One of the oldest bicycle races in India has all the thrills to keep you hooked.

First published:

Need for Speed

A hectic, historic cycling race from Mumbai to Pune

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.

Since its first edition in 1945, the race has has drawn all kinds of folks – from amateurs like Sonawane to seasoned riders with international experience. For, there’s plenty at stake for the winner in terms of recognition and opportunities. 

The race was started by an Anglo-Indian gentleman, who had experienced the thrill of riding back in England. The course was striking, starting off a the historic Kala Ghoda statue in Fort, Mumbai, moving on to the old Mumbai-Pune highway via Panvel, before leading to a gruelling climb of 11-odd kilometres up the Bhor Ghat to Khandala and finally ending amid the cacophony of Jangali Maharaj Road in Shivaji Nagar, Pune. 

It was a time when cycles were hard to find and needless to say, the Anglo-Indian, founder-rider registered the first hat-trick (1945-1947) of the race. Ever since, two traits have been symbolic to it – endurance and margins. Endurance, given the 200km distance between the two cities in the scorching March heat, and margins, because that’s what it comes down to while racing through traffic on one of the busiest highways in the state of Maharashtra.

Race director and secretary of the Maharashtra Cycling Association, Pratap Jadhav, knows a thing or two about it. It’s been a good three decades to that fleeting moment, but he has crisp memories of it as a rider. The race was celebrating its silver jubilee in 1986, and after competing for a few years, Jadhav had gained the experience to realise, just what it took to clinch top spot. He was now within touching distance of it. 

“There were 16 of us in that final sprint. It was down to the final kilometre, and I was in the lead. I think the enormity of the moment got to me, and in that split second, I made an error in judgement. I eventually lost the race by inches, finishing behind Karnataka’s Rajasaheb Attar. It was a photo finish, though there were no cameras at the time – they simply asked the cyclists and officials for their opinion. It’s the closest I’ve come to winning the race,” Jadhav recalls.

As he sits down for a cup of tea, after finishing his duties as the race director, Jadhav finally takes off his cap. A bloodied bandage conceals a fresh wound on his head. It’s the consequence of an oil spill that sent his motorcycle crashing on the tarmac – just one of the few hazards those associated with the race have to deal with. In all the 52 editions of the race so far, traffic has never been halted; instead, marshals on motorcycles storm ahead as if possessed, barricading intersections and quite literally, screaming and whistling to clear the way for the oncoming cyclists.

It’s nerve-wracking to be sitting in the back of a truck which is the pilot vehicle – a bellowing monster that threatens to take out anything in its path. The crew members follow in support on motorcycles, the pillion carrying spare wheels and doubling up as the water boy, while the riders weave in and out of traffic. The toll plazas en route become hazards of sorts, leading to mini logjams at times. In case of a crash, the wisest move is to take stock of the body and the ride, and catch up with the rest. And for those who fail to pick up the pieces, it’s a quick hop to the side of the road, before being rescued by a tailing ambulance.

“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. It used to be a non-stop race during those times,” says Kamlakar Zende, a Shiv Chhatrapati and Dadoji Kondeo awardee, who won the race four times including a hat-trick from 1980-82.

These days, cyclists enjoy a 30-minute break after the strenuous uphill from Khopoli to Khandala, where the Ghatacha Raja (King of Ghats) is awarded to the best climber. The regular traffic comes to a crawl, as cyclists take over the road to make the most of the banking on curves. This year’s winner, Sandesh Uppar, comes from Shiggaon in Karnataka, but Zende remembers of a time the title was dominated by riders from the state.

“Local riders knew that they couldn’t let an outsiders bag the prestigious crown. There was this pride associated with dominating the hills that separate Mumbai and Pune,” Zende says.

In 1995, Jadhav remembers a Baroda cyclist, Ghanshyam Parmar, arriving late on the morning of the race and begging him to be included, despite trailing the other riders.

“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 says.

Back in the day, Zende was a mere spectator, watching his elder bother, Malikrao, compete in the race. However, when his brother could only manage a personal best of second spot in his career, Zende took on the mantle to better the family record and went on to become a legend of the race. 

“The roads used to be packed with people, who would come out to cheer, right from the time we entered Pimpri-Chinchwad,” Zende recalls.

For the record, no rider has registered a hat-trick of wins since Zende.

“When you booked a scooter back then, it used to take a while before fit was finally delivered. So a cycle was essentially a mode of transport and a lot of people could connect with it. Each year, they used to eagerly await this race,” says Jadhav.

A lot of changes have taken place over the years. The increase in the number of vehicles for one means a bottleneck at times, especially towards the end as Pune crawls to life, usually on a Sunday. The route too has shortened to 152km and these days, the race is flagged off from R.K.Studios in Chembur instead of Kala Ghoda, in addition to the break at Khandala. While this breather may come as a relief for some of the riders, Sanjay Satpute, who finished third in 1985, believes it’s a deterrent for those who’ve prepared well.

“These days, the boys don’t train hard for a race like this. 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. This helps the others recover once they start the second leg,” Satpute says.

That recovery is much-needed for riders these days, who come from across the country and are not used to the steep inclines. Some, like those from the defence services and the India camp, have the experience of racing in other countries as well. But the race tests the best of the lot, especially if he’s a first-timer.

“It’s one of the longest, single stage races in India, and winning it is an honour. The distance, the climb that comes mid-way through the race and the temperatures make it unlike any other race,” says Dilawar Singh of Haryana, who made it two-in-a-row after his win this year.

Just how taxing the ride is can be gauged from the hours spent on the mount in preparation of it. Jadhav remembers logging a daily mileage of 80km for two months before the race. Current riders, Niket Patil, Sonu Gupta and Gojendro Yengkhom rented out a place at their own expense in Panvel, which lies just at the start of the old highway, so that they could train on the same route and get familiar with every bump and depression on the road. When Dilawar heard of it, he took little time in making his way there a month before the race. 

“I study in Mumbai but moved to Panvel to train. When Dilawar got in touch with us, we were happy to host him, since he’s won the race before and picked up handy tips from him. We did the entire stretch multiple times, but at the end of the day, nobody can predict what will happen on race day,” says Gupta, who failed to recover after a crash early on. 

To maintain the pace of the race and competition, the riders must be between the age of 18 and 35 years to participate. But after all these years, there’s one glaring aberration – the absence of women riders. 

A regular cyclist at the Nationals from 1996 to 2004, these days, Deepali Nikam Patil grooms a few of the boys who were a part of the race.

“The distance is too much – even at the nationals, we would ride a maximum of 70km. Besides, we cannot ride alongside the men because the pace is different. Maybe we’ll see some girls in the future if there’s a separate category,” she says.

Over the years, the race has been discontinued abruptly for a variety of reasons – from road construction to the lack of sponsors. When Giant Starkenn stepped in, the race was revived after a year and should become a regular feature on the domestic calendar for now. 

While professional organisation could undoubtedly draw international cyclists, it’s the raw appeal of the race that gives the winner that heady feeling. 

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