At the National Road Cycling Championship held in Navi Mumbai in March, there was a special mention reserved for the bronze medallist of the women’s individual time trial event. “She’s a mother of two, Abirami Manoharan,” the announcer said over the loudspeaker.
Heads turned in a flash towards the podium to get a glimpse of the rider. The two 21-year-olds who had finished ahead of her looked on in disbelief. In the next few minutes, Abirami’s son, Eshaan, joined her on the podium, the two flashing their biggest smiles for the shutterbugs.
Nobody quite expected the third-placed finish from a relatively unknown cyclist. It meant the world to Abirami, 37, her first medal at the Nationals. This was the culmination of a journey that had started just six years ago. And when she lined up at the start line earlier in the day, it wasn’t just her younger competitors that she had to prove a point to.
After the birth of her second child in 2011, Abirami struggled with lower back pain despite gym and yoga sessions. Four years later, a friend introduced her to cycling. One morning, she set off on a rented bicycle on the East Coast Road from her home in Chennai. The 20-odd kilometres that she rode that day seemed endless. “It’s when I realised how long a kilometre could be!” she says, chuckling.
It was the first time Abirami had taken to any outdoor activity, given that she enjoyed dance and music while growing up. She loved every minute of that ride, but with two babies back home, it just wasn’t possible to get regular. When she stepped out for a local race later that year, she was exposed to the world of competitive cycling for the first time.
“I realised that the women on the podium were doing something different, maybe they were consistent. So I thought of cycling at least once a week,” Abirami recalls.
She invested in a bicycle and started riding with a women’s group. Back home though, the marriage was falling apart and she soon moved in with her parents. It wasn’t until 2017 that she found the mental bandwidth to go riding regularly. On her mentor’s advice, she moved to another group that had riders of all levels. The chase was on to live her dream, while balancing life as a single mother. When she had the choice to pursue long-distance cycling or racing, she picked the latter, given the fewer hours that it demanded. “My kids were always the priority. The question was if I could pull out time for cycling and for myself,” she says.
The average day looked hectic. Eshaan and Dhiya would be readied and dropped off at school. She would then go to a facility nearby and ride on an indoor trainer. Her session would end once it was time to pick them up. The rest of the day was spent dancing to their tunes. On the weekend, she would be up at 4am and start riding by 5.15am in order to be home just in time to wake them up with a big hug. When the school hours extended, she had to invest in an indoor trainer. Once she was done cooking, feeding and tucking the kids in bed, it was time for a training session that would often extend past midnight.
“With young children, there is never a set routine. There were days I would be training when I would have to attend to something. That was the end of the workout for the day,” she says. “Night time became my saviour. But during tough sessions, I would tend to find all kinds of excuses—long days, bad diet. I had to put it all aside to get that quality workout in,” she adds.
Abirami soon started focusing on local races—trailing initially, followed by nail biting finishes, and then winning consistently. But she couldn’t ignore the whispers that did the rounds about a 30+ mother—what was the need for cycling? It would play on her mind on the low days; after all, she was 37—how was she going to take on girls half her age, some of whom were full-time cyclists, training every single day? And was it even right to dream of the things that she wanted to achieve?
It all came to a head when her father, Manoharan, asked if she really wanted to cycle. In tears, Abirami told him that she would quit cycling after an upcoming race that she had been training for. “I come from a family where the son takes over the business while the daughter gets married. Sports was also never part of our upbringing. They just didn’t see the need for cycling,” she says.
In July 2017, Abirami sobbed uncontrollably after winning the race. What seemed like tears of joy to others was a feeling of despondency, knowing that it was the end of a dream. She went home with ₹10,000 as prize money, and a trophy that was as big as her disappointment.
“My parents had supported me through thick and thin, so I was happy to oblige. My father was touched I never fought back. He soon realised my potential and what cycling meant to me. Today, he funds my training, takes me to competitions and is probably more involved than I am,” she says.
When she went to her first Nationals in Jamkhandi that year, she realised what real competition was all about. Ten kilometres into the road race, she had lost sight of the leading bunch and dropped out. Though disappointed, it was a welcome relief, given what had occurred at the start. Ever since she had started cycling, she felt comfortable riding in capris. A few women had even mentioned how they had found the courage to take up cycling after they saw her on the podium in capris. Only now, an official told her that she must wear shorts in order to compete.
“I would feel insecure in shorts, though I would tell friends that my performance would speak for itself. But this was the professional world. I had little choice but to pull the capris up. I thought everyone was staring at my legs, really embarrassing,” she says.
On her return, her mentor helped find a coach, Volker Maier from Germany, who put her into a systematic training regime. She started understanding the nitty-gritty of cycling, the timing improved gradually. With no women to race against in Chennai, she now started using the performance of male cyclists as a benchmark. In search of competition, she started driving to Bengaluru for races. Though fatigued after the ride, she would return home the same day to be with the kids.
“I didn’t want to get comfortable winning locally; at the same time I had to make the most of the resources on hand. When I finished fourth at the first race in Bengaluru, it was a nice reality check. I had to budget everything, from time to money. Going to Bengaluru was like writing an exam—I would train and then go test it during the race,” she says. The kids would patiently wait for her call, soak in her performance and celebrate every ride once she was home.
“I’m happy to see that my kids today see winners and losers with the same lens. When I don’t do well, they say—Amma, we know you gave it your best. Next thing I know, they’ve told all their friends about it,” she says.
As she geared up for the Nationals in 2018, disaster struck. On a training ride, two assailants kicked her off the road. It resulted in a head injury, broken teeth and stitches. After close to two months, she resumed training, went to a local race and still won. She went to the Nationals, finishing 13th in the time trial.
“More than me, it was my kids who were shocked. I told them, don’t let people scare you. Since that day, I haven't ridden alone as a rule. If it’s a slower rider, so be it. It may have affected my training in the long run, but I cannot take risks because I have two kids waiting for me back home,” she says.
As the prospect of racing at another Nationals approached, Abirami decided to give it her best shot. The hours in the saddle increased, the coach’s plan followed as per schedule. When the Cycling Federation of India announced the age category from 19-35 years, she made her case by pulling out her improved results over the years. They eventually acceded to her request.
“The men have a Masters (36-40 years) and Veteran (over 40 years) category, but you don’t have many women riding at that age. I was worried that they would announce the category and then cancel it due to few riders. So I wanted to ride in the Elite category,” Abirami says.
She made the cut at the State trials in February and five days before the race, reached Navi Mumbai for the recce. What she found was a testing course and temperatures as high as 40 degree celsius.
“It was so hot that there were a few tyre bursts and the plastic on my cleats were melting. In fact, they reduced the course from 30km to 20km because of the gruelling conditions,” she says.
“For the first time, I went into the race without looking at the competition or timings. The idea was to simply give it my best,” Abirami says.
Before starting her run, she went back to a video of Kristin Armstrong that she had instantly connected with. The American legend has won three consecutive gold at the Olympics, two of them coming after the birth of her boy and the third at 43 years. Though separated by miles, ability and ambition, it had been an inspiration all throughout her journey. It was now Abirami’s time to shine.
The ride went as per plan and by the end of it, though completely spent, it was the best she had ever ridden. When the result was announced, she had missed gold by 0.071 millisecond and silver by 0.005 millisecond.
“All these years, cycling has kept me sane. It has taught me that anything can go wrong anywhere. And that you have to simply accept it and get on with the fight,” she says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.