In Conversation with endurance cyclist Neha Tikam from Pune as she shares her experience of winning Deccan Cliffhanger, where she rode 640 km from Pune to Goa in 34 hours 6 minutes and 45 seconds…
Winning Deccan Cliffhanger the dancer’s way!
Google D&D and images of the popular game Dungeons & Dragons will pop up. This article isn’t a tale of fantasy as is the game.
It is a tale of reality of another D&D at DC!
Meet Neha Tikam, a Doctor & Dancer from Pune, who used her dancing discipline and doctor’s focus to win gold at the challenging Deccan Cliffhanger.
Neha’s cycling life is in its infancy. Having got onto a saddle less than two years ago. How then did she win this gruelling RAAM Qualifier?
Training and Practice
She has been training as a Bharatanatyam artiste since she was in the 4th standard. The many years of teaching your body to do exactly as the mind dictates helps in endurance racing. When your body is on the verge of giving up but your mind needs to overpower it.
She is a Visharad in Indian Classical Dance. For the uninitiated that is the equivalent of a black belt in karate! Neha even ran a dance class a decade back with 50 students.
She has been practising as a homeopath for 7 years in Pune with a clinic of her own.
Her profession and passion aided her immensely while out on the saddle. Half the challenge, in any sport, is mental and she already had that covered.
Dance’s Loss is Cycling’s Gain!
With her medical practice taking up far too much time, her dancing had to be placed on the back-burner. But being habituated to a physical regimen, the lack of performing arts was filled with the gym.
She signed up for a spinning class where Siddharth Gadekar was an instructor. That’s where she first heard of Deccan Cliffhanger, since Siddharth had finished it in 28 hours a couple of years prior.
When the gym sessions came to an end, Neha, inspired by tales of Siddharth’s cycling adventure, took to renting out cycles and going for outdoor rides.
Hooked to the pleasure of cycling outdoors, she bought her first bike in December 2017, a Ridley hybrid. And hasn’t looked back since…
Endurance racing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But Neha took to it like duck to water.
Within a year of getting onto the saddle she lined up for her first race. Deccan Cliffhanger in 2018 as part of a mixed team of 4.
She won that race with her team but was left deeply disappointed. It got over far too soon and easily. It didn’t live up to the hype which she had psyched herself up for. At that point she decided to do this race in the solo category, to experience it for what it really is.
In 2019 she raced the Enduro race in Pune, which is a healthy mix of cycling, bike and hike and running. She won that as well!
Next up was MangoTrans, a self-supported ultra-distance bikepacking race in the Konkan region, from Alibaug to Goa. She won that as well!
Racing solo was never a challenge for her, since almost all her training rides were alone. On the contrary, she loved the feeling of going solo.
She then did a road race on her hybrid cycle in Kolhapur. Since there was no separate category for hybrid cycles, she raced with girls on road bikes. She almost won it, finishing second by 30 seconds!
At that point of time she knew a road bike had to be added to her arsenal.
La La Land Ultra
Next up was the big one, La La Land Ultra. A 700 km race from Manali to Turtuk in the high mountains of Ladakh. Bad health and lack of prior training forced her to abandon ship on the second day itself. But in that defeat there was a huge amount of learning.
She loves climbing on her cycle and gets considerable practice in the number of ghats which surround Pune. In the process she has notched up a number of QOMs on Strava on those ghat climbs.
When asked about her relative ease at winning races first time out, her reply was both humble and enlightening, “There are not a lot of women in the country who are willing to get out and race. Most are happy to be leisure riders.“
Winning at Training
You don’t win a race on race day, as much as you win it during your countless days of training.
After an unsuccessful La La Land, she borrowed her coach’s road bike, an alloy Fuji. The first time she turned the pedals on a roadie was on the 1st of September this year!
At that point of time, she knew nothing about road bikes. Not even the various bar grips, how to change gears with the brifters or even brake effectively. Her coach was out racing the Silk Road race, so she got help from YouTube and phone calls from friends.
Even with all the challenges of understanding a road bike, she persisted and trained hard.
An average week of training for the next couple of months included two days of climbing, one long 200+ km ride, and the rest were speed and interval training sessions, with a days rest.
Her dancing helped here. Neha had a strict teacher for the initial 7-8 years. Self-discipline was a way of life and she never missed her training and stuck to every activity religiously.
Training would begin at 5 in the morning and end by 9 after which a regular work day would commence!
Plans are meant to be broken…
During the planning phase, the most critical decision was choosing the right bike.
Whether to ride her trusty hybrid on which Neha had clocked hundreds of hours of saddle time or the significantly faster roadie with much less experience. Eventually she rode most of her race on neither, but a third bike, which she hadn’t ever ridden before!
She had never trained with a heart rate monitor or a Garmin. But on insistence of coach and crew she borrowed and used both during the race.
It turned out to be not so useful, since she had no idea what were her heart rate zones.
Everyone advised her to ride below 160 bpm, while her HR almost always was around the 170 mark!
In a supported race, having the right people as your backup crew can well be the difference between winning and not finishing.
Racers look for a tight knit bunch of people, who are on the same page as themselves and the rest of the crew. People who have experience in crewing as well as a decent knowledge of cycling.
Neha had no such luxury.
Her coach, Siddharth, was also coach to another DC participant, Rajlaxmi. So he couldn’t be a part of Neha’s crew.
Her delayed search for a crew first landed at the doorsteps of her previous years teammates. All of whom had already signed up to crew others.
It was back to the doctor/ dance routine. Shalimar, a pharmacist with no cycling experience agreed to join and he brought his friend Vishal along, who was a CA with equally minimal knowledge of pedal power.
Anuja, from her dance classes got on board, but immediately after came down with dengue.
Neha was hoping to ride with two support cars. She was barely managing crew for even one car!
Fortune finally turned her way, as she met a cyclist in Satara during one of her training rides. Tushar was a capable endurance cyclist and had raced in Deccan Cliffhanger before. His mechanical skills with the bike were great, which was a blessing, since the rest of her crew didn’t even know how to remove a wheel!
Finally Neha found her crew chief, Dhruv, all of 19 years old! He searched out the competition and got Neha to focus on them as well. Strategising for the race and building a workable plan. Eventually he took over crew chief duties for the race, even though he signed up with just 4 days to go.
Neha had done most of her riding on a hybrid cycle and her coach wanted her to race on it as well.
After a few practice rides she made up her mind.
On a 60 km flat course, her average speeds on the hybrid would be 27 kmph with an all out effort, while on the roadie she would easily clock 32+ kmph. A speed difference which could not be ignored in a 600 km race.
The feeling of road biking is exhilarating, but once you study the numbers, there is no argument left!
On a first attempt, most people are looking to just finish. A strong finish makes the rider ecstatic.
Neha wanted more.
Neha wanted to win. Her target was to complete the course in 32 hours.
Priyanka appeared to be her toughest challenger. Swati would also pose a stiff challenge along with Rajlaxmi. While Hitisha had dropped out of the race, a few days prior to the start with an injury.
All the planning and preparation culminates on race day.
Things didn’t go as expected and Neha was disappointed that the Mahabaleshwar climb had been removed since climbing is her forte. Those climbs in the first half of the day were enough normally to break rider’s spirits and cause them to DNF by Belgaum itself.
Around Belgaum, Neha overtook and left behind Swati and was in the lead all the way to the finish line.
The stretch from Dandeli to Karwar was by and large rolling terrain. But the gradients of the short climbs was steep and the roads in terrible condition because of the extended monsoon this year.
Losing the plot!
The Deccan Cliffhanger race wasn’t just a first time for Neha, it was a first for her crew as well! On a number of occasions they took incorrect turns and diversions only to backtrack. She ended up losing quite some time getting lost.
At one point they even stopped a truck to check if the driver had seen other cyclists on the road!
Karwar had a checkpoint added at the 11th hour and some of her crew were aware of it while others weren’t. She almost missed the checkpoint because of the confusion. It was a learning experience for everyone.
Fellow racer, Priyanka, got disqualified from the race for not getting her time card stamped at that very checkpoint.
From Karwar to Goa there was a lot of climbing involved under the hot coastal sun. The heat more pronounced after the cool night temperatures in the ghats.
For better or worse, on her crew chief’s suggestion, she ditched the Fuji and rode Tushar’s carbon road bike, which was a couple of sizes too small.
She ended up doing 400 km of the race on a cycle she had never ridden before! So much for planning…
Sleep and Rest. What’s That?
Neha didn’t get a moment’s sleep in her 34 hours of riding.
Her longest break was 10 minutes, with most of her breaks lasting no more than 5 minutes each. Her crew did a superb job of getting her back on the saddle in quick time.
For the night riding segments, she had asked them to pump her up with tea, coffee and Red Bull.
Fortunately the night was spent climbing through the ghats. Where she overtook many male participants, who were struggling up. They would desperately call out to her to enquire about the length of the climb. A mental boost far better than caffeine!
Mental vs Physical
For the most part Neha was in her senses and in complete control of her bike and body.
Fatigue crept in with 50 km to go.
The last couple of hours, she couldn’t keep her neck upright to even see beyond her handlebars. Her vision consisted mostly of the pedals and front wheel. Unable to even look up and see the support vehicle ahead of her.
With her sight curtailed, she bumped into an auto rickshaw and motorcycle.
To compound problems, Neha’s right hand went completely numb. She could barely hold onto the handlebar. Unable to change gears or even brake. She had no feeling in her hand and couldn’t even get her gloves on.
The cause of these two problems is difficult to pinpoint. It could have been because of not being habituated to road bikes or just that she was riding a frame smaller than required.
Her crew cajoled her all the way to the finish line, as she was not completely in her senses and was talking incoherently.
It was a constant battle of mind over body till the finish line.
Finishing the race was a mixed bag of emotions.
On the one hand she had won by 10 minutes. With the girl in 3rd finishing 6 hours later.
But and this was a big but!
She finished 6 minutes 45 seconds after the RAAM Qualifier cutoff of 34 hours.
Neha was so heartbroken that she was in no mood to even attend the award ceremony later.
It hurts most, when it is so close, yet so far…
With the triumph and failing of Deccan Cliffhanger behind her, we wondered what’s next for Neha.
With her hand still numb and sore after DC, she is going to race the Sahyadri Classic in Pune on the 30th of November. It is a climbing race, with the women’s category covering 90 km and 2000 metres of elevation gain. A race in which Neha has a good chance of notching up another win!
She plans to buy a road bike soon and start training with heart rate and even go clipless!
The Spice Race which is also organised by Inspire India is on her wish list as well.
Wishing her luck with all her racing endeavours…
Photos: Neha and her crew