The Deccan Cliffhanger 2014

400 miles – Pune to Goa, India – 22 Feb 2014.

Two weeks ago I was commuting to work in London in the driving rain and wind when a woman pulled out of the traffic into my cycle lane without signalling and then forced her way back into the jam after I’d taken evasive action to go around her. Annoyed, I tapped on her window and we exchanged a few words: “You should look in your wing mirror before you do that, you could kill a cyclist”. Stunned driver: “I’ve never killed a cyclist”. An unbelievable interaction between 2 wheeler and 4 wheeler in our capital city.

I have a rule in London. If I have 3 near misses on the road on my commute home – I cut my 25 mile commute short and head to the nearest train station for a safer (if not just as frustrating) ride home. The last time was during the tube strike when it appeared that the majority of angry underground commuters had taken to their cars, some who clearly had never driven in rush hour.

Fast forward to Thursday 20th Feb, around 11:30am, to me sat in the passenger seat of an air-conditioned SUV, gripping my seat belt with clenched fingers as my driver weaved his way through the chaos of downtown Mumbai without any regard for red signals, turning traffic or suicidal pedestrians… all whilst taking 3 phone calls in the space of 5 minutes.

One of those calls was for me. I spoke to Divya – the organiser of the Deccan Cliffhanger race – and told her I was “experiencing the roads”. Her spot-on retort: “so, you’re wondering… where do I fit into this?”. Indeed I was. Amongst the Brownian motion of trucks, buses, cars, carts and mopeds – I couldn’t for one minute see how I would last more than a few pressure moments before an untimely squishing.

I made it to Pune in one piece and met up with the crew at Divya’s parents’ house. When I decided to take part, Divya had rallied the troops and found 3 awesome guys to assist me – Shilpa (owner of sports nutrition company On The Run), Hrushikesh (bike dealer and entrepreneur running Uberactive Ventures) and Ashok (“AC”, one of India’s first pro racers and snake expert!). These guys pulled together to organise a support vehicle and help find all the kit I couldn’t bring from the UK – all having never met me! Ashok reassembled my bike Trevor and Shilpa, Hrushi and I talked kit and tactics. I can’t express how indebted I am for their kindness – my first experience of the fantastic cycling community in India!

Keen to allay my traffic fears, Divya and Anil (both experienced Randonneurs) took me out the next morning for a “cycling on Indian roads 101” session. 20km of expert direction around Pune began, with warnings of what to look out for and the “rules”. My guidebook had already told me that there were NO rules, which certainly appeared to be true, aside from a general understanding to keep to the left except when a journey could be shortened and petrol saved by sticking to the right along the shoulder (or actually on the carriageway as it happens). This leads to the most important rule – if someone is coming towards you on the wrong side do not move to the outside… you must move into the faster moving traffic on the inside. Otherwise, the louder you honk your horn, the higher priority you have.

The day before the race meant registration, vehicle document inspection and shopping for 70 litres of water and copious supplies of food for both me and the crew. We intended to race without having to stop for any refuelling.  I had an early night, keenly aware that the guys were up late organising the car and preparing food and the first 10 bottles of fluid nutrition for the road trip.

The start, at the new Giant showroom in Pune, was pumping with loud music when we rocked up at 5am. The temperature was cool, (but fine enough for me to have bare arms and legs unlike the 15 layers I’ve been cycling in back home in the UK). I was first off at 5:40, winding my way out of the city on reasonably empty roads in the dark. The first bit is twisty with a few junctions where we were able to start the testing of the radios. Although I had the whole route on my Garmin, the team in the car were giving me plenty of warning of all turns which helped immensely on unfamiliar roads. It didn’t take long to leave the suburbs and to welcome the sun rising.

The route soon joined the Asian Highway – 47. All in, I cycled on this busy highway for about 350km. I didn’t realise until afterwards, it actually runs for over 2000km from Gwalior to Bangalore.  And there was me looking for training opportunities (to mimic US roads) on the longest straight road I could find in the UK (a pitiful 150km). I knew I was going to struggle mentally on this seemingly endless highway, spoilt by twisty-turny country roads in England… but I drew on immense admiration for cyclists in India. There are few opportunities for riding on routes other than highways. Indeed brevets and other long distance rides are covered purely on these highways.

At 85km I turned off the highway for my favourite section of the ride – a 40km rural road and stunning climb up to the Mahabaleshwar hill station. It was getting hot (up to 38C), but I was keeping hydrated and was actually blessed with a gentle breeze. One of my hopes for this race was to examine how I felt in the heat – this wasn’t as bad as I had thought. I was able to pedal steadily and unaffected by the temperature. The rewards at the top (altitude just over the height of the UK’s highest point – Ben Nevis) were the amazing views and the many roadside vendors of plump strawberries. I insisted that the crew should stop to stock-up, which they duly did and later passed me waving strawberries out of the car window. I sampled some at our next bottle changeover. How many rides are like this?

The descent off the plateau was awesome – I was reminded of the hairpins of Mallorca except with the added thrill of trying to guess which side of the road oncoming traffic would be on. I surprised a few drivers – who probably only saw a blur of pink and blue as I swept down the mountain tucking in as close to the side as possible. I lost the follow vehicle for a while, so stopped to take some photos – I wasn’t sure how far behind me they were – but they were out of range of the radios. They caught me at the bottom – apparently the car was harder to turn down the bends than my carbon steed. What an amazing 20km… I was almost tempted to go back up again!

We passed through a few villages, causing some interest, before rejoining the highway. Now the ride was going to get serious. I knew I’d already done the climbing and was making good time – but I was having a love/hate experience with the highway. I also knew I was going to be on this hectic, unpredictable scary road until well into the night. I hit 200km in 7.5 hours, very pleasing given the climbs… but was it sustainable? Only mental toughness could carry me through this.

I was on this road so long. I want to share some of the experiences… the kind of stuff you can’t believe until you see it for real. I’d always dreamed of travelling to India – it seemed incongruous that I’ve been to every continent and almost 80 countries, but not yet the world’s 2nd most populous (at 1.2bn people, 4 times more people than in the USA). I never thought I’d be cycling in India – but I’m not known for turning down an opportunity when it arises. This was me experiencing India at its closest.

You cannot avoid to notice how many people there are. Personal space is limited. We fought for our claim to the tarmac. The hierarchy is obvious. Truck wins… then bus… then car… then motorcycle/moped. Then the lowest; pedestrians and crazy people on bikes. I saw maybe 4 other cyclists on the highway.

Bullocks trump all.  I can only imagine the headlines of a farmer in the UK taking their livestock on the motorway, but in India this is the most natural occurrence. The bullocks, with their brightly painted long horns, pulled immense carts of sugar cane, or sticks?, in teams of 4 or 6. Herders would walk along behind or cling to the top of the cart. I thought I’d got used to seeing this, having passed dozens of carts… until I saw a cart coming towards me – not on the shoulder but in the FAST lane, the WRONG way. I know the animals are sacred, but this seriously seemed to be testing drivers’ convictions.

Actually seeing vehicles on the wrong side of the road was becoming normal. Cars and mopeds in particular. In the UK, this is the preserve of a confused elderly or drunk driver – but in India it’s accepted. I can honestly say I did not feel remotely sleepy on this highway – such was the constant state of alertness. The guys in the car behind me would often come over the radio to check I’d seen something untoward, for which I am grateful. It was difficult to relax.

My ears were becoming immune to the horns of vehicles. Essentially I took the noise to mean that I shouldn’t look behind me for fear of what I might see. Whether it was a bus squeezing through a non-existent gap to gain a few metres over a fast moving truck or someone upset about another driver sitting in the fast lane. I say upset, because that’s what UK drivers would be – but actually there was no menace – just an audible warning of change to the equilibrium. It worked. Nobody crashed despite the lane changing chaos. I saw close shaves, but it just worked.

One of the most amusing parts of the ride was over-taking mopeds, often loaded down by two or three riders. They would be dithering on the shoulder, with no hurry to get anywhere, and I would need to pass – this was a race right? The look of utter bewilderment as a woman on the drops of a road bicycle passed at 35-40kmph will stay with me for a while. Some caught me up again for a chat. Some just stared. Mopeds that passed me, often had a rider perched dangerously on the back who would turn 180 degrees to gawp at the cyclist they were passing, before returning to their world as if nothing was amiss.

The most incredulous thing I saw was a woman balanced sideways on the back of a moped, not holding on,  speeding along the highway, with a tiny baby cradled in her arms! You couldn’t fall asleep on this highway – such was the astonishing people-watching.

Another unexpected feature of this highway was the numerous toll booths. We always had a 1km warning and just as we neared I would have to go to the left, through a barrier, whilst the support car queued up to pay. In the dark I had to wait for them to get through the traffic, but in daylight I could carry on going. I never found out what the tolls were for, but I don’t think it was road improvements.

I hit 300km in just over 11 hours, near Kolhapur. Somewhere near here my feet really started to hurt. This was not good – hot foot after 300km is less than ideal and something which has now moved to the top of my “needs attention” list. The crew were awesome – when I stopped for some food AC held ice packs to my feet, which although hilariously ticklish, held off the pain in my feet for a couple of hours at the time.

As the route darkened, and I was clad in my fluorescent gilet, I found myself STILL on this highway. The traffic lessened in the night, for which I was grateful. We were ploughing away at quite a speed when I heard a dog in the darkness. It was howling like an injured pet. As soon as I saw it, I slammed on my brakes, practically threw my bike at AC who had jumped out of the car and ran back to the dog. It was the cutest puppy, sat by the side of the road. The traffic was fast moving within about a metre of it. I ran at it with my arms wide and tried to shoo it off the road. Stupidly the animal ran the other direction. A second attempt managed to get it off the road and into the side ditch where another puppy had appeared. This always happens to me – I get distracted by animals whilst cycling (whether it was snails on LEL or the sheep that was caught in its feeder) and have to stop. AC claimed the puppies had a system – one would try and get human attention and then his mates would jump out when a sucker was drawn in. That’s me.

I reached 400km in just over 15 hours. This statistic has got me thinking. A successful RAAM requires at least 375km per day. Covering 400km so quickly has made me wonder about the amount of sleep I could have if I sustained this performance. Just another thing to think about. RAAM is not about cycling, but what happens off the bike.

I couldn’t believe I was eventually turning off this highway at about 485km. Now I was already thinking a finish within 24 hours was possible. I knew the last 100 miles were effectively downhill to the coast. Oh – how wrong I was.

The team were excited when I went through 500km in 19.5 hours. We’d lost a bit more time seeing to my painful feet again. Plus some route issues following a time station.

The first part of the westbound route to Goa passes through the forested Anshi Tiger Reserve. Now, I don’t know about you, but there is one word which terrifies me about that route description. That’s right – “forested”. My experience of the goblins in trees in Race Around Ireland still haunts me. But in all seriousness, I was worried about stripy orange cats too. I started to imagine that they were watching me. These weren’t hallucinations – I was far too awake. I didn’t experience anything like the strangeness of 4 days into RAI. The forest was dark and twisty.

Shortly, we knew we were going to encounter what had been described in the race documentation as “a few bad patches” of road. When the road disappeared in my headlight I simply thought this was a “bad patch”. I actually unclipped and carried my bike for 50m, across stony rubble, wobbling in my cleated shoes. I got back on when it seemed to improve, only to cycle for about 5 pedal turns before the same surface appeared. The crew behind me, were apologetic and also mildly concerned that this was slightly worse than they had also expected. The second time, I decided to stay on my bike. I was literally mountain biking. We had a spare hybrid on the back of the car – but we also knew it had picked up a random puncture whilst on the bike rack, so swapping out wasn’t an option unless we took the decision to lose time. I carried on…

… for FORTY kilometres….

This is the distance of my commute to work. My sense of humour was beginning to fail. We’d stopped numerous times to assess the situation (wasting over 2 hours over our average speed predictions). Hrushi was starting to feel really car-sick on the uneven surface. We’d all had some caffeine to gain some alertness – but actually the “road” was so tricky there was no danger of falling asleep. I was getting pain in my undercarriage, feet and hands – in fact anything that was touching the bike. The blisters on my hands are just mending now.

As the road improved, in the early morning, we’d promised each other “breakfast in Goa!”. We were on a mission now to get out of this potholed hell and get to the beach. The air was cool, and I’d had to change into long tights and a wind jacket. There was a thick fog as we descended. The road may have been better but it was completely untrustworthy – I never got my speed up, fearing more holes in my path. The car had already hit a huge gaping trench and I was following trucks which were weaving all over the road. “Drive on the left of the road….” or “drive on what’s left of the road” resonated in my head. I could only see bends coming up by looking at my Garmin screen (dutifully recording the whole ride, and being powered by an external battery pack by this stage).

As the fog lifted we had a twisty road down for the last 50km. The road surface had a light coating of sand, which terrified me. I’m a cautious descender and the idea of wiping out on a corner this late into the race, kept my speed steady and me alert until the end.

We knew the finish of the official timed section of the race was in Old Goa, at the Ghandi Circle. But we couldn’t find it – we were a few kms out on our estimations, so that last part was a constant desperate hope that the finish was around the corner. And it’s not flat at the end – there were a few tricky climbs to negotiate and about 30 speed bumps which were playing havoc with my feet and bottom!. Eventually we found our way to the finish and pulled into a busy side street to a reception from a few race officials.

After a brief stop for some tea, toilet facilities and more ice on my feet, we dawdled the last 10km to Panjim (the capital city of Goa), safe in the knowledge that we were going to have breakfast in Goa! I never saw any of the other racers after about 75km, but we had no idea how far ahead we were. There was no welcome at the proper race finish, but unperturbed we headed straight for food and coffee in the glorious morning sunshine. A little while later, we were met by one of the sponsors who apologised profusely for not being at the finish line – he hadn’t expected anyone for another 3 hours. Ooops.

With the time adjusted for the un-timed section and earlier route diversions I finished with an official time of 26 hours 46 minutes – almost 3.5 hours ahead of the second place rider. My Garmin showed a moving time of 24 hours and 17 minutes. I recorded not just the fastest female time, but the fastest time overall, beating the solo men and relay teams.

This result is a testament to the brilliant crew I was lucky enough to be put in contact with. Shilpa, Hrushi and AC were novices, but what an asset! We worked really well together with our common strategy of minimising lost time. Every planned stop was slick and unplanned stops were handled superbly. I’m indebted to these guys for, not just a good result, but for an amazing experience cycling across India. THIS is what ultracycling is about.

Tomorrow I’ll be cycling in central London again. Will I view it differently? Who knows. But one thing is certain – I want to go back to India. There is so much more I want to see, that I couldn’t possibly have seen in my short trip. I think I’ve found a place I can relate to – the love of my favourite animal, the cow, and incredible vegetarian food. Not to mention the hospitality of the people and the chance meeting of new friends. When’s my next holiday??

More photos can be found here.