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This soldier uses army tenets to ace ultra-endurance cycling

This soldier uses army tenets to ace ultra-endurance cycling

This soldier uses army tenets to ace ultra-endurance cycling
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By Prakhar Sachdeo  Jun 6, 2022 10:11:43 AM IST (Updated)

On the occasion of World Bicycle Day, speaks Lt. Col. Bharat Pannu. Pannu has three Guinness World Records in his kitty, including one for fastest solo cycling, from Leh to Manali, a distance of 472 km in 35 hours, 32 minutes, and 22 seconds; and a 5,942-km-long ‘Golden Quadrilateral’, which connects Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. In a freewheeling chat, Pannu talks about his journey as an ultra-cyclist, his motivation to put his body and mind through extreme stress while attempting records and more.

Lt. Col. Bharat Pannu from the Indian Army is an ultra endurance cyclist. He has cycled across Austria, and finished the Virtual Race across America.

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He has won multiple Indian ultra cycling races and is also participating in the Race Across America (RAAM), scheduled to begin on June 14.
Pannu also has three Guinness World Records to his kitty — fastest solo cycling, from Leh to Manali, a distance of 472 km in 35 hours, 32 minutes, and 22 seconds; the 5,942-km-long ‘Golden Quadrilateral’, which connects Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata; and cycled across the country from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh in nine days, seven hours and five minutes, covering one of the most challenging terrains across a mind-boggling 3,800 km.
On the occasion of World Bicycle Day on June 3, had an interview with Pannu on his journey as an ultra-endurance cyclist, his motivation to put his body and mind through extreme stress while attempting world records, and more.
Q. You are an electronics and mechanical engineer. You serve in the army and are an ultra-cyclist. Which of the three roles have you found most challenging and why?
A. I am currently serving in the army. Along with my job in the army I have been pursuing my passion for cycling. I took it (cycling) to the next level when I started participating in competitions in 2017. So, for me pursuing cycling along with my job is a challenge. My job routine is such that finding time for training and participating in events in India and outside becomes very challenging at times. I would quote an example. When the tensions between India and Pakistan were high after the Balakot strike, I was about to leave for the US for RAAM but I was in a complete dilemma about going. In the last two years, COVID has struck and it is difficult to predict if we would be travelling for an event or if an event will be happening. So, things have been tough. It is tough and that is why it is exciting; that is how I get my kick.
How did you begin your journey as an ultra-endurance cyclist?
A. It all started in November 2016 when I started participating in racing events. Before that, I used to cycle for fitness, that too in the mornings for an hour. I was posted in Nashik in 2016 and at that point, I realised people do ultra-cycling. The definition of ultra-cycling is any distance over 645 kilometres. That really excited me. I participated in a small event of 300 kilometres in November 2016 and I did fairly well. People appreciated it. The appreciation gave me a kick. Since then, I have not stopped and I have been participating in one event after the other for the past five years.
Bharat Pannu Bharat Pannu
Q.How have your days in the army helped you become an ultra-cyclist?
A. The army teaches us to be mentally tough. Whatever the conditions, you have to keep going. There is no turning back. This is the philosophy for any ultra-cyclist as well. You have to keep going whatever the odds may be. However, the tough situations maybe you have to keep going forward. There will be a time when the conditions will be conducive again. You will be again in a comfortable position to go ahead. But the critical point is to sail through that tough phase. Don’t stop. People generally stop. There is no stopping in my dictionary.
How much of your becoming an ultra-cyclist has come naturally to you and how much you have nurtured yourself for it?
BP: I think I was blessed. There was no special that I needed to acquire to be in this sport. It came naturally to me in my childhood. When I resumed cycling, I was fairly better than my colleagues. As I started cycling more seriously, I realised that my training was not enough. Whatever training I am doing is not enough. And the number of miles that I used to every week kept on increasing. Gradually 30 to 40 kilometres became a normal warm-up. By 2019, my normal rides went up to 160 kilometres over the weekends. Now, the stage is that my normal rides are 270 kilometres on Saturdays and 270 kilometres on Sundays. My endurance and confidence levels have gone up.
Q. What is the motivation behind putting your body through extreme stress and pain, both physically and mentally?
A.  When I started cycling in 2016 and I remember my first event which was on November 13, 2016. When I finished the event in the evening, people gathered around me and started clicking photographs. That is something that everyone looks forward to. People look for appreciation. That appreciation is everything to you. People seek appreciation in some form or the other. I was also looking for appreciation. And I found that appreciation in cycling. As I started to participate in more events I was appreciated. That appreciation turned into kick and motivation.
There are times when you are drained. That is when you realise in hindsight that you have put in so much of your energy and training hours sacrificing your family time. All your Saturdays and Sundays have gone into training. All those things kick in and they help you to tide over tough conditions. Once you reach the finish line, you tend to celebrate with your team. And that joy of celebrating with your team — nothing can beat that feeling.
The appreciation, that joy and the lifetime memories that you create along the way are my motivations.
Bharat Pannu Bharat Pannu
Q. Which of your three world records have you found the toughest?
A. The Leh to Manali World Record was the toughest. Everyone knows how tough the route is. For 50 percent of the route, there is no proper road. There are stones, rumbles on the route. Water is flowing in some places. SUVs find it tough to navigate that route. There is traffic on the route. All these factors make it a very challenging route. For a cyclist to navigate that route is very difficult. For a World Record, I had a deadline of 40 hours. I found it really tough to finish the route in 35 hours and 22 minutes. It was a non-stop ride from Leh to Manali. Because of COVID, we could not attempt the record in July. When I was cycling at 5 am, the recorded temperature was -12 degrees Celsius. So, I was freezing, and could not apply brakes, and had to go very slow while going downslope.  It was tough for my crew too.
Q. As an ultra-cyclist, you spend long hours on your bike. So do you have a special connection with your cycles or are they part of your kit?
A: There are three pillars of ultra-cycling. First is the rider. The second is the crew. And third is the equipment. I am very happy that to date my equipment has never given up even in the toughest race, the Leh to Manali one. The bond between the rider and the equipment is special. I service my cycles on my own. My bond with my bikes is so strong that I know that my bikes will not give up.
Q. Talking about cycles, which cycles have you been riding?
A. I use Scott bikes. I use three different types of bikes depending on the terrain. I use Scott Plasma for flat terrains, Scott Addict RC for climbing up in mountains and Scott Plasma for rolling terrain.
Q. How do you prepare for your events? What are crucial factors in your preparations?
A. The first preparation is mental. Like in June, I will be riding 4900 kilometres. So, more than physical preparation it is mental preparation. If the mind gives up, nothing will work out. First is the mental setup. It helps in boosting confidence. After that comes physical training. We do gym training and outside cycling. And the third is nutrition. It is not that I have to lose weight. When I am going for endurance events, my body needs to have a fair amount of fats as well so that they act as energy reserves. So, nutrition, cycling, training and mental training are all these very crucial factors for preparing for an event.
Bharat Pannu Bharat Pannu
Q. What is your next target?
A. The next event that I am doing starts on June 14. It is the 5,000 km RAAM. It starts on West Coast, Ocean Side, in California and ends in Annapolis (Baltimore) on the east coast. To simplify, we are riding from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast. This has to be done in under 12 days. If we breach that limit, there is no point in attempting the event. So, I have to cycle 420 kilometres every day. The riding conditions are such that we have to cross three deserts. The maximum temperatures in the desert could be as high as 52. We will be crossing three mountain ranges too. There will also be a straight stretch of 850 kilometres. All these factors will make it a very challenging event. I am targeting to finish the event in 11 days.
Q. Finally, on World Bicycle Day any message for the people who cycle casually or want to become an ultra-cyclist or a pro-cyclist?
A. Physical fitness is one thing. It brings appreciation. They need to have a target and they need to keep it simple. Make the target time-bound. The target should not be open-ended. It took me one month at least to breach the 50 km mark back in October 2016. Once you meet one target, move on to the next target. That is how it should be and that is how everyone functions.
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