We had a good, long chat with India's First UCI Continental Pro Cyclist Naveen John. One of the top cyclists in the country, he had a lot to say about all aspects of cycling, for all kinds of cyclists. Here's part 1 - 

Hi Naveen, good to have you with us. Let's start of with a simple one. What's the most scenic route you've taken and why?

The most scenic route that I've done in India is definitely The Nilgiris. Recently I got a chance to go back there with the Giant Talon, on a particular route called Upper Bhavani. It is a 'prime forest' area, right at the edge of civilization with no shops or homes in sight.

Ooty is also very accessible from all metros and tier 2 cities in South India. And once you get there, it just takes about 20-30 kms, about an hour or hour and a half of riding to reach areas that are so remote. It's the perfect balance of being easy to access yet have enough remoteness to truly 'get away from it all'.

 Is that where you waent for the bootcamp?

Yes we went to the edges of the silent valley national park

 What kind of bikes is this route accessible to?

Accessible to pretty much any kind of bicycle. Hardtail Mountain Bike is one you can go with without thinking twice. But can also be explored with a roadbike or a gravel bike like the Giant AnyRoad

 Talk to us about the transition from Amatuer to Pro Cyclist in the Indian context?

It's a step by step process. You have to make the jump from amateur to being one of the best amateurs, to being one of the best in the country and then being the best in the country. There isn't one way to get from A to E, you have to go through B,C,D. You need patience and a plan. Then you need to trust the plan and process, and have the discpline and consistency to follow through. The thing with cycling is that there are no shortcuts. You have to be able to work through multiple seasons, and each season you have to put in more work, increase its volume and intensity in small amounts.
You can start out as a weekend warrior, if you're an amateur. 6 to 8 hours per week to start with, and spread it out through the week.
Ultimately, once you reach a national level, you have to plan for the time committment when it comes to training. You have to work on on-bike training as well as off-bike training such as gym and core strength training. This would in total require about 40 hours a week. And very importantly, the recovery time. As an athlete you have to give as much importance to recovery as you give to training, at least 8 hours a day if daily training is taking place.
So, start off with 6 to 8 hours as an amateur, but at a professional level prepare for a schedule that is 4 to 5 times the amount.
The Barriers – For any sport it is specific to the country you're in. In India, cycling is just kind of starting out. It would be accurate to say that it is at a decent level in the Asian context, but it is still very segregated and not a part of every day society. For a sport to be financially viable for an athlete or sponsors, there have got to be enough eyeballs on it. That's the challenge, a challenge a brand like Giant Starkenn is taking head on, with their initiatives such as community level rides, banner events, organizing the MTB National Championships in Pune last year, and sponsoring athletes such as myself. It's awesome to be associated with a brand whose core philosophy is to build up the sport at a grassroots level.

Societal implications – India is a pretty much a society structured in a certain way that values certain pursuits over others. Cycling is not even a blip on the radar in terms of viable career paths. Right now there are just 4-5 cyclists in India who are at the level who can sustain a partly viable career. You need to supplement your athletic pursuits with additional sources of income such as coaching or consulting. It is definitely not something in a college career guide (laughs).

Also keep in mind getting injured....
Yes I've experienced this. It forces you to think and revaluate. When I was out of the game my coaching took front and center for me. The thing about the athletic pursuit is that is a time-bound journey. With a very exceptions, most athletes aren't athlete's for a life time. At some point, you call an end to your career and at that point, it's almost like another life begins. It's something you have to plan for accordingly and it's something it's always at the back of your mind, planning life after retirement. And retirement comes pretty early especially in an endurance sport like cyclist. If you're a sprinter or short distance kind of athlete, it comes even earlier. You have to look at the reality of it and plan accordingly.

 Quality equipment and coaching – available in India?

Equipment and the right people. These are the two essential elements. In terms of the right people, they are just starting out on their journey in India, when it comes to our sport of cycling. When you look at Badminton, now you see world class guys who have been there and done that who are now involved and giving back. In terms of cycling, you don't have a champion cyclist from India, so that mentor doesn't exist yet. In cycling, we just don't have that yet. So far the highest level cyclists have aspired to is the national level. With where I'm at, I might reach that international championship level, but I can coach and give back only after I retire. With coaching it's kind of theoretical, so you don't need to have walked the whole path. A great running coach can be a good cycling coach, since it's about the training principles that have to be followed.

With regard to equipment, a resounding yes. We've got access to pretty much everything we need. With world class brands like Giant Starkenn, what they've done in India is that they've pulled out all the stops in terms of curating the equipment based on the needs of the Indian cyclist. An aspiring cyclist can pick what kind of path he/she wants to go down on and have the equipment ready on hand to proceed.

 That sounds quite positive. Since we are talking about you possibly being a future mentor, what are your recommendations to those just starting out?

Addressing to pre-teens – it's got to start at home Not just in terms of cycling but in terms of extra-curricular activity and outdoor activities that kids do on regular basis.

For a place like Bangalore, it's just a matter of driving about 45 minutes outside the city on a weekend. It's not safe to send a kid out in the middle of peak Bangalore traffic, but on a route outside the city, issues like traffic and pollution aren't issues. It starts with inculcating that lifestyle that makes physical activity important just like studies and school are.

Especially given that we're all stuck to our phones and computers...

Exactly, on the weekend giving up a bit of social media time would easily free up and hour or 2 that can be spent outdoors.

By the time the kid grows up, you have to identify whether the potential is there and what to focus on. Increase ride length, and they can start training with a little bit of focus, with a trainer on hand. If they really have an inclination towards cycling, support them and run with it. The path is a little clearer once you're there. Using myself as an example, the riders I'm training this year will achieve in a year what I took three years to do, since they have me as a mentor showing them the way.

It seems like the organizing and planning aspect is really quite important. A mentality of 'I love cycling and passion will see me through' seems potentially disastrous without those two elements completely in place

Absolutely (laughs). I think the majority of athletes in India who aspire to take up the athletic pursuits fall into three categories.
The largest group are young people who are passionate about the sport, but they aren't willing to put in the time and effort required to get to a professional level.

The next are athletes who are kind of there, they keep doing some of the right stuff but they keep running into roadblocks. You see a lot of athletes who say a sport isn't viable in India because there isn't enough support from the government or that there aren't enough sponsors. As an athlete, you've got to think outside the box. You can't expect systemic changes to happen, you have to implement those at a personal level, so that you can achieve the things you want in your sport and as a result effect change in the system, instead of waiting for the system to change.

The third – the ones who make no excuses. Those are the successes you hear about, like the Mary Koms and the Saina Nehwals. Overall, I see it changing and I look at it positively.

Looking at your answers so far, the equipment is there, the trails are there, the fun and enjoyment is there. After all of that, it's a little unbecoming to point fingers.