Though tales of aspiring young road cyclists facing down challenges as they chase their pro dreams are not new, such journeys generally don’t emanate from India. But as 21-year old Sarvesh Sangarya from Bangalore writes, despite any differences in the route taken, all such journeys inevitably lead to Europe.
Words: Sarvesh Sangarya
TV broadcasts of sports other than cricket are patchy at best in India, so I didn’t have an awareness of bike racing from a younger age. But when I finally did see Le Tour for the first time in 2010, the first thought that entered my 15-year old mind was “these guys are so skinny… like me! THIS is the sport for me!”
I switched from just commuting to college on a bike to racing, all the while dreaming of Le Tour. It has been one of the best decisions of my life yet!
Luckily, Bangalore is ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to organised events across many sports – bike racing is no exception. Races are organised by a loose mass of riders, with local bike shops and riding groups taking turns to provide logistical and organisational support.
RACING IN INDIA
Racing in the country as a whole is still in its infancy though. Including races organized by the national cycling federation, we see about ten road races a year if we are lucky – and we count our blessings for these! The local events are anchored by guys who have full-time (non-cycling) jobs and they put in huge effort after work hours to make these races happen. Races mostly take place on highways (the only option, if you want smooth roads), they often don’t start on time and are very predictable because almost nobody wants to go in the breakaways.
When I began racing in 2011, the learning curve was more serpentine than a positive gradient straight line. I would scour cycling websites, stalk pros on social media and read every topic in cycling forums (not a good idea) on a daily basis to pick up any shred of knowledge I could get.
Then the going got exciting: in 2013, a small outfit named Trek-Firefox Racing Team (TFX) was formed. It comprised a squad of six racers from six different corners of the country, including yours truly. We were provided road bikes, online coaching and reimbursements to cover our costs of travel and accommodation at the races. The interesting feature of TFX was that the management brought in their corporate knowledge to run a cycling team. For a 19-year old, discovering how teams and organizations are run was a great learning experience.
When that team wound down in December 2014, I was selected by the team that everyone aspired to – Specialized KYNKYNY Cycling Team (SKCT). SKCT had been the pioneers when it came to bike racing in the country. From setting up the first sponsored team to travelling to races around Asia, SKCT showed the country that racing outside the realm of the national championships was possible and worth exploring.
FRITES AND KERMESSES
The following year, I figured that as Europe was the motherland of bike racing, I should go there to train and race. I cold-called several amateur racing teams in Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands and the UK and received a positive response from a couple of teams with the most promising one from the ‘Kingsnorth International Wheelers’ squad based in Gent, Belgium.
I put my plans together and scheduled my visit to Belgium to coincide with summer holidays from the penultimate year of my undergraduate engineering course. I was joined by two teammates from the SKCT squad: Lokesh Narasimhachar, a tenured and talented rider, and our team skipper Naveen John – the (then) reigning National ITT Champion and the first Indian cyclist to obtain a professional cycling contract. Oh, he can also whip up chicken soup worthy of the gods.
Racing in Belgium was another level of experience altogether. My then coach had warned me that it would be the equivalent of a high school kid going off to play in the NBA. The level of aggression and constant effort took me by complete surprise -everybody wanted to be in the breakaway! It took me three races to fully understand how important it was to hold a wheel coming out of a corner. I took more risks in the race to outweigh my disadvantage of being skinny and, towards the end, I experienced an exponential increase in my pain threshold and my bike-handling and positioning skills. All this while avoiding the world-famous Belgian frites. Except for that one time…
BACK TO BASE CAMP
When I returned to the subcontinent my main goal was to win the 2015 U23 national championships, which were scheduled to take place in October. It got postponed to November and then December and then March 2016 and back to February 2016 – phew! To read how bureaucratic stubbornness can cost someone a national championship title, click here.
The following month, after a year with SKCT, my dream run with this team ended too. Despite their best efforts, SKCT had to close down operations.
So now I’m headed back to Europe. Come July, I intend to race in Belgium for two weeks and my goal there is to finish all the Kermesses I enter – and avoid all the frites that I encounter.
I’ll then head to France for six weeks to race as part of the elite amateur squad ‘AVC Aix-en-Provence’. At this point, I’m a little clueless because besides the info that I’d be racing at Aix-en-Provence, I haven’t much to go on. I’m winding off the trip on a high, riding and training with a few pro riders at Girona and the Netherlands.
So watch this space. The idea is that I’ll share my experiences with you guys every couple of weeks. I hope you get excited too, and root for me as I take another step towards (hopefully) a pro contract next year.
In a third-world cycling country, sponsorship is hard to come by. In such a scenario, I have been fortunate to receive support from Prof. Jamie Anderson, Panaracer Tyres and MINISTRI Cycling.