Nigel Smith is a Level 3 Cycling Coach, accredited through his National Federation, British Cycling, in the UK. He is currently based in Mumbai. He brings to his views on Indian cycling, the quality of the outsider’s perspective. As with many sports in India that is a valuable point of view, for you see things as they are, in ways residents lost to life within, don’t. Excerpts from a recent conversation with Nigel, an afternoon at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC):
In the time you have spent here, what is the dominant aspiration you have seen Indian cyclists seeking advice for? I define aspiration here in terms of attributes like distance, endurance, speed, track, trail, touring.
In terms of the cyclists that I am currently working with or have been receiving enquiries from, certainly in Mumbai, the dominant performance aspiration is around triathlon. If I look at the sport from the perspective of mass participation, then if you move up from leisure cyclist to someone with aspiration, maybe among the first things you would attempt is one of the BRM (Brevets Randonneurs Mondiaux) events. These are not competitive. They are more around completion of event. Beyond that I am working more and more with triathletes. There are those who are looking at their first triathlon of Olympic distance and they are looking at getting it done in three and a half hours. Conversely, I am also working with a lot of people who have stepped up to half Ironman distance and rather than looking at a completion type-goal, they are looking at setting themselves a target like six and a half or seven hours. Those people are seeking my guidance as a specialist coach in cycling. So perhaps they tackled Olympic distance doing all the training themselves; now, they have set themselves a bigger goal with time target attached. I also get calls from people who are looking to challenge themselves more.
You had expressed dismay last year at the popular fascination for Race Across America (RAAM), even as races like Tour de France and other similar European races exist. Why do you think this has occurred in the Indian context? Is it a case of herd following established precedent or is it a case of Indian – as person in given context and exposure to cycling – assuming what he / she may be naturally good at? If the latter, then are we making a mistake overlooking fast paced, multi stage, severely competitive formats like the Tour and its ilk?
Yes and yes (laughs). From my perspective as a foreigner who has lived in this country for nearly three years, I feel the fascination for RAAM could be born out of previous exposure. Perhaps the RAAM imagery ties in with what the Indian cycling population has been previously exposed to. If you are somebody who has been exposed to BRMs, the logical step would be to do the 200, 300, 600 BRMs and the next challenge on the horizon could be RAAM. Similarly I see people wanting to do things like Deccan Cliffhanger and maybe challenge themselves to do it solo. That is another personal goal beyond just doing BRMs. It is also interesting that goals are more around completion rather than racing. I see the general Indian population very interested in challenging themselves personally as opposed to pitching themselves against other people. I do not know whether that is an Indian mentality or not. Certainly if you put a cricket ball in their hand, they want to win! It is the same with running. I meet a lot of runners and their interest is in completing a marathon as opposed to racing people in their category. It could be because mass organized endurance sport is still in its infancy here. The competitive nature has yet to come to the surface. It is there; I have seen some wonderful performances. But the current trend is more towards challenging oneself rather than pitching self against others.
From a cyclist’s point of view, what is the difference between a RAAM and a Tour de France? What is your view on the level of competition at these events? How differently do these two races impact rider in terms of personal strain?
RAAM is predominantly an exercise in personal endurance. Whilst the athletes are trying to complete the distance faster than each other, they are not directly ‘racing’ each other. Effectively, it is an ultra-long time trial where you must keep your effort well below threshold, whilst trying to be as fast as possible, supported by relatively very little rest and managing the accumulating effects of sleep deprivation. It’s about 30 per cent longer than Tour de France but completed in less than half the time, since there are no scheduled daily ‘start’ and ‘finish’ points.
By comparison, a Grand Tour, such as the Tour de France, requires a few hours – up to six – a day but is ridden at a higher intensity and a wider range of intensities in a wheel to wheel ‘race’ scenario. The winners of each 21 stages, whether it be a flat – sprint – stage or a mountainous stage will inevitably have to dig far deeper and produce far greater performances – in terms of producing ‘numbers’ or riding at their limit, then recover overnight and repeat for 21 days.
The supreme athlete that is Christoph Strasser averages about 16 miles per hour (26 kilometers per hour) for his solo RAAM efforts. A Grand Tour winner will average about 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), though they do have aerodynamic help with drafting and so on.
To go back to a point you mentioned earlier, what do you think needs to be done to move from challenging oneself to competing with others?
From an individual point of view, the first thing would be to ride with other people; ride in groups. Challenge yourself and understand what it feels like. Perhaps read up a little and talk to a coach – find out what must be done to handle the greater workload. And then obviously, you got to find competitions. Competitive cycling can be found only in certain pockets across the country. What they are doing in Karnataka is very well organized. You have a wonderful series of events across all terrains. It is attracting hundreds of riders every month to compete, not only against themselves but also against each other, across different age groups, male and female. On the other hand, here in Mumbai, we are not getting that. So to go back to the original question – what should people do? – It is a case of: you need some governance from the CFI (Cycling Federation of India) to bring together a state by state policy for racing, training camps and such. You have to make things more organized and uniform across the country.
There are bicycle races being held in India. What is your view on the Indian racing calendar as means to grow for someone wishing to be a proficient bicycle racer? Do we have the required distances; the required types of races? Are there gaps / shortcomings and if so, what would they be?
The number of races available – if you are prepared to travel – is more than adequate. What invariably happens is that races are not published at the beginning of the season. I understand, as is the way of the world here, people have to get permissions – from local authorities, the police and sponsors and everything happens at the last minute. Consequently it is very difficult to plan your race calendar because you don’t know what is going to come up. If you have an annual calendar published in advance, then you could have all the best cyclists in the country going to the same races and competing against each other rather than three or four times a year, maybe once a month. The way races are promoted also play a part. In Bengaluru you have a wonderful set up with very good cyclists and great competitive racing. Prize money? Zero. They go there for the racing. On the other hand in Mumbai, we have races where the prize money is close to a lakh of rupees. You get riders coming from all over in big teams and racing very badly because somebody has to win that money and share it with the team. That promotes poor racing, negative racing and dangerous racing. They are not racing for the love of racing. They are racing because they want the money. If racers across the country agreed that for any race, prize money does not exceed a certain level, then you start getting people going to the races because of the quality of organization, management and safety; not because there is a lakh of rupees at the end of it.
To your mind, what is the ambiance that has been most successful at growing talent in cycling? India has a big bicycle industry and no internationally known racers. What is it about the European cycling context that made it churn out so many champion cyclists?
There is nothing special or unique about what happens in Europe. Whatever is going on across Europe – whether it is UK, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, it is going on across America, Australia, New Zealand and some Asian countries – it is structure, process, organized calendar of races and a good club system. Here in India, there is no real club system where you have a club that is affiliated to the regional body, which is affiliated to the national body, you pay your subscriptions, you have your club kit, though your club you get exposure to local events, riding with other riders, organized training rides as a group. All of that goes on across every European country, every western country. Above that, they have a recognizable structure from their national body down to club level, which allows riders who are good, to enter local, regional and national races, then to be recognized by the national federation, go to a talent camp, be spotted, be put on to an academy and be sent abroad to race for a while. If they are good enough they will succeed. If not, they will come back. Right now as we speak, Naveen John is in Belgium trying to get the best racing experience he can. He is living and racing within that structure. There is no reason why that structure cannot exist in India. It is just a case of the national body and the state bodies putting their heads together and doing something about it.
I would imagine that when Naveen’s team goes to Europe to race, the national federation has very little to do with it. It is an initiative by cyclists who are keen to improve and the sponsors backing them. Let me mention an old incident that happened in Mumbai – almost 15 years ago. A climbing club here pioneered a competition. One of its early editions was extended support by the apex body in climbing globally but the support was shot down by domestic authorities who felt they were being circumvented……
That is entirely in line with what I perceive about cycling. Another example would be – by 2010, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, we had a world class velodrome in Delhi comparable to velodromes in Manchester, Glasgow and the one used for London Olympics as well. That was eight years ago. You would think that by now you would see the green shoots of development in bicycle racing, courtesy such facilities. But where are they?
How much initiative are clubs allowed to enjoy in the UK? To what extent must the national body be involved if a club team desires to compete overseas? What is the structure there?
My club in the UK doesn’t race abroad but there are plenty of other clubs in the region that travel to Belgium or France to do events. All we need is a race licence that is given by the national body. So if I am a member of a club, that club is affiliated, I am a member of British Cycling, I have a British Cycling race licence – that is enough. My coach in the UK; once a month he and his team mates would go across to Belgium for the weekend, race and come back. I can go and join them because I have the required race licence.
As a foreign coach in India, you have the benefit of seeing what is going on from an outsider’s perspective without being invested too much internally, which is what bogs people here down. It is obvious from your comments that Bengaluru seems to have the most evolved bicycle racing scene in India. What is it about Bengaluru that works in its favor?
I don’t know the history of how the set up in Bengaluru started. But I imagine there was a large community of individuals attached to certain bike shops and brands, who got together and made some things happen. Second, Bengaluru has access to some fantastic roads for good riding. In Mumbai, if I want to do some good riding, I have to get beyond Thane, beyond Kalyan and be on the Nasik highway. That’s an hour’s drive before I even get the bike out of the car. So if I have to meet up with some good riders, get some rolling roads and get some good riding done, that’s an hour’s drive away. And to get everyone to do that, to organize that – it’s not going to happen. We are kind of hampered here by living in a sprawling metropolis. I know from riding around that the roads are difficult, the policing is difficult. We are hampered by the infrastructure that we are living in. However there are some guys in Delhi who put together some interesting events. So it can be done.
You work with Scott India’s team. Can you describe the coaching work you do through Scott India?
When I started working with Scott India they had just signed up 10 or 12 cyclists for their supported-athlete program. They brought me in to oversee the coaching side of it. From Scott’s point of view, they are investing in a group of athletes across the country but they have no way of making sure whether they are training correctly or have someone to talk to and work with. I was providing that role initially. Over the years, a number of athletes have come and gone from the program. We are now in the process of refining what the athlete program should look like and how it should function. So the first question is: how do we select? There are some selection criteria we are laying out now. Plus there will be some performance benchmarking. We are looking to try and lend some professional elements to it. The rider has to deliver. We will give them as much support as we can. But they are responsible for their performance. So if I am working with a rider who I am going to see rarely because they live in the very north of the country, then all of it is coaching remotely. As a coach I need to make sure that I am instructing them well not just on the sessions they are doing but on how they are riding, the skills and techniques they are supposed to perfect. They should send me the data using whichever platform they are using so that I can monitor. We look at cadence, power, heartrate etc. I might ask them to send me video footage of themselves so that I can see their technique. From all this we try and optimize the training program required for that particular athlete. The more you work with them, the better you understand their specific goals – short, medium and long term. We work out what their race program should look like, when they should be at the gym, what they should be doing at the gym and for how long. I try and take out all the myths. There is a lot of information on the Internet which can be assembled the wrong way. I help them get it right. I try to get them thinking in terms of annual plan, break it down to phases and then, what they should be doing in each phase. It all has to be structured and it has to follow a goal oriented plan. That is what I help with.
One of the things cyclists from here would look for, when they join a program of the sort you outlined, is opportunity to race. Not just races here, but races overseas. Is that built into Scott India’s imagination of the program or is the current position one of laying the ground work and visualizing participation in races only after the basics have been met?
Yes. So going back to the structure of the athlete program, the first thing is – we have the selection criteria. That is based on age, physical attributes, physical potential and also for want of a better word, professionalism; because these guys are going to be brand ambassadors. They have a responsibility to represent the brand in the right way. They also have a responsibility to take care of themselves and train according to the program that has been given to them. If they have those mental and physical attributes, then they are on the program. The program will dictate a certain number of races they need to be doing each year. Broadly speaking, we are looking at state championships, national championship, regional races and one or two larger Indian races. You give them a race program. If that goes well what we are trying to do at Scott India is – how do we utilize Scott’s global reach to the best advantage of these riders? There is the Mitchelton-Scott World Tour Pro Team. They also have an under-23 continental level team that is currently racing in the under-23 Giro d’Italia. They are registered in China. So it is a UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Asia-registered team which does a lot of racing in Europe. What we are trying to see is whether we can work out a pathway to connect the best athletes on the Scott India training program to a training slot on the under-23 team so that they at least get to live like an under-23 full time athlete. They are parachuted in for a period of time and they can experience it. We haven’t got someone to that level yet and the law of averages says we have to see a lot of riders first before we find someone who fits the bill. But that is the goal – to get someone, who in one or two years, maybe even next year, gets to train with these guys. They will be pitched against the best under-23 Scott riders. If that team of people reckons that our trainees have the required talent, they get invited back for a race program and then it takes on from there. My goal is to train our Indian cyclists to the level where they get aboard an under-23 semi-professional team.
We discussed the Indian fancy for RAAM earlier. If we traded that fancy for a fast paced, highly competitive, multi-stage format like that of Tour de France, how far would you say are Indian cyclists from making a beginning in that direction? Do you see the necessary ingredients to attempt that journey?
We are seeing Indian cyclists competing at RAAM and they are just completing it. That is the accomplishment. I have had this conversation multiple times: my question to any youngster imagining Tour de France is – what do you think the guys on Tour de France teams have achieved? A typical world tour team is 25 riders of which, eight get to ride Tour de France for that team. That means there are 17 riders that aren’t riding Tour de France, who would be riding the smaller races. Some of them will ride three week-grand tours. Some of them won’t. All those riders were picked from pro-continental teams, which is the next tier down. Typically they could be under-23 teams or smaller pro teams. A rider has to be very, very good at pro-continental level to get picked for the tier above. Below pro-continental is continental. There is probably about half a dozen continental level teams in the UK. They are a very small set up, they do a lot of domestic races and they occasionally go to northern Europe to do small stage races there. To get onto one of these teams you got to be probably at the level of an Indian national champion. So if you look at what Naveen is doing – he is the best of the best among Indian riders – he is right now racing at that UCI continental level in Belgium for however many weeks he is out there. He is very open and it is great that he is sharing everything that is happening. We can see how well he is doing against regular club guys, academy regulars and under-23 sorts. That’s the best from India. That’s where India stands. So if an Indian cyclist thinks he wishes to race professionally or at least at that level where expenses are taken care of, you got to be better than that. The first thing to do is get from whatever level you are at in India, to Naveen’s level.
In your assessment what is the distance between Naveen and the rest in India?
It’s bridgeable. It’s not massive. Certainly from the racing scene in Bengaluru, Coimbatore and some of the other races, I would say – there are very good cyclists. But again, they need the structure and support system to close that gap. They need to be able to visualize where they are now, where they wish to be and what steps they should take to go beyond it. After that they can think of what races they should do outside India. It is one step at a time. It will be great if in the next couple of years – with what Naveen is doing – if we go from one Naveen John to maybe five or six. And then maybe one of them will break through and something will happen. We need to create that structure, that process and that support network.
It is very common in India to link our lagging behind in sports to economic development. In the case of bicycles, despite big volumes traditionally produced in India, it is less than two decades since we have had modern cycles being available. Would you accept that as a valid excuse for where we find ourselves in, in bicycle racing?
No, no. Because by exactly the same argument, running in the city is a bigger sport and running costs only a pair of trainers. You have wonderful races in running all through the year in India. But we don’t see performance. So no, I don’t buy equipment as a valid excuse.
So it boils down to passion and how much you will drive yourself to get to that level….
Yes. Again I will use my native country as example. We had the big running boom in the 1980s. The first London Marathon was in 1981. Within a few years hundreds of thousands of people were running and thousands of them were running sub-three hour-marathons. It just exploded, talent grew and the performances were a match for any other nation. I can’t tell you why this hasn’t happened in India.
There is a lot of premium attached in India to well settled life; pursuit of this ideal shapes Indian existence. An Indian youngster – especially one who isn’t wealthy – going into cycling or any sport other than cricket, is written off as walking a risky path. Sometimes even social acceptance is denied. How secure in the mind is the average youngster in Europe wishing to go into cycling?
Certainly they will get social acceptance. You can take up any sport in Europe, join a club and there will be hundreds of similar minded others. But you don’t necessarily take up sport thinking at the back of your mind, that there is livelihood in it, that it is going to be your job. However you may find that you are very good at it because the structure is there; there is the talent spotting and coaching structure. If you do get spotted, you may get invited to play for a team in a higher league or be better supported, whatever the sport. Through that you get opportunities to develop further. The only time you have a sport versus academia issue is when you get guys who are around 18 years of age and there is the question – do I choose sports or do I go to university? Some sports lend themselves to training and academics side by side. Athletics is one. Maybe if you are a football or rugby player that is not possible. Depending on the sport, you make a choice. Most people say: I am 18 years old; I will give sports a shot. If it fails in the next three years, I can always go to university when I am 21. I am not going to lose that much of my life through trying sport.
So would you say that a flexible approach to education and a flexible education system is critical for developing sports? Being able to take a break from studies and going back after a gap….
A lot of people do that. I read about a lot of people who get a seat at university and then ask to defer it for a year. You try to improve in the sport of your choice during that period and if it doesn’t work out, then you go back to academics.
What would be the most important pieces of advice you would give a youngster in India wishing to be a good, strong bicycle racer?
Whatever you do, you got to get the basics right. First, you don’t need the most expensive equipment. A basic heart rate monitor for instance, will suffice. Second, learn to ride the bike properly in terms of bike handling, developing smooth cadence and technique of pedaling; you got be able to do 90 rpm for hours at a time with relaxed shoulders, using your core to keep you upright and eventually you have to be good at bike handling. Third; rest. In training, there will be hard sessions and light sessions. But you must rest. The harder you train, the longer you have to rest. It is very difficult to pull back riders who are thinking I have got to train hard; I have got to train hard. At some point, you haven’t got to train hard, you got to train easy. You have to let yourself recover.
What got you into cycling and what got you to being a coach for cycling?
The first is easy – it was a broken ankle. I was a regional level club athlete for 25 years. I used to do 1500m, 5000m and steeplechase in summer and cross-country races in winter. This was interspersed with road races. Then I broke my ankle. I returned to running, got back to training and then realized that it was going to take me another year to get back to the fitness level I used to be at. I was 35 years old and I decided – realistically I wouldn’t get any faster. The only thing left for me was to either improve my half marathon personal best or try the marathon, which I wasn’t interested in. So I took up cycling in 2007 because I wanted a sport that would keep me fit and also be fun to indulge in. The competitive drift slowly occurred and I found myself chasing benchmarks. I soon progressed from doing a couple of rides a week to joining a club, competing, racing and so on. Up until 2015 I had a full time job in consumer goods product development. From 2013 to 2015 I used the services of a full time cycling coach. I enjoyed working with him. In 2015, my wife and I moved to Mumbai for her career. I resigned my job and the question cropped up – do I want to use this time to do something I love? I took the opportunity to avail the coaching classes available with British Cycling. That has taken me two and a half years. I have got to level three, which is the highest level.
The wonder of a UK club is that the people coaching you are genuinely qualified to help you get better. I was lucky to learn from some really good people over the last 37 years whether it was athletics and running or cycling. Working with British Cycling has taken that to another level. They have worked with British Academy, British pro teams, British Olympic development team and other global federations. The tools and details they gave me, I am now passing on to those training with me. All I am doing is, help my trainees create a structure for themselves such that they can be the best they can be because I cannot influence the state or national structure. I have written to the national body three times and that was it. However I can work with athletes and help them. It brings us back to the beginning of our conversation – what is missing is that structure. You give the athletes the training, the coaching and advice and then if they have a structure in their sport, they can thrive.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)