With CWG experience and bronze in the Asian Team Sprint, India’s promising junior cyclists head for their first Senior World Championships

If only it were as easy as Mamik Singh yells, “Sanju, shift gears!” to Aamir Khan, as happened 30 years ago in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

Indian keirin cyclist David Beckham Elkatohchoongo recalls his nasty lockdown winter accident in February 2021. When a ground clip released, David’s bike wedged itself in a gap in the track and rebounded, knocking him over during a stretch Wood dug deep into his spine as he applied unwarranted acceleration in practice. “40 stitches. Unbearable pain. Back surgery,” he says before leaving for Paris for the cycling world championships.

40 stitches and plenty of time, six months to be precise, to reflect and process what senior elite cycling demanded – a steady tactical mind to rein in a mindless love of speed. His left leg was also severely weakened by the back injury. “The leg didn’t feel strong, but I couldn’t do much on the leg press,” he regrets the strength load before the season, which he couldn’t pull through.

The injury looked horrible and had come after he felt uncomfortable accelerating. “I don’t usually get nervous and I’m very focused. I just tell myself I’ve done this before, competed before,” he says, though 2022 was about being thrown into the deep waters and negotiating the treacherous transition to seniors.

David joins Ronaldo Laitonjam, Y Rojit Singh and Esow Alban in India’s much-vaunted group of young cyclists heading for their first Senior World Championships after making waves at the juniors individually and winning bronze in the Asian team sprint in June.

His famous name immediately made headlines with a smile, although an immigration officer at the Commonwealth Games in July was not too amused when David gave him his name at the gate and asked for additional documents.

The Car Nicobar cyclist, who lost his father to the 2004 tsunami and his mother a decade later, has endured the most severe trauma but hasn’t let setbacks tear his soul apart. “Most of the time people love the name, but then maybe he thought I was joking or calling my pet name. He could not believe it.”

“But I love the look on their faces when they waste so much time and then double-check to check their passport and other documents,” he quips about the airport delay.

The GWG horror would continue. The team went from hot Delhi to Birmingham, which had its own whimsical weather pattern. “I had drunk a glass of cold water, first mistake. Then I got a fever for two days. Body chalaa hi nahi (only the body didn’t work),” he regrets.

But David would say to his coaches, ‘Why did I come all this way here? I’m going to race no matter what.” Bravery aside, he would meet Trinidad World medalist Nicholas Paul and learn a thing or six from fourth-placed Australia’s Matthew Richardson of Tokyo.

“Where you change gears, where you pick up, jump, roll, launch, I watched closely at CWG. I used all of Richardson’s techniques at the National Games and won gold,” says the youngster, who finished 4th in the World Juniors earlier in his career. “All these years it has been about beating the older Bhaiyyas in the camp to prove we are good enough. But the international level is a bigger mountain to climb,” he says.

It meant going flat out for 1k or 4 laps straight – even 16 – to build endurance, which means 30-minute sets of high intensity. “We cried and hurt ourselves and lost, but we learned from it,” says the always-smiling youngster, who will most likely drive the 3rd decisive lap with full commitment and replace Ronaldo’s 2nd place in the team sprint.

Ronaldo’s misery at CWG

For Ronaldo Laitonjam, another youngster who wanted to find fame beyond his first name, the CWG was a lesson in how miserably fate can bend when things go wrong.

India’s cyclists had arrived in Birmingham on a busy international schedule as they went from event to event in search of ranking points to qualify for the CWG. While the Olympic odds won’t unlock until next year’s World Cup, Paris will give the team the chance to study the conditions for 2024 – venue etc.

Laitonjam Ronaldo Singh India Junior Cycling Team at Indira Gandhi International Stadium, New Delhi on Thursday. Express photo by Abhinav Saha. 08/22/2019.

The CWG, where cycling boasts stiff competition from British, Australian and Malaysian cyclists, gave Ronaldo a taste of other logistical planning errors.

“I thought my event was at 5pm. So I was having lunch around 10 in the morning when suddenly we got a message that I will be starting in the next hour. I ran to the velodrome because I couldn’t find a shuttle bus. Basic warm up done. But I had a full stomach and just couldn’t ride the way I wanted to,” recalls Manipuri, a wake-up call for better planning that he will never forget.

“I’m always calm and cool. I found my way to the venue myself, heard some music and attended. But it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t perform to my full potential because I ate too close to the race,” adds the Manipuri, considered India’s best tactically.

As the Indian team sprint squad looks to improve their 44.625 second timing and finish in the top 8 to qualify for next year’s Olympics, Ronaldo has his individual target of slipping under 9.7 (he is currently 9.9 seconds). “I have the power and the mental fitness. But in terms of technique, we can learn a lot more that comes with experience,” he says.

He also spends long hours in the gym on his 1K time trial – sometimes doing 260 full squats. “3-4 months ago we were still in hard training. You have to push the limit on sprints to improve even 0.2 seconds and we would throw up after hard sessions. The next day I was drained,” he recalls.

A month later he would dominate the National Games with 3 golds to push Manipur up the medal list. But going from a 1:01.724 time trial to the Asian mark (1:00.017) could take a while, he admits.

The Indian Esow grade is gold

When India’s junior team sprint won gold at the 2019 World Junior Championships, Esow Alban was among the podium finishers but also took silver in the junior sprint and bronze in Keirin.

He is India’s most successful junior in terms of performance, although he is looking forward to the steep curve in the seniors this season. “It’s the first time we’ve been at world level with seniors in an advanced level competition. You learn about acceleration,” he says.

“Pehle lagtaa hai, opponent bhaag rahaa hai, kuchh bhi karke pakdo. (Opponent is racing, just catch up.) But the reality is different. When you compete at this level, you understand that you need to race cool and move properly. I lost twice at junior world because my tactics weren’t strong,” says the Nicobar lad, preparing for the higher level of competition where everyone is equipped with cycles upwards of the staggering 30-35 lakh that are considered elite India.

So this year’s World Cup is all about hoarding ranking points in Paris. However, the city is a promise of a future that will be in the greatest spotlight in two years’ time.

All three love to drive fast cars and had been waiting for the day they would get their license – although they giggle that they knew how to drive before then. The rush for speed runs in their veins, but senior cycling competitions, particularly a raucous CWG, have sobered them to consider the various speed bumps that come with elite cycling. “Sanju, shift the gear” may not quite suffice in real life.



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