India's national cycling coach RK Sharma isn't too keen on social media but he's glancing nervously at a few sites these days. Training programmes and schedules are usually a bit of a secret but by following the social media pages of young international cyclists, coach Sharma can get some idea of who is doing what. "I know that Germany concluded a 10-day training camp last week. I know that they had a training camp in the Netherlands too. I believe they are going to conduct camps in the USA and Australia over the next week," he says.
The pages of his own trainees in contrast are empty. The closest thing to a training camp was a picture posted by Esow Alban, in which he and two other teammates -- Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam and Rojit Singh Yanglem -- are pictured on stationary bikes. The picture isn't a recent one, it's a throwback from before the 2019 Junior World Championships, where on August 15 the three created history by winning India's first-ever cycling gold medal, in the team sprint event, at the world stage.
That triumph was considered a massive breakthrough moment for the sport in India. Players, coaches and officials had high hopes about the trajectory of the sport's growth. Those plans have been put on hold for the moment. Nearly three months of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus has seen training come to a complete halt.
The cyclists had returned home -- Laitonjam and Yanglem to Manipur and Esow to the Andaman Islands -- while coach Sharma is in Delhi. Although the central government and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) had given permission for practice to resume, they now find themselves unable to restart any meaningful form of training. The federation had attempted to shift the national camp away from Delhi and restart it at the SAI centre in Imphal but that plan fell through after the Manipur state government nixed the idea. "What we were visualising has not happened. So we are trying to get the state government to simply give them permission to use the stadium facilities in an individual capacity. We had approached the chief minister's office 10 days ago and are hopeful the permission will come in a couple of days," says Omkar Singh, president of the Cycling Federation of India.
Each day that training gets delayed will have a negative impact on a programme that was considered one of the most promising in Indian sports. "Out of eight sprinting events in cycling, we are currently the number one ranked cyclist in six at the junior level. The graph was going on a very smooth trajectory. We have been building this team over the last four years. In 2016 I had been quoted as saying that by 2019 we will win a World gold. And we did that. In fact we had a medal in each of the sprint events that are there in the Olympics. It wasn't as if we were just talking. We were going somewhere," says Singh.
Those gains are being rolled back now. "Loss toh bahut zyada ho gaya (We have lost a lot),"says coach Sharma. "The main competition in cycling are the western countries and we are now way behind them. They had a lockdown too but their riders still were allowed to train on the roads. We are still waiting for the permission to start training," he says.
The absence of regular training is detrimental to all athletes but is particularly severe in power-based sports like sprint cycling. "There is always planning in sport," says coach Sharma. "Based on our set-up, we knew that we needed to be at a certain standard in the middle of 2020. We knew that there were some juniors who would be moving up to the elite level and others who were coming up from the sub-junior to junior level. That planning hasn't gone the way it should have because we were working around restrictions because of this virus from early in the year. We know that we are six months behind just this schedule. Because this is a power sport, we will be set back by a year at least. That's because even when training resumes, it isn't that we can just start where we left off. Once we restart, it will take us another six months to return to our standard at the start of the year."
The bleak assessment makes clearer sense when you reckon with the conditions Indian cyclists are currently facing. "There is an issue of diet," says Sharma. "The families of our cyclists are supportive and are doing their best but home food isn't the diet they need. They are eating mostly a starchy diet of rice and potatoes." Training too isn't anything like they have done over the past years. "This is a very equipment-intensive sport," he says. "The weight that sprinters have to lift are in the hundreds of kilos. It isn't something that most athletes will have at their home."
"Even when training resumes, it isn't that we can just start where we left off. Once we restart, it will take us another six months to return to our standard at the start of the year." RK Sharma, India's national cycling coach
And then there is the actual aspect of cycling. While getting on the velodrome is out of the question, even road cycling has become a challenge. "After a lot of effort we were able to get permission for cyclists to train on the road in the morning," says Singh. But instead of the isolation of the track, the cyclists now have to deal with the dangerous prospect of morning traffic that also shares the same space.
Coach Sharma says he has his fingers crossed for when the camp does start. "The only thing we can hope is that their basic fitness levels and conditioning from before and after the quarantine isn't too different," he says. "That is my only worry. I don't expect to get any sort of performance out of them any time soon."
He only has a hazy idea of just how long it would take for his athletes to be in a position to compete. "We know that the Junior World Championships is in August this year," Sharma says. "We don't know when it will be postponed, but even if it is delayed by a few months we know that we are not at that level as we were last year when we won gold."
The team's target of placing on the podium at the 2022 Asian Games could also be impacted. "Our next target was the Asian Games medal in 2022," he says. "That target will need some major recalculation. Performance in 2022 will be difficult because the whole of 2021 will go just in getting back to our old level and maintaining it." Ultimately, though, he can only guess. "I can't say for certain exactly when we can be in a position to compete with the best, because we don't know when training can restart. We don't know if it in June or July or August. These are things beyond our control. Unless you get a fixed day of when camps have to start, you can't plan anything."