Ultra Marathon Cycling, Pakistani Style

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in California Bicyclist, November 1990

When Michael Shermer competed in the 1983 Race Across AMerica, he rode 83 hours non-stop before taking his first rest break. While most of us are awed by this feet of determination and sleep deprivation, Pakistani cyclist Khaled Javed scoffs at it. You see, Khaled routinely rides for up to 216 hours (nine full days) non-stop, all the while being run over by tractors, buried alive for three hours, and performing other death-defying stunts. In Pakistan, being a professional ultra-marathon cyclist has an entirely different meaning than here in the States.

I spent this past spring in Harappa, Pakistan, with my advisor Dr. George Dales as part of the U.C. Berkeley Archaeological Expedition to Pakistan. We spent three months excavating and researching the remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished in this part of the world from 2,500 to 1,700 BC. Working six days a week with a team of local workmen, I had plenty of time to practice my Urdu language skills and get to know my co-workers and something of the local traditions. My men were especially interested in my cycling activities and began to tell me of the traveling bands of cyclists who perform throughout Pakistan. I was very interested in this, but was highly dubious of some of the stunts these cyclists were purported to perform, not to mention riding non-stop for a week or more!

We started work in the field each day at seven AM, and on one of these early mornings about halfway through our season, my team excitedly informed me that one such cycling group had set up camp in the local village. Our excavations kept me exceptionally busy for the next few days and I was unable to make it into the village to see things myself, but each day I was given a full report on the latest goings on. Needless to say, I began chomping at the bit to break away from work and see all of the excitement firsthand.

Finally a break came and I headed into the village with camera in hand, accompanied by Prof. Mark Kenoyer to help with the translations and a swarm of workmen to restrain the more than curious local children. We found a tremendous crowd surrounding a circular area some thirty meters in diameter. Riding around and around inside the circle while performing acrobatic tricks was Khaled Javed, Pakistani cyclist extraordinaire. While constantly circling the area, Khaled stood on his handlebars, did hand stands on the seat, and posed flamingo style with only one foot and no hands touching the bike. Meanwhile, music blared out of numerous speakers and Khaled mimed the lyrics and acted out the scenes described in the songs, sort of like a rolling one man vaudeville show.

Just as Shermer and our American ultra-marathon cyclists have a support crew who take care of their every need, so too does Khaled have his own ensemble. No less than eight other riders and crew make up his team. They are headed up by manager Shahid Goofar who coordinates the entire production and is responsible for lining up locations for the show and managing the books. Two men control the sound system and lights, while others ride and perform their own stunts both alone and with Khaled. Yet another is Khaled's understudy and apprentice, 14 year old Akram. Everyone also does their share of supporting Khaled, providing food, drink, and pan, the spiced beetle nut and leaf "chew" popular throughout Asia and with its minor stimulant effect, is known to give quite a head rush.

Khaled has quite a repertoire of stunts to perform for the enthusiastic masses. During some of them, he cannot actually ride or pedal his bicycle, but he always makes sure to stay in physical contact with his steed while devoting his full attention to the matters at hand. Moreover, he apparently really doesn't ever stop to rest or sleep during the three to nine days of a continous show. One night my colleagues Carl Lipo and Mark Madsen slipped over to the village well after midnight and found Khaled pedaling around in circles, though with little or no spectators and of course no need for many tricks to be performed. My local co-workers all vouched for Khaled's dedication as well.

Some of the particularly grueling stunts include being driven over by a tractor, having two motorcycles pull in opposite directions on ropes tied to his hair, and having a stack of bricks crushed while stacked upon his chest. A particular favorite is being buried alive (with bike, of course) for up to three hours in a trench dug within the circular area. No doubt this is a favorite because it allows Khaled his only chance for rest. This trick is not allowed in Harappa because of the proximity to the fragile archaeological site, but the local museum curator has seen it done elsewhere and confided to me that "the gimmick" might be an oxygen tank hidden in a particularly bulky cloak which the rider wears during this stunt. Tank or no tank, I only desire to be six feet under once in my lifetime! Another rider in Khaled's team is famous for holding back a motorcycle at full throttle with a rope attached to a metal skewer pierced through his neck. With the whole team participating, they also perform acrobatic maneuvers such as riding two or three abreast while others stand on their shoulders in a pyramid, holding Pakistani flags and with the national anthem blasting over the speakers, of course.

This particular performance was five and a half days long, and after a night's rest, Khaled and his team came to visit us in our encampment. They all wanted to see how and where we all lived and to meet the "champion American cyclist" which my workers had told Khaled and his team so much about. We were all very excited for the opportunity to meet the amazing team and, naturally, share some tea with them. (This also provided me, Yellow Jersey Group South Asian Correspondent, with the opportunity to collect some info for this article.)

We learned that Khaled is 25 years old and has been a part of a team like this for 12 years, eight years as an understudy and four years as the star. His apprentice Akram has been working with him for five years now and hopes to someday be the central figure in a traveling group. Khaled and his team are one of some 100 similar groups which travel and perform throughout Pakistan. Sometimes several of the groups set up near one another and attempt to outdo the others, both in quality of stunts and duration of performance. Khaled and his team perform up to 25 times per year and on a 7 day on, 3 day off schedule during the height of the season. Khaled had much to say about diet, noting that he subsists on fruit, cookies, and the stimulant effects of tea, cigarettes, and pan during the shows, while off the bike he avoids dairy products, but consumes much protein. The bikes they use are single speed, coaster and hand brake models with double top tubes and sturdy components, pretty much standard fare in this part of the world. The team issue bikes do receive a thorough tune-up after each show, however. Khaled also likes pedalling in a straight line sometimes and has raced with his friends of the All Pakistan Cycling Club the 1800 miles from Karachi to Peshawar in seven days with a one day break at the halfway mark of Multan. This particular race was sponsored by the Eagle Cycle Co. and Embassy Cigarettes. Asked why he makes his living in this manner, Khaled's response was simple and to the point: "I support my wife and kid and that's what counts." Team manager Shahid Goofar noted that they "do pretty well." This professional cycling team also seems to have a darn good time supporting their domestic responsibilities, too.