Kiran Kumar Raju, mountain biking national champion has the 2020 Olympics in his sights, talks to Deepthi Velkur.
K Kiran Kumar Raju or KKR as he is fondly known is a Bangalore-based mountain biking (MTB) professional who has been crowned national MTB champion this year. Apart from MTB, Kiran has also achieved success in other cycling disciplines such as road racing and Duathlons.
A civil engineer by profession and a sporting ninja by choice, Kiran has dabbled in hockey, table tennis, cross country running at the university level. Realizing his passion lies in cycling, he decided to leave the corporate rat race and instead, chase his dreams on a cycle! Peeking into his cycling statistics will leave you aghast – 125+ races completed, 76+ podium finishes, 41+ 1st place finishes across road races, MTB and Duathlons.
I had the opportunity to talk to Kiran and was very interested to see how this former civil engineer plans to ride all the way to Tokyo 2020.
You’re a fairly busy person – active in hockey, table tennis and cross-country running. How did the switch to cycling happen?
I have always enjoyed sports and keeping active. In college, I had access to different sports and always kept myself engaged. I was University hockey captain at Manipal University, represented the college at Table Tennis and cross country running.
In 2010, I was working in Bangalore with Mantri developers and the famous Bangalore traffic was getting worse. Cycling appeared to be the only viable option to cover the distance of 40KMS. To me, it sounded like a good idea because apart from helping my commute, it was a great way to stay active.
My interest in cycling grew and I kept myself engaged with various city-wide events. Later in 2010, I heard about the Tour of Nilgiris (TFN), a grueling 7-day tour covering a distance of 900KMS and of course I volunteered. It was my first interaction with people from the cycling fraternity and I gathered heaps of information on different types of cycles, cycling events across Bangalore and India.
Armed with my new-found knowledge, I stepped up the number of races I took part the following year. I was at a disadvantage though – I never had a race competitive bike myself and had to borrow bikes for various races. I enjoyed the thrill of the race though and despite the competition, I was fairly successful. My mode of training was still the 40KM daily commute.
As it happens with most of us, the busy work schedule took a toll on my other sporting interests. I lost focus on Table Tennis and Hockey but instead, I found time for Ultimate Frisbee which I did for 4 years with a club called Disco Deewane. My professional commitments also affected my cycling performance and I soon realized that cycling is where my passion lied. In 2014, I decided to let go of my well-paying job and chase my dreams on a cycle.
When did you realize mountain biking was your new passion?
Since 2011, I took part in road races as well as mountain biking (MTB). I enjoyed MTB more because unlike road racing where the focus is on power, MTB requires you to combine elements of power, technical skills, and endurance.
Being a notorious motorcycle rider, I was able to pick up bike handling skills faster than other riders and this gave me an edge over the other MTB riders in Bangalore.
How did you prepare for your first national MTB event?
My first national-level MTB event was in 2014 and since quitting my job in 2014, I was able to devote more time to training. People say cycling is an individual sport – I disagree. It is a team sport because it requires you to have a good coach, a supportive family, friends who not just help you financially but also motivate you.
My teammate decided to coach me for the event and I finished 7th across both events in my 1st national appearance back in 2014.
In my 2nd nationals in 2015, I won a gold in the Time-Trial event and 3rd place in the Mass-Start race. It was a very emotional moment for me and all that hard work and focus was paying dividends. I have been on the podium ever since.
What are the different races that you’ve been a part of till date?
I have taken part in all disciplines of cycling – road races, MTBs, and Duathlons. In 2011, I have also taken part in a brevet (an endurance ride that involves covering a target distance in a target time). I was advised to focus more on single-day short distance events instead, of a brevet. Till date (across 8 years), I have completed 125+ races throughout the country and overseas.
What kind of mental and physical skills do you need to participate in a brevet event? How is it different from any other course that you have traversed so far?
A Brevet event is more mental toughness than physicality and requires a lot of patience. Honestly, any race crossing the 6-hour mark requires a different sort of mental toughness. I could not dedicate my time training for these events but finished the entire randonneuring series just for the sheer joy of having completed it.
Personally, I do not recommend Brevet events for youngsters(<30yrs) in India. It is a day and night event, visibility is an issue and that carries too many risks and safety issues.
MTB or road events – what is more challenging and why?
Clearly, MTB is more challenging. Like I mentioned earlier, road racing is about power, endurance and the ability to control well enough at 50KMPH. MTB, on the other hand, requires a different skill set to excel, as here you need to select specific lanes along the trail which are faster and efficient, have exceptional bike handling skills, understand your bike well and quick reaction speeds.
How do you manage to juggle a young family and train for 400-600KMS each week?
It’s all about having the right support system. The credit goes to my family and my partner in specific who has backed me and given me all the support I need to focus on my cycling. My family is based out of Mysore while I do my training in Bangalore. I do my share of shuttling to ensure I spend quality time with my family in-between events.
When did your association with Trek Bicycle happen and how has your partnership been so far?
My 1st sponsorship was Kynkyny Wheel sports team and I have been associated with them between 2013 – 2016. Earlier this year, Trek Bicycle signed a 2-year endorsement deal and I am extremely thrilled to be associated with this brand as they are the most technologically advanced bicycling company in the world. They really understand my cycling needs and they seem quite happy with my achievements and apart from extending my contract for the next two years, they have also provided me with new advanced equipment to help pursue my future goals.
Yet another win at the MTB national event that happened between 26th-28th Oct in Pune? How did you prepare for it and did all go as per plan on the course?
I had a very clean race in both my categories – time trial (XCT) as well as the mass start (XCO). Time trail (XCT) is where you ride solo, finish 4 laps and basically race against the clock. Mass start (XCO) is where you start together and race each other.
My objective was to keep the rubber side down and avoid having a fall, push hard from start to finish and stick to the leading group for the initial lap and then set my own pace later.
From the start, my focus was winning the mass start as I had not won a gold in this category. Thankfully, everything went as per plan and I ended up with a silver in the time trial and a gold in the mass start (my first at the MTB event).
It was a huge achievement for me and a very humbling experience. I can now proudly say that I’m the “National Mountain Biking Champion” in India.
You have 2 key goals at the moment – represent India at the Asian Championships and then the 2020 Olympics. What are the steps you’re taking to achieve those dreams?
First, I had to prove to my country, sponsors, family and myself that I am India’s national MTB champion. With that out of the way now, I will use this time to rest well, recover and then start training in 2 weeks.
My focus now is to do well at the Asian championships in May 2019. Doing well here is my primary parameter to enter to the 2020 Olympics.
My training for the Asian championships will involve taking part in at least 4 races across Asia and then train for 2 months in Brisbane, Australia. When there, I will train and ride on trails that are more technical and challenging compared to India. I have already trained at Brisbane for 5 weeks prior to the nationals and that really helped me prepare well enough to win gold. This gives me the confidence to go back and spend more time training in those trails.
I have been at the Asian championships before, but compared to previous times I am a lot more confident now and with me being at the top of my game, I am aiming to finish in the Top 10.
What are the three most important things you need to do to cycle like a pro?
Discipline, dedication and a clean diet for at least six months prior to an event is what I do and anyone can achieve good results.
How difficult was it to make cycling a career choice?
Fairly difficult – unfortunately since cycling is not considered a big profession in India, it is challenging to make it a full-time career. What helped me was my family. They have been understanding, motivating and have supported me financially all the way through.
In India, you only get a medal and a certificate from the government for any national event across disciplines. The cash award applies only if it is an Olympic event. For e.g. the mass track event (XCO) is an Olympic sport and has cash awards unlike the time trial (XCT) which is not considered an Olympic sport. The national mountain biking riders are not offered a direct government job like the road racing champions.
I have been able to take up cycling full-time purely because of my family, sponsors, and well-wishers.
What are your thoughts on the current scenario of competitive cycling in Bangalore?
Bangalore is considered the cycling capital of India as we have the maximum number of races in the country. There is a fair bit of mountain bike races, road races that happen and attract riders from all over the country.
The races are handled very professionally, in a systematic and organized manner. Despite the fact that there are no cash awards, this has not deterred participants who take part for the sheer joy and experience of cycling.
I am thankful to Bangalore for creating this environment of cycling and my goal of winning the national and Asian championships are because of this. It is interesting to note that the national road biking and mountain biking champions are from Bangalore.