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, 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:   

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