In 2011, Devender Thakur, then a 17-year-old cycling enthusiast, participated in his first mountain biking (MTB) race in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. Over the next few years, he had the opportunity to test himself against international cyclists in races across India. That was when he realised the level at which the sport was being pursued around the world. He also realised that there were hardly any resources closer home that would help him improve his riding and pursue his ambition.
Most of his learning happened through videos. He would pick up a few tips and try them out. He also kept in touch, on social media, with the foreign cyclists he had met, to understand how he could improve. A few sponsors, essentially cycle brands that help with gear or offer a stipend, supported him and he even represented India at competitions a few years down the line. But he was still missing the support system that would help him compete against the best in the world.
Things are finally beginning to fall in place for the sport. The Cycling Federation of India (CFI) is set to roll out a full-time, residential programme for MTB this month, in collaboration with the Sports Authority of India (SAI). The programme will run under the aegis of the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSNIS) in Patiala, Punjab, while the cyclists are likely to be trained at the SAI centres in Himachal Pradesh—at Shilaroo in summer and Dharamshala in winter.
“The initial plan is to accommodate 30 cyclists, who have been identified through the last National MTB Championship in Gadag, Karnataka. These will be seniors, juniors, sub-junior and youth riders, both boys and girls,” says V.N. Singh, director of the government-funded CFI.
The federation’s blueprint for competitive cycling began to translate on the ground seven years ago, when the National Cycling Academy was set up in Delhi in collaboration with SAI, in 2014 . A systematic training programme since has produced promising track cyclists such as Esow Alben and Ronaldo Laitonjam. The plan now is to grow MTB on similar lines.
“This (MTB) academy will run throughout the year. The idea is to look after every need of the rider—coaching equipment, food, lodging, logistics—so that their efforts can be towards training,” says Rohit Sharma, a CFI member. The academy will foot the entire bill for the stay, food, training, travel and equipment.
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There had, so far, been little in terms of an organised approach towards MTB, with most riders starting out on their own and largely fending for themselves, except for the limited support some got from a few bicycle companies like Giant, Hero and Cannondale. Predictably, most riders initially came from mountainous regions like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Take the case of 24-year-old Shiven, who uses only one name. He moved to Manali in July 2018 after finishing college in Kurukshetra in Haryana. Passionate about the sport, he wanted to train at high altitudes and have easy access to slopes for riding. This wasn’t enough, however. At the National MTB Championship in Pune, Maharashtra, that October, he finished last in the men’s elite mass start event. This gave him a better perspective on the need to train scientifically.
“I had been looking to work with a coach. A friend told me about Jarred Salzwedel, a sports scientist from South Africa, and I started training according to the sessions he had customised for me. Though we worked remotely, I had all the equipment that was needed to train at a high level. Over time, the change in my physiology and thought process was evident,” Shiven says.
His first challenge after he adopted the new routine was MTB Uttarakhand, a race where he didn’t finish among the top 15 Indian riders in 2018. In April 2019, he managed to finish third overall.
As he began to garner more podium finishes, it was clear that his efforts were paying off. At MTB Kerala in December 2019—it was the first race in India that featured on the annual calendar of the world cycling body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)—he finished third in the international category and first among Indians.
Ten days before the National MTB Championship in February 2020, he fell ill, but he still picked up silver in the mass start and a bronze in the individual time trial. All the riders start simultaneously in the mass start event; in the individual time trial event, each rider starts separately, with the cyclist who clocks the fastest time being declared the winner.
“What happened is that my base fitness moved up to a whole new level. The principle has remained the same—it’s just that the work I have been putting in has been increasing slowly and steadily, which has bettered my performance,” says Shiven, who has been selected for the residential academy programme. “That said, there’s still a huge gap when compared to international riders,” he adds, having represented India at the Asian MTB Championships and South Asian Games.
The challenges were different for Khariksing Adonis Tangpu, 19. Tangpu located an academy in his home town, Mysuru, in Karnataka called Cycling My Sooru, and homed in on a coach, Nagaraj T.V. But with no access to slopes, his training was restricted to flat roads and gym work. His father paid the training and gear costs.
“When I went to my first Nationals in Pune, I understood what trails really were. Then, at the Asian MTB Championships in Lebanon, I realised what the international level was—really steep climbs and technical terrain. We usually have training camps before the big championships but the year-round programme will give us regular access to such trails,” Tangpu says.
In March last year, 10 riders from the academy were asked to report to Patiala for a training camp, before the second wave of covid-19 infections cut short their programme. Shiven was left impressed despite the brief stint. “I realised there were so many resources that could be dedicated to a training programme. Our team was given strength and conditioning experts, nutritionists and psychologists to work with. There were a lot of tests conducted at the high performance centre. It was the first time anything like this has happened for MTB in India,” he says.
Given his experience, Thakur has been appointed coach for the programme, with the possibility of pursuing his coaching badges with the UCI. A technician has been assigned to maintain the gear bought for the programme. Singh says the plan is to hire another male coach and possibly a third, female, coach in the future. “Track cycling has shown that we have the capacity to develop our own coaches. So we want to do the same for MTB instead of hiring foreigners,” says Sharma. The idea is to groom experienced MTB cyclists like Thakur, enable them to take UCI’s courses and, eventually, let them lead the programme as head coach.
On the ground, the CFI hopes to deepen the pool of talent. Going forward, Singh hopes they can open up the academy to 50 juniors. Thakur is hopeful. “I have done quite some riding around both Shilaroo and Dharamshala. We will have to develop trails but I know there is tremendous potential around these areas. It’s a huge step for the next generation of MTB riders to be in one place and focus all their energies on training. I am certain the results will follow in a few years.”
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.