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Bharat Pannu is virtually unstoppable

Shail Desai | Updated on July 10, 2020 Published on July 09, 2020

To the finish: Pannu dealt with saddle sores, swollen toes and aching knees as he pedalled 4,086km over 12 days   -  IMAGE COURTESY: BHARAT PANNU

Bengaluru resident Bharat Pannu earned ultra cycling stripes at a virtual race marathon across the US last month

* When the Race Across America (RAAM) — it runs over 4,800km from the west to the east coast of the US — scheduled for June 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisers announced the inaugural Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM)

* 37-year-old Bharat Pannu pedalled 4,086km over 12 days

* Pannu finished third behind Japan’s Hirokazu Suzuki (4,539km) and the UK’s Lee Putnam (4,144km), rounding off a spectacular first for Indian ultra cycling

At 6.30pm on June 28, 37-year-old Bharat Pannu stopped pedalling his bicycle and smiled. It had been his longest ride yet — a staggering 4,086km that he had covered over 12 days. Yet, beyond the mammoth distance, it was unlike anything that he had taken on in the past, considering he hadn’t moved an inch from his starting point through the course of the race.

Among the many podiums that the Bengaluru-based ultra cyclist Pannu has bagged over the last four years, the third-place finish was special for more than one reason. When the Race Across America (RAAM) — it runs over 4,800km from the west to the east coast of the US — scheduled for June 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisers announced the inaugural Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM). It would feature 17 cyclists from around the world, who would ride on stationary trainers in the comfort of their homes. Pannu, who had been diligently training for RAAM over the last two years, decided to test new waters and signed up for VRAAM.

“My training had to continue indoors after the lockdown was announced. It took me a while to get used to the trainer, but I eventually pulled off a ride where I was in the saddle for close to 17 hours, so I knew I was ready,” Pannu tells BLink.

The challenges associated with this 3,000-mile VRAAM (4,542km) were as unique as the format of the race. Cycling indoors was a mental test of perseverance, besides of course the physical effort of tackling a course that featured a total elevation gain of 71,000m. Pannu and his seven-member support team were well aware that the biggest hurdle would be the monotony of the entire effort. “Nobody had any experience on how to tackle the distance, nor what it was like to be in the saddle for so long. The goal initially was to simply finish,” Pannu says.

Since most of the support team — including a masseur and a mechanic —were based in Pune, Pannu decided to move there for the event. A crew member’s living room in Baner was readied for the race. The route map was loaded on an app, which, in turn, simulated the gradients on the trainer. While Pannu was fired up by his boisterous crew at the start, he soon lost momentum due to software issues during the first five hours. But once he settled into a rhythm, he went without sleep for two nights to build on the mileage. The crew soon realised just what Pannu was up against.

“I lost 4 kilos by Day 3, which really had us worried since it could have led to a medical emergency. So my calorie intake had to be doubled to maintain the balance,” Pannu says.

As he focussed on crunching miles, the indefatigable crew kept on its toes, tending to everything from massages to entertainment, besides Pannu’s dietary needs while dishing out nutritious delicacies such as home-made shahi tukda to keep the rider motivated. The sleep breaks were planned in advance but never exceeded three hours at a stretch. On average, Pannu was in the saddle for about 21 hours each day.

It took steady progress for him to hit third spot on Day 7. Besides long hours, it was the inclines that really tested Pannu’s abilities, taking a severe toll on his knees despite the precautions in place. The saddle sores, too, made things difficult as the race progressed and the constant friction left him with swollen toes and bloody blisters to deal with. But by the morning of Day 11, Pannu had battled the odds to ride past the official finisher’s distance of 3,248km. (The original distance of 4,542km was reduced by the organisers.) Here on, the winner would be the rider who had gone the farthest after 12 days.

On the final day, Pannu was in third spot with a slender 20-km lead over Brazilian Marcelo Soares — an experienced rider who has finished the Trans-Siberian Extreme and RAAM in the past. “He was well rested and gave me a tough time. But as the race progressed, we realised our potential and the crew wanted nothing less than a podium finish,” Pannu says.

Though the competition was never physically around him, the real-time leaderboard gave precise data on the speed and progress of each rider. Pannu held off Soares until the final countdown to finish the race among nine riders and third behind Japan’s Hirokazu Suzuki (4,539km) and the UK’s Lee Putnam (4,144km), rounding off a spectacular first for Indian ultra cycling.

“The race may be unpredictable, but the one thing that you can be certain of is pain. And I train to bear the pain,” Pannu says. “My crew will kill me when they read this, but I’ll be happy to do it all over again,” he concludes.

Shail Desai is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

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Published on July 09, 2020
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