In 2019, Kabir Rachure finished the Race Across America (RAAM) against all odds. Four years later, he returned to finish on the podium.
Kabir Rachure, ultra cycling and the ultimate test of RAAM
The world of ultra cycling is brutal and unforgiving and Kabir Rachure knows it first hand
In 2019, Kabir Rachure made his first attempt at the Race Across America (RAAM). He had 12 days to finish the 3,000-mile (about 4,828km) bicycle race, which runs from the west to the east coast of the United States. It was the longest he had ridden yet and the ride tested the limit of his abilities as an endurance cyclist.
On the very first day, Rachure, 31, experienced severe cramping in the deserts of Arizona. He lost time as his progress was reduced to a crawl, bogged down further by temperatures of over 50°C. Here on, it was a game of catchup against the clock, rather than the other cyclists ahead of him in the race.
With 43 miles to go, the entire effort had taken a toll on him. He experienced hallucinations, drifted dangerously onto the road on a few occasions and swayed like a drunk when off the saddle. It took a hearty effort on the part of his support crew to egg him on to the end and within the specified cutoff time.
The moment Rachure crossed the finish in a time of 11 days 22 hours 43 minutes, he knew he had to give RAAM another go.
“I wanted to complete the race comfortably, without stressing about whether I’ll make the finish line or not. That’s what made me go back a second time,” he says.
After what seemed like an endless wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachure was back at the start in Oceanside, California, on 14 June. And by the time he reached the finish line across the country in Annapolis, Maryland, his time of 11 days 11 hours 26 minutes was enough to get him a third-place finish in his category.
In that moment, Rachure had achieved many firsts – the first Asian to finish on the podium at the RAAM and the first Indian to finish the race on two occasions.
“After looking at the numbers from training, I knew I would do well. The second spot was within reach but we faltered on the planning. But yes, the podium was always on my mind,” he says.
The world of ultra cycling is brutal and unforgiving. Those who sign up for it can be pictured somewhere between an addict and a lunatic — a performance junkie, crazed to take on mammoth distances, both during training and racing. And races like RAAM are relentless. For starters, it’s a single-stage race and about a thousand miles longer than the Tour de France. Extreme weather conditions, gruelling ascents and descents, a mind-boggling pace, and sleep deprivation make it a lethal cocktail of suffering that folks like Rachure thrive on.
“It’s like the pain you experience while getting the first tattoo. You just have to increase your level of resistance to deal with it the next time around. In ultra cycling, the intensity of the torture will be the same, no matter how much you train for it. That’s what you have to keep telling yourself and just get on with it,” he says.
Back home in Navi Mumbai, Rachure followed a hectic schedule over the last couple of years in between the pandemic lockdowns. As a practicing lawyer at the Bombay High Court, he would get home late evening and then put in the hours on an indoor trainer. The weekends were reserved for longer rides. It would still only add up to around 10-12 hours of training each week — he says that’s half of what endurance cyclists around the world put in.
However, with experience under his belt, Rachure trained smarter for his second attempt. He added shorter VO2 max sessions to his routine, instead of taking on long rides and building mileage. The gym sessions were crisper and there was as much focus on recovery as training. He approached the mammoth race distance by breaking it down into smaller chunks, planning for them mentally and embracing the effort it would entail, especially the sections that had troubled him on his first attempt. In January, he tested his abilities as well as the coordination of his crew during a 2,000km ride between Mumbai and Jaipur. A month before the race, he travelled to Leh to train at altitude.
“I was more muscular during the previous attempt, but my physique was sharper and I was a lot swifter this time around. I developed little fatigue and as the recovery was better, the body felt quite fresh each time I took on a ride,” he says.
Off the saddle, he worked on visualisation techniques to gear up for the challenges that the race was likely to throw at him. For instance, he would recreate what could be expected in Arizona – sand for miles, harsh sunshine and cracked roads that certainly make life miserable on the bicycle.
“It’s like entering a dark room – when you are expecting someone to try and scare you, the impact isn’t the same and you won’t be that scared. But when you don’t expect it and walk in casually, you are certainly going to be scared. So when you visualise the worst that will be thrown at you right at the start, it doesn’t come as a surprise because you’ve already imagined it at some point,” Rachure says.
“Then you have to think of the various scenarios that could unfold in these situations. Because when you go in thinking that everything will go as per plan, it will only get worse if things start to go wrong. And there’s a good chance that things will go wrong in a race like RAAM,” he adds.
Though he had ridden the race before, the magnitude of the repeat effort didn’t sink in until he saw the crowd gathered at the start line yet again. As expected, the first of the challenges popped up on Day 3. After a strong start, he developed a cut on his bottom due to abrasion. It caused severe discomfort even on the smallest bump, forcing him to switch to a hollow saddle that offered some respite until the wound healed. A day later, he put on a massive effort during a cold, wet climb in the dead of the night up Wolf Creek Pass (3,310m) in Colorado.
But his plans truly went astray once he hit Kansas on Day 6. After favourable crosswind during the early section, a strong headwind made the going rough under a blazing sun. It took a massive effort to roll on, the bicycle requiring expert handling as it tilted and wobbled due to the strong currents. Besides maintaining balance, he needed to be composed on realising that the unexpected winds had dampened his plans of finishing the race in under 10 days.
“In RAAM, whatever time buffer can be created has to be at the start. Then you simply wait out these bad patches and speed up when possible,” Rachure says.
Most days, he survived on two hours of sleep, crashing at a motel by the wayside or catching a quick wink in one of the support vehicles. The hours spent in the saddle were both meditative and a food fest on wheels alike. Nutrition was tended to on the go by the dedicated crew driving alongside. Rachure snacked on everything from luscious berries to beat the heat in the day, and crunchy chips at night to stay alert. Chewing gum was a constant, as were little fixes of caffeine. The longer stops were only for major meals, either grabbed from the fast food options en route or dished out by his sister, Sapana, who doubled up as the crew chief.
The monotony of riding was broken mostly by the array of roadkills en route – everything from raccoons to skunks and even armadillos, who had, quite unsuspectingly, made the country roads their home. At a few towns, locals gathered to cheer on the passing riders. But most times, it was a lonely battle that Rachure waged to keep pedalling mile after mile, hoping to maintain pace with those ahead of him while looking to keep the chasing pack at bay.
By the start of Day 8, Rachure had 2,000-odd kilometres remaining – around the distance that he had tackled during the Mumbai-Jaipur training ride. The countdown kept him engaged but the sleep deprivation was fast catching up. There were times he would abruptly end a food break when he felt the sluggishness set in. On other occasions, he would pull over to the side after realising that he was napping on the move. When things got worse, he would indulge in effective power naps that would last just a few minutes, but would see him through these testing patches.
A couple of hours past midnight on Day 11, Rachure powered on towards the finish. He picked up the pace knowing that the end was in sight, a podium place on the cards and the closest competitor a safe distance behind him.
Ten miles from the finish, he came to a halt. There was now just the ceremonial ride to go that would lead him to the celebrations at Annapolis Docks. He chomped away silently at the falafel and rice that was handed to him. The body didn’t hurt anymore. The eyes were wide open, but he drifted away time and again to a place few were aware of.
The job done, all he longed for now was a good night’s sleep.