Our journey as a team in the 6th edition of Deccan Cliffhanger (www.inspire-India.in) ended up being on top of the podium on 25th November 2018!
It all began when I read about 2 teams from Mangalore achieving significant positions in the 2017 edition of Deccan Cliffhanger. Junior team, 18-35yrs ended up being 3rd and Seniors (35-49yrs), 4th.
On September 15, 2018, Sarvesh Samaga, President and founder member of WER Cycling (www.wercycling.com) forwards a registration link for Deccan Cliffhanger 2018 in the WER Cycling WhatsApp group. I dialled him with zeal to find out if I can fit in as a crew member, if WER Cycling is participating. My context was to experience this tough and well known ultra cycling race in close proximity. To my surprise, Sarvesh said, quote “Dhiraj, I have seen you riding in the WERC tours and I believe you have the instinct and ability to take part in this event, which is considered one of the toughest ultra races in India” End quote. My next question was, “Are you sure?” The answer was an empathetic AFFIRMATIVE YES. He suggested few names for a four member team, asked me to talk to them to find their inclination. Those names were Shivanand Rao, Vinay Raykar, Navin Kotian and Harivijay Kudva, all are profoundly good riders, be it with speed or endurance races.
I was planning to do Brevets, get super randonneur title for 2018-2019. If an opportunity knocks on my door, should I get into endurance racing? At 47, is competitive formats right for me? Such questions were lingering around, deep down the urge to do well in every favourite pursuit was dynamic. I always keep my doors open for magnification, so I took up this opportunity, with overwhelming wave of gratitude towards Sarvesh Samaga.
I would relish to give some background on how and what transpired within me to take up cycling, before moving further on this event.
To keep myself physically active, I brought a hybrid bicycle at the fag terminus of 2014, clocked around 570 kms (includes 1 or 2 century rides), elevation of 7002 m in 22 rides till October 2017, thats in 3 years. I was regularly irregular, ha ha ha ha, largely due to my frequent travel.
2018 was an eventful year with an interweave of everything, here are few important events.
Had a fall during a ride in the month of January and had to undergo a surgery on left hand wrist. I am grateful for all the support received from Brijesh Balakrishnan, Anil Shet, Shivanand Rao and Dr. Ishwar Keerthi. I was out of the saddle for approximately 3 months. Falls with cleats is a usual phenomena with most riders during the commencement, for me it was fourth fall and this time it hurt the most. After getting back to riding, within few weeks I was hospitalised for 2 days, this time it was an upset stomach. First 3 month of 2018 was tough....
Renewed my trekking activity with 1 day treks in and around Mangalore.
Associated with NECF and with Mangalore Green Brigade (Jeeth Milan Roche) for planting saplings in and round Mangalore to increase the green cover.
From March 2018 onwards, I was riding regularly with sports shoes. Cleats did scare me and I didn’t want to wear them any time soon. Upgraded from hybrid to a pre owned roadie, took part in MACC ITT, covered a distance of 25.4 km in 56.26 with average speed of 28.9 kmph, when compared with other riders, my performance was ordinary yet I was happy but also felt that endurance rides is where my inclination is and the reasons for the same, here I go.
My first 100 km plus distance riding came in the month of April to Madikeri at scorching heat. I was fine till Sampaje, from there on I took multiple pitstops before reaching Madikeri. 25 km of climb, it was like without end. Thanks to Anil Shet and Vaishak Bhat for their encouragement, else I was prepared to walk some distance before hopping on the saddle and many times during those stops I felt like my heart wanted to knock out of my ribs. On return the next day, I was forced to truncate the ride 30 km away from Mangalore, as I could not bear the conditions. Admitting it was tough and challenging, I picked a lot of positives. i.e., travelling or touring on a bicycle is marvellous. I can see the surroundings clearly, talk to the co rider, more proximate to nature, stop whenever and wherever for hydration, nutrition, for a selfie or click on something that may interests and it gave me a sky-high urge to ride long distance. Madikeri was followed by few fascinating ascent rides to Agumbe, Kundadri, and Mullainagiri all under MAC Club, further it was followed by few solo centuries in and around Dakshina Kannada.
WERC - New Perspectives
In the month of July 2018, a ride to Kudremukh (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kudremukh) was organised by WERC which was open to all, riders from Chickmagalur, Udupi and Mysore took part, a section of ride had race format as well. Kudremukh is mesmerising in every inch and to experience on a bicycle is slaking to every cell in the body. I managed to ride till Bhagavathi Nature camp with 0 pit stop from Mala check post, a distance of 21kms with an average gradient of 5.5%. I was excited with this accomplishment, many thanks to GKB for the strategy to Dilnith, Brijesh Balakrishnan, Tulsi Devang and Prasanna Kumar for being with me in patches during the ride. While driving back to Mangalore from Bajagoli, I was rewinding the day and observed the ease and grace demonstrated by WERC core members was commendable.
My next ride with WERC members was in the month of September, it was a 2 day tour to Goa - Volta de Goa. These are exclusive rides organised by WERC for their club members, as the number of participants is limited and entire tour is well planned to meet the expectation of the rides. Shivanand Rao, a member of WERC with whom I was riding, forwarded a link for membership registration. I applied and to my surprise I didn’t receive any response for 3 weeks. One day I was in conversation with Sarvesh Samaga on brevets and updated him on the membership application status, he got back to me after speaking to the concerned with my membership being approved. I enjoyed every moment of the Volta de Goa tour, it had all the ingredients, good ascents, descents, rolling and flats, on 2nd day of the tour from Doodh Sagar to Anmod Ghat after riding for a 15 km ascent, ride turned into tatters, huge craters, loose gravel were a common sight every few meters, truncated the ride due to safety reasons, scrumptious food (Thanks to Pascoal Fernandez for giving a wonderful homemade meal) of course, enjoyed local feni, loads of laughter without which any tour would be futile. Yes,…. 2018 is an eventful year with the good, the deplorable and the homely in full swing.
Riding with experienced riders edified me in tons, which in turn reduced my trial and error period. I have to thank a plethora of people here. Tilak Alva, Anil Shet, helped me with my first 100 km and have been with me on many rides. Harivijay Kudva was the first person I come in contact with in Mangalore cycling community, learned a lot from him and much more to go. Dr. Vaishak Bhat. Dr. Ramaraj, Bhavesh Javiya (my first roadie Merida Ride 300 was brought from him). Ramesh Babu, Tulsi Devang, Dhishan Kidwalli, Brijesh Balakrishnan, Ashok Lobo, GK Baliga, Arun Kumar, Sagar Naik, Dr. Someshwar, Arjun, Prasanna Kumar, Mubeen Sheik Ismail, Nithin Mohan, Vinay Raykar, Prajwal Baglodi, Dr. Ishwar Keerthi, Sarvesh Samaga and Shyam Prasad Nayak, each and everyone has shared some valuable insights or I have picked some tricks by observing them. Thank you folks.
WERC gave me new perspectives. I transmuted from a fitness / easy rider to more focused rider, gave me renewed energy, more enthusiasm and the urge to grow as an endurance rider got pushed deeper, this transaction credit goes largely to Sarvesh Samaga, Shyam Prasad Nayak, Sudhir Albuquerque and Harivijay Kudva, these folks are humble, zealous, knowledgeable, humorous (applicable more to the first 2 ha ha ha ha ha ha) highly motivated to do more to cycling, they give more than prospect, and more importantly most of the core members are non vocal about individual sacrifices or contributions. I admit its arduous to find such people together.
Back to Deccan Cliffhanger… With the aspiration of taking part in an Ultra Race some day or the other, I took the following decision on the same day (15th September 2018}
NO to elevators. If I step out of my den, its 77 steps to the car parking. If I go on a bicycle ride its 54 steps, so it was stairs both the direction. Why? To strengthen the ankle, calf muscles. “Great things are done by series of the small things brought together", its those small / little things which integrates / matters the most.
Started drinking multigrain malt after every ride / workout
Ensured 3 to 4 litres of water is gulped in a day
1 spoon Chavanprash after breakfast
1 multivitamin and cod liver oil pill post breakfast
No to deep fry food
More importantly, kicked the butt
It took few days for the team to be in place. Vinay Raykar dropped out due to professional schedule. Harivijay Kudva drops out as well on personal grounds. Shivanand Rao doesn’t relish to ride in competitions hence opted out on day 1, but he joined as crew and played a paramount role. Now the possibility was either a 2 member team with self and Navin Kotian or Navin Kotian as a solo. I was hung-ho on the event from day 1, hence no question of backing out. Based on 2017 event experience, the think tank of WERC felt a 3 member team would be good, a bit more load on the riders but the crew can manage the show well, a 4 member team would be fantastic from the riders point, on the crew front the work load would be more. After a couple of days with lot of push and pull by Sarvesh Samaga, Shyam Prasad Nayak and Sudhir Albuquerque, Harivijay Kudva was persuaded. To have him as a member in any team combination is an immense advantage. Finally it was loud and clear - IT'S A 3 MEMBER TEAM.
I observed that Navin Kotian is a very strong and fast rider, Harivijay Kudva is fast and vigorous in ascents. I was OK kind of a rider but with all enthusiasm & vigour to ride…. Sudhir Albuquerque and Sarvesh Samaga tagged me as ‘the allrounder’!! I felt, my co-riders strengths were much better than mine. In one of the meeting in the commencement of team formation at Sudhir Albuquerque’s place, I did verbalise our goal should be to finish the DC 2018 on top of the podium not just on the podium, well it did transpire that way but never crossed my mind that it would culminate in style. Please read on, the end is fascinating.
From our casual rides, we were now put on a training regime under the coach Mr. Gratian Mathew Govias, who gave us a regime to follow and updates were sent to him on daily basis. In one of the updates, he pointed that my speed was low and asked me to go with cleats for better average speed. Now I had no cleats as I had gifted what I had to someone and definitely I was uncomfortable. Any way, the training regime had 2 days in a week on trainer, and Sarvesh Samaga had a spare pair of shoes and I borrowed them. Will I be using the same on regular rides or for DC, I was indecisive?
The regime / workouts were intense. Some days I used to finish my morning workout / rides and post breakfast I used to slumber till lunch and go back to bed till evening regime. Some days managed to do chores at home. Somedays just couldn’t, body was hurting, yet relished. No matter what the situation I kept my focus on training. Within weeks, I could see a visible progress in my riding / speeds. Hari and Navin moved to another level, the focus and determination they bring in to every session is awe-inspiring. Sarvesh Samaga, Sudhir Albuquerque and Shyam Prasad Nayak were appreciating our efforts and did mentioned a couple of times that our practice is far higher compared to theirs for 2017 event.
16 November, coach arrives from other side of the coast, to see our riding patterns, to make changes wherever required. 17th evening we head out for a ride, Coach was on a motorised 2 wheeler with Shyam Prasad Nayak observing us.
I had running nose 3 days prior to his arrival and it was arduous to breathe. After riding a certain distance, it was feedback time from coach, he said my speed is low and suggested to get back to cleats. How do I get back to cleats? Few days to the event, how do I make it possible? Is it necessary to go back to cleats? Such questions were lingering and I had to find answers quickly. Coach was right and I too shared his opinion, yet the indecisiveness was all over me. Next morning, we head out for another training session. I have no respite from running nose, yet wanted to get maximum out of Coach’s presence. We were asked to ride like a single line peloton with just couple of inches away from the rear tire. I dropped out after a certain distance as I couldn’t keep pace. Post session, it was feedback time, coach was sarcastic at my speed, all I had to say was “I will fight with my fears to get back to cleats coach”
While returning home, I encouraged the following conversation internally to overcome fear. “It is an opportunity to get back to cleats, it is now or never, it will help me immensely and to the team. In case, if we didn’t finish on top of the podium, I didn’t want the cleats to be pointed out for the performance and more importantly I didn’t want, months of efforts, loads of support from family and WERC management to go down the drain”. So I affirmed YES I will fight my fears to get back to cleats.
Coach did give me a technique with that sarcasm to be practiced on the trainer to cleat and uncleat. After reaching home, hopped on the trainer to practice the technique. In th evening I went out for a ride accompanied by my son in his bicycle as a support staff ha ha ha ha, clocked 11.4 km, returned home with a lot of contentment and a sense of accomplishment. Next day I skipped the morning training session for a solo ride as I wanted to be absolutely confident. Ride 1 clocked 27.8 km on the highway, 2nd ride clocked 7.6 km within city for better acclimatisation in traffic conditions. I remembered a quote from Kent Morris “Mental toughness is finding fuel on an empty tank”. My tank was empty and I had to find toughness. Thanks to Nithin for coming home to interchange the pedals from trainer to the riding bicycle when it needed the most.
Regular meetings were conducted by Sudhir Albuquerque with crew and riders to check on preparations, number of vehicles required, spare bikes, spares, riders accessories, fits outs on bikes as per organisers rules / regulation, do’s and dont’s during the race, updates on the route changes (Pune to Goa), budget, departure dates and a whole lot of things. He worked out 5 possible options to finish the race, based on the terrain, the speed to cover in an hour and on rider abilities. Albuquerque is a meticulous planner and leaves no stone unturned in preparation and he has put in colossal effort in every aspect.
Just 4 weeks before the event, our President and team chief crew Sarvesh Samaga and his son were hospitalise for dengue, 2 weeks before the event his second son was hospitalised for the same issue. I am sure it must have been tough time for him and to his family, yet he stayed in touch with me regularly. At some point in time, it looked like the team preparation was lagging behind as the team meetings were not happening due to some or the other crew members non availability. I was not apprehensive or concerned yet felt that things could be in much better shape. Hari and self purchased the required nutrition 2 days before departure, interacted / made sure with Mubeen and Nithin on spares to be packed. Riders were departing on 20th, crew on 21st.
With preparations behind and expectations ahead, we departed from Mangalore on 20th early morning, reached Pune around 10pm, the journey was wonderful, the atmosphere in the car was relaxed but the anxiousness was evident.
Most part of 21st was spent resting. I was riding within the residential complex with cleats to wire myself strongly.
22nd completed the rest of the registration and inspection formalities at the DC official venue.
23rd morning I went to the neighbourhood to practice to cleat and uncleat. I wanted to make sure I am completely wired. Evening our crew members stepped out to buy food and other required things for the race day (24th). After their return, we had to step out again, this time I accompanied the crew, Sarvesh Samaga was with me, and in one of the chats he mentioned that I was going to be the team’s Dark Horse. I was aware of it and if I fail, I was sure of some brick bats flying towards me, yet I was relaxed, confident and didn’t allow any negative thoughts to linger. Our crew chief Sarvesh Samaga, the lieutenant Ashok Lobo and the Master Chef Shivanand kept the environment around lively, always light & refreshing, which helped me to be at ease.
Previous couple of evenings, the team sat together to chart out the riders ride plan along with the crew. Hari was assigned to do climbs (Katraj, Kambati, Pasarni). Navin was good on flats and downhill so was assigned big downhills. I was assigned, small ascents, descents and flats. At the flag off, it was Navin Kotian, followed by Hari and then me. We had loads and loads of rest from 20th till 23rd. On 23rd night, sleep was very light as our minds were highly active, most of the time Navin and self were tossing and turning. Hari was with Dhanraj and it was the same with him as well. I had some respite from running nose but the cough and chest congestion continued to nag.
The big day arrives (24th) we were off from bed around 4:30am, reached the venue well in time and were flagged off around 7:50am. Here I remembered Maria Callas quote “When the curtain rises, the only thing that speaks is courage”. It was time to show courage.
Navin Kotian gets to a flying start and was stomping. Harivijay Kudva was climbing every ascent with ease and was averaging around 25 kmph on ascents, which is phenomenal.
When it was my turn, I was doing well too. Couple of hours into the race, we had hit a nice rhythm and as a team, we were averaging just under 30 kmph.
In Bhillar downhill, Navin Kotian was flying and all of a sudden gets into a crash involving other riders. At a sharp turn, a rider ahead of him had crashed. Seeing a bunch of people occupying the entire road at this point, Navin had hardly any space to manoeuvre, goes hard on the brakes and the inevitable fall! Before the crew came to his rescue, he was up and ready to ride with few bruises on the knee, sprain on the left wrist and bruise on the right glut cheek, and with the damaged bike not in a condition to ride. The way he was hurrying up, it appeared to me like a lot of time was lost!! It was time for the crew to spring into the action. Though it was ideal to replace the rider, looking at Navin’s condition, his eagerness and ability to ride further, his bike was only swapped with mine and he began to ride again in no time, albeit with bruises and torn shorts!! The 20 km downhill flew away like a tornado and we were back on track.
From noon until 5pm, our strategy was to conserve and to maintain an average of 26 to 27 kmph. We were passing other riders quickly, around sunset we had passed every team which got flagged off before us. It was a full moon night and it was wonderful to see the full moon. I had to attend to nature’s call in the middle of nowhere, grabbed few wet tissues, walked past the shoulder of the road and could attend to nature’s call. Rider changes were taking place super efficiently, crew plays a paramount role in relay format races, our crew were like zen masters in action, humorous in every possible chance yet focused on the rider change, terrain info, checking average speeds, control points stamping, following rules of the event, jotting down ride details. Sarvesh Samaga and Ashok Lobo are unique, I salute their presence of mind, in every situation they were in complete command. On the other car Mubeen, man of few words was alert, cool like a cucumber and supported Sarvesh and Ashok extremely well. Shivanand Rao, as I said above, he played a paramount role in ensuring we eat well, eat rightly, he prepared sandwiches, chapatti rolls in no time on the move, big kudos to his skills on packing as well.
We reached Belagavi checkpoint around 2am.
Though we all were in good shape to continue, the crew decided that the entire team needs to take a break, get refreshed and do a reality check before deciding to push further. We all spent around 30min in regrouping and deciding on what needs to be done next. While speaking to the volunteers, we noticed that we were the first team to reach this CP. Though it was a good news to hear, we too were fighting against time, against sleep, against negative thoughts that had started creeping into our minds. Though we lost 30 minutes, I would say, it was the time we got our strengths back, our focus back and our energy back!!
Navin was feeling a bit uncomfortable with his left hand wrist around 4am just before approaching Chorla Ghat. He asked me if I can ride the Chorla Ghat, I agreed with no hesitation whatsoever. For the next 25 km, it was twist and turns with patches of bad road. I have never been to Chorla Ghat but I get a feeling that it's a wonderful part of the western ghat.
In the meantime, Hari & Navin recuperated. With Chorla ghat behind us, it was 60 kms to finish line / Goa, which was taken over by Hari and Navin in turns. 5 kms before the finish line, all three of us were on the saddle and we rode towards the finish line as a team. We ended this ride with a timing of 22hrs 41minutes and 35 seconds, which apparently was the fastest time of this event and earned us the TOP of THE PODIUM. It took some time for us to soak in this glory.
A journey that started as a fitness rider, brought out my best abilities into the fore and transformed me as a rider, who can stand on the podium @ 47!! It's a big achievement, as a team, individually, for WER Cycling club and to the cycling fraternity around this region. I wish other riders, irrespective of age & gender take part in these kinds of organised events. If not, just pick up a bike and ride simply to stay fit, physically and psychologically. I am happy that our team has raised the bar at WERC and hope to see our own member rewrite it sooner than later.
Accolades started pouring in from all quarters of life. The event report, our performances, pictures were flashing on the print & electronic media and in no time we were heros with nicknames as The Mountain Goat for Harivijay Kudva, Speed Gun for Navin Kotian and Dark Horse to Firefighter to me!!
With so many things around, the silent support from our families always goes unnoticed. A big thank you to my spouse, to my children for their support and encouragement, without which I would not have dreamt of taking part in such an event.
The wall hanging in my bed room reading “Everything comes right in the end. Steady determination is what is required” spoken by an enlightened master, is the first thing I always see when I get up from the bed.