Over many decades now cycling as a sport in India has been walking down the ‘oblivion’ path. The sport struggled to attain any semblance of ‘popularity’ over the past many years simply because it has never quite produced champions, who would grab newspaper headlines and ensure the sport is alive and kicking in the minds of the sports lovers.
To be honest, Indian cyclists have done little noteworthy over many decades – startlingly, Indian cyclists had managed a podium finish on three occasions at the inaugural 1951 Asian Games in their own backyard – New Delhi – sewing up three medals – 1 silver and 2 bronze medals.
Tracing old memories, the quartet of Dhangar, Raj Kumar Mehra, Madan Mohan and Gurdev Singh had won the silver medal in the men’s Team Pursuit event while Rohinton Noble and Netai Chand Bysack bagged bronze medals in the men’s Sprint event and men’s 1km time trial event respectively. For close to 67 years, there was nothing Indian cyclists did on the international stage that saw countries like France, Italy, Great Britain, Netherlands, USA and Australia dominate the Olympic cycling events, while the trio of China, Japan and South Korea dominate the Asian Games cycling events.
Indian cycling desperately needed a blockbuster performance on the big-stage, and in August 2018, 17-year-old Andaman and Nicobar Islands lad Esow Alben provided that ‘massive moment’ winning India’s first-ever World Championship medal – pocketing a covered silver medal in men’s Keiren event at the 2018 Union Cycliste Internationale-organised Junior Track Cycling World Championships held at Aigle, Switzerland - Esow was edged out only by 0.017 seconds by Czech Republic’s Jakub Stastny, who won the gold.
The year 2019 panned out to be the watershed moment of Indian cycling as our cyclists built on their maiden World Championship medal in 2018, turning in their best-ever showing on the world stage, lapping as many as 3 medals in the 2019 UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships held at Germany. The quarter of Rojit Singh Yanglem, Esow Alben, Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam and Jemsh Singh Keithellakpam won a historic gold in the men’s Sprint event, pushing the likes of formidable Australia and South Korea to second and third place respectively. Esow made it a ‘dream’ World Championship, winning a silver and bronze in the men’s Sprint and men’s Keiren events respectively.
What is so heartening about the exploits of our Indian cyclists is that they will soon be graduating to the senior level, which makes Indian fans excited about our cyclists winning medals at big-ticket events like Asian Games, World Championships and Olympics. “Indian cycling holds a lot of promise and the performances of our junior cyclists at the last two UCI World Championships clearly indicate that they have everything it takes not just to match the best in the business but prevail over them,” gushes Onkar Singh, Chairman, Cycling Federation of India.
Onkar, himself a national-level former top gymnast, obviously knows what he is talking about having watched the progress of Indian cycling from close quarters, as he had served as Secretary-General of Cycling Federation of India for a lengthy period of eight years before assuming the position CFI Chairman earlier this year.
Singh believes Indian cyclist is not about the dearth of talent. “Cycling is an expensive sport and as far as India is concerned talent was never a problem but resource was. The talent-resource gap has been effectively addressed thanks to the generous government support over the past few years.”
The Cycling Federation of India had roped in Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (CSR) as its Sponsors in May 2017, but this sponsorship was with a difference. The support of HMSI has worked wonders for Indian cycling. “HMSI has been supporting our cyclists over the last few years. We told them that the CFI does not want any money from them, but only want them to assist our cyclists with competition cycles, equipment, fund their foreign exposure trips as well as take care of the remuneration of our coaches. We are happy to get their support,” Singh pointed out.
The setting up of the National Cycling Academy in New Delhi in 2014 played its part in reviving the fortunes of Indian cycling. The academy currently has as many as eighty trainees (50 men and 30 women), who stay there for 365 days of the year and are constantly monitored by a team of 8-10 coaches. Singh threw light on the level of discipline maintained at the NCA. “No phones are allowed at the academy – once a national-level champion was caught idling away time on Whatsapp at night and he was asked to pack his bags and leave academy the next morning. The Velodrome is available for training from 6 am to 8 pm, and our objective is to ensure it is fruitfully used by all our trainees. All the trainees are consistently monitored and if the performance-level of trainees dip, we don’t hesitate to ask them to exit the academy. CFI regularly conducts talent search programmes across the country to pick raw talents.”
Besides the National Cycling Academy in New Delhi, the CFI will soon set up such academies in other parts of the country. The Guwahati academy has been functioning for the last three months. Such academics would come up in Pune, Amritsar, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Jaipur, Ranchi, Trivandrum and Hyderabad, Singh intimated.
The CFI Chairman is upbeat about the fact that the likes of Rojit Singh Yanglem, Esow Alben, Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam and Jemsh Singh Keithellakpam will only grow in confidence and come out with medal-winning performances in marquee events. “I’m confident we can end our Asian Games cycling medal drought at the 2022 edition in China, but our bigger focus is the 2024 Paris Olympics. All these juniors will be peaking by then, and we have reasons to be optimistic,” Singh signs off with loads of positivity.
Clearly, the Indian cycling is poised to scale newer heights in coming years!