There was plenty of time on hand to tackle the final 50 kilometre of the Deccan Cliffhanger. Neha Tikam, 38, had started out at 6 am from Bhugaon in Pune the previous day, and was traversing the 643 kilometre-long route to make it to the finishing line at Bogmalo Beach near Vasco in Goa. Having led the race since Belgaum, she had little idea where the rest of the field was. But it barely mattered as she sat there in the saddle, witnessing the constant battle between her mind and body.
Her right hand was now experiencing numbness, unable to work the shifters of her road bike on the inclines. The neck screamed in agony each time she looked up; the spasms a sign of Shermer’s neck — a condition peculiar to cycling, where the muscles can no longer support the head. As a result, the only thing now in her line of sight was her front wheel, even as she could hear the crew egging her on towards the finish. But her mind was focused on making it all the way.
It had been just two years since Tikam had first picked up a bicycle. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined taking on a race as long as this one. Yet, by the end of it, she had won the women’s solo category in a span of 34 hours 6 minutes 41 seconds earlier this month.
While growing up in Pune, Tikam was hardly into competitive sports. Instead, she had found her calling in Bharatnatyam dance, which she continued to pursue despite a gruelling routine that came alongside chasing a career in medicine.
“I started dancing when I was in the fourth grade and even taught Bharatnatyam after receiving my visharad. For six days each week, I would focus on the medicine practice, while most Sundays were spent at the class. It was quite exhausting,” she says.
Cycling didn’t feature as part of the routine until she joined spinning classes at the local gym. Having enjoyed the first few sessions, she wondered what it would be like to actually ride in the outdoors and soon, she invested in a hybrid bicycle. Before she realised, she was hooked.
“Once I was comfortable, my coach, Siddharth Gadekar, handed me my first challenge — a ride from Pune to Mahabaleshwar. And I really enjoyed going the distance alone,” she says.
When a few friends asked her to join them as part of the Team of 4 at the Deccan Cliffhanger last year, she jumped right in. And when they finished first in their category, it was enough reason for Tikam to widen her horizons.
“In a team event, you don’t really land up riding the entire route. I wasn’t satisfied, so in that moment, I decided to come back the following year,” she says.
Once back to the grind, she increased her hours on the saddle. In April, she finished in top spot at the Enduro — an adventure race that features mountain biking, trekking, and hiking and biking. The following month, she took on her first self-supported race during the MangoTrans that runs over 500 kilometres along the coast, from Alibag to Goa.
“I had nobody to ride with or talk to. It was hot and humid in May, and I had no idea what to expect. After the first day, there were steep uphill sections and I really thought of giving up soon after I started. That experience was vital for me — I cried and talked to myself, trying to understand just why I was doing it. But finishing was quite a relief,” Tikam says.
In July, Tikam had her first ride at altitude during the La La Land Ultra that runs from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Turtuk in Ladakh. With no experience of tackling the thin mountain air and after suffering chest congestion some 150 kilometres into the race, she hired a support vehicle as backup in case things went wrong, and was disqualified from the race. But she still continued riding to Leh over a gruelling terrain of around 500 kilometres.
Having gathered invaluable experience, Neha Tikam decided to sign up for the solo category of the Deccan Cliffhanger. In order to train for it, the day started at 5 am, where she would ride for the next four hours, mixing up the weekly routine with climbs and sprints. In between the two sessions at her clinic, she would indulge in exercises to strengthen her core muscles. The weekends were spent on long, lonely rides on the highways around Pune.
While physical strength was one aspect of the training, Tikam would spend hours meditating to work on the mental aspect of cycling. She believes that her love for dance has helped her deal with the long hours of training and racing.
“In classical dance, you have to move your fingers, your eyes and every muscle in sync with the music. It helps build concentration and willpower,” she says.
“Endurance cycling is all about your mental strength. Of course, you need to be physically fit, but it’s only when you push yourself mentally that you can achieve your targets,” Tikam says.
There were other challenges before starting out as well. She was still riding a hybrid bicycle, while most used a road bike for the race. Though a few discouraged her from riding one, given her lack of experience, she still borrowed her coach’s road bike and another from a rider, Tushar Mohite, whom she had met during her training rides. When it came to the crew accompanying her, there was just one member in Dhruv Shah who had some knowledge about cycling, while the rest were just friends who were kind enough to help out.
At the starting line, Tikam just thought of enjoying the ride and trailed the other three female cyclists for most of the day.
“I was told that the real game would begin once the sun went down. But my concern was that I had never ridden at night before. So I decided to focus on my own ride instead of looking out for the rest of the competition,” she says.
Around Kolhapur, Tikam took the lead. Though she was the first woman to get to the checkpoint in Belgaum, a few bad decisions would eventually hurt her progress. She first switched to Mohite’s bicycle, though she had never ridden it before. The crew then went off the route on three occasions, losing about 30 minutes in the process.
But despite the struggles, there were some enchanting moments during the race that have stayed with her.
“I can never forget the Dandeli section. The terrain was rolling but with steep climbs and bad roads. It gave me enough time to appreciate the beauty around me, the fog sitting low in the dense forest. It was magical,” she recalls.
“I kept talking to myself. I focused on my breathing and chanted mantras with every pedal. I was wide awake and enjoyed every minute of it and by morning, had reached Karwar,” she adds.
By this time, she was riding her own race, oblivious to the position of the other riders. The fight became real as she approached the finishing line, unable to perform the most basic tasks. Something as simple as squeezing the gel sachet to consume it became a struggle. Then, there were moments when she had to use her left hand to prop up her chin to see the road ahead. On approaching the finish, she even bumped into two vehicles in a moderately crowded section, though she escaped without any injuries.
It was a bittersweet feeling when she finally stopped riding. The race was to be a qualifier for the Race Across America (RAAM) — a 4,800 kilometre cycle race that runs across from the west to the east coast of the United States. However, while she had taken top spot in her category, she had missed out on the RAAM cutoff by 6 minutes 41 seconds. Besides, there were the injuries to deal with.
“I visited a neurologist on my return home, and he diagnosed damage to my ulnar nerve. He asked me to stay off the bicycle for three months to avoid permanent damage in two fingers,” Neha Tikam says.
However, it has hardly kept her away from riding. For now, there are other races that have her attention. And she hopes to use all the learning to tackle the Deccan Cliffhanger next year, and eventually make the cut for RAAM.
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Updated Date: Dec 06, 2019 10:35:16 IST