NEW DELHI: He comes across as extremely unassuming, almost shy, when you talk to him. Short-statured, with the muscles of a body-builder, you can easily mistake him for a weightlifter. But young Esow Alben is the boy who is writing a golden chapter in India’s cycling history.
Esow’s consistency makes you sit up and take notice of his exceptional talent. Here’s what the teenage prodigy’s resume reads like so far:
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– 18 years old
– 6 gold medals in Asian Track Championships
– 4 medals in Junior Track World Championships
– First Indian to win an international cycling medal
– World No. 1 in junior Men’s Keirin rankings
– World No. 1 in junior Men’s Sprint rankings
Achievements like these are always a sign of impending greatness, regardless of the sport.
In Frankfurt, at the recently concluded Junior Track World Championships, Esow added to India’s cycling history, which, before his arrival on the scene, had little to boast of as such.
From left, Ronaldo Singh, Esow Alben, Rojit Singh (Photo: UCI Facebook)
First Rojit Singh and Ronaldo Singh joined Esow to clinch a historic first ever international cycling gold medal for India. The trio won the men’s Team Sprint event and broke their own Asian record in the process.
Then Esow took over, with his bronze in men’s individual Keirin and a silver in the men’s individual Sprint event. The 18-year-old from Port Blair became the first Indian cyclist to win three medals at a single international event, a record that will not be broken in a hurry. India’s Sprint coach, RK Sharma, will be proud of that feat.
India finished sixth overall on the medals tally, marking the country’s best ever finish at a world-level cycling event.
As luck would have it, Esow’s aspirations of becoming a rower were ended thanks to his diminutive structure. He began his new sports life on wheels with a Rs 4000 bicycle bought for him by his mother. And since moving from the SAI Centre at the Netaji Stadium in Port Blair to the National Cycling Academy in Delhi in 2015, Esow hasn’t looked back.
Today, he rides a ‘Look R96’ that can cost up to Rs 10 lakh.
(Photo: UCI Facebook)
Esow calls cycling his “fitoor” (obsession). He explained that with a short anecdote, while training at the national camp last year at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium Complex.
“When I started training to be a cyclist, I used to get very tired. I would then lie down on the terrace of my house, look at the sky and tell myself that I have to do something for India. That thought still gives me strength,” he had told TimesofIndia.com.
He started by setting the Asian track on fire, before scripting history in the 2018 edition of the Junior Track World Championships, winning a men’s individual Sprint silver, which was India’s maiden global cycling medal.
And he continues to live up to people’s expectations. But to do it day in and day out is not easy in endurance sports.
(Photo: UCI Facebook)
“A race-day takes a huge toll on your body,” Onkar Singh, the Secretary General of the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), said speaking to Timesofindia.com from Frankfurt.
“In some events, they need to race at 10-minute intervals. It’s a huge ask for teenage bodies to recover in such quick time and then go full-throttle again, especially in the Indian context where not many pick up the sport. We are following a targeted process, and these kids are doing exceptionally well,” Singh added.
HARNESSING THE YOUNG TALENT
There are ample examples in sports, where promise at the junior level fizzled away with age. But there are also examples of athletes who took their latent ability and talent and made it big on the senior circuit. These stories should be part of Esow’s learning curve as he graduates to the senior level, targeting the 2024 Olympics.
(Photo: UCI Facebook)
One Indian athlete who has managed to make the transition from junior to senior circuits while maintaining his high standards is pistol shooter Saurabh Choudhary. At the age of 18, he is among the world’s best pistol shooters, winning medals world over in both junior and senior categories.
Saurabh’s example shows us that a structured approach, high-level coaching and never-ending efforts help prodigies in taking the next step.
This transition journey gets a little tougher in case of endurance sports like cycling, of course, as compared to shooting which is more a mental sport. Injuries are common when you require more muscle power. Take, for example, the case of javelin-thrower Neeraj Chopra. The junior world champion, also a Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist, is recuperating post an elbow surgery, perilously close to the Tokyo Olympics next year.
The team of coaches at the CFI will have to be extra careful in all the above aspects, if India’s junior cyclists are to replicate their success at the senior level over the coming years. While they are doing a good job in turning juniors into champions, the senior-level success is what will define the careers of exceptionally talented cyclists like Esow.