Riyaz A. Batey is Managing Director of Unique Fitness Pvt Ltd and Director, Golden Bird Sports and Adventure Pvt Ltd. The latter entity – Golden Bird – has an agreement with Cycling Federation of India (CFI) to organize an Indian Cycling League (ICL), which will feature a crop of velodrome based-races annually. Mr Batey spoke to this blog recently about ICL.
Can you explain the reasons that prompted the concept of Indian Cycling League?
I used to be a cyclist participating in competitions. I represented the country from 1989 to 1992. Later I joined my father’s business. After 2010 I felt that I should do something because cycling – as sport – had given me a lot. That’s how I met up with the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), the state level association and started doing whatever I could do – like sponsor teams and provide equipment. Then we found that the riders were good but unfortunately due to lack of financial support, there were other elements missing. If the riders get financial support; they get into teams, there are good foreign riders coming over to ride here, our riders get to ride abroad and the two practise together – then, we could potentially reach another level. That’s how we got around to approaching the CFI and they were happy to offer us rights to the league. The idea is to not only support the riders but also the technicians, the coaches – they would get more awareness and opportunities.
When was the agreement with CFI signed?
We had the agreement in place in 2017. Prior to that, we talked to them for almost a year. We discussed how the league should be, when the league should start, what teams to have, what kind of riders to take aboard. There are more than 17 different verticals in track racing. The league had to be within the velodrome because only then can you adequately address issues like broadcasting. For this, it had to be inside a velodrome rather than on the road. We had to however trim the competition verticals because there is always time constraint. The national championship takes five days. That won’t work. So we cut down the events to seven from 17 – these are the more aggressive, compact, viewer friendly races.
Have you got your broadcast partner in place?
No. Right now – no. We are talking to a couple of broadcasters. We have already met the sports minister and he said he would like to support the initiative. It is not easy to find sponsors for events in cycling in India. So we have to also look for support from government.
Who are the constituents expected to put in resources for the league?
We are looking for private resources in the main. The government already conducts the national championship and regional championships like the Asian championship. A league is a private initiative and the government cannot do much; they will have their reservations. We are therefore looking more towards private companies.
What is the feedback so far?
A few corporates are interested. Indian riders are now performing well in the international arena. So, private companies are interested in supporting a cycling league.
Is the decision to keep ICL velodrome-based also inspired by the fact it leads to better capacity utilization of sports infrastructure; not to mention – the infrastructure pays back instead of merely consuming resources?
That is very true. We have 12 velodromes in the country of which 11 have concrete surface. The Delhi velodrome is an excellent velodrome. But that is only one. For a variety of reasons not all of the velodromes we have are maintained well. Riders are not able to train on them. Once we get into ICL, we would like to make sure that the velodromes hosting events are in good condition. Our events are not going to be centered in Delhi. For ICL, we hope to have events in Ludhiana, Jaipur, Thiruvananthapuram, in Assam…..
Given not all velodromes are in good shape, how many of the 12 do you plan to use for ICL?
In the initial phase we will have our events in Delhi, Ludhiana, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram. In phase two, we will add Jaipur, maybe Amritsar.
There is a difference in quality between the Delhi velodrome and the rest. How will you accommodate that in the standardization of parameters for ICL?
Delhi’s is one of the best velodromes; it is centrally air conditioned and with wooden track, the sort used in international circuits at present. Broadcasting facilities are inbuilt. If I compare it with the best from the rest, like Jaipur, Ludhiana or Thiruvananthapuram, then obviously there is a gap – the others are open, the track is made of concrete. We need to do something about it. If we organize ICL including these other velodromes, then we enhance the possibility of addressing the gap between them and Delhi.
Would the idea at ICL be to use the concrete velodromes for the initial rounds and host the finals in Delhi?
Correct. Our plan for 2019 is to start in Ludhiana, work our way to the other cities and conclude with finals in Delhi. To begin with, we will have four disciplines, each at a particular location with velodrome and then have the finals of all four in Delhi. You must also think of logistics. The whole team involved will be large. Taking the caravan across the country will be a challenge. So in the beginning, we would like to keep the distances for transport as compact as possible. Our contract is for 20 years – 10 plus 10 – once ICL stabilizes, we can think of expanding the number of cities it goes to.
There is obviously a contract fee you pay CFI. I suppose that is locked in for 20 years….
It is locked in for 10 years after which it is open to renegotiation.
Would the processes and composition of league at ICL be similar to the leagues we now have in other sports? Will there for instance be player auctions?
We won’t have auctions for the first two years. One reason is that cycling is as yet, a niche sport in the country. Those putting in the money to form teams may not have much of an idea about who are the best cyclists around. The organizers of ICL will therefore make and supply the teams initially for a fixed rate. From the third year onward, we will have auctions. The teams will have some sort of geographical identity – they can represent cities or states. Currently we are looking at 10-12 teams to start with.
Even as you select the team in the initial stage, will the rider have the option of choosing the geography he / she would like to represent?
No, we are not putting up that option right now. At present in Indian cycling, a few states are very strong. Andaman; Kerala, Punjab, Maharashtra – they are strong in track cycling. We need to distribute it and make teams balanced. If I give them category `A’ riders, then I should make sure they also get category `C’ riders. There was a selection process in Delhi and we have shortlisted 150 national riders. Each team will have four international riders – two male, two female – and 11 national riders. The international riders will be there from the start. We have already spoken to good international riders from UK, France and Australia.
If you delay the auction process to the third year then what incentive do you offer an international rider?
They will be on a fixed fee. See the thing is – even the best international riders are not known here. In 2011, we had a race in Mumbai called Tour de India. The organizers got 11 good pro teams. Radio Shack – they have been winners at Tour de France – the whole `A’ category team was here in Mumbai. Nobody knew them. That’s why we want two years to grow familiarity with the sport and spread the idea of ICL around before any auction.
When do you expect ICL to start?
We are targeting end of 2019. There are UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) events which happen every year. We have to make sure that ICL does not clash with our national championship and any major events of the UCI.
Given the international calendar of events and the national calendar, does it appear possible that ICL can settle into a fixed time frame annually?
That is the idea. As a CFI event, ICL will be part of the CFI calendar. Three years down the line our wish is that it becomes part of the UCI calendar as well. But yes, it needs some time; it needs to grow and prove that it is an event of quality.
There are CFI events in this country and non-CFI ones. Some events from the latter category are pretty robust. I have heard of CFI discouraging participation at non-CFI events. At the end of the day, talent is talent, whether it be with CFI or otherwise. Will cyclists appearing for ICL be discouraged from participating in non-CFI events?
ICL will be conducted under CFI. We will have riders who are licensed with CFI. So it will be mostly riders who are representing the state, part of the national team or part of the national academy. Apart from them there are riders who are not part of this fraternity. They are welcome to showcase their talent. If they are good enough we wouldn’t mind taking them. But if you take velodrome based-racing, then nobody else apart from CFI, conducts such races in the country. The selection process is open to anyone capable of the required timing. That said; there is a hierarchy of selection, which is followed all the way to being part of the national team. Thus if you are in Mumbai and wish to represent Maharashtra, you have to contact the Maharashtra Cycling Association. This hierarchy will be respected at ICL.
What if somebody comes from non-CFI backdrop and makes the cut for ICL at open trials. Will he / she then be barred from returning to the non-CFI racing they used to do?
We are not going into such details. What we are saying is – you carry your license; there is a cycling license issued by the UCI through the CFI and the state body then gives it to you. That license allows you to ride anywhere across the globe. Nobody can restrict you. We follow guidelines given by the UCI and CFI. Our races are going to be in velodromes.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)