For hundreds of thousands in India, the cycle is not only the chief, but the only mode of transport. Both in rural and urban India, the working class uses the cycle to travel to and from their places of work, as well as for other journeys. But despite the omnipresence of cyclists on Indian roads, cycling as a sport is in its nascent stages in the country.
Since 2009 though, things have started to look up. With the Commonwealth Games on the horizon, the government pumped money into the sport and since June 1 of that year, the Indian cycling team, both men and women, have been part of the national camp, training religiously and rigorously, with a single goal, winning a medal in Delhi come October.
At the test event for the Games, Delhi's shiny new velodrome was opened up for competition, and the Indian team was delighted to have access to this world-class facility. And the team shone, winning 12 medals against competition from Australia, Malaysia and South Africa.
Omkar Bikram Singh was one of the cyclists who impressed in Delhi. Since then he has done even better. In the one-km Time Trial, he knocked an impressive four seconds off the National record, clocking 1minute and 06 seconds. The former football player took to cycling when his family told him to concentrate on an individual sport, and has dominated the national scene since.
“We have been training very hard. The long-term camp has done the team a world of good, and we hope to repay the faith shown in us by doing well at the Games,” Bikram said. When asked about the problems they faced, he said, “If we have top of the line bikes, our times will get significantly better. But otherwise the facilities and the support we have been provided are excellent.”
According to the head coach of the squad Chayan Chowdhary, “The women have a better chance of a medal. Riders like Mahitha Mohan and Rameshori Devi have been performing well, consistently, and in the scratch race as well as the team pursuit, they have an outside chance.”
Mohan a shy, unassuming 22-year-old from Kerala, was clearly not used to media attention. But, after her performance at the test event in Delhi, she couldn't keep away from the spotlight. Mahitha and her coach, Amandeep of Punjab Police, painted what was as good a poster for unity in diversity as any Doordarshan has ever produced. While she barely speaks any English or Hindi, she had no problems with her mentor's rapid-fire Punjabi. But, Mohan didn't need to say much; because she let her pedals do the talking.
Cycling as a pastime may be highly enjoyable, and a great way to keep fit, but for professional riders, the training is brutal. On an average, the Indian camp members cover 36,000 km every year. To put things in perspective, that is just 4,000 km short of the circumference of the earth at the equator. “Out of this, 5,000km is on a track, but the rest in on the road. Since in India it is almost impossible to find good, empty roads, we train the hardest on Sundays, as the traffic is normally less. We do 140-160, sometimes even 180 kms on these days.”
So what good has come of the long camp that the cyclists have been in? “The improvement in the times speaks for itself. We have also had high altitude camps at Munnar, Kerala, camps in Bangalore and a one-month training stint in Australia. It has done the team a huge amount of good,” the coach says.
Cycling Federation of India official, RDS Rathore told HT that the team's new cycles will finally reach Patiala, where they train, late on Friday night. “But the accessories have still not been procured by SAI. If these arrive at the last moment, it will be pointless.”
So how much will this effect the team's performance? Chowdhary says the issue has been blown out of proportion. “Yes the new bikes will see an improvement in performances, but it will not suddenly lead to India winning a bunch of gold medals. For that we need to have a similar intensive training camp for 4-5 years. Then we will win medals.”
The medal haul will not be huge, but for the team, even a couple of medals will be a huge morale booster.