Bharat Namdeo Sonawane bought a bicycle four years ago, looking to speed up his commute. Every day he travelled from his village, near Nashik, to a cement plant five kilometres away, where he worked as a wage labourer. Now, Sonawane is a semi-professional cyclist for most of the year, competing in races with the backing of two coaches. In the off-season—through the summer and monsoon—he still works as a wage labourer.
I spoke with Sonawane on 25 March, right after he finished the Mumbai-Pune Cyclothon: a historic race that stretches across the old highway between the two cities. “Every time my wife asks me to get a job, I tell her that if I excel at a race like this, the job will come to me through cycling,” he said, lying, exhausted, on the ground past the finish line.
The Cyclothon draws all kinds of competitors, from amateurs to internationally seasoned professionals. According to Pratap Jadhav—who has competed in the Cyclothon five times, and been its director since 1993—the race was first organised in 1945 by an Anglo-Indian man named Sydney Chorder. An athlete himself, one who experienced competitive cycling on visits to England, Chorder won the first three editions of the race.
In the early years of the race, cyclists used to start off at the Kala Ghoda district in Mumbai, move on to the old Mumbai-Pune highway, ascend a gruelling climb of around 11 kilometres up Bhor Ghat to Khandala, and end in bustling Shivaji Nagar, Pune. While this route stretched about 200 kilometres, the race has now been shortened to 152 kilometres to avoid high-density traffic in downtown Mumbai.
Traffic has never been formally halted for the Cyclothon. Instead, a truck acts as a pilot vehicle, clearing a path. Marshals on motorbikes rumble ahead of the cyclists, barricading intersections and shouting to get people on the road to yield. Crew members follow on motorbikes, with individuals riding pillion and carrying spare wheels and water for the cyclists. An ambulance trails the entire group, ready to act in the event of any serious injury.