One For The History Books!
A couple of days earlier, he bagged the gold at Nationals Individual Time Trial Championships for the 3rd time! But the National road race has been a cookie he was yet to crumble. He never managed to finish a National road race on Podium. In his first National road race in Muzzafarpur, Bihar, he finished just off the podium at 4th. Every Nationals he has been a part of since then (2013 – Rohtak, 2014 – Jamkhandi, 2016 – Aligarh), he always managed to tactically miscalculate and miss the front selection. He was desperate to correct that. He was there at the start line to win it. You go into a road race with a strategy A, B and C. Take that to Z if you can. But you got to be ready and be equipped to deal with any and all the scenarios the race dynamics throw at you. He definitely had a few strategies up his sleeve and the legs to back them up. Will that be enough? Will Naveen Thomas John become the Nationals Road Race Champion and add another legendary page in Indian Cycling history?
Jamkhandi, Bagalkot Dist, Karnataka. 7:30 am, 30th October 2017. A little over hundred of the best riders from various states of the country have lined up. Prominent among them are the sky blue jerseys of Services riders, green jerseys of Railways, Yellow of Rajasthan, Blues of Punjab, White and red of Telangana and the cream color jersey of Karnataka.
The race was on a mostly flat terrain with a few gentle kickers to activate the racing action in between. Distance was 140km. In the heat of Jamkhandi, that definitely feels a lot more. The route starts just outside Jamkhandi and goes 10km out to Alagura on the ITT course and comes back to the start and then goes through Jamkhandi town on the way to Mudhol and Mahalingapura before taking a U-turn 50km from the start(70km into the race) and come back to start and finish with another 20km lap on the ITT course. The entire stretch of 60km was closed to traffic with great police and volunteer support. Streets were lined with people cheering every cyclist that went past them. The cheering only got many decibels louder when they saw a Karnataka jersey.
The initial 20k was calm but reasonably fast. After they made the U-turn and got back towards Jamkhandi at around 30k, three riders formed a break and rode away from the peloton. One was from Telangana(Mugesh a Railways rider who didn’t get selected for Railways team and ended up riding for Telangana), one from Railways(Manohar Bishnoi) and one from Assam(Dinesh, a Services rider who didn’t get selected for them and was representing Assam).
With three major teams being represented in the break, it was up to the teams not in the break to keep tabs on the gap. There were a few more attempts by a few riders to activate the race and riding away but nothing else materialized. Having missed the break, the riders from Karnataka, Punjab and Rajasthan were seen patrolling the front but there wasn’t any intent to close down the break. The peloton believed with more than 110 km to go, a break of 3 is more of a suicidal mission doomed to be caught and spat off the back.
The peloton rolled through village after village with cheering crowd lining up the streets in hundreds. It was a festive atmosphere all through the route. The peloton was trudging along soaking in the adulation until they crossed Mahalingapura and approched the U-turn at 70km.
At around 66km the peloton saw the pilot vehicles escorting the breakaway coming from the opposite side. That meant they had a lead of nearly 8km or roughly 11 mins at the rate they were going. The look of astonishment was evident in the way the riders looked at each other and made mental calculations about the gap the break had on them. They knew they let them go too far. The three teams, Assam, Railways and Telangana, who had a man in the break were obviously delighted with the gap but not the other teams.
Wattbombs Dropped! Belgian Style!
Naveen John(NJ) was trying to force the pace and get the other teams to contribute to no avail. A friendly rider apparently commented ‘Yeha veseyhi race karthe hein. Belgium jaisa race karna yaha nahin hoga’. Transaltion: “Here they/we all race like this only(defensively). Racing as if in Belgium is not possible here.” NJ must have flipped a bird in his mind and as soon as they hit the U-turn at 70k, he launched a massive attack bringing his inner Belgian out in full glory.
The peloton got strung out long and everyone was at their limit for the next few minutes. Following the group on moto-support, I could feel the incredible surge in the pace as we had to keep up with the peloton. Lot of happy passengers in the peloton till that point got shelled real quickly and what remained of the peloton accepted the fact they lost him and settled into pace after the dust settled from the massive Wattbombs raid.
A couple of riders managed to go off as a second breakaway and were riding about 200m ahead and constantly increasing the distance. NJ quickly bridged up to them and began to drive the pace increasing the gap to the peloton and chasing down the break up the road. They just hung on and were not contributing to the chase. He knew their refusal to work was because they were already beyond red trying to hang on to his wheel. But he wasn’t going to take any free passengers along with him. So, he revved his engine further and rode them off his wheel one after the other.
Back in the peloton, the guys were of the opinion that NJ would not be able to close a 11min gap. ‘Woh bhi insaan hi hein na’, “He’s also a man, right?”, “Headwind me ek akhela koi kuch nahin kar saktha”, “No one can close such a gap alone with a headwind this strong” were heard in the peloton as they kept rolling at pace that lacked intent. They were all very logical arguments. But one man had decided that logic wasn’t going to hold him back that day. He was riding like a man possessed.
As he kept riding and he was getting the gaps from his support moto who used to stop and give the gap he had on the Peloton. In the peleton, railways skipper Arvind Panwar was trying to organize a chase but to no avail. A couple of Services guys tried to infuse pace but they seemed to lost the fire power by then.
Initially, NJ was planning to attack around 35k to go, at the base of Siddapur ghat, 11k from Jamkhandi. But the huge gap that the break gained forced him to re-calibrate his race strategy and made him attack with 70k to go into the headwind. With 30k to go, after the Siddapur ghat, he managed catch the 3 man break with Mugesh(Telangana), Dinesh(Assam and Railways) and Manohar Bishnoi(Railways). Manohar and Dinesh worked a turn or two, and then NJ used the terrain of the final kicker into Jamkhandi with 25k to go to leave them behind. Mugesh was on his wheel and was able to follow and hung on for dear life.
Not intent to take on any passengers, NJ, goaded, chided and gave him an earful, to take his turns. Mugesh was forced to oblige and took turns even if they were tiny. That kept him in the good books for some more km and they kept riding away from the peloton. The race entered the last 25km as it went past the start line for one last lap of the ITT course. The peloton had no idea where the break was. They must have been still hoping they would catch the break and take the race to the sprint.
Jaws Dropped! “Ye kis mitti se bana hein?/What is he made of?”
As they approached a point about 2.5km to the final U-turn, i.e., 15km to the finish, they heard the sirens of the lead pilot vehices from the opposite side and saw NJ whiz past with his head down and grinding the big gear! Then they saw Mugesh more than a minute behind him followed by Manohar another couple of minutes down. There was absolute silence in the peloton as they looked at each other and picked their jaws before they get entangled in their front wheels. The peloton missed a collective heartbeat and a pedal stroke.
They realized that he not only proved them wrong by catching the break but also dropped them and was riding away to a solo victory by a huge margin. He had almost 4km lead on the peloton. They were witnessing a performance like never before. “Yaar, ye tho alaghi desh me hein”, “ye kis mitti se bana hein”, “he’s in a different league altogether” were exchanged before they started pedaling again.
At An Absolute Limit:
The first three places were more or less sorted. But even if their medal is in the bag, they were not going to take any chances. They were riding with every ounce of energy they could muster. Both Mugesh and Manohar were riding in a break all day. NJ broke away and had been riding at limit for half of the race, first chasing the break and then riding away from them. If anyone deserved the medals that day, it was these three. They have been racing at their limit for a long time squeezing out every ounce of energy they had and were still at the danger of blowing up at any moment. That would mean all that effort till then would get them nothing.
Each of them were fighting as if it was a battle of their lives, for their lives, with everything they have got. NJ was hunched over on the bars with flat back and head down, grinding away. At his limit, he nearly misread the racing lines a couple of times but quickly corrected with his adept bike handling. He has been riding on nothing but fumes for the last 10km and somewhere after he passed the 1k to go marker, with his head down almost as if trying to kiss the bars, he rode off the road with 900m to go and crashed hard. Naveen Raj who was behind him on a support bike quickly got to him, helped fix the bike and got him back on it. He had so much lead by that time that he could have tiptoed to the finish.
He rode with battle scars like a warrior after a ride of his life, to a Hero’s welcome and to the thunderous cheering of the ecstatic crowd. A performance that will remain in the memories of everyone who was there that day! Take a bow, NJ! You definitely added another legendary page in the book of Indian Cycling history.
It was an absolute treat to watch the race from up close. The passion for cycling that the people of the region have is mind blowing. The absolute reverence with which they treat cyclists is so heartening to see. I’m sure performances like these inspire many from younger generations and we get to see better riders coming and the level of cycling growing with them.
Watch an awesome Vlog from the day made by Ben here:
All the pics for this post are from the inimitable Chenthil Mohan. Follow his work here.