Article on Naveen John, one of India’s best bicycle racers
Oil changed the face of the Middle East.
The first gusher was in 1908, in Persia, modern day Iran. In the decades that followed, as the oil industry brought wealth to this part of the word, it also altered lives thousands of kilometers away. The southern Indian state of Kerala, located across the Arabian Sea from oil-rich Middle East, contributed manpower to both the oil industry and the economy it fostered. By the 1970s, ` the Gulf’ had set in as a veritable changer of people’s fortunes. Although the trend has matured and likely begun to taper, Wikipedia estimates that by 2008, nearly 2.5 million Keralites were living in the Gulf mainly in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.
Naveen John grew up in Kuwait; his parents worked there, even his grandfather had worked there. Among the smallest countries in the world, the flat, sandy Arabian Desert covers much of Kuwait. Its highest point is 1004 feet above sea level. Below the desert and its scorching surface temperature lay reserves of crude oil, the black gold that launched an explosion of automobiles worldwide. One hundred and ten years after the first gusher in Persia, Bengaluru – where we met – lay choked in coils of vehicular traffic. Across the Arabian Sea, economies in the Gulf had begun imagining futures less dependent on oil. And Naveen John; he was one of India’s top notch athletes in that greenest of vehicular options – cycling.
Born 1986, Naveen passed out from The Indian School in Kuwait City. He shifted to Bengaluru and spent a year attending coaching classes to qualify for medical school. There were means available to get in – management quota, seats reserved for children of Non Resident Indians (NRI) etc. Naveen shunned that. Instead, he joined Purdue University in the US to study electrical engineering. When he started college, Naveen weighed 80-85 kilos; by his sophomore year, he was 90 kilos. Turning point was a Thanksgiving party he got invited to. Following dinner, he played a game of basketball with the host family and was roundly whipped. For the next three months, he ran five kilometers every day, shedding 20 kilos in the process. That phase also triggered a related habit – he kept a training log; it continues to this day. At college he joined an outfit called Habitat for Humanity. Its web page describes Purdue University Habitat for Humanity as “ a nonprofit affordable housing organization.’’ It partners with low income families to build simple, decent homes. A corner of the page had a clutch of photos, one of them showed people cycling. It was with this group that Naveen got introduced to distance cycling; it wasn’t intended, it was more a case of signing up for something and realizing later that the activity involved was cycling. It was a 120 mile-ride. He bought a MTB and went for the ride but couldn’t complete it. However the bug had bitten him.
At the time of writing, the Purdue University Cycling Club was still compiling its history. It was founded in late 1982; the prime mover was Mike Cent. He was a runner. In his first semester at college, he injured his Achilles tendon. His roommate Dominic, who was of Italian descent, was a bicycle racing enthusiast. Dominic kept no cycle on campus. “ He just enjoyed the racing culture that is so prevalent in Italian society,’’ Mike notes in a write-up available on the club’s webpage. Dominic got Mike excited about cycling; as it turned out, cycling was also good exercise for strained Achilles tendon. Along the way, Mike bought a Schwinn Super Le Tour and gained followers. In November 1982, the club officially came into existence. Naveen joined the Purdue University Cycling Club. He traded his MTB for a road bike and started riding with the club every weekend. Cycling improved his fitness levels. He also liked trail running and during his stay in the US, managed to go up 14 of Colorado’s 53 `fourteeners,’ mountains exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. But he stayed with cycling. According to Naveen, the credit for that goes to the Purdue University Cycling Club.
In 2012 Naveen completed his course in electrical engineering. He followed it with an internship. Then he moved back to Bengaluru. The move, prompted by the desire “ to do something satisfying’’ was also driven by a couple of other factors. To begin with, as he trained regularly with the Purdue University Cycling Club there was curiosity in the group if Naveen could one day win at the national level in India. The idea engaged Naveen and as he dwelt on it, he felt that it was achievable. Given his newfound interest in cycling and wanting to sustain it, he had also reached out to Bengaluru’s KYNKYNY Sports Club; they had a racing team. He wrote to Venketesh Shivarama of Bengaluru’s Wheel Sports, who is a nodal person for cycling in the city. Venketesh had in turn put Naveen in contact with Vivek Radhakrishnan; both Venketesh and Vivek were involved with KYNKYNY. Unlike overseas, the Indian environment is both old and trapped in the rat race-paradigm of congested, thickly populated country. Anyone trying new things has to wade through well-entrenched skepticism and inertia. It takes a toll. Naveen sensed some exhaustion and pessimism in the feedback he was getting about potentially moving back to India. But he had confidence in Bengaluru’s emergent racing season; he knew that folks like Venketesh and Vivek had done pioneering work in this regard. Upon moving back to Bengaluru, Naveen plunged into bicycle racing.
“ I returned to India in July 2012. I remember, I reached Bengaluru on a Friday and my first race was scheduled for Sunday. On Saturday I went for the recce and then raced the very next day,’’ Naveen said. Having raced before in the US, he had asked the race organizers if he could be put in the elite category. However nobody knew him as cyclist or racer. So they told him that he would have to start in Category 2. Naveen won that race, which was part of the Bangalore Bicycle Championship (BBCH). He quickly made an impression. Within 3-4 days he was part of the KYNKYNY team and a week after the race, he was in the organizing committee of BBCH. Little over three months later, he was in an unreserved compartment on a train headed to Muzaffarpur in Bihar for the national championship. With him were other members of the Karnataka cycling team, most of them from KYNKYNY. “ I wanted to get a taste of how Indian teams have traditionally traveled to participate in competitions,’’ Naveen said about that stint in the train, adding such travel is definitely not ideal for anyone hoping to perform at a high level in sports. In 2012, he placed fourth in the road race at the nationals. In 2013, he was fourth in time trial; he also supported his friend in the road race helping him finish second. In 2014, Naveen won the time trial. It was his first national title and the first for KYNKYNY; Naveen now represented the club. By 2017, he won three of the elite medals on offer.
Talking to those who worked with Naveen or cycled with him, it becomes pretty clear that what sets him apart is the more rounded package he is, compared to regular Indian athlete. A country of economic and social inequalities with an education system that scarcely tries to know its students or bridge disparities, talent in Indian sports is typically a case of having some dominant strength but not all that is required to progress as athlete. Much time is lost battling shortfalls in self and system. Many lose despite their athletic ability. Naveen is different. He is Indian with family from Kerala but grew up in Kuwait and studied in US; so much so that he jokes about not knowing what he actually is. Point is – he grew up free of India’s ground level pitfalls. Post schooling, he was in Bengaluru briefly but soon shifted to the US, home to a robust university education system that respects and values ability in sport. Add to it the educational system he was put through, the college campus he was at and the engineering course he finished – you are not talking of the average Indian athlete here. He brings to bear on cycling, a perspective that spans knowledge of self, knowledge of sport and ability to figure out how to improve.
Venketesh Shivarama likely sensed this early when Naveen exchanged mails with him before shifting to Bengaluru. “He is an excellent cyclist. Naveen started out at the basic racing level in the US. When he wanted to move back to India, he sent me a mail. I told him to come to Bengaluru. He is technically strong, well read and motivated. From 2005 onward, Bengaluru had been taking steps – baby steps – in bicycle racing. With Naveen around, the pace of that evolution picked up,’’ Venketesh said. Venketeswara Rao Navanasi aka Bikey Venky is a Bengaluru based-cyclist who has cycled with Naveen. “ Naveen is methodical. He doesn’t think short term. He plans and executes long term. He emphasizes the importance of having a coach and a plan that is specific to achieve your goals,’’ Venky said. Both men also pointed to another quality in Naveen – he helps fellow cyclists and contributes back to the cycling community.
Soon after return to India, Naveen chose to compete in the time trial. It provides insight into how Naveen’s mind works. An individual time trial (ITT) sees cyclist race against the clock on flat or rolling terrain. There are also track-based time trials and team time trials (TTT). Naveen chose the time trial to start with because “ variables are significantly less’’ in that discipline. Eliminate variables; your ability has better chance to reach you to your goal. Time trial also put the spotlight on him as an individual athlete, something required if what you are attempting is to break into a community and gain acceptance in it. But his obsession with focus doesn’t end there. He compares the run up to a national championship or any such elite event, to a Mars Mission. “ That’s how the way to these championships must be treated. You build a cocoon around yourself and your teammates. Now I know how to do that,’’ he said. If you ruminate on it, factoring in the naysayers and booby traps lurking in the Indian environment, the merit in that cocooned approach becomes visible. He is also clear that Indian athletes need to work harder. Compared within same age category and discipline, an Indian cyclist does not train as hard as his European or American counterpart. Uniquely, some of the dilution is visible even in the parameter of sport as followed in India. Performance cycling typically straddles four disciplines – individual time trial, team time trial, road race and criterium (a short form of the road race). In India, the road race is 120-140 km long. Internationally, road races are longer; at the Asian championships, 170 km is minimum stipulated distance.
According to Naveen, two things are critical to be a top notch cyclist – work rate and consistency. Work rate basically refers to mileage accumulated by the end of the year. It also includes other aspects pertaining to the totality of being an athlete – rest, recovery protocols, fundraising, sponsor activation responsibilities, taking on support gigs etc. Arguably, Naveen started late in the sport. At age 31, in 2017, he became the first Indian to win both ITT and road race at the nationals. He used to train 20-22 hours per week. Overseas, athletes trained up to 30 hours. Following the 2017 nationals, Naveen had his first block of 30 hours-training. “ Two things happened – I didn’t die; I did better in terms of performance,’’ he said. Next goal is 32 hours. “ There is no short cut for hard work. All that Indian cyclists assume is holding them back – none of that is correct. It is work rate that holds us back. You have to live for improving work rate. At one time my place of residence in Bengaluru was hindering it. I solved it at one stroke,’’ Naveen said. When Bengaluru started filling up with traffic and space for cycling declined within the city, Naveen who was staying at Sarjapur, didn’t waste time complaining. He simply shifted to Devanahalli on the outskirts. The main thing he required to sort out for this was find a way to pay the rent. He did that by coaching more to bridge the deficit. The move to Devanahalli not only brought him closer to Nandi Hills, which is a favorite with runners and cyclists to train at, it also changed his fortunes as an athlete with more time and space for good quality training. Occasionally, Naveen invites young athletes he works with to come over for intensive training camps. “ You won’t hear words like Olympics and Tour de France from me because I know what it takes to compete at those levels. I am aware of only the next step I should take,’’ Naveen said.
In 2016, a friend who was documenting Naveen’s journey in photos, asked him: what next? Naveen struggled for a proper answer. He knew that if you have been an amateur racer for long, the obvious thing to do next is to become professional. So he blurted out that fantasy – he wanted to become a professional cyclist and do so outside India. Too this end, he did a lot of cold emailing; he aimed for Division Three on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) website. Cam Whitting, who runs cyclingiq.com, helped. Naveen managed to connect with a couple of teams from Australia, eventually signing up with a team called: State of Matter / MAAP. It was previously known as Charter Mason Giant Racing. However there were some problems. He struggled to raise funds for the Australian foray; he was also delayed in reaching Australia. Naveen’s contract was from January 2016 to December 2016. Since he was going to race with a cycling team, he applied for a sports visa. As it turned out, aside probably from cricketers, not many athletes from India had applied for a sports visa to Australia after the Sydney Olympics of 2000. That caused delay. Reaching Australia with some of the major races already over, Naveen could participate in only amateur races in the domestic circuit. Even that was an experience for the field was strong. Naveen stayed part of the team roster for 2016. State of Matter was later disbanded. But a big race did happen for Naveen that year.
In October 2016, he and fellow Indian cyclist Arvind Panwar, took part in the UCI World Championship held in Doha; Naveen participated in ITT. He finished 55 in the competition (Arvind finished 61), seven and half minutes behind the winner, Tony Martin of Germany. Next year, Naveen participated in the Asian Cycling Championship held in Bahrain. There, in the ITT, he placed thirteenth in a field of twenty separated by a gap of five and a half minutes from the winner. Naveen and Arvind then participated in the road race and finished with the main peloton, the first time India was doing so in some seven years.
In early 2018, they were back at the Asian Cycling Championship; this time held at Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, a city with roads as wide and flat as aircraft runways. Here, Naveen moved up to tenth position in ITT with a gap of three and a half minutes separating him from the winner. Naveen and Arvind performed better in the road race too. According to Naveen, a factor influencing the strength of national squads is how much, their athletes race with private cycling teams. Cycling is expensive. Any national federation would be challenged to create the hours of top quality cycling required to shape champion cyclists. The way out is to join private teams and train and race with them. Japan, Kazakhstan and Chinese Taipei are usually the strongest squads at Asian championships. Although it is not very active in the private racing scene, Iran also makes the cut. Naveen’s most significant foray – one that holds much meaning for Indian cycling – was perhaps something else.
Richard Moore is a fine author, who has brought alive, stories from athletics and cycling. Here’s the opening paragraph from one of his essays in the 2014 book Etape: The French call it pave’. It sounds exotic and benign – it could be a succulent cut of beef – but for cyclists it has a different meaning. It is the pave’ that defines Paris-Roubaix, the ` Hell of the North’ one-day classic that includes twenty odd sections of cobbles, or pave’; hell because these cobbles are not the small stones polished by thousands of cars in a city, but large, uneven boulders planted in mud, arranged to run in narrow strips across the plains and fields of northern France and Belgium. Cut to Bengaluru’s MG Road and the café Naveen and this author were at, end-February 2018. Some distance from where we sat, running parallel to MG Road, was Church Street. It was in the final stages of being refurbished into a quaint road of interlocking tiles that reminded of Europe’s cobblestone-streets. Cobblestones provide a rough, bumpy surface for cycling but they are part of the ambience making up a kermesse. The kermesse is a form of Dutch bicycle race currently most popular in Belgium, especially the northern Flanders region. Europe is the beating heart of bicycle racing. Within Europe, nations like France, Belgium and Netherlands represent the home of cycling culture. In Bengaluru, KYNKYNY, after a phase of being supported by the reputed American bicycle brand: Specialized, began disbanding in 2015. “ KYNKYNY aspired to be the first Division Three team from India. It was ahead of its times. We were unfortunate in that we didn’t have 12 strong riders, who were consistently good enough for that journey along with related support,’’ Naveen said. As the team disbanded it found in its possession a small cachet of funds. That money opened prospects to attempt races overseas. Naveen’s research took him to the writings of Ed Hood who had documented accounts of British racers cutting their teeth in continental racing and progressing to the top echelons of the sport. It mentioned the importance of racing in continental Europe, in shaping cyclist’s reputation. In continental Europe, Belgian cycling was noted for speed and power, France for distance and challenging terrain.
Naveen was at that time in good form. After winning the ITT at the 2014 nationals he had followed it up with a win at the 2015 National Games. There was also the fact that – amazing as it sounds – it cost less to race in Belgium than in India. Such is the disparity in economic efficiency as measured in terms of what all it costs to race. In 2015, four Indians – Naveen among them – spent 60 days in Belgium; altogether and across all of them, they participated in 20 races. Naveen managed to finish at four races. The best position he got was twentieth, secured in the last event he raced at. “ The experience was an eye opener,’’ he said. It showed that the future for Indian cyclists was not to wait for the sport’s systems to emerge in India but to leverage the systems already existing outside India. In 2017, seven cyclists from India traveled to Belgium for another go at races there. This time Naveen participated in 22 races; he finished 21 and crashed at one. “ The average amateur kermesse is faster than the Indian nationals. The distances are also longer. Indian courses are typically straight. Over there, you tackle bumpy, uneven roads. You don’t complain. Cobblestones are an integral part of Belgian racing. There are entire races built around it,’’ Naveen said. Visiting Belgium and racing there is now set to be an annual affair. It is the bedrock of activities planned around Ciclo Team Racing, Naveen’s new team, which is backed by 2go Activewear, TI Cycles and Absolute.
It has been an intense trip so far for electrical engineer schooled in Kuwait, attending college in the US and cycling in India. “ The Purdue Cycling Club was a small nurturing environment. It was all about keeping people involved long enough to help them find out what they can do. Small clubs with seniors, mentors, good coaches, an informal setting – that is the ideal incubator for talent,’’ Naveen said looking back to where and how his tryst with cycling began. His background as engineer has also helped in the journey – he is able to take challenges apart into smaller tasks, analyze them and attempt a solution. Besides competing, Naveen also coaches. A term he used for the work he saw himself doing in Indian cycling was – human engineering. It referred to the contribution he wished to make towards building the people and systems that will be part of the sport five to ten years from now. For now, it is all electric enough to keep engineer glued to cycling.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)