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Can Indian cycling’s Olympic dream get back on track?

Kevin Sireau had no inclination towards cycling till the time he tried out the track variant of the sport. Two decades on, the kid who loved fishing with his grandpa in their native Centre-Val de Loire is a decorated international cyclist. In his maiden assignment as India’s first foreign coach, the two-time Olympic silver medallist delivered six medals — all juniors — at last month’s Asian Track Cycling Championships.

Maninder Pal Singh secretary General CFI, Onkar Singh secretary General Asian Cycling Confederation, Kevin Sireau chief coach and Joginder Coach India address a press conference on upcoming 43rd Asian trackcycling championship at IGI stadium in New Delhi (Mohd Zakir)

“I joined CFI just a week before the competition, so I am quite happy with the results. India has some very exciting talent and I am looking forward to working with them,” he said.

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Before Kevin forayed into cycling, he tried his hand at football and judo, but they didn’t quite excited him. “France is crazy about football but I never liked it enough to pursue it. I tried judo for a year but soon got bored. I picked up a bicycle on a whim and it began to fascinate me,” he recalled.

Kevin started with road cycling, but the thought of participating in Tour de France never struck him. The first time he got really smitten with the sport was when he tried track cycling.

“Moving from road to track was a tough choice. Although road and mountain cycling are huge in France, I realised quite early that I didn’t have the required endurance. A coach advised me to try track cycling and I took the plunge,” he said.

By the time he completed his second lap, Kevin, then 12, was sold. “It is a completely different sport within the same sport. I liked the thrill of speed. Going toe to toe with other riders really fascinated me.”

Gradually, Kevin’s career began to take shape. After spending five years at state level competitions, he competed in his maiden age-group nationals and finished third. Next year, he won the sub-junior nationals championship, a medal that paved his way into one of the two centres of excellence for cycling in France.

As much as Kevin’s success was down to skills, the robust structure did have a role to play.

“In France, government’s support to federations is strictly dependent on the latter winning medals, so the focus is always on performance. Talent identification happens at a really early age, competitions are organised from a very basic level, and it is very tough to get into national teams because of very high level of competition. Even when you make the national team, the influx of juniors keeps you on your toes.”

“Out of 100 riders, less than 1 percent reach the top. In a basic age group competition, we get about 25-30 entries in each category and roughly 1 percent go ahead. In sprint, we have a scheme like TOPS for 2-3 best riders. For women, we have only three seats for a fully-funded programme. In juniors, only four juniors are under government-funded programme. We have about 125 velodromes, so getting a practice venue is not a problem,” he informed.

Cycling Federation of India (CFI), perhaps taking a cue from the French model, is planning a systemic overhaul of the sport. Their sights set on the 2028 Olympics, the federation is planning to decentralise its training centres while also identifying the core discipline of each rider.

“We are changing our approach now. We are identifying cyclists on the basis of the events. For example, Esow is good at Kierin, Ronaldo is good at time trials, and Beckham is good at sprint. We will make them focus on these events rather than making them compete in multiple disciplines,” CFI chief Omkar Singh said.

“Delhi’s IG Stadium will be available only for the senior Indian team because there is no point keeping 40-50 riders here. The endurance centre will either go to Guwahati or somewhere else and Delhi will be kept only for the sprint. Riders can’t go out cycling here in Delhi due to high pollution levels, so it makes no sense to waste them here.”

Kevin believes the core group needs to be trimmed.

“I know the plan of CFI and I am beginning to understand what each rider needs to do to upgrade. Underperforming cyclists should be sent back after a year. Having an elite core of 25-30 doesn’t help. I want to have a group of no more than 10 elites and 10 juniors,” the coach said.

While it’s too early for the Frenchman to judge the Indian cyclists, he does have an intangible parameter to gauge the quality.

“It helps if one has a strong build but the first thing, I look at in a cyclist is mentality. Some riders can appear super fit but the moment they are on track, they are scared. Our cycles do not have brakes. We have only one gear. When you ride on corners at 55 degrees, all you think is that you are going to crash. If a junior shows some confidence there, I know he/she can do well,” Kevin, who set up the junior and sub-junior cycling programmes in French Polynesia, said.

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