A MODEL FOR KAYAKING

Manik Taneja (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A school to train aspirants, a shop to buy good quality gear, a festival that brings the best in the sport to India – this is a model to grow kayaking imagined from landlocked Bengaluru. It appears to have worked well.

“ In India, Bengaluru has the highest number of recreational kayakers,’’ Manik Taneja said.

Traditionally Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other places along the Himalaya, have dominated river rafting and kayaking in the country. Kayakers are more in these parts. They do kayaking for livelihood. Bengaluru in contrast, has a growing number of recreational kayakers pursuing the sport as hobby. Landlocked and located at the southern end of the Deccan plateau, some 2300 kilometers away from the Himalaya, the city is an unlikely magnet for the sport. The sea is a few hundred kilometers away and while rivers for kayaking take anywhere from four to six hours to access; none of them strike imagery in the head as grand as those from the north do. It was late August, 2018. We were at Manik’s house in Bengaluru. Aside from sporadic showers there was little in the city for sign of what monsoon had unleashed further to the south west. The floods of Kerala were just over 10 days old.

Anvesh and Sanjay of Expeditions India; from a multi-day trip on the Mahakali River (Photo: Dileep Marar)

Manik is among names you turn to for kayaking. Born in Dehradun, he grew up in Pune. During his school days, he was into sports and athletics; later he played hockey all the way up to league level. He graduated in computer science and took his masters abroad, in Amsterdam. Following his masters course, Manik went on a small bicycle tour in Ladakh. Soon after this, he did a three day rafting trip in Uttarakhand’s Alaknanda River. The latter, he did with the well-known adventure travel company, Aquaterra. The rafting trip was led by Anvesh Singh Thapa, an experienced river guide. The two became good friends. The trip was Manik’s first exposure to kayaking. Upon securing a job back in Pune, Manik drifted into work. Sports receded to being strictly recreational. However as disposable income rose, he got back to the outdoors. When Anvesh commenced his own river rafting company (Expeditions India), he asked Manik if he would like to sign up for a rafting trip. Instead, Manik asked him to teach him how to kayak. Anvesh put together a training program. Five people registered. Only Manik showed up. “ That’s how my journey in kayaking started,’’ he said. It wasn’t easy.

Kayakers compete at the 2014 Ganga Kayak Festival (Photo: Manik Taneja)

To the lay observer, kayaking seems simple. You sit in a boat and paddle. According to Manik, learning to kayak requires patience. For instance, the type of balancing kayaking demands is different from the regular type of balancing people are used to. For most people, the popular image of balancing is riding a bicycle. That is typically done on a flat, stable surface, at worst on surface where unevenness can be anticipated in advance. Unlike land, water is dynamic. A turbulent river – on which whitewater kayaking is done – is even more so. The closest a cyclist can come to whitewater kayaker’s predicament is in downhill biking, where the pace is fast and the going, constantly dynamic. If you wish to be a good kayaker you have to be mentally ready for dynamic medium. Then, there are the details – the techniques of the sport. “ For newcomer to kayaking, the scariest part is getting flipped upside down,’’ Manik said. Legs placed well into kayak and the chamber sealed, instinct is to use one’s free torso to get back up. It takes a while to understand that the roll is done applying momentum to the lower half of one’s body. Executing the roll properly is merely beginning. It takes longer to keep ones cool and be good at doing the roll in all circumstances – rapids included. “ You have to keep your wits about you. Women tend to do better at kayaking. Men try to power through everything. You have to contain panic, slow down your mind, remember the techniques you learnt and execute them,’’ Manik said. Within the world of water sports, Manik believes kayaking is more individualist than say, river rafting, which showcases team work. He finished the introductory program Anvesh designed but on return to Bengaluru found himself as high and dry in kayaking as the city itself was in South India’s geography. Every time Manik wanted to kayak in white water, he had to haul himself to Rishikesh via Delhi. It wasn’t an efficient situation to be in.

Manik, Jacopo and Sid at the 2017 Adidas Sickline, Oetz, Austria (Photo: Manik Taneja)

The mountains and rivers of North India are bigger than those of the south. Despite this, river rafting and kayaking had presence in pockets of South India. It was of modest scale. Naveen Shetty now runs a company in the adventure travel space. Originally a software engineer, he got hooked to kayaking after a couple of commercial river rafting trips in Karnataka. The connection he felt with this new experience was so strong that Naveen and his friends did not hesitate to buy inflatable kayaks, which they had to import. “ We invested in four or five kayaks, for ourselves and to also take anyone else interested, along,’’ Naveen said. Problem was – the potential for kayaking hadn’t been properly explored in South India. There were paddlers in Bengaluru; most of them frequented lakes in the vicinity of the city. Around this time – early 2008 – Sohan Pavuluri, having spent eight years in the US, picked up whitewater kayaking over there and since shifted to Bengaluru, was looking for a local community of kayakers. That put Naveen and him in the same boat. “ I came across this website called Dream Routes. It was operated by Sohan and while mostly dealing with activities like trekking, had a section meant for paddlers,’’ Naveen said. The two – and interested others – agreed to meet up at one of Bengaluru’s lakes. Thus was sown the seed for a group that sought to take Bengaluru’s kayaking beyond its lakes. “ There were five to six of us. Sohan had a proper whitewater kayak; the rest had duckies – inflatable kayaks,’’ Manik said. According to Sohan, over a period of time and after experimenting with a few names, the group came to be known as Southern River Runners (SRR). Paddling was largely seasonal; during the monsoon. In the rains, the rivers of the south swelled with water and for a few months as the water rushed from hills to the sea, select rivers became amenable for kayaking. Bengaluru’s kayakers traveled to Coorg and Chikmagalur in search of rapids. But there was a major problem. It was one that adventure sports earlier into India – like rock climbing – had faced. Pioneers have to navigate the rapids of social perception and judgement. When society is unfamiliar with any risky sport, it clamps down. Climbers saw this happen many times at various places in India before a degree of accommodation for their sport set in. It was the same for whitewater kayaking in South India. Unable to comprehend what the kayakers were up to in the fast flowing, upstream section of rivers, forest officials and sometimes local people, objected, Manik said. And when such objection was overcome, permission became next challenge. In most instances such permission in India has to be obtained from officials unfamiliar with adventure sports and the human instinct driving it. Eventually as accessing water bodies became difficult, Bengaluru’s fledgling community of kayakers realized that the only way out was to grow their community further and enlarge the overall kayaking ecosystem.

Goodwave kayaking classes on the Cauvery River (Photo: Manik Taneja)

At the time of writing Jacopo Nordera ran a vineyard in Italy. Back in the time Bengaluru’s kayakers discovered that they needed to grow their community to get the sport going, Jacopo was part of the group of paddlers Manik belonged to. Jacopo lived in Chennai and every time there was a kayak session planned out of Bengaluru, traveled in from Chennai to join. “ He was the most committed member of the group,’’ Manik said. The two kayakers joined hands and formed a business composed of two distinct halves – a kayak school (called GoodWave Adventures) to teach the sport and a kayak shop (called Madras Fun Tools [MFT]), from where local kayakers can buy good quality equipment. A good kayak can cost over a lakh (100,000) of rupees. Manik said that prices at MFT are better than overseas despite import duty for kayaks beings high and General Sales Tax (GST) pegged to highest bracket. “ We have to grow the market and so keep our margins thin,’’ he said. In tune with the overall niche market kayaking is in India, MFT is a small but profitable operation. “ It took us two years to sell the first container-load of boats. The second container, we sold all the boats in a year. Now we take 6-12 months to sell a container of boats,’’ Manik said. According to him, at least half of the total number of recreational kayakers in Bengaluru, own kayaks. Over time, the community around SRR grew. Those who had previously gone kayaking or formally learnt the sport joined the group. Resident expertise improved. “ Initially, everyone went to the same river. Now the group is mature enough to have different groups going to different rivers,’’ Manik said. In 2013, Manik and Jacopo did their instructor course in kayaking from Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in the US. As SRR, GoodWave and MFT slowly grew, a new project started taking shape in the mind. Bengaluru’s kayakers had seen the Ganga Kayak Festival in Uttarakhand. How about one in South India; and if so, where?  – That was the question.

The start of an enterprise; items from the first container load of kayak gear Madras Fun Tools imported (Photo: courtesy Manik Taneja)

Besides equipment cost, one of the major components of overall cost in kayaking is transport. You have to take boat and paddler to river and within that, to specific section of river. Since rapids are a product of water volume, gradient, nature of terrain inside a river and surrounding geography (how it channelizes flow of water), the home of rapids are not always close to urban centers typically located in the plains. You have to travel to meet rapids. An element of research to make sure the destination one is heading to is apt to kayak, is appreciated before spending on transport and access. Google Earth was a great resource for kayakers to get a fix on rivers suitable for whitewater kayaking along with the best sections of river therein. “ Among us, Jacopo was the one who was most active on Google Earth, scouting for engaging sections of rivers,’’ Naveen said. For two to three years, SRR confined its activities to the rivers of Karnataka. Then it started to explore Kerala. “ We were skeptical. But Jacopo pushed for it,’’ Naveen said. On India’s map, Kerala is long and thin. At its widest it is probably less than 150 kilometers but within such distance and less, offers landscape changing from seacoast to backwaters, rivers and hills. In terms of elevation this can range from sea level to 6000 feet plus (the highest point in Kerala’s hills is 8840 feet). It has 600 kilometers of seacoast and an equally long spine of high hills. The state is environmentally sensitive and if you take a bird’s eye view, short of space for the consumerist excess, which characterizes contemporary notion of success. Yet Kerala lived oblivious of its geography and environmental fragility.

Bird’s eyeview of Kerala; hills and rivers. This photo is an overview of the terrain around Kuttiyadi River in north Kerala (Photo: Goodwave Adventures)

The floods of August 2018 changed popular imagination of life and Kerala, at least temporarily. A remittance economy measuring human existence by capacity to afford and lost to the deep end of settled life, the monsoons of that year combined with the deluge caused by multiple dams opening their shutters at once, flattened rich and poor alike. Suddenly people noticed geography and nature, both of which had been pushed to the backdrop for long and were now returned to center-stage. Across the state, the aftermath of flood was time to reflect and as many feared – reflect briefly – for Kerala’s deep rooted affection for wealth and consumerism is a bigger flood that can be kept at bay only for so long. By late September 2018, aside from their banks still adorned with the debris they bore when flooded, neither Chalippuzha nor Iruvanjippuzha betrayed any sign of monsoon’s fury. “ The water level has dropped,’’ the driver of our autorickshaw said looking down from the bridge over the rocky Chalippuzha. A rather tame river flowed below. The only trace of white water kayaking around and an annual kayaking festival claimed to be among Asia’s best, was a house in Pulikayam rented by kayakers, where preparations were on to ship kayaks back to Uttarakhand, Bengaluru and wherever else they came from. This was GoodWave’s outpost in north Kerala, from where they ran a season of kayaking. The boats lay stacked in the courtyard of the house and inside the garage. Kayak season had ended in Pulikayam. It will return with the next rains; as would – hopefully – Sagar Gurung and Amit Thapa, river guides from the north. In the same room and chatting with Sagar and Amit, was Vishwas Radh from Balussery, a town roughly 30 kilometers away. Having kayaked regularly in the rivers near Pulikayam, he on the other hand, aspired for a taste of kayaking on the Ganga.

2015; kayakers training on the Chalippuzha River (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

The gateway to whitewater kayaking in north Kerala is the small town of Kodenchery, some 40 kilometers away from Kozhikode. It is agricultural country; not in the paddy field sort-of-way but in the manner of plantations and densely vegetated, green land holdings typical of the hills. Three bank branches situated close by in town would normally hint wealth by remittance. But the drivers of the autorickshaws we hired as well as Joby who ran that home of delicious Kerala food called Janata Hotel, assured, wealth in these parts is mostly agrarian. Hailing from Wayanad, he had been in Kodenchery for the past 17 years, initially toiling as a farm worker, then driving an autorickshaw and eventually running the hotel. Janata Hotel was classic Kerala; affordable and serving portions big enough to satiate one’s hunger. It was practical, functional ambiance. Style and glamor had no place in it. “ The restaurant has just begun stabilizing,’’ Joby said of the business. Kodenchery is not far from the ascent to the hill district of Wayanad. The hills on the edge of Wayanad and Kozhikode were visible from town. The most prominent landmark around was a large hotel – Tushara International. You wondered how something that big ended up here. Yet securing a room over the weekend was difficult. They had none to spare (it is usually not so; a special occasion like a wedding can take up rooms, kayakers familiar with Kodenchery said).

James Smith from UK practising at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Not far from Kodenchery’s main junction, at Pulikayam, is Chalippuzha. Further away is Iruvanjippuzha. The former is a tributary of the latter, which in turn feeds into the bigger Chaliyar River. The Chaliyar, close to where it met the Arabian Sea near Kozhikode, was host to Jellyfish Watersports, an enjoyable destination for paddlers into gentler, expansive waters. The first people to do whitewater kayaking near Kodenchery were Jacopo, Manik, Naveen and a few others from Bengaluru. Some aspects about the two Kerala rivers and Kodenchery attracted them. Between the two rivers and the sections on them selected for kayaking, they found a healthy balance of technical kayaking and voluminous water flow. The rivers of the Western Ghats maybe small compared to those of the north. But they have good gradient and as in the case of Chalippuzha, is rocky, requiring a degree of technical expertise to negotiate its stretches. With rapids ranging from Class 3 and below to Class 5, both amateur runs and pro runs could be hosted. Above all, after encountering suspicion and hostility in some of their previous river exploration trips, the group from Bengaluru was happy to see none of that attitude in Kodenchery. Naveen recalled the kayakers’ first visit to Kodenchery and the nearby rivers. “ Jacopo had done all the required scouting on Google Earth. The section of river we kayaked on wasn’t inside the forest. It ran through villages and as the kayaks navigated their way downstream, word quickly spread of what was going on. By the time we reached the bridge at Pulikayam there was a crowd of enthusiastic people gathered to witness the proceedings. We stayed at Tushara International. On the last day of our trip, a local journalist appeared and said someone wished to talk to us on the phone. It was the District Collector! He welcomed us to the state and offered support. That was a big difference compared to what we had encountered previously, elsewhere,’’ Naveen said.

Intermediate category race at the 2016 MRF (Photo: Neil D’souza)

Nistul, who hailed from Kodenchery, attributed the local support for kayaking to Kodenchery’s innate affection for sports. According to him, the region has produced district level swimmers and a clutch of physical education teachers. “ We were swimming in these rivers before kayaking reached Kodenchery. When we saw whitewater kayaking, more than anything else we became curious to learn it,’’ he said. Further, within Kerala, north Kerala has always been close to sports. The famous track athlete, P.T. Usha, hails from this part of the state (she is from the adjacent Kannur district). India’s first cricket club was founded in Thalassery and while cricket never really fascinated Malayalis, football has stayed much loved madness. There are many national level football players from north Kerala and during the FIFA World Cup, international football stars are portrayed on posters, wall paintings and the sides of transport buses. This is sport loving-country. Once they got a feel of the rivers, mapped out its stretches suited for kayaking and sensed the local community’s empathy for sport, Manik and others from Bengaluru knew they had found the venue for the kayak festival they sought. In otherwise quiet Kodenchery, the annual Malabar River Festival (MRF) seemed appreciated as a valuable revenue generator for the local economy. It brought international caliber kayakers, lovers of the sport and tourists to town. Several people we spoke to found it an engaging fixture. Tushara International serves as base camp for the festival. The house at Pulikayam rented by kayakers was known locally as Kayak House. Say so and autorickshaw drivers knew where to drop you off.

UK kayaker and film maker Joe Rea Dickens competes at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

MRF, which is now supported by local authorities and the state government, has carved a niche for itself. The event is well known in the global kayaking community; the sections of river it is based on are deemed world class for whitewater kayaking. Diligent and smart marketing aside, the event has merits founded within the sport. “ In India, this is probably one of the hardest courses. In the north, volume of water and its temperature make a difference. But in the Western Ghats, rivers are typically steep making for narrow passages and tighter maneuvers. Less water volume in these rivers also means that they are less forgiving; chances of physical injury are high,’’ Manik said. The event attracts some of the world’s best kayakers. Of greater interest is how over multiple editions of the festival, kayaking has sprouted roots in Kodenchery. There is now a small team of kayakers from the region, regularly paddling in the two rivers, competing in MRF (with podium positions earned in amateur category) and hoping to earn a name in India’s kayaking scene. Nistul and Kevin were among them. Other names included Nitin, Vishwas and Reshmi. About 18 people from the locality had initially trained in the sport, Kevin said. Ten of them continue to be active. Those this blog spoke to recognized Jacopo and Manik as their main teachers (Manik’s approach of holding down a regular job even as he pursued his passion of kayaking and managing a business, seemed preferred pattern for the trainees too; of the three we spoke to, at least two weren’t targeting full time kayaking). Training sessions with expert kayakers arriving to participate in MRF were bonus. Visiting kayakers and the group from Bengaluru have provided a few kayaks to these enthusiasts. But they had two constraints.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

First, the transport component in kayaking – the need to carry self and kayak to where the chosen section of river can be accessed – makes every outing expensive. You need a vehicle. You need money. There was talk of sponsors. But if they are not adequately self-aware and self-critical, sponsorship can be delusional sense of accomplishment for young athletes. Real sport is a long journey and the right ecosystem is one that keeps it so. How do you support athlete and yet keep the journey long and continuing? Second, given kayaking is seasonal experience in Kodenchery and the water level in the two rivers drops once rains recede, year-round training is not possible. When water level falls, paddling and practising of skills reduce to what is possible within the stretch afforded by a check dam at Pulikayam. Those committed to the sport, wished to spend time in the rivers of North India. Moving to northern rivers like the Ganga, when water levels fall in Chalippuzha and Iruvanjippuzha, appeared the right thing to do. It made sense from another angle too – a paddler’s repertoire of experience is based on the variety of waters he has tackled. You can’t be well rounded in the sport if all you know for experience are two rivers. Kodenchery’s kayakers have a long way to go.

Looking ahead, Manik hoped that more considerate import duty and tax structure would grace kayaking. He also wanted the sport to find greater acceptance and merit more towns hospitable to kayaking like Kodenchery. As yet even within Kerala, Kodenchery has proved an exception for some later river exploration trips in the state didn’t find the same popular support as extended at this settlement near the border of Kozhikode and Wayanad. But a model to spread kayaking, commenced from Bengaluru, has worked – training school, gear shop and community of those practicing the sport. The results encourage.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He visited Kodenchery during the fading portion of the 2018 kayak season and after the year’s MRF was over. He is yet to witness MRF and the region during the festival.)  

VEDANGI’S QUEST / AN INCIDENT IN SPAIN; RECOVERY AND RETURN TO JOURNEY

Vedangi Kulkarni (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

An incident in Spain unsettles the young Indian cyclist. Recovered from it and resolved to complete what she began, she is back on her project, circumnavigating the world on a bicycle.

Nineteen year-old Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, suffered an incident of mugging in Spain early October.

Recovering from the setback, she has since reached France and at the time of writing this report, was cycling there.

Her father Vivek Kulkarni, shared Vedangi’s description of what happened, with this blog.

According to it, on October 6, around 21.30-22.00 hours, somewhere around Guarena in Spain she was stopped by a couple of people on motorcycles. They had knives and while one of them took her hydration pack and started examining its contents, the other held her at knife-point. They took the money she had in her bag. Then they pushed her and her bike into “ what seemed like a ditch at the side of the road.’’ Vedangi went down head first and suffered a concussion.

She informed the police of the matter, including her recollection of how one of the assailants looked like. A few kind strangers, upon realizing what happened, later took her to a medical center; that’s how the concussion was discovered.  Vedangi has had to take it easy for a few days thereafter. But she has persisted with her solo circumnavigation project. “ Frankly, the incident had terrified me and I was inches away from giving up on the entire ride. But something in me didn’t just want to let go of everything I’ve built up so far and somewhere inside me I know that giving up and going home without finishing what I’ve started is never an option,’’ she wrote in the account, shared with India’s Ministry of External Affairs as well. Officials are aware of it.

At the time of scripting the description of the incident (she was in Spain then),  Vedangi was more than 17,500 kilometers into her circumnavigation trip and had already cycled across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. In the process, she crossed both the antipodal points advised under circumnavigation rules – the first was Auckland in New Zealand and the second, Madrid in Spain. Cycling in Spain was to be followed by passage through France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. “ I had reached the halfway point at 14,432 kilometers in 55 days,’’ she wrote, adding that her experience with people worldwide had been mostly “ extraordinary.’’ Before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell, cycling in Iceland. That didn’t go well. There were storms; there appears to have been a minor mishap on the road as well.

On the road, in France; foggy conditions (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

“ Given the incident (in Spain) and the concussion she suffered, she had to take it easy for some days. In that period her daily mileage fell. It is only now that she has managed to ramp it up again,’’ Vivek said.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

The record Vedangi originally wished to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 she cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

AMERICA, THE TRANS AM WAY

Nishanth Iyengar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Like Race Across America (RAAM), Trans Am too is a bicycle race across the United States. There are however some crucial differences. Trans Am is an unsupported race; cyclist has no support crew. Trans Am features no cut off time within which to finish. Those who wish to see it as a race, treat it so. Records are set and bettered. There are also those who cycle at their pace, leveraging the race and its course through small town USA to experience the country in a manner that is different from mainstream. Nishanth Iyengar from Bengaluru belonged to this second category. This article is about his journey to being a touring cyclist and eventual participation in 2018 Trans Am. 

“ I like seeing new places. I don’t like anything structured. It is very hard for me to work in a structured environment,’’ Nishanth Iyengar said. Between cyclist and freelance journalist, we seemed to have struck a healthy compromise. Writing’s eccentricities often gravitate towards the old and familiar; some place known that you can settle into and listen to a story or type out one. We were at Koshy’s in Bengaluru, as landmark as a restaurant can get anywhere. It was regular haunt for Nishanth and adequately lived in for old school scribe to feel comfortable. The conversation was however cyclist’s way – we sat inside the restaurant and whenever a smoke beckoned Nishanth, we shifted to the side of St Mark’s Road, sat on the building’s skirting and continued the conversation. I understood well when Nishanth said structured approach puts him off.

At Khardung La (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Born 1985, Nishanth grew up in Bengaluru, the only child of his parents. Following school education, he studied instrumentation technology and then proceeded to run a business for four years while pursuing a MBA alongside. For project work as part of studies, he worked on developing a marketing model for a circus that was then camped at Kanjirappally in Kerala. However in 2012, he ended up an hour short of required attendance at college and wasn’t allowed to sit for his exams. In regular Indian life with emphasis on exams and marks that would qualify to be a crisis. Nishanth on the other hand elected to remember a longstanding dream – he had always wanted to visit Nepal. Why not cycle in Nepal? – He wondered. Yet again, for most people that would be a project. Nishanth wasn’t a driven cyclist; he wasn’t the sort training diligently with objectives in mind. “ I can’t wake up early and ride 100 kilometers in a disciplined way,’’ he said. Similarly even though he liked to travel on his motorcycle, he rode with a group of motorcyclists just once. Traveling in a group wasn’t his scene. For Nishanth, motorcycle touring was an earlier fix than cycling; he had commenced riding long on his motorcycle in 2003. The bike was a 150cc Pulsar; he used bungee cords to keep his travel kit in place and did little homework before any trip. He based his approach on two beliefs. “ If somebody has done something, I know I too can do it. Second, I really, really like the unknown,’’ Nishanth said. On his motorcycle, Nishanth rode from Delhi to Leh; he also visited Rishikesh. It was on that trip that he used a tent for the first time. Now he was courting a different dimension of adventure. Two wheels still, but no engine; strain, slow moving and sensing universe.

From 2018 Trans Am (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

When the idea of cycling in Nepal assumed shape, he bought a MTB – a Bergamont VTOX 6.2. He took it with him to Kathmandu and cycled a few thousand kilometers in that country, eventually exiting Nepal and entering India at Gorakhpur. Significantly on this trip, except for accommodation in Kathmandu and Pokhra, he didn’t stay in a hotel anywhere. After his return from this trip, he completed his MBA. Then with some money made from the business he ran later, he decided to attempt something afresh in cycling. This time he thought of riding from Bengaluru to Leh and thereon to Uttarakhand. While the route of this trip had to be tweaked owing to floods in Uttarakhand, Nishanth learnt a few things about cycling. He realized that it is wise to avoid pedaling during the hot hours of afternoon spanning 1 PM to 4 PM. When he kept getting punctures continuously he found that he could manage with Indian tubes for replacement; solutions of this sort altered the imagery of high cost attached to touring. He also learnt to approach time and competition differently. “ The worst thing that can happen is that I lose time. That is okay with me. I tell myself that it’s okay not to reach the end. It takes away a lot of the pressure. As for competition, I really don’t care,’’ he said. Redefining perception of time and one’s sense of self within the compulsions of the human collective are crucial to appreciate journey. What these steps seem to have done for Nishanth is – make riding more enjoyable. “ I am happiest when I ride my bike,’’ Nishanth said. He began going on a cycle trip of 3-4 weeks every year. In 2015, he rode extensively in Tamil Nadu.

From 2018 Trans Am / campsite just outside Yellowstone (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

According to Wikipedia, the oldest known use of helmets is from 900 BC, by Assyrian soldiers. They used it as protective head gear during combat. Combat and competition are cousins separated by degrees of interpretation. Over the centuries, the helmet has evolved from protection used while fighting to protection advised for a range of sports and thereon, as daily life grew competitive and distracted with capacity for accident – as protection used during daily commute by two-wheeler. Notwithstanding laws, in India, the helmet has frequently divided riders into polarized camps. There are those who embrace it and those, who are averse to it. Nishanth belongs to the latter category. “ I dislike helmets. I was looking for a long distance ride that did not have a rule requiring compulsory use of helmet,’’ he said explaining his choice of Trans Am, the annual bike race across United States. Nishanth said, Trans Am advises use of helmet but does not make it mandatory. He had always wanted to cycle long distance in the US; this race appeared perfect.

From 2018 Trans Am / bedroom for the night (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Trans Am is an interesting event. It is similar to Race Across America (RAAM) in that it involves riding across the US. But unlike RAAM, wherein cyclist pedals with crew for support, Trans Am is unsupported or self-supported; there is no crew, cyclist is on his / her own. Further, unlike RAAM which is distinctly identified as a race, Trans Am is a race and not one depending on how one treats it. Records are set by those who treat it as a race. At the same time, there is no cut-off time, leaving others wishing to cycle across the US and experience the country at ground level, free to do so at their pace. This experiencing of the country is what Nishanth does on his bicycle tours. Typical of him, Nishanth kept his homework on Trans Am limited so as not to crowd out the pleasure of discovering with information overload on race and US. That would prove both good and bad. Among things he didn’t realize was that Trans Am is not a straight line across the US; it goes up and down collecting more miles than RAAM. Attempt Trans Am in 2017: that was his initial thought.

From 2018 Trans Am / with host Curtis at Darby (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Meanwhile on the work front, he had shut down the business he commenced. Following that, he joined Runners For Life (RFL), helping out in the sales department. During this tenure, he did a bunch of half marathons, a full marathon and also a 50km-run. After a year and a half at RFL, he joined Practo, a start-up that helps consumers locate doctors and healthcare information (at the time of writing Nishanth had moved from Practo to Proline India, a longstanding company in the sportswear and casual clothing space). Having toured within India on a bicycle and realized his affection for it, Nishanth had been on the lookout for a good touring bicycle. The model he had in mind was the Surly Long Haul Trucker. The choice was inspired in part by a couple of cyclists he met in Leh, who praised the model, particularly the combination of the bike with a Brooks saddle. Surly – it specializes in steel bicycles and frames – commands much respect in the community of cyclists into touring. The Minnesota based-company’s Long Haul Trucker model is often praised for its reliability and value for money spent. In 2015, roughly a year after Nishanth’s return from his last bicycle trip to Ladakh, he met a person in Bengaluru who wished to sell a Surly Long Haul Trucker. It was the old model with 26 inch wheels. The bike had a market price then of Rs 125,000. Nishanth got it for Rs 75,000 plus all associated gear the seller had acquired. “ Every opportunity I got to ride my bicycle, I availed it. I loved it,’’ Nishanth said. By now another transition was afoot. Although he began touring on a motorcycle, the bicycle and its simplicity won him over. “ I lost my mojo for motorcycle touring,’’ he said. In 2016, he cycled for a month in North East India. The following year, 2017, he got married and spent his honeymoon in Russia, including a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. That along with the couple’s shared affection for dogs – they adopted some as pets; it entails commitment – meant that Trans Am in 2017 was a non-starter. On the bright side, Nishanth’s wife understood his interest in Trans Am. In 2018 she said: go for it. She joined his friends in gifting critical pieces of gear and equipment to Nishanth. The need for a smoke beckoned. Outside Koshy’s, a gentle rain was on. Nishanth lit a cigarette. We sat perched on the building’s skirting; Bengaluru’s traffic in front, lively restaurant behind. Existence is one and a series of partitions at once. To journey is to shift between partitions, make them translucent and be aware of universe.

From 2018 Trans Am / with Don Harter (left); Grand Tetons in the backdrop (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

“ For registration, visa, tickets – all put together, I must have spent between 3000-3200 dollars. Additionally I would have spent around 2000 dollars for gear, food and accommodation,’’ Nishanth said of his journey to 2018 Trans Am. It was his first visit to the US. But he plunged into the task at hand. From Seattle, he cycled to Astoria, the starting point of Trans Am. For company he had a cyclist from Poland, also heading for Trans Am. In Astoria, Nishanth met Don Harter. His attempt of the 2018 Trans Am was Don’s retirement gift to himself. Nishanth and Don bonded; they decided to ride together. Given Trans Am provides participants with a digital map, “ riding together’’ does not mean being together all the time. You may be cycling considerably apart; you keep a lookout for each other and sometimes plan rendezvous points to decide on places to stay or camp. For efficiency, Nishanth also divided the race into two broad stages. Soon after he completed the ride through the colder sections of the race, he packed all his cold weather gear and couriered it to an address at the finish line. True the Appalachian mountain was still ahead but Nishanth reckoned it won’t be as cold as what he had already endured. The decision to send away what he did not need made his bicycle lighter. Trans Am proceeds from Astoria in Oregon to Yorktown in Virginia. Nishanth began cycling from Astoria on June 2, 2018. He reached the finish line in Yorktown on July 28. Towards the end, Nishanth admitted he felt some pressure. It had nothing to do with Trans Am. Although the race had no official cut-off time to meet, return tickets to India already booked meant a deadline by which Nishanth should wrap up his outing at Trans Am.

From 2018 Trans Am / entering Kansas (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Developed and mapped by Adventure Cycling Association, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail was the first bicycle touring route across the US. It was the route for Bikecentennial, a massive cycle tour organized in 1976. Bikecentennial was part of celebrations to pay tribute to the historical events leading to the creation of the US as an independent republic. Trans Am uses the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The route, which includes plenty of minor roads and bike paths, gives insight into small town America. Like most big races, Trans Am has its share of those who do not finish. From among those who completed the race in 2018, Nishanth was one of the last to reach Yorktown. That was eminently acceptable for the bicycle tourer from Bengaluru; speed was never part of his plan. Seeing the country – the real US – was the priority. I asked Nishanth how he managed to feel secure and comfortable in utterly new country, that too off the beaten track, for most Indians – both as tourists and resident in the US and chasing livelihood – typically cluster in American cities. “ Nobody did anything harmful to me. If you shut up and mind your own business, nobody troubles you. I talked to people as people,’’ Nishanth said. There is also another angle. Nishanth is usually lone tourer on bicycle; he has no group, no support crew and thereby no ecosystem of the familiar around to breed the ingredients for manufacturing prejudiced views and mental baggage. He takes each day as it comes. “ I live in utter poverty when I ride. Every day I have to look after myself. The need to look after myself gets me talking and engaging with world, makes me an explorer. Further, when you are poor, the universe opens up,’’ Nishanth said. Among the highlights of his trip was experiencing July 4 in small town USA. According to him, aside from the money he spent on race registration, airline tickets, visa, food, gear and accommodation away from race – figures mentioned earlier – his actual expense on accommodation during the race (June 2 – July 28) was 50 dollars and 50 cents. As for the Surly, it proved trustworthy steed. There were no breakdowns; not even a puncture during the 6800 kilometers covered.

From 2018 Trans Am / at the finish line in Yorktown (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Bengaluru had by now drifted into after office hours. Koshy’s was gathering more people and conversation. A motorcyclist dropped by at the table to congratulate Nishanth on Trans Am completed. We briefly discussed his proposed tour overseas on a motorcycle. It was a major undertaking and there were aspects he needed assistance going over. The feel of a conversation about motorcycle touring is very different from one about bicycle touring. In the former, steed and rider are not exactly one. Courtesy its engine, a motorcycle has capabilities of its own. Bicycle on the other hand is a lot like one of those prancing horses dancers get into at festivals. Steed is rider’s half; there is only you to commend, you to blame for performance. As the motorcyclist left, the conversation reverted to life on human powered wheels. Both of us were three cups of coffee-old. The vast majority of bikes used at Trans Am were road bikes, Nishanth said. They carry less but move fast. Looking ahead, he said he would like to invest in a new bicycle. A road bike makes no sense for he knows he is not the racing type. A cyclocross model perhaps? – That’s a thought. Nishanth’s future projects included a north-south ride in Europe, a ride around Australia and maybe a foray into riding with groups; the latter an attempt to see if it encourages the wife to take up cycling.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This blog encourages cyclists to wear helmets. As per news reports, 2018 Trans Am had its share of road accidents; one cyclist died while another was left seriously injured.)      

A LOSS / REMEMBERING THAKUR

Thakur (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of NOLS India and is being used here for representation purpose only)

This blog lost a good friend, the evening of October 16, 2018.

Thakur Singh, longstanding employee of NOLS India, passed away in a road accident in Ranikhet.

At the school, Thakur oversaw the maintenance of outdoor gear. Through the years, many batches of NOLS students and instructors have met him. He made sure that the gear and equipment, which every student expedition heading out to the field took with them, was in good condition. When they returned from the field, he made sure that all that was loaned from the gear room was accounted for, cleaned and maintained for use by expeditions to follow.

More important, as one of the senior hands around, he worked across functions in the early years of the school and saw it grow. His quiet nature concealed the experience he had gathered in his line of work. He was an asset to the school and a big help to outdoor enthusiasts – NOLS alumni and otherwise – who dropped by. You had a tent, jacket, sleeping bag, backpack, trekking poles, stove, boots, rope; any gear that required care and attention – you turned to Thakur for advice.

Mainly due to his commitments at home, Thakur rarely ventured into the outdoors, as in on a hike or trek. He typically kept a daily schedule that shuttled between work and home. Several years ago, I had the good fortune of hiking to Khati (in the Pindari valley) with him, camping there and returning the next day after attending a colleague’s wedding. He was a happy soul on that trip although he kept worrying whether we would get back to Ranikhet in time. It was only his second visit to the Pindari valley.

Thakur mostly stuck to the NOLS India base in Ranikhet, attending to his work and being Man Friday to anyone requiring assistance. He was quintessential person in the background; someone whose value you wake up to, only when he is gone. As I write this, I realize, I don’t have his photo.

Thakur will be deeply missed. He leaves behind parents, wife and three children. He was sole bread-winner of his family.

Our trip to Khati became material for a story on a road. Published in 2013, it was among the early lot of stories featured on this blog. Please click on this link to access that article: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/23/about-a-road/

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

SWEET RUN CHICAGO

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal; blue vest (Photo: courtesy Vijayaraghavan Venugopal)

The 2018 Chicago Marathon happened on October 7. Part of the World Marathon Majors, it is the fourth largest race by number of finishers worldwide. This year’s edition was won by Mo Farah of Great Britain. He finished the full marathon in 2:05:11, a new European record. It was Farah’s first victory in the discipline. Among women, the winner was Brigid Kosgei of Kenya who covered the distance in 2:18:35. The Chicago Marathon is known for its cheering with spectators lining the street and encouraging runners on. Despite windy conditions and rain, this year too, the cheering stayed strong. We spoke to some of the amateur runners from India who participated in the 2018 Chicago Marathon.

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal

For the last three years I have been attempting full marathons at international destinations, including the World Majors.

Chicago Marathon has the option of direct entry on the strength of timing. I had applied and secured entry to this event known for its flat route. World records were set here until Berlin Marathon came into the picture. Chicago Marathon’s route entails more turns compared to that of Berlin. The weather is also an issue. Chicago is known to be a windy city and is prone to temperature fluctuations.

My run went off very well and I ended up with a sub-three timing of 2:57:11 hours. This is my second fastest timing. My fastest so far is 2:55 hours set in Berlin in 2016.

At Chicago, it was quite chilly with temperature around 10-12 degrees Celsius. It was windy and there was rain. For those of us coming in from warmer countries like India, Chicago’s weather can be challenging. Thankfully, I had appropriate clothing including head gear and gloves. I made sure that I did not get wet till the start of the race.

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal (Photo: courtesy Vijayaraghavan Venugopal)

Chicago Marathon has awesome cheering with some 1.7 to 2 million people lining the streets all through the 42 kilometer-route.  It is truly a city marathon as the course passes through the heart of the city.

I landed in Chicago on Monday, first day of race week, to avoid the lingering tiredness of travel and jet-lag.

Broadly speaking, my goal in timing was to run a comfortable sub-three hour marathon. The cold conditions during the race were okay but rain was a dampener. If it hadn’t rained I could have chopped off a couple of minutes from my timing. I ran quite well for 35 kilometers but slowed down during the last seven kilometers.

I would like to focus on the full marathon for the next couple of years. It is important therein to keep fit and stay injury-free so that I can continue running sub-three marathons. I hope to do New York City Marathon in 2019.

In the meanwhile, I will also do shorter distances such as 25 kilometers, half marathons and 10 kilometers. Running shorter distances at a faster pace helps in running marathons.

So far, I have done five marathons in a timing of under three hours – Boston Marathon, Paris Marathon, Berlin Marathon, Mumbai Marathon and now Chicago Marathon. Each marathon poses a new challenge. Also, training for marathons takes up three to five months. Staying injury free is key.

(For more on Vijayaraghavan Venugopal please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/06/08/maintaining-sub-three/)

Rajesh Nambisan (Photo: courtesy Rajesh Nambisan)

Rajesh Nambisan

I have been running for the past seven years. Chicago Marathon was one of my best runs.

For me, the race went as per plan. I had trained for the preceding nine months. I recorded my personal best of 4:25 hours with more or less equal splits – the first half in 2:11 hours and the second in 2:14. It was one of those runs where I felt strong throughout the race and did not hit a wall after 30 kilometers.

I was a bit apprehensive a day before the race when it was predicted that it may rain at the start. But the weather was cool throughout and though it did rain heavily midway during the race, the body was sufficiently warmed up and in rhythm.

This run at Chicago Marathon was part of a plan to complete all the World Majors. I have now completed three out of six; New York in 2016, Berlin in 2017 and Chicago in 2018. I will be doing the London Marathon in April 2019.  I do not have any plans to do Chicago again in the near future.

Chicago is the second largest marathon in the US with approximately 40,000 runners. New York has around 55,000.  It is mostly a flat course.

More than a million spectators line the streets throughout the course to cheer the runners. The atmosphere is electrifying. I would highly recommend the Berlin and Chicago marathons to runners seeking a go at their personal best.

Although I have been running for the past seven years, I never trained seriously for any of my races. I started running in 2011 with my office colleague Sandeep Parab. We quickly graduated from running half marathons to full marathons and were always on the lookout to run races wherever our office work took us. Visit and explore a new country and run a full marathon – that became a theme.

In three years we ran full marathons in five continents – Asia (Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Dubai, Singapore), Europe (Salzburg, Prague), Australia (Melbourne), South Africa (Cape Town), North America (San Francisco) and finally on February 20, 2015, we achieved our dream of running a full marathon on all the seven continents. We finished the quest with Punta Arenas in Chile (South America) and the White Continent Marathon in King George Island, Antarctica.

I also ran the Texas Metalsaw Marathon, Houston in the US, IDBI New Delhi Marathon, Tata Ultra Marathon (50K) and Comrades in South Africa. We were running for the sheer love of running without looking at our timing. Also there was no emphasis on speed training, strength training gym workouts etc.

From December 2017, I joined Life Pacers and began a structured training program under the guidance of Dr Pravin Gaikwad, Dnyaneshwar (Don) Tidke and Panada. This training has helped. The result was visible in my personal best at the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon and 2018 Chicago Marathon. I was also able to complete my first Comrades Marathon of 90 kilometers in June 2018.

I plan to run the London Marathon in April 2019 and Comrades Marathon for the second year in a row in June 2019.

Manjunath Bhat (Photo: courtesy Manjunath Bhat)

Manjunath Bhat

I am amazed when an entire city gets its stuff right to organize a race.

Be it Chicago Marathon or Mumbai Marathon I always get goosebumps at the start line thinking about all the people who had to come together to put an event of such scale together.

I was happy to see that the streets of Chicago were filled with people supporting runners from around the world. I saw people with the Indian flag at two different places. People were cheering all along the way.

This has been a perfect race for me in terms of my performance, training, support etc. The aid stations were well-stocked and placed at just the right interval.

I did better than my expectation. My training was for a 3:59 but I ended up with a 3:52:54. External factors might have affected (improved my performance) a bit. I had not planned for a cold and wet morning. Hence I had not packed enough dry clothes when I was heading to the start line. I have never run a race with so many runners racing the full marathon. So I had to wade through runners till the finish line.

I did not know about the World Majors before I registered for Chicago a year ago. I knew that I would be in Chicago during the month of the marathon and decided to give it a try. Given a chance, I would love to do it again.

I felt this was one of the best races I have run. Including the pre-race expo, the baggage counters, the starting corrals, the route and crowd support – everything was well planned and well executed.

I would say this is a must run race for any runner.

I started running in 2011. I have participated in Kaveri Trail Marathon, Mumbai Marathon, Bengaluru Marathon and Philadelphia Marathon among others. I plan to apply for the 2019 Berlin marathon. I wouldn’t be disappointed if I don’t get in.

I run one race every year to have a timing certificate and to see where I stand. So I would definitely be running a local race if not a major one.

Poonam Bhatia (Photo: courtesy Poonam Bhatia)

Poonam Bhatia

I started running six years ago at the age of 44. I have run many 10 kilometer runs, half marathons and full marathons. I also ran three ultras.

Doing World Majors was never on my mind, but I registered for Chicago while training for Comrades this February; I was getting a bib.

I started training in August and had just two months to prepare for the race. I had heard that it’s a very good race with good weather and flat course.

I thought I would train to whatever level I can as per my capability in the two months I had and just go and enjoy my first major. Though I was a little apprehensive about running in a crowd of close to 50,000 runners and in a slightly cold and rainy ambiance on race day, it turned out to be a fantastic experience for me. I ended up with a personal best.

All arrangements right from the bib collection to getting to the start line, to aid stations on the course, to crowd support, to crossing the finish line and collecting our medals and refreshment bags – everything was superb. All arrangements were made keeping runners as the first priority and to make them feel special. The race T-shirt and the medal are very good.

Even three days after the race, people congratulated any runner they came across on the streets wearing the race T-shirt or medals. This was such a fabulous experience for me that now I am tempted to run all the six World Majors.

Some of the major events I have participated in are Ladakh Marathon, Run the Rann, two Comrades Marathons back to back in 2017 and 2018 and Tata Ultra Lonavala. The latest one was Chicago Marathon.

Well for now its recovery time. I will soon be back to training to get ready for the Tata Mumbai Marathon and then Two Oceans in April 2019 in South Africa.

Ramani Brahma (Photo: courtesy Ramani Brahma)

Ramani Brahma

The race was really good and unlike any marathon in India the crowd support was wonderful right from the first kilometer to the finish line. You could not have asked for anything more.

Weather was good maybe a bit cold but I had no complaints. It also rained for a while.

I entered this race because my daughter lives in Chicago. Of course, this was one of the races in my bucket list.

As regards timing it was below my expectation. I had to take a break and that led to the poor timing. The first half of the run was as per plan.

Overall I enjoyed the run. It was a different experience to see tens of thousands of runners running non-stop.

Next on the cards is Comrades Marathon. But that will be considered only when I improve my timing. I have been running for 15 years now.

Dhiraj Dedhia (Photo: courtesy Dhiraj Dedhia)

Dhiraj Dedhia

I ran the Chicago Marathon just two weeks after the Atlantic City Half Ironman.

It more than compensated for the disappointment I experienced at Atlantic City where unfortunately I had a DNF (Did Not Finish). During the cycling segment I missed the third loop and found myself exiting the cycling course without completing the distance. Nevertheless, I continued and finished the running leg of the triathlon.

Two weeks later at Chicago I had an excellent run.

At Chicago I ended up with a personal best of 4:20:29 hours, shaving off 16 minutes from my previous personal best.

Weather was really good.

It was an awesome experience with much cheering.

My next event is a half Ironman distance triathlon at Kolhapur.

That will be followed by a full marathon at the Ahmedabad Marathon in November.

Chitra Nadkarni (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

Chitra Nadkarni

Chicago was a wonderful experience.

It was my fourth World Marathon Major.

When I landed in Chicago the weather was warm. But gradually it changed and it was for the better. On race day the weather was cold and rainy; there was intermittent rain throughout the run.

I had struggled with my earlier runs in London and New Zealand. Hence my coach Suchita and I worked hard on hip opening and lot of exercising of the legs. I put in much effort like taking care of food, exercise, rest, mileage.

Chicago marathon was a beautiful experience. There were so many volunteers. There was plenty of water and Gatorade. The crowd support was tremendous and the cheering, loud. The route was beautiful. There were so many runners. There was never a moment when I was running alone and never a moment when I felt I should walk or stop.

I missed my family a lot when I finished the race. It’s because of the support from my husband and daughter that I am able to do all these races.

I would truly love to do Chicago and Berlin again because they made me feel good about myself. I would love to do London again because I am sad about the result I got and given I love the city, I would like to do justice to my run.

I will be running New York in November.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

FROM A CAFÉ IN BENGALURU: DREAMING A WORLD CLASS BICYCLE RACING TEAM

Venkatesh Shivarama (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It is not always that a chat over coffee delves into why there isn’t as yet a world class cycling team from India. True we are a long way from having cyclists of the caliber that make it to the world’s elite races. But surely when India is described as an economy on the ascent, the capital can be found to assemble a team with infrastructure to support; hang in there, learn from the experience and slowly but steadily inch towards cutting edge performance? Venkatesh Shivarama believes he would be able do this, given the opportunity. The idea is not far fetched. Early October 2018, news appeared of plans to create a top notch cycling team from China. Problem so far in India is – nobody with capital seems genuinely interested to attempt something similar.

In Bengaluru’s cycling scene, Venkatesh Shivarama is well known.

Born 1969, he grew up in the city. The family hailed from Mangalore and his father ran a restaurant. One of six siblings, Venkatesh dropped out of college soon after his first year of studies. Sometime in late school / early college he developed a fancy for cycling; he went everywhere he had to in the city on a bike. Those were the days of Indian economy yet to be opened up. In the secure shade of protected market, a few bicycle manufacturers churned out limited models of bicycles in large numbers. It was a manufacturer-led market. Within cycling, models addressing the need to commute and carry load as part of livelihood, dominated. Bicycle racing was a niche sport and indigenously made road bikes were few.

In 1989, Venkatesh bought a BSA Mach 1, a road bike made by the Chennai based-TI Cycles, one of India’s leading bicycle manufacturers. “ I wanted to do racing. That’s why I bought that bike,’’ he said, sipping coffee at a café on Bengaluru’s MG Road. It was August 2018, a late afternoon. Among Indian cities, Bengaluru is one of the locations that enjoyed an early fancy for bicycle racing. Until some years ago when it was revamped to host an edition of the National Games, Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium used to have a cycling track. The city had both types of races – track and road. Back in the late 1980s, when Venkatesh aspired to be a racer, some of these races were still around. But the glory days of this initial phase of racing were already over. MG Road, where we sat chatting, had been among venues for the city’s early crop of bicycle races.

According to Prem Koshy, whose family owns the iconic Koshy’s restaurant near the intersection of St Mark’s Road and MG Road, these races had their best days in the 1970s. The office of Deccan Herald newspaper, on MG Road, was often starting point. Races were held in several distance categories. These events were proving ground for Bengaluru’s cycling enthusiasts till one day – according to Prem – three cyclists from Bijapur turned up to participate. While the city’s racers reported with road bikes for the event, the Bijapur trio had India’s mass produced steel roadsters; furthermore, the ones they brought along were meant for carrying load and built heavy for the purpose. How will you race on these heavy iron steeds? Many thought they stood no chance racing on those bikes. But it was the cyclists from Bengaluru who bit the dust that day. “ It was a humbling experience,’’ Prem recalled. The Bijapur riders returned for subsequent editions of these races cementing their reputation as strong cyclists.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Bengaluru lost its cycling track when Kanteerava Stadium was revamped. But the confluence of industry, well-travelled residents who had witnessed the ascent of sports elsewhere and growing levels of spending meant that Bengaluru remained one of the hubs of Indian cycling. Today, within the overall parameters and scales of the Indian bicycle market, it is home to sizable sales of performance bicycles, has a calendar of bicycle races and a community of dedicated cyclists. All this is arguably the second phase of bicycle racing in the city. “At the time I started racing, there were hardly ten really good cyclists in Bengaluru,’’ Venkatesh said. On his part, he persisted and eventually became part of the Karnataka state cycling team. Practice sessions were held on the track at Kanteerava Stadium. According to Venkatesh, despite the cycling track, Karnataka those days wasn’t strong in track races. “ We secured some medals in road events,’’ he said. Nevertheless when the track was demolished as part of revamping the stadium, Bengaluru’s bicycle racing came to a halt. It went into a hiatus of seven to eight years, Venkatesh said.

What revived races was the Internet. Chat rooms and fora where cyclists hung out had emerged in cyberspace. Venkatesh credited Rajesh Nair for posing the question that brought the culture of events around cycling, back: why not have a bicycle tour in South India? The suggestion fetched support from other cyclists; among them – Venkatesh, Ravi Ranjan, Sriram and Deepak Majipatel. Rajesh Nair provided a name for the proposed event: Tour of Nilgiris. “ We planned to do the tour with ten riders,’’ Venkatesh said. But when the idea was made public, roughly 100 riders showed interest. For the first edition of Tour of Nilgiris some 50 cyclists turned up to participate. The route spanning approximately 900 kilometers ran from Bengaluru to Mysore, Madikeri, Sultan Bathery, Ooty and back to Bengaluru. The event – it now happens every December – sparked a revival in Bengaluru’s cycling scene. For the first four to five years, the event wasn’t a race; it stayed a ride. “ It is still not wholly a race. Only some stages are kept as races. Otherwise, it has been retained as a touring event,’’ Venkatesh, who continues to be associated with Tour of Nilgiris, said. In 2018 December, Venkatesh will participate in the event again after a gap of ten years.

From BBCH (Photo: courtesy Venkatesh Shivarama)

The genesis of Tour of Nilgiris – as in the posting of the idea and early discussions around it – happened on an Internet forum called Bike Zone. After Tour of Nilgiris materialized, the question floated: why not actual racing? It was Bike Zone again that played host to the next gear shift in Bengaluru’s cycling scene – the move to restart bicycle racing. Consequently around 2008 the first time trial event under the auspices of Bangalore Bicycle Championships (BBCH) started. The first edition of BBCH had only time trial. Since then, it has evolved much. At present BBCH straddles time trial, team time trial, cross country, criterium and climbing Bengaluru’s well known Nandi Hills. It encompasses both road bike and mountain bike segments; there are five sub events for each category. With the exception of December and January, it is a near full calendar of events. There is a BBCH event on the third Sunday of every month. In life, when you do one thing, a potential next unfolds. Once BBCH started, the next logical thought was – how about making a bicycle racing team? The first team Venkatesh commenced was Bangalore Cycling Club (BCC). Besides racing locally, the team raced at events in Thailand and Singapore. These overseas locations were chosen for their proximity to India; they also had a good cycling scene. In a continuation of Bengaluru’s discovery of Bijapur’s competence in cycling in the 1970s, most of the BCC team members hailed from Bijapur. “ For decades in southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, wrestling and cycling have enjoyed popularity,’’ Venkatesh said explaining the background. Exciting as it is for Indian cycling to have a racing calendar, that didn’t go down well with the administrators of cycling in the country. According to Venkatesh, they didn’t warm up to these initiatives by the cycling community. On the other hand, cyclists turning up for some of these races risked incurring the displeasure of sport administrators. “ That is unfortunate,’’ Venkatesh, whose focus is cycling and not its ownership, said.

In 2007, when the first flush of revival in Bengaluru’s cycling scene was afoot, Venkatesh commenced the business he is currently identified with – the bike shop Wheelsports. Two factors contributed to starting this enterprise. In the preceding years, Venkatesh had been associated with the Karnataka state cycling team and the Indian Army’s cycling team. Having traded academic pursuits for focus on cycling, he evolved into something of a local authority on the subject, both in terms of knowledge about the world of cycling and great deal of acquaintance with the machine at the heart of it all – the bicycle. “ I was considered a good mechanic,’’ Venkatesh said. It seemed practical to capitalize on these strengths. At the time Wheelsports started functioning, there were only two major foreign bicycle brands sold in India – Trek and Merida. Venkatesh began selling Merida. As the local market grew, he graduated to being India distributor for KHS. As of 2018, he was distributing Polygon (an Indonesian bicycle brand) and still selling Merida. Wheelsports is also “ neutral service provider’’ at bicycle races in India. “ Any visiting cycling team can get in touch with us to get technical support. We provide it to all,’’ Venkatesh said. This line of business fluctuates with the frequency and volume of such races in India. Unfortunately, the country does not have many big label races.

From a trip to the US for Race Across America (RAAM). Second from left – Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath, the first Indian to complete RAAM solo; third from left – Venkatesh (Photo: courtesy Venkatesh Shivarama)

A good bicycle technician is sought after by those heading to participate in demanding races overseas. One of the friends Venkatesh picked up in Bengaluru’s bike circles was Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. When Srinivas decided to attempt Race Across America (RAAM), he asked Venkatesh to go along as mechanic. The first attempt – in 2016 – ended up a learning experience for cyclist and crew; Srinivas couldn’t complete the race. In his second attempt in 2017, the army officer became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo. For 2018 RAAM, Venkatesh was slated to be part of the crew for Goa based-cyclist Sundaram. Unfortunately, Sundaram had to withdraw from the race just days before its start following an accident in San Diego while out training. The RAAM experience rubbed off on Venkatesh. Having come up through racing, he wasn’t exactly a fan of distance cycling. But longstanding association with Tour of Nilgiris and multiple visits to RAAM gradually changed that. It isn’t just Venkatesh; the Indian cycling environment too has developed curiosity for distance cycling. “ I don’t find such growing interest in endurance cycling, in other countries,’’ Venkatesh said. According to him, one reason for this Indian phenomenon could be that racing and disciplines like time trial require focused approach and much discipline. That is a tough demand to meet in the sort of everyday work environment Indians have come to live in. Long distance cycling on the other hand is comparatively kinder as journey embarked upon. Intrigued by long distance cycling, Venkatesh has decided to try Race Across West (RAW) – a shorter race within RAAM – in 2019. His first attempt to qualify – it was the 2018 Shivalik Signature, a RAAM qualifier held in India – ended up Did Not Finish (DNF). He was not fully fit having been hospitalized ahead of race for a stomach infection. But once recovered, he began participating in brevets and did rides spanning 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers. He became a super randonneur. At the time I met him, Venkatesh was hoping to attempt a 1000 kilometer-brevet. More importantly, once he completed the 400 kilometer-brevet, thoughts of RAW resurfaced. So for 2019, two projects were playing on his mind – attempting Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) and attempting RAW; for the latter, he would need to do a qualifier afresh.

However, what has got Venkatesh weaving designs for Indian cycling is his association with racing teams. After BCC arrived on the scene the spotlight shifted in due course to a new entity – Kynkyny Wheelsports; so named after outfits started separately by Vivek Radhakrishnan and Venkatesh. “ Kynkyny Wheelsports was a successful team,’’ Venkatesh said. When American bicycle major Specialized entered the Indian market, it did something no other foreign brand till then had thought of attempting in the country’s bicycle market – it partnered Kynkyny to form an Indian bicycle racing team. According to Venkatesh, he then started a distinct Wheelsports team. “ I used to spend Rs 30,000 to 40,000 per race per month,’’ he said. The Wheelsports team still exists; it participates in small races. One result of all these initiatives is that Bengaluru has quite a few racing teams now. Besides Wheelsports, there are names like Spectrum (reputed to be a strong team), Life Behind Bars (LBB) and Team Veloscope. When you have seen so much bicycle racing and helped form racing teams, curiosity pushes new boundaries.

Photo: courtesy Venkatesh Shivarama

Not far from where we sat talking on Bengaluru’s MG Road, was UB Towers, built by millionaire businessman Vijay Mallya, since mired in controversy and living in the UK, from where India had sought his extradition over charges of non-repayment of loans. Mallya’s downfall has been linked to his failed airline – Kingfisher Airlines, the entity for which those sizable borrowings were made. Amid the mess he landed himself in, fans of motor sports however remember Mallya for a noteworthy achievement – he strengthened India’s presence in Formula One, founding and operating Force India till it was sold off in the wake of his larger financial woes. This car racing team was unique in several aspects. In motor sports, after Narain Karthikeyan’s ascent in car racing all the way to Formula One, Force India was the next big Indian story. Working on a budget that was quite modest compared to other Formula One teams, Force India nevertheless did well for itself on the performance ladder. An afternoon in Mumbai, I met Hormazd Sorabjee, Editor, Autocar India to get some insight into Force India and Mallya’s level of involvement with the team. “ He was very passionate about the sport. He bought the old Spyker team to get a toe hold in Formula One. He wasn’t merely promoter; he was very involved. Short on resources he often used his charm to swing things. At no point did Mallya have a lot of cash to spend on the team. It is said that you need 400-500 million dollars to operate a good Formula One team. Force India managed with less and produced creditable results. Getting an Indian to drive for Force India was one of the long term goals of the project,’’ Hormazd said. At the time of this conversation, news of Force India’s sale was still fresh. Creating and managing a top notch bicycle racing team with sizable pool of talented riders to pick from, adequate world class equipment for all and calendar of events to stay engaged in – is a big task in its own way. At the café in Bengaluru, Venkatesh wondered why Indian cycling hadn’t encountered anyone like Mallya to pitchfork it to a higher level. To be precise, he wanted someone from the country to dare formation of a new team at an elite event like Tour de France.

One big difference between the context of Force India’s debut in Formula One and the present stage (2018) in Indian cycling is that the latter is yet to produce the equivalent of a Narain Karthikeyan. An Indian driving in Formula One must have helped set the tone for what followed – a car racing team with India in its name. Venkatesh didn’t seem discouraged by this. He knew Indian cyclists have much catching up to do with their counterparts elsewhere. In fact, efforts are afoot; cyclists have begun rising to the challenge. Some have begun participating every year in races in Europe. But the point is – in as much as there is catching up to do in the performance department in cycling, the Indian economy has grown in size to be among the world’s biggest with companies alongside that have capital to spare for sports if they are inclined to. And as Venkatesh said, if you want to create a team, then you should focus on doing so by any means and not be bogged down by where the domestic market is in terms of state of cycling. You have to imagine that you are creating an elite performance ecosystem; a sort of magnet for all else and remain committed to it. Venkatesh admitted that he was yet to see such interest from India’s big bicycle manufacturers. They continue to stay focused on the volume market, imagining from it, less away from it. On the other hand, given the capital around in India, it should be possible to find sponsors and assemble the ingredients for a team, provided somebody is interested. In a sort of Force India approach based on low budget and working out the best models one can with it, Venkatesh felt that the team’s riders could be drawn from Asian countries currently ahead of India in bicycle racing. While these cyclists become the main riders in the initial phase, select Indian riders can be groomed alongside (as part of the team’s larger program) in the hope that after some years they would be good enough to make the cut.

Photo: courtesy Venkatesh Shivarama

As regards top notch performance bicycles for the team – Venkatesh pointed to the fact that ambitious bicycle manufacturers have in the past groomed teams at elite races, using cycles they got made at select, boutique manufacturers and subsequently badged as their own. Such outsourcing for competitive situations is inevitable in environments where critical technologies for racing and required manufacturing skills or workmanship are hard to come by. Domestic manufacturing is seen as catching up in due course, once the pioneering work is managed by other means. The thing to accept is – performance at tough races and volume sales in mainstream market are two entirely different things. When you chase the former, it is very unlikely that you will make immediate sense to the latter. Those contributing capital to build an elite bicycle racing team have to understand this, not to mention – be patient, for results take time to manifest. It is a long ride. Venkatesh was searching for a sponsor who would be willing to accept this and take on the challenge of building a world class bicycle racing team.

Ambitious as it may seem,Venkatesh’s dream is actually of modest dimension compared to moves afoot in the world of bicycle racing. On October 8, 2018, the website cyclingweekly.com reported that a new Chinese team, backed by sizable funding, planned to debut the country’s first top tier cycling team in 2020 and produce China’s first winner of Tour de France by 2025.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Venkatesh Shivarama.)        

TWO BIRDS, ONE FOOTBALL

At Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Arpit Nayak)

Kolkata is India’s football capital. Late September 2018, Legends of Mohun Bagan AC and FC Barcelona engaged in a crowd and brand-pleasing face-off. Bulbul Rajagopal was there at the stadium in Kolkata. She sent in this article about the sentiment behind a clash of legends. There is sport and there is what you can do with sport. Two birds; one football…..

By the time Jofre Mateu netted the sixth and final goal for FC Barcelona in the second half of stoppage time, sealing absolute victory for his team, the stands of Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium were already singing a different story. The throng of 25000 had risen to their feet, chanting: Mohun Bagan, in the manner of a fevered anthem. On the night of September 28, the legends of Mohun Bagan faced tremendous defeat – 6-0 – at the hands of their rivals; that too, on home ground. But in the city’s eyes they had won by dint of spirit.

To the average Calcuttan, 2018 has been quite the year for football. Much like the city’s revered Durga Puja and the lead up to it, what had kept fans’ blood pumping was the countdown to the FIFA World Cup. Midway through its proceedings, Football Next Foundation struck while the iron was still hot. Towards the end of June, Kolkata was treated to the announcement of a tussle between the legends of Mohun Bagan Football Club and FC Barcelona. From a pool of 51 former players, 30 were selected to play and wear the jersey on match day. Mohun Bagan is India’s oldest football club and among its most respected. It is also one of Asia’s oldest football clubs and in Kolkata, the club traditionally favored by the social group of Bengalis native to West Bengal since the partition of India. The reasons for staging a match between legends from the Indian and Spanish clubs were several. Needless to say, football as market was one of the leading thoughts. Kaushik Moulik, the founder of Football Next Foundation believes football is a tool that can bump up brand and engagement value. “ Few in the western world know that India is a force to be reckoned with in football; fewer still know of its untapped marketing potential,’’ he said. One of Moulik’s prime concerns was that in spite of steady clamoring for the promotion of heritage, “ no one is really doing anything about it to further the cause. This is where Football Next stepped in.’’

Asked if football was being showcased in the light of cricket being generally more favored in India, Moulik was quick to state that football has always ruled the roost. “ In the corporate sector, it is football that is played by most employees. It builds teams and character,’’ he said. With the Barca-Mohun Bagan match, his organization wanted to send across the message that football can not only be viewed and played in the Indian market, but it is also relevant to shaping social development and business opportunity. Barca Legends were no stranger to this line of thought. The Legends initiative was set up to promote the global image of FC Barcelona and to help its players earn livelihood after retirement. Moulik justified the choice of pitting the local team against the Spanish giants on grounds of popular appeal. “ Barcelona has always featured in the group of names that crop up when you think ‘football’. Besides profit, this choice was made because it was governed by people’s tastes,’’ he said. The match was not a venture of Football Next alone. A partner in the scheme was real estate brand – Merlin Group. Their involvement concerned development of sports infrastructure in the city. “ We want to bring out hidden sports talent from the lower strata of society and into the limelight,’’ said Merlin’s Joint Managing Director, Saket Mohta. Amid corporate influence, philanthropy also featured as a cause. All proceeds of the match – with tickets ranging from Rs. 250 to almost Rs. 1500 – were to be donated to West Bengal’s Liver Foundation.

Game in progress (Photo: courtesy Arpit Nayak)

This was not the first time Salt Lake’s Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (VYBK) Stadium saw such high-powered action. Back in 2008, the stadium was the farewell ground for Bayern Munich’s then-captain Oliver Kahn. Hailed by most football lovers in the city as “ King Kahn,’’ the German goalkeeper played his last competitive club match against none other than Mohun Bagan to a crowd of 120,000, with Bayern winning 3-0. In 2010, Football Next, ever an analyzer of football trends and in an effort to fund underprivileged homeless children, went on to organize a charity match between Bayern Munich and Mohun Bagan’s age-old rival East Bengal. The timing of their next venture could not have been more perfect. Weeks prior to the much-awaited Barca Legends match, the first Kolkata derby of the season had occurred between the sparring clubs of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Unlike matches against international players, sentiments run wild during derbies purely because the outcomes are taken personally given the histories of both teams. Spectators see the derby as the remnants of the rage – now diluted into strong banter – caused by the division of their homeland. Having ended in a 2-2 stalemate, Mohun Bagan’s fans were more charged than before, hoping for some sort of vindication in the match against Barcelona.

However, the match bore different result. Under the combined strength of Javier Saviola, Roger Garcia, Pedro Landi, Jani Litmana and Mateu, each of the six goals that were driven home were met with outrage from the home team’s supporters despite the fact that many of them were Barcelona loyalists as well. Outnumbering the scattering of Barcelona’s blue, red and maroon jerseys (many bearing the name of Lionel Messi) were the green and maroon of Mohun Bagan. “ These colors are more of an emotion for us,’’ said die-hard fan, Arka Roy. Confronted with the dilemma of which team to support, Roy pointed to his friend Ritam Sinha who in spite of being a Barcelona supporter, had turned up in Mohun Bagan colors, complete with face paint. “ I’d like to think I am Indian first, so I am favoring Mohun Bagan. The rest come later,’’ Sinha, an independent filmmaker, said. The crowd at VYBK mostly shared Sinha’s sentiment of supporting Mohun Bagan being a “ necessity’’ even as getting to watch their opponents play was a rarity, not to mention, luxury. Anjan Mitra, Honorary Secretary of Mohun Bagan AC believed that both clubs matched each other in legacy. FC Barcelona was founded in 1899 while his team was established 10 years earlier in 1889. “ We might not match them in terms of the heavyweight World Cup and national players they have but we are no less in terms of richness in football history,’’ Mitra said.

The home team had former star-players like Bhaichung Bhutia, Ashim Biswas, Habibur Rahman and Jose Ramirez Barreto. For months on end, there was uncertainty about the match as questions regarding permission from football bodies like FIFA, UEFA, and the Spanish Football Federation arose. However, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) permitted the match to occur with the release of a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Here too, the timing was impeccable and throws light on the planning and business acumen. The AIFF slotted the match days before the start of this year’s Indian Super League (ISL) season at Kolkata. All this point to how over time football has permeated almost all aspects of the city. Kolkata and the game are now one.

From the match (Photo: courtesy Arpit Nayak)

The Friday night of the match in Kolkata, Javier Saviola was a little over two months shy of marking his first decade since retiring from international football. Thunderous uproar shook Salt Lake Stadium in the seventh minute of the match when the former member of Argentina’s national squad opened the account for FC Barcelona. He netted the first of half a dozen goals Mohun Bagan collected in the outing. A few fans, probably those inclined to be with the winning side of things – cheered as Barcelona forged ahead. The majority of the crowd felt let down. The Mariners – that’s what Mohun Bagan’s fans are called – clung to hope; it was evident that they were pepped up by the spirit of competition. Nevertheless every goal that Barcelona’s players expertly weaved into the post was simply another nail in Mohun Bagan’s coffin. In their worst moments, the home team was roused by the loyalty of their fans. At one point, almost the whole stadium showed its support by turning on the torchlight in spectators’ cellphones – the new-age counterpart of lighters being waved in the air at rock concerts – accompanied by chants of Mohun Bagan. However, frustration was palpable towards the end. Some even kicked the stands in anger while their friends in the opposing camp mocked. When it was all too certain that this was a lost battle for Mohun Bagan, humor kept the Mariners going;  laughter, more towards self for losing since each fan felt an extension of the team, mingled with dejection. By the end of almost two hours, Mohun Bagan – after putting up a fight – had won the hearts of those watching. Amidst cries of “ Well, they were no match for Barca…I have seen better para matches…’’ were also hopeful strains of “ Next time…we’ll win next time.’’

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. She does not actively support any football team or club but enjoys studying the game and its league of fans. She grew up in Kolkata and believes the city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)