The Spirit of Ultra Spice Race – by Shreyas Sirdeshmukh

A blog post by Shreyas who crewed for Ila Patil at the 1750 KM Ultra Spice in Jan 2019

Ultra-cycling to me was an alien terrain until I came across and officiated for the 6th edition of The Deccan Cliffhanger; the most prestigious ultra-cycling race in India, organized by Inspire India. This race eventually directed me towards being a crew member for Ila Patil- the only Indian woman to have qualified for Race Across America (RAAM), who was attempting for the most challenging and the longest ultra-cycling race in India-The Ultra Spice 1750. The race has an intense rolling course of a 400 km coastline starting from Goa, climbing In Iritty, Kerala and the steep Nilgiris to reach the phenomenal town of Ooty and back to Goa. Speaking of the Ultra-Spice race route, it takes you through the best of the south, aromas of vanilla, pepper & tea plantations; in addition to which are the coffee harvests kept under the sun and the curvy hairpins of Madikeri. At the same time for an ultra-cyclist the route is a challenging endurance test and a huge achievement to cherish in the end.

This race has many dimensions to unravel. To have experienced it and not been able to put it into a single or multiple conversations thoroughly is why I am attempting to sit down and recollect the events during the race to tell the story of The Ultra Spice Race 2019.

If you tell someone that you have finished a 1750 km race within 5 days on a cycle, you will be looked at with raised eyebrows, with shock and a huge appreciation of the feat achieved. I got a somewhat similar feeling while crewing for Ila Patil and watching her ride indefatigably and thrash the 1750 km course. A lot of premeditated preparation goes into reaching this stage. Two of the prerequisites for ultra-cycling races are determination and unimaginable mental strength.

A few of the challenges that a rider faces are execution of the ride plan, sleep management, mental preparedness, and selection of the right crew matching the expectations of the rider during the race. (For those who don’t know what crewing is, here is a brief explanation. In supported ultra-cycling races like Ultra Spice 1750 and previously mentioned RAAM, the rider is just supposed to ride, the rest of the things like nutrition, logistics, bike tuning, driving etc. are the responsibilities of the crew.)

It took 137 hours for Ila to finish the greatest challenge and she had slept for a miniscule 20 hours throughout the race which makes it an average 3 hours 20 minutes of rest, and approximately 20 hours 40 minutes on the saddle for 6 consecutive days. To achieve something like that you have to have the will power that puts you on the top of the great Everest. Ila was religiously determined on touching the finish line by those wheels that had become her rolling pseudo-feet. Tremendous mental strength is a requirement which sure plays the most crucial role in ultra-cycling races.

Being a new comer, I was clueless and nervous in the first few interactions with Ila and the crew for race planning and route discussions. I was under a very wrong impression that throughout the 5 days everyday would be a bit of work and the entire race would mostly be like a road trip to south with crew of five. I was also wrong in believing that since only one rider is going to do the course, it won’t be a hectic act on the road. But, it turned out to be exactly the other way round. From the road trip mindset a few days prior to the race to one member from the crew dropping at the start line, to finally reaching the finish line, my mind was in for a plethora of experiences, body for a little fatigue, the brain for some stress, plus the eyes for major sleep deprivation!

Crewing for Ila was all about the discussions back in the car about how do we work to keep her going, thinking about what she might be having on her mind at the given moment and finally, what she might need next and then being prepared for that exact thing. To align myself with this process of thinking and then acting with full potential was a difficult task and a great learning of how to put the rider’s requirements at the topmost priority and act on it.

This might start sounding like a really hectic and tiring job, being on your toes all the time but the crew has a hell of a time while making it all work. Haste in running for errands, reviving ourselves with the cheapest and the best of coffee, playing dumb charades with the locals for things like “Requirement of a bathroom for a shower”, the legit South Indian food, and the delightful roads of Tamil Nadu can be the highlights of the whole crewing gig. Especially, sitting out of the car window and shouting out loud to give directions to Ila or to have a light conversation when she is trying to push, and running alongside with her on the steepest climbs to talk to her and to keep it cool and chirpy, was my favorite job. Running on the route with the rider, feeling my heart pound for a moment felt like I was actually a part of all this, and just was grateful. There are obviously other ways of communicating with the rider, but I really liked the way we did it, primitive and raw shouting!

Once the caffeine started failing, the race official cars were crossing the path several times and cheering and injecting us with fresh motivation and trying to kill all the building stress, only to help us get going for hours and hours.

After the enthusiastic flag off and spending 3 consecutive days on the saddle, there are many moments when either the rider or the crew is thinking, “WHY am I doing this?” For the rider to find the exact words to respond to this question is near to difficult. They do it for finishing what they started and worked and trained hard for years. A few riders are looking at it as a hurdle that they have to cross before facing yet a bigger challenge. Mostly they do it because they have what it takes for such races and well, most importantly because they can!

Looking at the riders and their healthy competition, cheering each other to destroy the route, to reach the tops of hardest of the climbs and cross the finish line with happy and triumphant faces is just a treat to your eyes, and an inspiring scene indeed.

By the end of the race there are conversations that can be overheard, ranging from an “I’m starting with cycling” to “I’m definitely participating in the next edition of Deccan Cliffhanger”, to “I’m going to attempt to break a record”. In turn, these conversations serve the purpose of creating a legacy and promoting cycling in India that Divya Tate, founder at Inspire India, is working for.

To justify the title, ‘The Spirit of Ultra Spice Race’, I would like to compare it with the concept of radioactivity of a metal. One of the nights while driving and following Ila through the dense jungle of Jog falls, I asked Rutvik (The crew chief), “Now that you are doing these sorts of long distance races for a long time, has it changed you in any way? Does it change your way of thinking, make you a better version of yourself?” He responded with a nod saying, “Yes, it absolutely does. But we shall discuss this some other time, when I am not driving for these many hours and not sleep deprived!”

Jokes apart, while I was asking this question it struck me that The Ultra Spice 1750 is like radioactive metal which will affect anyone who comes in touch with it, slowly and for a long time and will help in the multitude of situations that life might present. Albeit, the race has a spirit which will affect you in an immensely positive way and inspire you to get out of your comfort zone and test your limits.

To conclude, the entire experience of The 3rd Edition of The Ultra Spice 1750, from my point of view, was 22,368 meters of net climbing, 1750 Km on the saddle, 137 hours of pure adrenaline rush, 19 control points, 5 days on the road, 4 states crossed, 2 wheels, one Ila Patil and her great will power.

Impelled!