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.)        

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