Zarir Baliwalla (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Please scroll down to the end of this article for update.

Three men from Mumbai gear up to attempt a relay swim across the English Channel in July 2019. Completing the quartet will be a South African lady, an experienced swimmer who has crossed the channel before.

For 35 years Zarir Baliwalla was a smoker. He led a quiet life, managing his business, Baliwalla & Homi Private Ltd.

“ When I hit 50 years of age, I wanted a healthy lifestyle and started running,’’ Zarir, now 58, said. Years ago while at school – Cathedral School in South Mumbai – young Zarir was involved in a number of sports; running, swimming and hockey. None of that was at serious competitive level.

The years of running helped him pick up the recreational activity well. “ I used to run on my own on Marine Drive. I would see a lot of runners; they would wish me during the run. One of them, Pervin Batliwala, asked me to join her group, Savio’s Stars built around Coach Savio D’Souza,’’ he said.

Zarir ran with the group whenever possible. He got into the emergent trend of running half marathons and 10 kilometre-races at events. He participated in the Mumbai Marathon, Goa River Marathon and Delhi Half Marathon, besides others.

In due course, running became mundane. Some of the group members moved to triathlons to escape boredom.

“ I heard about triathlon from some of the members of the group. I resumed swimming to balance my physical activity across disciplines,’’ he said. He also bought his first bicycle, a Trek mountain bike. “ Those days, everybody used a MTB but I realised soon that I needed a road bike for triathlons. I bought a road bike later,’’ he said.

Zarir and a few of his friends used to organize triathlons in Mumbai periodically as practice sessions. In 2017, he enrolled for the Goa Triathlon, an Olympic distance-event. “ One week before the event I crashed my bike,’’ he said.

The diversification in sport, he commenced, continued. From running, he had shifted focus to triathlons; pretty soon he was enrolling for swimming events.

During his school years and later as an adult, Zarir’s experience in swimming was confined to pools. “ It was when I got into open water swimming that I realized, I enjoyed swimming in the sea,’’ he said.

In December 2017, triathlete and national level swimmer, Samiir Wheaton, proposed the idea of swimming the English channel as a four-member relay team to Zarir Baliwalla and a couple of other friends.

The idea seemed preposterous to Zarir. “ After all, I am not such a strong swimmer as Samiir,’’ Zarir said from his desk at the office of Baliwalla & Homi Private Ltd in Marine Lines, South Mumbai.

Samiir was keen to swim the English Channel solo. But instead of plunging into it directly he had chosen the more prudent option of doing a relay swim ahead of attempting a solo swim, Zarir said.

“ The English Channel is a coveted objective for open water swimmers. The shortest distance across the Channel as the bird flies is 32 kilometers but when you swim, the distance can stretch to 38-40 kilometers depending on currents, wind and the tide,’’ he said.

Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Zarir)

Apart from Samiir and Zarir, two others were roped in to complete a relay quartet – Moiz Rajkotwala and Anirban Mukherji. Moiz is a marathon, ultra-marathon runner and triathlete. Anirban is also runner and a triathlete.

They set out to study the process involved in attempting the English Channel. Swimmers have to register with either of the two international bodies associated with the English Channel – Channel Swimming Association and Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation.

For the relay swim, the participants are required to have a qualifying swim of two hours non-stop in the sea with water temperature below 16 degrees. Swimmers are not allowed a wet suit. They have to enter the water in swimming trunks, goggles and cap.

In January this year, Anirban had to drop out due to medical issues. Sudarshan Chari, a swimmer and triathlete, replaced him in the team to maintain the quartet.

Sudarshan has been swimming from his school days; he has participated in school level competitions. “ Swimming was always part of my life. But it was mostly confined to swimming in the pool. About three years ago, I got into open water swimming,’’ Sudarshan said. He became part of the Goa Open Water Swimming Club.

The club started organising swimming competitions, known as Swimathon. Triathletes and swimmers have been enrolling for the event since it commenced. Over the last three years, Sudarshan has enrolled for various distances – three, five and ten kilometers. At this year’s Swimathon in February 2019, Sudarshan completed the 10 kilometer swim in four hours, 24 minutes, 47 seconds.

In March 2019, Sudarshan enrolled for the Ocean Walker Swimming Camp held at Malta. The coach at the camp was Adam Walker, endurance swimmer and first Englishman to complete the Seven Oceans swim.

“ Adam Walker trained us how to reduce hand movements and use our body instead during long endurance swims,’’ Sudarshan said. Also, the camp ended with a qualifying swim for solo as well as relay swim for the English Channel. Given his aspiration to do the English Channel swim, the qualifying swim was useful.

While Samiir, Moiz and Sudarshan were already qualified for the swim, Zarir had to travel to England for a qualifying swim in May. His guide for the qualifying swim was Loretta Cox, a long-distance swimmer and coach, who has completed the English Channel swim multiple times.

“ She did not allow me to do my qualifying swim on the first day. She said I needed to get used to the cold waters before attempting the swim. On the first day I swam for 15 minutes, on the second day I did two swims – one for 20 minutes and another for 30 minutes and on the third day I did two sessions of one hour each,’’ he said. On the fourth day, he did his qualifying swim.

With his qualifying swim in place, the team was all set for the relay swim across English Channel.

The team secured a third position for the July 7-19 (2019) window for the relay swim across the Channel.

Then another setback occurred.

“ Unfortunately, Samiir had to opt out of the proposed swim for personal reasons. We then had to look out for another swimmer to take his place. And that swimmer had to have completed a qualifying swim as there is not enough time to go through preparation and qualifying,’’ Zarir said. He approached various open water swimming forums seeking a swimmer to join the trio for the relay.

“ Catherine Stefanutti, a South African swimmer based in the UK, agreed to join us. She has already done the English Channel solo and as part of relay teams couple of times. Her experience should augur well for our team,’’ he said.

Channel Swimming Association (CSA) rules are stringent about how the relay swim has to be carried out. Of the four members of the team, one person starts swimming and has to swim exactly for one hour before the next swimmer takes over. A boat with the pilot, remaining three participants and one observer aboard, accompanies the swimmer.

Swimmers are not allowed to touch the boat during the swim. Stroke rates are also measured. A substantial drop in stroke rates of the swimmer can lead to disqualification, Sudarshan said.

Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Sudarshan)

According to Zarir, adapting to swimming in cold waters is a challenge for those from India, especially people from Mumbai. “ I have switched from shower to bucket bath. I fill my bucket with ice and ensure that the temperature is below 16 degrees for my bath. I am now used to that cold temperature,’’ he said.

The ice water baths do help swimmers to adapt to the cold waters of the English Channel. Nevertheless, challenges of cold water remain. “ Every time you enter the cold water, the body takes time to adjust. In a solo swim the challenge is at the start but in a relay swim you have to adjust to the cold water as many times as you may require to enter the waters to complete the distance,’’ Sudarshan said. Apart from ice baths, the trio also ramped up their swimming mileage to prepare for the long haul.

Through the relay swim, the team is raising funds for Impact Foundation of Tata Memorial Hospital.

“ The idea of raising funds for paediatric oncology came about during my visits to the hospital. As part of the medical equipment business, I had to visit the hospital, where I saw several children in very critical condition. The hospital is doing a lot voluntarily work but funds are never enough. We would like to contribute some funds to the hospital,’’ Zarir said.

Update / July 14: The quartet comprising Sudarshan Chari, Zarir Baliwala, Moiz Rajkotwala and Catherine Stefanuti completed the relay swim across the English Channel on July 12, 2019 in 14 hours and 59 minutes. In a message after completing the swim, Zarir informed that since 1875, an estimated 817 teams have successfully done this swim ratified by CSA (Channel Swimming Association).

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)


Kabir Rachure (Photo: courtesy Sapana Rachure)

Kabir Rachure has successfully completed the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM).

The cyclist from Navi Mumbai, India, covered the roughly 3000 mile (4800 kilometers) distance in 11 days, 22 hours, 43 minutes, as per results available on the leader board section of the event’s website. RAAM’s course stretches right across the United States, from Oceanside in California on the US west coast, to Annapolis in Maryland on the east.

Kabir’s support crew for RAAM was anchored by his sister Sapana. Earlier, she had been his crew chief for several races in India too. At roughly 260 miles left to finish, she recalled the main challenges the team had faced at RAAM that far. “ Till now Kabir’s longest ride was 1750km Ultra Spice race, which he finished twice. So after that, the entire thing is new territory for us. The biggest problem is sleep management after the sixth day,’’ she said. According to her, Kabir was sleeping around two and quarter hours daily with short naps during daytime as required. They had three support vehicles and a crew of ten. All crew members were from India. The team had four bicycles for use during RAAM – a Lapierre Pulsium, a Lapierre Aircode, a Colnago C-RS and a Specialized.

Kabir, 29, is the third Indian cyclist to complete RAAM in the solo category.

The previous such finishes were in 2017, when Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath earned the distinction of being the first Indian solo cyclist to complete RAAM. He finished in 11 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes. Srinivas was followed by Dr Amit Samarth, who became the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category in the very first attempt in 11 days, 21 hours, 11 minutes. That year, Kabir too was there at RAAM; he was part of support crew for Samim Rizvi, cyclist from Bengaluru. Among Indian cyclists, Samim had been a pioneer at attempting RAAM solo. Unfortunately Samim’s 2017 attempt ended up DNF (Did Not Finish), somewhere past 900 kilometers into the race. Not wanting to give up on his chance to see the RAAM route, Kabir had then taken a car and gone up till Durango in Colorado before returning to California and later, back to India.

Kabir Rachure (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

These solo rides aside, the first Indian finish at RAAM was in 2015 when the Mahajan brothers – Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – completed the race in eight days, 11 hours as a two person-team.

In other finishes at RAAM 2019, Brazil’s Daniela Genovesi crossed the finish line first among women solo riders. She covered the distance in 10 days, 17 hours, 59 minutes. Coming in second was Leah Goldstein of Canada, who reached the finish line in 10 days, 19 hours, 28 minutes. Both riders belong to the 50-59 years age category. Daniela’s average speed of 11.9 miles per hour is a new record at RAAM for women in this age group.

For more on Kabir Rachure please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/12/19/three-years-and-raam/

The 2019 edition of RAAM also saw Krishna Prakash, senior police officer from Mumbai complete the shorter Race Across West (RAW), a race carved out from the initial stages of RAAM. His crew chief was Amit Samarth.

Seana Hogan (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of RAAM)

Update: Seana Hogan completed the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM) in 13 days, four hours, 23 minutes.

In a report dated June 24, available on the event’s Facebook page, the race organizers said: Seana Hogan (USA) arrived on City Dock here in Annapolis at 8:31 last night, to make a success out of her being our first-ever age 60-69 entrant. This 13th RAAM for Hogan was a dramatic one indeed. After being up among the younger women in this year’s field of 8 women for the first 1/3 of the race, she was stopped in Colorado for nearly 24 hours to attend to saddle sores.

As our first 60-69 entrant, Hogan was granted additional time to finish in an effort to establish a benchmark for that category.

Seana Hogan is among best known names at RAAM. A six time-winner of RAAM, she holds the record for the highest number of wins among women at the event. She won in 1992, 1993, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1998.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

If you compare length for length, then over 60 per cent of Race Across America (RAAM) is uncharted experience for riders from India.

RAAM is a little over 3000 miles (approximately 4800 kilometers) long.

The longest Indian ultra-cycling event serving as qualifier for RAAM is Ultra Spice, which spans 1750 kilometers (1087 miles); the race proceeds from Goa to Coorg, Wayanad and Ooty and then returns to finish in Goa. The 1750 kilometers length of this race means that somewhere past the first one third of RAAM’s 3000 miles in the US; Indian riders begin to tackle unfamiliar waters. Will having a race longer than Ultra Spice on the domestic circuit help shrink that element of unknown at RAAM and similar races elsewhere?

“ Yes obviously,’’ Divya Tate of Inspire India, organizers of Ultra Spice said, adding, “ just as doing RAAM once or even failing at it, makes it easier to do it next time! But seriously, training approaches worldwide don’t demand for you to do the distance while you train, especially not for ultra-cycling.’’ Having qualified for RAAM and trained for it diligently, Lt Col Bharat Pannu was supposed to participate in the 2019 edition of the race. But an unfortunate injury sustained in rides ahead of race in the US, forced him to withdraw. Asked whether he thought having a race longer than Ultra Spice in the domestic circuit would help reduce the unknown in RAAM, Bharat said, “ as per my experience, the distance of 1750 kilometers provides you with all necessary experience required for RAAM, except the distance. And for distance such as RAAM, it becomes a test of your mental strength and your ability to endure pain. Definitely, a longer race will prove to be beneficial,’’ he said.

According to Divya, Ultra Spice is the bridge between the minimum RAAM qualifiers of 640 kilometers and RAAM itself. “ One doesn’t need to participate in longer ultra-races to train for RAAM. Crewing or doing team at RAAM would however be highly recommended before attempting solo. Also with four RAAM qualifiers being offered in India, a lead-up to RAAM solo or team should include as many of these, offering a variety of terrain and challenges, which is why these were created.,’’ she said.

If a longer race is to be created in India, what will be the challenges?

“ The biggest challenges are monitoring, funding and the participation numbers. Inspire India does have two ultra-races that have been in the pipeline for 3-4 years that we can only now consider putting up since we have affordable tracking devices in India. Funding these big races is not yet happening and they are really hard to run. The longer the race, the lower the number of people able to or interested in participating, and these races are expensive to participate with support vehicles etc. Which is why the two races – The Great Coast Race and The K2K Ultra will have a different format, closer to bike-pack racing. The expense of participation is also why we have now created a separate category in Ultra Spice 1750, which is unsupported or without personal support vehicles. But the unsupported category is not a RAAM qualifier,’’ Divya said.

In 2017, Amit Samarth had become the second Indian to complete RAAM solo and the first to finish it in his first attempt. In 2018, he had successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme; a 15-stage, 9100 kilometer-long race in Russia. He had a very simple matrix as reply for the question this blog posed on whether a race longer than Ultra Spice in India, would help Indians tackle RAAM better. According to him: longer the race, longer the recovery. “ You can do a race that is longer than Ultra Spice to reduce that element you call the unknown in RAAM. But it should be done at least 5-6 months before RAAM,’’ Amit said. He suspects Indian cyclists may be over-training for RAAM. That is what happened to him in 2017. Not knowing what to expect, he trained rigorously and ended up feeling tired during the actual race in the US. “ What we don’t realize is that in India, we do too many races. It makes us mentally surer of the distance but eventually it also makes us physically slower,’’ he said of the folly in overlooking rest and recovery. Amit thinks cyclists like Christoph Strasser (2019 marked his sixth victory at RAAM solo) don’t exhaust themselves doing very long rides in training.

Photo imaging: Shyam G Menon

Strasser at RAAM is a treat to watch on the race’s live tracker. RAAM solo and RAW solo (Race Across West; a smaller race within RAAM) start on the same day. Those riding as multi member-teams start later. In 2019, Strasser steadily pulled ahead of the field, hung in there and finished first. The gap between him and second placed soloist was palpable. In that gap, a few teams raced in (because they cycle in relay format, they cover ground faster) to cross the finish line. It was after this early flurry of team finishes that the rest of the solo racers started completing the race. Simply put – keeping aside other issues like sleep management and experienced crew, Strasser rides faster than others. His average speed at 2019 RAAM over the eight days, six hours, 16 minutes he took to reach the finish line, was 15.48 miles per hour. The fastest team this year at RAAM was the 4-person Team Alpha from Austria; riding in relay format they covered the course in five days, 15 hours, 33 minutes at an average speed of 22.65 miles per hour.

After RAAM 2017, when Amit decided to head for Trans-Siberian Extreme, he knew two things – the race in Russia at 9100 kilometers is significantly longer than RAAM; he didn’t want to repeat what happened to him at RAAM 2017. He connected with Pierre Bischoff of Germany – Bischoff is a much experienced ultra-cyclist; 2016 winner of RAAM – to learn how best to prepare. Bischoff’s suggestion was to focus on two aspects – speed and recovery. “ I made sure I did not over-train for Trans-Siberian Express,’’ Amit said. He became the first Indian to complete Trans-Siberian Extreme; Bischoff won it.

So if needlessly piling on miles in training is unwise, how then do you tackle the unknown in RAAM?

“ There is no other way but to deal with it mentally. One thing you must understand about ultra-cycling is that because the distances involved are huge, you cannot cover all aspects in training as you would for a marathon. There will always be the unknown,’’ Amit said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)      


Nanda Khat, Peak 6477 and Nanda Devi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

IMF team also reaches accident spot / Please scroll down for updates

Late evening June 23, the media reported that a team of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), dispatched to recover the bodies of climbers believed to have met with an avalanche on Peak 6477 near Nanda Devi East, has recovered seven bodies from under the snow.

According to a senior ITBP official quoted in the report, the bodies were found “ on the western ridge of the peak towards the Pindari Glacier.”  Peak 6477 is on the ridge continuing from Nanda Khat towards Nanda Devi East. It is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary; Nanda Khat is close to the Pindari Glacier.

The fully linked line shows the route taken by the IMF team, which commenced its walk-in from Khati on June 12. The dotted line shows the route taken by the ITBP team, which was air-dropped to Nanda Devi East Base Camp on the Johar side, on June 15. The Base Camp, ABC and Camp 1 mentioned on the map refer to the IMF team’s progress from the Pindari Glacier side. This map is an approximation and is not to scale (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

The bodies, including that of a woman, have not been formally identified. That will be possible once the bodies are brought down to base camp, the reports said.

It was in end-May that news broke of eight climbers (seven from overseas plus the team’s liaison officer from India), part of an expedition that had set out to attempt Nanda Devi East, reported missing following avalanche on Peak 6477. The expedition was led by well-known British mountaineer and mountain guide, Martin Moran.

In subsequent search operations, helicopter sorties by the Indian Air Force (with some of the surviving members of the expedition aboard to refine area of search) had sighted five bodies in the snow and ample evidence of avalanche.

Besides a large team composed of personnel from ITBP, State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) dispatched from the Munsyari side, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) had also sent a team for recovery operations. The latter headed up from the Pindari Glacier side.

For more reports providing background, please refer the list of articles on this blog dating from end-May.

Update / June 25: The IMF team has also reached the site where the bodies have been located by ITBP. “ They will now join the ITBP in searching for the eighth body and work out a joint plan for bringing the bodies back,” a senior IMF official informed today.

The 12 member-IMF team started walking from Khati village on June 12.  They approached the accident site from the Pindari Glacier side while the ITBP team was dropped by Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters at the Nanda Devi East Base Camp (on the Johar side accessed from Munsyari) on June 15.

“ Bad weather has given both teams a difficult time and while the ITBP team reached the site on Sunday, the IMF team got there today,” the official informed.

Update / June 30: According to reliable sources, the Indian Air Force (IAF) having identified a spot at 15,500 feet in the Lavan Valley, where a helicopter can land, carried out a trial landing. The ITBP and disaster management personnel will take 2-3 days to carry the bodies to this location on foot. From there, the bodies will be airlifted to Pithoragarh. It is also understood that the camps of the IMF team, spread over the south side in the Pindari Valley, are being wound up and the team will be moving down.

In a separate development, two media reports, one quoting the district magistrate of Pithoragarh and the other quoting a senior ITBP official, said that the search for the eighth climber has been “ abandoned.”

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Naveen John (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Naveen John is among India’s best bicycle racers. More importantly, he is a pioneer; one of those early birds into the cutting edge of sport, forced to explore and find their way in the pursuit of excellence. Through the rough and tumble of race results he has kept a personal project alive – the Indian Cycling Project (ICP). There is a small but growing number of ICP alumni in the top echelons of Indian cycling now. 

Calais is a name known well to swimmers.

It is the French city closest to England.

Presiding over the Straits of Dover (the narrowest part of the English Channel) on the French side, Calais affords a view of the white cliffs of Dover across the channel, on a clear day. Many swimmers conclude their channel crossing near here. Calais falls in Hauts de-France, the northern most region of France. The origins of the Scheldt River are also in Hauts de-France, at Gouy. From here, the Scheldt flows into Belgium next door and eventually meets the sea in Netherlands. One of its tributaries is the small river called Durme. Lokeren is a Belgian town on the banks of Durme. It is in the province of East Flanders. It is unlikely that many of us in India would have heard of Lokeren.

A clutch of Indian cyclists, however, have.

In 2018, one of India’s best bicycle racers scored a podium finish here at the annual Lokeren kermesse.

“ That podium finish has been the highlight of my life in cycling so far,’’ Naveen John, former national champion, said. Naveen placed third. The event was won by Jonas Goeman. What made the Lokeren kermesse special was the result of the Belgian National Championships that took place two days later. Finishing second at the Belgian Nationals was Jonas Goeman. For Naveen, it felt fantastic to have been on the podium in Lokeren, alongside one of the leading cyclists of Belgium, a country at the heart of bicycle racing.

“ Lokeren is not one of those internationally significant races. But getting a podium finish there and knowing that the winner is one of Belgium’s best made it special for me. It will fuel the ambition of other Indian cyclists coming after me,’’ Naveen said. It wasn’t his first season in Belgium. Having decided that his route to exploring and knowing the higher levels of bicycle racing lay through the land of Eddy Merckx, he had been on Belgium’s kermesse circuit before. As had some other Indian cyclists, who were known to Naveen. It was a small, tightly knit group. News of their annual trips had been shared on social media.

“ This time, two 17 year-old cyclists from Hyderabad also showed up in Belgium. They came on their own. That is really great,’’ Naveen said.

Two pictures of Naveen before the start of the Drongen kermesse. The one on the left is from his first day in Belgium in 2015, when he was racing for KYNKYNY. The other is from a recent season in Belgium in 2018, when he raced for Ciclo. Both photos were taken by a local supporter who shared these pictures with Naveen (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

Naveen’s team for 2018 included Arvind Panwar, Gagan Reddy and Sreenath Lakshmikanth. A week after Lokeren, Arvind placed in the top ten at a kermesse in Bottelare. That was the last race of the season for the visiting Indians.

Welcome to the Indian Cycling Project (ICP). It all goes back to the end of a fantastic project and a corpus of money it left. A March 2018 article on Naveen available on this blog cites the roots: 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 (bicycle racing team), 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.

(From left) Arvind Panwar, Arvind Anirudh, Naveen, Sreenath Lakshmikanth, Prajwal Pingali, and Gagan Reddy, in Belgium in 2018. This was right after an Indian dinner the ICP Class of 2018 cooked for Arvind and Prajwal. The two 17 year-olds had followed the ICP pathway themselves (with parent’s support), all the way from Hyderabad to Belgium. They spent a month in Belgium, racing and training (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

This was the seed of the Indian Cycling Project.

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. To 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.

Naveen was not part of the Belgium trip in 2016. That year he put together the ICP Class of 2016, which included Makarand Mane from Pune, Parashuram Chenji from Hyderabad and Arvind Panwar from Meerut. Naveen had to be in Australia.

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.

May, 2019. We were at the same outdoor café in Bengaluru that we had met in early 2018.

Arvind and Naveen after their last race in Belgium in 2018 at the Bottelare kermesse. They are seen here with Philippe, a spectator they befriended in 2017, who has been very supportive of the ICP team, handing them feeds at a lot of races. “ He does it purely because we’re there racing, all the way from India and don’t have any local support,” Naveen said (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

According to Naveen, the reason he persisted with ICP’s Belgium engagement is that it challenged a committed cyclist in all departments. It isn’t about any one skill; it is about everything that makes you cyclist. “ Belgium is the deep end of bicycle racing. It raises all aspects of your fitness. It forces you to unlock your potential as sum total of all the parts. Every aspect gets pulled up,’’ Naveen said. The kermesse season also tied in neatly with the national championships back in India. You could come back and devote a month to focus on specifics, relevant to the particular discipline you participate in at the nationals.

An unexpected summer squall sent things flying at the cafe.

We headed for the big building next door to shelter from the near horizontal rain and wait out the altered atmospherics.

2018 had been a year of realization for Naveen. The Belgium visit had gone on well. A podium at a kermesse was simply fantastic. On return to India however, there was reality check to cope with. At the 2018 National Cycling Championships, Naveen finished second in individual time trial (ITT). Gold went to Arvind (ICP Class of 2016, 2017 and 2018 and a fellow rider on the team Naveen managed – Ciclo Team Racing). There were good things happening for ICP alumni, riders on the team he was managing, those he was coaching or had coached / mentored. Aman Punjani (ICP Class of 2015, 2017 and formerly coached by Naveen) won the under-23 road race and ITT. It was a repeat of the double Naveen had achieved for the first time at the previous nationals. Gagan placed fourth in under-23 ITT; Sreenath placed fifth in under-23 road race – both had been coached by Naveen and were part of the ICP Class of 2018. For Naveen though, it was the first time in the past several years that he was ending up without gold medal at the nationals. “ It woke me up to the significance of the nationals,’’ he said. Immediate fallout of the result at the nationals was that he wasn’t in the first selection for ITT for the Indian team heading for the Asian Championships. Arvind made the cut. Naveen let Arvind know early that he wouldn’t contest the decision by seeking a selection trial, which would have affected the preparations of both the riders leading into the Asian Championships. Thanks to his second place, Naveen was however first choice for the team doing the road race at the championships. But something wasn’t right. What went wrong?

Riding to second place-finish in ITT at the 2018 nationals (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

Naveen normally speaks with precision; it is a tenor that reminds listener of the technical subject he studied once for profession – electrical engineering. In the foyer of the big building with a security guard constantly reminding us that we weren’t supposed to sit there and chat, I could sense Naveen’s search for answer. He recalled that in 2018, for some reason, he hadn’t been able to follow a pattern of training that normally graced his preparation for the nationals. There was lack of motivation. Usually, ahead of major competition, he goes into hermit mode. Late-2018, that didn’t happen. Then, he thought a bit and added, “ It is not easy to win the Indian nationals anymore. Your closest friends are your main rivals now. But that competitiveness is critical. The level of performance in the sport is rising.’’ You wonder if life smacked of mineral leaching. Everyone struggles, finds their respective key to unlocking ability through exploration, experimentation and intense personal search. Then, in that inevitable requirement to advance further – team formation – best practices and learning get shared. What you know goes to others; what others know comes to you. And as gaps get evened out, competitor needs to hone his game further to stay ahead. It is particularly true in sports where young blood is constantly snapping at your heels.

Prior to making Bengaluru his base, Naveen had the good fortune of cycling in the US. It gave him perspective in the sport; showed him how things are done. The power meter measures performance objectively. Unlike heart rate monitors, it is more instant in feedback. The wattage it shows indicates how hard you are cycling / training. In 2012 – the year he moved to India – Naveen was the only cyclist competing at national level in India who used a power meter in training. A strong votary of the device, he functioned like an ambassador promoting it. Now there are many cyclists in India – including those reporting for the nationals – using it. Thanks to such practices and others like it shared, gaps had closed. Such is life. You don’t complain. But you can’t help reflecting either.

Reflecting on the 2018 nationals (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

Post 2018 nationals, Naveen realized that he had too many things on his plate. He needed to step back from running a team (Ciclo) to focus on himself. “ Ciclo was founded with three goals in mind. We wanted to support the best riders in India to push the envelope. We wanted to develop a path ahead for young riders. We wanted to share the story of what we do,’’ Naveen said.

Cycling teams are driven by passion. Problem is – top end performers blaze a trail that opens a significant gap between them and where the bulk of the market is. This gap is sizable in markets like India where the majority is bogged down in the daily battle to survive. Premium bicycles, to which category road bikes and bicycle races belong is currently a luxury, both in terms of affordability and the ability to devote time for cycling. Not to mention – the challenging traffic environment confronting cyclist in India. The larger the gap, the tougher becomes the task of making top end performers sensible to the mass market. Across sports, companies like to support a bridgeable divide, not one that is formidable and threatens to vaporize as spectacle. For the talented, this is a major problem in the Indian ecosystem.

In India, bicycle manufacturers have traditionally moved with the market, even trailed it but almost never, stayed ahead of it. Even the push to sell premium bicycles happened after a new company having none of the traditional baggage, dared to sell upmarket bicycles. Like its predecessors and contemporaries in India, Ciclo too – it is a joint venture between Ciclo Café and TI Cycles – is limited by the nature of the Indian bicycle market. Nevertheless, it would seem that the team tried its best to meet the earlier stated basic expectations. The Belgian chapter was born from ICP but Ciclo supported it; the 2018 and 2019 teams to Belgium were almost entirely Ciclo riders. Naveen wanted to keep ICP brand-agnostic. There were instances when cyclists associated with competing bicycle brands joined the annual trip to Belgium. Ciclo didn’t say no to that.

Naveen (second from right) riding in the escape of four riders that went on to contest the win at the Lokeren Doorselaar kermesse in 2018. Jonas Goeman in the foreground of the picture (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

What was truly a moment to pause and reevaluate for Naveen, was the loss of gold at the nationals. It suddenly brought to focus two important issues – he wasn’t getting any younger; he had a few things to aspire for while age was still on his side. “ For 2019, I’m almost done bringing together a coalition of brands that see the value my sweat equity brings and trust the idea-to-execution process solely in my hands. That was something I had to let go off when I had to manage a team of riders and look after the team’s and rider’s interests first,’’ Naveen said. What is center-stage is brand agnostic ICP with the Belgium visits therein.

Sample two outcomes of the annual Belgium visits that make it feel encouraging.

“ With an estimated crowd of 300,000 lining the 190.2-kilometer route, Grewal edged Canadian Steve Bauer to claim the gold medal in the men’s road race, breaking away from the field with 20 kilometers remaining and opening up a 24-second lead after 11 of 12 laps and then being caught by Bauer with 10 kilometers left, setting up a dramatic final-lap showdown. This scene, replayed many times since, is one of the most emotional Olympic victories of the Modern Games’’ – This was the description the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame gave for Alexi Grewal’s gold medal winning-ride at the 1984 Olympic Games. Son of a Punjabi immigrant to the US, he was the first American man to win an Olympic gold medal in road cycling. After Naveen posted about a 2018 kermesse on social media, among those responding was Alexi. Apparently the American national team had followed the same path as ICP. Alexi provided a tip: ahead of race, do a recce of the kermesse route so that you weed out variables and get to focus on racing. That underscored the relevance of ICP and the route it was taking. Same year – 2018 – out of the blue, a Belgian lady had shown Naveen a photo of him from a 2015 kermesse. For Indian cyclist visiting Belgium to participate in the country’s races, it felt wonderful to be remembered so. Talent needs suitable ecosystem; one that is interested in whatever it is that talent is pursuing. If you don’t find it in place that dare not challenge market realities, then you should spend more time where realities are different. After all, it’s one life.

Finishing the Melle pro kermesse in 2018; Naveen (foreground) racing in his ASFRA Flanders team kit. This was his first prof koers start. “ I was super happy to finish the race mid-pack,” he said (Photo: courtesy Naveen John).

According to Naveen, in Belgium, there are two tiers of elite racing: Elite met contract or prof koers for riders with a professional contract (division III, II, or I) to race the professional kermesses; and elite zonder contract, for amateur riders without a contract yet. In Elite met contract, the bulk of riders are professionals – division three riders, but there are also division two and division one (the Tour de France lot) riders in the fray plus invited elite amateur teams. In the elite zonder contract, anyone from elite amateur level plus those from division three, the lowest level of pro cycling, can participate. In 2018, Naveen finished every race he started except one. The list included two prof koers. In Belgium, Naveen and Arvind ride for a club called Asfra Flanders. You have to be part of a club to be part of met contract races. At the very top echelon of met contract races are the Semi-Classics and the Spring Classics. “ I just want to keep pushing my boundaries in terms of results and for what a racer from India has done,’’ Naveen said.

His next goals include working to be in the top-20 in a prof kremesse; try and repeat a podium in a zonder contract kermesse and work towards a podium for India at the Asian Road Cycling Championships in 2020. As of April 2019, he was 33 years old. He has assigned two-three years to address the above. As he navigates all the above mentioned rewiring, the electrical engineer has to also find other means to fund his journey in cycling. In December 2018, he ramped up the number of trainees he was coaching from four to 15. In partnership with a company called Happy Earth, he also got into distributing Power2Max, a German power meter.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Naveen for the clarity provided regarding the types of contracts in cycling. For a more comprehensive overview of Naveen’s life in cycling, read this article as well as an earlier piece called The Electrical Engineer, available in the archives of this blog. For more information on ICP please try this link: https://www.naveenjohn.com/indiancyclingproject)   


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

One example for how money solves nothing is government finances creaking under the load of rising wage and pension bill. Transplant the habit to private sector, you will simply spread the disease. In the urge to appease constituencies monetarily, inequality grows and the economy is stalked by inflation. What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. This demands a very fundamental reinterpretation of life away from mono-cropped imagination. After all, the best way to enjoy Everest without damaging it, is not to have everyone aiming for the top but respect even those content to watch it from far. In other words, spread earnings and opportunities around. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)            


Christoph Strasser (This photo was downloaded from RAAM’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Christoph Strasser has won the solo category of Race Across America (RAAM) for the sixth time.

The Austrian cyclist covered the distance – a little over 3000 miles (roughly 4800 kilometers) from Oceanside, California on the US west coast to Annapolis, Maryland in the east – in eight days, six hours, 51 minutes. The time mentioned is as per commentary accompanying live streaming of the finish, available on the event’s Facebook page and update posted on Strasser’s Instagram account.

With Thursday’s finish (Thursday, June 20, 2019 in India) Strasser, 36, has the maximum number of solo wins at RAAM in the men’s segment. Overall at RAAM, he shares that distinction with veteran woman cyclist, Seana Hogan of the US, who too has six wins to her credit. Last year’s win had put Strasser on par with the late Jure Robic of Slovenia, who won RAAM five times; in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. Strasser won in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and now 2019; he placed second in 2012.

From his six wins at RAAM, two were in the seven-day bracket. The rest took eight days. 2019 would rank second fastest from his kitty of eight-day finishes. His previous timings were: 2011 – eight days, eight hours, six minutes, 2013 – seven days, 22 hours, 52 minutes, 2014 – seven days, 15 hours, 56 minutes, 2017 – eight days, nine hours, 34 minutes and 2018 – eight days, one hour, 23 minutes.  Strasser’s timing from 2014 remains the course record. Among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists, he also owns the record for most distance covered on a road bike in 24 hours – 556.85 miles (896.17 kilometers), set in 2015.

This year there is one Indian cyclist – Kabir Rachure from Navi Mumbai – racing in RAAM’s solo category. In the run up to the 2019 edition of RAAM, two other Indian cyclists who were expected to participate – Sundaram and Lt Col Bharat Pannu – had to pull out due to injury. At the time of writing Kabir had covered 2165 miles as per the race live tracker. In the same age category (under 50) as Strasser, Kabir was placed tenth in that group. Two cyclists from the group had pulled out (DNF – Did Not Finish).

Slovenia’s Marko Baloh (2727 miles covered), Denmark’s Jakob Olsen (2680 miles), SOLO Kiwi / Craig Harper of New Zealand (2520 miles) and Canada’s Peter Oyler (2493 miles) were the cyclists immediately following Strasser. Please note: the miles logged have been rounded off to the nearest whole number and are as seen on live tracker around the time Strasser finished.

Kabir Rachure (right) with Christoph Strasser during a ride ahead of 2019 RAAM, in the US. (This photo was downloaded from Kabir’s Facebook page)

In the case of women the leaders were Brazil’s Daniela Genovesi (2480 miles) and Leah Goldstein of Canada (2447 miles). Both these riders are from the 50-59 years age category. They were followed by Austria’s Alexandra Meixner (2236 miles), Japan’s Chieko Ozawa (2225 miles) and Switzerland’s Isa Pulver (2195 miles).

Seana Hogan was at 2042 miles. She is in the 60-69 years age category. Record holder for the most number of solo wins at RAAM in the women’s category, she won – in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998. She also holds the transcontinental record among women having cycled the distance in nine days, four hours and two minutes.

The first Indian solo finishes at RAAM happened in 2017. Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath earned the distinction of being the first Indian solo cyclist to complete RAAM. He finished in 11 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes. Srinivas was followed by Dr Amit Samarth, who became the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category on the very first attempt in 11 days, 21 hours, 11 minutes. The first Indian finish at RAAM was in 2015 when the Mahajan brothers – Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – completed the race in eight days, 11 hours as a two person-team.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Abdullah Zeinab at the finish in Yorktown (Photo: Chip Coutts / this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Trans Am Bike Race public group and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Melbourne-based cyclist Abdullah Zeinab has won the 2019 Trans Am Bike Race in the US.

He covered the roughly 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) distance in 16 days, nine hours and 56 minutes, a new course record. Abdullah bettered the previous record by over 10 hours, the event’s Facebook page informed in a post early today.

Like Race Across America (RAAM – its roughly 4800km long; its 2019 edition began on June 11), Trans Am too is a coast to coast bike race. Its course stretches from Astoria, Oregon on the US west coast to Yorktown, Virginia on the east. The race passes through ten states. There is however a significant difference between RAAM and Trans Am. The former is a supported race. The cyclist has support crew accompanying him / her in a vehicle; they take care of logistics, navigation, bike maintenance, nutrition, rest and shelter. Trans Am is an unsupported (or self-supported) race with no support crew tagging along. The rider has to take care of everything.

Trans Am cyclists, journey with essential gear packed on their bicycle. Rest and shelter for them is usually a mix of camping, houses and motels. According to Wikipedia, all food, accommodation and repairs on the Trans Am Bike Race have to be purchased from commercial sources. One specialty of Trans Am is that there appears to be no rigid and fast rule on how participants should treat the event. Some take it as a race. Others take it as an opportunity to bike across the United States and see the land. As the clock keeps ticking this difference in perception, shows in the time taken to finish.

In 2018, Trans Am was won by San Diego based-Peter Andersen. He covered the route in 16 days, 20 hours, 41 minutes. At the same event, Nishant Iyengar from Bengaluru, participating in Trans Am for the opportunity to pedal across the US, had finished in 56 days, seven hours, 11 minutes. He placed 56th among 58 finishers. For more on Nishant and Trans Am please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/10/19/america-the-trans-am-way/

In 2018, Abdullah Zeinab had won the unofficial Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5500km bicycle race across Australia, from Perth to Sydney.

This year’s Trans Am Bike Race began early June.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)      


Mercy Kuttan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mercy Kuttan is president of the Kerala Sports Council. An Arjuna Award winner, she is unique among Indian athletes for having excelled in the long jump as well as the 400m. At the 1981 Asian Championships in Athletics, she won bronze in both long jump and 4x400m relay. At the 1982 Asian Games she secured silver in long jump and went on to represent India at the 1983 World Championships in Athletics. Later she switched to sprinting and competed in 400m. She represented India in 400m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, reaching the second round. Continuing her contribution to sports, years later, Mercy and her husband, Murali Kuttan (he is former national champion in 400m and medalist at both Asian Track & Field Championships and Asian Games), started the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy in Kochi. Murali passed away in 2010 following a massive heart attack. Mercy still runs the academy. This blog met her at her residence in Kochi for a chat. Excerpts:

What made you start the academy?

It happened in 2009. We – my husband and I – had been thinking of starting a training academy from 2007. Both of us were international athletes. Plus, he was a qualified coach too. However for everything you need funds. That was a challenge. In 2009, the South Asian Games was held in Kochi. At that event, the then sports minister of Kerala, M. Vijayakumar asked me – why don’t you start the academy? As yet, only P.T. Usha’s school has come up. I said that if the government supports, we will be able to. The minister agreed. There is a process to commencing a training academy. It has to be a non-profitable charitable trust. We registered it so. The understanding was that we should begin work with our own resources and pull through for a year. Then, the government will help. We were lucky to get financial support from three-four friends in the initial stage. It cost us approximately nine lakh (900,000) rupees to get started. We took a couple of flats on rent in Kochi to provide accommodation to the students. At that time, we accepted both boys and girls. The first batch was four boys and seven girls. Within a short while, we realized that managing boys is tough especially when you have mixed batches. So we modified the batch to fully girls; eleven girls.

How was the academy imagined? Was it foreseen as a facility where students stayed, trained for athletics and then proceeded to study at school or college or was it to be an academy meant only for athletics?

We planned it as a place where they came, stayed, had their food, got sports kits, trained for athletics and also went to school from. We arranged all that. In my sports career, I went up to Asian Games and Olympics. My husband had a podium finish at Asian Games. Our goal was to see the academy’s students win laurels that neither of us could; perhaps a medal at the Olympics. That is my focus now.

Similar to the earlier question, someone starting an academy can have two options – you catch them young or you provide a facility that helps polish talent that is already acknowledged and has probably traveled some distance. Which of the two did you want and why?

We wanted to catch them young. There is a reason for it – when you catch them young, you know their foundation years. Otherwise, you end up dealing with someone you really don’t know much about. The problem today is that in the higher camps, medication is sometimes resorted to. I want natural runners. I take students between 11-13 years of age. As a school, we have reached competitions up to Asian Youth Championships and secured podium finish there. If a student already experienced in athletics is brought to me, I insist on knowing well her previous phase in terms of training, circumstances of training and performance. I assign fresh trials and on the basis of that, design the athlete’s training. In 2012, Anu Mariam Jose arrived for training in a similar fashion. In trials, she covered 400m in 57.9 seconds. The claim was that she had done 54.9 or so. I paid no attention to that. I went by my findings. In one year of training with me, she became the best in her category in Kerala. At the nationals, she finished second, gaining entry into the Indian team. In 2013, at the Asian Track and Field Championships in Pune, she ran 53:28 in the senior category. She was asked to report to the national camp. To my mind – whether she wants to go or not, that’s her decision. It is not my decision. I told her so. She told me that if she reported to that camp, she won’t be able to do anything. I then told her that if she doesn’t go, she risked losing opportunities. In competitions that followed, she secured podium finish at many places. Eventually, she made it to the World Championships. For the Olympics that followed she was assigned to the national camp. I told her to go. She refused fearing possibility of medication. She ended her athletics career. That is an example of what can happen to naturally talented runners at present. I said this to highlight the risk in running a school as finishing facility for experienced senior athletes as opposed to one that recruits beginners and knows them for long. The former, in their hunt for improvement, will ditch you and go to whichever facility promises better performance. The latter, if I take them in as beginners, stay on with me till they are 23-24 years old. Should they wish to stay on longer, they are welcome to. After that, if they want to go to national camp, they can make an informed choice. I tell them I have done my bit. Now it’s up to you. Nowadays it is mandatory that top class athletes attend the national camp.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Do you feel comfortable with the national camp being made mandatory for athletes heading to elite events?

It is difficult to agree. But what can you do? That is the rule. For example, two of our students went for Asian junior championships. Both had medal prospects. They were required to report at the camp, a week and a half before departure. That is the time to perfect them, when training brings them to their peak. I couldn’t do that given they were expected at the camp. So, I said go to the camp and continue what you have been training here. Now these are junior athletes. They are 16-17 years old. They are attached to their coaches. They need our support. When they suddenly work with another coach and are told to do things differently, the tension gets to them. Then there is the angle of whoever trained and mentored them for long, knowing best what their state on a given day is and how to motivate them. We know when we see them running, what their condition is at that point. Ideally, when big events happen it is the longstanding coach and mentor who should accompany the athlete. That doesn’t happen. But you can’t do anything. It is their turf. I am not interested in intervening because I have been part of the national squad and I know that world. So I train my students as best as I can and tell them: I have done my bit, now it is up to you.

How do you select your trainees?

We advertise in the media seeking candidates in the age group of 11-13 years. I hold the trials in different places in Kerala. We have a panel of coaches. They sit together and decide who to invite for the next stage. This is followed by an eight day-training camp at the academy which will give me further insight into specific details about the candidate. The final selection happens after that. Currently, we can accommodate 14 students at our hostel. We train for a few select disciplines – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m; up to 3000m I can handle. We also look at long jump and triple jump. Having said that, the students also indulge in other disciplines but that is typically as a component of overall training, not specialization. We have students who participate in hurdles. But if hurdles turn out to be that person’s forte and there is a strong case to specialize in it, then I won’t hang on to that student. I will pass that student on to a coach who is competent to instruct in that discipline.

You said you recruit your trainees when they are 11-13 years old and they are free to continue at the academy till they are 23-24 years old. What is your retention rate? How many students stick on that long?

It depends on their attitude. Some lack the required commitment and motivation. There is little you can do with such people. In cases of that sort, I recommend that they move on. The training atmosphere is austere and disciplined. I don’t allow use of cellphones at the academy. I am very strict about it. Parents are allowed to call only on Sunday. Every month they can visit the student. After every competition, I allow the students to go home for 3-4 days. The students have to study well. Some are stronger at studies than in sports. They are better off pursuing academics. We have students who completed five years at the academy. The longest a trainee stuck around so far is six years. Seven students from the academy have represented India to date in their respective discipline and age category.

Do they pay any fees?

Nothing; I am not collecting a single paisa. Even when they get an award, I don’t take anything from them. It is tough to run the academy. If the government supports me, that year goes smoothly. Else, it is difficult. We know of government support only from year to year as part of annual budgetary allocation. I didn’t get anything from the last government. The one before that gave me 25 lakh rupees and 20 lakh rupees. The current government gave me 50 lakh rupees in the first instance; with that I was able to manage for two years. Then I got 20 lakh rupees but I was unable to withdraw that in time. At present, we incur an expense of approximately 1.75 lakh rupees for every student. Then there is the infrastructure cost, rent for buildings etc. I have asked the government for land to set up the academy properly. I spoke to Sports Authority of India (SAI) and they said that if I have land, they will assist in building infrastructure. I have sought seven acres of land in Ernakulam district. If the government gives it on lease, we can plan on a bigger scale. If not, I continue on rented premises. That will be a challenge as I don’t have many sponsors.

Ideally what should be the expense per student, if for instance, they are to also travel and participate in good competitions as needed?

Ideally, it should be at least two lakh rupees.

Can you give an overview of the training infrastructure the academy currently has?

We started the academy by using the infrastructure that was available at Sacred Hearts College at Thevara in Ernakulam. There is a ground there. It is not up to the mark. But that is where we train. Some mornings we train at the Maharajas College ground, which has a synthetic track. Sacred Hearts has a grass track. Three to four days a week, we go to Maharajas. We have a vehicle and driver. We travel to do sand and hill-running. We have an assistant coach, a warden for the hostel and two cooks. I appointed the assistant coach last year. After my husband passed away, I was doing the coaching alone. I used to stay at the hostel along with my students. It is only off late, after people said I shouldn’t leave my house locked, that I have begun spending days here again.

You commenced the academy with your own funds and contributions from friends. Could you find any sponsors?

In the initial stage it was friends who helped along with sponsors that came in periodically through their network. Then, the government helped. Paul Raj of Kochi based-Alpha Group is the secretary of the academy. He assisted much financially. In 2013, Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI) contributed 15 lakh rupees. That helped me manage things for a year. After that CREDAI’s state unit helped with some small contributions. We are hoping that the relation with CREDAI at the national level evolves into a more sustained support. I have also got funding of 15 lakh rupees this year, from the state budget. A lot of the government support was used for equipment, kits and infrastructure including gym facilities. But there has been no interest in long term support shown by companies. The challenges in funding are among reasons why I cap the total number of trainees at 15.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Why do you think athletics finds it hard to find sponsors?

The typical game – like cricket or football – lasts a few hours. That is time, useful for sponsors to obtain return on investment. In contrast, athletic performance is over in minutes, sometimes seconds. To my mind, this is the main problem. I think the government must do what it can to support athletics because more than games, it is athletics that brings glory for state and country. That said; there is also the strange issue of not finding students who are dedicated and committed towards athletics. My generation had nothing and yet we rose in competence to compete at elite levels. I had national records at the school and university level before setting records at the senior national level. We wanted to reach some place in athletics and when we got there, we aspired for a higher goal. My journey to the Olympics began after my son was born. I told my husband of my dream. He was a sportsman; he said he will support me. I resumed training when my son was three months old. By nine months, I was national champion again. That’s how I trained and made it to the Olympics. Today, it is difficult to find such drive in our youngsters. Now the aspiration is getting a job. This situation is despite facilities in general being more, salaries being higher. More and more youngsters are not walking to college. They have two-wheelers. When they get a job, they make sure they buy still better two-wheelers. Their life has taken a different trajectory. There is no room for athletics in it.

You mentioned the short duration of athletic performance and how it limits media attention and room for sponsor to get mileage. The flip side of high media attention and engagement by sponsors is increased pressure on athlete to perform, which is among reasons triggering malpractices like doping. How do you deal with that?

What we need is enough sponsorship to have adequate events so that upcoming talent gains exposure to competition.

What is your vision for this academy?

If the government gives me land, I would like to run this academy like a proper school with male and female students and with overall numbers that is more than the 13 we have now. We will have good staff. I would also like to make the model transferable so that the school continues after my time.

How do you picture the ideal sponsor?

An ideal sponsor should understand how a school like this works. They must understand that results don’t come fast in athletics.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This interview was done in late March 2019. At that time, Mercy Kuttan was vice president of the Kerala Sports Council.)


Krishna Prakash (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Senior police officer from Mumbai, Krishna Prakash IPS, has successfully completed Race Across West (RAW), the 930 mile (1496 kilometers) ultra-cycling race held alongside the much longer Race Across America (RAAM), in the US.

According to information available on the event website, he covered the distance in three days, 16 hours and two minutes, placing fourth in the under-50 age category for men racing solo.  Of nine cyclists in this age category, four had pulled out (DNF – did not finish) while a fifth person was still on the road, when Krishna Prakash completed. The official confirmation on the website happened evening of Saturday, June 15 in India.

The person finishing first in Krishna Prakash’s age category was Andres Rodriguez of Mexico who covered the distance in two days, 23 hours and 58 minutes. Rodriguez is also the 2019 RAW solo male champion. In 2018, he had been the first solo racer from Mexico to complete RAAM.

Krishna Prakash is currently Special Inspector General of Police (Admin), Mumbai.

At the same time as Krishna Prakash finished RAW, Kabir Rachure, cyclist from Navi Mumbai, attempting the 3000 mile (approximately 4800 kilometers) RAAM was around 928 miles (1493 kilometers) into his race.

Andres Rodriguez (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of RAW. No copyright infringement intended.)

Winner of RAAM multiple times, Christoph Strasser of Austria, was leading in the RAAM solo category with around 1450 miles (2333 kilometers) covered. Among others, veteran woman cyclist and an unforgettable part of RAAM, Seana Hogan, was at 982 miles (1580 kilometers)

This year’s RAAM commenced on June 11.

RAAM entails cycling from the US west coast to the east; from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland.  RAW is a segment carved out of the initial stages of RAAM. According to information available on the World Ultracycling Association (WUA) website, RAW starts from Oceanside, climbs up the Coastal Range, crosses the deserts of California and Arizona, ascends again into the mountains surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona and proceeds into the Rocky Mountains. The race finishes on the Animas River in Durango, Colarado.

Krishna Prakash, who is also a triathlete, was in the news last year for completing Ultraman Australia. For more on him please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/top-cop-aims-high-does-an-ultraman/

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)