The sixth edition of the Track Asia Cup came to a conclusion on Wednesday, with the UCI class I-accredited event rolling out along expected lines — Indian cyclists topping the medal tally by a fair distance.
Such was the gulf between the Indian contingent — which won 25 medals, including 10 gold — and the rest of the competition that Uzbekistan, second on the medal chart, were trailing by 18 medals.
The toast of India's success in this event, which took place at the Yamuna Velodrome at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex in New Delhi, was Ronaldo Laitonjam, who accounted for four of the 10 gold medals won by the Indian riders. What also made headlines was the Manipuri rider breaking the Asian record in the men's junior 200m time trial event. Ronaldo clocked 10.065 seconds in the qualifying round, beating the record previously held by China's Liu Qi (10.149 seconds).
Speaking to Firstpost after clinching his fourth gold medal on the final day of the event organised by the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), Ronaldo revealed this wasn't the first time he tried to break the Asian record, having fallen short of the feat by the narrowest of margins in the world championships last year.
"I had tried to break the record earlier in the world championships but fell short by a very narrow margin due to factors such as not maintaining my line and other technical reasons.
"So I had that record in my mind ahead of the Track Asia Cup. Sir (coach RK Sharma) advised me to pedal on a lower gear in order to boost my chances at breaking the record. And this time around, I managed to correct the mistakes that I committed at the world championships, and eventually achieved the feat," said Ronaldo.
He clocked a time of 10.065s against previous record of 10.149s.
India is proud of you champ!👏 pic.twitter.com/wgey5mmOOV
— Dept of Sports MYAS (@IndiaSports) September 11, 2019
Technical changes were the key to the young rider breaking the record in New Delhi. But how much of a role does technique really play in the sport of track cycling?
As far as Ronaldo's concerned, that factor plays a key role.
"Technique does matter in our sport. You cannot use up all your energy in the first lap itself, rather conserve it and slowly build it up going into the next one. Then, one has to try and stick to the black line (on the lower side of the velodrome) in order to reduce to distance covered in the race.
"The black line distance is 250 metres; if one goes above that line, he or she invariably ends up covering more distance, another 10 metres, which could cost you a fraction of a second and potentially a medal," said Ronaldo.
Ronaldo recounted his coach citing the example of six-time Olympic gold-winning cyclist Jason Kenny about the importance of technique in the sport.
"Coach Sharma sir cites the example of British cyclist Jason Kenny, who won gold at the Rio Olympics. There are other cyclists who are physically more blessed than him, but his technical superiority is what helps him break records and win gold."
While Ronaldo basks in the glory of gold medals and record-breaking feats at present, he had little idea of what fate had planned for him along the road ahead back when he was in school. For the young kid who never took much interest in academics, sport was a means of recreation but didn't occur to him as a career option until much later.
"I had no idea of becoming a cyclist back when I was in school and used to swim after classes in order to stay fit. For me, sport was more of recreation and I hardly used to compete at events at the school level."
Ronaldo's however, was one of those cases of Indian parents for once being supportive of their ward's interest in sport, and encouraging them to actively pursue it as a career option.
"My parents never made me focus on academics at the cost of my sporting activities. My father was an athlete himself back in his day after all," said Ronaldo, who credits swimming during his childhood for building his lung capacity and stamina, which later came in handy as a cyclist.
Ronaldo is one of the several cyclists from Manipur who currently are part of the CFI setup and are winning laurels wherever they go. Three of the four-member Indian side that won a historic gold in the team sprint event in the World Junior Championships earlier in August were Manipuri. The state has produced several champion athletes in sports such as football, boxing, athletics, etc and is now making a valuable contribution towards cycling.
However, if Ronaldo is to be believed, there could a lot more done to boost the popularity of the sport not only in the state but across the country.
"Our government also describes Manipur as a powerhouse of sport because of the number of players who represent the country in various sports. Cycling, however, is yet to pick up in terms of popularity in that state. Cycling as a sport needs more recognition and coverage on social media if it is to garner a following in this country.
"There are small-scale races taking place in Manipur which even I had no idea of. Such small-scale races take place all over the country, but they need a boost in terms of coverage as well as funding," said the teenage rider, who dreams of setting up his own SAI-like academy someday.
The Track Asia Cup witnessed the participation of 150 cyclists from 16 different nations over a span of three days. Although meant to be a continental competition, the tournament saw the participation of European sides Latvia and Slovakia since an Olympic qualifying event such as this cannot bar non-Asian teams from contesting for points, as per UCI rules.
Often multi-national events such as these can be a great platform for the mingling of athletes from different cultures and playing styles. Such interactions not only broaden the perspective of those involved in the event, but also help them learn new techniques and improve their own game.
It also helps them know their opponents better. The likes of Ronaldo, Deborah Herold, Esow Alben, who are regulars in the international circuit, have a better idea of who their opponents are with each passing event, helping them come up with new techniques to get the better of them in the future.
Ronaldo hopes his knowledge of riders from nations such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, etc will come in handy when he prepares for his next big assignment — the Asian Cycling Championships in Seoul, Korea in October.
"Yes I would have a fair idea of my opponents at the Asian Cycling Championships, as I have faced quite a few of them at the world championships as well. As we have participated in global as well as continental events, we have a fair idea of the riders. That factor should help us dish out a good performance in the Asian Championships."
There are however, bigger battles to be fought for the Indian cyclists after the Asian Championships.
"For now, the World Championships is the biggest event coming up. Before that, I will be switching to the senior level in the World Cup taking place in January. We are hoping for better results in the Asian Games as well as the Commonwealth Games in 2022, and the 2024 Los Angeles Olympics," said Ronaldo.
Ronaldo concludes with a very interesting take on winning a medal for the country.
"For us winning a medal at prestigious events such as these is not just about personal glory. Think of it this way: The funds that we receive from the government for training and facilities comes from taxpayers’ money. So our coach describes that to us as taking a loan from fellow Indian citizens, which must be repaid in the form of a medal."
The World Junior Championships success was just the beginning and the Indian domination at the Track Asia Cup carried forward that momentum. The next six months leading up to the World Championships, however, will a litmus test for the CFI, one that will decide how far Indian cycling has come, and whether they stand a chance for the tougher battles that lie ahead.
Updated Date: Sep 12, 2019 20:07:20 IST