What exactly is the Deccan Cliffhanger?
The Deccan Cliffhanger is an ultra cycling race covering a distance of 646 kms (400 miles) from Pune to Goa. The race is organized in the month of November each year.
The race is fully supported. Each solo participant or relay team has support car(s) following them for the length of the race. The solo event is a RAAM (Race Across America) qualifier. The RAAM is considered to be the toughest bicycle race in the world. To qualify, a solo racer needs to complete the Deccan Cliffhanger within 32 hours.
Apart from the Deccan Cliffhanger, there are other races in India which are RAAM qualifiers. These are – Ultra Spice (1000 and 1750 km), Great Himalayan Ultra (600 km) and the Shivalik Signature (600 Km). Apart from these, multiple races across the world are qualifiers for the RAAM. Some of these races are quite tough in themselves.
My first ultra cycling race was both – an eye opener and a reality check. More about the reality check and learnings from the race later in this post.
The Crew and why the Crew is incredibly important for the race
The racer has to undergo a rigorous physical, mental and emotional training regimen. However, rigorous training, the support crew can make or break the race for the racer. The right crew makes ultra cycling that much easier for the racer.
This is an area where I got extremely lucky. My crew was an eclectic mix of individuals from across India.
- Manas Kumar Sahu – Oriya living in Bengaluru
- Sankarson Banerji (Shanky Da) – Bengali living in Mumbai
- Tandava Krishna – Andhraite living in Bengaluru
- Dileesh Oniyll – Keralite living in Bengaluru
- Krishna – Chattisgarhi from Hyderabad
- Sabyasachi Das – Oriya from Mumabi – he couldn’t make, but our race wouldn’t have been possible without him
- Saurabh Kapur – Punjabi from Delhi
The diverse crew members came together thanks to GoMissing Expeditions and were united by the love of cycling. Each crew member has travelled with GoMissing on different cycling expeditions and has become a dear friend. I consider myself extremely lucky to have met these incredible people. Maybe I’ll write a post on this later.
All team members are experienced cyclists and have thousands of kilometers under their belt. They have done their Super Randonneur series, cycled through Manali Leh, Ladakh, Bhutan and many more routes. Additionally, Shanky da has been a part of a relay team at the Deccan Cliffhanger 2018. The combined experience of crew members turned out to be handy during the race.
The crew literally makes or breaks the race. Planning, execution, motivation, hydration, nutrition, keeping the rider alive and in high spirits are all part of the crew’s responsibility. In addition, they have to drive the support vehicles at a snail’s pace behind the rider. They have to stay awake throughout the race, plan their own food and rest. . Another critical element is to put up with the racer’s tantrums during the race! This in itself is a lesson in patience. One of the episodes during the race was my demand for a subway sandwich. The crew almost miraculously produced one.
Even so, a number of hits and misses took place during the race.
Where we screwed up
Not planning our breaks
Breaks are critical during any ultra race and need to be meticulously planned. This means that one needs to chart out each of the following with utmost consideration.
- Where and when the break has to be taken
- The duration of the break
- The nutrition and hydration of the rider for each break
We only planned our breakfast break and literally winged the others taking them when we felt necessary. BIG MISTAKE. It almost cost us the race.
The race winner completed it within 25 hours and spent only 16 minutes off saddle during the race. Kudos to the winner. There is so much to learn from his race and pit stop strategy. As a contrast, I spent 4-5 hours off the saddle. This included a breakfast, a long lunch and a VERY long dinner. Additionally, there were multiple small breaks for water, “quick” bites, getting a massages, pee breaks etc. Pee and poop breaks are unavoidable, but for everything else, you have to live on the bike. Our planning was terrible and we paid the price much later in the race.
Spare bikes planning
We secured spare bike 1 inside one vehicle and bike 2 on the bike rack of the second vehicle. The crew planned to stop during the race and setup bike 1, while the second car will support the racer. Reality check: During the race, we didn’t have enough time to stop the car to setup bike 1. In hindsight, we should have setup the bikes before the race.
Lack of killer instinct, and perhaps overconfidence
The first roughly 340 kms of the race had incredible roads and we were making good time. This led to us becoming somewhat complacent and overconfident and taking extended breaks during the race. You rest when you’re done and not when you’re tired (or when you feel like). This saying has never felt truer than during the Deccan Cliffhanger. Along the way, we climbed up the leader board to a comfortable position which gave way to complacence. An attitude which came back later in the race to bite us hard.
However good your equipment is, in this long a race, chafing is a reality. I wasn’t prepared adequately for this and when my crew tried to guide me and offered solutions, I didn’t heed to their advice and continued cycling. In hindsight – this one break would have been so good. I got chafed pretty badly and by the end of the race, while my muscles were moving well and in good shape, the chafing hindered the speed drastically.
Route reccee/ route information
We knew about the route till the 350 km mark. This section was smooth tarmac which made going easy. The next stretch of 200 km was terrible – and we rode this stretch at night. It comprised of lunar sized craters, broken tarmac and off road stretches. As a result we lost the gains made earlier because we didn’t plan the right bikes for this stretch.
Further, there was mist and fog during the night which hampered my vision terribly. I wear specs and not contact lenses so I had to clean my specs every few minutes. Finally, I just removed my specs after getting sick of repeatedly cleaning them. I left the vision part of things to Bhagwaan Hanumaan Ji that night.
Luckily no untoward incident happened because of the lack of vision. Better knowledge of the route would have helped in getting contact lenses beforehand and would have ensured correct bike selection. I would have preferred a hybrid with front suspension or a gravel bike for this 200 km section.
Race rule: A support vehicle has to follow the racer from 6PM to 7AM. The racer has to ride in the headlights of the support car during this time. Cycle headlights are also mandatory during this time. We planned to have vehicle 2 wait across the toll booth. The rider will arrive with vehicle 1, cross the booth and continue with vehicle 2. Vehicle 1 will join the rider after waiting in the queue and paying the toll fee.
We screwed up here – small mistake, but cost us 5 minutes. I reached the toll booth with vehicle 1, crossed and didn’t find vehicle 2. They were busy picking up food! These precious few minutes could have cost us the qualifier.
Packing stuff in the cars
Although we packed reasonably well, we had a couple of small scary incidents. Towards evening, I wanted to switch from dark to plain glasses and we didn’t find them in either car!
The entire team panicked as we searched the cars and we wondered if we dropped them somewhere. Thankfully I had a backup pair and could continue the ride. This situation cost us another 10-15 minutes – Once again, the importance of those 10-15 minutes will come later.
Emergency backup bike at the end of the race
As I mentioned earlier, we secured one bike inside a support vehicle. In case of en emergency near the end of the race, we wouldn’t have had access to this bike. This was the endurance geometry road bike and the faster one of the two spare bikes. The accessible spare bike was the flat bar road bike – much slower, but extremely comfortable to ride. In hindsight, we should have chosen the flat bar road bike for the night section. In a bike emergency in the last section, we would have to use a slower bike. This could have meant that we would complete after qualifying time.
What we did quite well
Screw ups aside, there were several things which we did extremely well. We qualified because of everything which we did well.
At no point did I feel alone while riding. I got outstanding support from the team. At no point did they doubt that we won’t be able to finish. They certainly didn’t let me think we’ll not finish, even if they thought so in their minds. In tough races, a small doubt from any team member is enough to break the morale of the rider. The team continuously kept boosting my morale by cheering and shouting words of encouragement from the cars. Throughout the race, I heard – “we will do it”, “the worst it over”, “think of the post ride beer” etc. Even during times of self doubt, the team kept cheering me on.
Apart from my team, another team (Funstastic Couple) cheered me on during the last section of the race. Thank you folks, it truly meant a lot.
Hydration and Nutrition
We planned this critical aspect incredibly well. We stocked up on everything I would need during the race. The crew gave me all kinds of beverages while riding. No two consecutive drinks, except water, were the same. The team gave me jiggery water, lemon water, coconut water, sugarcane juice and orange juice. During the last section, the crew put coke in my sipper to give me that much needed sugar boost. The team went out of the way to get me a subway sandwich for dinner – yum!! The team stocked up food well and made sure they took great care of my nutrition during the ride.
The team came together really well
Several team members met for the first time just before the race. Despite that, the team worked well as a unit and handled the race and my tantrums (hopefully few) extremely well. We should have ideally met 3-4 days before the race to plan the race together and assign roles and responsibilities. Luckily, we got along well.
Emergency situation at the end of the race
Those lost minutes earlier in the race came back to haunt us! At one time, I asked Dileesh the distance and time left. The numbers didn’t encourage me and I said “we’ll not make it”. At this stage, the team ensured that my morale doesn’t tank. They gave me cold water splashes, coke (the beverage, not the white kind), several beverages and words of encouragement. Manas stopped traffic at multiple junctions so I could cross uninterrupted.
As we neared the finish line, I kept checking the time and distance and calculating the speed required to qualify. The situation was literally a cliffhanger here. Numbers: 4 kms in 16-17 minutes. Breathe easy, we can do this! 2 kms with 10-11 kms and an approaching downhill! Sounding better! This should work if nothing untoward happens! Finally, finish line – 6 minutes to spare!
Team GoMissing qualifies for the RAAM!
The first reaction – I can’t believe it.
Reality dawns – a touch and go situation while cycling. Then again, this is my first ultra cycling race.
It takes a while for things to sink in. I feel Jubilation, bewilderment, relief and a thousand other emotions. There are pictures, high fives, hugs, cheering and celebrations all around. Other teams cheer us, we cheer them – the atmosphere is lively and we high-five everyone!
All in all a happy ending – not without it’s share of learning and reality checks.
Dileesh has summed up his crewing experience here: https://destination-dileesh.blogspot.com/2019/12/what-is-all-about-crew.html. Do take a look.