(From left) Darshan Dubey and Bharat Pannu.(HT Photo)
(From left) Darshan Dubey and Bharat Pannu.(HT Photo)

Meet the two Indian cyclists who conquered the race against the Alps

Bharat Pannu and Darshan Dubey completed the 2,200-km-long ‘Race Around Austria’ in four days
Hindustan Times, Pune | By Ashish Phadnis
UPDATED ON AUG 21, 2017 12:06 PM IST

Endurance cyclist Lt Co Bharat Pannu, along with Darshan Dubey, recently created history when they become the first Indian pair to finish one of the most challenging endurance cycling event, Race Around Austria (RAA). The pair faced extreme weather including rains, hailstorms, snowfalls and crossed nine high altitude passes at the Alps mountains while covering 2200 km in four days.

Due to bad weather, most of the riders of the event dropped out. Out of 45 solo riders, only 16 could finish the race, while in team events, four out of nine dropped out. The weather forced riders to halt and take shelter in their support vehicles. However, the Indian cyclists kept on riding, despite adverse conditions and finished the race within the stipulated time.

“We had no other option but to ride. We never thought about backing out as we were so passionate about winning that prestigious medal. Nothing could stop us. Our crew was also equally motivated and with their crucial support, we managed to achieve the goal,” said Bharat Pannu.

Lt Col Bharat Pannu is an aeronautical engineer and hails from Rohtak, Haryana. He is employed with the Indian Army since June 2005 and is currently posted at the Nashik Aviation Base and maintains the Indian Army helicopters.

He is the first Indian to successfully complete any ultra race in India of a distance longer than 400 miles. He achieved this feat by participating in the first edition of Ultra Spice race (1000 km) in January 2017.

The race began on August 9. Though it going smoothly initially, but then the weather started changing for the worse.

Lt Col Bharat Pannu is an aeronautical engineer and hails from Rohtak, Haryana. He is employed with the Indian Army since June 2005 and is currently posted at the Nashik Aviation Base. (HT photo)
Lt Col Bharat Pannu is an aeronautical engineer and hails from Rohtak, Haryana. He is employed with the Indian Army since June 2005 and is currently posted at the Nashik Aviation Base. (HT photo)

“It was raining heavily on the second day. Later, we faced a stormy night and due to low visibility, we were forced to take an unplanned rest for almost 35 minutes. If that wasn’t enough, we faced a hailstorm for almost two hours. It was really bad and this must be the reason that lot of teams backed out of the race. Later, we came to know that this year’s edition was considered as the toughest due to the extreme weather,” he added.

It wasn’t just the weather, but the steep climbs and high altitude were also major obstacles for the cyclists. The race covers a lesser distance than RAAM (4000km), but is considered as the toughest race as the cyclists ride around nine peaks in the Alps mountain range, with approximately 98,500 feet elevation gain. It is almost equivalent to climbing Mt Everest three times during the race duration.

The highest peak is Grossglockner (12,500ft) and it requires a steady climb of almost 36 km to reach the top. Even climbing down is challenging as it requires special skills of technical descents.

To tackle the climbing challenge, the riders underwent rigorous training under the guidance of Chaitnya Velhal from Pune. Chaitanya Velhal had qualified at the RAAM thrice and have finished the Ironman race twice. He works as a physical trainer with Multifit.

“When we decided to participate in RAA, we had hardly 100 days left for preparation. So we contacted Chaitnya immediately. He agreed to train us and I must say, his strenuous training helped us to attain the goal in the first attempt, that too without any experience at any international race,” Pannu said.

After the initial training, the riders did a simulation ride of 600 km which consisted of several ghat sections of Katraj, Mahabaleshwar, Khambataki, Bor ghat and Lavasa. It was peak summer (May 28, 2017) but the riders performed impressively. Then, again in July, they did another simulation ride of 850 kms in 35 hours. The ride was more challenging as several ghats were repeated.

“We used to ride 3-4 hours daily and almost 7-8 hours on weekends. This continued for almost 100 days. But the stimulation rides boosted our confidence and we felt that we were ready to take on the mighty challenge that is the Alps,” Pannu said.

“The success of my trainees is a prime example of how the right kind of training and commitment to a goal can help athletes achieve the impossible. I am very proud that I was a part of this successful race,” he said.

Lt Col Bharat Pannu is an aeronautical engineer and hails from Rohtak, Haryana (HT photo)
Lt Col Bharat Pannu is an aeronautical engineer and hails from Rohtak, Haryana (HT photo)

Managing finance, language barrier were major concerns

When Darshan Dubey decided to attempt the world’s second toughest endurance cycling race, Race Around Austria, he had absolutely no experience in participating at competitive events or ultra races. However, he had extreme confidence in his friend Bharat Pannu and with that confidence and enthusiasm, he took the plunge and decided to race. 

However, they had little time left and had many things to do. From training and logistics to arranging vehicles, flights to hotel bookings, they had a lot of parameters to prepare for. 

“We were riding long distances for a while now, but never had proper training. We were seeking help, but we were rejected by quite a few coaches as the time left for the race was not enough. Some even suggested that we should participate in 2018, once we were ready. Then, with Divya's suggestion, we got in touch with Chaitanya Velhal from Pune, who accepted the challenge and we started our training when there were only 100 days left,” said Darshan, who is a post graduate in business design and hails from Nashik. 

At present, he is employed as the store manager with Aditya Birla Retail at Bengaluru. He started with long distance cycling two years ago by participating in the Audax events. He has crewed for Omkar Kesarkar in the Deccan Clilffhanger 2016 and for Bharat Pannu at the Ultra Spice Race 2017. Race Around Austria was his maiden competitive event. 

“Our main concern was the language barrier. Last time, Nashik rider Ammar Miyaji had attempted the RAA. He had several issues as most of the locals speak only German and not English. So buying basic things and navigation became a painful job. Eventually, he faced a time penalty and couldn’t finish the race. So this time, we included an Austrian, Daniel Schneider, and a German speaking Indian, Vamseedhar Bezawada, in the crew. They were well versed with the terrain, country side, driving rules and their help turned out to be handy while dealing with the challenges of the race,” he said. 

Managing financial fund was another challenge for the riders. 

“We even tried crowd funding, but it amounted to less than 10 per cent of the overall expenses. Therefore I feel, there should be more races in India like the Deccan Cliffhanger or the Ultra spice. The later event is of 1750-km and passes through Goa – Karnataka – Tamilnadu – Nilgiris- Ooty- Kerala and again Karnataka. It has an elevation gain of 22,000 metres and this can be a good challenge before attempting RAA or RAAM.”

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