Two years after its formation, SKCT was outgrowing the domestic racing scene and team sponsor Specialized was just beginning to penetrate the market through its combined distribution-retail partnership with Bangalore-based retailer Bums On The Saddle . Team founder Vivek Radrahkrishnan, however, found himself facing a dilemma.
The upward performance trajectory of Specialized Kynkyny wasn t commensurate with the profile of its funding streams. On the contrary, dwindling operating revenue remained the single-biggest challenge facing the team. According to Radhakrishnan, in the two years between January 2012 and January 2014, the team s budget plummeted .
One of the biggest and toughest parts of running the team has been raising funds, he reflects. Sadly, we are not in a position where the sport can guarantee ROI s, so its plain and simple begging. The strike rate in begging is very low; you make a ton of presentations and you sometimes score if you are lucky. We have been very fortunate with a few core supporters since the very beginning that have not been there for ROI s; they share the same dream and ambitions, and know that this doesn t happen overnight. The main reason we haven t been at enough races around Asia is just the inability to afford it, not a lack of enthusiasm. So with that being the situation, we decided to concentrate our efforts on winning at the highest level possible within India, targeting all the National medals in Road and MTB.??
Naveen John, beginning his ride to ITT gold at the 2014 National Cycling Championships | Image: Vivek Radhakrishnan
Lack of sponsorship cash is a theme anyone involved in cycling for long enough is familiar with. Even on the WorldTour circuit, in which ProTeams at least have a guaranteed racing calendar featuring the only bike race that is likely to resonate with Joe Public from which sponsors can gain visibility and activate on, funding-related problems attract headlines frequently. Logically, access to sponsorship money should become exponentially more difficult the further a team lies down the cycling food chain.
The sponsorship that SKCT has received from big international players within the (bicycle) industry proves a point the industry know its stuff and you don t fool it, says Radhakrishnan, acknowledging the essential marriage between sport and industry. But the problem is that financial sponsors, who are most often not from the industry, do not have the understanding or inclination towards the sport to take the necessary steps forward. The return on investment within the country is next to none, but an Indian brand with international reach could get a ton of visibility. The first Indian team, it would make a fabulous story like MTN Qhubeka. In my opinion, it is sporting teams from emerging countries that bring in a new flavor and breath life into stories that have otherwise remained the same for decades. India has the money, it s a matter of time.
In the absence of non-native industry revenue, and given SKCT co-sponsor Specialized had only just begun selling its products in India in late 2013, the 500 bikes a year that the brand s (then) only store was aiming to sell meant the team s budget was unlikely to receive a boost from native industry revenue unless the market fundamentals also improved. It was that basic economic premise that led to Radhakrishnan s next major decision.
SKCT founder Vivek Radhakrishnan and team rider Naveen John discussing John s 2014 National Games ITT gold medal with members of the public at Bums On The Saddle (BOTS) | Image: Deepthi Indukuri
Today, I am excited to announce that I have accepted a position with Specialized as Brand Manager for India.
Vivek Radhakrishnan s announcement on SKCT s Facebook page
I accepted the position because I felt it would allow me an opportunity to make a bigger impact on cycling in India, explains Radhakrishnan, reflecting on his decision in early 2014 to take up the role as Specialized s commercial figurehead for India. Also, being part of an organization like Specialized means you suddenly have only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from anyone at the highest level of the sport and connections are very, very, important.
In other words, if the market fundamentals aren t sufficient to sustain a pro cycling team, then change the fundamentals. By making a play in the commercial side of the bicycle industry, Radhakrishnan reasoned, he could work on expanding the demand for cycling and bicycles while hopefully ensuring that Specialized maximized its share of market. Naturally, the additional workload meant divesting himself of SKCT management duties.
Changing of the guard. Matt Barrett (left) assumed the role of SKCT director from Vivek Radhakrishnan (right) in 2015
One of the biggest driving forces and assets of the team has been the folks in management, he says. In the last year, I have been able to step back from the running of the team and remain involved at a more mentor/sponsor level. Matt Barrett, Anand Govind, and Sandeep Niar before him have elevated the game a good deal. Matt has been involved in every way since I started trying things with cycling in India, and been my constant sounding board, so when I was looking for someone to take over the directorship, I didn t need to think very hard at all. These gents have brought structure and systems to the management, and this has created a lot more room for riders to concentrate on the right things. I honestly believe that these are the best people I could have found anywhere in the world; they have just appeared out of the woodwork and asked how they can help.
At Specialized Asia-Pacific, which oversees business development across Southeast Asia and India, there is nothing but endorsement of the 2011 decision to allocate resources to a sports marketing project that was, at the time, completely de-coupled from sales.
At first, we were fully focused on the growth of the team at that time, then afterwards we started to focus more in terms of retail, in terms of growing our brand in India, explains Marketing Specialist Ben Chen from the Singapore-based office. We will always look at sports marketing on a global level, so all things are taken into consideration; including regional teams. The Specialized Kynkyny team is absolutely a huge source of traction in India in terms of competitive cycling and Vivek has been a driving force in terms of starting the competitive cycling angle. When you see the level of participation and interest that people have when they come to meet the riders I think that s something that is absolutely fantastic for the market. I think we are seeing only the early stages of growth in India.
Fariyal Jamadar, the first female rider recruited in mid-2014, leads SKCT road and MTB squad members on a group training ride. | Image: Chenthil Mohan
Even though, in Radhakrishnan s own words things might be working out in a slightly different way than planned originally, he s adamant the original objectives remain The focus on some extremely high goals remains, so things are no less exciting than back (in 2011) I would say quite the contrary actually. What a well-supported team could do is create a platform for the best Indian talent to compete on the Asian circuit, allowing our athletes to grow and prove themselves. Without international exposure, we are unable to grow here. We need to race, race, and race some more!
For three SKCT squad members, that international exposure began in earnest earlier this month. Naveen John (who last year reached his goal of becoming India s National ITT Champion), Lokesh Narasimhachar (3rd in the 2014 National Road Cycling Championships) and Sarvesh Sangarya flew to Belgium, where they are to spend the next two months living and racing with Ghent-based Kingsnorth International Wheelers a team established in the 90 s with the specific purpose of providing riders from Commonwealth countries with a platform to race in Europe.
Much of the available funds (for 2015) have been put towards this effort, explains Radhakrishnan but this will be a huge learning opportunity for them, and one of the most exciting opportunities any Indian cyclist has ever had. This operation is a big deal for us in India, and we want it to spread as much inspiration as possible to the young racing crowd (domestically). It should not just be a learning experience for three lucky guys, but an insider s view to the scene there through Indian eyes.
Fresh off the plane from Bangalore, Naveen John rides his first Belgian Kermesse | Image: Heidi Lannoo
It s perhaps fortuitous for aspiring road cyclists in India that such a pathway exists. The Cycling Federation of India has placed its eggs in the track cycling basket understandable, given Rio is around the corner and Korea s Cycling Federation has invested money into flying Indian track athletes to Seoul for training camps which leaves road cycling s development largely in the hands of the private sector.
The federation s shift in focus to the track is not great for road cycling, but at least we are seeing some sort of focus, which is a really big deal for the sport, responds Radhakrishnan, when queried about this state of affairs. If they do a great job with track, I think that s a start we have seen how work in the Velodrome has translated to the road in countries like the UK. Frankly, I will be happy to (see success) in any discipline of cycling; track, road or trail. The sport as a whole needs to gain popularity, that is very important.
While SKCT seems no closer to achieving UCI Continental status than it did in 2011, it seems plausible that any one of its current squad members, of which there are only four due to the team s rationalisation, could break through individually. As for getting an Indian cyclist to the Tour de France?
It is still the goal, says Radhakrishnan but I am not able to put a time on it as of now. I see more and more young riders with the potential and desire to make it up there, but I need a few more stars to align before we can make that happen.
When asked whether gifted SKCT squad members could be given the opportunity to plug into a Specialized-sponsored WorldTour team in future, Specialized APAC s Ben Chen states simply I wouldn t discount the possibility.
Image: Chenthil Mohan