On Thursday night, Esow Alban won India’s first ever junior cycling World Cup medal when he finished second in the keirin event in Aigle, Switzerland. But it wasn’t until a day later that his mother found out about her son’s achievement. His father may not get to know about it for another week. Heavy rainfall over the last two days in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where the Albans hail from, has meant that there’s been little communication between Esow’s parents.
His father, Alban Didus, a head constable with the fire force, is on the remote Teressa Island, about 480 km away. His mother, Lelly Alban, has been busy sending messages about the half-day holiday owing to the death of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to rangers and other forest officials at the Kadamtala Forest office on Middle Andaman Island where she works as a Class IV employee.
It was only on Friday, when the 17-year-old Esow had already started training for his next event at the World Cup, that she came to know about how the youngest of her four children had been edged out by 0.017 seconds in a photo-finish by the Czech Republic’s Jakub Stastny.
“Was it really a photo-finish? There has been no contact with his father over the last one week. When he gets to know about the medal, he will be elated. Even though we are saddened by the loss of Vajpayeeji, Esow’s medal has made this day memorable for all of us. My eldest daughter told me she got the news about Esow from the Internet (Twitter),” says an excited Lelly, who belongs to the tribal village of Ginyuka.
A student of Government Model School in Port Blair, Esow was sent to the State Sports Council Netaji Stadium by his mother after she came across a newspaper ad for induction of junior sports trainees. The youngster was enrolled for rowing but was soon shifted to cycling due to his low height. That one move turned out to be a masterstroke, as Esow quickly pedalled his way to a number of medals at the age-group level and caught the attention of national coaches.
It started with a silver in the under-14 500m time trial event in the 67th National Cycling Championships in Kerala in 2015. Soon, he shifted base to Delhi after being picked for the National Cycling Academy. “Esow is the youngest, but dearest to me. To send him to Delhi to train was very tough for us,” the mother recalls.
Earlier this year, Esow won gold medals in the junior keirin and sprint events, in addition to a team gold in the junior sprint event at the Asian Track Cycling Championship in Nilai, Malaysia. It was his first major feat on foreign soil, and one that his former coach, Sudhendu Sengupta, cannot stop gushing about.
“There were around 20 junior cyclists, including Esow, who trained under me. He would spend hours watching others train on the cemented track and would practise till late. After one month, his mother told me that Esow had stopped attending school. I ensured that he returned to school but he later told me, ‘Sir, this training is my real education’,” recalls Sengupta.
Back then, the former SAI coach had four Colnago bikes with normal wheels, which had been bought in 1994. The cyclists would train on tracks that weren’t aligned to national and international standards. But for someone who grew up cycling on cemented tracks, Sengupta was very impressed with how his former pupil performed on the wooden track in Aigle.
“It was like he’s mastered the wooden track. Training on the non-aligned track made him worship even those four old cycles. He would always tell me how happy he was when he saw a wooden track for the first time at the national cycling academy,” says the 52-year-old coach.
Esow isn’t the first cyclist from this region to bring international honours for the country. Tsunami survivor Deborah Herold had put Andaman on the cycling map before him by reaching the world No. 4 ranking. Esow is now the top-ranked junior cyclist for the sprint event and is No. 3 for keirin, where the cyclists sprint for victory on a track following a controlled start.
Andaman & Nicobar, for the record, finished second in the national championships last year. “Most of these cyclists from come from tribal villages situated far from the main land. They see their parents and grandparents using cycles and start cycling themselves from a very young age. Cycling on sand and on the beaches at the junior level makes them strong, and natural picks for the national camps,” says V Renjith Kumar, secretary, Andaman and Nicobar Cycling Association.
Esow is the first member of his family to travel abroad for sport. But sport is well-entrenched in the Albans. Lelly was a kabaddi player and had travelled to Chandigarh for the national championships in 1984. “My father was a cyclist and participated in inter-police meets. I sent Esow for training based on a newspaper ad, and now his picture has started appearing in newspapers,” she says. According to Lelly, whatever they earn is spent on their four children. Esow, she says, doesn’t ask for much but has been longing for a “foreign-branded cycle”, one that his mother is planning to save money for “as a reward for his medal”. That is, once his father returns home and finally hears about it.