INDIAN CYCLING LEAGUE / PLANNING TO START BY END-2019

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Riyaz A. Batey is Managing Director of Unique Fitness Pvt Ltd and Director, Golden Bird Sports and Adventure Pvt Ltd. The latter entity – Golden Bird – has an agreement with Cycling Federation of India (CFI) to organize an Indian Cycling League (ICL), which will feature a crop of velodrome based-races annually. Mr Batey spoke to this blog recently about ICL.

Excerpts:   

Can you explain the reasons that prompted the concept of Indian Cycling League?

I used to be a cyclist participating in competitions. I represented the country from 1989 to 1992. Later I joined my father’s business. After 2010 I felt that I should do something because cycling – as sport – had given me a lot. That’s how I met up with the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), the state level association and started doing whatever I could do – like sponsor teams and provide equipment. Then we found that the riders were good but unfortunately due to lack of financial support, there were other elements missing.  If the riders get financial support; they get into teams, there are good foreign riders coming over to ride here, our riders get to ride abroad and the two practise together – then, we could potentially reach another level. That’s how we got around to approaching the CFI and they were happy to offer us rights to the league. The idea is to not only support the riders but also the technicians, the coaches – they would get more awareness and opportunities.

When was the agreement with CFI signed?

We had the agreement in place in 2017. Prior to that, we talked to them for almost a year. We discussed how the league should be, when the league should start, what teams to have, what kind of riders to take aboard. There are more than 17 different verticals in track racing. The league had to be within the velodrome because only then can you adequately address issues like broadcasting.  For this, it had to be inside a velodrome rather than on the road. We had to however trim the competition verticals because there is always time constraint. The national championship takes five days. That won’t work. So we cut down the events to seven from 17 – these are the more aggressive, compact, viewer friendly races.

Have you got your broadcast partner in place?

No. Right now – no. We are talking to a couple of broadcasters. We have already met the sports minister and he said he would like to support the initiative. It is not easy to find sponsors for events in cycling in India. So we have to also look for support from government.

Who are the constituents expected to put in resources for the league?

We are looking for private resources in the main. The government already conducts the national championship and regional championships like the Asian championship. A league is a private initiative and the government cannot do much; they will have their reservations. We are therefore looking more towards private companies.

What is the feedback so far?

A few corporates are interested. Indian riders are now performing well in the international arena. So, private companies are interested in supporting a cycling league.

Is the decision to keep ICL velodrome-based also inspired by the fact it leads to better capacity utilization of sports infrastructure; not to mention – the infrastructure pays back instead of merely consuming resources?

That is very true. We have 12 velodromes in the country of which 11 have concrete surface. The Delhi velodrome is an excellent velodrome. But that is only one. For a variety of reasons not all of the velodromes we have are maintained well. Riders are not able to train on them. Once we get into ICL, we would like to make sure that the velodromes hosting events are in good condition. Our events are not going to be centered in Delhi. For ICL, we hope to have events in Ludhiana, Jaipur, Thiruvananthapuram, in Assam…..

Given not all velodromes are in good shape, how many of the 12 do you plan to use for ICL?

In the initial phase we will have our events in Delhi, Ludhiana, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram. In phase two, we will add Jaipur, maybe Amritsar.

There is a difference in quality between the Delhi velodrome and the rest. How will you accommodate that in the standardization of parameters for ICL?

Delhi’s is one of the best velodromes; it is centrally air conditioned and with wooden track, the sort used in international circuits at present. Broadcasting facilities are inbuilt. If I compare it with the best from the rest, like Jaipur, Ludhiana or Thiruvananthapuram, then obviously there is a gap – the others are open, the track is made of concrete. We need to do something about it. If we organize ICL including these other velodromes, then we enhance the possibility of addressing the gap between them and Delhi.

Riyaz A. Batey (Photo: by arrangement)

Would the idea at ICL be to use the concrete velodromes for the initial rounds and host the finals in Delhi?

Correct. Our plan for 2019 is to start in Ludhiana, work our way to the other cities and conclude with finals in Delhi. To begin with, we will have four disciplines, each at a particular location with velodrome and then have the finals of all four in Delhi. You must also think of logistics. The whole team involved will be large. Taking the caravan across the country will be a challenge. So in the beginning, we would like to keep the distances for transport as compact as possible. Our contract is for 20 years – 10 plus 10 – once ICL stabilizes, we can think of expanding the number of cities it goes to.

There is obviously a contract fee you pay CFI. I suppose that is locked in for 20 years….

It is locked in for 10 years after which it is open to renegotiation.

Would the processes and composition of league at ICL be similar to the leagues we now have in other sports? Will there for instance be player auctions?

We won’t have auctions for the first two years. One reason is that cycling is as yet, a niche sport in the country. Those putting in the money to form teams may not have much of an idea about who are the best cyclists around. The organizers of ICL will therefore make and supply the teams initially for a fixed rate. From the third year onward, we will have auctions. The teams will have some sort of geographical identity – they can represent cities or states. Currently we are looking at 10-12 teams to start with.

Even as you select the team in the initial stage, will the rider have the option of choosing the geography he / she would like to represent?

No, we are not putting up that option right now. At present in Indian cycling, a few states are very strong. Andaman; Kerala, Punjab, Maharashtra – they are strong in track cycling. We need to distribute it and make teams balanced. If I give them category `A’ riders, then I should make sure they also get category `C’ riders. There was a selection process in Delhi and we have shortlisted 150 national riders. Each team will have four international riders – two male, two female – and 11 national riders. The international riders will be there from the start. We have already spoken to good international riders from UK, France and Australia.

If you delay the auction process to the third year then what incentive do you offer an international rider?

They will be on a fixed fee. See the thing is – even the best international riders are not known here. In 2011, we had a race in Mumbai called Tour de India. The organizers got 11 good pro teams. Radio Shack – they have been winners at Tour de France – the whole `A’ category team was here in Mumbai. Nobody knew them.  That’s why we want two years to grow familiarity with the sport and spread the idea of ICL around before any auction.

When do you expect ICL to start?

We are targeting end of 2019. There are UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) events which happen every year. We have to make sure that ICL does not clash with our national championship and any major events of the UCI.

Given the international calendar of events and the national calendar, does it appear possible that ICL can settle into a fixed time frame annually?

That is the idea. As a CFI event, ICL will be part of the CFI calendar. Three years down the line our wish is that it becomes part of the UCI calendar as well. But yes, it needs some time; it needs to grow and prove that it is an event of quality.

There are CFI events in this country and non-CFI ones. Some events from the latter category are pretty robust. I have heard of CFI discouraging participation at non-CFI events. At the end of the day, talent is talent, whether it be with CFI or otherwise. Will cyclists appearing for ICL be discouraged from participating in non-CFI events?

ICL will be conducted under CFI. We will have riders who are licensed with CFI. So it will be mostly riders who are representing the state, part of the national team or part of the national academy. Apart from them there are riders who are not part of this fraternity. They are welcome to showcase their talent. If they are good enough we wouldn’t mind taking them. But if you take velodrome based-racing, then nobody else apart from CFI, conducts such races in the country. The selection process is open to anyone capable of the required timing. That said; there is a hierarchy of selection, which is followed all the way to being part of the national team. Thus if you are in Mumbai and wish to represent Maharashtra, you have to contact the Maharashtra Cycling Association. This hierarchy will be respected at ICL.

What if somebody comes from non-CFI backdrop and makes the cut for ICL at open trials. Will he / she then be barred from returning to the non-CFI racing they used to do?

We are not going into such details. What we are saying is – you carry your license; there is a cycling license issued by the UCI through the CFI and the state body then gives it to you. That license allows you to ride anywhere across the globe. Nobody can restrict you.  We follow guidelines given by the UCI and CFI. Our races are going to be in velodromes.

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

TURNING POINT

Siddhi Manerikar (Photo credit: Vikas Satarkar / Photo courtesy: Siddhi Manerikar)

An evening in Badami; a tough sport route climbed. It seems turning point to a competition climber. Will it usher in change? And if so, change of what sort? This is the story of Mumbai’s Siddhi Manerikar, her recent ascent of Samsara and what she thinks of it.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, Samsara denotes the cycle of death and rebirth.

There is an element of eternity and entrapment in what the concept implies. It is definitely other worldly, a dimension of understanding removed from the present. It also smacks a bit of climber’s high; all intense and immediate during a climb, very other worldly at the end of it.

Tucked away from public view, on the rear side of one of the rock massifs constituting Badami’s unforgettable architecture of rock, is a climbing route called Samsara. At 8a, in terms of difficulty of climbing, it is among the hardest routes in the area; at the time of writing, Ganesha on the way to Samsara was still lord of Badami’s sport routes at 8b+. On November 7, 2018, as her friends watched, a young woman from Mumbai made her way up Samsara. Over the past two days, she had focused on just that route and practised its moves many times, ironing out niggles and paying attention to details. This was her last day in Badami from given visit; her last shot at Samsara. Besides what she had personally discovered about the route through repeated attempts, tucked away in the mind was also tips from friends on how best to tackle Samsara. Some of them had assembled below to watch the climb. It was evening.

A sport climbing route of 11 clips (quickdraws placed for protection), Samsara’s crux lay in the initial stage, following which, the next challenge is a slightly long run-out between the fifth and sixth clips. You clear that and find yourself facing a pretty tricky set of last moves for finish. It was nearly dark by the time climber topped the route. Reporting the climb, The Outdoor Journal pointed out that while any claim of it being the toughest sport route yet climbed by an Indian woman can’t be validated for want of proper record keeping locally in the sport, Siddhi Manerikar has set the bar high for her peers.

Climbing in Badami (Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar)

An intense game was underway on the cricket field opposite Poddar College in Matunga. The game was on the main pitch. Around it several other matches and training sessions carried on. “ Can’t you see?’’ a woman accompanying her daughter to cricket practice shouted as a cricket ball landed close by.  “ Sorry aunty,’’ the youngster responsible said, apologetically indicating that he had caught the ball on the upper portion of his bat and thereby, the lack of control in the strike. He grinned at the daughter; she grinned back. It was another Mumbai evening, business as usual in India’s cricket capital. But these days, not everyone falls for cricket. “ I always wanted to do something different. People queue up, to play cricket and football. Climbing in comparison appeared quite different,’’ Siddhi said. She belongs to a new generation of climbers, who grew up almost wholly in an ecosystem of competition climbing.  “ What happened in Badami is a departure from the norm in my life,’’ she said. We were at a café close to Poddar College and its small climbing wall, regular hangout for some of the city’s promising young climbers. It was early December; almost a month since that climb of Samsara.

Siddhi was born 1996 close to 500 kilometers away from Mumbai in Sindhudurg district, at a village called Shiroda. She is the elder of two children. Her father is a priest; her mother, a housewife. When Siddhi was around three years old, the family shifted to Mumbai, residing thereafter at Goregaon in the city. She attended Nandadeep Vidyalay, a school that coincidentally hosted one of the earliest climbing walls to come up in Mumbai – a wall built in memory of Arun Samant, an accomplished rock climber and mountaineer, who was one of Mumbai’s best in the field. He passed away in the Himalaya in 1999. His family constructed the wall in 2003. Built of ferrocement, the school’s wall cannot be compared to the walls of modern climbing competitions. But as an early wall and still the only one of some significant size around with dedicated community to match, it has the distinction of having shaped many of Mumbai’s young competition climbers. Siddhi was in seventh standard when the teacher in charge of sports at the school, asked for students interested in climbing. She enlisted for practice and pretty soon fell in love with climbing. Her coaches were Pramod Chavan and Rahul Pendse. Aside from climbing on the wall, Siddhi had occasional stints of climbing on natural rock at the nearby Borivali National Park. But by and large for this phase and phases to follow – it was the wall at the school that dominated her life. There was little of moving around within Mumbai to climb at different crags, something others into climbing regularly did.

Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar

Siddhi’s first climbing competition was the 2010 edition of the national open climbing competition organized by Girivihar, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. This annual competition held continuously for about a dozen years was responsible for increasing curiosity for competition climbing in Mumbai. Ahead of climbing, contestants are kept in isolation. “ The Girivihar competition was my first taste of isolation. I didn’t know that climbers would be required to sit so ahead of competition, away from everyone else. I grew tense and anxious. It was only when I appeared before everyone to climb that I relaxed,’’ Siddhi said recalling that first outing. At the school wall she was among promising climbers. The coaches took note. Following the Girivihar competition, Rahul dispatched her to Badami for a training camp conducted by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) ahead of the Asian Youth Championship. “ My climbing was utterly basic at this point. The camp was a good experience. The coach in charge was Keerthi Paes,’’ Siddhi said. By 2011 (in ninth standard now and competing in junior category), she was at her first zonal competition (west zone). It serves as selection ground for the nationals. At the national competition which followed, she placed seventh. Then at a national open climbing competition held in Ooty, she placed sixth in lead climbing. “ I participated in lead and did alright because that and bouldering was what we could do at the school wall. I used to get selected for speed climbing but our wall didn’t have a route dedicated to speed climbing. Those days, the star shaped holds you find in speed climbing were also not available in India. However I have no regret at drifting away from speed because my climbing style is more static than dynamic. It needs to change and I am currently transforming it slowly,’’ Siddhi said.

2011 was a year of improvement for her. Back in Badami for that year’s IMF training camp, Siddhi attempted a tough route called Badami Pillar. She made it quite some ways up, impressing herself and her coaches. Called subsequently for a climbing camp in Delhi, she got selected to the team headed to Singapore, for the 2011 Asian Youth Championship. “ It was a major development in my life – to be going abroad. But I was still a school kid and not mature enough to comprehend the gravity of getting to represent one’s country,’’ she said. Following the selection, a plethora of challenges commenced. Siddhi was a minor with no passport. Her parents had no passport. She had just entered tenth standard, a milestone year in Indian education with attendant rigmarole of coaching classes to do well in academics. The paperwork to secure passport was particularly tough because her father didn’t own a house in Mumbai. On top of it, her younger brother – he isn’t physically robust – came down with kidney ailment. Caught in all this, Siddhi was unable to attend the pre-Asian championship training camp in Bengaluru. Rahul trained her at the school wall. Eventually, six days prior to departure her passport came through. Siddhi flew to Bengaluru, joined the rest of the team and proceeded to Singapore. She participated in lead climbing. She was eliminated before the semi-final. “ In my eyes, I did well. All my training had been on the school wall,’’ she said. Later that year, she secured her first medals at the national climbing competition; silver medal each in lead and bouldering. Then she stopped climbing to concentrate on her board exams. She passed with a score of 72 per cent overall. Starting from scratch again after the break, she failed to secure a berth in the Indian team for the 2012 Asian Youth Championship. There were no medals at the nationals too. Much of 2012 was a disappointing blank.

Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar

By January 2013, she was back to winning ways with podium finish at a competition organized by GETNA. Then familiar pattern repeated – camp at Badami and selection for the 2013 Asian Youth Championship at Surabaya, Indonesia. She was one of three girls selected that year in overall team of nine. The outcome in Indonesia was encouraging. She reached the final and placed fourth in lead climbing. In February 2014, her twelfth standard board exams were a slightly tense phase for Siddhi. After all the climbing that happened earlier, she had just a month to prepare. In the middle of the exam schedule, her father suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. She passed the exams, securing 65 per cent marks. That year Rahul pushed to have a team of two climbers from the school wall – Siddhi and Akash Gaikwad – appear at the World Youth Competition due in France. The IMF’s regular calendar features only participation in the Asian Youth Championship. Rahul managed to rope in sponsors but according to Siddhi, the team’s application for visa got rejected. Luckily the Asian Continental Championship was scheduled to take place in Lambok, Indonesia, ten days later. The team headed there. Siddhi made it as far as the semi-final in lead climbing. She participated in bouldering but didn’t go past first round. After Indonesia, Siddhi participated in the west zone competition where podium finish for her, had become routine. This 2014 edition of the zonal competition was the first time her parents watched her climb. Siddhi’s parents never went to see her climb at the school wall. They didn’t object to her interest in climbing. Her parents had one condition – be good at studies too, which she was. Support for climbing was provided quietly. Her mother was particularly supportive. “ My father supported but he wasn’t demonstrative about it. Speaking in terms of the character he wished to see in me – he wanted me to have my feet on the ground,’’ she said. Those frequenting Mumbai’s climbing competitions remember Siddhi as climber free of parental entourage. It is usually she and friends.

Following the zonal competition witnessed by her parents, Siddhi secured gold in lead climbing and silver in bouldering at the national competition. “ That was my first gold at the nationals,’’ she said. In 2015, she headed to Arco in Italy for the World Youth Championship and competed to no significant outcome in lead climbing and bouldering. “ I was not happy with my performance,’’ Siddhi said. Later that year, after the annual participation in west zone competition, she proceeded to Pune to train for the nationals. There at the popular climbing gym called Rock Aliens, she suffered a fall while climbing and twisted her ankle resulting in injury to the ligament. There were two days left to nationals in Delhi. After consulting her family doctor, she climbed at the nationals. The injured ankle and foot was swollen. So she wore a shoe of bigger size on that foot. She borrowed her friend’s shoe for the purpose; luckily it was same make and model as her own. Siddhi secured silver in lead climbing. She couldn’t do justice to her shot at bouldering because she was becoming increasingly scared of aggravating her injury. After the 2015 nationals, she took a break of four months to recover. There was a reason for participating in the nationals at any cost. The first IFSC World Cup in bouldering to be held in India – organized by Girivihar – was due in 2016 in Navi Mumbai. Thanks to her performance in lead at the nationals and likely based on her earlier performance as well, Siddhi got a berth in the Indian team for the 2016 World Cup.

The Indian team for the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Two editions of the IFSC World Cup in bouldering were held in Navi Mumbai – in 2016 and 2017. As host nation, India sent big teams to both events. But the outing was hardly memorable. According to Abhijit Burman aka Bong, who was closely associated with the two world cups, the qualifying round had featured routes within a range of 7a to 8a. Yet no Indian climber made it past the first round. The two events are arguably valuable reminders for Indian climbing, on both the need to improve and how to improve. Siddhi took consolation in a small detail – she was ranked 28th in the field at the 2017 World Cup in Navi Mumbai and for that one year, her name too featured in the list of those ranked for that World Cup season. Ahead of the 2017 World Cup in Navi Mumbai, the Indian team had enjoyed a stint of training in Slovenia. Siddhi was among those who went. She was unable to take full advantage of the visit because according to her, she was still worried about her ankle and the worry was pushing her into being cautious while climbing. But Slovenia was excellent window to see how training for climbing is done overseas. Among things she noticed – the notion of this climbing route for men and that, for women wasn’t there. Everyone attempted the same routes irrespective of how easy or difficult they were. There was only competence to aspire for, gain and improve.

Some from the senior lot tracking climbing in Mumbai felt that Siddhi has potential but the generation of Indian woman climbers she belongs to requires steeling by more intense competition. According to them, the earlier generation of woman climbers – names like Shanti, Archana, Valsala and Dasini among them – were almost evenly matched (each noted for strength in some particular department) and competing together long enough to be shaped by such ecosystem. Results in their time were hard-fought. For the current generation, well matched field hasn’t graced every competition, they argued. In Mumbai, Siddhi is ahead of the field in women’s climbing. For her own improvement, she requires more good climbers around so that the ecosystem is competitive – this was their observation. I also came across a suggestion for those chasing harder climbs: if you break new ground climbing a hard grade, then repeat it. Climb the route twice so that the outcome is yours to own.

Siddhi in action at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

2017 was the beginning of a slump in climbing for Siddhi. Given her semester exams in November 2017, she couldn’t train well for that year’s nationals. There were no medals. Next year, 2018; the nationals were split into six events – two each for lead, bouldering and speed climbing – spread through the year. In the middle of that calendar – in April – Siddhi had the final exams of her graduate studies. Along the way there was silver and bronze picked up at two lead climbing events as part of the nationals. But she still wasn’t feeling energized about her climbing. It was at this juncture that her friends from the Poddar College wall put together a trip to Badami. Siddhi joined them. Upon reaching Badami, they lost no time starting their climbs. “ I had no plans or goals. I have always liked Badami and the only thing I wished for was to spend time climbing sandstone there,’’ Siddhi said. She climbed some of the easy routes around. Then one of her friends, Dhaval Sharma, suggested that she attempt Samsara.

Early morning November 5, she went with Vasant Kadre – he had attempted Samsara before – to try the route. Vasant climbed and put quickdraws in place. Siddhi top roped it; dissecting the whole climb into sections, practising each section and then linking it all into a sequence.  Later, all of evening, she rested. November 6 early morning, she returned to Samsara. This time, Vasant completed the route successfully. Siddhi practised the moves again. She felt better. That evening, with Shubham Jagtap belaying, she tried Samsara again on lead. She was leading on natural rock after a long time. Between the fifth and sixth clip, where run-out is tad long, she sensed that old worry of potential ankle injury returning. “ The ankle injury was playing on Siddhi’s mind. She was concerned that it may repeat should she fall,’’ Shubham said. When you fall in sport climbing, the arc of the fall with distance from last protection clipped into as radius, draws the climber back to the wall / rock face being ascended. All this happens quickly and as climber closes back in on rock, it is the legs that are wielded in front to absorb impact. Siddhi’s worry was relevant. To her credit, she practised every section of the route thoroughly. She is a short climber. The moves to tackle each section – what climbers call beta; is influenced by their physicality. Moves needn’t be the same for everyone. Each climber has to figure it out based on his / her ability, skills and physical dimension. “ Siddhi figured out the beta herself. We didn’t tell her anything,’’ Shubham, who has climbed Samsara, said. Given all the good attempts were happening by evening, Siddhi decided to assign final attempt for next evening.

Samsara; starting the climb (Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar)

The morning of November 7, her last day in Badami on that visit, she had another practice session on the route. November 7 evening, with Shubham belaying again, Siddhi formally attempted Samsara on lead. According to Shubham, there were three attempts that evening. In the first one, she fell from the ninth clip. In the second, she fell from the third clip. At this point she was a bit shaken. After resting for ten minutes, she tried again. This time Siddhi sent Samsara (in climbing, sending a route means successfully completing it). On tough routes, muscles get pushed to the limit. Climbers are prone to take rest or shake off lactic acid accumulation on their limbs. This may happen just after clipping in to quickdraw close by. For a climb to be accepted as clean, at such instances of rest and shaking off pumped muscles, climbers must not take advantage of the belay and transfer their weight to it. Shubham said that Siddhi’s weight was never felt on the rope. “ It was a smooth climb. There was no downgrading of the route,’’ he said. It was late evening by the time Siddhi’s third attempt – the successful one – concluded. Light was now low. Unfortunately the lack of adequate light left its imprint on photographs clicked of the final stages of the climb, her friends said. Samsara done, Siddhi left Badami for Mumbai the next day, as scheduled.

For Siddhi, Badami is special. It has been her favorite natural rock-fix, away from the artificial walls and competitions she grew up with. “ In November 2018, I came to Badami from a slump in climbing. The success on Samsara therefore feels good. It also feels like a turning point. My life so far has revolved around competitions and preparing for them. Samsara brought me back to natural rock. I will continue to compete but there is now the desire to do more climbs on natural rock, in the outdoors. Samsara happened at the right time,’’ Siddhi said. As for plans ahead – she wishes to attempt Samsara again; do it a second time. On the career front, now that she has completed graduation, her wish is to appear for the Combined Defence Services (CDS) exam.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Siddhi Manerikar. Podium finishes and competition details are as stated by her.)  

SCOTT SPORTS INDIA LAUNCHES ITS FIRST ROAD BIKE TEAM

Nigel Smith, Head Coach, with the cyclists selected to be part of the Scott Racing Development road bike team in India (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Globally, Scott’s sporting segments span cycling, motorsports, running, winter sports and outdoor. With a road bike team in place in India, the company plans to introduce similar initiatives in motorsports and running as well. 

Scott Sports India today announced the launch of its first road bike team in the country.

Called Scott Racing Development, the team currently has three young cyclists. Their presentation to the media and public happened at the 2018 India Cycling Festival in Mumbai.

Prior to team formation, Scott Sports India had conducted trials involving over 200 participants from across the country. From their ranks, Sandesh Sedekar (20), hailing from Mumbai and now living in Goa, Monty Choudhary (23) hailing from Meerut and currently residing in Ghaziabad and Jehaan Panjuani (23) hailing from Mumbai and living there, got selected. “ The three road cyclists will be incubated to the Scott Racing Development training programme on a long term basis, to participate as a team in 8-10 races in India as well as 2-3 international races,’’ a related statement from the company said.

According to it, the coaching plan will focus on both physical and tactical aspects. While the physical emphasis would be on effective training as well as improvement of technique; tactical would focus on developing a race strategy and adapting to conditions. In addition, the riders will be guided on understanding performance data to help manage their training and results.

“We’re looking to put in place a structure and process that is rider-focused but ultimately gives the rider the tools and responsibility to deliver. I believe the team approach has a lot of advantages and our selection process also focused on building a team as opposed to finding individuals. We felt this group had the right dynamics to work as a team, with each one capable of handling physical responsibilities that maximise each rider’s opportunity to improve. It’s a performance-oriented programme and each year we will look to add to the team by conducting trials and reach out to an ever-wider group of young cyclists. Over time, our goal isn’t only to expand the team, but to also start picking younger talent. In the UK, academy training typically begins at age 14 and that allows them to continually have a pool of talented competitive riders,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach, said in the statement.

 “This is the first time a global cycling brand has launched a long term training programme for cycling in India. We’ve been supporting athletes over the years, including a future stars programme focused on U-18 cyclists. We realised that while there was potential, the lack of a structured, team-oriented training programme acted as a barrier both for growth of the sport and athlete to take the next step. A holistic development approach will help the sport make its mark in the country, as the focus is both on training and performance. The team will participate in both Indian and international races over the course of the year,’’ Jaymin Shah, Country Head, Scott Sports India, has said.

The team will provide riders with the full range of necessary equipment for an elite cyclist as well as aid them in relocation, including employment opportunities, until they progress to the next step. “We believe that this program will truly allow us to be a catalyst of change at the grassroots level of the sport in the country. Our goal over the next 3-5 years is to build an elite team and expose more cyclists to this culture for it to be a viable career opportunity. Thus, launching a team was the essential step in that direction, as it also allows for building the sport commercially. Globally, cycling is seen as an attractive sport for brands, both in terms of visibility and reaching a targeted audience. To make elite cycling sustainable, we’ll also be focusing on that aspect by giving brands the opportunity to partner with a niche, but fast-growing sport,’’ Jaymin Shah said in the statement.

Going ahead, Scott Sports India aims to launch similar programmes for motorsports and running, the statement said.

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

THE HIGH GETS LONGER

Mark Woolley on his way to completing the 333km category of La Ultra The High, 2016 edition (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Come 2019, La Ultra The High, the well-known ultramarathon at altitude in Ladakh, will feature 555 kilometers to be run in five and a half days as the longest race in its repertoire. At the lower end of the scale, it will debut that year, a 55 kilometer race.

The new distances are in addition to the existing ones. Previously the longest race at the event was 333 kilometers and the shortest, 111 kilometers with a 222 kilometer-category in between. Starting in Lakzung, a village in Nubra Valley, the ultramarathon’s route includes the high mountain passes of Khardung La (17,700 feet), Wari La and Tanglang La. Asked if there were races elsewhere packing altitude, multiple mountain passes, variations in weather conditions and now distance in excess of 500 kilometers as La Ultra The High does, Dr Rajat Chauhan, event founder and race director said, “ We were already in a league of our own at 333 kilometers.’’

The 555 kilometer-run has generated excitement. “ I would love to try 555. Not sure if I will be able to make it there in 2019 but it is on my radar,’’ Grant Maughan, who was joint winner with Jovica Spajic in the 333 kilometer-race at La Ultra The High in 2016, said when contacted.

There is no change in acclimatization schedule or medical protocols for 555 kilometers, which – like the 333, will be run in a single stage. The same acclimatization schedule and protocols as applied to 333 kilometers continue for this as well. In the case of 55 kilometers, those enrolling and accepted will require to reach Ladakh at least five days prior to the event. “ We are encouraging them to arrive earlier still if they can afford to,’’ Dr Chauhan said. The 55 kilometer-race will begin at 1.5 kilometers ahead of the old finish line of the 222-run (Serthi Circle), go up to Wari La and have its finish line at the same point as the current 222 does. The 555 will start with everyone else at Lakzung, proceed the whole length of the 333-run’s course and then retrace the route back to Leh to finish at the current finish line of the 111 kilometer-run at Shanti Stupa.

As per the official website of the race, its sister event Garhwal Runs, which is qualifier for the 111 kilometer-discipline at La Ultra The High, will have a 33 kilometer race to serve as qualifier for the new 55 kilometer-run. For 555 kilometers, a prospective candidate should have run either 222 kilometers or 333 kilometers previously at La Ultra The High. Other cases wherein candidates have run such distances under conditions relevant to the Ladakh event will be looked into. But that will be “ consideration,’’ not accompanied by assured acceptance.

La Ultra The High commenced in 2010 as a 222 kilometer-race. Over a period of time, it added runs spanning 333 kilometers and 111 kilometers as well. Alongside Garhwal Runs was also brought in as a qualifier event for La Ultra. Initially dominated by foreign runners, in the last few years, the number of Indian participants at the event has been rising. According to the race website, in 2018, there were three Indian finishers and one just over cut-off time, in the 333 kilometer-category. The decision to add a 555 kilometer-race comes on the back of these developments. Not to mention – the 2019 edition will mark a decade of holding the race.

In an article published on this blog in July 2015, Dr Chauhan had indicated that there are proposals for a 555 kilometer-category (the article can be accessed on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/07/29/too-ultra-for-sponsors/) Notwithstanding the challenge it offers and the appeal it poses to devotees of the ultramarathon, the event is yet to find a major sponsor.

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

VEDANGI’S QUEST / INDIA STAGE COMMENCES

Vedangi Kulkarni / India stage (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Into the last few thousand kilometers of her journey cycling around the planet, 19 year-old Vedangi Kulkarni has reached India. The Indian chapter of the circumnavigation project is currently underway.

Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet solo and unsupported on a bicycle, began the Indian leg of her trip today (December 2, 2018) from Bareja near Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

“ She started cycling at 10 AM,’’ her father, Vivek Kulkarni said.

According to him, the likely route ahead for the young cyclist will be Ahmedabad – Vapi – Pune – Kolhapur – Panaji – Mangalore – Kozhikode – Thiruvananthapuram – Kanyakumari – Tirunelveli – Madurai – Tiruchirapalli – Chennai – Bhubaneshwar – Kolkata. The Indian leg of the circumnavigation trip follows several days spent cycling in Russia.

India stage underway (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Vedangi commenced her journey in Perth, Australia on July 17. She has since cycled in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe and Russia. The original plan was to move to Mongolia from Russia. That has been replaced with kilometers to be logged in India. Besides conforming to certain other parameters, full circumnavigation entails cycling approximately 29,000 kilometers. Last reported on this blog (on November 25, when she was cycling in Russia) Vedangi was estimated to have covered around 23,500 kilometers. A Google search for the distance from Ahmedabad to Kanyakumari showed it as 2163 kilometers while that from Kanyakumari to Kolkata was shown as 2365 kilometers. Taken together, it is more than 4500 kilometers. December 2 marked 138 days since Vedangi started out from Perth. For circumnavigation to be complete, she has to end her journey at the place where she commenced it.

For further information on Vedangi’s journey please visit this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/25/vedangis-quest-russian-leg-nears-completion-india-next/. More related articles – from the time she commenced her journey – are available in the blog’s story list. They can also be accessed by scrolling down.

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

FOOTBALL WITH A DIFFERENCE / THE FAN WHO CYCLED TO MOSCOW FOR FIFA WORLD CUP

Clifin Francis (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mid-2018, a young man hailing from Thuravoor near Kochi, was in the news for cycling to Russia to see the FIFA World Cup. This is the story of Clifin Francis; what he did and plans to do next.

Azerbaijan is a small country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia.

It has borders with Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Russia.

On the east it is bounded by the Caspian Sea.

In May 2018, a young cyclist from Kochi in South India made his way to the border of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The specific border crossing he chose was the one linking the city of Balakan in northwestern Azerbaijan to Lagodekhi, a town in Georgia, at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It is a location visible on videos posted on the Internet. On the Azerbaijan side, the approach to the border is heralded by a big gateway. The cyclist, who had pedaled in from Baku, faced no problem leaving Azerbaijan. Officials put the exit stamp on his visa. Beyond Azerbaijan’s last check post is a bridge over a dry river bed, at the end of which is the entry to Georgia. With countries at both ends, you could ask: what nation are you on, on the bridge? At the Georgia end of the bridge, trouble awaited cyclist. Although his papers were in order the Georgians denied him entry. He pleaded. They stood firm. No, there was no entering the country. He retraced his steps to Azerbaijan. But with exit stamp already on his visa, he couldn’t return to the country he had just left. Clifin Francis sat there, stuck on the bridge. “ I was in no man’s land,’’ he said.

All you need in a backpack and a whole world to explore (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Kochi, October 2018. It is nearly six months since that incident on the bridge. As the time of appointment approached, I left my hotel room and reached MG Road to meet Clifin. Born April 1990 in Thurvaoor, some 25 kilometers south of Kochi, Clifin attended school in Pattanakkad and later joined Kochi’s Model Engineering College (MEC) to study electronics and communication. “ I had no particular interest in sports in school. MEC changed my life. Unlike those brought up in Kochi and other cities, I came from a comparatively rural background. MEC taught me to dream,’’ he said. Passing out from MEC in 2011, Clifin joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Kochi, working with them for three years. While at TCS he took leave and traveled to Bangkok and Bali. At both these places, he met backpackers and was fascinated by their way of life and the stories they told. “ They were free and surviving with the basic amenities of life,’’ he said. This trip and lessons from it wasn’t the only undercurrent shaping his thoughts.

From the backpacking trip in South East Asia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Back in 1999, when Clifin was nine years old, living in Thuravoor and attending school in nearby Pattanakkad, a 21 year old-computer programmer in the US called Casey Fenton conceived the core idea of the nonprofit organization he would set up in 2003 – Couchsurfing. According to Wikipedia, Fenton once took a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. He did not have lodging. So he hacked into the database of the University of Iceland and randomly emailed some 1500 students, seeking homestay. He got 50-100 offers and wound up staying with an Icelandic rhythm and blues singer. Today, Couchsurfing is a hospitality and social networking service accessed via website and mobile. Members can use the service to arrange homestay, offer lodging and hospitality. While at TCS, Clifin joined Couchsurfing. He hosted two travelers at his house in Kochi. One of them specialized in traveling overland. He inspired the young man from Thuravoor to contemplate border-crossing, wherein instead of flying in to destinations, you travel overland and cross borders as people did in era preceding commercial aviation. By then, the French sports goods chain, Decathlon, had opened outlets in Kochi. Fired up by thoughts of travel, Clifin visited Decathlon and bought tent, sleeping bag and a few other items.

Dreams don’t die. They hibernate, nudging you gently, unconsciously to the true nature of your wiring. The typical Malayali life follows a pattern. Through school and college, academics dominate. Once done with that, career dominates. Vindication of time spent minting success, is well settled life replete with family, handsome bank balance, house (or houses), car et al; with of course address overseas prized above all else. Clifin wrote the Common Admission Test (CAT) to pursue a course in Master of Business Administration (MBA); according to him, his scores were good enough for admission to the country’s elite business schools. Friends recommended that Clifin go for MBA. However, he decided that he should take a break. So he resigned his job and spent six months backpacking through India. The trip took him to Hampi, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Varanasi and India’s North East. Then taking a leaf out of what the overland traveler had told him back at his house in Kochi, he crossed from Manipur in North East India to Myanmar and traveled on through that country to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

From a train compartment in Myanmar (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

On this trip he met a new type of traveler – those touring on bicycles. The cyclists he met included a person from Kerala, who worked in Bengaluru and was cycling in Laos. “ I felt I must try that lifestyle,’’ Clifin said. Thanks to traveling and the way he was doing it, his views about life changed. “ I realized the value of time. Money is not that important. You can tackle time in a cost efficient manner. You just have to choose the correct options,’’ he said. On his return from South East Asia, the erstwhile TCS employee decided that he will be a freelance teacher. It seemed better suited for the kind of life he sought. “ It is not like if you are an engineer you have to be one for life,’’ he said, taking a sip from the drink he had ordered. The café was a compact one, on the first floor of a building overlooking MG Road. Outside, Kochi had changed considerably. Through the glass windows one saw the pillars of the city’s new elevated metro. Across the road, the iconic cinema theater, Shenoy’s – by which name the locality was known and continues to be known – was under renovation to become a multiplex; the plot it stood on was shielded from public view by aluminum sheets.

For many youngsters in India, their education progresses towards a set of life defining tests. Thousands of students pass out from college / intermediate college every year and then confront a series of competitive exams to study professional courses like engineering, medicine, MBA, accountancy; even a shot at becoming bureaucrat in government or joining the armed forces. Not to mention, tests to qualify for studying abroad. Preparing students for the plethora of tests that abound is a big industry in India. According to their website, as of September 2017, Career Launcher had 200 test-prep schools in 100 cities in India. The brand was over two decades old by then. Post TCS and backpacking stint, Clifin joined Career Launcher as a freelance teacher teaching mathematics and logical reasoning to students wishing to appear for CAT. His daily work straddled two coaching centers in Kochi – he taught at the center in Kakkanad in the morning and the one at Ravipuram by evening. Alongside, an idea had been brewing in his head. It started sometime in 2015-16, before Career Launcher; on the flight from Bangkok to Kochi.

From the backpacking trip in South East Asia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Football is a much loved game in Kerala. Local teams, football leagues and tournaments abound. Teams like Travancore Titanium, Kerala Police and FACT are remembered by old timers while the new crop includes Kerala Blasters and Gokulam Kerala FC. Once every four years, the FIFA World Cup becomes a craze across Kerala. People identify strongly with their favorite teams, some paint their houses in team colors, put up large billboards featuring football stars; you will even find colorful portraits of leading players drawn on the side of transport buses. Like most Malayalis, Clifin liked football. He used to watch important matches telecast on TV. Indeed, at his house in Thuravoor, the 1998 FIFA World Cup (held in France and won by the home team defeating Brazil 3-0 in the final) had seen his father buy a new TV. But TV was no more pinnacle of watching sport. With economic development and rising affluence, Indians have been traveling to major events like the football World Cup and the Olympics. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was due in Russia. Inspired by backpacking, the stories he had heard and the cyclists he met, Clifin wondered: how about cycling to Russia and watching the World Cup there? That would combine travel, cycling and his affection for football. He decided to take the plunge. He shared the idea with his friends. But they were skeptical. “ They said, I will reach Russia but not on a bicycle,’’ Clifin said. One of his friends, Namsheer Koraliyadan, thought differently. Hailing from Malappuram, Namsheer liked football. He met Clifin at MEC, where both did their BTech. The two bought bicycles; Clifin bought a Cosmic hybrid while Namsheer bought a Btwin MTB. They cycled on and off around Kochi and to nearby places. On one occasion, they rode all the way from Kochi to Kanyakumari, the southern tip of mainland India. In course of time, Clifin upgraded – he bought a Merida Crossway hybrid.

At Kanyakumari; Namsheer in red T-shirt (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

However there was a problem – it was tough getting the right size of bike; something that matters, when dreaming of riding long. On incorrectly sized bike, cycling long hours for several days can reduce cyclist to picture of suffering. Kochi’s drawback was that it didn’t have a facility to properly measure cyclist and match him / her to appropriate bike. “ My arms are short. That made me sensitive to size of bicycle,’’ Clifin said. He trusted Paul Mathew of The Bike Store to help him find the correct bike but beyond telling him the truth about the mismatch between his body size and bike frames available in town, there wasn’t much Paul could do. Meanwhile there was no shortage of audacity in planning the Russia trip. In October 2017, the FIFA U-17 World Cup was held in India (the Indian edition went on to see the highest ever attendance in the event’s history with 1,347,133 fans turning up to watch). According to Namsheer, Clifin and he planned on cycling to some of the U-17 venues and then, cycling on to catch the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. They even contemplated cycling through Pakistan. “ We understood soon, that’s impossible for Indians,’’ Clifin told me at the cafe. Meanwhile, Namsheer got married and dropped out from proposed trip. Clifin looked at accessing Russia from Mongolia. He scrapped that idea because the distance – including China – was too daunting for rookie cyclist. He may end up taking longer than what a visa usually permits. Further, if instead of tackling China from its south eastern provinces up, he elected to cut across from Nepal, the cost would likely escalate because of Himalaya and Tibet in between. “ My budget was $ 1000 apart from cost of bicycle and I didn’t want to hurry while cycling. It is not a race, it is a slow, relaxed journey doing what I feel like,’’ he said.

Bandar Abbas, Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

The alternative was to start cycling from Iran and reach Russia through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia give Indians visa on arrival. End-February 2018, two of his friends dropped Clifin off at Kochi’s Nedumbassery airport. The long planned expedition was finally commencing although he still had no bicycle for the long ride. Namsheer recalled the sight. “ He had just a backpack,’’ he said. Aside from what he had packed for the expedition, Clifin carried with him a parcel his aunt had sent along for his cousin in Dubai. Clifin spent two weeks in Dubai. He visited as many bike shops as he could. Eventually, he bought a Trek DS-1 hybrid with 24 gears, front suspension and no lockout. In general, the Internet speaks of it favorably as a dual sport model, one that commutes well and also handles trails to an extent, provided you tackle uneven surfaces keeping in mind that it is not a MTB, but a hybrid. The shop did the bike fitting and Clifin dispatched pictures of him on the bike to Paul in Kochi for his approval. “ He replied – that’s a good one. That’s when I decided to buy it,’’ Clifin said. His friends then dispatched bicycle panniers and camping gear to him, from Kochi. Early March, Clifin and Trek, took the ship from Sharjah to Bandar Abbas, the port city in southern Iran. He had about 20 kilos on the bike – two paniers of 15 liters capacity each and a large backpack. Officials at the Iranian port were used to cyclists coming through. They welcomed him in. That day, the first day of his expedition, he got his first puncture. It is a window to Clifin’s nature.

With fellow cyclists in Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Shuttling between his teaching assignments in Kochi, Clifin hadn’t found the time to train systematically for the long ride from Bandar Abbas to Moscow. He hadn’t learnt bicycle maintenance. When they got punctures on the trip to Kanyakumari from Kochi, Clifin and Namsheer had visited roadside mechanics to get things fixed. Strangely, none of that seems to have bothered Clifin. It is as though he views everything that unfolds – in whatever way it does – as life. “ I have no ego. I used to hitchhike. I think everyone should try hitchhiking. It takes away the ego. You try, try, try….people don’t stop to give you a lift. Who do you get angry at? What’s the point?’’ Clifin asked. So he rolled up his sleeves, got down to work and learnt how to fix a puncture that first day in Iran. It was good he did so for Iranian roads weren’t smooth everywhere and he had a day with five punctures to fix, all on the rear wheel.

From Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Other cyclists on the ship to Bandar Abbas had advised Clifin to take it easy on the road initially. They had a reason. The route Clifin was on could easily end up being deceptive for newcomer to cycling. Iran is one of the world’s most mountainous countries. The bulk of the mountains are in the west and Azerbaijan, the country Clifin had to be in next, lay to the northwest. A rookie cyclist starting from sea level at Bandar Abbas, may race off from start and overlook saving oneself for the rugged terrain to follow. It is wiser to treat distance and terrain with respect. Heeding the advice, in the initial phase of his tour, Clifin covered 50-60 kilometers every day. Then he slowly ramped it up, till on some days, he was touching 140 kilometers. “ People were really nice in Iran. They love football. They were happy to see somebody cycling to Russia for the World Cup. They asked me to support Iran’s football team at the event. The only problem in Iran was that it was dry country. I couldn’t get chilled beer!’’ Clifin said. Of the 45 days he spent crossing Iran, he stayed in hostels on only two occasions. All other days, he slept in his tent, at people’s houses or at mosques.

Rasht, Iran; the family he stayed with (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Meanwhile back home in Kochi, Clifin’s expedition was becoming real to his friends. “ Not everyone thought he would do it. As the journey progressed, people started believing,’’ Namsheer said. By the time Clifin reached the Azerbaijan border, he had lost weight; he had also become sunburnt from days on the road. The officials at the Iran-Azerbaijan border took some time to approve his entry. Nobody was rude; they just took time. Landscape and culture was different in Azerbaijan. High point for Clifin was running into Siraj from north Kerala who runs a restaurant in Baku. “ Baku is a beautiful city,’’ Clifin said. He stayed with Siraj for a week enjoying the place and devouring Indian food. Azerbaijan is located in the South Caucasus region. Over one half of it is made of mountain ridges, crests and plateaus; the rest consists of plains and lowlands. Clifin covered Azerbaijan in a month’s time, including the time he spent in Baku. When he reached the Balakan-Lagodekhi border gate some 390 kilometers away from Baku, he was in the company of a German cyclist. “ They let the German cyclist through to Georgia. But I was denied permission by the Georgian authorities. I had the required visa and documents. They didn’t give me any reason for denying entry,’’ Clifin said. He was left stranded on that bridge.

With other cyclists en route to Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

What saved him was a small but crucial gesture by the German cyclist. As they pass from one country to the next, it is normal for cyclists to buy a local SIM card for their cellphone. Clifin had bought one in Azerbaijan. Anticipating exit to Georgia (and new SIM thereafter), some 15 kilometers ahead of the Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing, he gave his SIM to another cyclist for use in Azerbaijan. At the Georgia end of the bridge, as refusal of permission for him to cross unfolded, Clifin was without a local SIM in his phone. Luckily, before he entered Georgia, the German cyclist handed Clifin his Azerbaijan SIM card. Using that, Clifin was able to call up people at the Georgian embassy in Baku. But there was nothing they could do – they represented external affairs while the border crossing was handled by internal affairs. With no other option at hand, Clifin worked the cellphone and applied for an e-visa for entry back into Azerbaijan. All this time and for more that day, he sat parked on the bridge; neither in Georgia nor in Azerbaijan. People passing by asked him where he was headed and what happened. They gave him food and water. It was night by the time e-visa was received and he could return to Azerbaijan, stone’s throw away.

In Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

“ It was an experience, waiting on that bridge. But not as bad as what happened to me in the desert in Iran. On the bridge, I knew I would get food and water. They won’t let me starve. So it was okay. The experience taught me patience,’’ Clifin said. Earlier in Iran, in a place he described as desert, he had got lost. There was no road. His GPS had stopped working. He cycled on looking for footprints or tracks. There was none for close to seven hours; there wasn’t a soul around. He started to panic. “ I realized, it was fear,’’ Clifin said. After those seven hours, a man showed up. Conversation was tough for the man spoke only Farsi. In utterly basic Farsi with some gestures thrown in for good measure, Clifin managed to indicate Bandar Abbas way behind, two weeks through Iran spent on the saddle and Russia ahead for destination. That was enough to find him roof for the night. He stayed in that man’s house.

From Azerbaijan (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

From the bridge at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border, Clifin cycled back to Baku. He would now have to undertake another route to Russia; one that he had tried to avoid by opting for the Balakan-Lagodekhi crossing instead. It was temporary setback in a journey otherwise lit up by the humanity and good people he met on the way (his Facebook posts reflect the sentiment). Georgia’s denial of permission would stay imprinted in his mind. In a June 2018 article in Khaleej Times on alleged mistreatment of UAE citizens and residents at Georgia’s airports, Clifin’s experience at overland crossing also found mention. “ I heard several stories of issues that people faced trying to get into Georgia. So I went to the Georgian embassy in Baku first with all my paperwork, holiday insurance, hotel bookings, spending money etc and they told me it would be fine,’’ he is quoted as saying. As for what happened at the border, he told the paper, “ they just looked at my passport. They had no interest in seeing the paperwork I had. They were shouting at me in their language and they were very aggressive. I felt like I was targeted because of my nationality. They gave no reasons as to why I was turned away. I felt discriminated against. Why bother issuing e-visas for certain nationalities or asking for documented evidence if they are just going to refuse you entry?’’

Camped in Tambov Oblast, Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Dagestan, officially called the Republic of Dagestan, is a federal subject of Russia located in the north Caucasus region. According to Wikipedia, Russia has 22 republics, 46 oblasts, nine krais, four autonomous okrugs, three federal cities and one autonomous oblast. A republic in Russia is nominally autonomous with its own constitution and legislature but is represented by the federal government in international affairs. Each republic is meant to be home to a specific ethnic minority. With an area of 50,300 square kilometers, Dagestan is a small republic. It is also the most heterogeneous of Russia’s republics, with the largest ethnicity constituting no more than 30 per cent of the population. Since the 1990s, Dagestan has witnessed Islamic insurgency and occasional outbreaks of separatism and ethnic tensions. The province is also close to Chechnya, a known trouble spot. On the map, Azerbaijan; Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan – they are all located on a strip of land sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The strip connects Russia to Iran. You can cross from Azerbaijan into Dagestan and thereby be directly in Russia. But Clifin wasn’t sure how safe it would be. That’s why he had elected to reach Russia via Georgia. Now with the Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing shut to him, Dagestan remained sole possibility.

In Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

The new border crossing was 200 kilometers away from Baku. It took him three days to reach. “ I was scared in the beginning,’’ he said. After all, he had been turned back at the border with Georgia. Dagestan also had political and ethnic tensions within for visitor to think about. But once the guards saw his football fan ID (part of FIFA’s ticketing paraphernalia) and realized he was from India, they began asking him about Indian film stars, Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty. Clifin breathed a sigh of relief. He was thrilled when the electronically operated gates at the border parted and Russia loomed before cyclist. “ I felt really happy crossing the border here,’’ he said. Dagestan was also where he – Indian football fan cycling in from Bandar Abbas and on his way to Moscow for FIFA World Cup – got interviewed by a local TV channel. Result – here and there on the road, he was recognized.

In Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

It is over 2000 kilometers from Dagestan to Moscow. He covered it in a little over a month, securing details of best routes possible from local members of the Warmshowers community (founded in the US in 1993 as a hospitality exchange for bicycle tourists, Warmshowers had some 85,000 members worldwide by early 2018). “ This last stretch – the route from Dagestan to Moscow – was comparatively easy for me. The only problem was that the road wasn’t consistently good and at places, there was no cycle path. The people were nice and very relaxed. They were welcoming of stranger cycling through their land,’’ Clifin said. As per original plans, two World Cup tickets had been procured – one for him; one for Namsheer. But with the latter dropping out, his ticket was passed on to another friend from Kochi, Anand V.K. He was Clifin’s senior at MEC. But following a brief stint as software engineer in Bengaluru, Anand first attempted to join the civil services and later, shifted to coaching others for civil service exams. Eventually he joined Customs & Central Excise as an officer. Anand was originally part of Cliffin’s Russia plans but had withdrawn when he learnt that the idea was to cycle. Cliffin had stayed in touch with him during sections of the journey; especially after the incident at the Georgia border. Anand had batch mates in the civil service and friends of theirs stationed in Moscow helped verify how safe the Dagestan route would be.

Clifin with Anand, at the stadium in Moscow (Photo: courtesy Anand V.K)

Anand reached Moscow on June 11 for the FIFA World Cup. He had booked accommodation at an Air BNB close to Red Square. From that day on, Clifin spoke to him almost daily apprising him of his progress. “ On June 24, all the others who were staying with me – four people in fact – left for Kazan to watch the Germany-South Korea match. It was around 6-7 PM and they were just leaving, when Clifin arrived on his bicycle,’’ Anand said. By now Clifin’s story had become well known. Somewhere during his ride through Russia, a friend who saw his periodic posts on Facebook had linked him up with a journalist. The story appeared on Manorama Online, a popular media website. The day after Clifin reached Moscow, there were interactions with the media in Moscow’s Red Square, following which he and Anand were invited for lunch at a leading Indian restaurant. On June 26, ticket in hand and carrying a printed poster expressing Clifin’s wish to meet Lionel Messi (which they hoped TV cameras would pick up), Clifin and Anand went to the stadium to see the qualifying match played between France and Denmark. It ended in a goalless draw. Clifin stayed in Moscow for the entire duration of the FIFA World Cup. He saw the remaining matches in the Fan Zone outside the stadium, where big TV screens had been installed. France won the World Cup beating Croatia 4-2 in the final. It was a disastrous World Cup for Argentina; they were knocked out by France early in the tournament. Clifin didn’t meet Messi.

Clifin’s Trek DS-1 (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Clifin’s Trek DS-1 held up fairly well through the whole journey. Besides his personal supplies and camping gear, he had carried along for the trip, 3-4 spare tubes, a puncture kit, a spare tyre, bicycle tools and a full sized pump. He had his share of punctures, which he learnt to fix on the go. Luckily most cities in the world have a cycling club. “ They helped in locating service centers for the bike,’’ Clifin said. For the return trip to India, a bike shop in Moscow dismantled the bike and packed it for him. “ I told them that I had cycled from Bandar Abbas to Moscow but did not know how to pack my bicycle,’’ he said, a mixture of embarrassment and laughter playing on his face. The flight from Moscow to Delhi took six hours. From Delhi, he flew to Kochi, where his friends – four of them, this time – came to the airport to receive him. “ He had informed us that given bicycle and luggage only two people should come,’’ Namsheer said. Clifin had been away for five months. He returned to work at Career Launcher.

Journey’s end; June 26, 2018, France versus Denmark, at the stadium in Moscow (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Clifin hopes to write a book on his journey. He also has plans, at a very nascent stage, for his next journey – cycle from Kochi to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “ I can cycle to Shanghai and take a ferry from there to Japan or cycle to Vladivostok via Mongolia and take a ferry from there. This time he wants to cycle for a cause. “ I want to give back for the love I got from people,’’ he said. Also planned, is documenting the trip. He has begun learning photography and videography. As he spoke, the `also’ list slowly grew – he must buy a new camera, he must find sponsors and yes, he would like a new bicycle; a proper touring bike. We had chatted for a long time and it was getting late. For a city of its size, Kochi seemed to retire early. Or maybe, as an autorickshaw driver would tell me: MG Road is no more where the action is; life has shifted to the suburbs. “ It is time for the last bus to where I live,’’ Clifin said as we shook hands and parted ways on a MG Road, rain swept and bereft of activity at that hour, except at its eateries.

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

VEDANGI’S QUEST / RUSSIAN LEG NEARS COMPLETION, INDIA NEXT

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from Vedangi’s Facebook page)

By November 24, fourteen days remained to match the existing record for fastest solo unsupported circumnavigation by a woman on a bicycle. Having been slowed down by an unfortunate mugging incident in Spain, matching the record is not a priority at this stage of the ride; successfully completing solo circumnavigation is. At the time of writing, the young cyclist was riding through the world’s biggest nation by land area; that too as the fabled Russian winter sets in. Record or none, Vedangi – she had cycled roughly 23,500 kilometers as of November 24 – has done a fantastic job.

Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, reached Samara on November 24. Samara is in the southeastern part of European Russia. It is at the confluence of two rivers – Volga and Samara. According to her father Vivek Kulkarni, the 19 year old-cyclist has now pedaled approximately 23,500 kilometers across the planet since her solo unsupported circumnavigation attempt commenced in Perth, Australia on July 17.

A warm welcome in Samara, Russia; the hotel Vedangi elected to stay at baked a cake for her (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Vedangi reached Finland in early November but given her visa for entry into Russia had expired she had to wait till a fresh visa was issued. The new visa was received on November 17. By the evening of November 21, she was in Moscow, having cycled the distance of 1100 kilometers from Helsinki to the Russian capital in that while. Given winter, she was cycling in pretty cold conditions, Vivek said. From Moscow, Vedangi cycled to St Peterburg and onward to Tver and Samara. From Samara, she is expected to cycle to Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Bashkortostan province. It has an airport. By the time she reaches Ufa, Vedangi would have covered about 3000 kilometers in Russia, leaving approximately 4000 kilometers left overall to qualify for circumnavigation. Signifying change of plan, Vivek said that Vedangi won’t be heading to Mongolia and would instead cover most of the last few thousand kilometers in India. Besides factors related to visa, one reason for the change in plan was that she would have had to cycle through Siberia to reach Mongolia and temperatures would be quite cold at this time of the year. Since she began her circumnavigation from Perth in an easterly direction, the same direction would have to be generally followed for the route she chooses to be on in India as well. At the time of writing, the exact route was yet to be finalized. Given her circumnavigation would be complete only at Perth, there would be a small distance left for finish in Australia.

Attending to her bicycle (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Vedangi’s website, November 24 marked 130 days since she began her circumnavigation trip. When she started out, the trip was a quest to become the fastest woman cyclist to accomplish solo, unsupported circumnavigation. For that she would have to better the record held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. As per Vedangi’s website, the circumnavigation trip entails cycling 18,000 miles (roughly 29,000 kilometers). Vivek said that completing full circumnavigation in the remaining 14 days is not a priority because unexpected hiccups along the way had upset some of the earlier cast plans.  Focus now is on getting the job done. When she completes her circumnavigation, Vedangi would be the youngest to do it solo and unsupported and the first Indian woman accomplishing it, Vivek said.

Vedangi’s journey has not been entirely smooth. There were unexpected challenges. The last reported one was a mugging incident in Spain that left the young cyclist injured and quite rattled. She described her experience on her Facebook page (you can also read about it in previous articles about Vedangi on this blog; please scroll down to access the relevant piece). At the time of that post, Vedangi was more than 17,500 kilometers into her circumnavigation trip and had already cycled across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. In the process, she crossed both the antipodal points advised under circumnavigation rules – the first was Auckland in New Zealand and the second, Madrid in Spain. Cycling in Spain (before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell of cycling in Iceland) was to be followed by passage through France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. “ I had reached the halfway point at 14,432 kilometers in 55 days,’’ she wrote, adding that her experience with people worldwide had been mostly “ extraordinary.’’

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Vedangi Kulkarni.

“ Given the incident (in Spain) and the concussion she suffered, she had to take it easy for some days. In that period her daily mileage fell,’’ Vivek had said then. Several days later, as he spoke of Vedangi’s arrival in Samara, Vivek said that Russia had so far been a happy, enjoyable experience for cyclist passing through. She got water and tea from the police and people traveling in cars stopped to quiz her about her world tour. The hotel she went to in Samara baked a cake for her; gestures that mean much for lone cyclist and parents tracking her progress from far. Language is not a barrier to find love from people, Vivek texted.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There is a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

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