THIS is just the beginning for us. We are so proud to be here.”
The words of Katkam Dattatraya, head coach of the Indian team at the International Cycling Union (UCI) Para-cycling Road World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, speak long and large about the country’s ambitions in the discipline.
Although the names of India’s four athletes were buried near the bottom of the results list in Pietermaritzburg, they have already made history for their country: it was the first time India has been represented at the UCI Para-cycling Road Worlds.
Proudly installed in their team tent, surrounded by nations fielding teams up to four times their size, the Indian delegation was far from overwhelmed.
“We are here to get experience and see how we can do against European athletes,” their coach explains. “Para-cycling is developing in India and we are just so happy that we can participate in a UCI event.”
India’s qualification for the Worlds came in the wake of their impressive performance at the Asian Para-cycling Championships in Bahrain in February, when the Indian athletes made a clean sweep of the medals in the 12.8-kilometer time trial, taking gold, silver and bronze.
“I always wanted to be at a World Championships so for me this is like a dream come true,” said the Asian champion Abishek Kumar (C2), who was affected with polio in his right leg as a child. “I’ve wanted this for 11 years and it feels great to be here.”
Although he fell sick before the Worlds and was warned by his doctor not to compete, he was not going to let the opportunity slip through his fingers: “I may not have been at my best but it’s not about winning. It’s about participating. I am so glad I came. I have met many athletes and I feel encouraged.”
Kaigoulal Kaigoulal (C3) is an above-the-knee amputee since losing his leg in a train accident. All eyes were on him in Pietermaritzburg as he was the first athlete to roll out of the individual time trial start on the second day of competition.
“I was scared but it is so amazing to be here. It has been beyond my expectations.”
The four Indian athletes who competed in South Africa from August 31 to September 3 are among 15 to 20 para-cyclists who form part of the developing national squad. The majority are ex-soldiers—for example members of the Border Security Force or the Central Reserve Police Force—who were injured in the line of duty.
They are able to train and develop thanks to the support of the Cycling Federation of India, the Aditya Mehta Foundation, as well as the government.
“Without the Cycling Federation of India, none of this would be possible,” Dattatraya said.
Earlier in the year, a team of eight para-cyclists benefited from an intensive training camp in Hyderabad under the guidance of Aditya Mehta himself, a two-time silver medallist at the 2013 Asian Para-cycling Championships.
Before the Worlds, India’s Elite para-cyclists had to train for longer distances: the time trial in Pietermaritzburg was double the distance of that they raced at the Continental Championships in Bahrain. At 60.7km – and 85km for C4 rider Harjinder Singh – the road race was also longer than they were used to.
“During training, they had to focus on endurance with some hill training and speed as well,” explains Dattatraya.
Trying to overcome difficulties
He would love to see the sport grow but acknowledges that it is not easy. The country has no classifiers, and no races for para-cyclists where they can gain experience. It is also a sport requiring considerable financial investment: a high-quality adapted bike is an expensive item.
For that reason, India does not yet have athletes competing in the handbike and tricycle categories, although Dattatraya is delighted that one woman has recently started handbiking.
Although the team returned to India without any medals, they had gained invaluable experience and would now set objectives for the future, added the coach.