Road Racing around the world with Baba Velo

To understand the amateur cycle racing scene in India, we race around the world with Baba Velo, who shares his oodles of experience with us…

India is seeing a fast-growing cycling culture. Metros and Tier II cities are experiencing an explosion in bicycle sales, as more people are getting onto bikes.

Yet, cycling as a sport, hasn’t kept pace with cycling as a recreational activity. Amateur cycle racing in India has grown in the past decade, but by how much and where do we stand globally? It is near impossible to say.

To make the impossible possible, we chatted at length with Baba Velo about the amateur cycle racing scene in India vs. the developed cycling world.

Baba Velo, aka Rajesh Nair, has over a decade of racing experience in more than 10 countries at an extremely competitive level. With a fair knowledge of the racing scene in India, he is the perfect candidate, and benchmark, to talk about amateur cycle racing here and abroad.

Baba Velo in Uzbekistan
Rajesh, currently based in Uzbekistan enjoying the snow covered Chimgan mountains

So, who is this Baba?

In India, you can throw a stone blindfolded and chances are high it will land on a baba of some pedigree.

This baba in question doesn’t have a magical flying carpet, but as his name suggests, he does have many flying bicycles, which are kind of magical!

A lot of racers in the Indian cycling fraternity already know Rajesh Nair, the founder of ‘Tour of Nilgiris’, the country’s premiere cycling sportive. For those who don’t…

Long before Bombay became Mumbai and Rajesh became Baba, he lived and studied in the maximum city. Where he would spend loads of time riding around on his bike, from the suburbs to town and then some more. Even at that point of time he had a ‘racing bike’.

The bike which was a huge part of Rajesh’s life was stolen when he was in college. And that was curtains on his cycling life as he moved to Italy to study music at the age of 20.

For the next decade Rajesh was involved in music professionally and all the travelling of the drummer boy put cycling very much on the backburner. Which was rather ironical, all that travelling, necessary in a musician’s life, left him with an injured lower back.

At just 30 years of age, Rajesh had a surgeon tell him that he needed to undergo surgery for his bad back. Unwilling to get onto the operation table, he went straight to a bike shop from the doctor’s office and got onto the saddle!

Nostalgia is rose tinted, with memories fresh from his college days, Rajesh took his new road bike for a spin. 8 km later, half-dead, he took a taxi back home. The long road to fitness had begun.

He was 85 kg when he got back onto a cycle, today, 16 years later he weighs 58 kg in race trim.

Racer’s Pedigree

It took just a couple of years on the bike, before Baba Velo got some racing action.

Of course, it helped that he was married into an Italian family who were crazy about bike racing and were really good at it as well. Rajesh got guidance from family, some of whom were regional and even national champions. Major achievements in a country like Italy, the heart of road racing.

He hasn’t looked back since, every year he races in Italy and USA in the Masters category. Easily racking up 30+ bike races through the season. Summers in Italy are spent racing every single weekend. Multiply this over a decade and that is a crazy amount of race experience which Baba Velo has.

All the races that Rajesh does are sanctioned by the country’s cycling federation. Therefore, the races in different parts of the world follow the same set of rules and regulations. Since all the cycling federations are affiliated to UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale). Safety protocols and doping controls are also adhered to strictly. And the results are saved for posterity with the federation. You can go race in a whole new part of the world, and they will know your level, because they can check your past race results. All that one needs to do is pick up an amateur racing licence from the federation.

This is in stark contrast to India, where different cities have different groups organising races with no relation to each other. And there is no involvement from the Indian federation in any of these amateur races.

Cycling in Baja California, Mexico
Riding in Baja California, Mexico

Nomadic Racer

Baba Velo has been racing around the globe in some prestigious races.

The race which finds the most favour is the Giro delle Dolomiti, a race held in the Italian Alps for the last 43 years. Rajesh loves this race so much, that the organisers have made him an ambassador for the race. He loves the race, they love him, its mutual! This 6-day stage race is a climber’s delight and it attracts the best climbing talent from around Europe and many participants from around the world. His best result till date has been 65th, which is the top 10% of all participants.

Amateur cycle racing in Italy
At the Giro delle Dolomiti

In Asia, he raced the incredibly difficult Taiwan KOM Challenge twice, where he finished 17th. This race sees professionals and amateurs start from sea level and climb constantly for 80 km. Just the thought of that can make people’s legs hurt! The other Asian race he has done twice is the ‘Tour of Friendship’ in Thailand. A 5-day stage race held in May, with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees centigrade. A challenge of a different sort.

Baba Velo Racing Taiwan KOM Challenge
The Taiwan KOM Challenge

But the biggest challenge he threw himself, was racing the UCI Master’s World Championship. One cannot just show up and hope to race, you need to qualify. Every continent has a race of their own, where the top 20% make it to the finals. Baba Velo has raced in US, Canada, Brazil, Denmark, Slovenia, Italy and Dubai thanks to these set of races. He has qualified on every occasion that he raced, except in Canada where he fell sick. But he did finish the race. He has raced 3 Master’s World Championships Finals in Slovenia, Denmark and Italy. Winning the finals is impossible, what with the top guys all being ex-pros. But he did enjoy the qualifiers with racers closer to his level, even finishing top 5 in the US and 15th in Brazil.

Rajesh hasn’t raced a lot in India, at least not as much as he would have liked. But over the years he has developed very close friendships with the racing community in and around Bangalore. Currently he is based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and hopes to utilise that spatial proximity, by racing a lot more here. This January saw him race the Tour of Goa, a 3-day sportive, which he won rather easily. Even though January isn’t even racing season for him. The gap between 1st and 2nd was quite a bit, Rajesh admits embarrassingly. He doesn’t want to laud that victory, since the guys he was racing are his close cycling buddies.

Because of the global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, racing has taken a backseat for everybody. Once things open up, Rajesh hopes to be racing more regularly in India.

TfN Origins

Though it’s been two and a half decades since Rajesh left India, he stayed connected with the Indian scene.

In 2007, sitting in the US, Rajesh chanced upon an Indian cycling forum, Bikeszone. He was pleasantly surprised to find people who ride bikes in India.

Between Rajesh and co-founder Ravi Ranjan, was born Tour of Nilgiris (TfN). Ravi based in Bangalore, with Rajesh abroad, came up with a plan of organising a small tour for around 10 people. As soon as the news of TfN spread, the small tour of 10 became a tour of 50! The current organization grew along with the participants.

From the second edition itself, the tour was organised more professionally. Registrations would open and fill up on the first day itself. Rajesh would fly down to India from US or Sri Lanka, do a route recce on the bike itself with fellow organizers based in Bangalore. Finding sections on which they could race. Coming from Europe, safety of the racers was of paramount importance to him.

Baba Velo always wanted and still dreams to have a proper stage race in India. If other countries could do it, then why not India. But back in 2008, the race scene had not as yet evolved. So, a sportive format was eventually adopted in 2011, where the riders would have long days in the saddle with a timed section during the day. It provided riders with an opportunity to tour and race as well. It was such an accommodating tour, that his 9-year-old son rode TfN!

This format became ever popular and even the Tour of Goa uses a similar model.

After winning the first competitive edition and organising TfN for 5 years, Rajesh quit in 2012. He wanted to focus on the Master’s World Championships.

He feels TfN missed an opportunity. The event is the same as it was where he left it in 2012. It has gone more towards touring, rather than racing.

As Rajesh says, “The problem is that they are still where I left them in 2012, with the same formula. It’s not progressed compared to other events in Asia and to progress you need exposure. You need to know cycling. And that is where, we went a bit at odds.”

He hopes that things will get better in the future…

Cycing in Uzbekistan
Blue waters of Charvak Lake, Uzbekistan

Amateur Cycle Racing in India vs. The World!

With this expansive and rich racing experience, we chatted with Rajesh about the scene in India and developed countries.

Baba Velo has done most of his racing in Italy, followed by USA. As such he draws distinctions and parallels between the race culture in the two continents, and the path India appears to be treading…

Culture Embedded in Racing

Racing in the US and Europe is poles apart. The biggest difference between the two is ‘who you race against’.

In the US there are categories, Cat 1 to 5. You start racing at Cat 5 and work your way up to 1, then elite and finally pro. You race your category and your competition could be an 18-year-old or a 70-year-old.

While in Europe, you race people your age. At every 5-year gap, a separate age group is formed. In this case, you are racing people your age, but you could well be racing an ex-pro, as you could be racing a complete novice. Both formats have their pros and cons.

The European model sees a mass start with all age groups going at it together. The number of racers can be as ‘little’ as 700 and even goes up to a few thousands for some of the bigger races. As Rajesh says, “you realise where you belong. Its first come first serve at the start line. But you learn very quickly where you need to go.” The race starts off at a frantic pace, with the racers splintering up into smaller packs of 20 or more riders organically, before the pace settles down. This smaller number ensures that everyone is racing relatively safe.

In the US, each category is held as a separate race entirely. As such, the races take up the entire day. Race distance is typically 40 km to 50 km, with Cat 1 and 2 racing around 80 km or more. That distance is too short to make a difference Rajesh believes. The bunch rarely ever breaks among the lower categories and almost always, the race ends in a sprint finish. Which results in frequent crashes.

European races are typically between 100-160 km, giving the racers enough time to constantly break the groups. Crashes therefore, aren’t as common. Even though the number of racers at the start line are a lot more.

Baba Velo believes that India is following the European model, where there is one mass start with age categories within the group. A lack of a collective database in India makes it difficult to have US style categories. The same rider could ride a tougher category in one city and an easier in another. That consistency is currently missing.

A welcome addition in India would be to get new racers on board is having two race distances. Drawing from the Italian format of a Gran Fondo and a Medio Fondo, depending on your fitness you can choose to race either.

Another incredibly important shortcoming of races in India are road closures. In the west all races are held on closed roads. Even Taiwan and Thailand have road closures for the race. This elevates safety levels of racers drastically.

Here, we have enthusiasts and private groups organising races. They get no support from the cycling federation. The political clout a federation provides goes a long way in getting things like police support and road closures. There is also the flip side, “it’s probably better that they [federations] are not involved. It will open a pandora’s box.

Baba Velo feels the lack of strong federation support for community racing is what is missing in India. Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and others are moving ahead, while India is still progressing too slowly. Because at the end of the day, that reflects in the results of the professionals.

Amateur Cycle racing in Italy
Racing in the Alps

Training is half the race done!

You win on race day, but that victory comes on the basis of the many hours you spend training. So, what is the quantum of training undertaken in cycling countries?

It is different everywhere as Rajesh says, “Europe is a different level. Even American professionals struggle in Europe. It is the cradle of cycling. Amateur racing it follows the same thing. I do very well in America when I race. I struggle in Europe.

Training loads are quite incredible for the top amateurs. “The people who do really well are putting upwards of 20 hours a week. In Europe the line between professional cycling and amateur is shrinking by the day. I know a lot of people who are riding amateurs who train with professionals. It’s because of more races, more tech, better bikes, better training, nutrition. The level of the sport has just gone up. For example, any of the races I race in, you have to have the similar Watts per Kilo like the professionals to win”, says Baba Velo.

In the Giro delle Dolomiti that he races, the top 50 is unattainable. And it’s not for the lack of trying. Being in the top 10% is the level at which he is currently. The level is so high that, “it’s very humbling. It puts you in your place. You realise, this is it. Every year you come back; you try,” says Rajesh. He invites many of his friends from India to race this, so that they can be exposed to a different racing culture and experience having hundreds of people ahead of you.

To race at this level, Baba Velo rides 20000 km a year. And it is not just training on the saddle. It is a change of lifestyle in every aspect of your routine. From what you eat and drink, to life decisions. When he got to know about shifting to Uzbekistan, the first thing he did was research the cycling possibilities in that country.

The level of competition which Rajesh faces in Europe is the reason why he can race the Tour of Goa or Nilgiris and take the win.

Earlier Rajesh had coaches to help him train. Now he has sufficient knowledge and experience to take care of himself and even coach others if he wanted to. While 20000 km a year might seem a lot for most of us, the top amateur cyclists in European races are riding upwards of 30000 km a year. That is where Rajesh draws the line, he doesn’t feel the need to reach that level, he wants to live life off the bike as well!

Training in Tashkent and then going racing in Italy is going to be difficult. Because he needs to adapt to a different world. But Rajesh believes it is about the effort you put in, not just the end results. It is after all amateur racing; every racer has a ‘real’ life outside racing.

The Cost of Racing…

Racing in India is incredibly cheap compared to the western world.

Racing in USA is the most expensive. A racing licence from the federation costs 85 dollars. Racing there is getting prohibitively expensive, that even something big, like the Tour of California had to be shut down. One of the key factors driving up cost is insurance. Add to that paying for government amenities like cops, road closures and ambulances and other logistics, and suddenly every cent which comes in as race fee goes from the other hand as expenses. Sponsors don’t easily step in. A road race ends up costing around 35-50 dollars per race. In the American races you will not even get a bottle of water. Everything needs to be bought.

Racing in Europe is much cheaper. Rajesh gets a federation licence for 25 euros. One of the major reasons for the cost being low is that the federation and local municipality support the racing scene. Road closures, police protection, ambulances etc. are either provided for free by the municipality or at incredibly subsidized amounts. A race in Europe costs around 20 or 30 euros and after the race you get lunch and water and a race bag with some local delicacies.

When Rajesh tells his American friends about their European counterparts, they are left blown away!

Compared to these, in India, race fees are incredibly low. You aren’t paying for road closures or any other government infrastructure. You are just paying a symbolic amount to meet the expenses of the many volunteers required to keep the roads safe.

Which is why Baba Velo is left surprised when people complain about this nominal race fee. Rather than appreciating that someone volunteered to organise a race for their benefit, they complain!

Another more shocking thing for him is prize money. As he says, “The only place that I have seen prize money is in India. I can’t believe there is money involved.”

The reason there is no prize money abroad is to “keep the racing safe, less corrupt and promote the sport which is not about money. You are racing for pride and a medal and you come back home. That’s it. As a prize, you get a big basket full of food, big slices of ham, wine, but never money in amateur races.

In Europe, the home of cycling, it is rare for a brand to support an amateur cycling event. You might see a one-off sponsorship, but no dedicated support to the racing scene. Even Baba Velo is surprised at the lack of support, “it’s kind of weird. It should be much more, but it is not. It’s more driven by community, just like how it is in Bangalore or Delhi. Local shops, local community.

I think India is following more the European model rather than the American model. I don’t know if it is intentional, but as things stand today, there are more similarities to the European model than the American model”, concludes Rajesh.

From cold & wet Europe to dry and sunny Mexico!

Amateur Racing a Pathway to Success?

In India, unlike countries where cycling is an evolved sport, there is no predefined path to turning professional.

An average 15-year-old kid who has cycling dreams, where would he or she go? They can race the state selections and then the nationals. But 2 races in a year isn’t going to help anyone grow as a racer.

The level stays low because you aren’t racing enough. As the numbers grow, as the community becomes bigger, I think naturally, there will be more initiatives to put in place a juniors and women. They can have their own race. I think it is a matter of time. Because it all depends on how fast the community grows”, opines Rajesh.

That is where a local community like BBCh can come into play.

Because they can organise a junior’s race. The sport grows because of people who are my age. We give the sport to the kids. Now because they are 150 amateur cyclists in Bangalore, tomorrow all their kids could be riding a bike”, says Baba Velo, referring to the expected spurt in the sport.

Another reason for the sport not progressing significantly, is the motivating factor for the racers. For many doing well in sports, including cycling, is just a means to an end. The end being getting a government job through the sports quota. Most aren’t even thinking of racing at the global or even Asian level.

Then there is the lack of infrastructure. For road cycling, you need to use public roads. But with traffic the way it is, just going out to ride every day is a challenge. Small hurdles like this slow the growth of the sport in the country.

As Rajesh says, “in Italy once you cleat in, you don’t cleat out till you finish your 3-hour ride. Compare that to Bangalore, I can’t believe they ride a bike in that mess. There are traffic jams and you have to be so passionate about the sport. I tell them, I have so much respect for them. It is so hard.

Women in Racing

In India we see a lot of women riding bikes, but few taking up cycling as a sport. Is it the same globally we wonder?

Rajesh is of the opinion that it has more to do with culture and less to do with cycling.

He sees more women cycling in Uzbekistan as compared to southern Italy!

“Even in Europe, you go to southern or northern Europe, you will see more women as you go up. Even in Italy, you will see more women in northern Italy than southern Italy. The largest number of women I have seen in a race was in Brazil. I was shocked”, reminisces Rajesh.

But in all these places, the number of women cyclists is increasing by the years.

In India it is natural to see a lower representation of women as of now. This will change. You will see more women racing as time goes. We also need role models”, says Rajesh as he points out the fact that the scene is still a lot better than what it was 10 years ago.

Sri Lanka, he says, has a lot more women racing thanks to all the armed forces having female teams. And culturally, Sri Lanka isn’t all that different from India.

Drawing parallels, Rajesh gives an example, “it’s like Italians playing cricket. There is an Italian cricket team you know and it will make you go wow. The same thing I tell Italian cyclists that there is an Indian cycling team, they are like wow.

Levels of Racing

Where would an Indian cyclist, who races the nationals, end up at a European race we asked Baba Velo.

They will do well, if they can win my amateur race. It’s very difficult. I have heard Naveen John frequently goes to Belgium; you ask him. You literally hang by the thread. American cyclists struggle when they go to Europe. Now you are talking about Indian cyclists.

Let’s put it this way and hopefully it comes across in the right context. If today I rode the Indian Nationals, probably I would still be there. Most likely I won’t get dropped. Will I win. Hell No! But will I be in the group. Yeah. I won’t win, no way I am 46. I will still find a way to be there. If I race the same race in Italy, who is my competition? Nibali or Antonio Ciccone! It’s a different world.”

It’s not about the country. It is about the fact that there is 100 years of cycling in Italy. 100 years at that level. And that goes right from pro to amateur. Indians cycling today on road, for them to be competitive in a Giro d’Italia, we are talking many years.

“For India, to produce good cyclists, the level of Indian cycling at the grassroots has to go up. At the base level. That is how any sport develops. The grassroot has to be solid. Then you will see talents. Till then it is a work in progress.”

And that is the mantra to work on. You, me and everyone, get out and ride your bikes hard. A level up for cycling across the country…

Baba Velo leaves you with this advice, “If you are an amateur cyclist with ambitions, you need to put 20 hours a week. Otherwise you are not going anywhere. It requires a lot of discipline, it requires sacrifice. It’s a lifestyle. Even off the bike you have to think what you are doing. You need to be watching what you are eating. How you are sleeping, you have to do your yoga and stretching. You have to change as a human being. I have transformed myself into a different person from what I was 10-15 years ago. I love it otherwise you can’t sustain it.

Amateur Cycle Racing in Europe
The quantity and quality of racing is a big factor in increasing the level of the sport…

Photos Courtesy: Baba Velo

Also read Shiven Aerohawk‘s journey to represent India in mountain biking and Hyderabad’s amateur cycle racing scene. Check out some of the best cycle races in India currently.

Like what you read, let us know what you think...