Zen and the art of bicycling5 min read . Updated: 26 Mar 2014, 08:47 PM IST
Sumit Patil is the third Indian to qualify for the toughest cycling event on earththe Race Across Americaand may well be the first to finish it
Sumit Patil has just rolled in. In the 55 hours since he spoke to me from Pune, saying he was coming to Bangalore, Patil has covered 835km.
On a bicycle. This is a hungry man. Patil would have burnt, on average, 300 calories an hour on the way. This means 16,500 calories burnt in the last 55 hours. Or the equivalent of a 15-inch stack of 133 parathas. But cycling, as Patil, 28, is quick to point out, isn’t about mathematics, “It isn’t about the hours cycled, the distance covered, the calories burnt or the amount of sleep given up. It is about passion." The next morning, he wakes up and rides another 370km to Puducherry.
Welcome to the extreme world of ultra-cycling, where cyclists don’t blink at the idea of being sleep-deprived for days on end. But Patil is about to reach further. In Puducherry, he runs the Auroville Marathon. Then rides back to Mumbai. In June he will be on the most brutal bicycle race created in the name of sport—the legendary 4,800km Race Across America (Raam).
With a three-egg omelette, a slice of chicken ham and a giant-sized chocolate chip muffin before him, Patil is talking. This is his dinner. You’d imagine that someone who punishes his body every day would be a little mindful about what he eats. “I am not picky about my diet. I’d starve if I became choosy," he says. “Just look at the places I must cycle through—there isn’t the chance of a rational diet."
If you are getting the picture of a flamboyant, stylish, overconfident man, set that thought aside. Patil is anything but. When he arrived at 10pm, he came on a bicycle with a wallet, a cellphone and a GPS in his back pocket. Sure, he was wearing carbon riding shoes, a helmet, gloves, riding shorts and a jacket, which are the essentials of serious cycling. But that is it. Absolutely nothing else. “I travel light," is his absent-minded explanation. He underscores it with a Zen observation to explain his minimal ways, where he attends to all the glitches in life himself: “Deny all help and discover true freedom."
A couple of months ago, Unni Karunakara, the former international president for the medical relief organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was talking over lunch about his fascinating encounter with Patil. “I have rarely seen such a focused, intelligent and well-rounded man," said Dr Karunakara, 50. In January, Dr Karunakara completed 5,673km on his bicycle from Srinagar to Thiruvananthapuram in 112 days. “Sumit has eclectic interests—photography, astronomy, mountaineering, music, and he is a competent marksman. This is a true Renaissance man," observed Dr Karunakara, who was accompanied this January by Patil for a part of his pan-India ride in Mumbai, where the latter lives.
Patil is the third Indian to qualify for Raam; Samim Rizvi and Kiran Kumar are the other two. Of them, Rizvi, now 46, and a legend in Indian endurance cycling circles, attempted the race thrice (in 2010, 2011 and 2012). In 2011, he completed it, but 40 minutes behind the scheduled close. On the two other occasions, he had to give up midway for medical reasons. As a consequence, Rizvi has been listed for all three years as Did Not Finish.
Kumar has yet to participate in Raam. “If it hadn’t been for Samim, we would never have heard of Raam in India. The only reason I am aiming for Raam today is because of him," says Patil, the son of a plant manager at Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers Ltd who took to serious endurance riding in 2010. “I want to pick up where Samin left off. I want to make sure this space in sport is also conquered by an Indian."
Rizvi believes Patil can make it past the finish line in the gruelling, mind-bending Raam where cyclists sometimes sleep barely an hour a day over the 12-day race. They often find themselves hallucinating. And they push the body to the bleeding edge of human endurance. “Sumit is strong-headed, he is training hard. I am going to discuss sleep deprivation with him so that he can manage himself better," says Rizvi. “I want him to do what I could not."
Patil trained in Ladakh in 2013, riding 120km a day, between 11,200ft and 14,000ft, where oxygen levels are low. His army-style discipline is self-evident (he dreams of working for the Indian Army one day). “What Sumit will need is a strong, mature and calm support team that can manage conflict," says Gautam Raja, an avid cyclist and writer who was on the team that worked with Rizvi in 2011. “Everyone is sleep-deprived, snappy, and stress levels are very high on the race."
I discuss the possibility of failure with Patil. We talk about Lijo Chacko, whom I am fortunate enough to work with. This year it will be 10 years since Chacko, an ex-submariner from the Indian Navy, will have tried to summit Mount Everest. He missed the summit by 548m, having to return because of an innocuous abrasion that became a threat to his health at 8,300m. The thing, observes Patil, is that Chacko gained 8,300m on Everest more than any of us (as a mountaineer, Patil hopes to scale the Everest one day).
To Patil, the 548m that Chacko missed did not matter. “Endurance is a psycho-spiritual thingy. It is mental purification," he says. “You discover that a limit exists today. But it is not a limit tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever. Even limits. That’s how you start believing in yourself, breaking every limit that places itself in your path."
That’s the point about sportsmen like Patil—they tend to not be awed by the finish line. They know that is the only way to go beyond it.
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ALL ABOUT RAAM
Tour de France is perhaps the best-known cycling event. It has glamour, speed and pizzazz. The Race Across America (Raam), now in its 33rd year, has sheer grit.
Raam starts on the West Coast of the US in Oceanside and ends on the East Coast in Annapolis. The total distance covered is 4,800km as cyclists pass through 12 states. Participants must complete a total ascent of 170,000ft across the 4,800km. This is
5.8 times the height of Mount Everest or halfway from Earth to the edge of space (which is about 100km). Solo participants have 12 days in which to complete the race. Teams have nine days to complete it. In comparison, Tour de France covers about 3,500km over 23 days.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins. He is a co-founder of the Tour of Nilgiris, a 800km bicycle ride through three states.