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Road cycling National Champion – Naveen John – Part 3

Deepthi Velkur continues her conversation with Naveen John about his competitive cycling career.

You must read Part1 and Part2 of this interview before this.

You play a very important leadership role at the Ciclo Racing Team – what is the main objective behind Ciclo? How has the journey been so far?

The idea behind Ciclo was to setup an aspirational project, with the goal of supporting the best athletes in the country, while also developing young athletes’ side-by-side.

In a sport like cycling or for that matter any endurance sport you need a strong team, a good coach who can show you physical progression, mentor you on how you can progress beyond the national level and the emotional support of your friends and family.

Over the years, I have tried a couple of models to figure out what works in India. In 2012-2014, I was part of a team that was based on the model where there was a manager/team director who does the fund-raising and planning of the calendar and multiple athletes who had focus solely on riding. The problem with this model is that when a sponsor backs out, the athletes are left high and dry and they haven’t really grown in those 2 years.

Later in 2016, I tried a model where I as an athlete had to learn how to setup an independent support structure and that worked for me and I achieved some good stuff – first Indian (along with Arvind Panwar) to go to the world championships and first Indian to join an international professional cycling team in Australia. Though it was a good model, I wanted to try something new and that’s when the idea of Ciclo came about.

I talked with co-founders of team – Ashish Thadani and Bachi Pullela and we came up with 3 goals:

  • Create an aspirational project: We wanted Ciclo to be model where other athletes could replicate some of our ideas and be successful.
  • Be the dominant team in India and develop young riders: This has largely been successful so far. In 2 years, our riders have won several gold medals and podiums at the nationals, podiumed or won at every local event we’ve entered, achieved several firsts at the Asian championships, and trained abroad as a team in Belgium in a 3-month training block. Our U-23 riders, riding and training beside the elite riders on the team, have gone on to win National medals and also learn how to be a professional in their mentality and actions.
  • Publicize and talk about what we do: In small sport like ours, we need to share what we do as a lot of people don’t see the little things that need to be done every day before you go on to achieve a bigger goal. The video and visual content that the team has created over the past 2 years are some of the most viewed racing/cycling content in India that sheds a light on competitive Indian Cycling.

One of the first things we did was hook up with a friend of mine and a photographer – Chenthil Mohan. It was a way to brand activate for our sponsors but also share knowledge. Considering this is the social media age, we used this medium to build reach with the younger generation. This has been fairly successful with young kids asking me a whole bunch of interesting questions at the Nationals like how to get to Belgium to train and race, advice on buying power meters (a training tool), about technical concepts in training, etc.

Cycling is huge in Belgium and they have the best system in the world. My long-term objective is to create a conduit between the 2 countries along with a consulate tie-up that would help in a sporting exchange. This would help develop the system in our country immensely.

I want to be part of the sport for a long time to come and would like to build a process that can be applied to all the future cyclists out there.

What riding events do you target to cover every year? What do you think are your biggest achievements?

In India, my target race is the National Championship. Why? Simply because at the end of the day, your value as an athlete is measured on you being a national champion, though it is by-far not the best metric.

The other events I participate in are community-level events. I build these events into my training plan and make it a hard training day. Another reason I want to be active at a community level is because I want to be part of the eco-systemic change.

On principle, I do not participate in big money races. The reason I choose not to is because I feel that I will be sacrificing a lot more than I can benefit. For me, attending a race means I lose out on my training days not to mention the potential risk of injuring myself if the conditions are terrible. I did attend some races in 2012 to understand why the system was not progressing and decided from the next year never to do it again.

Overall, I have attended 7 national championships with two 4th place finishes and four gold medals. My biggest achievement as an athlete would be being the first Indian road cyclist to ever achieve a podium finish at a Kermesse race, (Lokeren Doorselaar kermesse) in Belgium in August 2018.

Speaking about the Kermesse event, talk us through your experience at this year’s event?

It has always been my dream to perform at a high-level in Europe. Last year, I finished in the Top 20 and I set myself a goal on Top 10 this year. I trained like never before to be able to achieve that goal.

Towards the end of my trip in Belgium, I hit a purple patch – with each race before the event, I progressed from Top 18 to Top 12 and finally cracked the Top 10 at the event. Not only did I achieve a 3rd place finish, but I was only marginally behind the winner of the event, who 2 days later ended up as the runner-up at the Belgian national championships. That was a huge motivation gain for me.

You qualified for the ITT and road race at the Asian Cycling championship in Myanmar earlier this year? What was your takeaway from the race?

For me, the key takeaway is – I’m getting closer!

I have been at the Asian championships twice along with my teammate (Arvind who has been at the championships 5 times). In 2016, we finished the road race as the last bunch on the road and this year, we finished the race as the bunch right behind the winning bunch. Fairly big progress there.

My goal for now is to finish in the Top 5 hopefully next year and if I work harder than I did this year, I think it’s achievable.

You kickstarted an initiative in 2013 called “The Indian Cycling Project”. What brought about the idea and how have you seen it develop over the years?

I came up with this idea because I wanted to leverage best-in-class systems outside of the country. I want to build a system where young athletes are backed by a strong support system and are exposed to the best training and racing eco-systems available.

As I mentioned earlier, my long-term goal is to create a conduit between India and Belgium along with a consulate tie-up that would help in a sporting exchange.

One of the challenges I face is convincing parents to let their young children travel to Belgium because for the parents they see no monetary benefit or results coming out of it. I also let the parents know that their kid could probably get injured, break equipment but all that doesn’t matter as this is probably the most important thing you can do for them to succeed. This experience in Belgium teaches them to be independent, financially responsible, stay physically and mentally tough, brave harsh weather conditions and maintain a balanced diet. It gives these young athletes a view into racing at an international level.

A final question – what are your race plans for 2019?

My next event is the Tour of Nilgiris in December where I hope to enjoy just riding easy for a change, meet some friends and get a little bit of work done. For 2019 – my targets are the National championships, National Games, Asian championships and my customary 3-month training and racing in Belgium.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

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Featured, Motivation Comments Off on Ride every Mountain |

Ride every Mountain

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

Read more