“This is going be fun, boys!”, came the boom from the driver’s seat as the car trundled over the bumpy terrain to join the other vehicles lined in the field.
“From a car?”, I asked. Rather waspishly.
There was an evil-guy-in-a-top-hat-tying-the-damsel-to-the-train-track laugh as Pavan eased himself out of the car. (Mr. M, if you’re reading this, how’s this for an evil laughter?)
May 22, 2016. Big day. The day of the BBCh road race. A day my bike gang and I had been looking forward to since forever. We were all racing in the amateur category- even that bugger Phani (Some things simply should not be allowed, like bringing an effing cannon to an effing knife fight!)- and with the incessant scheming and pep-talks, the week leading up to the race had been as exciting as it could possibly get.
I tasted the same electricity in the air as I stepped out of the car (Mr. M, you’re my main man!) and scanned my surroundings. People dressed like vacuum-packed sandwiches, people accompanying the people dressed like vacuum-packed sandwiches, flashy helmets, socks with outrageous colour schemes, beeping Garmins, clacking cleats, the musical (to my ears) ticking of high-end wheels, the machines themselves- sleek and seductive… I loved every bit of what I saw.
Forty minutes later, bike assembled, the boys located and transponder tied securely to my ankle, I found myself at the start line, chuckling at the light-hearted banter flying around and desperately trying to ignore the quiver in my arms. The elite-level monsters were already off, and I could hear the countdown begin somewhere near the front of the bunch.
“Damn I needed more work on my VO2max!”
And it was mayhem.
I could see all our boys doing the same, swerving and zig-zagging through the mass of the slower riders, and within minutes, our troop was at the head of the bunch, with some U-18s and some other people unknown to me hanging on to our tails.
I sat on Leander’s wheel, watching for the approach of the first of the long ascents. Darshan, Vinesh, Riyaz and Phani were ahead at the front. I worked my way up to Phani.
“Shaunak, can you get to the front and raise the pace a little?”
“Phase 1: Execute.”
I got on the drops, forced myself to take long, steady breaths, and slipped into VO2 mode.
Heart rate: 101% of LTHR…103% of LTHR…106% of LTHR…
“Are the squirrels gone yet?”
And Phani went flying out of nowhere.
“The hell, dude?”
The bunch surged ahead.
The first wheel went past me, the second wheel, the third. Crap, I had to get back in line!
“Ack! Gah! Grrrr…” A minute later, I sat gasping behind the fifth wheel, heart happily beating away at 192 bpm, but safely back in the slipstream.
“More VO2 training is in order.”
I risked a glance over my shoulder. Only Crankmeister, Ministri, and U-18s.
I sat behind Akshat, contemplating the meaning of life and the ways of the Universe (Drafting him and Vinesh is a lot like drafting trucks, even for a largish guy like me, so there’s not a lot else you need to worry about.), when I saw Rajat from Pune Wolfpack tinkering with his bike on the roadside. I winced at the thought of the pain the chase back to the elite peloton would undoubtedly bring him. The best course of action for the amateur bunch was probably to leave him to his own devices. But that was not to be.
Rajat shot past us on a descent, hammering away for dear life. Darshan jumped on his wheel almost immediately.
“HEY!! Not cool!”
The rest of us had no choice but to follow.
The group shattered as Darshan finally detached from Rajat’s wheel and we braked to avoid a car bearing down on us like we didn’t even exist, but re-formed almost immediately as everyone sprinted together.
We had some loooong and gentle rises in gradient in store for us now, and there’s generally a headwind on this section of the route. Whatever it would cost me, I was going to stick with the group.
Leander shot off the front like a bat out of hell, with Phani clinging on to his wheel. The rest of us watched like they were a mildly interesting TV program, but made no attempt to bridge across.
“Come on, Darshan!”
Aaaand he jumped, with the rest of us sitting comfortably on his wheel. After three minutes of a game of cat and mouse, Lee and Phani were tucked safely in the middle of the bunch.
“Guys, how many of you have seen Civil War?”, Akshat roared.
“Me!”, I yelled back through barely suppressed laughter.
This time it was our Punjabi munda Akshat. The same drill. Attack, stay away for four or five minutes and let Darshan bridge the gap.
“Pretty windy out there…”, Phani observed once Akshat was back in the bunch.
“Darshan, what do you think?”, Akshat asked innocently.
I sat on Leander’s wheel, a little too cosy. The plan to set Phani up for the final sprint seemed to be going smoothly, with him tucked behind Vinesh. With all the banter, needling Darshan and pulling fake pain-faces whenever a cameraman appeared, I felt like I was out on a Sunday fun ride.
“Sheesh! Our training rides are a lot harder than this!”
Akshat was up at the front, chatting away with Darshan about his exams and stuff. I noticed a subtle rise in the pace, and saw Phani and two of the U-18s move up.
“Phani, go-go-go!” Akshat yelled as he dropped back.
The wheels in front of me were gone in a flash!
“So bloody soon!!”
It was a little too late to open my sprint, and a top-ten finish was anyway guaranteed, so I sedately cruised past the finish line to where the other boys were celebrating. Phani had won, obviously. The twat could have probably won the sprint pedaling one-legged, but our plan had been executed to perfection. And he had had a good photograph taken. Cool photos are one of the many things that keep us going! 😛
Compared to the happenings in the elite peloton and Lord Venky’s heroics, our race was a walk in the park- a measly 36.5 kmph over 48.5 km. Vinesh cribbed to me afterwards that he felt fresh enough to ride back home. As a matter of fact, so did I. But anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed my first time in a peloton. I have raced time trials before, but I realise now that group rides are more my thing. After some more dates with the Gorilla (read gym work, VO2 and sprint training), maybe I’ll be ready to move on to the elite category. 🙂
Riyaz raced an extremely smart race and came in at a well-deserved second place. Azhar did pretty great throughout, too! But the race wouldn’t have been half as fun without Akshat and his banter. He did a marvelous job controlling the pace and keeping our spirits high.
Phani told me afterwards how he had marked the climbs on our recon ride, so that he’d know when to open his sprint. That explains why I saw him and the two U-18s move up and towards the right. Well played, sir, well played. The middle of the bunch certainly was not the best launchpad. Guess this is another thing I need to learn, besides figuring out how to eat and drink in the bunch. 😛
Here’s a video of the final sprint to the finish.
A big shout out to Pradip-da and Debu-da for hauling themselves out of bed at those ungodly hours, only to act as our support crew. You rock!
And thanks to Chirantan-da for letting me use the photographs from his album shamelessly. Cracking job with the photos, though. You captured the mood of the race better than even Veloscope did.
See y’all at the crit!