Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan / Photo: courtesy Rutuja Satpute

Born into a family, where the father was a well-known cyclist, Rutuja Satpute was brought up to follow suit. Years later, the 25 year-old has consistently finished on the podium at national level competitions and won the same award her father was once bestowed with. But she has also seen the gap between Indian cyclists and those overseas, not to mention – the difference in how cycling is perceived here and abroad. Having done one trip to Belgium with the Indian Cycling Project, she hopes for more. 

“ Where are you off to now?’’ the young man before me asked. We had just finished a conversation; material to use for an article on cycling. I returned note book and pen to my bag and took out the cellphone to check for next address. We were at a café with a wonderful setting.  It was on the sixth floor of a building. Right below was a busy road, as much a sight for sore eyes as any traffic filled-road in any Indian city. But from where we were, the eye caught none of that mess and instead gazed across landscape turned green, courtesy monsoon. You were in Pune and yet, not there. “ I am heading to Khilarewadi,’’ I said, mentioning the name of the person I intended to meet as well. He nodded his head. “ Now that’s somebody genuinely accomplished. She has a solid track record,’’ he said.

Rutuja with her father, Sanjay Satpute (Photo: courtesy Rutuja Satpute)

In Khilarewadi, it wasn’t difficult locating Sanjay Cycles. It was a small house, part of several in a row, each row separated by a small path. Two road bikes stood stacked to one side. Hrishikesh informed his sister that the journalist, who had called earlier, had come. It was a tiny room. There was an adjacent kitchen. Right next to where I sat was narrow staircase leading to room above. There, I was told – the family’s remaining cycles were stored. It was an interest for the sport commencing with Sanjay Satpute, Rutuja’s father. He is a former national level cyclist, champion in time trial and mass start and state award (Shiv Chhatrapati award) winner.  He worked at Hindustan Antibiotics and also coached at Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex. Now he runs a bicycle service center. His daughter followed in his footsteps. “ I grew up watching my father and his love for cycling,’’ Rutuja Satpute, born 1994, said. But it wasn’t a dive straight into cycling. Sanjay wanted her to first acquire stamina. So even as a small child she was enrolled for swimming and running at the city’s Deccan Gymkhana following which, she was introduced to the triathlon. By the time she was in mid-school she was participating in triathlon competitions in her age category.

Photo: courtesy Rutuja Satpute

Around 2006, she moved to focus on cycling. The 12 year-old needed a road bike. Sanjay made her one; a steel road bike. He had also fabricated a helmet for himself. He passed that on to his daughter. The steel steed was her ride for the next few years. She took it to her first bicycle races. Given keen competition, it is no longer possible to thoroughly discount the importance of technology in cycling. What bike you are using matters when it comes to improving efficiency in a sport where each second counts. Saint-Etienne is a city in eastern central France, on the trunk road connecting Lyons and Toulouse.  Some consider it the capital of the French bicycle industry. The city hosts a stage of the annual Tour de France. It is also home to wheel manufacturer Mavic and frame builders, Motobecane and Vitus. After a few years spent pedaling the steel road bike, Rutuja got a Vitus – it was yet again a bike that her father used. By the time she was in high school, she got her first major victory – in time trial – in the under 15 years-category, a first place in the 7km-individual time trial at the 14th Road National Championships held in Thiruchengode, Tamil Nadu. Thereafter podium finishes were steady.

Upon completing her seventh standard, Rutuja joined Kreeda Prabodhini and shifted to the sports hostel at Balewadi. It is where some of the city’s major sports facilities are clustered. This move provided her formal coaching; it also brought her closer to the local velodrome, which has a concrete cycling track. Years earlier, when she was a small child frequenting the Deccan Gymkhana, she used to swim and exercise regularly after school hours. Once cycling entered the frame (cycling was typically in the early morning hours), she progressively dropped off both swimming and running. Swimming lingered around as cross training. At the sports hostel, her day commenced at 4 AM. The students would assemble by 6 AM and till 8.30 AM, they engaged in physical training. Around 2.30 PM they would return from school and at 4 PM, they engaged again in physical training (Rutuja called it “ ground work’’) till 6.30 PM. In Rutuja’s case, the training was mostly oriented towards cycling. Actual cycling happened on the road and at the velodrome. Weekly mileage in cycling was not much. She confessed to there being a gap between her capabilities and expectations compared to other girls around. The reason was simple – she hailed from a family that was into cycling. She had a sense of what lay ahead and how hard that progression would be. So in training, she benchmarked herself to what the boys did. “ I tried to keep up with them,’’ Rutuja said.

Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan / Photo: courtesy Rutuja Satpute

Roughly a year later (following the 2007 nationals at Thiruchengode), at the 2008 national competition held in Jamkhandi, Karnataka, she secured two gold medals in under-15 – in time trial and mass start. Given this performance, she was given the opportunity to try her hand at competing with the seniors. A couple of more years and at the 2011 nationals held in Pune, Rutuja, competing in under-17, won gold in the time trial with timing that was “ on par with seniors.’’ At a subsequent national level competition held in Rohtak however, she had to settle for bronze. The new one piece cycling costume she had been given lacked adequate padding. It affected performance.  Nevertheless that bronze medal represented her first podium finish in the senior category. Somewhere during this journey, she also got her third bicycle – a Cannondale road bike. It was obtained second-hand. The frame had a minor crack, which Sanjay repaired for her. She rode that to two gold medals at competitions. When this blog met her, Rutuja wasn’t using the Cannondale anymore given the repaired frame. But it was still around. The bike was subsequently replaced with a Merida. “ The bikes are stored upstairs,’’ she said pointing to the staircase close to where I sat.

Photo: courtesy Rutuja Satpute

Rutuja was at Balewadi from 2009 to 2015. In women’s time trial and mass start, strong competition those years was offered by Kerala, Manipur, Haryana and Punjab. In 2012, Rutuja was selected to the Indian camp for the first time. She was one of three girls from Balewadi selected so. The camp, meant for the 2013 Asian Championships, was held in Shilaru, Himachal Pradesh. But by November 2012, Rutuja was out of it. Following her performance at the open trials in Delhi in January 2013, she regained her place. The Asian Championships of March 2013 was her first taste of international competition. “ It was a good experience,’’ she said. It was equally humbling. She finished 34th in the mass start held at the Formula One race track near Delhi. She was behind the cyclist who finished first by nearly seven to eight minutes. On the other hand, the gap between her and fellow Indian cyclists was in the range of 15-30 seconds. Of six Indian women who started the race, only three finished, among whom, Rutuja was second. But there was a footnote – while the Indian men had an opportunity ahead of competition to cycle on the F1 track and get a feel of it, the women enjoyed no such privilege. Roughly six months later, in September, at the ACC Track Asia Cup held at Suphanburi, Thailand, Rutuja was part of the Indian team securing bronze in team sprint. Through all this, the Cycling Federation of India (CFI) did not send her for any coaching overseas. She trained as best as she could in India – her father oversaw it when she was in Pune, other coaches supervised her training when she was part of the Indian camp.

Rutuja, cycling in Belgium (Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan / Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

In 2014, she secured first place at one of the editions of the Pune Bicycle Championships. It caught the attention of Pune-based bicycle company Giant Starkenn. They gifted a mountain bike; later at her request, she was given a Giant Propel road bike. Her collection besides the Giant, now include cycles from Raleigh, Vitus, Cannondale, Fuji and Merida; the Fuji was issued by the Balewadi sports facility. Our conversation was briefly interrupted by a client arrived to ask about bicycle servicing. Rutuja moved out to speak to the lady. “ I can take apart bicycles and put them back together. I can do repairing and servicing,’’ she said on return. The bicycle servicing facility Sanjay started has evolved into a family affair. According to Rutuja, she and Hrishikesh (he used to be a competition cyclist till a respiratory problem ended the journey; he now works with an airline company) help out. They have about 200-250 clients and rainy season is busy time for the business. One of the challenges in deep passion for something is bridging the gap between need dictated by interest and money to spend. Cycling is an expensive interest to sustain. The network of clients earned by servicing bicycles has occasionally pitched in to help with resources for family into cycling, Rutuja said. She mentioned new wheels for her bike, acquired so. In 2016, at the national competition held in Pathanamthitta, Kerala, Rutuja won two gold medals. Following this, Giant Starkenn invited her to a training camp in Ooty. Among cyclists she met there was Naveen John, based in Bengaluru and known to explore avenues to being competent professional cyclist. A motivated, driven personality, he had begun visiting Belgium – among the cradles of competitive cycling in Europe – and taking part in the races there called kermesse. It was part of Naveen’s Indian Cycling Project (ICP).

From the ICP trip to Belgium (Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan / Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

A month after the Ooty camp, Naveen invited Rutuja to join the team proceeding to Belgium for the annual pilgrimage. She was reluctant; if she went, she would be traveling alone with no guardian or chaperone. “ My family was bound to object. Women don’t usually take such initiatives in our society,’’ she said. Naveen spoke to Sanjay. In February 2017, it was decided that she can proceed to Belgium. As first step, she headed to a camp in Bengaluru anchored by Naveen; she also participated in one of the regular races of the Bangalore Bicycle Championships (BBCH). In July she left for Belgium. It was her first trip overseas. From Mumbai, she flew to Dubai and onward to Brussels. In all, Rutuja spent three months in Belgium. She participated in three level-2 kermesse races for women. In the first kermesse, she exited in the first round. In the second, she completed two rounds and then dropped off. In the third, of 16 rounds to complete, she finished nine. Belgium was opportunity to sit up and take note of several things. To begin with, separate paths for bicycles and the general respect given to cyclists were vastly different from the Indian environment where the culture of rat race corrodes and corrupts everything. “ They also have more races overseas. The standards at these races are quite high. Further the schedule of races is known well in advance. When you have a reliable calendar of events like that, cyclists are able to plan their year. They can decide what events to prepare for. It is something we don’t have in India. The CFI is now making an effort to change that and bring in a proper calendar,’’ Rutuja said. But the real take home from Belgium, was realizing how cyclists pushed themselves there. A month after the whole Belgium visit, it was back to reality, taking part in the nationals at Jamkhandi. Rutuja secured gold.

Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan / Photo: courtesy Rutuja Satpute

At the time of meeting her in July 2019, Rutuja’s last major competition had been the 2017 Track Asian Championships, where the Indian team placed fifth. She also took part in the ACC Track Asia Cup (2014, 2015, 2016 editions) where she won one silver and two bronze medals. In February 2016, at the South Asian Games held in Guwahati, she was part of the team securing gold in the 40 kilometer-team time trial. In March 2018, she got the same state award – Shiv Chhatrapati award – that her father had got earlier. Two months later, she underwent surgery to correct a back problem. It took her three months to recover. Towards end-August she resumed training. At the 2018 National Road Championships held at Kurukshetra, Haryana, she managed to get a bronze medal. Early 2019, at the All India Inter-University competitions held in Amritsar, Punjab, she won two gold medals – in the individual time trial and the team time trial. Her resume featuring a long list of events participated in, was crammed with podium finishes. In all  (across individual and team events) she had won 14 gold medals, 10 silver and nine bronze at the national level; one gold, two silver and three bronze at the senior international level and four gold, three silver and four bronze at the university level.

As of July 2019, Rutuja had completed her first year in B.P.Ed (physical education) from Guru Nanak Dev University. Focused on road cycling, she wasn’t interested in tackling the really long distances of ultra-cycling. “ I have not tried doing any BRMs,’’ she said. As for Belgium, Rujuta hoped to repeat the trip.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Rutuja Satpute.)            

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