If only it was as easy as Mamik Singh screaming ‘Sanju, change the gear!’ to Aamir Khan, as it happened in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar 30 years ago.
India’s Keirin cyclist David Beckham Elkatohchoongo recalls his nasty accident in the lockdown winter of February 2021. When a floor clip came undone, David’s cycle wedged into a gap on the track and bounced, upturning him, while a piece of wood pierced deep into his spine when he effected an unwarranted acceleration in practice. “40 stitches. Unbearable pain. Back surgery,” he says, ahead of heading out to Paris for the World Championships in cycling.
40 stitches and lots of time, six months to be precise, to reflect and take in what senior elite cycling demanded – a steady tactical head to temper the mindless love for speed. The damage to the back also left his left leg severely weakened. “The leg wasn’t feeling strong, but I couldn’t do much on the leg press,” he rues, of the pre-season strength loading he couldn’t pull off.
The injury looked gruesome, and had come after he had himself felt cagey to accelerate. “I usually never get nervous, and am very focused. I just tell myself I’ve done this before, competed before,” he says, though 2022 has been about being thrown into the deep waters and negotiating the treacherous transition to seniors.
David belongs to India’s much-vaunted crop of young cyclists alongside Ronaldo Laitonjam, Y Rojit Singh and Esow Alban, who are heading out to their first Senior World’s, after creating ripples in juniors individually and picking the Asian Team Sprint bronze in June.
His famous name garners instant chuckling headlines, though an immigration official at July’s Commonwealth Games wasn’t too amused when David gave him his name at the entry-point, and asked for additional documents.
The Car Nicobar cyclist who lost his father to the 2004 tsunami and mother a decade later, has experienced the harshest of trauma, but not let his soul get tattered by setbacks. “Most times people love the name, but then he perhaps thought I’m joking or giving my pet name. He couldn’t believe it.”
“But I love the look on their faces when they waste so much time and then do double-takes verifying the passport and other documents,” he makes light of the delay at the airport.
The CWG horror would continue. The team went to Birmingham which had its own whimsical weather-range, from hot Delhi. “I had gulped a glass of cold water, first mistake. Then I got fever for two days. Body chalaa hi nahi (the body did not work only),” he rues.
But David would tell his coaches: “Why have I come here all the way? I will race no matter what.” The bravado aside, he would get to meet Trinidadian World’s medallist, Nicholas Paul, and learn a thing or six from Tokyo fourth-placed Australian Matthew Richardson.
“Where to change gear, where to pick up, jump, roll, launch, I observed closely at CWG. I employed all those techniques from Richardson at the National Games and won gold,” says the youngster who had finished 4th at world juniors earlier in his career. “All these years it’s been about how to beat the senior bhaiyyas at camp to prove we are good enough. But the international level is a bigger mountain to climb,” he reckons.
It has meant going flat-out over 1 km or 4 laps straight – even 16 – to build on endurance, which means 30 min-high intensity sets. “We’ve cried and hurt and lost, but learnt,” says the ever-smiling youngster, who will most likely race the 3rd decisive all-out lap, taking over from Ronaldo’s 2nd in the team sprint.
Ronaldo’s misery at CWG
For Ronaldo Laitonjam, another youngster looking to earn fame beyond his given name, the CWG was a lesson in how wretchedly fate can bend, when things start going wrong.
India’s cyclists had reached Birmingham on the back of a busy international schedule, as they went from one event to the next in search of ranking points to qualify for the CWG. While the Olympic quotas will open up only at next year’s World’s edition, Paris will give the team a chance to study the 2024 conditions – venue, et al.
The CWG, where cycling boasts of tough competition from British, Australian and Malaysian cyclists, gave Ronaldo a taste of other logistical planning blunders.
“I thought my event was at 5 0’clock. So I was having lunch at around 10 in the morning, when suddenly we got a message that I’ll be up to compete in the next hour. I ran to the velodrome because I couldn’t find a shuttle bus. Did basic warmup. But I was on full stomach, and just couldn’t race the way I wanted to,” recalls the Manipuri, a wake-up call to plan better, he’ll never forget.
“I’m always calm and cool. I found my way to the venue myself, heard some music, and competed. But it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t give my full effort because I’d eaten too close to the race,” adds the Manipuri, considered India’s best tactically.
While the Indian Team Sprint squad attempts to improve on their timing of 44.625s and get into Top 8 to qualify for Olympics by next year, Ronaldo has his individual target of dipping below 9.7 (he’s currently 9.9 s). “I have the power and mental fitness. But technique-wise, we can learn a lot more that will come with experience,” he says.
His 1km time trial event also sees him put in many hours into the gym – 260 full squats at times. “3-4 months back we would be in hard training. You have to push the limit for sprints just to improve 0.2 seconds, and we would be vomiting after tough sessions. I’d be washed out by the next day,” he recalls.
A month on he would dominate the National Games with 3 gold to push Manipur up the medals tally. Yet going from 1:01.724 in time trial to merely making the Asian mark (1:00.017) might take a while, he concedes.
Indian Esow grade is gold
When India’s junior team sprint won the gold at the 2019 junior World’s, Esow Alban was part of the podium toppers, but also picked silver in junior men’s sprint and bronze in Keirin.
Performance wise he’s India’s most decorated junior, though he’s looking forward to the steep curve in seniors this season. “It’s the first time we are in an advanced level of competition at World level, with seniors. You learn about acceleration,” he says.
“Pehle lagtaa hai, opponent bhaag rahaa hai, kuchh bhi karke pakdo. (Opponent is racing, just catch up.) But reality is different. When you compete at that level, you understand that you have to race coolly, pace yourself properly. I lost twice at Junior world’s because my tactics weren’t strong,” says the lad from Nicobar, braced for the higher level of competition where everyone comes geared with cycles upwards of the eye-popping 30-35 lakh that are seen as elite in India.
As such, this year’s World’s is about hoarding ranking points at Paris. The city though is a promise to a future under the biggest spotlight two years from now.
All three love driving fast cars, and had awaited the day they’d get their license – though they giggle about how they knew to drive even before that. The speed thrill runs in their veins, but the senior cycling competitions, especially a rough CWG, has sobered them up, into accounting for the assorted speed bumps that come with elite cycling. ‘Sanju, change the gear’, might not quite be enough in real life.