In Conversation with Pranita Soman, the first Indian Cyclist to win GOLD in both MTB and Road National Championships in the same year!
Athletes sacrifice a lot to be at the top of their sport. Life is focussed only on one thing, to train and perform on THE day. It is a culmination of all the hard work and effort. Which is infinitely more difficult when you need to focus your energies on not just one, but two disciplines of the sport.
21-year-old Pranita Soman did just that last year. After finishing fourth in the 2020 Road Nationals by 17 seconds, she went on to smash her way to the top of the pile and take Gold at the 2021 Road Nationals. This was a month after once again dominating proceedings at the 2021 MTB Nationals, which is now the norm for her.
In doing so, she became the first cyclist to win Gold in Road and Mountain Biking. Skating the pinnacle with finesse and leaving a lasting impression on one and all by being a double National Champion…
Pranita Soman: A Confluence of Sorts…
Pranita hails from the small town of Sangamner in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. The town derives its name from the ‘Sangam’ or confluence of three rivers, Pravara, Mhalungi and Adhala. She reflects her town by merging and flowing gracefully into road and mountain biking. Learning the fine art of unifying the diverse sports.
The Start Of It All
It all started a long time back, when Pranita was in school and her teacher pushed her towards cycling as a sport. She was looking for an individual sport, rather than a team sport and cycling fit the bill.
But it really kicked off when she went to Pune for her junior college. There she was exposed to cycling of a different level and style. Armed with the new found experience, she shifted to Ahmednagar and started training for road cycling with the Army cycling team for two years.
But even after 2 years of training for road racing, she couldn’t be champion. Because of her diminutive physique, everyone advised her to take up mountain biking. Where climbing hills can help greatly to conquer mountain bikes. Her size would be a massive strength in the sport.
Switching from Road to MTB
She made the switch and initially rode an MTB like she did her road bike. Slowing down for speed breakers and other obstacles. Till she actually figured out the spirit of mountain biking. After gradually getting rid of the fear of the trails, there was no looking back…
Climbing is her strength and mountain biking allows her to fully exploit that strength. Even after putting all her energies and focus on MTBs, she still dreamt of one day being road champion as well.
2016 saw her race her first nationals in road and MTB. She did incredibly well on the trails from the beginning, but was average at road racing. The taste of success on the trails, made her want the same on the road. As it was her first dream to be road champion, even before she took up mountain biking.
2021: Double Training Trouble!
The year that took a toll on so many people in India, saw Pranita come into her own. After finishing a ‘disappointing’ 4th at the road nationals in March. She vowed to chase down the gap.
She changed her training regimen, to include more road cycling to improve her endurance. She spent a lot more time in the gym working on her strength.
It was quite challenging. She would find herself hopping from one bike to another. An average week would see her riding an MTB for 3 days, Time Trial (TT) bike for 2 days and road bike for 1 day.
Endurance rides were on the road bike for 2-3 hours or more. The MTB was for short sprints and trail riding. While the TT bike was for her to get habituated and fine tune the TT posture.
She also added a lot more gym workouts to her training. This was for strength. Another important aspect was cadence workouts. At her previous road nationals, she noticed her cadence was low. Which is why she worked on her biggest weakness. Cadence and strength were her mantra to train for gold.
Juggling this training regime was not just difficult for Pranita, but for her coach as well! She needed to work on power for road cycling and skills for mountain biking.
Pranita believes that managing this training workload is doable at the national level. But to succeed at the international level, she would need to focus only on mountain biking.
Are Road and MTB Complementary?
The two are different. But are equally connected.
The power Pranita builds for road racing is useful in the climbs on her MTB. Bike handling skills from the trail, help in road racing as well.
Taking U-turns on the TT bike was much easier thanks to her MTB riding. The videos she watched of others during the time trial; she was much faster through the turns.
So, both do help each other. If you can manage the challenges of the two.
MTB vs Road Environ
Pranita Soman is in the unique position of being at the sharp end of races in both, the Indian road and MTB worlds. How different is the atmosphere of the two? This is what she said…
In MTB the atmosphere is very friendly between riders. People are more friendly towards each other, across categories. While in road, the services team and all don’t interact much, which feels strange. In road there is competition everywhere. MTB is itself better than road!
Level of Competition: MTB vs Road
One of the main reason for road racers being more focussed on the competition, is most likely because of the much tougher competition.
As Pranita found out, there is barely any competition in the Women’s Elite category in mountain biking. She has been winning by gaps of minutes. There are just 5-6 girls who can compete for the podium. The rest are light years away.
Which isn’t the case in road racing. First and foremost, there is the women’s railway team, who are super strong. In the Road Individual Time Trial, there were gaps of seconds between position 5th to 15th. Mountain biking in contrast would see gaps of minutes.
Which is why Pranita wants more strong girls to go race MTB. She keeps saying, “…more girls should try this form of racing. Till you are scared and don’t try, you cannot conquer. But once you try it out, then fear is easy to conquer.“
Mass Start vs ITT
Pranita took up competitive cycling, because it is an individual sport and not a team sport. That works when you are racing MTBs or even ITTs. But life gets significantly more difficult in a mass start road race, where you have to contend with a whole bunch of fast athletes. Having a team to back you up, helps.
Though she won gold in ITT, she finished 9th in the road race. But she is content with her performance, knowing she has the potential to do better in future.
Throughout the 80 km road race, she was always close to the front. She led and defended a lot of attacks in the first half before sitting back and preparing herself for the final assault. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan as there was a big crash 300 metres to the finish line. To avoid the ruckus, she took evasive action, which cost her any chance of the podium.
It still gives her confidence of a better race in the future. Even in this team sport, she would love to breakaway from the bunch and win. Even this year, Pranita with her cycling buddy, Ranjita Ghorpade, tried their best to attack and get away. But all their attacks were foiled by the railway team.
Her description of the race is immensely amusing, “during the race the railway team were telling me ‘oye time trialist, jaa na aage’. I was like, I am trying to get away, you are not letting me go! There was constant banter in the middle of the race.“
That Feeling of Gold
When you dedicate your every waking moment towards a goal, how does it feel to actually achieve it? For Pranita, the build up happened far too quickly.
She didn’t even get time to ‘enjoy’ those pre-race jitters. It was bike check done, warm up done and go race. And once you are out on the road with woman and machine, all the butterflies in the stomach settle down.
And before she knew it, her 30 km ITT was done.
After finishing, a few people told her that she was winning. Her 40 kmph average speed would be enough to take gold. But she refused to believe anybody till the official results were out.
The feeling of winning as Pranita describes in one word, was ‘Awesome‘…
After scooping up gold at the road and MTB championships, what lies in store for Pranita’s future?
She is awaiting the trials to be held for representing India at the Asian level. She wants to represent the country on the road stage as well.
Previously, Pranita represented India for MTB. That for her was an eye opener. She realised the difference in level of India and Asia. That knowledge and experience spurs her on to go find out the actual difference in road racing as well.
The girl from Sangamner is also hoping to make the double gold into a troika. Like the three rivers of her city, she would love to win gold at MTB, road and in the velodrome as well.
Which might not be in the too distant future. Pranita has previously trained for track racing, but dropped out, because she found it boring to go round and round in circles! Trail riding is much more fun.
She had the opportunity last December to represent Maharashtra at the Track Nationals. She was unable to, nonetheless, it has ignited the spark of an idea within. To go for triple gold and stamp her authority in women’s cycling in India…
Pranita is also gung-ho about trying her hand at downhill racing as well. She wants to give it a shot at the next National DH championship.
Oozing talent, tenacity and ambition, we are sure she will go places. We wish Pranita Soman loads of luck in all her future challenges…
Cover Photo: Sandip Sakharkar
Photos: Pranita Soman (Except where specified)