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Sunday, April 05, 2020

Stepping on the pedal

Cycling,on the fringes of Indian sport,received a fillip when Deborah of the Andamans and Manorama Devi of Manipur won an unprecedented four medals between them at the Asian Championships. Jonathan Selvaraj traces their success stories and the road ahead

Written by Express News Service | Published: March 17, 2013 2:49:52 am

Understandably,after 10 months of cycling,Deborah wants nothing more to do with it. At least not for the next month or so when she returns home to the village of Kakana in Nicobar. The visit promises to be idyllic.

“We have a number of coconut trees on our farm. The first thing I want to do is to climb a tree and pluck a few coconuts,” says the 17-year-old,grinning in anticipation. Also on the to-do list are swims in the ocean and dives to hunt for corals.

The only downside is her predominantly Christian village will be observing Lent — a period of fasting before Easter. “Everyone takes a vow of silence and we have to go to Church twice a day,” she sighs. Before her return,she visits Palika Bazar,buying a veil for her devout mother and a football for her brother. Football is also on the mind of Deborah’s 16-year old teammate Manorama Devi,a footballer of some ability. Like many Manipuris,she remains passionate about the game despite quitting it to concentrate on her cycling. “You won’t be able catch me in the house; I will just be playing,” she says.

The eagerly anticipated break is well earned. The two junior cyclists were behind India’s best ever medal haul at the recently held Asian Championships in Delhi. Deborah won bronze in the 500-metre time trial,a silver in the individual sprint,and combined for a bronze in the team sprint with Manorama,who won a silver in the keirin event. Before the Asian event,Deborah seemed noteworthy chiefly for being a survivor of the 2004 tsunami. But the medals have finally given her recognition as a cyclist.

For a sport that hasn’t made the news for any of the right reasons — with opposing federations vying for recognition,facing the threat of derecognition,and stories of athletes forced to fend for themselves in a gurudwara — the two junior cyclists have been a welcome bit of positive news.

“Before,when I went to Pawan Munjal (of Hero Cycles) to look for sponsorship,he said fine but what are the results. ‘Kuch karo bhi’,he told me. In that way the medals won by Deborah and Manorama have been massive for us. Now when you think of Indian cycling,you at least have a face to put to the game,” says Onkar Singh,secretary of the Indian Cycling Federation. While a deal has yet to be signed,the company says it is willing to ‘adopt’ the two youngsters.

The two faces were but part of a group of several when they were picked up for the national camp last May after winning medals at the junior nationals in Amritsar at the start of 2012. Deborah won a gold and a bronze while Manorama had four silvers. The results were strong if not spectacular.

There was little separating the campers at the end of the first phase but Deborah got noticed in the second – high altitude – phase at Shilaru,HP. The campers were made to do a rope-climbing exercise which the men struggled to finish. They then watched with awe as the shy Andaman girl scurried up and down the thick 10 meter rope thrice,possibly for effect. All the coconut tree climbing she had gotten used to doing had come in handy. Later during the camp she would race alongside the men,keeping pace with them as they pedaled furiously to stay in front of her. “She is unbelievably strong. It is a god-given gift,” says coach Ruma Chatterjee.

It wasn’t just her strength that set Deborah apart. “She had that killer instinct. It is understandable for the athletes to try to relax towards the end of a session and what set her apart was her willingness to push herself to the limit. At the end of every training session,she would be exhausted. And yet at the start of the next day she would go and do the same thing again. There were days when she was unwell and I had to force her to go to bed,” says Chatterjee.

Dedication personified

While Deborah was strong, Manorama compensated through dedication. “We had a system where if you made the other athletes wait for you in the morning,you would have to do a set of push-ups,” says Chatterjee. “Everyone was late at least once,even Deborah,but Manorama was always ready before anyone else. It seems a minor thing but its shows how serious an athlete is.”

Dedication was non-negotiable considering the intensity of the camp. Training comprised road work – up to 100 km on occasion – on the DND expressway connecting Delhi and Noida at five in the morning,followed by sprint sessions in the evening at the wooden velodrome at the IG stadium. Crashes were inevitable,and the two girls wear plenty of scars and scratches on knees,arms and faces. This is a bit of a joke for Manorama,who also trained for a while in boxing but stopped after she grazed her face once during a sparring session.

Driving alongside the cyclists in the morning and standing along the wooden track later in the day was Chatterjee,taking down their timings and noting improvements over each day. “I had all these measurements,” Chatterjee says. “So when they got to the actual events at the Asian Championships,I knew that it was a given that they would win a medal. And now that they have won here,they will expect to win again in the future,” Chatterjee says.

But while coach Chatterjee was counting her medals,her wards were feeling the strain of the training. Hardest for Manorama was the strict no-football policy. “We played with her once at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. She played so well and knew so many tricks that we called her Ronaldo. Unfortunately for her we decided to stop playing football because there was too much risk of injury,” says BS Dahiya,a member of the coaching staff. But while Manorama could find distraction amongst her several Manipuri teammates,it was harder for Deborah as the lone cyclist from the Andamans.

This wasn’t always the case. “Andaman has a good history of producing National level cyclists,” says Shibendu Sengupta,Deborah’s first Sports Authority of India coach based in Port Blair. “But that tradition suffered a break after the tsunami. For a couple of years we even stopped sending cyclists to the Nationals,” he says. Things finally began looking up when Deborah’s state-mate Martha joined the camp after strong performances at the Nationals in December last year. “Martha joining the camp was good not only for her but I was relieved because at least Deborah had someone to talk to,” says Chatterjee,who made the two cyclists roommates immediately.

On the track the two youngsters were seen as medal bets in different categories. Deborah,the tallest among the girls at 5’7”,stood out with her raw power. Manorama,who barely touches five feet,was considered a long shot in the power events like the 500m time trial but formidable in events like the keirin,where her ability to produce quick bursts of speed would allow her to manouevre quickly into position in the riding pack.

The results that followed at the Asian Championships were unprecedented and other teams took note. “In the past the big teams wouldn’t talk much to us. It was understandable. When we had done badly,what would they have said? This time,Korea,Malaysia,Hong Kong,all came and congratulated us. It was a good feeling,” says Chatterjee.

Malaysia blueprint

According to John Beasley,chief coach of Malaysia,it is entirely possible for Deborah and Manorama to herald a new dawn for the sport in India. He gives for example Malaysia’s own cycling programme. Malaysia like India was considered a backwater of track cycling. But things changed when Josiah Ng first won a silver medal at the Asian Games and then came from almost nowhere to finish fifth in the keirin event at the Olympics. Ng now graces the covers of lifestyle magazines and Malaysian cyclists adorn billboards in his country like cricketers in India. Malaysia is looking beyond Asia and are now competing and winning medals at the world stage.

“After the Olympics we got a lot of money into cycling. We had a programme in place with talent searches and funding for scientific inputs,” says Beasly.

But he says that the win at the junior level can only provide initial impetus. “It is a good thing that those two girls are doing well but any success will be short-lived if you don’t have a structure in place. You have a couple of cyclists who are performing. But what happens if one of them gets an injury? Does that mean that your program was useless? It isn’t wrong to place high expectations on these two girls but it will be wrong to place all your expectations on them. What you need is to have a group of six youngsters who are competing at the highest level and then another six juniors who form a second string,” he says.

Malaysia,he says,are doing just that. They may have finished with seven gold medals at the Asian Championships but their coaching staff’s work is far from over.

Graham Seers,formerly India’s coach and currently in charge of the Malaysian junior programme,headed back a day after the tournament to conduct a talent search for youngsters.

Ng,the cyclist who kickstarted Malaysia’s boom,is himself downright pessimistic.

“Medals will translate into better funding and more attention for the sport. But to get sustained results you need to get a proper structure in place. I was here for the Commonwealth Games (he won gold) and I know a bit about Indian cycling because we have a coach who coached you as well. I might sound a bit cynical but I don’t see that happening with your system,” he says.

The Cycling Federation for it’s part claims that it isn’t doing business as usual anymore.

While Ng says the Malaysian approach of sending their best cyclists to train in Australia helped them because they competed against better cyclists and more importantly training in a foreign country helped them get away from the micromanaging of the Federation and worked wonders,the Indian Federation rules out such an option.

“We can’t create a programme like Malaysia and send our top 10 cyclists to Australia for the entire year. We would prefer to create a programme in India itself. We are holding camps regularly and this year we even had a long duration camp for U-16 players. We have a number of tracks and to ensure they are used we are holding our national championships across India. We are going to send six Indian junior cyclists to the UCI cycling center in Switzerland for training. We have planned to approach SAI for the funding but even if we are unsuccessful,we will be tying up with Hero to send them out there,” says Singh.

Singh is already talking up the two girls for success at the Asian and CWG levels but that’s a long shot as of now. The Asian level is increasingly competitive and the gap between juniors and seniors is vast. Deborah’s time for the 500m time trial was 37.841s,nearly four seconds slower than the time Sarah Lee Wai-sze (34.31s) set at the same meet. While other teams at the Asian Championships were making the use of cutting-edge equipment including lactic acid monitors to assess the exact level of fatigue in a cyclist,the Indians didn’t even have assured gym facilities ahead of the tournament.

The two girls themselves are unaware that the burden of cycling’s prospects in India will likely be placed on their shoulders. For now all that is on their mind is perhaps a bit of football and a race to the top of a coconut tree.

How good are they?

All of India’s medals came in the junior track (velodrome) events. India won a silver each in keirin and individual sprint and bronze in the team pursuit and 500m time trial.

The 500m time trial is a standing start event. It’s either 2 laps (on a 250m track) or 1.5 laps (on a 333m track) at international events. Competition is limited to the continental championships,World Cups and World Championships after the event was cancelled at the Olympics after 2004. At the Asian junior championships,Deborah won a bronze with a timing of 37.841. The Asian record is held by current world champion Sarah Lee Wai-sze of Hong Kong at 33.939.

Success in the time trial comes in handy in the individual sprint event,where competitors are seeded according to their time trial results. Each match pits two cyclists against each other in the best-of-three races. Each race consists of three laps of the (250m) track with side-by-side starts with victory in the third lap deciding the race. Deborah won a bronze in this event but the level of competition in Asia is considered strong,with Guo Shuang of China winning bronze at the London Olympics and Sarah Lee Wai-sze taking bronze at the World Championships.

The team sprint is a two-lap race between two teams of two cyclists,starting on opposite sides of the track. Each member of the team must lead for one of the laps with the second lap deciding the winner. China set the world record at the London Olympics with a time of 34.422 seconds. Deborah and Manorama won bronze in the juniors with a time of 38.645 seconds.

The Keirin races involve 5.5 laps behind a motorcycle,followed by a 2.5 lap sprint. If the time trial is all about sheer power,the keirin event requires a combination of speed and track awareness,as cyclists strive for the best position (usually behind the lead rider). Manorama timed her sprint brilliantly in the last 50 meters to finish with silver. China and Hong Kong won silver and bronze respectively at London.

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