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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Addiction That is TFN! Why I Look Forward to the Tour of Nilgiris Every Year!

This is a guest blog I wrote to VeloCrush whose Abhishek Tarfe and I will be blogging at TFN this year. 

The Begginings of An Addiction!
Oct 2008 is when I got into cycling. Dec 2008 is the year that Tour of Nilgiris started. It was only natural that I got to hear about the tour that went through some of the most beautiful country roads and hills. I poured over every ride story during that time and every story that I read about the tour only fueled my resolve to be part of the tour one day.

The first week I moved to Bangalore in Dec 2010, I happened to go to the post tour party to meet my friends from Hyderabad who were part of the tour that year. Hearing the stories from each of the participants during the course of that evening only made my resolve to ride the tour stronger. I decided it was time and applied to be part of the tour in 2011. The only bike I had that time was my fixed gear bike and so I decided I'll train to do the tour on the same bike.

To see if I can climb for long distances on that bike, I decided to attempt Ooty as a test. After managing that, my apprehension reduced slightly or so I thought. But it is when my registration was accepted in June 2011 that the reality of the challenge hit me and the mild apprehension turned to a debilitating trepidation. I was about 78kgs in June 2011 that was something that I had been maintaining after losing 16kgs to come down to 76 from 92 during 2008. But I knew that I had to lose some more weight and train a lot more if I were to manage riding TFN. I knew continuing to be a weekend warrior won't be enough. So, I started riding at least 4-5 days a week.

During the next six months that followed, until the tour in Dec 2011, I had lost 12kgs to reach 66kgs and rode about 11,000km including multiple visits to Nandi. I was consumed by the fear of not being able to complete the tour. It got me out of the door and made me ride rain or shine. It was training for the tour that changed me completely and the tour itself was a fantastic experience. I had a blast riding with some of the best riders in the country and picked up some invaluable tricks of the trade from them. Friendships for life were forged during those exciting 7 days of the tour even as TFN got me hooked to cycling for life.

Hooked For Life!
I came back next year and the year after that and the year after(this year). Every year I meet great people and ride in some of the most challenging and beautiful terrains in southern India. Every year the tour is the same and yet it is so different. Every year there are familiar faces who are similarly addicted to the tour and can't stay away from its calling every December. And every year there are new people with their own awesomeness to wonder and learn from. Every year there are new friendships being forged and memories of a lifetime being taken home.

It is not just the riders but also the volunteers that make the tour as awesome as it is. Their constant energy and enthusiasm to make sure that you don't need to worry about anything but your ride is simply awesome.  

Every year there is something different in terms of the excitement, be it the high of the competitive sections or the mind boggling challenges like Kalahatty. Every year the pristine beauty of the routes seem to keep getting better. This year additions include the challenging long climbs on the way to Palakad and Munnar adding to the already daunting challenge of Kalahatty.

The mind-blowing scenic beauty and mind-numbing challenges go hand in hand when it comes to Tour of Nilgiris. The exciting anticipation and anxiety always tend to go hand in hand when I think of the tour. No wonder I am addicted to TFN like so many others who had ridden the tour at least once. 

Less than a month to go. Can't wait!

TLDR: Those beautiful winding roads amongst the most scenic of settings, those hills that make your legs and lungs scream, those awesome people you get to meet and ride with. What more does one need? No wonder I'm addicted to #TourOfNilgiris and look forward to it every year with delightful anticipation mixed with anxiety.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Suffering On A Merry-Go-Round: BBCh Bharathiya City Criterium

Criterium races a.k.a Crit races are usually organized in on a circuit course that is usually short(1km-2km). They are usually time bound( around 1hr) and the winner will be the one who does most number of laps of the circuit or finishes first in the given time. There are variants of crit races with sprint points allotted to each of the predetermined laps(eg., odd/even numbered laps, bell laps etc.) and the rider with most points wins the race. 

Crits are usually great spectator races as the spectators get to watch the riders go by multiple times and get to watch the race dynamics evolve before them with each passing lap. However, these races tend to be tough on the riders as the shorter the race(~1hr) the more intense it tends to be. With multiple turns involved, the riders need good bike handling skills. Corners and u-turns also mean a lot of slowing down in the corners and accelerations out of them. So, the riders with good bike handling skills and having the capacity to produce innumerable short bursts of high power over the course of the race tend to do better.
The boomerang like crit circuit(1.4km) at Bharathiya City!
The circuit for the final race of the road season at BBCh is a boomerang shaped circuit of 1.4km inside Bharathiya City with a couple of U-turns and a couple of 90 degree turns. It has no major climbs but there is a slight uphill riding into the headwinds after we take the first 90 degree turn after the start. Having to hit it every couple of minutes could get to your legs especially after all the accelerations out of the corners on every lap.

It is all about getting your mind and body into the hurt zone and staying there for the duration of the race. 

Get..Set.. Go Suffer!!
Due to the long weekend and a relatively short notice with the change of venues at the last moment, the turn-out for the race wasn't like the usual high turnout we got used to seeing at the BBCh. So, the master's race was combined with Cat1 and we were started together. The action picked up right away as the race was flagged off and the immediate accelerations managed to make a quick selection of 7 riders at the front.

Team Mongrels riders Ramesh and Gokul, team Trek Firefox riders Sarvesh and Surender were the Cat1 riders in the front group to which 3 masters riders latched onto. Dr. Arvind Bhateja and myself from team Spectrum racing and Kevin, a burly Aussie who landed in Bangalore 6 weeks back after 4 years in Shanghai, were hanging on to the front four. I could see my teammates Hari Menon and Bjorn Suetens riding a few meters behind us. Deepak Mhasavade a master's contender from Cleated Warriors was a bit behind them. Others were spread out through the circuit.

Lap after lap the younger lot kept a high pace and did many accelerations but the three of us managed to hang on. But after 20mins of that, they managed to develop a gap with an acceleration on the little uphill. After that Arvind began to set the pace with me and Kevin hanging on. Hari and Bjorn managed to bridge up to us and the 5 of us formed a second group on the road. With four of us from one team, it was obvious that we wanted to distance Kevin with a strong ride. But he was riding very strong and not only kept up but also did a couple of short turns at the front.

With Arvind, Bjorn and Hari sharing the load, I was conserving and letting the clock tick by. 35mins into the 45 min race, Hari got to the front and hit the accelerator on the uphill section and we could see that Kevin was distanced a little. I decided to get out of the protective shield of my teammates and accelerated to ensure he doesn't get back to us after we make the U-turn and go downhill. I managed to stay off at the front for the next four laps until the finish with Arvind, Bjorn and Hari finishing after me.

U-18 Category had a solo participant in a 9 year old Shashank Bhat. It was heartening to see the youngster's enthusiasm for the sport. I'm sure we will see more of him in the futures as he matures and gets himself a better bike. 
The sole participant and winner of under-18 race
Women's Category saw just two participants in Vicki Nicholson from team Spectrum Racing and Fariyal Jamadar of Specialized Kynkyny Cycling Team. Fariyal had a mechanical(she managed to tear off the pedal from her bike) and could not finish the race. With this race, Vicki winds up a super consistent road season and finishes at the top of overall championship and wins herself an entry into the Tour of Nilgiris.

Vicki claiming her spot on the women's podium again!
In Cat2 race which had the most number of participants, Karthik Padmanabhan, the diesel engine from team Mongrels from Chennai broke away right at the start and stayed at the front all the way to the finish. No one could bring him back despite trying to work together. It was an impressive ride from him. Vishwesh Arya of team Trek Firefox finished 2nd with the Cleated Warrior duo Ganapathy Subramanian and Thoudam Opendro Singh finished 3rd and 4th respectively. It was great to see some team work at CW during the race. 
Cat2 Podium
In the Master's category, I've managed to finish first thanks largely to the superb team support that I was privileged to have during the race. Arvind who hates crits and was vary of racing because he was coming back from a recent back problem that got him bed-ridden just a couple of weeks back, only signed up for the race to be there to help me. He not only managed that but also finished second with a superb ride through out. Bjorn and Hari finished 3rd and 4th respectively after doing massive work. Cycling is a team sport and only a great team can put an average rider on the podium consistently with great teamwork- like my team has managed to do this year. Thank you guys!
Master's category podium
In Cat1, Ramesh of team Mongrels finished first with Surender of Team Trek Firefox Racing finishing behind him. The fight at the top was intense and we were there to witness it for the first half of the race while we were trying to hang on to them. Sarvesh(TTFR) and Gokul of Team Mongrels rode very well in support of their teammates and finished 3rd and 4th respectively.
Cat1 Podium, Ramesh of team Mongrels and Surender of team Trek Firefox

And That's A Wrap:
This is the last race in the road series at BBCh for 2014. Thanks to all the volunteers and sponsors for bringing consistently great races this season. Thanks to Bharathiya City for offering the venue for the race. Although I no longer ride an MTB, I'm looking forward to the dirt series races starting next month at BBCh.

Here are a few photos from the race!

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Windy Race On Winding Roads! - The BBCh Gunjur Lake Circuit Race!

3 km to go. Hari goes to the front yet again after driving the pace on the climbs till then and I stay on his wheel as the pace picks up. 2 km to go. Hari was still driving the pace in the high 40 kmph range. 1 km to go. Hari shows no sign of letting up but the kids finally wake up and take it up a notch higher and I grab one of their wheels. 500 m to go. Another goes to the front and I get on his wheel. 400 m, 300 m, 100 m to go.. it's all a blur. Furiously pedaling legs, violently pounding heart in an aero-tucked chest.. 50 m to go.. I stand up to open my sprint.. furiously mashing on the pedals, dodging a change of line in front, narrowly escaping an high-speed crash and crossing the line relieved, cross-eyed and spent! Phew!

Gunjur Lake Circuit Race!
Gunjur lake? Where is that? Leave it to the cyclist to show you the roads less traveled and give you a lesson in geography including an exhaustive analysis of the elevation profiles involved. Gunjur lake is a small lake in the valley created by a few hills of which Makalidurga, a hill with a fort on top is well known among local trekkers. The Circuit for this race is set in the Nandi Valley, with the imposing rock face of Makalidurga Hill to the west and Gunjur Lake to the East.   
The Route of the BBCh-Circuit Race: Image Source: BBCh FBpage
All of us get bored riding the same roads every day but most of us focusing on just getting a workout don't take the pains to explore new routes as watching the numbers on the Garmin takes precedence over the varying terrain and scenery. But there are those who despite the focus on numbers also go exploring new routes and come back with refreshed minds and stronger legs. Events like BBCh take inputs from such folks and help introduce those routes to the rest of us.

Around 50 of us got together at Nandi base this Sunday and after completing the bib collection formalities, were flagged off exactly on schedule at 7:30am. With the race starting more than 50km away from the city, the comparatively lesser number of riders wasn't a surprise. That was a blessing in disguise for this race as the country roads that the race went through were not that wide and are apt only for a small field at best.

The Rolling Start To The Rolling Hills:
The road from the start point at Nandi base till Doddaballapur is quite narrow and the road widening work going on at the moment meant it was not good for racing. So, the organizers wisely decided on a rolling start for the first 18km, until we get to and out of Doddaballapur town. The rolling start gave the riders a chance to catch up with friendly chat, leaving the sizing up of each other with attacks for later on. 

After the 18km from the Nandi base, once the race gets onto the Gunjur lake road, we were supposed to ride 14km out and then take a U-turn to ride 14km back to the start/finish area and repeat it two more times completing three loops in all making it a distance of 102km overall. But in actuality, the race ended up being nearly 106km as the length of each loop was longer than 28km. Each loop drops about 200m in elevation and gains it back on the way back to the start. With three loops, it was a sort of hill repeats session.  

Route elevation profile! Image Source: BBCh FBpage
Winds Come Calling on Winding Roads!
As soon as the neutral section ended, the racing action got underway. We could feel the howling cross winds right away as they kept pushing us sideways. Naveen John(NJ) of Specialized KYNKYNY Cycling Team(SKCT), Sarvesh Sangarya of Team Trek Firefox Racing(TTFR) and Michael of Team LifeCycle Racing(TLCR) stepped on the gas at the front to pare the group down. That immediately fractured the large group into a peloton of about 25. About 3-4km into the first loop, a few riders rode off to the front while the rest of us sat back and watched them go. It had a couple of Team Mongrel riders from Chennai, a couple of TLCR riders from Pune, Sarvesh of TTFR, Ankush Sharma of Team ProCycle, Naveen Raj of SKCT and Arvind Bhateja of Spectrum Racing. 

With his intent of working for the team and putting me on the podium, our skipper Arvind was seen at the head of the peloton right from the start. His job was to cover attacks and having seen a master's contender Ankush riding away, he just tried to cover that. He apparently didn't realize that he was in a break until one of his breakaway partners at the time, Sarvesh suggested working together to drive the gap bigger. Having apparently seen that there isn't proper coordination in the group and with his main rivals behind, Sarvesh decided to drop back to the peloton. Ankush too dropped back to the bunch while the rest kept driving the break. Naveen Raj rode off on his own at the first sight of a hill and left Gokul of team Mongrels, Chaitanya of TLCR and Arvind of Spectrum racing as the second group on the road. 

Just Another Leisurely Sunday Ride?
Back in the peloton, the action was calm for a while before NJ, Michael and Sarvesh rode away along with a couple of other riders. That made our group about 15 riders 4th on the road. My teammate, Hari Menon was at the head with me close behind him and the rest of the riders behind us. Apart from a few short digs that went no where, there wasn't much trouble from others and that let Hari set a tempo at the front. He continued to do so even after we made the U-turn and took on the climb. His strong pace on the climb kept everyone honest and panting. As we approached the start/finish area, we could see that Naveen Raj had a huge gap from the rest with NJ, Michael and Sarvesh riding as a second group. 

Seeing that the third group of Arvind, Gokul and Chaitanya also had a good gap on our group, Hari and I decided to back off from the pace making a little to give Arvind a chance. If he is able to stick with the break, he would end up winning the master's category since the rest of the master's contenders were all in our group. So, by continuing to set the pace for the group, we didn't want to end up chasing down our own teammate. While we backed off the pace, no one was willing to set the pace themselves. 

Occasionally guys like Ankush(Team ProCycle) came to the front but obviously didn't want to take up the chase on their own. Nagaraj Harsha would get bored sitting in the group and would attack it just to fall back after a minute or so. The rest of the guys mostly cat2 and Under-18 riders didn't have any interest in setting the pace were quite content following the wheels. Vivek Radhakrishnan of SKCT who is one of the main master's contenders didn't want to chase and burn himself out but tried his luck by trying to motivate the younger riders to ride at the front and drive the pace but got no takers. So, Hari and I kept the pace low in the second lap and saw that even at the start of the 3rd lap Arvind was still with the group and had a huge gap on us. We decided to see how he is doing on the final return leg and continued at a steady pace. 

By the third lap, NJ, Michael and Sarvesh caught Naveen Raj and four of them were riding together. As we approached the final U-turn however, we saw that NJ has ridden away from the rest and had a massive lead on the final stretch before the climb started. Sarvesh and Michael were riding together and Naveen Raj was distanced. Behind them, the initial breakaway group of Gokul, Chaitanya and Arvind broke up too with Gokul riding off with Chaitanya a few meters behind him and Arvind distanced a little further. But Arvind still had more than a couple of km on our group and seeing him Hari and I were pretty sure that our team is going to take the master's win. 

The Messy Dash For The Line:
Now, it was just about fighting it out for second with Vivek, Jon and Ankush. At the start of the 3rd lap Vivek got to the front and tried driving the pace and hoped that it would wake the youngsters up and get them to take the pace up. But the kids were having none of it. His repeated assurances that we were no threat to their placings as they are in a different category had little effect as well. He got to the front on the climb part and started driving the pace but slowly Hari took it up a notch higher and I followed him. Vivek quickly took my wheel and stayed there for the rest of the way. I was vary of him being there because if I'm not fast enough in the sprint, I would end up being a perfect lead-out man for him. I had to brush those doubts aside and just focus on the job ahead. By the end of the climb part Hari managed to work up a sweat on everyone.

3 km to go. Hari goes to the front yet again after driving the pace on the climbs till then and I stay on his wheel as the pace picks up. 2 km to go. Hari was still driving the pace in the high 40 kmph range. 1 km to go. Hari shows no sign of letting up but the kids(Makarand) finally wake up and take it up a notch higher and I grab one of their wheels. 500 m to go. Another rider(Aunsh) goes to the front and I get on his wheel. 400 m, 300 m, 100 m to go.. it's all a blur. Furiously pedaling legs, violently pounding heart in an aero-tucked chest.. 50 m to go.. I stand up to open my sprint.. furiously mashing on the pedals, dodging a change of line in front, narrowly escaping an high-speed crash and crossing the line relieved, cross-eyed and spent! Phew!

With all the youngsters in the mix, the sprint was messy and we almost crashed. I had to dodge a change of line in front of me and that meant Vivek and Jon behind me had a scare of their life as well. Thankfully all of us managed to keep the rubber side down. In fact, Jon's rear tire rubbed off so much as he braked at that speed that threads were visible on it in a little patch. Sorry guys.

The Results:
The Under-18 riders seemed to have the race smarts to conserve through most of the race and unleash their speed for a dash for the line. They stayed in our group and rode the wheels well. May be with more racing they would understand that it wouldn't hurt to contribute to pace making once in a while. It is indeed heartening to see more and more youngsters getting into the sport and displaying excellent capabilities. 

The podium was an all TLCR(Pune) affair with Aunsh finishing 1st followed by Makarand(2nd) and Rishabh(3rd).
Aunsh(1st), Makarand(2nd) and Rishabh(3rd) in Under 18 cat. An all TLCR affair! 
In women's category there were no surprises. Vicki Nicholson of Spectrum racing did a great race again to finish well ahead of many and won the women's race. Laura May finished second having fought the windy and hilly conditions well.
Women's podium! Spectrum Racing's Vicki followed by Laura May!
In the Master's category, the neuro-surgeon finally managed to tackle his problems with cramps and rode like a boss to finish miles ahead of the field. Arvind took all the suffering and took the pressure off the rest of his teammates(Hari and me). A well deserved victory for our skipper who manages to juggle crazy work schedule, family commitments and training and keeps inspiring all of us in the team. I managed to finish second in the messy sprint ahead of Vivek and Jon May. Hari finished 5th after working all day at the front.
Master's podium!
In Category 2, Gokul(Team Mongrels) and Chaitanya Velhal(TLCR) rode in the break all day and finished first and second in cat 2. A great ride by both of them and a well deserved podium. Karthik Padmanabhan of Team Mongrels finished 3rd followed by Nagaraj Harsha at 4th.
Cat 2 Podium! Gokul and Karthik of Team Mongrels 1st and 3rd! Chaitanya of TCLR, 2nd Photo: Gratian Mathew Govias
In Cat 1, the fight at the helm of the affairs evolved quite interestingly. With Naveen Raj riding away and staying ahead for most of the way and then Naveen John delivering the master stroke to ride to the win once Naveen Raj was caught, it might seem like SKCT had it easy. But that was far from the case. Michael(TLCR) was a real threat in the hills as he showed in the Nandi race and the featherweight Sarvesh(TTFR) of course is a perennial threat when the road points upwards. It was a tough fight for second with the Bangalore lad managing to ride away from Michael in the later half of the final lap.
Cat 1 Podium! Naveen John(1st) and Sarvesh(2nd)
I will update the post with overall results once they are made available. 

Thanks a ton to all the volunteers at BBCh who executed an awesome race again. Thanks to all the sponsors and the medical support team from Sita Bhateja hospital and Spectrum Physio center.

Prizes: The cat 1 winner got a LUMOS solar backpack. Other category winners got a Firefox jersey. For all categories, the second place got a Super-B tool kit while the 3rd place got Super-B bike cleaning brushes.     
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