“ IF YOU ARE MOVING, YOU ARE DOING IT’’

Arham Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In June 2019, a young cyclist from Pune found himself unexpectedly on the saddle at the 3000 miles (4800 km) long-Race Across America (RAAM). He had sought to crew for a team but found himself accepted as a racer. It was an unbelievable opportunity; he hadn’t trained for it, he was a fan among some of the world’s best ultra-cyclists and he was pedaling the same route they were on. Arham Shaikh recalls his RAAM experience and his journey in cycling so far.

In 1990, Colin Needham, an engineer working for computer giant HP in Bristol, started the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It provides information on movies, TV programs, video games, home videos and content streamed online. Since 1998, IMDb has been owned by Amazon. The database has a page devoted to the top 25 Indian films based on sports. Placed eighth on the list as of August 2019, was the 1992 Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, the highlight of which was a bicycle race.

RAAM 2019; cycling through Arizona (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

The movie was a hit at the Indian box office. Arham Shaikh wasn’t yet born when the film released. But it was this movie and its bicycle race that got the young man, born 1993 in Pune, wanting to do something in cycling. Getting to focus on the sport took a while. Growing up, he was into several activities. “ I believe it is one life and I have to do everything. If I am not learning I am as good as dead,’’ Arham said. Thanks to his being in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), his childhood lived up to that credo. He got to train in mountaineering; yachting, shooting and diving. As university student, he also got into rowing and kayaking. He was in the naval wing of NCC. His desire was to join the Indian Navy. But the fact that he ended up graduating in computer science as opposed to being an engineer restricted his prospects for selection by the navy. It must have hurt for Arham had even been best NCC cadet at the all India level, once. However that cycling bug didn’t let go. It hung on.

RAAM’s route from the US west coast to the east ( Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Arham’s father initially worked in the hotel industry and later, with the Baba Kalyani group of companies. His mother worked for Tata Motors. When he was in seventh standard, they bought him his first road bike – a BSA Mach 1. He asked his school coach what he should do to train and become a good cyclist. It was an unusual request; school coaches in India are typically generalists. Coach and ward had to figure out their way. Sole phase of proper structured intervention in between was a month when Arham trained at Kreeda Prabodhini in Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex. They trained competitive cyclists. Then in tenth standard, Arham finished on the podium at a national level road race. He was promised a good road bike at home but funds crunch ensured it remained a mirage. A few years later his brother acquired a Hercules hybrid. Hitting the roads with that, Arham gradually got introduced to the culture of randonneuring, which had by then taken roots in Pune. Although he tagged along on his own with the riders, he didn’t do a BRM officially at this stage. He was a bit too casual and unorganized in his cycling gear to meet the safety standards demanded by the organizers. They recognized his earnestness but politely emphasized safety more.

Arham (left) at a pre-race interview for television, in San Jose (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Towards the closing stages of graduation, Arham worked with the sole intention of saving enough money to buy a good road bike. He worked for a Pune based-bicycle retail shop called Cymour. Around this time, Divya Tate of Inspire India – she also oversaw randonneuring in India – had commenced the annual 400 mile (646 km) bicycle race called Deccan Cliffhanger. At a ride to Lonavala (a hill station roughly 65 kilometers from Pune) organized by Cymour, Arham got to meet Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. The latter asked Arham to crew for him at the 2014 Deccan Cliffhanger. Arham assembled the crew. Cymour helped Srinivas procure a new road bike – a Merida Scultura 300. “ It was a good race,’’ Arham said of the experience. That year, Chaitanya Valhal finished first; Srinivas placed second. Arham was sure he would try Deccan Cliffhanger sometime. Four months after he started working for Cymour, he received a Scott Speedster 30 as payment. Working for Cymour meant more than just getting that cycle. He learnt how to service and repair bikes, not to mention, he got insight into online sales. In 2015 Chaitanya became Arham’s coach. Arham went on to race at Deccan Cliffhanger in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – on all three occasions as part of teams (twice 2-person; once 4-person) he christened Relay Spirit; on all three occasions his team finished on the podium. He also made sure that besides participating in Deccan Cliffhanger, he crewed at one another race. The mix he followed every year was several short distance races, one ultra-distance event and an instance of crewing.

From the pre-race briefing session; Arham with members of Team Serpentine Golden Girls, a 4 person-relay team from UK competing in the 70-74 years age category at RAAM 2019. They had completed RAAM in 2008 earning the distinction of being the oldest female team to finish the race then. Unfortunately, although they cycled for seven days, 16 hours and 15 minutes covering 2673 miles in that while, they could not finish the 2019 edition of the race (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Meanwhile the basket of races at Inspire India grew. In 2017, Arham thought of attempting Ultra Spice, at 1750 kilometers (it also has a 1000 km version), the longest race in their collection. But the dates clashed with a short distance race he had signed up for in Ahmedabad. There was also another event smoldering at the back of his mind; one he had heard spoken of a lot in the cycling circles around Inspire India – Race Across America (RAAM), the event entailing a ride, 4800 kilometers long, from the US west coast to the east. In 2017, Srinivas became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo; Amit Samarth became the first Indian to complete it solo on the very first attempt. At a subsequent party at Divya’s house, Srinivas shared his RAAM experience. Arham was in the audience. It added to the pull RAAM had on Arham. But embarking on a RAAM project was unthinkable for him just then; it cost a lot. A year later, in 2018, Amit successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, a race over 9000 kilometers in length, almost twice as long as RAAM. Same year, Arham was asked if he would like to crew for Amit at Inspire India’s Great Himalayan Ultra. That good fortune of offers coming his way didn’t end there.

Arham with Pete Pensyres, winner of RAAM in 1984 and 1987. Pete held the record for being the fastest cyclist at the race for 27 years till in 2013, his record was broken by Christoph Strasser (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

In October 2018, Lt Col Bharat Pannu informed Arham that he was set to go for 2019 RAAM and as far as he was concerned, Arham was part of his core team for crewing. Arham likes everything at a race except driving the crew car, which he finds limiting as regards learning. Bharat assigned the responsibility of navigation and rider care to him. The team was well prepared. Bharat left a month ahead of everyone else for 2019 RAAM. He needed to train in the US, get used to cycling there and acclimatize. The first lot of the crew including Arham was scheduled to reach California ten days before the actual race, scheduled to start on June 11. Unfortunately Bharat had an accident while training. That ended his dream of participating in 2019 RAAM. It was a last minute setback bringing the curtains down on months of preparation. Tickets had been booked and all that was left for crew to do was, fly from India to the US. Instead of canceling his ticket, Arham decided to proceed to America. He planned to approach any other team requiring a hand in crewing. The logic was simple – crewing puts you in the front row to observe race and rider. It tells you how RAAM unravels, how the challenge impacts rider and crew. It is great experience to obtain especially if you have your own plans to attempt RAAM in the future.

Arham posted his offer and cycling resume on RAAM’s social media pages and community hang-outs. He even wrote to Christoph Strasser, among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists and winner of RAAM multiple times. Inspire India – connected as they are to the RAAM ecosystem – pitched in to help Arham secure an opportunity to crew with a team. Amit Samarth put in a word for Arham to one of RAAM’s all-time greats – Seana Hogan. Back in time, Amit had crewed for Seana. Around May 27-28, Seana called Arham. However Seana couldn’t confirm straight away. Then Dr Lam Do of Team SuperMarrow called. They were riding for a charitable cause. On their website, the team describes themselves thus: We are a team of relentless individuals, comprised of Leukemia patients, their families, and their physicians. Together we will race across America. We bike with the common mission to raise awareness for Leukemia, and to help diversify the Be The Match Registry by registering more potential donors. Team SuperMarrow supports Asian American Donor Program. All net proceeds will go to Asian American Donor Program to help support stem cell education and registration programs. Dr Lam Do asked if Arham was still available. Arham recalled what Dr Lam Do said, “ we will be honored if you come aboard and help our team to finish. Those were his words.’’ Team SuperMarrow was to be an eight person-relay team at RAAM. Arham’s role was to be assistant crew chief. SuperMarrow confirmed in five minutes.  RAAM was on, for Arham.

Arham on the De Rosa; near Wolf Creek Pass, RAAM 2019 (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Next day, Seana called to confirm but it was too late. Arham recommended Ajay K, a teammate from Bharat’s crew for the job; he got it. A day before Arham was to leave, Dr Lam Do called telling him to pack his biking gear as well. Reason – Arham may have to race. Unlike attempting RAAM in solo category which requires prior qualification for eligibility, relay teams can pick up any cyclist they perceive as competent to be a team member. Nevertheless, Dr Lam Do’s announcement was a bolt from the blue. RAAM is a major race and Arham hadn’t trained at all. To compound matters, it was the month of Ramzan and its accompanying tradition of fasting was on. It isn’t the best period for a Muslim sportsperson to exert himself / herself. “ It was a weird time for me to say yes to racing,’’ Arham said. Five days after reaching the US, he was in Oceanside, California, fitted out in cycling gear and training with Team SuperMarrow. The team gave him a bike; it was a 54 centimeter-frame as opposed to his regular 52 centimeters. “ Usually cyclists take around three months to get acquainted with a new bike. I had eight days,’’ Arham said. On the bright side, he was given whatever gear he wanted. Back in Pune, only his parents and Chaitanya knew that he was going to cycle at RAAM. Chaitanya sent him a crash course on training.

From RAAM 2019; halting at a time station en route, to check-in. At right is Dr Lam Do, the team leader of SuperMarrow (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

On race day, having obtained official permission, Arham rode first with Kabir Rachure (rider from Navi Mumbai, he was attempting RAAM solo / he completed it successfully), then for 12 miles he rode with Christoph Strasser, a champion looked up to by many endurance cyclists in India. Team SuperMarrow was divided into two groups of four riders with four crew members; that’s eight cyclists riding on shift basis. One group completes its rotation first, then, the other follows. Arham was initially part of Team B therein. One member of Team B fell sick. Arham volunteered to do double shift. He was the youngest at 25 years of age; the rest were older ranging from 45 years to 72. The team’s previous experience in ultra-cycling was limited. The first few days were taxing. Mistakes happened. Past Durango, a team meeting was held to remind everyone of the need to work in harmony. At Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 feet; it is on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado), Arham’s exhaustion caught up with him. Some of his sessions on the saddle had been long. He was also doing night shifts. Amid this specter of inexperienced team whipping itself into shape, there was one positive. The team had provided Arham two bikes for the race. Both were top notch – a De Rosa and a Blue TT. “ They were the best bikes I had cycled in my life till then,’’ Arham said. Working diligently the team crossed all cut offs in time. RAAM spans the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland. Arham got the honor of leading the team into Maryland. In all, they took eight days, two hours and 19 minutes to complete RAAM. It was well within the nine days cut-off period allotted to relay teams at the event. Team SuperMarrow raised a good amount towards charity, Arham said.

Team SuperMarrow; soon after they successfully completed RAAM in relay format (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

2019 RAAM had been a learning experience for the Pune based-rider. It more than met his expectations. He anticipated crewing; instead, he got to race and finish as part of a relay team. At the time he spoke to this blog in July 2019, Arham was planning to attempt Dunes, a RAAM qualifier race scheduled for mid-September 2019. He was preparing to do that solo. Also in mind was a Half Ironman in 2020; maybe the one in Dubai. Plus, there was the idea of taking a shot at the Great Himalayan Ultra. Of Dunes and solo rides, he said, “ I don’t have the training yet to do a solo. I have to work on my patience. Ultras are not about going fast; it is about being consistent. That’s what I learnt from 2019 RAAM. If you are moving, you are doing it. Not to mention – stopping is also critical. RAAM shows you how small you are.’’

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

TRAINING CAMP FOR ULTRA-RUNNERS CONCLUDES

From the training camp (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

A first ever training camp for national level ultra-runners wrapped up over the weekend in Bengaluru with the hope that athletes would follow up on what they learnt.

The week-long camp featured a broad-based approach to training, incorporating aspects related to techniques of running, strengthening, nutrition and physiotherapy, all of it to help address issues associated with running ultra-distances, Sunil Chainani, member, Ultra Running Committee of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said.

“ We had a basic program that was common for all runners with strength training and one-on-one sessions with the running coach, nutritionist and the sports doctor,” Sunil, an ultra-runner and former national-level squash player, said. He was the main organizer and co-ordinator of the camp.

US based-coach, Anthony Kunkel, nutritionist Keertana and sports doctor Dr Sitaraman were an integral part of the camp. The camp found support from the top recreational runners of Bengaluru. With ultra-running picking up in recent times, a camp of this nature was the need of the hour. Indian athletes are now representing the country in international ultra-distance events.

Coach Anthony ran with the trainees, suggested modifications and changes in techniques based on one-on-one sessions with them, Sunil said. The focus was on individualised approach to training, nutrition and physiotherapy. A foot scan for each athlete was also carried out at Dr Sitaraman’s clinic to make an assessment of the kind of shoes to wear for races.

From the camp (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

“ The camp included runners selected to represent the country at international championships,’’ Gunjan Khurana said. The Surat-based runner will be representing India at the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia Oceania Championships to be held on November 23, 2019 at Aqaba, Jordan.

Gunjan was the fastest runner among women from India at the 2019 Comrades Marathon (uphill version) in South Africa. She had completed the ultra-marathon in nine hours, 47 minutes and 42 seconds. Now 36, she started running five years ago. In 2017, she participated in the 100 kilometer-Summit Saputara run in Surat; she ran this race again in 2018.

“ The training camp was an eye-opener for me. We did a lot of running. The focus was on finding a balance between running, strength training and other aspects,’’ she said. Apart from all this there were heat sessions too wherein runners had to wear layers of clothing and run, Pranaya Mohanty, 29, said. He will be representing India in the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships to be held at Albi, France during October 26-27. Pranaya was earlier part of the Indian team at the 2018 IAU 24-hour Asia and Oceania Championships held at Taipei but as a stand-by member. This year, he is part of the team as a runner.

“ We had different types of training sessions – speed and slow runs, stride workout – apart from individual sessions with the coach, nutritionist and the sports doctor. We also had a running session at Nandi Hills on one of the days,’’ he said. The Bengaluru-based runner was focussed on cycling before he seriously got into running in 2018. At the 24-hour stadium run in Bengaluru in 2018, he logged 186.55 kilometers securing second position. In December 2018, Pranaya outdid himself at the 24-hour stadium ultra in New Delhi covering a distance of 206.8 kilometers.

“ The point we learnt at the camp was how to ensure a right combination of running and strength training. It is important to train smart and not merely hard,’’ Apoorva Chaudhary said. Gurgaon-based Apoorva’s foray into running was as recent as 2017. “ In December 2015, I met Kavitha Kanaparthi in Bengaluru during the making of a film on her and thereby, got to know of Globeracers. In February 2016, I volunteered for Run of Kutch. In August 2016, I again volunteered for the Himalayan Crossing,’’ she said.

From the camp (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

Apoorva, now 28, started running short distances of three and five kilometres. Her first half marathon was in December 2017 when she participated in Adidas Uprising in Delhi. She ended up on the podium with a timing of 1:59:12. Sometime in early 2018, she met Kanan Jain, a young ultra-runner, who is also part of the national squad for the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships. “ He is very young and was already into ultra-running. He urged me to attempt an ultra-running event. I was flabbergasted at his suggestion. I was still figuring things out about running and not yet aware of many concepts about the sport,’’ Apoorva said.

She ran the 50k Tuffman Mashobra in June 2018, covering the distance in 6:03:56 hours. Two months later at the 12-hour Bengaluru stadium run, she topped the podium clocking a distance of 99.76 kilometers. In December of the same year, at the 24-hour stadium ultra in Delhi, she created a national record with a distance of 176.8 kilometers. Apoorva is now part of the team representing India at the 24-hour World Championships in France in October 2019.

The just ended training camp did not include trail ultra-runners as the 2019 Trail World Championships is already over. Also, trail runners will require a different approach to training, Sunil said. “ A training camp for ultra-runners is essential but the real test is how well the athletes follow up on the training advice and how it translates into performance at the international arena,” he added.

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

A CHILDHOOD DREAM AND THE LIFE IT GAVE

Catherine Stefanutti; occasion: completion of swim from Jersey to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

This is an article by invitation. Catherine Stefanutti is a South African swimmer based in England. An experienced Channel swimmer, she was a valuable late entrant to Team HOPE, the group of swimmers from Mumbai who successfully crossed the English Channel in relay format in July 2019. Here Catherine writes about how her love for open water swimming started, her journey to date in the field and suggestions she has for those planning to attempt the English Channel.

It was more than four decades ago that my coach in South Africa showed his squad of swimmers a newspaper article about somebody who had just swum the English Channel. I was then 12 years old. I instinctively told him that one day, I too would achieve the crossing. Growing up in South Africa, there was a lot of focus on sport within schools. There was a strong competitive environment between schools and good opportunities to participate at a reasonably high level. Born into a family of swimmers, I was a reasonably good swimmer and did swim competitively in my youth. I did well in competitions although not at the level of my siblings. My brother Andy for instance, swam for South Africa.

Andy was a really talented all round swimmer. He held South African national school records for several years in the 200m and 400m Individual medley and 100m and 200m butterfly.  He was selected for the South African team in the late seventies, a notorious time when South Africa was banned from the Olympics. Unfortunately  because of this Andy and other South African sportspersons never had the chance to participate in this great international arena. After school, Andy’s swimming talent took him to Indiana University in America, where he trained with coach Doc Counsilman (also coach to the US Olympic team, including Mark Spitz). He later moved to Louisiana University to complete his degree in Geology and continued to swim for the university squad until his final months of study, when he gave up swimming to focus on academics.

Notwithstanding my stated objective of crossing the English Channel, in my late teens, I gave up swimming. As I got older and moved on to university, the hours spent pounding up and down a pool lost appeal, and gradually fizzled out.

Andy, Christine and Catherine after their swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many years later, I moved to England. My sister Christine encouraged me to give open water swimming a shot. Christine had been participating in open water events in South Africa for a few years. It had rekindled her love for swimming and she was doing very well.  When she suggested that I join her for an event at London’s Docklands, I loved the idea.  I went for a few refresher sessions with my kids’ swimming teacher and took it from there.  I surprised myself by swimming the event in good time and so the journey began.That was the beginning of my journey to open water swimming. We – Christine and I – commenced by entering organized events like the Great London Swim, South Africa’s Midmar Mile and various Thames River swims. From that, we progressed to sea swims. Soon, we were looking for bigger challenges. The first of these was the Hellespont Europe to Asia swim in Turkey. A couple of years later, we swam the slightly easier Bosphorus (Asia to Europe). Then I swam the 17 km-length of Lake Windermere.

Meanwhile the old promise of crossing the English Channel resurfaced. Even with all the open water swimming I had done, this was an enormous challenge. What changed the equation was the realisation that the Channel could be swum in relay format. I felt sure that doing it this way was manageable and would ` tick the box,’ to fulfil my childhood dream. In 2014, Christine and I, along with a friend, joined a charity team to swim across the Channel as a six person-relay. Crossing done and that box in mind ticked, I was back in 2015, this time as part of a five person-relay team assembled by my coach Tracey Baumann. In 2016, I returned again for a third crossing. The occasion was special; it was a three person-relay team featuring my sister, my brother and I. Notwithstanding these three relay crossings there was still a niggle that I knew would go away only if I attempted a solo . The one thing that stood between me and the solo, was utter fear. I lacked confidence. Yet I knew alongside that I would nurse regret if I didn’t try.

Catherine; from her solo swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

I needed tiered progress to my objective. Emma France, a Channel swimmer who runs the Dover Channel Training group, suggested that I build up my confidence by first swimming from Jersey to France, a shorter, gentler crossing (approx. 26 km). Jersey is a British Crown dependency located near the coast of Normandy, France. Among islands in the Channel, it is second closet to France after Alderney. In August 2017 I successfully did this crossing in a time that surprised me and built my confidence. Still I was hesitant to book a slot for an English Channel crossing. So instead, I booked to swim around Jersey in July 2018.  This is an iconic 65 km swim; it is very tough but aided by the fast-moving tides around the island. No sooner had I booked this swim than Emma France approached me to say that somebody had cancelled their slot with Channel Pilot Neil Streeter and she was offering first option to take the place.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse (English Channel swims are heavily booked, and one normally has to book with a pilot at least two years in advance). I was now faced with the challenge of two major swims booked within two weeks of each other – the enormity of this task was just the push I needed to focus and prepare.

The bulk of my training was on weekends, with the Dover Channel Training Group in Dover. They offer endurance training and full support for aspiring Channel swimmers. The training was complemented by a few sessions with their sister group, Durley Sea Swims, set on the South Coast in Bournemouth. The support given by these groups was invaluable. On 13 July 2018 I successfully swam around Jersey. Exactly three weeks later, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of swimming from England to France, crossing the English Channel solo.

All sports come with associated community of aficionados. It is no different in open water swimming. You meet people sharing the same interest in swimming and wishing to tackle objectives therein. In 2019, Team HOPE from India due for an attempted crossing of the Channel in July confronted an unexpected development. Theirs was a four person-relay. One of their swimmers – Samiir Wheaton – had to withdraw leaving them a swimmer short. Mere weeks remained to allotted time frame for the crossing. Given the limited time it seemed wise to scout for a replacement in the UK. A swimmer from there would be already used to the cold Channel waters. If someone was recruited in India then that person would have to go through the whole process of training in cold water; he / she would also have to do the obligatory two hour-qualifying swim in 16 degrees Celsius water. Against this backdrop, my friend Deepthi Indukuri, who is a Total Immersion swim coach in Mumbai, asked me if I would be interested to join Team HOPE as Samiir’s replacement. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get back into the English Channel.

Catherine after her solo swim to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many people think that if you have swum the Channel solo then a four person-relay should be easy. This is certainly not the case. A Channel relay comes with different challenges to a solo and one should never underestimate how tough it is. I met my team (Team HOPE) – the others were Zarir Baliwalla, Moiz Rajkotwala and Sudarshan Chari – a few times in the days before the crossing. The weather was unstable that week and the swim kept getting postponed or called off. Such uncertainty causes a lot of angst for swimmers; they are forced to wait. Finally, on the evening of July 11, our pilot Reg Brickell gave the go-ahead to attempt the crossing early next morning. On July 12, the swim started just after sunrise in reasonable conditions, which gradually worsened as the day progressed. By the time the team reached the French shipping lane, the weather had changed dramatically.  A strong wind working against a strong tide created large waves causing boat and swimmers to be tossed around in the cold water. The team did what they had to – dig deep and push hard through the tides. Fifteen hours after we started from England, we eventually landed on a sandy beach in France.

What an adventure we had, what a team we made. We started as strangers and now have a lifelong bond through achieving this great challenge together. Indeed, one of the things I love most about the open water swimming community is how swimmers from around the world are brought together by circumstance.  For some reason, I have repeatedly found a connection with swimmers from India. Some years ago, I met Deepthi Indukuri in a Masters swimming group, while she was training to become a Total Immersion Coach.  Deepthi was in the UK at the time, completing her Master’s degree. When she returned to India, she retained her strong connection with the group.

Catherine with members of Team HOPE. From left: Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla, Catherine and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

In 2017, I spent most weekends of the summer training with the Dover Channel Training community, training for my Jersey to France solo swim.  Here I met Sameer Patil who had taken a three month sabbatical to come and train in the UK, in preparation for his English Channel solo that September. Sameer and I regularly swam together, we were a similar pace and I enjoyed training with him. My approach to training can be rather casual but Sameer was extremely driven and focussed. This pushed me to work harder and I really benefitted from that. During the season, Sameer often encouraged me to think about swimming the English Channel solo, something I was still afraid to commit to.

On 16 September 2017 Sameer Patil successfully swam the English Channel. As is tradition, a Channel swimmer picks up a pebble on the beach where he or she lands and takes it home as a well-earned trophy.  However, Sameer landed on a sandy beach in the middle of the night; he could not find a pebble in the dark.  Before he returned to India, I told him that I would plan a day trip to France and find him a pebble on the beach where he landed. His answer to me was very clear: No Catherine, I want you to swim to France to get my pebble.  I can honestly say that his words stuck in my head and played a big role in my decision to go for it (I did swim to France and got us both a pebble).

I have had the pleasure of meeting several Indian swimmers who have come to train in Dover, including amazing swimmers like Vandita Dhariyal. I never expected to become part of an Indian team swimming the English Channel. It was a great honour for me when this opportunity arose. I became a proud member of Team HOPE.

Catherine swimming for Team HOPE (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Suggestions for those aspiring to swim the English Channel

If you are interested in swimming the English Channel as a team or individual, the first step is to book a pilot and boat. There are two official Channel Swimming Organisations and each has a list of registered pilots.  Pilot information and contact details can be found on the websites of these organisations, either the Channel Swimming Association (www.channelswimmingassociation.com) or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (www.cspf.co.uk).  Channel crossings are done from mid-June to end September so there are only a limited number of places.  People book their slots up to three years in advance, although if you want to go sooner it is worth contacting the pilots as they do sometimes have cancellations.  Both websites contain lots of vital and useful information about Channel swimming.

Once you have booked your swim, it is time to start with the preparation and training. Cold water acclimatisation is a big factor and it is advisable to start with short swims in very cold water, gradually building up to longer swims as the water warms up.  In India the biggest challenge is finding cold water.  Some Indian swimmers have attended cold water swim camps around the world whilst others will plan to spend time before their swim in the UK to swim with the Dover Channel Training group.  In order to swim the Channel, it is obligatory to complete a qualifying swim in water temperature below 16 degrees Celsius.  Relay swimmers need to complete a two hour-qualifying swim, whilst solo swimmers need to complete six hours.  Training should be a combination of long swims as well as regular pool training and general fitness.

Channel swimmers’ tradition – signing on the wall of Fleurs pub in Dover (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Swimming in a relay is great preparation for a solo swim as you will experience the conditions and challenges of the English Channel first hand. Obviously a solo swim is more demanding than a relay, both physically and mentally. However, both have unique challenges and a relay should never be underestimated.  A relay requires team members to swim in rotation till reaching France.  This means doing an hour of swimming, getting out, warming up and preparing to enter the cold water again for the next hour swim; repeating this until you reach France.  There are stringent rules to adhere to in order for the swim to be recognised.  Each time you return to the water, you need to prepare mentally for the hour ahead.  Whilst on the boat a big challenge is seasickness.  Pilot boats are small vessels travelling at a swimmer’s pace, which means a lot of rocking motion and many relays have been aborted due to swimmers being too ill to carry on. Preparing for this is essential and there are various medications available. These need to be tested for side effects beforehand.  Most crossings will involve swimming in the night and swimmers will need to prepare mentally for this.

It is beneficial to train in conditions similar to the Channel but it is not always practical to do so. It is a good idea to join open water swimming groups and take every opportunity to swim in open water.  It is also useful to become part of a Channel swimming community through social media as you can always draw on other people’s experiences and expertise.  Dover Channel Training is a good example of such a group, as is the Outdoor Swimming Society.

(The author, Catherine Stefanutti, is a Channel swimmer based in England. She is “ a full time mum (two teenagers), part time swimming teacher and company director for our family construction business.’’ For more on Team HOPE please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/)

WORLD BY CYCLING

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.)            

MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH SPORTS

Corina Van Dam (Photo: courtesy Corina)

Trained to be a football coach, Corina Van Dam, opted to use sport as means to heal and empower. Currently living in Mumbai, she has been running for several years and is now figuring out which distance suits her best.

During a recent six-hour night run in Thane near Mumbai, many runners ran determinedly through the heavy, sometimes lashing rain.

One among them was Corina (aka Cocky) Van Dam, a Dutch runner, living and working in Mumbai for the past three years. She surprised herself by covering a distance of 50.7 kilometers during those six hours.

Two weeks later, she ran a 50k race at the Igatpuri Mountain Challenge. She finished the race in six hours, 26 minutes and 23 seconds securing top position among women aged 46 and above. A week must have gone by. Then she wound up on the podium yet again in her age category, at the BNP Endurathon in Mumbai. She covered the 25k distance in 2:28:14 hours.

Corina grew up in Alkmaar, a town 40 kilometers north of Amsterdam in Netherlands. The local topography was largely flat; there was much water around and as is characteristic of Netherlands, a lot of wind. It is a town well known in the cheese business and home to a velodrome hosting the annual Dutch national track cycling championships (the European Cycling Championships is scheduled to take place in Alkmaar from August 7 to 11, 2019). Not to mention, it is the birthplace of Harm Ottenbros, unexpected winner of the 1969 world cycling championship; he came in from nowhere to win that title but earned the ire of fellow cyclists and fans for just that – being the nobody who snatched the title from under the nose of more fancied heavyweights. Alkmaar also has a private museum dedicated to the British band, Beatles.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Growing up, sport was an integral part of Corina’s education. At the age of 12, she began playing football at a local club. She commenced playing at a still younger age but there were no girls’ teams around. The Dutch are passionate about football. Alkmaar and Corina’s family therein were no different. The town is home to the football club Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ), winners of the Dutch football league (Eredivisie), in 1980-81 and 2008-09. Corina was good at football. The game gave her the nickname she goes by – Cocky. She trained to be a sports coach. But she soon discovered that it was “ boring to teach people sports.’’ It was rather limited in scope. She sought something more engaging; something that would touch people’s lives in a more fundamental way.

So she opted for an internship with a mental health institute. The institute used sports as medium to help mentally ill people. For 20 years, she worked at the clinic employing sports as a means to assist patients in their treatment and recovery. “ People are depressed, sometimes so depressed that they don’t want to move. As part of psychomotor therapy, I used football to treat patients suffering from depression. There is evidence that running works well to treat patients,’’ Corina said. Psychomotor therapy uses physical activity and body awareness to help in the healing process.

After two decades spent working in the Netherlands, in 2005, Corina decided to move to Kenya to work with a community-based organisation called Moving the Goalposts (MTG) in Kilifi. She was placed as a volunteer through Voluntary Service Overseas, an international NGO.  A sport for development outfit, MTG harnesses the power of football to overcome social obstacles girls and young women face in coastal Kenya. Teenage pregnancy was (and still is) a very big issue in the country. That was among topics Corina required working with. Central to MTG’s strategy was football. Located on the east coast of Africa, Kenya has varied topography that includes an Indian Ocean seaboard, the Great Rift Valley and the Kenyan Highlands famous for tea and running. Corina worked at Kilifi near Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city situated on the coast. Roughly 4400 kilometers north east from Mombasa, across the sea, lay Mumbai, India’s financial capital. After working in Kenya for 11 years, Corina moved to Mumbai to work with Naz Foundation (India) Trust.

Corina Van Dam at the Mumbai office of Naz Foundation (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Naz India is an NGO working in the field of HIV / AIDS and sexual health. Corina works as Impact Manager at Naz Foundation. She is focussed on Young People’s Initiative (YPI), a program to empower girls by using sports and life skills education. It seeks to provide opportunities for adolescent girls. “ Many NGOs now leverage sport as tool to empower girls with reference to their body and emotions,’’ she said.

Naz India’s YPI project uses netball as sport for team building and empowering activities. “ Group sport or team sports helps tackle peer pressure, instil team work and develop leadership skills as opposed to individual sport,’’ Corina said. The choice of netball was because it is less of a contact sport compared to football and such a game appeared to suit the girls joining the program. Some other NGOs use sports such as football, basketball and kabaddi for similar work. For Naz India, the choice of sport is based on the needs and issues at hand in each of the projects that the foundation takes up. Naz India primarily works in schools, mostly trust-run schools. “ We are constantly negotiating with schools and designing our projects based on the feedback,’’ Corina said.

As an Impact Manager, Corina’s role is to make constant assessment of the teams working in schools; whether they are achieving their objectives or not. Outside of work, she continues to play football, mostly in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. She plays for Wolfpack FC. She got to participate in local league matches.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Many football players, according to her, do not like running as a specific sport. It’s one thing to run playing football; it’s another running a marathon focused solely on movement with no paradigm of game, team or score enveloping it. However, she took to running during her teens and continued to do so through her years in the Netherlands. In Kenya, living in Kilifi a rural area near Mombasa, Corina resorted to running in the nearby farmlands. She ran three times a week covering a distance of 7-10 kilometers on each of those practice sessions. She also recalled making a brief visit to Iten in the highlands of Kenya, home to the country’s best runners. “ I visited Lornah Kiplagat and her husband Pieter Langerhorsts’ high altitude training center. That was a fleeting visit,’’ Corina said. Olympian Lornah Kiplagat, a Dutch cross country and long-distance runner, is of Kenyan origin. She is a four time-world champion and has held world records over 5 km, 10 miles, 20 km and the half marathon. The training center in Iten was founded in 1999.

Arriving in Mumbai in 2016, Corina decided to look for a house at Tilak Nagar primarily because of its proximity to her place of work at Vidyavihar, just a kilometer away. At Tilak Nagar, the well-known Sahyadri Ground became venue for her daily practice runs. She runs several rounds of the ground in 500 meter-loops. “ Many women came and asked me how I got into running. They also expressed a desire to take up running,” Corina said. Hailing from Netherlands, she beheld the scene with curiosity. “ At the Tilak Nagar ground, a lot of people were involved in various activities. But you rarely found women at the centre of the ground. It is now slowly changing,’’ she said at the small Mumbai office of Naz Foundation tucked away on the ground floor of an apartment complex. It was July 2019. Just days earlier the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup had concluded with USA defeating Netherlands 2-0 in the final. It was the first time the Dutch national women’s team played in the final – a point Corina recalled with pride and a feeling of much changed since she started playing football when the sport was considered a game for men.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Corina’s first stint at a running event in India was the Dream Run segment of the 2017 Mumbai Marathon, something that happened because Naz India was a recipient of free slots to the run. For someone used to regular running like Corina, the Dream Run and its wall of people ambling along was a disappointment. In 2018, at the same event, she chose to run the newly introduced 10k segment and finished on the podium in her age group of 50-54 years.

In the 2019 edition, she ran the full marathon finishing the distance in 5:15:06 hours securing eighth position among women in her age group. This was her background prior to that rain soaked six hour-run in Thane, the 50k and the 25k, which followed. She was recently appointed Pinkathon Ambassador. Through this, her responsibilities now include empowering women through running. “ I am still figuring out which distance is best suited for me. I also plan to participate in the Goa Ironman later this year,’’ she said.

Goa Ironman 70.3 or Half Ironman is slated to be held on October 20, 2019. Corina, now 54, has invested in a road bike. She cycles regularly and for swimming she visits the pool at Dharavi. She hasn’t yet done any open water swimming in India but given she grew up in Alkmaar with its share of open water and winter temperatures, hopes she should be able to tackle it.

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

PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

COFFEE, CONVERSATION AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things represent post liberalization India, as the coffee shop culture which sprang up in urban areas.

Coffee shops became places to meet.

People converged to socialize, discuss business and later as wireless internet spread, at least some started using these spaces as surrogate offices.

It isn’t that places to socialize were not available before. Every region had its unique flag bearer in this regard. Mumbai had its Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, although neither encouraged conversation over commerce. A sense of allotted time hung like Damocles Sword at these outfits. In South India, besides the ubiquitous tea shop, there were the branches of the Indian Coffee House (ICH), an enterprise founded in the 1950s and firmly identified with the working class. They were affordable coffee houses, feet planted on the ground and having no pretense to being café or coffee shop, the latter concept associated in India with upmarket appearance and menu. ICH had branches elsewhere too but its mainstay was the south.

Following the initial flush of entrants in the coffee shop business, some of the players scaled back. It was Café Coffee Day (CCD) that eventually went nationwide in a prominent way, in the segment. V. G. Siddhartha’s business group had a major presence in coffee estates and coffee trading; CCD was in some ways its most visible retail face. The first CCD outlet opened in Bengaluru in July 1996. Notwithstanding costly fare (compared to the cafes and coffee houses of previous decades), CCD’s branch network spread to India’s cities and towns. This new space for coffee and conversation touched many of us, whose careers / adult years coincided with the India brewed afresh by liberalization. As of July 2019, CCD was India’s biggest chain of coffee shops by a significant margin.

On July 30, 2019, twenty three years after the first CCD appeared on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, the media reported that Siddhartha had gone missing from the bridge over the Netravati River near Mangaluru. The next day his body was recovered from the river. News reports in the wake of the tragedy, pointed to a business under stress. The episode was tracked by many of us. We paused to reflect on Siddhartha’s demise because the number of us who visited a CCD outlet or passed by one in our daily lives, was not small. Quite a few of the conversations with runners and cyclists featured on this blog, happened at one CCD outlet or another for they represented space to sit and talk. Wikipedia’s page on the company says that in 2010 when CCD’s current logo was designed, it was to “ showcase the chain as a place to talk.’’

The coffee estates Siddhartha’s company owns have been location for the annual Malnad Ultra. It is a trail run involving ultramarathon distances. There is a September 2016 report in the Economic Times (available on the Internet) on the subject. The report precedes the event’s first edition. According to it, “ the coffee baron has offered a 10-year access to his plantations, which stretch across 13,000 acres of the Western Ghats.’’  The Malnad Ultra has since become an event with distinct fan following.

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