Race Report from La La Land Ultra: A self-supported ultra distance cycle race which started in Manali and went all the way till Turtuk covering 700 km! This first of its kind race had an average altitude of 13000 ft. and crossed multiple 18000 ft. high passes…
La La Land Ultra
Rohtang La, Baralacha La, Nakee La, Lachung La, Tanglang La and Khardung La. The magnificent LAs which are the essence of the La La Land Ultra self-supported race.
India’s second self-supported ultra distance cycle race and without doubt the most difficult. One will have to go in search of many more mountain passes to make an endurance race any harder than this!
This race was conceived and executed by a bunch of madcaps who call themselves ‘irregulars‘. The race a first in their ‘Mountain Man‘ series. Their tagline, ‘Not for one and all‘.
You can’t just pay the fee and show up for the race. You need to be mentally and physically prepared. Else, you will suffer. And worst case, the altitude will kill you!
La La Land Ultra is a 700 km race which starts in the Himalayan town of Manali and goes to the northernmost village of India, Turtuk. With an average altitude of 13000 ft., this is one of the highest cycle races in the world.
From beginning to end, the racers climb an insane 10277 metres (33717 ft.) as they traverse 6 high mountain passes. The highest of which is Khardung La, one of the highest passes in the world.
What cannot be quantified is the weather. From rain which soaks the racers to the bone all the way from Manali to Rohtang La, to the extremely strong mountain sun in the Ladakh region on the other side of Tanglang La. While the heat during the day drains out the rider, the plummeting night temperatures makes them scurry for cover like desert rats!
The terrain is inhospitable and challenging, making the racers wish they were comfortably nestled in a blanket at home. La La Land is not for the faint of heart!
There was a huge turnout at the start line, a fantastic number of 6!
Being the first iteration of this race, lower participation was expected. Not a lot of people have the heart (or butt!) to suffer for 700 km on the back of a tiny saddle.
What was even more shocking were the number of women participating. In a country where female cyclists are a fraction of their male counterparts, it was wonderful to see 33% lady participants! A major achievement even before the first pedal was turned at the start line.
The racers who had the courage to line up at the start line:
The youngest of the racing bunch. Kavinaya, a district level volleyball player from Mumbai had been looking forward to riding the Manali-Leh stretch for some time.
She jumped at the opportunity to race all the way to Leh and beyond! Armed with a road bike, grit and a never fading smile, Kavi was ready to tackle the mountains.
Winner of MangoTrans, the country’s first self-supported ultra distance cycling race, Neha was prepared for a whole different set of challenges in the Himalayas.
A classical dancer and doctor, Neha has been cycling and winning for some time now. She won the Deccan Cliffhanger in 2018 and Enduro adventure race in 2019.
She had never been to the Himalayas previously and was in for a surprise. Both pleasant and otherwise! Her weapon of choice was a hybrid bike.
Along with Neha and Kavi, Anurag was the third and final participant in the Maverick category for the race. The three had 160 hours to ride the 700 km course.
Anurag had the advantage of having ridden Manali-Leh multiple times as a camp leader of YHAI (Youth Hostel of India), where he had led groups of 100s across this difficult terrain.
A full-blown touring cyclist, Anurag was going to be participating for the very first time in a cycle race of any sort! An incredible debut, made even crazier by doing it on a road bike with skinny 28 mm tyres and the lowest gear of 34-28. To top it all, he was getting back on the saddle after a hiatus of 10 months!
Siddhartha, one of the youngest Indians to qualify for RAAM (Race Across America), has many laurels to his name in the world of endurance cycling.
He has also participated and won in the shorter format of road racing. Siddhartha was also using La La Land Ultra as a training ground for the Silk Road Race held in Kyrgyzstan in August.
Siddhartha had done multiple treks in the Himalayas, but found himself on the back of a cycle for the first time in these majestic mountains! He was riding a hybrid equipped to cross country in his Kyrgyzstan race.
He along with the next two were racing in the Chinthes category and needed to complete the race in 100 hours, including sleep time!
The proverbial clash of David vs Goliath, with the former being the appropriate namesake!
David is an accomplished mountain biker, having won MTB Shimla thrice on the trot, along with strong finishes in the stage races of MTB Arunachal and MTB Himalaya. Both races which see strong international competition.
Based in Shimla, David had thousands of climbing miles in his legs and the weight to match! Watching him fly up a climb was a treat to the eyes of the beholder. A true blue mountain goat.
The only thing missing in his quiver full of arrows was endurance experience. David had never ridden a race of this length before. He was also the only one on a mountain bike.
The Goliath of the sport and ‘local’ favourite for the race, Sumit has been involved in endurance cycling for a decade now.
Currently the record holder of being the fastest Indian from Manali to Leh in just 71 hours, Sumit was the man to beat at La La Land Ultra.
He calls Leh his home and has ridden the route multiple times. An advantage which he took from the start to the finish line. A masthead of the sport in India, the pressure was on Sumit to win, long before he had turned a wheel!
With his expansive knowledge of the terrain, he chose a road bike shod with 30 mm rubber to tackle the broken and battered route.
La La Land Ultra: Race Face
No matter the preparation, one’s nerves play a melodious jingle at the start.
Five riders lined up at the start line at the main Manali Bazaar under the Indian tricolour. The photographer hoped for a whiff of breeze to get the flag fluttering, the racers loved the still air and hoped not to get a headwind!
Why only five? Where’s the sixth racer you ask.
Well, Sumit true to reputation was rushing to the start line at the last minute. He just about made it in the nick of time as they were all sent packing to Turtuk.
There are not many places in the world where you can climb continuously for 50 km without any relief. Manali to Rohtang top is one such place where you climb 2000 metres.
The only blessing for the racers was the lack of traffic. The race was flagged off on a Tuesday, when the roads are closed to tourist vehicles. The curse was for the organisers, who couldn’t follow the racers!
Till Gulaba, David and Sumit were riding together, pacing each other, up the climb. It was like the first round of a boxing match. The prizefighters sizing each other up, waiting for the opponent to make the first move.
With a few kilometres to go to Marhi, David pulled the pin. He put on an amazing display of Watts per Kilo (WpK) as he danced on the pedals. Sumit, an impressive climber himself, sat on his bike spinning as he watched David go.
Anurag, the tourer, led Siddhartha the racer up the Rohtang climb. Kavi was doing the same with Neha. Both the girls were riding with ill health, one with the flu, the other with a bad plate of Biryani!
Checkpost Charlie: Keylong
Since the organiser’s vehicles couldn’t cross Rohtang, Nachiket, the race photographer, caught a bus to Keylong. The first checkpoint of the race.
David was the first to reach there at 2 PM after smoothly sailing through Rohtang. Sumit followed a couple of hours later, after having a miserable time in the rain and slush at the top of the pass.
Siddhartha and Anurag were bunched up close together and crossed early in the evening. Neha and Kavi suffered up Rohtang and reached the top at 6 PM amidst terrible weather. They didn’t make it to the checkpoint by night.
The first night saw David in Sarchu after a massive ride for the day. Sumit stayed in Zing Zing Bar, at the base of Baralacha La. Anurag and Siddhartha both stayed in Darcha, but in different dhabas, not knowing that the other was also there! Kavi and Neha stayed in Sissu.
The La Las
The day of passes.
David rode like a man possessed. From Sarchu climbing the infamous Gata Loops up Nakee La and then Lachung La, followed by Tanglang La. He was riding so fast that the organisers couldn’t reach Pang, the second checkpoint, before him! We were in fact informed that a kamzor (weak) looking boy had passed through on a cycle. So much for being a strong cyclist!
Sumit rode up Baralacha La and past Sarchu before finishing his day in Pang. Just 5 minutes before the cutoff time. The last hour saw him wade through the river which rose and covered parts of the road to Pang!
Conjoined twins Siddhartha and Anurag made it to Sarchu by nightfall after getting stalled by a mudslide across the highway which shut down traffic for an hour.
The girls, Neha and Kavi had missed the cutoff at Keylong, but continued riding ahead to Jispa and stayed the night there.
When Push Comes to Shove
David pushed too hard and his lack of endurance experience came to the fore. His knees were hurting with the effort and he went into limp mode all the way to Leh, where he plonked himself at Metta Cafe.
Sumit waited at Pang for Siddhartha, before starting late and doing an easy ride to Leh and finishing by 8 in the evening at Metta Cafe. The cafe was the checkpoint for the race as well as the watering hole for the racers!
The twinning racers rode from Sarchu, made it to the Pang checkpoint in time and finished the day’s ride in Debring. Which is the base of Tanglang La.
Neha’s ill health caught up and she pulled out of the race and headed back to Manali to get medical help. Kavi slogged on all alone and reached Zing Zing Bar by night.
The Final Push…of sorts
Discretion was the better part of valour for David. His knees were in bad shape after the massive kilometres he had clocked in quick time. He opted out of the race and promised to be back stronger and better prepared.
Sumit left Leh with the expectation of reaching Turtuk by nightfall. His plans were interrupted by the mountains! Khardung La let him have it with all its fury. He was greeted with blizzards at a comforting altitude of 17535 ft.! As he sat in his cycling shorts sipping hot chocolate at the military canteen, the clock ticked on.
He finally pushed through the cold and walked his bike down the slippery icy slopes, only to narrowly miss getting hit on the head with a massive boulder! He clearly had done something to displease the mountain gods. Turtuk was off the cards, but he did make it to Hundar, with just 80 km to the finish line.
Further back, Anurag and Siddhartha split up on the climb to Tanglang La. The latter suffering from bad health and stuffing his bike in a passing vehicle. While the former made his way to the top of the pass and then bottomed out at Leh by late afternoon.
Kavi also found her breaking point and hitched a ride from Zing Zing Bar to Leh.
And Then They Were Two…
6 had started and 4 had fallen by the wayside. 2 to go!
Sumit left Hundar for Turtuk. 80 km and a handful of hours to reach the finish. He dug deep and pushed. This time the Velo Gods looked down upon him with disfavour. A sidewall tear brought his bike to a screeching halt.
Knowing roadside repairs is mandatory for self-supported racing. Sumit proved this point as he used an empty energy gel wrapper to boot his tyre and continue riding.
The clock was ticking and the spokes were a kickin’!
Sumit reached Turtuk. Late! 12 minutes to be precise. The mountain course had won. With a little help from the Velo Gods. The tyre repair had taken roughly 15 minutes to fix!
The Chinthes category didn’t see a finisher in 2019, but it did see Sumit set the fastest time on a bicycle from Manali to Turtuk. 100 hours and 12 minutes. A time which many will be out to beat in the 2020 edition, including Sumit!
While this insanity was on, Anurag had an early morning start from Leh and rode a calm and composed ride all the way to Hundar.
The next morning he continued in tourer style and finished in a cool 125 hours. Significantly faster than the 160 hours he had been allotted in the Maverick category. His next year’s target will be Chinthes.
Post Race Trauma!
Some finished, others didn’t.
But each of the 6 have one thing in common. They all want to get back in 2020 to have another go at it and improve on their personal performances. To take on the mountain course of La La Land Ultra.
This is what they had to say after the race as we sat chatting in Metta Cafe:
“It was my first time in the mountains. I had 9 days in Manali before the race and did a few training rides as well. But 2-3 days before the race I got a bad fever. Day 1 was really nice, Kavi and I reached Sissu at 11. Which was adventurous enough! Bad health stopped me from riding the entire route.
MangoTrans I enjoyed a lot, but this was very different. You need a lot more experience for this. That was something I was missing. Next year I will be more confident of doing it alone and finishing it.“
“Climbing these passes on a cycle was a new experience. You need to set your pace accordingly. You have to keep your intensity low enough to last. The load I was carrying made climbing difficult. I felt really good at times, but at Baralacha La towards the end I didn’t feel so good.
I fell short on days for acclimatisation and suffered because of that. At the base of Tanglang La, I had a huge bout of coughing. I was struggling to breathe because of that. Everything started hurting in my chest. That’s when I decided to call it off.
But definitely with a change in strategy it would be fun to compete and complete next year.“
“Its been 3 years since I have been around people who are into cycling. And I have wanted to do Manali-Leh. When I signed up for La La Land Ultra, I wanted to prepare for it. But that didn’t happen and I thought I will do it any which ways.
I contemplated riding to Khardung La from Leh after getting here in a truck. But I want to do it in one stretch and I want it to be a surprise for next year! I have got a fair idea of what it requires and what I need to put in. You can consider me to be the first participant signing up for 2020!“
“One might think it is advantageous to know the route. Last winter it snowed so much that this year the road was very different. Especially Baralacha La. This was my first ever race in my life. As such, my motive was to experience it. I didn’t think about winning or losing. Even 160 hours seemed too less to complete this race. It was finding out my own level of performance.
The last stretch from Nubra to Turtuk was really beautiful.
A few times I did think about giving up. It wasn’t a cakewalk. I had terrible saddle sores after Pang. After that it was about mental strength and not physical.“
“With Khardung La or the mountains, I always say they let you pass. If they don’t, you can’t! I was caught in a blizzard and took refuge in the generator hut of a mobile tower. In races like La La Land Ultra, where you are subjecting yourself to extremes of mother nature, be ready for anything. When there is a no go, there is a no go.
This time the Chinthes course beat me by 12 minutes, but I am still the fastest across Manali-Turtuk. Next time also it will be the same story. I will be the fastest…“
Read about India’s first self-supported ultra distance cycle race in India. Also read about cycling in Ladakh. Check out this list of cool cycle races in India.