Naveen John is the newly minted 2017 Indian National Champion in both the time trial and the road race. Late last month he became the first rider in over a decade to win the “double” in his country. In 2016, he was the first Indian to ride for a Continental-registered team – the erstwhile State of Matter-MAAP racing team, based out of Melbourne. In the same year, he and a compatriot became the first Indians to start (the ITT) at the UCI World Championships in well over a decade.
Currently, John is team director and a rider on Ciclo Team Racing — India’s only elite amateur team. Besides competing on the sparse Indian domestic racing calendar, the team invests heavily in rider development by spending their summer racing the dense kermesse calendar in Belgium, in an attempt to raise the level of the sport and its athletes in India.
In this piece, Naveen provides insight into the sport of bike racing at the highest level in India, in the context of the recent National Championships.
When you think of India, what probably springs to mind is a country of over 1.2 billion living in dense urban agglomerations, with its congested city roads, complete with regular canine and/or bovine incursions, and amorphous traffic laws. It’s not really a place you’d think to ride bicycles, let alone one that seems ripe for full-bore bike racing.
But bike racing does exist in India, and a little over two weeks ago the 22nd running of the country’s National Road Cycling Championships saw the title of national champion meted out across a total of 23 different events, across various age categories and disciplines, for both men and women.
This year’s championships were held over four days in the town of Jamkhandi, in the northern reaches of the south Indian state of Karnataka. This sleepy village of 70,000 people is located on a fertile river plain and exists because of the local cash crop — sugar cane — and the economy that is built around it. We were squarely in rural India.
Jamkhandi, and northern Karnataka, is unique in that everyone’s neighbour has a kid who races bicycles. This town is bike-racing-crazy, and folks turned out in their hundreds and thousands to line the length of the time trial course and the entire road race course as it passed through villages en route. The streets were also packed two to three deep along the 3km inner-city criterium course.
A total of 650 cyclists from all over India, representing most of the 36 states and union territories, participated at the National Championships. At the Nationals, cyclists represent their state after going through state selection trials to qualify. Besides the states, the Indian Railways and Indian Services (Air Force and Army) compete under the banner of the Railways Sports Promotion Board (RSPB) and the Services Sports Control Board (SSCB). While the states field riders across all age categories, the Railways and Services only field an elite men’s and women’s team.
There is a third option for competing at Nationals — to compete individually under the banner of the Cycling Federation of India. This is an option given to riders who do not make it onto their state/employee teams through selection trials where the field may be highly competitive.
An interesting oddity to an outsider might be the sight of all the professional team kits at the races. Until recently, it was incredibly hard to get your hands on cycling kit in India, let alone good kit. While a couple home-grown brands (like 2GoActivewear, that supports my team) have just started to serve that need, the highly price-sensitive Indian racing cyclist ends up sourcing their kit from importers who bring in original (but often dated) pro-team kits or even replica kits from outside the country.
Some of the more esoteric cycling gear — like skinsuits or shoe covers — and other technical racing paraphernalia — like disc wheels, TT helmets or powermeters — are typically muled in from Europe, the UK, the US, Thailand, or Australia, by friends or family.
Men’s Elite ITT and RR
In the 40km men’s elite ITT, I managed to snag my third national title, covering two laps of a 20km out-and-back course in 50:41. My Ciclo Team Racing teammate — riding for the Indian Railways — Arvind Panwar, took silver, at 1:10 behind.
Here’s a vlog that a friend of mine, Ben Joseph, made. It captures the atmosphere of racing in India, along with some footage from the ITT:
In the 140km elite men’s road race, I soloed in a minute ahead of second place, two minutes ahead of third, and about four minutes ahead of the field. I managed to force a gap midway through the race, dropped the two riders with me, made the bridge to the early three-man break of the day, and dropped the last rider with 13km to go, and soloed in for the victory.
At about 1km to go, riding on fumes and head down, I rode off the road and ended up on the asphalt, left shifter completely shattered and chain dropped. I attempted to Froome it to the finish, but fortunately didn’t have to because my support crew threw my chain back on, and I rode the last kilometre in, bloodied, but glad it was over!
Here’s another cool vlog from Ben that captures the road race, the crowds, and the setting of Nationals, in general:
In the 50km men’s elite criterium, Krishna Nayakodi (SSCB) dominated the sprints to take gold handily. In the 30km women’s elite ITT, Rutuja Satpute (Maharashtra) — who became the first Indian women’s elite road cyclist to spend a three-month block living, training, and racing in Belgium over this summer — took the top step on the podium, covering the course in 43:32. Samira Abraham (Karnataka) took silver, 16 seconds in arrears.
In the 70km women’s elite road race, the eventual podium broke away from the field 10km into the race and held it to the finish to contest a three-up sprint for podium placings. Manorama Devi (RSPB) took the top step, putting her track pedigree to use to outsprint her break-mates. Manorama put her finishing kick to work in the criterium the next day to also seal a double in the road race and criterium.
The current paradigm
The state of cycling in India means that the majority of athletes see the sport, and a medal at Nationals, as the means to an end. Winning a medal here can be the golden ticket to cash incentives from the local/state government, or more lucratively, a government job in the sports quota.
In some sense, the only “professional cyclists” in India at the moment are riders from the RSPB and SSCB teams who are employed by the Railways and Services to compete and win medals at the National Championships. Medals here mean the chance of salary hikes, “out-of-turn promotions”, and “sparing letters” from desk duty to be able to ride and train full-time … until the day a rider loses motivation and fails to be competitive at the National level.
Getting on to these teams is the end goal for a lot of U18 riders. As a result the U18 fields are typically stacked, since this is where talent scouts from the aforementioned teams pick riders who have the potential to deliver medals in the men’s and women’s elite categories.
Essentially, the sport is seen as a potential ticket to upward social mobility – the chance to move from farmer’s son/daughter in a town/village, to a public sector employee in a city. The pinnacle of the sport is a National title and anything beyond that is considered out of reach, or just not worth taking a risk on, for not much reward.
That said, no expense is spared in investing in world class equipment if your kid has the potential to medal at Nationals. You just need to look at the start line — the absurdity of all that carbon fibre hanging off 500 Rupee (AU$10) scaffolding jobs morphs into normalcy.
But things are changing very rapidly in Indian Cycling. In the last half a decade, pretty much every major bicycle brand has finally entered the Indian market. Cycling communities in cities across India are organising themselves into clubs and private teams are springing-up. We’ve finally got our very own first generation of Indian cycling parents, and former/current athletes, who are mentoring kids into the sport at a much earlier age.
As India’s middle class grows, increasing disposable incomes and spare time are being channelled into the cycling lifestyle. Media coverage of the sport globally (thanks to outlets like CyclingTips) is capturing the imaginations of teenagers in India. More cyclists are coming into the sport from India’s cities, where the motivation for getting into the sport isn’t necessarily a sports quota job, but something more. The importance of training with data, tracking training (with Strava), virtual training (on Zwift), and most importantly investing in coaching resources (TrainingPeaks, and private coaching), is beginning to take root.
With teams like Ciclo Team Racing (disclosure: which I direct and ride for), and brand-agnostic projects like the Indian Pro Cycling Project (disclosure: which I run), we’re looking to model the best practices from cycling’s recent past.
Whether it’s what the Dave Rayner Fund has done for promising young British riders in parallel to more traditional British Cycling pathways in UK; or the pathways that the early AIS road programmes and other privateers in Aussie cycling pioneered in the early 1980-’90s; or what American cyclocrossers like Jeremy Powers and others before him have done in the last 10 years to attempt to grow their sport domestically and increase their competitiveness over in Europe; or even the challenges that global women’s professional cycling is navigating right now; there’s a basket full of practices and pathways that Indian cycling can adopt.
The key is adapting to the resource constraints, cultural intricacies, and systemic inertia, that India throws at you. Athletes giving back to the sport will be critical to the sport moving forward, but equally important will be the role of community in nurturing and encouraging talent, and more long-term involvement of private investors in supporting risk-taking pioneers in the sport in the country.
The sport in India is just waking up to the realisation that there is more to achieve in the sport that just an Indian National title. There’s the double, and the world of racing outside the subcontinent, especially Continental European racing, and the opportunities that that will open up to reach out to Continental professional teams, and a world of other established pathways in the sport.