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Need for Speed

A hectic, historic cycling race from Mumbai to Pune

By shail desai | 1 June 2018

Bharat Namdeo Sonawane bought a bicycle four years ago, looking to speed up his commute. Every day he travelled from his village, near Nashik, to a cement plant five kilometres away, where he worked as a wage labourer. Now, Sonawane is a semi-professional cyclist for most of the year, competing in races with the backing of two coaches. In the off-season—through the summer and monsoon—he still works as a wage labourer.

I spoke with Sonawane on 25 March, right after he finished the Mumbai-Pune Cyclothon: a historic race that stretches across the old highway between the two cities. “Every time my wife asks me to get a job, I tell her that if I excel at a race like this, the job will come to me through cycling,” he said, lying, exhausted, on the ground past the finish line.

The Cyclothon draws all kinds of competitors, from amateurs to internationally seasoned professionals. According to Pratap Jadhav—who has competed in the Cyclothon five times, and been its director since 1993—the race was first organised in 1945 by an Anglo-Indian man named Sydney Chorder. An athlete himself, one who experienced competitive cycling on visits to England, Chorder won the first three editions of the race.

In the early years of the race, cyclists used to start off at the Kala Ghoda district in Mumbai, move on to the old Mumbai-Pune highway, ascend a gruelling climb of around 11 kilometres up Bhor Ghat to Khandala, and end in bustling Shivaji Nagar, Pune. While this route stretched about 200 kilometres, the race has now been shortened to 152 kilometres to avoid high-density traffic in downtown Mumbai.

Traffic has never been formally halted for the Cyclothon. Instead, a truck acts as a pilot vehicle, clearing a path. Marshals on motorbikes rumble ahead of the cyclists, barricading intersections and shouting to get people on the road to yield. Crew members follow on motorbikes, with individuals riding pillion and carrying spare wheels and water for the cyclists. An ambulance trails the entire group, ready to act in the event of any serious injury.

Obstacles on the course are unpredictable. Toll booths en route become hazards of sorts, often leading to mini logjams. “They had once closed down the road, oblivious to the race, which led to a pile-up. But we simply picked up our bicycles and continued riding,” Kamlakar Zende, who has won the race four times, told me. Race coordinators often find themselves in as equally grave danger as the cyclists. This year, Pratap Jadhav’s motorbike slipped on some oil, and he badly hurt his head.

In the past, the Cyclothon has struggled to secure financial backing—leading, for example, to it not being held in 2017. But this year, the bicycle brand Giant Starkenn stepped in as a sponsor, and is expected to support the race in years to come.

In order to take part in the Cyclothon, riders must be men between the ages of 18 and 35. I spoke with Deepali Nikam Patil, who has competed in the national cycling championships from 1996 through 2004, and who trains a few of the riders who competed in this year’s Cyclothon. “We cannot ride alongside the men because the pace is different,” she said, when I asked her about the fact that women are barred from the race. “Maybe we’ll see some girls in the future if there’s a separate category.”

Since a few years ago, participants have been required to take a 30-minute break midway through the race, at Khandala. During this stop, the Ghatacha Raja—King of the Ghats—award is given to the cyclist who completes the strenuous climb to Khandala most quickly.

This year’s winner of the Ghatacha Raja award was Sandesh Uppar, from Karnataka, but Zende told me that it used to typically be won by riders from the Mumbai-Pune belt of Maharashtra. “Local riders knew that they couldn’t let an outsider bag the prestigious crown,” he said. “There was this pride associated with dominating the hills that separate Mumbai and Pune.”

Jadhav told me about a cyclist from Vadodara who had arrived four minutes late on the morning of the Cyclothon in 1995, and begged to be included anyway. “I registered him on the spot, handed him a bib and asked him to join the race. By the time we were at Khandala, the boy had ridden the race of his life and had earned the Ghatacha Raja title. But the other marshals didn’t have him on their list and were about to disqualify him, until I stepped in to tell them the entire story,” Jadhav said.

While the break at Khandala may come as a relief for some riders, Sanjay Satpute, who has competed in the Cyclothon before, believes it is unfair to well-prepared cyclists. “A good climber will ace the ghat section, but instead of riding on the momentum and building on his lead, he is forced to take a break,” he said.

Meanwhile, competitors are still training hard. Forty days before this year’s race, several cyclists rented a flat in Panvel, which lies just at the start of the old highway, so that they could get familiar with every bump and depression on the Cyclothon route. When Dilawar Singh, a cyclist from Haryana who won the race in 2016, heard about that, he went to stay there too. Singh finished first again this year.

“When Dilawar got in touch with us, we were happy to host him, since he’s won the race before,” said Sonu Gupta, one of the competitors who rented the Panvel place. He and his friends, Gupta said, “picked up handy tips” from Singh. “But at the end of the day, nobody can predict what will happen on race day.”

Shail Desai is a freelance writer based out of Mumbai.

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