What's Cool In Road Cycling

From Bangalore To Belgium!

Racing in Belgium is something many try, riders come from all over Europe to partake in the unique World of daily battering from the cobbles, wind, rain and multi-talented riders. It’s not only Europeans as many an Australian and New Zealander has started his career in Flanders, but it’s a surprise to see riders from Bangalore, India lining up in a Flemish kermess. Ed Hood spoke to the time trial champion of India, Naveen John to get the lowdown:

When Callum and I were in ‘refusal to go home mode’ and visited the big post-Tour criterium at Aalst the Monday after the Tour finished, we met up with some Indian dudes who had come all the way from Bangalore to sample the cobbles and cross winds with Kingsnorth CC in Ghent.

We thought their story was worth telling. . .

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Naveen John, India TT champion

PEZ: The basics, please: age, where from, occupation?
Naveen John: I turned 29 this April, I was born and brought up in the Middle East, Kuwait to be precise but now live in Bangalore. I spent my collegiate years in ‘Middle America’ Indiana, where I got my Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University. That’s also where I got into the sport very ‘late’.

I moved back home to India in June 2012 to set out to win my National Individual Time Trial title, to find out what my limits on the bike are, while playing my bit in the organic growth of the sport in India. I’ve taken odd jobs that have allowed me to focus on my sport which has included managing one of India’s best bike stores, working as a bike fit tech, and currently coaching a handful of athletes.

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PEZ: How did you get into the bike?
I got into the sport in college through the Purdue Cycling Club as a way to get in shape. I kept with it, initially for the weekend getaways, but then because I loved riding and racing my bike. I preferred that to being cooped up in a computer lab in a windowless basement or going to house parties.

PEZ: You’re Indian TT champion, tell us about that.
In 2012, faced with the decision of whether to continue hiding out in academia or following one of those well paying careers in engineering, I picked another option – to head back home to India, where a then, well-supported, Specialized-sponsored cycling team, was trying to do some stuff that had never been done before in our sport in India. I wanted to contribute and achieve a personal goal of mine while at it – to win the Indian National ITT title.

A very long story short, it took me two attempts to nail it. I was fourth in 2013, and in 2014, I won gold. A ton of support from individuals from within the US bike industry came in surprising flashes. Biju Thomas (FeedZone Cookbook author and chef) taught us a lot about ride and race nutrition. Skratch Labs pitched in a bit, we had the opportunity to work with Tim Cusick and his team at Training Peaks; PowerTap came in to support our team in 2014, which allowed me to start training with power, and I started working with my coach, Dan Henchy of PBScience.com, based in the UK.

I had amazing race support from my team Manager and Director (Brand Manager for Specialized India) and financial support from our team’s private sponsors. While the support over the three years I’ve been here has been transient, my goals have always stayed the same – to be committed and to progress in my sport.

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PEZ: You raced in the US, how did that go?
I knew nothing about being a (student) athlete, or training, or race craft, so I meandered through four seasons of collegiate and amateur racing on the road without any “big” results just because results weren’t even a motivation or a goal during that phase (US race results).

PEZ: Why Flanders?
My team and I talked about a stint on ‘the continent’ in 2013, but lacked the funds to pull it off. Around then, I came across an article on Kingsnorth on PEZ and also the more candid pieces you penned on VeloVeritas (here and here). After we achieved our goals in 2014 of podium-ing at Nationals, we decided to hedge everything we had on this trip.

So, why Flanders? Well, you’re definitely to thank for that! This trip was all about lifting my level and gaining experience. My goals for the season are ahead of me though – with our Road Nationals in Oct (no dates announced yet!), Track Nationals in Dec (perhaps!?), and I’d like to race for the Indian National team in the Asian Cycling Championships in February, in Thailand.

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PEZ: Tell us about “The Farm” where Kingsnorth World HQ is located.
The farm is a no frills, renovated two storey house, in a quite NW corner of Gent’s urban sprawl. When the house is full, the front loading washing machine seems to be on a 24/7 cycle, pre and post-race meal prep in the kitchen almost always involves a tango with your roommates, and getting a shower in involves juking right and cutting left to get your foot in the door first. The bike shed can get crowded, the team Vee Dub might need a push to get started, and the staircase – which is steeper and tougher than a wet Paterberg – WILL get you before your time at the house is up!

Gent is pretty centrally located to be able to ride (five-35k) to two/three races each week and get quality training in any time. There’s high speed internet, beds aplenty, and the guys that keep this setup ticking Staf, Naglis, Ian, Freddy, are veterans at the house.

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PEZ: How many race starts?
I was there for 60-odd days and I’ve had 20 starts. I split my time there in to two blocks – a four week block of racing and training; a small recovery block that coincided with the Grand Depart in Utrecht (which we were pretty blown away by!); and a second four week block of just racing and recovering.

PEZ: Best results?
My best result was in my last race there, attacking early and rolling heavy in a small break for the first half of the race, finishing 20th.

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PEZ: Biggest differences from back home?
Where do I start?! I’ll talk about the racing, since that’s what we were here to do. The National race ‘calendar’ in India has about three or four races a year (whose dates, even for a race like Nationals, is typically announced two to three weeks prior to the event date) as against Belgium where there can be three or four races each day.

A big field in India is about 50-75 riders and the real strength in the field is about 10-15 riders deep against 50-100 plus riders here with the strength of the field going pretty deep, and about 15-25 riders riding at another, higher level. The racing is India (even with our short race distances), starts pretty easy and also eases-up plenty in between as against the standing start to full gas racing that never lets up till the finish here in Flanders!

I’m a little bit of a power geek, so here’s a qualitative comparison: The toughest race in India is Nationals RR where the race would average around 36-38kph for 100-120k, on a flat out and back course, where a rider could go top five putting out around 220-230W Avg. (230-240W Normalized).

Racing just to finish here has meant having to average 40-44kph, slowing and jumping out of corners, having to average around 250-270+W (280-300+W normalized) to finish.

I came to Belgium with two months of base training, and about two-and-a-half years in India, having done only 10-15 races in all that time, so I was pretty satisfied with the way I was able to hold my own in the arguably the toughest amateur racing there is.

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Kermess India style

PEZ: The food must be very different to what you’re used to?
I was surprised that the food was pretty affordable at about five to seven Euros/day. My diet is pretty generic to a bike racer’s anywhere really, so there was no adjusting needed there. I found the coffee, oats and bread better in Belgium, but the rice and bananas are way better back home!

PEZ: What about the weather?
We’ve been fortunate to have fairly sunny skies during our stint here. There were a couple races in the pouring rain, which when coupled with narrow cobbled roads and wet descents, weren’t particularly ‘fun’. I actually enjoy training in the rain and the chilly days though, and I’m kind of weird in that I don’t mind the post-ride bike clean-up either. The winds here are some of the strongest I’ve trained and raced in. While I don’t mind it in training, it has indiscriminately wedged me off the back in a couple races. Besides that, we had what the locals were calling a “heatwave” (35ºC), but that felt right like home!

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PEZ: How are you and your bike coping with the cobbles ?
I’ve done a couple races here on pretty short (400-800 metre) stretches of more urban/semi-urban cobbles. Those weren’t so bad once you learn to avoid having a death grip on the bars and just churn out the power. The bike sounds like it’s going to fall apart at any moment but if you don’t think about it and just focus on staying on a wheel the discomfort and aural grating subsides to background noise.

However, on a training ride from Gent to Roubaix (220km) to take in the last 30k of Paris-Roubaix, attempting to ‘ride’ the ‘kasseien’ (rural/farm cobbles) really cemented the mythical status that this race and it’s serial winners hold in my mind!

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PEZ: How has acceptance been by the Belgian riders?
As racers, everyone is there to race and pretty much everyone has their game face on, so pre-race, interaction was limited to lots of the polite universal cyclist head nod and a smile. In races, I’ve had a couple helpful and much-appreciated pushes up on to a wheel I was struggling to get on after coming out of a corner over-geared. I don’t look back, so I didn’t get to thank them, but if you’re reading this, then thanks!

There was plenty of chopping corners, elbow-nudging off wheels, and other things bike racing. The racing in general was aggressive, but not overly so. The crowds at the races were really friendly, always well-wishing, super supportive, and very curious. Pretty much every race had folks mistaking us for riders from Africa or Colombia, and “Hey Quintana!” was something I heard at every other race.

PEZ: How long were you over for?
We were in Gent for 60-odd days (June – 1st week of August).

PEZ: Biggest lessons learned?
With the gains I’ve made in two months of racing and training in Belgium, I’ve realised that you can train all day long, but nothing beats the school of hard knocks that is Belgium kermis racing. For an Indian cyclist and Indian cycling to move forward, you’ve got to leave the sub-continent and come race on the ‘continent’. The race-dense calendar, the low cost of racing, the opportunity to wade in the deep end, the option to just put a bad day behind you and try again tomorrow – you just can’t get that any place else – it’s no secret! You will get dropped, you will crash, you will break stuff, but if you’ve got the right attitude and if you balance your racing, training and recovery well, progression will be made!

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PEZ: I believe you’ve had attention from the Belgian Media?
We were at a race in the Wallonia and we made the evening news (se video here). We also got to share the story of our trip and about being the first Indian team racing in Belgium with the editor of ‘Bahamontes,’ a Belgian cycling magazine. That’s coming out in the 11th issue in a month or so.

PEZ: Will you be back?
I’m on the lookout for a similar setup to Kingsnorth somewhere in France or Italy, but no luck with that yet. If I’m in Europe, Belgium will be an eventuality. Though I’ll come in with some specific prep, since I know what the demands of racing here are now.

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A day off in Aalst

PEZ: Have you managed to avoid the frites?
I missed a day of training while on this trip. It was worth it though, as it was a chance to check out the Grand Depart of the Tour in Utrecht. It was epic – just the scale of it all. It was also pretty inspirational getting to meet the riders I’ve idolised – guys you’ve only seen before in the big races over a 2Mbps streaming internet feed.

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Big crowd for a crit in Jamkhandi, India

We also set aside a day to experience Gent Fest, some Belgian Ale, frites and mayo – all in the same night. Of course, I made sure to work it into a recovery block!

# You have no excuses now, if this dude can come all the way from Bangalore . . . . #

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It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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