The 2011 edition of the Race Across America (Raam), widely considered the toughest cycling race in the world.
Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, a time-station two-thirds of the way to the finish line.
Pedal pusher: Rizvi is looking to better his timing.
Andrew Loeb, an American triathlete, drives all the way from his house, a considerable distance away, to the highway, goes right up to Team Shift’s crew car and tells the cyclist: “This is the first time in the history of this event that an Indian is passing this time-station. I drove to the highway just to see you.”
Samim Rizvi, 42, the Indian cyclist, proceeded to finish that race, clocking just 40 minutes above the 288 hours (12 days) provided to competitors to complete it. “We lost 40-45 minutes due to a couple of penalties imposed on my crew for jumping signals,” he recalls. “I will never forget those mistakes.”
By crossing the finish line, Rizvi became the first Indian ever to complete this gruelling race; just as in 2010, he had become the first Indian to participate in it. Started in 1982 as the Great American Bike Race, the now 2,989-mile (or 4,810km) stretch from San Diego, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, which comprises the Raam, had been bested.
The effort had drawn every ounce of energy from the six-member crew Rizvi had assembled over the previous year, working on a budget of Rs 30 lakh provided by his sponsor, Globeracers. Rizvi himself battled exhaustion, sleeplessness, hallucinations and ghosts from the past to reach the end of the race. But like most athletes in extreme sports who take pleasure in pain, he is back, ready to tackle the deadly trail again in two months.
Rizvi is preparing for Raam 2012, which begins on 13 June. This time, he’s confident of securing a ranked finish, which is possible considering his sustained improvement over the previous two attempts. He wants to cruise past the finish line well within the 12-day time period.
Having been successful in getting sponsors for his last two attempts at Raam (Cisco in 2010; Globeracers in 2011), he remains optimistic about finding one for the current year. “Even if I don’t receive sponsorship, I will go ahead all on my own, with help from Globeracers, who managed to raise the amount for me last year,” he concludes.
Raam confronts the cyclist with an undulating course that demands over 100,000ft of ascension, with the mercury fluctuating wildly—an exacting, merciless ride through the heart of the US. “There was a period during the race when I went 48 hours without sleep,” says Rizvi, flashing a wide smile. “I lost 6kg by the end of the race.”
A personal fitness trainer by profession, Rizvi adopted five-time Raam winner Jurie Robic’s method to combat the most difficult aspect of the race: sleep deprivation. At his home in Bangalore, he would stay awake for 24 hours at a stretch, doing absolutely nothing, “getting bored for the entire period”, as he calls it. He would then hop on to his bike and ride for the next 24 hours, attempting to cover at least 600km during the time.
“I do this twice a month now,” he says. Rizvi is relying on the efficacy of this method to ease him through the demanding course this June.
This method helped him plough through the 2011 race, laying to rest the ghosts of the 2010 Raam where, following a freak accident, he fell off the bike after 1,600km, and was also diagnosed with two strains of pneumonia.
Rizvi’s passion for cycling goes back to the time when, as a young boy in Mumbai, he would hire cycles for 50 paise an hour to ride around his neighbourhood. During holidays, he would engage in friendly races across Lonavala with his friends, always giving it his all. When he shifted to Bangalore in 1987, he began participating in local cycling tournaments. “The 67km I cycled every day from my house in (Jayanagar) Bangalore to my engineering college on the edge of the city (Ramnagar, on the road to Mysore) was the best thing to come out of my studies,” he says.
Rizvi launches into an account of the hallucinations that beset him during last year’s race: hundreds of people waving at him from far away, black specks shuddering in the distance and turning into monsters that stomped towards him.
“I remember,” he says, pointing to his head, “every single turn on the entire stretch of the race, every cut, right down to the last detail. I still have nightmares of Raam.”
He remembers his Indian crew-car driver running up to discover him swooning, asking him a couple of questions, and on receiving garbled responses, screaming, “Samim bhai pagal ho gaye (Samim bhai’s gone mad)!”
Then the illusory blackbird that followed him to the end of the course, goading him towards the finish line: “I had been listening to Blackbird by The Beatles. I guess it was that very bird that dragged me to the finish line,” he says, laughing.
Come June, Rizvi will be hoping the blackbird is on his side again.