New program will transform the sport of mountain biking
In 2011 Devender Thakur, then passionate about cycling at the age of 17, took part in his first mountain bike (MTB) race in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. In the following years he had the opportunity to compete with international cyclists in races across India. It was then that he realized how much sport was played in the world. He also realized that there was hardly any resource closer to home that would help him improve his driving and pursue his ambition.
Most of his learning was done through videos. He would take some advice and try it out. He also kept in touch, on social media, with foreign cyclists he had met, to understand how he could improve. A few sponsors, mostly cycle brands that help with equipment or offer a stipend, supported him and he even represented India at competitions a few years later. But he still lacked the support system that would help him compete with the best in the world.
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Things are finally starting to fall into place for the sport. The Cycling Federation of India (CFI) is set to roll out a full-time residential MTB program this month, in conjunction with the Sports Authority of India (SAI). The program will be run under the auspices of the Netaji Subhas National Sports Institute (NSNIS) in Patiala, Punjab, while cyclists will likely be trained at SAI centers in Himachal Pradesh, Shilaroo in summer and Dharamshala in winter.
“The initial plan is to accommodate 30 cyclists, who were identified during the last national mountain bike championship in Gadag, Karnataka. These will be senior, junior, sub-juniors and youth riders, boys and girls, ”said VN Singh, director of the government-funded CFI.
The federation’s competitive cycling project began to take shape on the ground seven years ago when the National Cycling Academy was established in Delhi in collaboration with SAI in 2014. A systematic training program since has produced promising track cyclists such as Esow Alben and Ronaldo Laitonjam. The plan is now to develop mountain biking along similar lines.
“This (mountain biking) academy will operate throughout the year. The idea is to take care of all the needs of the rider – training equipment, food, accommodation, logistics – so that his efforts can be oriented towards training ”, explains Rohit Sharma, member of CFI. The academy will pay the entire bill for the stay, food, training, travel and equipment.
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Until now, there had been little organized approach to mountain biking, with most riders starting on their own and largely doing it on their own, except for the limited support some got from a few. bicycle companies like Giant, Hero and Cannondale. As you might expect, most runners initially came from mountainous regions like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Take the case of Shiven, 24, who only uses one name. He moved to Manali in July 2018 after graduating from Kurukshetra in Haryana. Passionate about sports, he wanted to train at altitude and have easy access to the slopes for riding. This was not enough, however. At the National Mountain Bike Championship in Pune, Maharashtra, in October, he finished last in the elite men’s mass start event. This gave him a better perspective on the need for scientific training.
“I was looking to work with a coach. A friend told me about Jarred Salzwedel, a sports scientist from South Africa, and I started training in the sessions he had customized for me. Although we were working remotely, I had all the necessary equipment to train to a high level. Over time, the change in my physiology and thought process was evident, ”says Shiven.
His first challenge after adopting the new routine was the MTB Uttarakhand, a race where he did not finish among the top 15 Indian riders in 2018. In April 2019 he managed to finish third overall.
As he began to step onto the podium, it was clear that his efforts were paying off. At MTB Kerala in December 2019 – it was the first race in India on the annual calendar of the world cycling organization, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – it finished third in the international category and first among the Indians.
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Ten days away from the National Mountain Bike Championship in February 2020, he fell ill, but still clinched silver in the mass start and bronze in the individual time trial. All the riders start simultaneously in the mass start event; in the individual time trial, each rider starts separately, the rider who achieves the best time being declared the winner.
“What happened was that my basic fitness reached a whole new level. The principle remained the same – it’s just that the work I did increased slowly and steadily, this which improved my performance, “says Shiven, who was selected for the residential academy program.” That said, there is still a huge gap compared to international runners, “he adds, having represented the India at the Asian Mountain Bike Championships and South Asian Games.
Khariksing Adonis Tangpu first hit the trails at the National Mountain Bike Championship in Pune in 2018.
The challenges were different for 19-year-old Khariksing Adonis Tangpu. Tangpu set up an academy in his hometown, Mysuru, Karnataka, called Cycling My Sooru, and hosted a trainer, Nagaraj TV. But without access to the tracks, his training was limited to flat roads and gymnastic work. Her father paid for the training and equipment costs.
“When I went to my first national championships in Pune, I understood what the trails really are. Then, at the Asian Mountain Bike Championships in Lebanon, I realized what the international level was: very steep climbs and technical terrain. We usually have training camps before the big championships, but the year round program will give us regular access to such trails, ”said Tangpu.
In March last year, 10 runners from the academy were invited to report to Patiala for training camp, before the second wave of covid-19 infections interrupted their program. Shiven was impressed despite the brief stint. “I realized that there were so many resources that could be spent on a training program. Our team has been staffed with strength and conditioning experts, nutritionists and psychologists to work with. Numerous tests were carried out at the high performance center. It was the first time that something like this had happened for mountain biking in India, ”he says.
Based on his experience, Thakur was appointed program coach, with the possibility of pursuing his coaching cards with the UCI. A technician has been assigned to maintain equipment purchased for the program. 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 ability to develop our own coaches. So we want to do the same for mountain biking instead of hiring foreigners, ”Sharma explains. The idea is to train experienced mountain bikers like Thakur, allow them to attend UCI courses and eventually let them lead the program as a head coach.
In the field, the CFI hopes to deepen the pool of talent. In the future, Singh hopes to be able to open the academy to 50 juniors. Thakur is full of hope. “I’ve done a lot of riding around Shilaroo and Dharamshala. We will have to build trails but I know there is huge potential around these areas. It’s a big step for the next generation of mountain bike riders to be in one place and focus all of their energies on training. I am sure the results will follow in a few years.
Shail Desai is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.
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