In a three-part series, Deepthi Velkur has a conversation with a pro-cyclist and 4 time National Champion, Naveen John.
Naveen John has many firsts to his name as pro-cyclist. Apart from being a 4-time national champion, he was one of the first 2 Indians at the World Championships and the first Indian with a podium finish at a European event in competitive road cycling. In this conversation, he takes us through his journey so far.
So, Naveen, how did you get into cycling?
Well, about 10 years ago, during my first year in college, I had an experience that changed my outlook on the way I lived. I had just moved away from home for the first time and you know, the stress of having to make new friends, adjust to a new place and all took its toll and my weight ballooned to 98 kgs (Freshman 15 effect I guess!).
It was Thanksgiving and I was at a friend’s place when we decided to play a game of basketball. You know you’re so out of shape when your opponents are running circles around you. I was left panting and breathless at the end of it.
That was my wake-up call – I had to do something about it. I took up running (and a change in my eating habits!) with the sole focus on getting healthy. The consistency paid off and I lost 15kgs in 3 months. While pursuing my Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University, I was introduced to collegiate cycling. It was a life changing experience for me – I made friends for life! They also happened to be a bunch of cyclists who loved racing and doing weekend road trips. I enjoyed the social aspect of the rides and that got me hooked to cycling.
During the four years of your college, you clocked 15-20,000 km each year. That’s an astounding number. How did you make time?
One of the advantages of studying in the US is that you have a good balance between studies and time for yourself. That extra time gave me the freedom to pursue what I enjoyed at that time – cycling. It was a fun way to catch up with friends, stay fit and meet other passionate cyclists along the way.
You signed up for a 120-mile ride which was your first big ride. Can you tell us a little about it?
It all happened by accident, to be honest. I went to a callout (at the start of each semester, clubs pitch for students to join their club) for “Habitat for Humanity” but ended up in the wrong room and without realizing it, I signed up to do a 120-mile charity ride. When I did realize, it blew my socks off because until then, I had never done more than 10 miles at a time.
The race for me was eventful. It was my first time on a road bike and when warming up, I got knocked down by a bus. The bruises and cuts could not take away my spirit and I decided that I still want to do the ride.
Unfortunately, I did not finish the ride but the whole experience had me captivated. It made me realize that there is more to life than just running from one air-conditioned room to another. I looked around and saw all these people enjoy the ride, the outdoors and that clung to me – I wanted a piece of the outdoor life too!
Your decision to move back to India in 2012 was largely influenced by cycling. What encouraged you to make the switch and why Bangalore?
I had to consider my options given I was choosing to not complete my masters in the US and find a job which would have been the ideal way to go.
Around the time, I was considering this decision, the cycling eco-system in India was fairly nascent. There were about 200-400 racers across the country and Bangalore was at the heart of it. There was already a system in place at federation-level, state-level selection trials and national championships. I looked up some data on the CFI website and figured that I was at par with these guys and in some cases faster. I then began to do a few checks to evaluate the decision I was about to take.
- Did I have the physical ability to do what it takes to succeed?
- Was there an eco-system and community to support me just like I had in the US? I stumbled upon the Bangalore cycling community via blogs written by Bikey Venky and other local bike shops – this gave me a glimmer of hope.
- What was the state of Indian competitive cycling in terms of people involved outside of the federation systems? We all hear the usual narrative of sporting infrastructure in India – blame the federation, blame the system and the athletes absolve themselves of all responsibility, but they were some folks attempting new things.
I started looking around if there were people who were actively trying to change the scenario in India and I came across cycling IQ.com and an individual who plays an important role in Indian cycling – Venkatesh Shivarama (Venky). Venky along with Vivek Radhakrishnan were the founders of Kynkyny Wheelsports Cycling team, the first professional cycling team in India with the aim of competing at the international stage.
I took a shot and sent them a message that I’m an active cyclist and looking to return to India but the enthusiasm was met with measured advise that I’d be better off pursuing the sport outside India for the moment. Despite that, a month later, I landed in India and just showed up. They were surprised and asked me, “so you where the guy who messaged us, why did you come here and not stayed in the US and raced there”.
I could have if I wanted to but I had other plans – I was looking for signs of life, looking for people with the mindset of “be the change” vs following the herd and aspirations of one day perhaps becoming a national champion.
Before I chose which city in India, I did the usual checklist – how will I make rent? How will I make a living? How will I contribute and add value? Bangalore made perfect sense given that I had family here and it had a strong cycling community.
In the next part, we will continue to hear about his journey to the National Championship.