THE UNUSUAL TUITION

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuition classes are common throughout India. For many, they provide the bridge to decent scores in academics, which are in turn crucial for professionally secure future in society valuing `well settled’ life. As common as tuition, is the practice of cycling to tuition. That ritual religiously done and exams passed, student on bicycle goes on to enjoy successful career in one of the lucrative professions. Its role in transport completed, bicycle fades from memory. Steed is mere extra in life’s cast. Academics is star. As a school student, Sreenath Lakshmikanth too cycled to attend tuition. In the years that followed, he became one of Kerala’s most promising bicycle racers. This is his story:

April, 2018.

The view from the promenade along Kochi’s Marine Drive has always been intimate. Willingdon Island and Bolghatty appear closer from here. The ship at the berth meant for oil tankers, bang in the middle of the backwaters, estuary for backdrop, loomed big like a truck parked in one’s driveway. We were an hour or so from sunset; the promise of its approach already embedded in the quality of light and the ambience caused by evening sky and water. The young man seated next to me on the park bench was built lean. Two hours earlier, we had begun the appointment looking for a café to sit and chat. With one of the fancy cafes he knew closed, he decided to dispense with embellishment and cut to the chase: what do we need? We need a place to sit and talk; period. There seemed no doubt in his head of the eventual, functional choice – park bench by the backwaters. There was the ship, the port, the calmness of water and if freelance journalist still sought stimulation for grey cells, a vendor or two always in the neighborhood, selling tea. I guess if you want to do something in life – much as, all that good conversation needs is a quiet place and occasional stimulant for wakefulness -you have to weed away the distraction and focus on that which matters. Sreenath Lakshmikanth knows it. Among attributes that strike you about Kochi is lack of space and heavy traffic. Sreenath is cyclist despite that.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

Born in May 1996, Sreenath hails from a Konkani speaking-family settled in Cherthala, a town some 30 kilometers south of Kochi. His father is an astrologer; his mother, a housewife. His brother works as a chef. Although keen on sports at school, his progression was hampered by his size – he was small. “ I used to play games. But when it came to being selected to play for the school or go for tournaments, emphasis was always on size. I never figured in selectors’ imagination,’’ Sreenath said. There was however a quirk in Sreenath’s geographical location. Cherthala was part of Alappuzha district; therein Cherthala lay to the north, bordering the adjacent district of Ernakulam. According to Sreenath, Alappuzha is popularly reckoned as the district with most cyclists in Kerala. He doesn’t know the reason for this belief but it is apparently there in background chatter in the state’s cycling circles. Cycling is human powered transport. From cycling’s perspective, there is one aspect that engages about Alappuzha. Its natural beauty as a district of rivers and lagoons also makes it a geographical oddity in Kerala. According to Wikipedia, except for some scattered hillocks to the east, the district has no mountains or hills. The terrain is largely flat. For Sreenath, life changed when he moved to eleventh and twelfth standards. He joined TD School at Thurvaoor; the place was 12-15 kilometers away from home.

For many years in South India, BSA SLR – a model of bicycle made by Chennai based-TI Cycles – had been popular. Sreenath’s father owned one. When Sreenath commenced attending school at Thuravoor, he began using the cycle for commute. Like in the case of many students, the commute by cycle was triggered by the need to attend tuition classes; he had classes in the morning and evening. That was how cycling crept into Sreenath’s life. It was collateral experience to the more important task of attending tuition. For Sreenath, sidelined at sport and needing an activity to call his own; cycling engaged. More than classes, it was the means of getting there that grew on him. As his interest in cycling evolved, the first graduation up the product chain happened. At a cousin’s house in Kayamkulam, he came across a road bike – a BSA Mach 1. Originally owned by the cousin’s neighbor who shifted to riding a motorcycle and later parked with cousin who didn’t use it, the cycle was idling. Already a tinkerer adept at dismantling and reassembling his bicycle, Sreenath packed up the road bike and shifted it to his house in Cherthala. It took him about a week to get used to the Mach 1 and its capacity to be ridden more aggressively compared to the SLR. By now Sreenath was also working at a coaching center that trained students appearing for entrance exams. The Mach 1 became his ride for trips to both school and coaching center.

Riding a fixed wheel bike (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

Kerala’s highways are a natural extension of the state’s overall layout, complicated however by explosive growth in automobiles. Roughly 600 kilometers long, Kerala is a narrow state with sea to one side and a spine of hills to the other. Save a few districts like Alappuzha, it is a land of ups and downs. In geographically narrow state with high density of population, roads are starved for space. The highway linking Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi (NH-47) is narrower than similar roads elsewhere. It hums with ever growing traffic. It was on this highway that Sreenath rode his Mach 1 daily. His morning session started at 5.30 AM; evening session was at around 8.30 PM. Regular cycling seems to have stretched his limbs in the growing up years. “ I put on some height. That was my first incentive to continue cycling,’’ he said.   The sessions at the coaching center were on Saturday and Sunday. It meant he was occupied through the week. The rigor was stepping stone to evolving a work culture, something that would come handy as the cyclist in him grew to proportions he couldn’t ignore anymore.

Following school, Sreenath joined Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam (Ernakulam refers to the eastern mainland portion of the city of Kochi) to do his BSc (Physics). He was determined to participate in sports. Still unsure of what to do in cycling, he tried his hand at running instead. For this, he and his runner friend George frequented the college’s well known ground in the city. One day, when he went to meet the physical education teacher, he noticed some bicycles kept in the room. They were track cycles sporting fixed wheel. The teacher was hesitant to let Sreenath use them. However during this phase, Sreenath was already cycling twice or thrice a week from Cherthala to college in Ernakulam and back. That’s a distance of 60-70 kilometers. His friends mentioned this to the teacher who relented and allowed Sreenath to have the bike. But on his first trip with the new bike, there was a chain-slip and Sreenath crashed injuring himself badly. Luckily the teacher didn’t see the mishap as reason to demand the cycle back. Instead, he gave Sreenath the name of a local coach in cycling – Louis Thomas.

Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth

Kerala’s potential in industry was for long stunted by its brand of politics. With the advent of new sectors like information technology, the trend is now changing. But for years, what industry survived lay clustered around Ernakulam (including the borderlands shared with Alappuzha and Thrissur), the bulk of it near Kalamassery.  The Kalamassery area was synonymous with factories like Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) and Premier Tyres (now part of Apollo Tyres). Unlike its attitude to industry, Kerala has always been sports-crazy. Some of Kerala’s companies were known names in sport. Premier Tyres and the Thiruvananthapuram-based Travancore Titanium for instance, were known all over India as good at football. Sreenath started training with Louis at the ground belonging to FACT. His companions during training were Louis’s daughters. Faster than Sreenath on the bicycle, they had represented their university and state. Louis advised Sreenath to stay in Ernakulam so that he would have more time to train. To set him up so, they needed to get the cyclist from Cherthala, a job in the city.

Pai Dosa in Ernakulam. This photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

There is only so long freelance journalist can stay without tea or coffee. Our conversation on the park bench at Marine Drive had progressed nonstop. Additionally when the tea vendors came, it had been at moments when the train of thought couldn’t be broken. When the chat ended, we went hunting for tea and snacks. As before Sreenath knew where to go. We crossed the road before the GCDA shopping complex, got onto Broadway, navigated the lanes between it and MG Road and eventually crossed MG Road. “ Here, this road,’’ Sreenath said leading me to a modestly big restaurant tucked inside. In Ernakulam, Pai Dosa is a well-known eatery. Much mentioned in local media, it offers several dozen varieties of the South Indian delicacy – dosa. We placed our orders and when I offered to pay, it was roundly refused. The eatery did not let Sreenath pay either; the meal was on the house. Back when he was looking for a job in Ernakulam so that he could train properly in cycling, it was at Pai Dosa that Sreenath found work. Over time, he served at tables, managed raw material supply and handled billing. Initially he stayed at the Maharaja’s College hostel. Work hours at Pai Dosa spanned 6 PM to 1 AM. Louis’s training started at 6 AM. Given the late hours he put in at Pai Dosa, Sreenath could report for training only by 7 AM. Training happened at the FACT ground and on Willingdon Island, home to Kochi’s port. Automobile traffic was less on Willingdon Island compared to bustling Ernakulam.

Following a district level camp in cycling, Sreenath headed for his first university meet held at S.D. College, Kanjirappally. According to him, M.G. University, to which Maharaja’s College belonged, didn’t have a robust cycling scene. The goal therefore was to somehow form a college team and take a shot at finishing well. As it turned out, Sreenath secured podium finishes in both the one kilometer and four kilometer-mass start disciplines. It was his first time on the podium in cycling. Finishing after Sreenath in the four kilometer-mass start was a cyclist from Aquinas College, Kochi. Milan Josy and Arun Baby, top cyclists from the region, belonged to Aquinas. Their coach, Jaison Jacob, took note of Sreenath and offered him a chance to train with Milan and Arun. In 2014, ahead of the state road cycling championships due in Thiruvananthapuram, an event called Tour de Kerala was held around Sabarimala. The circuit was approximately 80 kilometers long. Sreenath’s friend, Mario participated in it; Sreenath tagged along to support. It was Sreenath’s first exposure to a proper road biking event replete with the support infrastructure that goes with it.

Soon after this event, the state MTB championships happened at Malankara in Thodupuzha. Riding a rented Mongoose, Sreenath finished sixth in the under-18 category. However what he relished here was that he finished ahead of those dispatched by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training wing in Thiruvananthapuram. It was window to a small contest, one that is probably still on. You glean it in Sreenath’s conversation – an underlying tenor of competition with cyclists from Thiruvananthapuram, perceived as the lucky lot with training infrastructure provided by the state. In his mind, Kochi’s cyclists are underdogs doing well for exactly that – they are better at exploiting what they have and are fueled by the need to go out and discover what is missing. In the state road biking championships that followed the MTB event, Sreenath finished outside the podium, in seventh or eighth place. Jaison was watching from the sidelines. By now Louis had retired from coaching. Sreenath joined Jaison’s group; the coach there was Chrisfin Vincent, working with State Bank of India (SBI) and hailing from Thiruvananthapuram. Sreenath was now at that stage wherein he required a good road bike to practise seriously. Towards this end, he had been saving the money he was getting at Pai Dosa. It wasn’t enough. Jaison, some teachers from Sreenath’s college and a few well-wishers also contributed additionally. What they needed now was a bicycle retailer who would understand Sreenath’s requirement and budget.

The Bike Store; this photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

In 2009, Shuhaib Abdul Rehman – he was businessman, cyclist and founder of Cochin Bikers Club (which brought together cycling enthusiasts) – started a shop retailing high end bicycles. It was called The Bike Store and was located at Palarivattom in Ernakulam. It also had presence in Chennai. While Cochin Bikers Club still exists, by 2013, Shuhaib was close to shutting down the bicycle store. The Chennai outlet was eventually closed. The one in Ernakulam had by then become a hangout for the city’s cyclists. It had grown to something more than just shop; it was community. The Bike Store received a fresh lease of life when Paul Mathew, Vinshad Aziz, Pradeep Kumar Menon, Shagzil Khan and Abraham Clancy Ross  – all members of Cochin Bikers Club, came together as Velocity Ventures to keep the shop afloat. In 2015 Velocity Ventures was transferred to Verdant Outdoor Sports World. In due course The Bike Store moved to larger premises near Ernakulam’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium. Also coming aboard as investors at the store were Abhishek Das, Yakkub Shabeer, Dinesh Rajendra Pai, Ajith Varma and Abhishek Kashyap. Currently, The Bike Store is among leading retailers of high end bicycles in Ernakulam. “ Interest in cycling has picked up. When we started we had about 30 bicycles. Now we stock between 60 to 100 cycles,’’ Paul Mathew said. Jason used to get his gear from The Bike Store. Mario had also bought his bicycle from there. When Sreenath wanted to buy a road bike, it was to The Bike Store that he headed. “ That was the first time I met him,’’ Paul said. According to him, the shop helped the young cyclist identify the right model for his needs. They provided Sreenath a Lapierre road bike at a discount. “ It felt good. For the first time I had a proper road bike,’’ Sreenath said. It was the beginning of a meaningful association with The Bike Store.

Training with Jaison brought a twist; it was unavoidable. Because the training commenced at 6 AM and he had to present himself adequately rested and fresh for it, Sreenath was forced to quit Pai Dosa. He also shifted to staying in a house where some of the employees from Paul’s main business – he is a distributor for Godrej heavy equipment – lived. In 2015, Sreenath started training systematically. The training was on NH-47, to be specific, the stretch of highway between Ernakulam and Cherthala. Around this time, Sreenath, Milan and Mario went for a “cyclothon’’ in Chandigarh.  They packed their bikes and set off for Chandigarh completely overlooking the fact that it was January and North India lay bathed in winter’s cold. The trio from Kochi had no jackets, warmers or gloves. In Chandigarh they bought a pair of gloves and gave it to Milan, who was the best rider. The pace at the event was fast. Sreenath and Mario retired early. Milan hung on for most part of the race before suffering a crash. The trio returned to Kerala realizing the gap that existed between what was happening elsewhere and the level of cycling they had at home. Chandigarh was reality-check. Two things happened following this visit. They started participating in more competitions; they began attempting to complete all the races they participated in. It yielded result. At a competition in Coimbatore, Sreenath ended up fourth in the elite category. At the same event, one of his friends – Faizal P.J, finished third in the under-18 segment and was picked up by Scott Bikes for their team in India.

Sreenath (second from right) with other members of Scott’s cycling team in India. At extreme right is Nigel Smith, their coach. This photo was downloaded from the webpage of Scott Owners Club and is being used here with the company’s permission.

Towards the end of 2015, the state championship was held in Kozhikode. There, Sreenath secured a third place in mass start road race, in the under-23 category. It was the first time in several years that somebody from Ernakulam was getting a medal. Mario also gained selection in the under-23 category. The two of them proceeded to Thiruvananthapuram for a 20 day-training camp ahead of the nationals. Given their selection to camp, The Bike Store also pitched in – they were given carbon frame Carrera road bikes. The training at Thiruvananthapuram was held on NH-47 and MC Road; the latter proceeds from Kerala’s capital city to Kottayam. Beginning of 2016, the nationals was held at Nilakkal in Pathanamthitta district. In team time trial, Kerala finished fifth. In mass start, Sreenath unfortunately suffered a puncture and couldn’t complete the race. His first nationals; like that trip to Chandigarh earlier, was occasion to introspect and focus afresh. At a race in Lucknow which followed, he finished with the group – in top 15 – in the mass start. He was beginning to get a hang of things. He commenced training with the nationals of 2017 in mind. At the state championships held in the beginning of 2017, Sreenath secured first place in road race mass start, in the under-25 category. In January 2017, he also secured podium finish at two privately organized events in Gujarat and Chennai. At the MTB state championship, he finished third. Between MTB and road racing, Sreenath’s preference is the latter. But the 2017 road biking nationals was yet again a disappointment; he couldn’t complete the race with the group. Things changed however with a race in Coimbatore. At the MVS Criterium held there, he secured first place. Following this, in April 2017, Sreenath signed up with Scott Bikes to be part of their team in India.

Cycling in the hills of Kerala (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

His first race for Scott was the Trivandrum Cyclothon, where he placed first. He secured podium finish at a competition in Bengaluru; he was also part of Scott’s winning team in time trial. At the nationals, which took place towards the end of 2017 he managed to finish with the group in the mass start road race. Following the nationals he went for an inter-university road cycling meet in Rajasthan, where he finished fifth. “ That gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Sreenath said. Then in December 2017, a setback occurred. At a MTB race in Ernakulam, he had an accident and fractured his arm. He was out of action for about six weeks. “ Nigel was great support then,’’ he said of Nigel Smith, who coaches the racing team at Scott. Until Nigel came along, Sreenath’s go-to person for information on how to train had been Chrisfin. In that stage, the focus had been on distance and speed. Nigel introduced the upcoming cyclist to several new things – among them, heart rate-based training, which showed Sreenath how to sustain an effort. He was also introduced to power training. During the phase of recovering from the fracture he suffered, all his training was done on a stationary bike. Emerging from injury, Sreenath’s first race was a time trial up the Thamarassery Churam (mountain pass) in Kerala’s Wayanad district. He finished first, representing Scott. That win was also Sreenath’s last outing with Scott. He shifted to Ciclo Team Racing, the bicycle racing team backed by TI Cycles and anchored by Bengaluru-based cyclist, Naveen John. Sreenath now rides a Ridley Fenix SL road bike. According to Paul, the initiative for Sreenath’s move to Ciclo came from Rajith Rathiappan, who runs a Track and Trail showroom (retail outlet for TI Cycles) in Ernakulam. Having cut his teeth cycling overseas including in Belgium, Naveen had told this blog earlier of how he thinks the road to Indian cycling’s future lay through racing in Europe (for more on Naveen John please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/23/the-electrical-engineer/). April 2018, seated on the park bench by Kochi’s backwaters and beholding an estuary traversed by ships sailing the world’s oceans, Sreenath was looking forward to his first trip to Europe with Ciclo.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

“ My wish is to be a professional cyclist. In India, it is difficult to earn a livelihood from that,’’ he said thoughtfully. Attempting to be a professional cyclist is a courageous move. Those who know Sreenath well said that he does not hail from strong financial background. He also has a long way to go in cycling; for instance, he hasn’t yet had a podium finish at the nationals. The fifth position he secured at the inter-university meet in Rajasthan is the highest Sreenath has placed yet at the national level. Immediate focus therefore, is on improving his performance at the nationals. His heart seems to be in the right place. “ He is committed. If he has to train for certain duration on a given day, he makes sure he does that. I also remember him mailing leading cycling outfits overseas – all by himself and despite the challenges he faced in language – telling them of his interest in the sport and seeking advice on what to do,’’ Paul said. The Bike Store has been integral to Sreenath’s journey so far. Their technician Murukan T. R, is the one who tunes Sreenath’s bike. He accompanies Sreenath to all his races. The two are close. Given shortage of funds, Sreenath was requiring assistance for his planned trip to Europe. It is understood that help has begun coming in. In Ernakulam, Sreenath trains every week for 15-20 hours, of which 15 hours is the real training duration. From June 2018, he planned to ramp it up to a proper 20 hours. His weekly mileage in training averages 350-400 kilometers. My mind was still on how he trains, given Kerala’s roads and traffic. “ You can’t complain about it. There is no other way,’’ he said, adding that cyclist chooses the best available option and goes with it. According to him, Ernakulam’s traffic starts building up from around 7.30 AM. By then, a committed cyclist should have wrapped up his training for the morning. The bulk of Sreenath’s training now happens on the city’s Container Road, a long and fairly wide road used by trucks headed to the port’s Vallarpadam Container Transhipment Terminal.

In 2016, Sreenath completed his graduation. He majored in physics. Science courses require students to attend classes at the lab. Popularly called “ practicals,’’ they are unavoidable. On the other hand, spending more time in class is difficult if you are athlete devotedly training for sport. For his next step – post graduation – Sreenath thought with cycling in the frame. He decided to enroll for MA in Hindi; the choice was deliberate: a course in Hindi has no sessions in the lab. It means more time to train. “ Cycling is not just physical, it is also mental. It is among very few sports where a certain level of performance has to be maintained for a long period of time. That is what attracts me to it,’’ Sreenath said explaining why he continues to court the challenge and sweat for it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Positions secured at competitions are as mentioned by the interviewee.)        

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