Revisited: India s Specialized Kynkyny Cycling Team (Part I)

Almost four years have passed since Cycling iQ first investigated an ambitious amateur road cycling team from Bangalore aspiring to become India s first UCI Continental cycling team. In the first part of a two-part article, we check to see what developments, if any, have happened in that time.

Vivek Radhakrishnan (at rear, second from left) pictured with the Kynkyny Wheelsports squad in 2011.

After three years of operating as an amateur, then semi-professional, team, in 2012 KYNKYNY Wheel Sports aims to become India s first UCI continental cycling team, actively competing in the Asian road racing arena
team founder Vivek Radhakrishnan, October 2011

Kynkyny Wheelsports, as it was then known in 2011, appeared destined for great things. Back then, the sheer force of its founder s optimism and drive promised to overcome the inertia of a laggard national cycling federation and a dearth of cycling culture, talent, and infrastructure necessary to nurture a professional cycling team.

Three full AsiaTour seasons have passed, and that objective still hasn t transpired. A cynical outsider to whom India probably seems so far removed from the epicenter of cycling, it couldn t catch a bus there might say I told you so .

I believe we could have created a Continental squad then, and I believe we can do the same now if we are able to find a financial backer with the understanding that these are the first steps to taking India to the next level , Radhakrishnan tells Cycling iQ earlier this month, during an evidently rare moment of downtime. He is matter-of-fact, not at all defensive, apologetic or annoyed at the suggestion that such a goal was naive.

Frankly, creating a Continental team is one thing, and being successful on the circuit is another, but one has to start at the beginning, he continues. The talent pool of active cyclists (in India) has been growing. We are now actually seeing glistening here and there, rather than digging for diamonds in the complete rough! There is a huge lack of infrastructure, in every sense of the word, to realize this. But we can t exactly sit around and wait, so we are still at it.

At the launch of the Specialized Kynkyny team, April 2012.

We in this case is Radhakrishnan, his riders, management team and a rather large global cycling brand. One look at Radhakrishnan s current job title [CiQ: more on that in part II] reveals that a lot has happened after he was first paid a visit from Joseph Wheadon, Specialized s then Director of Business Development. Joe was the first person from Specialized to step foot in India and, such was the impression made that, by January 2012, an agreement for the US bicycle brand to be the team s main sponsor was reached. It would take another 18 months (August 2013) before Specialized even started selling bikes in India.

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For a brand whose very culture seems so corporate, calculated and disciplined, such a move seemed too, well, spontaneous. Years later, even Radhakrishnan still seems somewhat taken aback by this event. For Specialized to come on board was incredible and surprising, especially given the fact that there was zero business or retail set up here at the time. I think this just goes to show where the heart and DNA of the brand lies, and how much passion there is for the sport within the organization. Had we not been as ambitious as we were, Specialized might never have taken the team under its wing.

With a new name, Specialized Kynkyny (SKCT), brand new bikes and equipment, together with the backing of several other smaller sponsors, the original 12-member squad of which the versatile Vivek was also an active part could finally begin to look, act, and think like a professional cycling team. For Radhakrishnan, it was also the realization of something more personal.

The truth is that (being a pro cyclist) was a childhood dream, but I wasn t hanging on to it and trying to make it real. It just so happened that at the time, and at the level we were at, I was able to be a serious contributor to the team on the bike. I have started many ventures in India and, without sounding like an arrogant prick, the secret to their successes has always been with me leading from the front and being in the trenches with the troops, if you will. Frankly, I think this comes from working in fields at a grassroots and pioneering level, where there is no great prior experience, so you just have to jump in and figure things out. At the end of the day, you get great first-hand experience and understanding to build on. I wouldn t have it any other way

2013-tour-of-friendship_4-8611336-8090475

The 2012 Tour of Friendship, held in April, was the team s first international appearance. Naveen Raj placed first in the Junior Men s category, whilst Lokesh Narasimhachar (who, in 2011, Vivek nominated as a future star) placed third in the Open Men s category. That experience was informative, proving the value of international exposure and mentorship.

Says Radhakrishnan, We saw that (racing overseas) was exactly what we needed to be doing all the time. The learning curve was massive, the potential and will of the top riders was confirmed. The guys perform better with each day when we are abroad, and that atmosphere spurs them on in a way I have not seen here in India. The involvement of former Trek Marco Polo team member, Darren Reid, was also pivotal. The presence of a seasoned and experienced professional is key for the young guns to learn things. Sadly, our current resources do not allow for this much needed luxury.

Perhaps the most important lesson learnt related to individual utility something successful small businesses know extremely well. A leaner operation was the result. There might be strength in numbers, but at the end of the day, you are better off with a few massively driven individuals, than a large bunch with some slackers. And this has changed the composition of the team to what is today, a much stronger, driven, dedicated and tight unit.

Learning and change are inextricably linked one informs and feeds the other. The timeframe of their manifestation is elastic, sometimes occurring instantly by brute force as was the case with Naveen John who, as Vivek puts it invented a job interview for a job that didn t exist, and got hired too!

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Ahead of the 2012 Indian national championships, Naveen then living in the US, having completed his B.Eng at Purdue University, Indiana discovered an article about the team [CiQ: on this blog, as it happens] and contacted Vivek to enquire about a spot on the fledgling squad. Vivek recounts the rest of the story.

He was amazed by our efforts in his Motherland and had ambitions to become the Indian National ITT champ. I told him he would be nuts to come here, we had nothing to offer him, and the scene was not developed, especially as compared to what he was doing in the US at the time. I said Thanks, we are honored, and we will get back when we have something to offer and it actually makes sense for you . Turns out he is nuts, and he showed up at a local championship race shortly after. At the race he did his thing, made everyone hurt bad, and introduced himself to me at the finish line after a solid performance.

John became a member of the team the following day.

A podium clean-sweep at the 2012 Bangalore Bicycle Championships. The three riders from far right Naveen John, Naveen Raj and Lokesh Narasimhachar remain part of the Specialized Kynkyny roster in 2015.

With the addition of new talent and the continuing development of existing squad members, SKCT riders dominated almost every state-level race they entered in India. The impact on the local cycling scene was polarising tall poppy syndrome and resentment on one side; respect and fans on the other.

India has a solid track record of ridiculing its own athletes and sportsmen compared to those from the rest of the world, states Rahakrishnan, revealing a common downside to being part of an up-and-coming sporting code. To achieve greatness or success, you just have to keep believing and pushing on and, at the end of the day, the actions will speak for themselves. To be fair, the negativity of many has been well balanced by the kindness, enthusiasm and support of many others; the latter will forever play an important part in our journey and success.

And success kept coming. ?At the October 2012 national road cycling championships in Bihar, the state of Karnataka placed 2nd behind the Indian Railways team. Naveen (John) and Lokesh, racing for Karnataka (capital, Bangalore), broke into the top five in the open men s road race. It wasn t an option for the pair to don their striking red and white SKCT kits though, due to a decades-old structure that never had to consider trade teams.

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The structure of national-level cycling in India (especially at the National Championships) is that you may only represent your State, the Forces (Army, Air Force, Navy) or the Railways. The last two have historically become part of this package and for decades have dominated the scene. SKCT was the first-ever trade team in India and club teams barely existed before; so one can kind of understand the existing structure.

The team s first year was capped with strong finishes in the Tour de Bintan (Indonesia) and Tour de India. 2012 s overall tally 15 victories and 42 podiums from 30 races.

A jack-of-all-trades, Radhakrishnan fills bottles for the team ahead of a Tour of Friendship stage in Thailand.

Aside from some personnel changes, 2013 continued in a similar vein for the team, with appearances at the Tour of Friendship and more impressive individual results. Two of SKCT s riders, Lokesh Narasimhachar and Omkar Jadhav (no longer with the team), even participated at the UCI2.2-ranked Sharjah International Cycling Tour in the UAE, as members of the Indian National Cycling team.

I m not sure how that happened, says Radhakrishnan, providing an insight to the somewhat haphazard organization of the national federation. It was a good sign though, showing that our federation was looking to give Indian riders more exposure and opportunity. I also remember thinking that they had put together a pretty sound squad, just too last minute sadly.

Just as SKCT was making moves, so too was its co-sponsor. Specialized s entry into the Indian bicycle market came in the form of a partnership with Bums On The Saddle (BOTS), a forward-thinking independent cycling boutique that set up in Bangalore in 2009 well before there was anything resembling a domestic road cycling market. The boutique was re-launched as a Specialized concept store in August 2013 and BOTS was also appointed the brand s distributor for India. Even more interesting commercial developments lay ahead, as Radhakrishnan would reveal at the turn of the new year.

Continued in part two

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