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Nicobar’s bicycle diaries

Wild pigs, Japanese bicycles and a missionary from Burmathe extraordinary story of how this remote island in the Andaman Sea rolled out the first Indian to win a track cycling medal at a global competition

Track cyclists usually lean on their trainers for balance at the race starting point. Here, national coach R.K. Sharma helps Esow with his start at the Track Asia Cup. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Track cyclists usually lean on their trainers for balance at the race starting point. Here, national coach R.K. Sharma helps Esow with his start at the Track Asia Cup. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The desire to pursue competitive track cycling must be a strain of madness. If so, practitioners wear their peculiar lunacy lightly—it is the only explanation for wanting to chase speeds of 65-75 kilometres per hour (kmph) on brakeless fixed-gear bicycles, often less than a handlebar’s length away from a similarly hurtling opponent on a sloping wooden or concrete track. If road cycling is about endurance, track is a paean to speed.

At those speeds, things can go downhill in the blink of an eye, or the bend of a curve. On 26 June, during a training session at an open-air velodrome in Cottbus in Germany, 27-year-old Olympic and World champion Kristina Vogel, riding at more than 60 kmph, had a full-throttle collision with a Dutch cyclist who was practising a standing start. On 12 September, Vogel made her first public appearance after the crash—on a wheelchair. Her spinal cord was severed at the seventh thoracic vertebra and she has lost all feeling in her legs. It is better than being dead, she told the press.

As part of a two-month training and exposure tour, a contingent from India’s National Cycling Academy was in Cottbus at the time of Vogel’s crash. Under the supervision of coach R.K. Sharma, the team had been using the same velodrome for practice sessions. As news of Vogel being airlifted to Berlin came in, what might have begun as a routine training day, turned into a sinister reminder of the brutalities of the sport.

From Germany, the team travelled to Aigle in Switzerland for the World Junior Track Cycling Championships. Aigle may have a population of less than 10,000 but it is a name familiar to professional cyclists—it hosts the headquarters of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the almost 120-year-old world governing body for competitive cycling.

And it is in this little town at the foot of the Swiss Alps that Esow Alban, 17, from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, made history on 16 August by becoming the first Indian to win a medal at a global cycling event—he lost out on gold by 0.017 seconds.

Esow Alban at last month’s Track Asia Cup, where he won gold in the 200m junior sprint. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Thunder thighs" is a compliment in the world of track cycling. At the velodrome in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium Complex, teenagers and young adults with thighs the size of tree trunks are warming-up on stationary bikes ahead of trials for the Asia Track Cup (which took place at the Delhi velodrome from 21-23 September). The space is buzzing with the noise of whirring pedals, interspersed only by shouts of “Buck up!" and “Aur tez (faster!)" from the side lines. Alban, with his heavyweight boxer built, is easily spotted from a distance. In his manner there is a languor that, inexplicably, seems to mark many athletes whose primary currency is speed. “I was 11 years old when I saw Deborah (Herold) on Doordarshan, racing at the 2012 national championship," he says.

In 2005, Herold, from Car Nicobar island, climbed to a rank of world No.4 in the 500m time trial event. “There are so many past champions to look up to from the Andamans. Names we hear of while growing up: Irenious, Daisy, Full Birth. So, I knew that cycling could take me far," Alban adds. Sharma, who keeps a watchful eye on his wards as we speak, says, “There is raw talent in the islands, especially in Car Nicobar. At this year’s nationals, we scouted two 15-year-olds and brought them to train here—Paul Collingwood and Celestina. Remember the names."

On the track, a pair is riding in close formation, the front wheel of the rear rider almost kissing the rear wheel of the one leading. This practice of riding in the slipstream is known as drafting. Drafting reduces wind resistance and pressure, allowing the rear rider to conserve energy.

Alban’s story is only a chapter in the history of Andamans cycling. He acknowledges he is riding a draft.

Alphabetically, Andaman and Nicobar Islands is the first name to appear on a list of the states and Union territories of India. Geographically and metaphorically, however, the islands appear only on the fringes of the national imagination. The archipelago is closer to Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland. By sea, it takes a minimum of three days from Kolkata, Chennai or Visakhapatnam to reach the islands’ capital, Port Blair.

The British thought the islands’ remoteness ideal for establishing a penal colony for political prisoners. The first group of such “convicts" were transported to the malarial jungles of Ross Island (near Port Blair) in 1858. In the name of a “civilizing mission", prisoners were collared, starved and subjected to medical experiments. The islands began to be referred to as the dreaded kalapaani (black waters)—crossing the vast ocean and setting foot on this “foreign" land was considered to result in a loss of caste and social status. Even for some years after independence, mainland narratives of the islands were focused on disease, fear and isolation. Since the 1990s, the dominant Andamans theme is one of marine-based tourism—a paradise of white-sand beaches and tropical coral reefs. But there is another story, one linked to the mainland, that predates the tourism narrative. And it is a story starring one of the original inhabitant groups of the islands—the Nicobarese.

The story of Andamans cycling begins at Car Nicobar, 270km south of, and an overnight ferry ride from, Port Blair. A majority of the island’s population is of the Nicobarese tribe, who are thought to have migrated from South-East Asia thousands of years ago. It is a restricted area, and visitors need a landing permit from the office of the deputy commissioner in Port Blair. The 130 sq. km island with a population of around 18,000 (according to the 2011 Census) was wrecked by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. A number of villages were wiped out and an estimated 7,000 people washed away. But since the late 1980s, Car Nicobar has produced at least 25 track and road cyclists who have represented India in international competitions. In domestic competitions, contingents from Andaman and Nicobar have consistently put in a strong showing, alongside those from states such as Kerala, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra. How did it all begin?

In 1985, three years after India hosted the Asian Games, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) launched the Special Area Games (SAG) scheme. Its stated aim was “to scout natural talent for modern competitive sports and games from inaccessible tribal, rural and coastal areas of the country, which are genetically or geographically advantageous for excellence in a sports discipline."

By May 1988, SAG was being described as the “most ambitious plan ever undertaken in Indian sports." Officials travelled to remote regions, especially those with a culture of traditional sport, to scout talent and bring them to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi for a 90-day assessment by coaches and sports scientists. Those that made the cut were enrolled in the full-time residential training programme, with the government taking care of all their needs, including schooling. The scheme was led by B.V.P. Rao, an IAS officer who was intent on finding ways to tap into India’s sporting potential.

“Actually, we initially went to the Andamans to scout water sports talent, since kayaking and canoeing is a way of life for the people there. We were also looking to pick potential trainees for football," says Rao, now retired, over the phone from Hyderabad. “We heard about a traditional archery tournament on Car Nicobar, so we went there. We were surprised to see everyone zipping around on bicycles! The Japanese had left behind thousands of them during the World War II occupation," adds Rao (the Andaman and Nicobar islands were the only part of India to come under Japanese control during the war).

Another source of bicycles was Rangoon (now Yangon), in what was then Burma (now Myanmar). John Richardson was a Nicobarese bishop who was sent to Rangoon as a young boy and returned to Car Nicobar in 1912 after being ordained as an Anglican priest. Widely considered the spiritual leader of the Nicobarese (most of whom are Christians), he was a sports enthusiast and is credited with having brought the first footballs to the island from Rangoon. In no small part due to Richardson’s missionary connections, Indian Airlines had started operating a Rangoon-Port Blair flight (via Kolkata) in the early 1960s. Many bicycles are said to have arrived on these flights.

The Andaman group of islands is separated from the Nicobar group by the Ten Degree channel. The British and Japanese colonizers had developed South Andaman island (where Port Blair is located) to some extent. In the decade after independence, under the government’s “colonization schemes", thousands of refugees from East Bengal were settled in the Middle Andaman and North Andaman islands. As a consequence, government attention and infrastructure came to Car Nicobar only later. The Japanese and Burmese bicycles were the primary mode of transport and communication well into the 1960s.

Through the first few years of SAG, J.K. Roy was Rao’s man in the Andamans. He retired as deputy director of the SAI Centre in Port Blair in 2008 and continues to live there. Recalling the heady days of the SAG talent hunt, Roy says over the phone, “I think it was in 1988. After watching the archery tournaments in Car Nicobar, we brought three children to Delhi. They were training at the indoor stadium and someone saw one of the boys, Basil, racing a bicycle in the velodrome. Basil was shifted from the archery programme to cycling. That is when the officials started looking at Car Nicobar as a cycling island.

“Here, the children’s thighs and calves develop really well. From a very early age, they are climbing coconut and areca nut trees, they are playing football on sandy beaches. And of course, they are cycling everywhere," adds Roy. Sharma points to another factor working in favour of the young Andamans cyclists: a lack of fear. “Many of the cyclists in my junior programme come from remote areas where there is a lot of space, fewer vehicles, fewer rules to follow. They have always ridden fast. Absence of fear is critical in this sport."

The SAG scheme started to bear fruit almost immediately. In 1989, Daisy from Car Nicobar won a bronze medal in the pursuit event at the Asian Cycling Championship. She also participated in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. In the early years, a number of Andamans cyclists were selected to train in Delhi. “From the early 1990s itself, we have been sending our best cyclists to Delhi," says Subhendu Sengupta, who works as a cycling coach for the Andaman and Nicobar State Sports Council (SSC).

Basil, who died of cancer in 1995, went on to represent India at the Asian level. Until the tsunami destroyed the 54km road around the island, a road race in his memory—the Basil Memorial—was organized annually in Car Nicobar. Volunteers stationed along the route ensured that the island’s wild pigs, prized as assets by Nicobarese families, didn’t get in the way of the peloton. Cycling contests were regularly advertised in Sunday church.

In 1995, impressed by the performances of the Andamans cyclists in domestic competitions, SAI began the construction of an outdoor velodrome at its Port Blair centre.

But the 2004 tsunami was devastating for Car Nicobar. V. Ranjith Kumar, who served as assistant director (sports) in the Andaman administration and was posted in Car Nicobar from 2003-06, says, “We lost almost everything in the tsunami. For many of us, this is a second life. So, losing cycles and documents like the cyclists’ age certificates was the last thing we were worried about then. But yes, after the tsunami, the cycling programme took a hit for a few years." Kumar is now secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar Cycling Association (ANCA).

The ANCA, led by Kumar, requested the Central government and the state administration to send bicycles to the island to help it get back on its feet. Within a year of the tsunami, around 5,000 bicycles had been dispatched to the island in instalments.

Most young cyclists from Car Nicobar have a tsunami story. Herold was 9 and at home on the day the calamity struck. She had run out into an open field with her mother before they were separated by a gush of water. Miraculously, she spent five days clinging on to a tree, crying all the while, before she was rescued by a search party. She thought she would never see her family again.

Fittingly, it was Herold, now 23, who became the symbol of Andamans’ post-tsunami cycling resurgence. From Kakana village in Car Nicobar, she was spotted by Sengupta in a 2009 camp organized by SAI in Port Blair. After officials assessed her performances at the sub-junior nationals in 2012, she was picked for the national camp in Delhi. At the 2013 Asian Championships, held in Delhi, she became the first Indian woman to win a medal in an individual event in the 200m junior sprint.

Deborah Herold outside the Delhi velodrome. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Herold’s performances were taken as a sign that Andamans cycling was back on track. In 2013, a team of CFI (Cycling Federation of India) and SAI officials took a chopper to Car Nicobar for a random talent-spotting exercise. The trip was arranged at the insistence of Kumar. Out of approximately 250 children, nine were chosen to train in Delhi.

Since then, Herold has achieved a series of firsts, including becoming India’s first individual cyclist to qualify for the World Track Cycling Championships (for the 2016 London edition). However, after that, there has been a spate of lacklustre performances, the latest being at the recently concluded Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Onkar Singh, secretary general of the CFI, insists that Indian track cycling will come into its own at the elite level in a couple of years. “We shouldn’t be worrying about current performances at the elite level. Our real strength are the juniors. They are the beneficiaries of the programme we have put in place in the last five-six years. Esow’s medal in Switzerland is the best example. As our juniors progress to elite level over the next few years, we will start seeing results. For now, Deborah is focused on qualification for Tokyo 2020."

If indeed Herold qualifies for the Tokyo Olympics, she will be the first Indian cyclist to do so since the last time the Games were held in the Japanese capital—in 1964. Her younger brother Apollonius, 19, is also part of the national camp. “Achcha lagta hai, equipment yahaan ka bahut achcha hai (I like it here, the equipment is very good)," he says when asked about his experience in Delhi. “From five cycles in 2012, we now have about 80-90 of them, each costing between 2-10 lakh," says Singh. “We also have 10 stationary Watt bikes, which measure power output and evaluate pedalling technique."

It is unsurprising that equipment is what comes to Apollonius’ mind when asked about his life in Delhi. Cycling is an expensive sport, and the man-machine equation is vital to success. Compared to the four weather-beaten Colnago bikes that have been plying the Port Blair velodrome track since 2005, Delhi might seem like an embarrassment of riches to a young cyclist from the islands. While the success of Herold and Alban at the international level may paint a picture of a smoothly-running feeder programme, it may not reflect the complete truth.

On the ground, there seem to be a litany of issues. Generations, literally, of Andamans cyclists have warmed the seats of the same bicycles. Sources in Port Blair said that repeated requests have been made to the state sports administration to upgrade the equipment, but these have fallen on deaf ears. Salty sea breeze corrodes the bicycles easily. Spare parts are very hard to come by. Bicycle companies are wary of the logistical challenges of shipping to the islands. Maintaining the outdoor velodrome in rainy Port Blair is also a problem.

When asked about how he manages to keep the bicycles in working condition, Kumar says, “I ask the children to bring back spare parts from the other cyclists when they go to the mainland for competitions." And how do they keep the track in shape? “Well, we manage repairs to weather-related damage locally. But there are some things for which we need external help. One of the angles in the velodrome banking has become defective, and that is dangerous for cyclists. To fix that, we will need the advice of technical experts."

Port Blair’s SAI Centre wound-up its cycling programme about six years ago. No one is really sure why. Currently, it only runs a water sports programme. Since 2013, training at the SAI velodrome is conducted by Sengupta under the aegis of the SSC. He is assisted by B. Neeta, a former Andamans cyclist who represented India at the Asian Championship in 2005.

The running of SAI’s Port Blair Centre, once the institutional home of the islands’ cycling programme, is shrouded in mystery. As a SAG centre, it reports to the regional command in Kolkata. In May, a female trainee is said to have filed an FIR alleging molestation by the centre in-charge. The Phoenix Post, a news outlet based in Port Blair, reported on 21 May that a “group of 15-20 girl trainees had gone to the Aberdeen police station protesting against installation of CCTV cameras in the corridors of the hostel where they are accommodated, besides some other acts of misbehaviour by the Centre in-charge". A coach, quoted in The Phoenix Post report on condition of anonymity, suggested “disgruntled elements" are “conspiring with the minor girls to settle their personal score with the Centre in-charge".

Sadly, the SSC’s cycling programme has also taken a hit. Outstation cyclists, such as those from Car Nicobar, had been accommodated in the same hostel as the SAI trainees. Sources Lounge spoke to confirmed, without wanting to be named, that many parents, concerned by the sexual harassment allegations, have withdrawn their children from SAI programmes. The SSC’s cycling programme has lost all its residential trainees after the allegations surfaced a few months ago. SAI officials, in Port Blair and Delhi, declined comment, though it has been learnt that an institutional inquiry into the centre in-charge’s conduct is underway.

In India, the institution giveth and the institution taketh away. Indian sport is littered with stories of neglect and apathy that more or less follow the same narrative—a precocious talent, a shot at glory, a victim of systemic rot or a mismanaged injury and eventually, the slow fade into obscurity, occasionally tempered by a feature article recalling days of dazzling youth and promise. But, what is sport but a bad romance? Speed, competition, the afterglow of victory—once sampled, these quickly turn into addictions, ends in themselves.

It is these ends that may finally justify the long journey from a Car Nicobar hamlet to Delhi. And it is these addictions that are on display at a Sunday morning training session in the cavernous velodrome, which is echoing with the steadily rising sound from the engine of Sharma’s Honda motorbike. Alban is riding in the draft, pedalling hard to keep up. When he approaches the pursuit line on the final stretch, the low rumble of wheels on wood is heard above the Honda’s engine. Celestina and Apollonius stand in the arena’s landing area. Far away from their island home, in the mighty capital of the great republic that has given them an opportunity, they watch their kinsman ride around this wooden circle of hope.

The Andaman and Nicobar cycling contingent at the 2007 National Games in Guwahati, Assam. Photo courtesy: Joy Kumar Roy

Nicobar fact file

Arm yourself with facts about India’s most far-flung territory

Football fanatics

After the missionary John Richardson brought back footballs on his return from Yangon in 1912, the Nicobarese took to the sport enthusiastically. Describing a match between a team from the Indian Navy and the locals in 1947, an observer noted that “the Nicobarese kicked the ball harder than I ever saw it kicked by professional players, and they ran like hares.... Two of the sailors had to be carried back to the ship, exhausted by the pace of the game."

Deepest south

Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu may be the southernmost tip of the Indian mainland but the southernmost point of Indian territory is Indira Point in Great Nicobar Island. It is around 3,000km from Delhi, 550km from Port Blair, 300km from Car Nicobar (the district headquarters of the Nicobar group of islands) and only 163km from Rondo Island in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Banda Aceh.

Endemic wonders

Due to their geographic isolation, the islands of the Nicobar group (with an area of 1,800 sq. km) are home to some unique animal and bird species. BirdLife International, a global partnership of bird conservation organizations, categorizes the Nicobar Islands as one of India’s 12 Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs). The Nicobar Scrubfowl, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, Nicobar Parakeet and the Nicobar Bulbul are not found anywhere else in the world, not even on the Andaman group of islands to the north.

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