Pedal, Sweat, Breathe, Relish
Siva Sai brings you his arduous journey when taking Tour of Friendship, 2017
It was on a rainy day in June 2016 that I decided to sign up for Tour of Friendship, known as ToF-R1 that was scheduled to start on 28 March, 2017. I even booked my flights 9 months in advance. Also, about 10 of my teammates had already signed up and booked their tickets as well. ToF-R1 is a 5 day, 500+ KM stage race in Thailand, during what can be described as the hottest period of the year. This was little too intimidating for me.
I have done the famous Tour of Nilgiris (TFN) (http://tourofnilgiris.com/) five times in the last nine years, since it started. It’s a 900km tour over 7 days. I have also done Giro Delle Dolomiti (GDD) in Italy (http://www.girodolomiti.com/) once and climbed the Nathulla pass in the Himalayas for fun with my teammates.
Many ask me: why do you do this to yourself? Here’s the reply: I spent most of my life in front of computers and had grown unfit by the time I was 35. It was then that I started cycling. Signing up for events that require months of hard work just to survive and not put up an embarrassing performance is a great way to stay fit. There is no other reason that would jolt me out of bed at 5:30 AM on weekends when my body is craving coffee in bed and the Sunday morning newspaper with homemade pongal.
This challenge was the toughest I had ever signed up for and I was going to need help. So I signed up for formal coaching with BV Coaching (http://www.bvcoaching.com/). They provide workout plans that are customised to your level and goals, monitor your performance, talk about strategy for pacing oneself and generally make you sick. Some of these workouts are dreadful and I sometimes just crumble from my bike and limp to the sofa in pain, unable to complete the workout.
We landed in Thailand three days in advance to acclimatise to the riding conditions there. We did 3 days of riding in Bangkok before the event. I put some slight pressure on the pedal and we were riding at 40 kmph.
Day 1 of the event was an 18 km flat as a pancake individual time trial at an air force school. It was an amazing setting, closed roads with no traffic, fully shaded with trees. During the warm up, I wondered why I was struggling to even stay at 35km/h. I was already fatigued. Post warm up, chit-chat with team mates made me realise that it was the density of air due to high humidity that was slowing me down. Another humbling learning was that doing an ITT on a flat terrain is much harder than doing it on rolling terrain, like Bangalore, as in a rolling terrain you get a slight respite when it is downhill.
Day 2 was a 115km flat commute from Bankgok to Kanchanaburi—the location of the famous bridge over river Kwai, which we never saw as we were dead by the end of each day. This was a big day. The terrain was mostly flat but it was going to be the first time that I would be riding on a peloton and I would have to learn how to ask for water bottles from support motorbikes, have half a bottle of water, pour the remaining on my head and throw it away safely while riding 3-4 inches away from other bikers at over 40 kmph.
About 30km into the ride a traffic event out in front caused my wheel to overlap with the rider in front and nearly caused a crash, I was lucky and got away but it caused a pile up for five riders who were little behind me. At about 50 km, my heart rate redlined twice and I decided to let the lead group go. The next 50 km I rode in the company of riders from Hong Kong Holiday Racing team. The last 15 km was done solo and that felt like forever in the heat and wind. This was the first time I had done a ride of over 100 km distance without putting my foot down.
Day 3 was a 125km ride with a bit of climbs. The race started from the hotel and I lost the main bunch in the very first 500m. Later that day I learnt that we need to warm up before the race because the pace picks up right after the hotel. I completed the distance non-stop too with great company of riders from Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Denmark and finished with a sprint to the finish line. A couple of riders from my team who are usually much faster than me, finished just with me or much after me, I was surprised and later I learnt that they had burnt themselves to put Russel Bell, a 72-year-old on the Podium that day. Although many imagine the contrary, cycling is a team sport and it takes team work to put someone on a podium. Respect!
Day 4 was the queen stage. They had cut the stage from 130 km to 100 km due to road conditions. But it still had nearly 2000 m of climbing. I warmed up before the ride and stayed with the bunch, but eventually dropped out. The climb started at 40 km mark and when it hit, I had no idea what lay ahead. The gradients that day were steep; regularly going above 10 per cent and at one point going to 21 per cent. To add to it, I had a mechanical issue, the gear wasn’t shifting into the 28 cog and I was mashing the 25 for a while. I had to stop and fix it before I bust my knees. After riding 70 km of the 100 km, few of us decided to throw in the towel and get into the car to head for lunch. I did not finish the race that day.
Day 5 was a 90 km plus ride with a slight climb in the middle. By then I felt fatigued and my tummy was cramping due to all the on bike nutrition consisting of gels, tablets that feel like chalk and capsules consisting of electrolytes. By now the goal was just to finish and I took it easy, dropped off from the main bunch and rode with my some of my team mates and riders from Holiday Racing in Hong Kong. Shankar Jayaram, Vivek Bhateja and I crossed that finish-line together that day to mark the end of the great tour.
While on the tour, when I was barely hanging on to the wheels in front, suffering along on climbs, or riding alone to the finish line on day 2; I was cursing myself and wondering why I was doing this and promised myself that I would never come back. Yet when the tour ended, I realised my life ahead in the cubicle, it felt sad. Perhaps, that made us look for the next big thing as soon as we landed in Bangalore.
Would I go back to this? It’s been over a month since I came back from the tour and I have done more than a few rides since then, as I write this. Maybe the human mind has a strange thing for erasing all the painful events from memory and only keeping the good parts; ToF-R1 2017 does not feel so terrible after all.
The saddle sores and chafing from Thailand has barely healed and I have signed up for the Tour of Nilgiris 10th Edition for December 2017. The 2018 summer plans are open as of now. But Shankar, who does not take to heat very well, has been joking about Iceland for the next summer. I have been doing some research on this and it does look tempting to ride what they call “hottest and freshest dirt on earth” on the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull, the temperamental young volcano in Iceland. Time to sign up for BV Coaching once again and let the suffering begin!
Safe riding is important, especially when it is in a competitive sport and long stretches.
Biking kit: Keep proper clothing, shoes, helmet, tools, a water bottle and other accessories handy. Always make sure straps are adjusted for a good fit.
Riding basics: Ride on the left side of the road, which is the correct side and ride in a single file. If you do ride along side some one else, if you hear or see another vehicle, please return to single file so the other road user can pass safely.
Signals: Use proper hand signals when approaching road or track junctions by making a clear signal which way you are turning so fellow bikers know which way you are turning.
Bike handling: Ride carefully and make sure you have the right cycle, with proper brakes and use the gears carefully.
Safety: Drink lots of water to stay hydrated and use lots of sun protection. Familiarise yourself with the location and environment in which you will be essentially riding.
The writer is computer science nerd, specialising in innovation, design and management. He is a cycling enthusiast, credited for a famous cycling stretch named on him Siva’s Road in Bangalore.