The ride to Sultanbatheri from Madikere was a tough one. It was long and hot with a lot of rolling terrain. But, the Queen stage for this year’s tour is still the ride from Sultanbathery to Ooty via Kalahatty. Although it is only a 103km ride, the competitive segment at the start of the ride followed by Kalahatty at the end makes it one brute of a ride.
We were flagged off at Sultanbathery at 7:40 am. It was quite foggy at the start as we rolled out of the town. The day’s competitive segment starts at 21km mark. Sumit and I were riding towards the CS start but instead of thinking about the CS or about warming up for it, Sumit was riding wide eyed and jaw dropped, being completely blown away by the scenic beauty, continuously repeating, ‘Man! This is so beautiful! This is so amazing!’.
|As we headed towards Ooty! Pic: Sumit|
It is no wonder that a first time TFNer feels like he should have been carrying a video camera for recording the entire ride for it’s sheer scenic brilliance. Even guys like me who have been returning almost every year, are blown away by the beauty of the Nilgiris every year. But, no camera can capture the sheer joy of riding through such amazing bio-diversity, feeling every bit of it in the legs and lungs, soaking in the experience first hand and living it on the bike, for 8 days.
The Competitive Segment:
The day’s CS was for 6.8km. It was short but in no way easy. For that matter, no distance is easy in time trial in my view. Each distance brings it’s own challenges. The amount of time suffering during a shorter time trial might be less but the intensity of that suffering will have to increase if you are do well for that distance. This particular segment although looked flat on the day’s elevation profile,it is only so, compared the monstrous Kalahatty. The 6.8km stretch had 170m elevation gain and had equally challenging technical descents to handle.
It also presented everyone with the dilemma of whether to put in a strong effort or to save up for Kalahatty. I decided to put in a decent effort so as to not lose any time to my competitors but not so much that it will come back and bite me on Kalahatty later in the day. This was about holding onto the Blue Jersey while still thinking about the red jersey of King of Kalahatty for Master’s category.
I took to the line and started out with a strong sprint up the hill and kept pushing hard right from the word go. The thought of ‘is this too much?’ was lingering in my mind but I kept going hard on the uphill sections while trying to spin as quickly as I can on the downhill bits. The heart rate quickly jumped up and reached threshold while the power was almost touching the VO2 max range.
I was able to take decent lines and go reasonably well. At 3km mark, a few people were crossing the road having just alighted a jeep on the other side of the road. I didn’t have enough time to brake to avoid collision. So, I screamed at the top of my voice to stop them dead in their tracks, startled as I whizzed past in between them. The volunteer motorbike which was tailing me then moved some 20 meters ahead of me to try and warn the traffic.
Everything went smoothly until I reached the village at the 5km mark where I was struck behind an auto that wouldn’t let me pass it and there were multiple jeeps coming head on. I didn’t want to risk being pushed off the road and lose minutes instead of seconds while I waited patiently to find a right moment to pass it. I finally managed to pass it a few meters after the village and it was all downhill from there to the finish line. Having lost my rhythm struck in the traffic in the village, I just rolled to the finish barely pedaling down the hill. I took 15:15.
In the women’s category Belinda further extended her lead by finishing the race section in 19:20. Divya Chandran was second for the day and regained her second place after this race and Chua Bee Geok Kazay is third.
In 45Plus category, Richard did another great ride and finished first and extended his lead by another 35secs. Russel Bell moved took not only took back his second place but also took a 50 seconds lead on Aijaz. It would be interesting to see their fight on Valparai, the final CS day after tomorrow.
In Masters category, I managed not to lose any time and added a meager 2 secs to my lead. Preet Singh is riding strong and is the second fastest in Masters today and 2nd in GC. He now has a 4 min gap over 3rd place. Peter managed to put some time on Sumit by doing a great ride but Sumit is still 3rd over all with a 20 sec lead. It depends on who climbs Valparai better.
In under 35, Nils again built on his lead with another great ride. Rajat and Vinayak were just 3 seconds apart on the day but Rajat has a good 2min lead on Vinayak for the second position overall.
The last competitive segment on the ride to Valparai(Day 7) will decide a few podium battles. Things are very interestingly poised in GC in all the categories.
Ride Through Mudumalai Forest:
After the CS, we headed towards support station one where we refilled before starting. Nils and Viju who have been going way ahead of everyone else everyday were told that today they need to wait for others since only batches of ten riders will be allowed to ride through the Mudhumalai forest lead by an escort vehicle.
So, they didn’t have any choice but to ride with us. Nils was definitely suffering for having to ride so slow.
|Nils suffering, having to ride slow! 🙂|
We reached Gudalur and got onto the Gudalur-Mysore road to get to the Mudumalai reserve forest entrance. After we formed ten riders, we were escorted by a lead motorbike and started riding in the forest. The roads were not great and at a couple of stretches there were no roads in fact. Those stretches have been like that for as long as I can remember. I wonder what stops the authorities from repairing them.
We reached Masinagudi and started riding towards Kalahatty. We sighted a few elephants in the woods and also fresh elephant dung on the road. One of the group of riders in a later group actually encountered an enraged elephant on the road. They luckily had the escort jeep to take cover behind until the elephant walked off a few minutes later.
The approach road to Kalahatty gives a few previews to the monstrous climb ahead by throwing a few steep pitches at us where we had to go to the lowest gear available. We reached the support station two near the CCD, four kilometers from the base of Kalahatty. The competitive segment for King/Queen of Kalahatty jersey also starts from there.
We got there a little before noon and lunch was arranged for us all at the Jungle Inn restaurant at the same spot. I was having stomach trouble from day 3 and I didn’t want to eat before climbing Kalahatty lest I should throw up or worse having to run into the bushes in the middle of the climb. But, we couldn’t start immediately as we didn’t get a green signal from the volunteers.
While I waited, I used the wash room to clear the tummy once again. I was relying mostly on liquids to get me through the day. While waiting for the CS to start, a bunch of us decided to take a nap on the mats in the shade. It was quite relaxing both for the mind and the body. Once we were given a go ahead to start the ride, I didn’t want to wait any longer losing more energy. I got to the line after a couple of riders and started riding.
The initial 4km of the race segment is slightly rolling until you hit the culvert where the monstrous Kalahatty climb starts. I was trying to shift up to the big ring to save time on the downhill stretches of the first four kilometers but it was not shifting. So, instead of wasting time trying further, I got into an aero tuck during the descents and used the small ring for the inclines. Once I reached the culvert, I hit the lap button again to keep an eye on the time just for the climb. I did the climb in 1hr 18 mins in TFN-2014 and missed out on the red jersey by 20 seconds. So, I wanted to target slightly less than that time.
But, as soon as I hit the climb, I could tell that I did not have the energy or the legs I had on day2 of last year’s tour when I did my personal best on this climb. I kept at it, trying not to think too much and pushing one pedal stroke at a time. 1 km into the climb, I could hear someone panting behind me. I could tell it was Nils. I shouted, ‘Go, Nils’ as he blew past me. He was riding Kalahatty at almost the same pace as I would ride Nandi hills. He quickly disappeared into a corner and I got back to watching my HR soaring up.
The legs were not spinning with the same ease with which I remember they were spinning the last time I climbed Kalahatty. I was in the lowest gear(39×32) and still kept looking for another gear that did not exist. The first 15-20 mins, I tried the same tactic of spinning for 4 mins and standing for a min and then taking a sip of my energy drink every 5 mins, that I used successfully last year. But I was not able to do that much longer. I was craving for energy drink every few minutes and I had no energy to stand and pedal. So, I just sat and tried to spin. The cadence was struck in low 50s even in the lowest gear and the power kept dropping.
2kms into the climb, I reassessed the situation and decided not to try and push. The signs didn’t look positive and I knew I would be paying the price for it in the later half if I tried any harder now. The heart rate came down to tempo and so did the power. I knew I could manage that for a longer time than if I were to push any harder. It was survival mode. I was taking it one 5min chunk at a time, one curve at a time and one pedal stroke at a time. Every pedal stroke became a herculean effort.
It was difficult to accept that I might miss out on the chance to wear the coveted red jersey even this year but I would even lose out on the chance of retaining the blue jersey if I ended up severely cramping and not being able to complete the climb altogether. If a rider doesn’t complete a ride every day, he is disqualified from the general classification, the ranking based on the total times of the different competitive sections through the tour, that decides the blue jersey for each category.
I kept egging myself on, trying to think positive thoughts. Telling myself that it is going to be the same difficult conditions for everyone. The same blazing heat, the same 500 odd kms in the legs, the same unrelenting brutal mercilessness of the monstrous climb. Everyone has to fight one’s own battle on the climb. It is a lonely battle. A brutal battle.
With every passing kilometer, I was telling myself encouraging words. ‘You are doing a great job. Keep at it. We are getting there soon.’ It was like seeing my struggling self riding up that hill with me running alongside, cheering and encouraging him. I was trying to will the body on, to keep going. Not to give up. To make it to the next hairpin bend, to the next kilometer. Each passing second, each passing meter was an achievement to be celebrated.
|The youngster from Goa, Vinayak Goankar at 16th hairpin bend! Pic: Magender|
All the target times, hr and power zones, cadence and all that jazz were thrown into the deepest recesses of the mind. All that mattered was just putting one foot forward at a time. One pedal stroke at a time. It was meditation. A meditation in pain.
I was waiting for the Hail Hitler section, the 300 meter straight stretch of 15% that stares at you and intimidates you like none other, so that I can get it over with. Mentally it is a big hurdle to pass although I know it was going to get tougher after that. My tactic to deal with it is not to look up beyond a couple of meters. It just gets you if you look further ahead and see it staring down at you. I remember the day I struggled up this climb in TFN 2013 with cramps, like it was yesterday. That is the nightmare I was trying to avoid reliving.
But as I hit the ‘Hail Hitler’ section, with the 3km to go, the left leg began to cramp up. I told myself to not panic and not think of stopping unless I have absolutely nothing left to give. I quickly took a sip of my energy drink heavily doped with salts and sugars. Tried to stretch the leg and not push with it. It slowly subsided. I knew it is going to comeback if I tried to push with it. I tried to put as little pressure on that leg as possible. I kept taking a tiny sip of energy drink every couple of minutes as if to tell the body it is receiving all that is needed to survive, so it should not think of giving up.
I slowed down further to keep the cramps at bay. I somehow felt that stopping meant the end of any hopes of getting to the top. The distance from curve number 8 to curve 7 should have been the longest between any two hairpin bends in the history of humanity. At least that is how it felt. 2km to go, I was almost dancing and celebrating mentally to keep the body going. It was ridiculous cheer leading but it is not visible to anyone outside and my body needed that.
The cramps were returning at regular intervals now and that mental cheer leading helped take the mind off of it and not panic. The last hairpin bend, 1/36 is visible from 1km to go but takes a long time to get to. Once I got to the hairpin 1/36, I knew there is still another 500m to go till the top. That is the longest and most difficult few meters. I know I was almost there. But with the cramps looking to seize the body at any moment, it was not time to celebrate yet.
Finally as I heard the good folks at the finish line yell my name, I stood up on the pedals in the last 10 meters and crossed the line, elated, exhausted, bodily and emotionally drained. As the volunteers took my bike, I just lied down on the side of the road and almost cried. It reminded me of my ride up to Ooty from Guldalur on my fixed gear bike in TFN-2011 where at the end I just finished and cried for 5mins. Those first few minutes after a hard struggle like that are so emotional. I finished the climb in 1hr 25mins as opposed to 1hr 18mins last year. But, I was just glad that it was finally over!
|Rajat, after giving it all on the climb!|
The KOM Results:
Nils did another monstrous ride on the monstrous climb and finished the whole CS in 1hr 13mins. He was slower by 1 min from later on the same segment but this was on 4th day o the tour while last year it was on the 2nd day.
I managed to complete the climb in 1:37:10 mins which is 7mins slower than last year but managed to be faster than others in Masters and claim the KOM jersey for the category. It is such a relief to see that all that pain resulted in something that I have been targeting since last year.
In 45plus category, Richard finished ahead of everyone else in 1hr 53mins and took the red jersey in the category.
In Women’s category, Belinda is the KOM on Kalahatty this year. The couple from Goa now have both the Blue Jersey and Red Jerseys! Awesome folks!
The Rest Day!
The hotel we are put up in for the rest day in Ooty is amazing. Highland Hotel of Accord group is taking good care of us. The food is amazing and the rooms luxurious and comfortable. The views around are fantastic. After yesterday’s Kalahatty everyone is enjoying the luxury and the great food. People are going to ride and hike around, playing cricket, frisbee, roaming around enjoying the views, walking to the town for chocolates etc. A fun day ahead!
|Pic: TFN Voluteers|
Tomorrow’s ride to Palakkad doesn’t have a competitive section. The ride starts with a long downhill via Mettupalayam and is going to be mostly a joy ride. Looking forward to some exploratory fun ride.
Photos from the day are here.
Day 1: Bangalore to Mysore
Day 2: Mysore to Madikere
Day 3: Madikere to Sultanbatheri
Day 4: This post
Day 5: Rest day in Ooty
Day 6: Ooty to Palakkad
Day 7: Palakkad to Valparai
Day 8: Valparai to Pollachi
You can read the account of the fellow blogger, Abhishek Tarfe here.