3141km, 5 riders, 1 bike… and a first-hand account of Harley-Davidson’s latest record-making endurance run
In all of our lives, there comes a point when you stand on the precipice. When you cannot decide whether it’s worth carrying on or not. Whether the next step is too hard or not. Is it worth it? Why do this? The difference between those who exist and those who live, is what happens next.
But it gets really, really weird when you realise that you walked up to the edge on your own free will. No one forced you. And whatever achievement the next step will unlock, it’ll be something that seemed like a good idea from a comfortable place very far away from right now.
Malo Le Masson is originally from Tunisia. He’s lived in Europe and in Japan, and today he heads corporate strategy and global product planning at Hero MotoCorp. And he’s having trouble waking up. What’s the challenge that’s brought this ever-smiling, energetic man to this?
Harley-Davidson India’s top management did something incredible taking the Pan America, brand new then, to the top of the Kela Pass. A forbidding trip that man and machine both completed. But when it came time to take the new Sportster S, Hero MotoCorp chairman and CEO (and therefore, Harley-Davidson India superboss), Dr Pawan Kant Munjal posed a simple question. The Pan America went higher than ever. What would the Sportster do?
And answer, says Vijay Thomas, lead marketing Harley-Davidson India, was further. With Ravi Avalur, head of Harley-Davidson India, always the enthusiastic participant, getting ever more excited about the idea, a plan was hatched. We would ride the Sportster 2,400km in 24 hours. The plan to ride public roads was quickly nixed. That would be foolhardy and risky. Not just for the riders, but for other road users as well.
Dr Arun Jaura, Hero MotoCorp chief technology officer and motorsport regular, suggested the use of Hero’s test tracks in the vast facility on the outskirts of Jaipur. They had an oval track. The plan was coming together.
Early testing revealed that the abrasive and grippy tarmac on the oval would quickly eat away tyres. 15,000km in the real world? Yes. 500km on this track at speeds around 150kmph on the 1.74km oval.
Enter the two men who would play a vital role in the rest of the challenge. Most people do not realise how vast and profound Hero’s R&D ability has become. For all you know, the next Harley, the most popular model in the world, might even be being built right here in Jaipur.
The clue to the newfound capability lies in the people. David Lopez heads vehicle validation. His job is to ensure enough miles are put on new bikes to verify that all the parts work. Alex Busquets works with David, and his work is focussed on the chassis. Both are Spanish, and both are ex-racers. For this challenge, it was extra helpful, that they are endurance racers with multiple 24 hour races under their belts. Alex is also a Dakar finisher.
They immediately knew that the challenge was bigger than we thought. Rider could be asked to save tyres by not entering the corners at 190kmph, as they did during the practice session to figure out which of Hero’s many tracks to use. But how to save the riders from themselves so they could ride for 24 hours was a challenge of its own.
And that’s why at 3am, Malo was struggling with his leathers. It was his turn to ride the motorcycle next and all the usual energy seemed to have left him.
Up this point, the riding had gone well. The early sessions were all energy and enthusiasm and the other riders hated the idea that they were required to eat and rest while they waited for their turn. Vijay Thomas started the challenge at 3pm on Saturday. It went smoothly apart from the fact that Vijay faced one of the oval’s hidden challenges. The bright sun and the dark shadows caused by the barriers creates lines that confuse you quite easily. Vijay came off the banking thanks to the shadows and in the process, trapped his foot between peg and tarmac, twisting his knee in the process. It was an early warning that this would not be simple.
Malo took over from Vijay for the second stint, and had a smooth run. Fuel consumption was lower than planned and tyre consumption seemed to be going to plan.
The third stint was for Anushriya Gulati, the only lady rider in the group. Shriya, as everyone calls her, has been racing cars for two years now, and she’s ridden Harleys for years — they run in her family. She’s shy and soft-spoken but on the bike, you can see the racer in her. She’s fast and smooth, and whenever David set a goal for pace to manage the contradictions in the need to go fast, save fuel and keep the tyres going, she responded with clockwork accuracy and precision, setting lap times that barely changed for up to a 100km at a time. Her biggest trouble would be her boots, which were so complicated that it would need two people to do them up before every session and would leave her with blisters by the end. None of which fazed her even a tiny little bit. We all pulled her leg while pulled on her boots and she just smiled, shook it off and rode with a consistency that would make Jorge Lorenzo proud.
And the end of her session, Shriya would be shown the “PIT” board which meant that she was to come to the pit stop the next time around. A team of Hero R&D and Hero MotorSport staffers would be waiting. The next two minutes would be fascinating. The pit controller would take the bike off Shriya’s hands while two “fuellers” in full nomex suits would take 30 seconds or less to refuel the 11-litre tank of the new Sportster. For these 30 seconds, the rest of the crew would be poised to fly into action but no one was allowed anywhere close to the motorcycle. And then, the storm would hit. The jack would go in, two teams would measure tread depth on both tyres while another team would check oil levels and give the bike a visual once over. Everything was called out and recorded.
And then it would be PowerDrift’s turn. The pit controller would say, “Next rider!” And I, annoyingly punctual as usual, would slide into the seat and moments later, the Sportster would be a little speck in the distance, attacking the first of the 140 left handers before the pit board would go out again.
I had incredible luck. Not only did I snag the sunset stint, I hopped off the motorcycle after my first night stint literally jumping up and down with the excitement of how much fun the session had been. But my sunrise stint — yup, that went to me too — would bring surprises.
Pulling out of the pit, the Sportster would stutter under acceleration. At first, it appeared that it would sort itself out. But that wasn’t to be.
Second lap, I am waving frantically at the crew, indicating that something was very wrong and I would come in the next around.
The pit crew, awake for 12 hours at this point, swung into their positions. For the first time, unsure of what to expect when the motorcycle returned. Can’t fix it if you don’t know what is broken, right?
I pull in and tell them that the bike is stuttering and not accelerating well. A quick inspection shows that nothing is wrong. David decides to let me ride while they talk it out.
I head out and continue to post the 45-second laps he was asked to until he was called back in. Going harder in the corners to make up for the lack of acceleration on the straights.
In the rider’s room, the clockwork engine note of the Harley twin going past every 45 seconds has given way to silence. And the silence has started to wake the riders up. They think it’s a pitstop and when two minutes of silence have come and gone, they know something is wrong. There’s a lump in every throat and a sinking feeling everywhere.
The freezing cold of the night might be behind us but the warmth of the sun fails to raise spirits. The frozen fingers of the night stints, the labour of wearing your gear at 4am after what feels like minutes of sleep… it all seems like trivial hiccups for the moment. The sun is rising, but not much else is. It’s a dark hour at dawn.
I return with the bike and the Harley-Davidson service team quickly runs diagnostics and there’s nothing wrong. But clearly there is!
David’s enormous experience shows here. Since the Sportster is new, Harley chose to have two entire motorcycles as backup — far more compact than a shelf full of parts. He tells the team to forget diagnosis and just replace whatever can be replaced as fast as possible.
There is no backup plan. If this doesn’t work, both meeting the target distance, and indeed, finishing the 24 hour challenge is going to impossible.
The entire stop took 28 minutes form the beginning of the stutter to me handing the bike over to Vijay Singh, the fastest of the riders, going out again.
On the next lap, all of the 60-odd people are straining to see what’s going on. Their entire worlds are at pause.
The motorcycle swings out of the corner, almost as if in slow motion and it cannot come down the straight fast enough.
As the motorcycle approaches the collected crowd, the left hand leaves the handlebar. Everyone holds their breath, hearts stopped.
And instead of the frantic waving, the helmet is nodding and the hand is showing a thumbs up.
The run is back on course. And we’re still in the running.
David goes off to his laptop to recheck his data — how much in time and distance that stop cost us. David met his wife Maria during endurance racing, where she was the rider coordinator, ensuring all the riders rested, ate and were ready to ride on schedule. She’s doing that for us today, and she’s now off the prep the next rider as Vijay Singh reels off fast laps to make up for the lost time.
Vijay Singh is a known figure in Indian motorcycling. He runs Rajputana Customs, India’s top custom bike maker, and is a keen and competitive racer. His lap times betray his innate need to go faster and he’s the rider who sees the ‘SLOW’ board the most often because he’s always going faster than David thinks is appropriate. On the pit wall, Ravi can only smile at the tussle between David’s need to see that we finish the challenge and Vijay’s instinct to go faster.
The fact that Malo Le Masson, who’s crazier than he looks, set the fastest time at some point in the night — despite the struggle to wake up — is not lost on Vijay. He asks for two fast laps, equals Malo’s lap time and finally, settles into an even pace and David can relax again.
But make no mistake, in this group of riders, Vijay Singh is the man everyone looks to. Every session that has complexity built in. David looks to Vijay to deliver. The only rider to take on the challenge of riding in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions to manage the wear on the tyres.
The miles tick by as the sun rapidly gathers a fierce heat and focusses it into the oval. In the night, it got colder and colder, and by the early morning, all the riders were freezing during their riding sessions. Not that it slowed them down but they all suffered, scurrying back into the warmth of the rider’s room as soon as their sessions were over. The heat of the morning is the direct opposite.
Then came the bugs. Tiny insects that died in such huge numbers that no front-facing surface on the motorcycle would be left with paint visible and the riders would find themselves looking for the line through a screen of bugs as the day progressed.
The entire track breathed a huge sigh of relief when the motorcycle crosses 2,400km with almost 8 hours still in hand. The challenge has been met.
But the thing about taking the next step isn’t that it’s done. Now it’s about how far can we push.
3,500km? David breaks into a smile for the first time in hours. “That’s not going to be possible,” he says. The incredible precision that the event has been run with means David’s already done the math. Shriya will finish the 24 hour, he says calmly, and we will be somewhere around the 3,100km mark.
And that’s how it goes. The pit crews applaud each rider as they finish their last stints of the day. The riders applaud back. The riding of the motorcycle seems like the hardest task, but keeping them going is just as important. Given the periodic nature of the pit crews job, it is probably harder to do over a long slice of time. To work rapidly for three minutes every hour for 24 hours, while staying alert for a radio call demanding an unscheduled pitstop at any time during the run.
It’s an emotional time for the rider to know that they’ve done their bit. But the pit crew still has to soldier on. Their 24 hours are not over. In fact the 24 hours are just a tip of the iceberg. Alex has been making them practice pitstops for weeks. The first tyre changes were 10 minutes long. Today, they take just under 2 minutes for both front and rear tyres to be changed. But we’re on the finish straight now, no more tyre changes are going to be needed.
Shriya goes out into the last session and almost immediately the SLOW board also goes out. David’s in conservation mode. She simply has no reason to go any faster. Three seconds saved per lap will not give enough of an advantage to make a significant difference to the final outcome now.
The thing about riding long distances, challenges like this or otherwise, is to save your energy. To not expend it early and struggle later on. To know that hours 6, 12 and 23 will need the same focus, determination and strength as the first hour. That the riders would need to ride their 130kmph average speed laps relentlessly until the sun came around to the same point where we began. Anyone can go fast. Going fast for a long, long time, is a whole different challenge.
Shriya crosses the line for the final time with Ravi showing her the chequered flag. And the pit lane erupts.
We’ve done it. 3,141km in 24 hours. The Sportster hiccuped once but the rest of it, pit stops, riders, support crew…. The team has far, far exceeded what they set out to do. The champagne flows, photographs are taken. There’s a moment of quiet while everyone takes a long deep breath and then the clangor of taking down the tents and equipment takes over.
And as we walk away from the event, we are all changed human beings.
We stood at the edge and decided to take the leap. And now we know the answer.