Here’s a neat quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, that captures brilliantly, human dreams and hopes against the backdrop of fleeting time.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” ~ Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
Interestingly, just like many of its characters that reflected the author’s deep understanding of the shallowness of average humans and society as a whole, the book itself went unrecognized till much after his death. He made only $2000 from the book, which has since, sold over 25 million copies, with 500,000 additional copies sold annually.
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In this post, I am sharing my experiences while preparing for a cycling event held in Bombay last December. While it’s a little overdue, but whether you’re a cyclist or not, I am sure you’ll have some takeaways from this one.
I was working in Pune till last July, and had just returned to Bombay. While figuring out ‘what next’ on the life front, one of the entries on my list was to buy a bicycle. It had been over a decade since I last rode a bike, something I was really addicted to while growing up. So, after a good amount of research, and on a limited budget, I bought a 21-speed hard-tail mountain bike.
I had not been in the best of shape after my stint in Pune. Eating out everyday and lack of exercise had left me extremely unfit. Making it up a single flight of stairs would leave me huffing for the next 2 minutes, and leave people around wondering if I was having an attack. It was that bad.
So my decision to buy a cycle seemed more logical from a health perspective than for pleasure. After the first few days of trying to relive the fun days from my childhood, I was online when I read about the Godrej Tour de India 2012. Yes, a fancy name for cycling events that were to be held across 3-4 different cities. Now, before I unwittingly leave you shocked and in awe, let me clarify that the event, unlike its misleading name, was nothing at all compared to Tour de France (TdF). Unlike the 3200 km cycled by participants at TdF, this one was more of a social event, with the distance of the race being a comparatively miniscule 36 km.
Nevertheless, I was excited, and I felt it would be a good goal to aim for – to be able to finish 36 kms. – alive. For a regular biker, it might not seem like much of a distance, but for someone who was going to be riding after a decade, and given the state of ‘fitness’, I thought it was quite a challenge. The icing on this one being, that the course included riding on the Bandra-Worli sealink, the scenic pride of Bombay that allows only cars and is out-of-bounds even for motorbikes on regular days. That was worth the effort.
I started with riding on a stretch of road close to my place. The road used to be almost deserted back in the good ol’ days. Now however, it was an ocean of cars that I had to ride through. After cycling to the end of that stretch and back, I was thrilled with the flood of memories, with the excitement, with the thrill of riding again. But a little more, and I was also done for the day.
Way back, the best bike I rode had a 5-speed single shifter. The present one had 2 shifters like most modern bikes, and simply put, the shifter on the left switched between 3 forward gears, and the one on the right let you toggle another 7; used in combination, they gave you 21 speeds. Now, the person at the store had perhaps himself understood and explained the concept incorrectly, so it took me some experimenting to figure out what combinations were best for different terrain.
Back to focusing on the race, my primary goal was to increase stamina, to build it to handle 36 kms. So, to get started with getting a perspective of the distance, I took my car on that stretch to measure the distance of one round on the ODO. It was about 4.4 km. So, the best distance I was doing as of now was 8.8 km at a stretch. And it wasn’t exactly continuous too, considering the few seconds one waited at each of the 4 to 5 signal lights. Those waits made an unbelievable difference as opposed to a continuous dash, as I would learn on race day. Even a few seconds at a signal lets you recharge to a great extent, as opposed to a non-stop dash.
Next, I began timing the laps, and keeping track of overall timings for the average day on my stopwatch. As the number of laps increased, one slowly begins to tire, taking the average lap time higher. It boiled down to requiring quicker initial laps, and lower lap timings on the subsequent laps too. That again coming down to stamina. Needed more stamina.
There seemed to be problems with Godrej’s website for the event. There weren’t too many details about the race itself, and I was repeatedly calling their helpline to know more. They asked me to be patient till they got more news on it. It was September now, and the maximum I was doing was 4 laps. That’s 17.6 km. I figured that my weight had to drop if I wanted to go further, and to maintain the pace. So I stopped cycling for 2 weeks, and started walking instead. Everyday, or every other day. While this did not seem to affect my weight much, it must have converted some fat to muscle, since I noticed the difference in the cycling.
Still a novice when it comes to the intricacies of training for such an event, I often used to cycle about 0.5-1 hour after a meal and plenty of water, but never ate or drank anything while cycling. And my throat would sometimes get really dry, but I’d finish the number of laps I had set out to do, before heading back. I also didn’t know much about what foods to eat before and after such runs. As per my calculations, I needed to finish 8.2 laps to match the race distance.
I had planned to train for a little longer than that. If you train exactly for the minimum required distance, you might fall short on race day, and all is lost. But if you train for a little more than is required, not only does your total energy and endurance go up, but your capacities are well over the minimum race requirement. One evening, I felt quite upbeat, and set out to finish the race distance that day. I started little after 6 pm.
While I was in school and junior college, cycling to me was something akin to setting the soul free. I used to cycle a minimum of one hour every single day. Sometimes, I’d cycle for two hours. At the end of which, I’d be drenched in sweat. On a few occasions, after cycling for that long, I’d stop by the local market to pick up some things. The shopkeeper, sitting deep inside the shop, cut off from outside view, would stare at me dripping from head to toe and inquire with a concerned tone, if it was raining outside. I’d laugh it off, a little embarrassed, and say it was just me after some cycling.
On most other days, after I was done cycling, I would sit with some friends who would be catching up on daily gossip. I was mostly too exhausted to speak, so I’d sit there a while, drying up and catching my breath. But I could go on the next day with the same enthusiasm. It’s funny how the mind changes as you grow up. Now, with the countless thoughts running through my head, I needed to listen to music while cycling. Perhaps the traffic and the growing up had taken the charm away. So, carefully selecting a mix of soothing and energizing music, I would set off to practice.
That evening, after the 5th lap, time felt to slow down. The effort seemed unchanged, but the distance didn’t seem to get shorter. But I knew that I wasn’t going to go home without finishing a minimum of 8.2 laps, but it was also getting difficult to keep track of the number of laps. I started feeding the lap numbers into my watch. By now, my mind was almost asleep, with just one voice reminding me that I have to finish the decided distance. Some more effort, some dodging cars, and I finally finished my 7th lap. Then the energy seemed to pick up. The goal was almost in sight, not visibly, but reassuringly, in terms of numbers.
Now this stretch is close to the sea, and there is a strong wind blowing especially in the evenings. Hence on some stretches of the lap, it becomes really difficult to maintain pace with a strong resistance building up against you. Yet other stretches, where the road bent a little, seemed more favourable, and you could feel a small push that helped you pace faster.
Here I was, at the final turn, completing lap 8. And I continued. I had to go over the limit. After a little more mind-numbing peddling, I was done. Nine laps, and 39.6 km. Add the distance to and from home, and I had completed over 41 km. It had taken me a long 2 hours 40 minutes. Now I got to the calculations. On reading about how one should train for such events, I learned about how one needs to eat every hour, and drink every half an hour, and how one must learn to eat while on the bike.
That all came with a bit of a jolt, considering I had cycled 40+ km without any food or water during the run. And it had to take its toll. I was drained out and lethargic for the next 2 days. But then I got back to training, sometimes alternating cycling and brisk walking and even practicing eating and drinking while riding. Sometimes, in a span of 3 days, I ended up with a combination of 60 km cycling and 10 km walking, sometimes a little more.
Then one day, when following up with Godrej, I was informed that the event had been postponed, and the exact date was to be announced. That suddenly broke the pace of things, and I eased up quite a bit. A few weeks later, the website stated December 2nd as race day, and that the distance had been shortened. While the exact new distance was not stated, given the map, I estimated it at about 17 km. That was somewhat disappointing, considering I was longing for the 36 km experience. Again the excitement faded for a few days. Then, it picked up again and I returned to training. This time I thought I’d focus a bit on pace. After all the distance was shorter, so I might as well do it faster, considering I had trained for more than twice the distance.
I had a speedometer/ odometer [ODO] installed. It gave the necessary details: total/lap distance, maximum/ average speeds. With the ODO, came the obvious. To see how fast I could ride. Now remember again, this was a mountain bike, so it wasn’t the lightest thing on the road. And neither was I. I kept experimenting with timing the gear changes properly. I got up to a top speed of 34 km/h one day. Really thrilled about it, I continued trying. My cycle has extremely knobby tires, perhaps excellent for trail biking, but horrible for street riding. I did consider replacing them, but then decided to manage with the existing pair.
A rough pattern of wind direction on that stretch of road around that time of the evening had formed in my head, knowing which stretches had the minimum wind resistance. So I slowed down a bit before those parts, and with properly-timed gear changes and give-it-your-everything bursts, I clocked a top speed of 39.6 km/h. However, that strain caused a massive searing pain through my stomach and back. I was hoping I hadn’t toasted something on the inside, and decided to go a little easier the next time. While I never pushed it that much again, on several occasions, I rode hard till that pain just started, after which I eased up on the speed and effort. Unfortunately, I haven’t beaten that speed record of mine since.
I went on afternoon to pick up my registration kit. I still have my race sticker stuck on my cupboard. The kit included a helmet too, something I had not bought till then. But when I looked at the bright green helmet, it reminded me of half a watermelon, hollowed out. Not a problem, I thought. I even considered sticking some leaves in it, making it perfect military camouflage headgear.
Race day was fast approaching. I was getting really excited. Now, another issue popped up in my head. I was practicing in the evenings, sometimes nights. But the race was to start at 7 am on race day. Weather and body conditions are quite different at different times of the day. Your energy levels, the climate, etc. can significantly alter your performance. So on a few occasions, I reluctantly woke up early, grabbed a snack, and went for a few laps at 7 am. I realized I wasn’t able to pull off the same distances early in the day.
I had planned to stop cycling 2 days before the event to save up some energy for it. 3 days prior to that, I had limited the laps to a maximum of three. For the serious enthusiasts, it is also recommended that you refrain from having sex for at least a few days before an event. You can’t imagine the effects it can have on your endurance. That said, with a few days to go, I was now trying to imagine the track, and imagine myself during the event, to better understand the conditions, the feeling, requirements, etc.
The flavored energy bars I used to carry, I knew would not be easy to eat while riding, so I broke them into bite-sized pieces without opening the cover. It came in handy on race day, as I just had to tear open the pack, and could easily pop a piece with one hand whenever necessary. I figured that at 6:30-7 am on a December morning, the air might be a little chilly. So I considered covering my nose and mouth with a handkerchief/ bandana, but then somehow dropped the idea.
The final check. Tires were filled to optimum pressure. Water bottle was brimmed. Bike was clean. Energy bar broken into bite portions. Music playlist was ready too. Unfortunately I hadn’t had time to get the bike serviced, a big mistake, since I had hoped to have the wheels balanced to improve the speed and efficiency. I had however oiled all moving parts, so it was alright to an extent. The brakes were working alright too.Finally, race day arrived. I had planned to get plenty of sleep, but could hardly sleep more than a few hours due to the excitement. Another suggestion. Make sure you blow your nose well before you leave home. Funny as it might sound, your nose will be your air intakes during the race, so the least you can do is keep them ready for easy breathing. My folks were kind enough to sacrifice their sleep and drive me there on that Sunday morning. The road leading to the main venue was jammed.
An ocean of cars was visible in the sunrise, bicycles peeping out of the trucks or hanging on stands. At the venue, there was a lot of noise, a lot of show. The race was pushed back by half an hour. The chief guest was running late. For a chief guest, they had chosen a politician of all the people they could have invited. Now I had kept breakfast at a moderate, so as no to pack too much and feel sick with all the peddling. So I had expected the three eggs, 4 slices of bread, and a big mug of tea to see me through the race. I was hoping it would last the wait and the race too.
Anyway, he finally arrived. I was standing almost midway through the crowd, halfway to the entry of the complex, which was the starting point for the race. Scores of randomly placed bikes stood ahead and behind. I saw my folks at a distance, waving encouragingly. Seeing the excitement around, and proud that I was participating; they had decided to wait on. Someone announced that there were some foreigners who were apparently professional riders who were also participating. I saw some of them. They had some mean looking bikes with all kinds of kits and accessories. They looked like they could survive a month with that kind of gear.
A renowned fitness expert was there as part of the gig, and he was making the crowd leap to his warming up exercises. I zoned out with the music I had carried, and was doing my own warming up, impatiently waiting for the race to begin. I also knew that the breakfast was only going to last so long, so any delays would mean less energy. Apparently, there were over 3000 participants. That was terrific for a cold Sunday morning, I thought.
Finally, the politician flagged us off. It took a while for people to scramble shakily towards the narrow starting point. I was pushing myself along, till I got past the starting point, and then I saddled up and literally was on fire. Some participants were there for fun, some apparently not in the best of shape, participating for the spirit of the event, chugged along. Yet others, charged up as I was, fired through the crowd.
I sped ahead, but barely three quarters of a kilometer down, I regretted not covering my nose and mouth with a bandana. The cold air and the hard peddling were giving me a slight cold and running nose, and making breathing difficult. Nevertheless, I kept at it. I overtook several riders, some were a short distance ahead, some closing in from behind. Both silently urged me on.
The professional riders were way ahead by now, the gap between them and the next set of riders widening by the second. I finally got onto some familiar stretch of road. Not that it meant much or made any difference, but it was just that I somehow felt this was home territory. After a few minutes on that stretch was the moment I was waiting for. We turned in at high speed onto the sea link.
You can imagine and simulate race settings all you want, and yet, there will always be things on race day that will surprise you. The wind resistance on the sea link was unimaginably strong, and from constantly changing directions. I started taking small sips of water, and knew it was time for a little eating too. You have to eat long before you are going to need it, so don’t wait till you start getting hungry or powerless, it might be too late to serve the purpose by then.
One of the professionals had stopped and was filling air into the rear tire of his bike with a pump. I was shocked. What else did he bring along? Though yes, most professional bikers do carry air pumps, tire tubes even. Along the sea link, there were volunteers handing small bottles of water to cyclists. Several cyclists in front seemed to be amateurs, and not only were they throwing the bottle lids on the road, but after taking small sips, were tossing the almost full bottles themselves too, forcing me to zigzag my way to prevent risking losing balance over them.
The route was to head to the end of the sea link, turn back, and head back to the venue’s starting point. By the time I got to the end of the sea link, I was beginning to tire a bit. The long wait had used up my breakfast, and the new addition, my helmet, was resulting in a good amount of perspiration dripping off my forehead.
A few riders easily overtook me. There were now one or two familiar looking riders, those who had overtaken me earlier, and whom I was now overtaking. Every minute or two, I would push harder, either to overtake a rider in front, or to avoid being overtaken.
A few more pieces of the energy bar and some water went in. I knew I was not getting the timing too well. To understand the concept, try imagining making a glass of Tang. A few spoons of Tang (representing the food), and a glass of water (representing itself :P). Now imagine the cycling is draining that Tang and water in disproportionate quantities, and your objective is to keep the mix tasting ideal at all times, by accordingly adding more powder or water at regular intervals. The moment the taste goes off, you’re draining more energy than replenishing.
I got to the last section of the sea link, and having driven there often, I knew that the road slopes very slightly downward, so I geared up and pushed to the limit, just to set a maximum speed for myself. The ODO maxed at 38.7 km/h. I knew that was the fastest I could go right then, given the wind resistance, fatigue, etc. Nevertheless, I tried maintaining pace while getting back onto the main road.
As I got to the end of the familiar stretch, I noticed a lot of bystanders, watching riders zip past with curiosity. One section of road was blocked for the race, and I could see policemen holding traffic while we crossed an intersection. I was now onto the final kilometer. It was exhausting, considering it was non-stop unlike the breaks I got at signal lights during training. I still did all I could, to maintain pace.
As I neared the finishing point, there were a lot of people standing waiting and watching the cyclists return. I was coming in real fast, and had to take a sharp left to re-enter the venue. Just before taking that turn, another cyclist, clumsily lined up with me, perhaps fascinated by the crowd and oblivious to the fact that at that speed, we would be cutting too close while taking the turn in. Now normally I would have slowed down and let him pass, but the energy was just too high. I really didn’t care if it meant colliding and falling, I was not going to slow down. We barely managed through the turn, and slowed up ahead just behind the riders who had finished before, and were waiting.
I was exhausted, and drenched. A few moments later, I saw my folks waving. I got off the bike and walked a little unsteadily towards them. They were thrilled that I had finished the race, and reasonably fast too. My dad was kind enough to have stood at the finish line and kept count. He said I finished about 150th. I couldn’t believe that, considering the 3000+ participants and all the awesome bikes.
After that rush sank in, I felt the drain. I took some big bites of the energy bar, and came real close to blacking-out, but thankfully didn’t. I sat for 2-3 minutes, and then we were ready to leave. I heard the entire event went on for several hours after that, with a lot of celebrities involved. But I had a trip out of town planned with some relatives for later that day. So I left immediately, all the while savoring my own little personal victory.
I had taken 44.39 minutes to complete, averaging 23.2 km/h with a maximum speed of 38.7 km/h. A recovery breakfast at home, checking my personal race statistics and a 200-km drive followed that day. But that wasn’t half as exciting as the action-packed 17.3 km that morning.
What I did learn from this race, is that you don’t need competitors to perform or to do your best. And in the entire world, you could not possibly get a more worthy competitor, than yourself. So if you keep improving on where you were yesterday. Sooner or later, you will definitely achieve your goals and more. More often than not, your race is only with yourself.
So, get ready, set. And, firing on all cylinders, GO.!
P.S.: If you’ve made it so far, I thank you for reading this experience of mine, and encourage your to share your comments, either regarding this post, or about similar experiences of your own, not necessarily to do with biking. But about any race that you had, against yourself.