For Lieutenant colonel Bharat Pannu, celebrating after pedaling over 4,000 km on an indoor trainer to complete the Virtual Race Across America meant sleeping once again like a normal person.
In cycling circles, RAAM is considered to be one of the toughest races. The coronavirus outbreak this year forced the organisers to hold it virtually, where cyclists from across the world competed against each other on indoor trainers.
Unlike the more famous Tour de France which unfolds in stages, the clock is always ticking in RAAM, and a cyclist has to ration the sleep hours to finish the race in the allotted time.
In normal RAAM cyclists are up against elements as they ride across the United States: desert heat, cold mountain passes, unpredictable winds.
In the virtual race, these were missing, but there were many other challenges, and the lack of experience of cycling for long hours indoors made it more difficult, said Pannu who finished fourth in the race on Sunday evening, after 12 days.
“In outdoor, you tend to swing your body more by coming out of the seat often. No such luxuries are available indoors because the cycle frame is mounted on a stand,” he told PTI while driving back to his base of Army aviation wing in Bengaluru from Pune where he raced.
Every cyclist in RAAM has a support team and Pannu initially could not get his nutrition right. He was supposed to consume 250-300 calories in liquid form per hour, but on the third day they realized that Col Pannu had lost 4 kgs, which meant he was losing calories faster than he was consuming.
It forced them to double his intake to 450-500 calories per hour by including solid food.
“Our trainer set-up was in the drawing room, and I was continuously wolfing down omelets, daliya and khichdi prepared in the kitchen next door,” he said.
Pannu thanked his seven-member crew who slept for only five hours a day.
He took his first sleep break – of just 90 minutes – after cycling for 38 hours. During the 12 days of race, he had only 11 sleep breaks of 90 or 180 minutes.
In the room where he raced, there were five screens including one showing simulated race route, fans to keep him cool and cameras to record his movements round the clock.
During the 12 days of racing, he was completely disconnected from the outside world. It was only after finishing the race that he learnt about 20 Indian soldiers killed in eastern Ladakh during a clash with Chinese troops.
As per the RAAM leaderboard, Pannu stood fourth among 22 riders. Before him, only three Indian riders had finished the race in its over three-decade history. Pannu also raised money for underprivileged children through the race, said.
Pannu planned to participate in the last year’s RAAM, but he suffered a fracture during a practice ride in the US before the race and had to drop out.
“This success is unbelievable and I owe it to my dedicated team which has been with me for four years,” said Pannu.
He will be joining duty from Friday. The immediate priority, he says, is to recover from exhaustion.
(with PTI inputs)
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