Cycling for a noble cause, the Desert 500 2016 experience

During the early stages of the ride

After a gap of two years the Montra Desert 500 Ultra cycling event was held at Jodhpur on 26th /27th February, 2016. I had successfully completing the 250 kms challenge at the 2013 edition and I was keen on taking the challenge once again, two years later at the age of 67 years!

The pre-event lead up:

The three months leading up to the event was an important phase for me to take a final call on participating in the 250 kms challenge with a more plausible and less arduous 100 kms ride beckoning. As I moved to Bangalore for the months of December and January I decided to invest in an additional cycle, a Giant Roam 3, as in any case I would be spending several months every year at Bangalore.

Cycling in Bangalore was quite enjoyable particularly on the highway leading to the airport and beyond on the road to Hyderabad. Over three months I rode in excess of 1250 kms with the maximum single ride of 90 kms. Not much to write home about but since I was on rolling roads at Bangalore, this was reasonable training. Regular rides of 50 kms on the Gurgaon Faridabad road prior to that and thrice a week sessions with a personal trainer also helped keep me reasonably fit.

But the motivation to ride 250 kms was elusive as I had not been testing my ageing body on long rides. At the last event I remember how exhausting it was as I battled strong head winds and an upward incline on the way back. Over the last 25 kilometers I was bone tired and weary and had to stop every few kilometers to ease the pain in my legs. There had to be a strong reason to take the strain and pain once again. I decided to dedicate my ride to the cause of cancer care and treatment of the under privileged and partnered with the Indian Cancer Society.

This is a cause very dear to my heart and that of my family as we have lost several family members to the dreaded disease. There was no looking back after that, I was committed to take the 250 kms challenge and told the world about it as I embarked on a mission to spread the message of cancer care for the poor and the work being done by the Indian Cancer Society.

Onwards to Jodhpur:

I was thankful that my cycling buddy Sunil Batra agreed to ride with me for the 250 kms challenge. He had initially not planned to participate but on hearing of my dedication and on my resolve to cycle 250 kms, he has inspired enough to support me. We hired a Zoom Car and Sunil arranged a driver as both of us and my wife Deepa set off by road for the day long journey to Jodhpur on the 25th February. Deepa was initially not going to join us and she was encouraging me to take the 100 kms ride without a back up vehicle and to finish the ride well before nightfall.  On hearing of the dedication of my ride to cancer care, she willing agreed to come along and man the support vehicle. She was also happy that Sunil would be with me and urged us to ride together in the dark unlike last time when Sunil and ridden on a couple of hours ahead of me.

We packed our cycles and secured them on the roof carrier of the Scorpio we had hired as we leisurely made our way over the 600+ kms to Jodhpur. Thankfully the roads were very good and traffic reasonable so we had a pleasant journey with several rest pauses. Thankfully the Jat agitation that threatened to be a dampener had eased off by then and we had no trouble enroute. We checked in at Jodhpur around 8.30 pm at the Bijolai Palace Hotel.  It was near the Kailana Lake and was very well situated and had a beautiful setting.

The next day we assembled our cycles and then set off on a rece of the route. We had heard that the first 15 kilometres or so was bad and wanted to get a feel of the conditions. The first stretch was indeed quite bad with climbs and descents that worried us as we would have to do these climbs on our way back when we would be very tired. Stray dogs were also a menace and prevented us from making a very early morning start ahead of the rest of the riders. The road leading on for the next stretch of 10 kilometers was also very daunting as it was quite narrow and cobbled at certain stretches  with loads of traffic . All in all we were very disappoint and felt that this was a much more challenging route than what we experienced at the last edition of the event.

The 250 kms challenge:

On the 27th February we set off just a little ahead of the group at 6.30 am. Dawn had not yet broken so the roads were still dark as we negotiated the early treacherous stretches. Stray dogs gazed at us tensely and suspiciously but the presence of a support vehicle driving just behind us honking away kept them at bay. Luckily traffic at that time of the morning was low and we could cycle without too much of difficulty. Soon the sun arose from its slumber and the reassuring morning light and pleasant temperature of 13/14 C allowed us very pleasant riding.

Negotiating the early treacherous stretch 

We stocked our support vehicle quite liberally with water, energy drinks, energy bars, some snacks and dried fruits, bananas and oranges and we were confident that we would not need to depend on the refreshment points. The support vehicle driving to and fro along the way as we cycled was very comforting. Sunil rode on ahead but would stop from time to time as I caught up with him; having the company of another rider is also a luxury I never usually have when I cycle even during the last Desert 500 event.

We reached the turning point at the 125 kms mark quite comfortably at 1.15 pm after riding at an easy pace for 6 hours 45 mins. On the way back after a half hour halt at the turning point we had to contend with the blazing sun and temperatures in excess of 33C. We decided to halt at 10 kms intervals to drink fluids and stay hydrated. I found it refreshing to wash my face and pour a little water over my head. We didn’t feel the need to be overly aggressive about our ride timings.

It was around the 160 kms mark that Sunil had a puncture which took some time for us to fix. He had a set of spares tubes and I had brought along a pump. When we were finally all done and recommenced our ride I had a back wheel puncture about 5 kilometers ahead. Thankfully Sunil was just about a kilometre in front and turned back to help. Back wheel puncture repairs are a bit trickier and I was happy to have his help.

12764662_10153581815713402_2869985880773048626_oSoon the intensity of the sun eased off and from 4.30 pm to about 6.30 pm we had a very comfortable ride. We were riding on an incline; the roads were good, traffic sparse and the weather reasonably cool. Nightfall was around the corner and at the 210 kms mark and we decided to ride together, prudently at an easy pace, with the head lights of our support vehicle lighting the way for us. I felt less discomfort and only the tiredness which was natural when you are on a long ride like this thankfully less pain and stress than what I had experienced over the final stretches at the last event. Sunil, felt giddy and unsteady about 25 kilometres from the finish, probably due to an aggravation of spondylitis caused by fatigue. He took a half hour medical time out and then felt better and we cycled on.

The final stretch was challenging as the road condition was not good and lorries screeched their way past us with horns blaring. We even had a couple of wild boars race across the road in front of us. We finally cycled past the finish line at 10.30 pm. We had taken in all a modest 16 hours to complete 250 kilometres with 12hrs and 25 minutes saddle time, which is the actual cycling time. The balance being rest pauses. We lost about an hour due to the two punctures we had and about half an hour for the medical time out Sunil needed towards the end.

We missed the post event party but that was not something that worried us. I was extremely happy that I had dedicated my ride to the cause of cancer care for the poor and I was happy that my efforts of raising funds resulted in donations of Rs 1,12,500/- to the Indian Cancer Society thanks to the generosity of family and friends.



The Desert 500 cycling experience

When it   was all over, I felt I had taken a few wise decisions, had ridden within my limitations, was happy with the distance covered i.e. 200 kms, a first for me, and had quite a lot in the tank to spare!! For the last four month or so, I was consumed with the preparation, excitement and tinges of anxiety as the event approached, never knowing if I had it in my aging bones to ride for such a long distance or over such a long period of time. I never had any clue how my body would react or cope. I suppose all the uncertainty and apprehension is part of the adventure and excitement of an event of this nature.

Desert 500 was flagged off on 28th November,2012  from a stud farm on the out skirts of Jodhpur .There are abundant  stories of courageous riders pushing themselves to the limit , riders who had a bad day but nevertheless fought pain and disappointment  to complete their category, 500 kms or 250 kms . For the less enterprising there were rides of 150 kms and even 50 kms for the cycling novices. The accolades and face book posts of rider’s satisfaction with the event and it’s organization, not withstanding glitches here and there, spoke volumes for the Race Director, Vijay Dhawan  and his crew comprising of Anuj , Karan Singh and the others, who toiled over three days and sleepless nights to ensure the success of the event.

The event took birth in a meeting of a core group of 13 of us at the Capital Trust office in Friends Colony. Everyone was excited about conducting a challenging event of this nature besides wanting to participate and excel. No one was sure how many participants would register; gestimates varied from a little over 50 to several hundreds ! Eventually over a 150 intrepid riders lined up at the start point. Commendable for a first time event. We heard that the Himalayan MTB challenge, now in its 7th year, attracted just 115 riders .We also formed a private limited company Velosportive Pvt Ltd , to conduct this and future events. We wanted to become the ProCam of the ultra cycling fraternity.

Everybody chipped in to help in the conceptualizing, planning and execution of the Desert 500 .The stand out efforts and most impactful for the success of the event would included the  internet and social media marketing campaign managed by Dev and Anuj. The daily updates and information snippets not only kept the interest and expectation alive but also provided valuable information for the participants. http://www.desert was the face of the event and Velosportive   , while the face book page was the conduit not just for information but also for feedback and query resolution. Now it is serving as the platform for sharing experiences of the ride, photographs and kudos.

Getting sponsors on board, communicating and closing agreements was also successfully executed thanks in large measure to Gagan , JB and Varun. We had TI Cycles as the title sponsor and associate sponsors that included Blackberry, Discovery Channel and RK Marbles. Gatorade, Nestea, Red bull, Spice Jet and Make My Trip generously provided supplies and prizes for the participants. The Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation lent its support for the event and has promised to add the event in its tourism event calendar.  The event was appreciated and supported by the administrative authorities of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer besides the police of these districts. The support of the sponsors and the local administration went along way in ensuring the successful conduct of the event.

The event per se can never be successful without the tireless efforts of the team assigned the responsibility of conducting the event on the ground, so to speak. This was a major task as it involved coordination, support and supervision of the riders spread across 250 kms .Ambulances and the Doctor on call, the sweep vehicles ,the technicians, the marshals and the crew manning the check points all had to work in unison . Supplies for the riders needed to be made available and replenished at each check point and emergency calls for help, attended to promptly. Not with standing problems and delays, the team lead by Vijay, worked round the clock for three days and nights to ensure the success of the event. You had only to see the tired and exhausted faces of the support staff to know what a tough time they had been through. We cannot forget the efforts of Ranjan Kansara and the Jodhpur Cycling Club who provided extremely essential on ground support  in the crucial phases prior to the event  including the liason with the local administration. .

Any event is made memorable by the performance and spirit of the participants. We had a very good and aggressively inclined group of riders in all categories and that included Shamim  Rizhvi , the only Indian to have competed the Race Across America , considered to be the most grueling sporting event in the world. Shamim is credited with having ridden 700 kms in 24 hours !! We also had strong participation from T-3 , Delhi Riding Club and riders from Kynkyny,Gujarat , Mumbai ,Bangalore and many more ,  besides  of course the strong presence of GKB riders in all categories. We had one participant Satish Vangal who cycled from Coonor to Goa enroute to Jodhpur for participating in the event.

We had excellent performances that add to the quality and attraction of the event. Navneet was the praise worthy winner of the 500 kms event in an excellent time of 19 hours 45 mins at an average speed of 27.36 kms/hr . This was an outstanding performance by a youngster who doesn’t even have a proper cycle. He needed to borrow a wheel from Chetan , not having the resources to purchase one for himself. The three riders from T-3 , Manas, Shailaja and Nitish also rode exceedingly well to finish over one and a half hours below the 24 hour challenge. Anju and Yogen fought exhaustion to push themselves to completed the 500 kms ride within the 24 hour challenge. The 250 kms ride saw exciting performances from several riders. The winners Satpaal Jaat and Mudit clocked 8 hours 18 mins at an average speed of 30.09 kms /hr. Chetan an Akshay completed the ride in 8 hours 55 mins at an average speed of 28.04 kms/hr.

Riding in the night was hazardous as there were no street lights and several sections of the road had pot holes. The full moon helped a fair bit along some of the stretches. It would seem that for future rides of this nature, a support vehicle is mandatory.  Fortunately Sunil insisted on arranging a support vehicle   on the night before the ride and between Sunil , Raj , Raman , Karan and I we hired an Inova as a support vehicle. This really came in handy as Karan suffered cramps and needed to pull out of the ride. Raj hit a stone that he didn’t see in the dark and he was injured and his bike  damaged. He too had to abort the ride and clamber on to the support vehicle. Then there was the unfortunate accident of a rider from Mumbai who also hit a stone in the dark and fell on to the road, to be hit by a passing truck. His helmet saved his life,lthough he suffered rib fractures and had to be rushed to the hospital in our support vehicle.

Deepa rode all along in the support vehicle and got a very good understanding of the nature and excitement and passion behind an ultra cycling event of this nature. I’m glad she came along and participated. I’m sure she valued the experience too. Even the driver of our support vehicle who was most uncooperative at the start , to the extent of refusing to allow cycles to be loaded into the car as he felt it would dirty the interiors (!!!) warmed up to the event and was most helpful  and supportive . He had a crucial role to play in ferrying the injured rider to the hospital.

My personal experience was a mixed bag although I was quite satisfied at the end having completed 200 kms and with a fair amount in reserve if I had wanted to push on. I had trained a lot better than for earlier rides and even hired a personal trainer who came home three days a week and put me through the paces. He helped build up all-round fitness and cardio capability. I used to ride two days during the week and longer rides on weekends. The one regret I had was, that I was only riding 75 kms at the upper limit over a time of just under 4 hours. I didn’t know how I would fare over longer distances .While talking to other riders I understood that I could have improved my training if I had included evening rides as well . The question is where do I do that without having to contend with the heavy traffic on our roads.

The use of a cycle computer with cadence meter and heart rate monitor helped me understand the level of effort I was putting in and my level of tolerance for increasing effort. My ability to take higher loads due to a dodgy heart and the low speeds I rode at were draw backs to good timings. To add to it, I ended with a bad back ache during the last week prior to the event  and had to go to the physiotherapist for three sessions to get my back in some sort of shape for the event . I was reasonably ok but still nursed a stiff back. This didn’t affect cycling though. A bigger problem was the sudden reoccurrence of a bout of fever brought on by a relapse of a urinary tract infection I suffered a couple of months ago. I had no time to take a fresh urine culture test and instead just took a chance and went ahead with a repeat of the earlier medication. The fever came under control thankfully and now I have to take all the proper tests and sort it out once and for all. Such niggles are not unique to me and I noticed that some of our other riders also had bad colds / fever and other hassles. I guess you have to take these things in your stride and perform as best as you can.

I found my heart rate climbing quite high during the first 50 kms or so of the ride and had to slow down to keep it under control. I was riding at a really slow pace and far behind everyone else. Nevertheless I just didn’t worry about it and kept going at a pace that I thought I could manage.   I also felt I was under hydrated and stepped up intake of electrol and Gatorade. The only thing I could lay my hands on to eat was bananas and I knocked back quite a few.

At the hundred km check point I debate a while and then decided to turn back. I was now on a 200 km course and not the original 250 ride. One of the reasons was my slow pace and the thought that I would complete 250 kms only around 2 am or so and all alone as I would be far behind everyone else. Turning at the 100 km mark meant that I would close the ride before 12 midnight and would have several riders around me. It was a wise decision as riding in the night was extremely hazardous and for most of the way I had no support vehicle or fellow riders following me. If I ever do a similar or longer ride again with plenty of night riding I must have a support vehicle with me.

Baring what I thought was a bout of cramps I didn’t face any difficulty on the way back. Around the 125 km mark I felt a sharp pain on my right thigh. I immediately relaxed for a spell till my leg felt ok and continued cycling. The same pain returned two or three times more and each time I rested awhile , thereafter I didn’t face any more pain and cycled on .I had heard of the tough time some of our riders had for the 200 km brevet and was happy that I wasn’t feeling the same degree of pain or discomfort . When I cycled passed the finish line it was just after 11 pm and I had taken all of 13 hours for a 200 km ride . I hadn’t completed the 250 km ride that I had registered for but was still quite happy with my effort. Most of all that I could manage to ride this distance and for so long without any major difficulty. The slow speed I cycle at upsets me more that a bit and I do hope to push this up more than just a bit .I have to ride faster and turn in better timings even if I am 63 or 64 as that’s what I’ll be in January.

More than just a few had their share of problems and dropped out of the ride. In the 50 km ride 3 out of 18 dropped out. In the 150 km ride 8 out of 29 dropped out, in the 250 km ride 17 out of 74 dropped out and in the 500 km ride 19 out of 36 dropped out for one reason or the other. The dropout rate over al was as high as 30% !!!

It’s all over now bar the shouting as they say. The blogs are abuzz with articles and photos are under screening prior to being up loaded. Soon all we will have with us would be the memories of a memorable event.  Well done Velosportive . Let’s organize more of these events improving with each effort and growing to be the most trusted partner cycle manufacturing companies and sponsors would love to engage with for all their future events.

As for me I think I will be better prepared and a lot more confident of my aging bones as I take on the next event.

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