NEW DELHI: It was August 14, around 6 pm in Basel, a Swiss city on the Rhine river, most famous for being Roger Federer’s hometown. India’s Sprint cyclists Esow Alben, Ronaldo Singh, Rojit Singh and K Jemsh Singh were engaged in their preparation routine. The only sound heard in India’s corner was that of cleats clicking and wheels whirring. The qualification round for Men’s Sprint Team event was up next at the Junior Track World Championships.
The air was full of nervous energy, and India’s sprint coach RK Sharma had scanned it. The human-resource skills of the retired HR manager with the Indian Air Force were in for a test in the coach’s corner.
Rewind to the build-up of the event, and it was far from motivating. The pre-tournament talk centered around the big daddies.
“The articles getting published in the papers there (Switzerland) or on the UCI website were all about European, Oceania, Pan-American, African champions being the favourites,” Sharma recalled talking to Timesofindia.com.
“There was no mention of India among favourites in any event. Just a small article about Esow, ‘Player to be watched in Keirin’, as he was the silver-medallist from the last edition.”
After Deborah Herold at the 2014 Track Asia Cup (two golds), Indian cycling has revolved around another cyclist from Port Blair, Esow. The 18-year-old put India on the world map with the country’s maiden international medal, a silver, at the 2018 Junior Track World Championships.
Back to August 14, 2019. Sharma’s words broke the nervous silence.
“This is a very rare occasion, jo shayad aapki life mein dobara na aaye (which may not come back again in your life),” he told the cyclists.
The coach immediately had the attention of his wards.
“The occasion is very big. We can present gold to our country on the Independence Day.
Aap karodo hindustaniyo ki taaqat se chala rahe ho, unki support hai aap ke saath (you will ride with the support of millions of Indians).”
The reaction Sharma expected came soon, almost a ‘Chak De’ moment.
Haan sir, chalayenge (yes sir, we will ride hard),” the boys promised in unison.
India topped the qualification, and broke their own Asian record. Then the Indian team topped Round 1, and broke the Asian record. And then India won the final, clinching gold, and broke the Asian record yet again.
The impact of Sharma’s words helped create history — India’s first ever global cycling gold had been won.
To put it in perspective, Australia, India’s opponents in the final, beat their own junior national record of 2012, but even that wasn’t good enough to cycle past the Indian team.
ke liye agar aap kuchh thaan le to aap sab kuchh kar sakte hain (If you want to do something passionately for the country, you can achieve anything,” he said, continuing the conversation with Timesofindia.com.
Pura world hairaan ho gaya ke yeh kya ho gaya…India kahan se aa gaya (the whole world was surprised with India’s performance),” Sharma added. “Players from all the powerful cycling nations came and said ‘it was worth watching your riders whatever they have done, they have come up really well’.”
But the icing on the cake was this: The race finished around 8:30 pm in Basel on August 14, which was exactly the time India stepped into its Independence Day.
Usi waqt National Anthem baja (that very moment India’s National Anthem played) and our flag went up. It happened exactly like that and became an unforgettable, historical moment for us,” said Sharma, who has now been India’s sprint coach for five years. Before that, he had served the Indian Air Force for 27 years.
Sharma, a winner of nine national medals with the Services, took voluntary retirement before starting work as a commissaire (official like a referee/umpire in other sports) with the Cycling Federation of India (CFI) and then completed his graduation diploma from the UCI Centre, which is equivalent to the British Level 3 cycling and USA Level 3 cycling degrees.
The credentials Sharma added to his CV were recognised at the National Cycling Academy, which started in March, 2014, at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium Complex. The velodrome built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games had found its worthy occupants after being almost down in the dumps.
In a year’s time, UCI joined hands with the academy, and it is now the fourth satellite branch of UCI’s World Cycling Centre in Switzerland, besides being the only academy for any sport in India that has the international federation (UCI), national federation (CFI) and the government (Sports Authority of India) running it together.
The full-time residential academy takes care of both training and academics for the kids that are part of it. Currently there are 70-odd trainees. The entire expense is taken care of by the Government of India.
(Coach RK Sharma inside the workshop at the National Cycling Academy in Delhi – TOI Photo)
Esow, India’s cycling sensation, is the best example of just what the academy strives to do – produce champions. He moved to the academy back in 2015.
And after India’s Sprint Team gold in Basel, the world No. 1 junior cyclist (in Sprint and Keirin) went on to add two more big medals to his kitty — a silver in the men’s individual Sprint event and a bronze in the men’s individual Keirin.
By January 2020, the 18-year-old Esow will graduate from the junior to the senior circuit, and therein lies the true test of his potential, for many a talent is lost in this transition.
“Esow can compete in juniors until December this year. But now we have to move ahead with our next plan. We have to get better in the senior category also. I started his transition phase (from junior to senior) in January this year,” said Sharma, before talking about how Esow has already competed in his first senior race.
“We were in Germany recently, when there was Grand Prix in June. All top European riders come there, even Malaysia’s Mohammad Awang, who is the 2017 World Champion, was there.
“In Keirin during that competition, Esow finished third. It was his first senior race ever and he earned 160 senior world ranking points.” Sharma told TimesofIndia.com.
Esow’s sprint partners Rojit and Ronaldo are first-year juniors, and winning an international gold this early in their careers, that too in the world championships, is a huge achievement for them.
Their collective goal, of course, is to qualify for the 2024 Olympics.
Koshish hai (we will keep trying),” the coach concluded with a promise.