In June last year, Cycling iQ reported on three aspiring road cyclists making the time-honoured pilgrimage to Belgium for a lesson in suffering. Ten months on, one has a contract in hand and the other is heading back to Ghent for more punishment.
The journey to the uniquely fragrant epicentre of road racing is so commonplace amongst the amateur cycling community that it wouldn’t normally justify a mention – even on a niche blog such as this. At best, it might merit a paragraph on the back page of a local club newsletter; the type that is painstakingly ‘designed’ in Word by the club’s ageing secretary.
After all, packing up for a stint of racing in ‘Belge’ is elemental to a banal Antipodean rite of passage that usually begins years earlier with gear-limited club racing on the weekends interspersed with weeknights on the track.
But if the cyclists heading to Europe happen to hail from India, the voyage is founded on no such convention.
When they departed Bangalore bound for the Flemish Region last year, the trio of Naveen John, Lokesh Narasimhachar and Sarvesh Sangarya, all from the southwestern state of Karnakata, represented the first privately organised attempt at forging a development pathway for India’s wannabe pros.
For 29-year old Naveen John – a relative late-comer to the sport – the two months spent racing for Ghent’s Kingsnorth International Wheelers was validation of the form shown in winning his country’s national ITT championships the year prior.
After returning to Bangalore, he fired off dozens of emails to continental teams from around the globe in the hope that he could land a contract. Simple supply and demand dictates this process ends in disappointment more often than not, but Australian squad State of Matter – MAAP saw an opportunity to contribute to the emergence of Indian road cycling.
Significantly, ‘NJ’ also secured private sponsorship from India’s national distributor of Giant bicycles (the bike brand used by SoM-MAAP) to help fund his development and time abroad. The pathway had just been extended a little further.
Sarvesh (second from right) racing in the colours of the now-disbanded Specialized Kynkyny team
Sarvesh Sangarya entered his first race as a 16 year old at the popular and privately-organised Bangalore Bicycle Championships (BBCh) series in December 2011.
“It was a criterium and I was on the start line with a steel hybrid with platform pedals,” he recalls. “Back then BBCh did not have racing or age categories, and I remember gaping in awe at cyclists with carbon road bikes who had been racing throughout the country. I got lapped five times by the leaders and finished in the last five. I got hooked after that.”
That a studious Indian kid from a self-described “risk-averse middle class background” with “no elder family members involved with competitive sport of any kind” could even get into road cycling is something of an anomaly. Fortunately, he did and eventually won the vital support of family.
“The history and the grit involved in cycling attracted me to pick up the sport and still fascinate me to this day,” he says. “Initially I was slightly discouraged from non-studies-related activities of any kind but, as I progressed, my parents saw value in bike racing as a means of character building and allowed me to dive into this pursuit.”
Sarvesh currently manages to fit 13-17 hours of training into a typical week, mostly riding solo “because I reside in the extreme outskirts of Bangalore and I would need to commute 25 kilometers just to join the nearest group ride.” All non-saddle time is accounted for with the heavy workload of a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and an internship as a content writer.
INGÉNIERIE THE FUTURE?
Come summer, Sarvesh will ditch the textbooks and once again make the journey to Ghent. He hopes to max out his 75-day short term Schengen visa with three weeks of racing in Belgium followed by seven weeks in France or Spain – he is currently reaching out to amateur teams in both countries – which he hopes might lead to a permanent place on a French or Spanish amateur team in 2017.
Importantly, and unlike many young cyclists who leave education behind at the first opportunity to focus on racing, both Sarvesh and Naveen have the safety net of an in-demand STEM background to fall back on if and when it becomes apparent that trigger needs to be pulled.
Whatever happens, two and a half months in Europe will beat the training and racing scene at home – “still in its infancy, with less than ten road races a year” – hands down.
“The races organized by entities outside the national federation are usually well organised, but the races organized by the national federation have a heavier cash purse which attracts the best riders of the country,” he says, before wryly observing that “a fixed racing calendar and starting the races on time would be a good start in terms of improvement.”
Cycling iQ will keep in contact with Sarvesh throughout the year to track his progress and hopefully publish a post-Europe report. In the interim, be sure to check out his report from the 2015 National Championships U23 road race.