spare at each control and reached Brest at 11:49 realising I had just managed about an hour and half spare at this point, so from here on I decided to spend less time at controls and decided to speed up to Carhaix on the return. I did spend some time taking pictures at Brest but as I was falling behind I did ride fast and managed to increase the buffer to close to three hours at Carhaix.
The support cheering and greetings from the French public continued and I reached Loudeac at 23:42 this was 782 kilometers and I decided to check in to my hotel room again for a shower and change and a bit of rest, I slept a bit here and Divya called on my cell to remind me that I have a ride to complete. I left Loudeac at 0200 hrs and managed to reach Tinteniac with an hour and half to spare, I lost the three hour buffer as I slept a bit at Loudeac. I was very much in control and riding steady with wonderful roads and hardly any traffic. One could see the riders sleeping on the road side with their bike lights on, I also saw a few riders sleeping in the ATMs and just about anywhere they found a place. Though the control stations have arrangements for sleeping but most riders prefer to continue riding and sleep where ever they find a place.
There is something about a bicycle ride especially about the long distance ones where the riders have the unique experiences which make them see the truths behind the philosophies and theories that we have read in the past. I was talking to my fellow riders and started to enjoy this ride even more as I saw myself as part of a wave made of 6000 riders from 65 countries riding across a 1200 km stretch and also as an individual rider from India. I was experiencing the wave particle duality concept of matter, the origins of the concepts are in Vedanta an ancient Indian Philosophy which has been explained by Schrödinger: in a universe in which particles are represented by wave functions, he said, “The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. This is entirely consistent with the Vedanta concept of All in One.” I was elated and I did not feel any stress and never had a doubt about completing this ride, I was enjoying for being a part as well the whole in this family from all over the world riding the PBP.
At about 950 kilometres in the ride my left pedal’s rear stay broke and I could not get a grip, so I had to ride till Mortagne with somehow managing to ride with the right pedal and barely having very little clipping on left, this delayed me a bit and on reaching Mortagne I was lucky to see the spares available, it took an hour and 50 Euros to get a new pedal fixed and new set of cleats on my shoes, this delayed me a bit but I was still in control and the moment my pedals were sorted I started for Dreux.
It was getting dark and Dreux was about 80 Kilometres, I met Divya and Agnes Golfier just as was exiting Mortagne, I stopped for a bit and chatted with them and as I was starting I met Samir Shah. We talked for a while and as it was very dark and there was a climb and many riders in the wave, I lost Sameer in the ride on the climb, I waited for him but could not locate him so I decided to continue towards Dreux, they say PBP and rain is connected and we had no rain till this point, but towards the last 50 Kms to Dreux it started Drizzling, I did not stop and continues riding, I was feeling a bit drowsy at this point so I started singing loudly and started taking to myself but kept on riding as I did not want to lose any further time post the pedal issue.
I could see the lights from the town Dreux from far and I was riding steady suddenly my bike wavered a bit and I thought I was woken up from Sleep! I told myself – look I saved you or you would have fallen, I regained the control and stopped at a circle which was lighted up, I did not have any recollection of the last few KMs and how I reached there, I even could not understand where I was headed to! I thought I was in India near Khan Market and I started looking for directions towards India Gate assuming I was on an early morning ride to India Gate!
I was lucky that a taxi/car driver saw me in that state and asked me- Parih Brehh? (Whether I was riding the Paris Brest Paris) this jolted me out of my trance and I realised that I was riding the Paris Brest Paris, he guided me to the Dreux control point which was just across the next block. I was lucky that by this time other riders came along and I and Nilesh Choudhary rode to the Dreux control and we had about 8 hours and 60 Kms to the finish.
I decided to rest for 2 hours at Dreux and start for the last 60 KMs to the finish only after sunrise as it would be safer and the rest would help in overcoming the fatigue and any disorientation that I experienced in the last leg. We met a lot of riders at Dreux this control had one of the best food spread and I ate a full meal here and started a little after 6 am, the last 60 Kilometers were done with ease though it started raining but we were riding steadily avoiding any sharp turns and crashes in the rain, I did see one recumbent biker crashing behind me, I got off and helped him get back and slowly I and Nilesh crossed the finish line with a crowd cheering us with good two and a half hours to spare with a big crowd cheering for us as we crossed the finish line.
It was 9:28 am and I quickly got my brevet card stamped and the celebrations started with a lot of cheering and hugs with riders from all across, we all posed proudly with our National Flag. It is a ritual at PBP that one has to exchange one’s jersey with riders from other country, I was approached by a German rider Hendrik Malke and I very proudly exchanged my jersey with him.
It’s been more than a month that I finished the PBP but it is still sinking in and I’m still excited to see the updates on PBP from riders all over the world. I still haven’t gotten over it and the strava snapshot remains the cover picture of my Facebook page proudly displaying 1250 Kms, 11000 meters elevation gain and 28000 calories burnt in the ride! It was a matter of great pride for Indian contingent that we saw a huge jump in the number of participants from 2011 with 56 participants and 20 finishing the PBP, it was indeed a well-deserved felicitation received by Divya Tate of Audax India Randonneurs.
I wish to thanks each one of my friends and family and well-wishers who were constantly supporting me and cheering for me, I was following all the updates on Facebook while I was riding and it was indeed a big morale booster to see such a huge support throughout. I also wish to thank Trek and Firefox bikes and Viju Varghese for backing me, it is a matter of great pride for me to be riding the great brand supported officially by Trek and Firefox.
I can’t write all the names here but you know that I have a deep sense of gratitude and I feel privileged for the warmth love and massive support for this madness, Merci!