This Soldier Uses Army Principles To Succeed In Ultra-Endurance Cycling
Indian Army Lt Col Bharat Pannu is an ultra endurance cyclist. He cycled through Austria and completed the virtual race across America.
He has won several Indian ultra cycling races and is also competing in the Race Across America (RAAM), which is due to start on June 14.
Pannu also has three Guinness World Records to his name – 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 Calcutta; and cycled the country from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh in nine days, seven hours and five minutes, traversing some of the toughest terrain on a breathtaking 3,800km route.
On World Bike Day on June 3, CNBC-TV18.com interviewed Pannu about his journey as an ultra-endurance cyclist, his motivation to put his body and mind under extreme stress while attempting world records, and more.
Q. You are an electronics and mechanical engineer. You serve in the military and are an ultra-cyclist. Which of the three roles did you find the most difficult and why?
A. I am currently serving in the army. Alongside my work in the military, I pursued my passion for cycling. I took it (cycling) to the next level when I started competing in 2017. So for me to pursue cycling alongside my job is a challenge. My work routine is such that finding time to train and participate in events in India and abroad sometimes becomes very difficult. I would cite an example. When tensions between India and Pakistan were high after Balakot strike, I was about to leave for USA for RAAM but was in complete dilemma about leaving. Over the past couple of years COVID has hit and it’s hard to predict if we will be traveling for an event or if an event will take place. So things were difficult. It’s difficult and that’s why it’s exciting; that’s how I get my kick.
How did you start your journey as an ultra-endurance cyclist?
A. It all started in November 2016 when I started participating in racing events. Before that, I was cycling for fitness, that too in the morning for an hour. I was posted to Nashik in 2016 and then I realized that people were ultra-cycling. The definition of ultracycling is any distance over 645 kilometres. It really got me excited. I participated in a small 300 kilometer event in November 2016 and I did quite well. People liked it. Appreciation kicked me. Since then, I haven’t stopped and I’ve been chaining events one after the other for five years.
Q. How did your days in the military help you become an ultra-cyclist?
A. The army teaches us to be mentally strong. Whatever the conditions, we must continue. There is no turning back. It is also the philosophy of all ultra-cyclists. You must continue regardless of the odds. However, in difficult situations, you may need to keep moving forward. There will come a time when conditions are right again. You will again be in a comfortable position to move forward. But the critical point is to get through this difficult phase. Do not stop. People usually stop. There is no stop in my dictionary.
To what extent did becoming an ultra-cyclist come naturally to you and to what extent did you prepare for it?
PB: I think I was blessed. There was no particularity that I had to acquire to be in this sport. It came naturally to me in my childhood. When I got back on the bike, I was rather better than my colleagues. As I started cycling more seriously, I realized that my training wasn’t enough. Whatever training I do, it is not enough. And the number of miles I used to ride each week kept increasing. Gradually, 30-40 kilometers became a normal warm-up. In 2019, my normal trips increased to 160 kilometers on weekends. Now the step is that my normal routes are 270 kilometers on Saturday and 270 kilometers on Sunday. My stamina and confidence levels have increased.
Q. What is the motivation behind subjecting your body to extreme stress and pain, both physically and mentally?
A. When I started cycling in 2016 and I remember my first event which was November 13, 2016. When I finished the event in the evening people gathered around me and started clicking On the photos. It is something that everyone looks forward to. People are looking for appreciation. This appreciation is all for you. People seek appreciation in one form or another. I was also looking for appreciation. And I found that appreciation in cycling. As I started attending more events, I was appreciated. That appreciation turned into a kick and motivation.
There are times when you are exhausted. That’s when you realize in hindsight that you’ve put so much energy and hours of practice into sacrificing your family time. All of your Saturdays and Sundays are spent training. All of these things come into play and they help you get through 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 lifelong memories you create along the way are what drives me.
Q. Which of your three world records did you find the most difficult?
A. Leh’s world record in Manali was the toughest. Everyone knows how difficult the road is. On 50% of the course, there is no road as such. There are pebbles, rumblings on the course. Water is flowing in some places. SUVs have a hard time navigating this road. There is traffic on the road. All these factors make it a very difficult route. For a cyclist, navigating this route is very difficult. For a world record, I had a deadline of 40 hours. I found it very difficult to complete the trail in 35 hours and 22 minutes. It was a non-stop trip from Leh to Manali. Due to COVID, we were unable to attempt the record in July. When I was cycling at 5am, the recorded temperature was -12 degrees Celsius. So I was frozen and couldn’t apply brakes and had to go really slow going downhill. It was tough on my crew too.
Q. As an ultra-cyclist, you spend long hours on your bike. So do you have a particular link with your cycles or are they part of your kit?
A: There are three pillars of ultracycling. The first is the rider. The second is the crew. And third, the equipment. I am very happy that so far my gear has never let go even in the most difficult race, that from Leh to Manali. The bond between the rider and the equipment is special. I maintain my bikes myself. My bond with my bikes is so strong that I know my bikes won’t give up.
Q. Speaking of bikes, what bikes have you ridden?
A. I use Scott bikes. I use three different types of bikes depending on the terrain. I use Scott Plasma for flat terrain, Scott Addict RC for mountain climbing and Scott Plasma for hilly terrain.
Q. How do you prepare for your events? What are the crucial factors in your preparations?
A. The first preparation is mental. As in June, I will ride 4900 kilometers. So more than a physical preparation it is a mental preparation. If the mind gives up, nothing will work. The first is mental configuration. It helps to build confidence. After that comes physical training. We exercise and cycle outside. And the third is nutrition. It’s not that I need to lose weight. When I compete in endurance events, my body also needs a fair amount of fat to act as energy stores. So, nutrition, cycling, training and mental training are all these very crucial factors in preparing for an event.
Q. Who is your next target?
A. The next test I do starts on June 14th. That’s the 5,000 km RAAM. It begins on the west coast, Ocean Side, California and ends in Annapolis (Baltimore) on the east coast. To simplify, we drive from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast. This must be done in less than 12 days. If we violate this limit, there is no point in attempting the event. So I have to cycle 420 kilometers every day. The driving conditions are such that we have to cross three deserts. Maximum temperatures in the desert could reach 52°C. We will also cross three mountain ranges. There will also be a straight line of 850 kilometers. All of these factors will make it a very difficult event. I aim to complete the event in 11 days.
Q. Finally, on World Bike Day, any message for people who cycle casually or want to become ultra-cyclists or pro-cyclists?
A. Fitness is one thing. It brings appreciation. They must have a purpose and they must be kept simple. Set the target in time. The goal should not be unlimited. It took me at least a month to break the 50k mark in October 2016. Once you hit a goal, move on to the next goal. That’s how it should be and that’s how everyone works.