Meet Kiran Kumar Raju, a pedal junky who dreams of representing India at the Olympics
Kiran Kumar Raju is immensely passionate about cycling -- he used to cycle a lot during his school and college days -- and the cycle was his preferred mode of transport no matter where he went. He soon started volunteering when he got an opportunity to interact with the cycling fraternity.
“I kept on tracking whatever was happening related to cycling and finally took part in the practice ride from Bangalore to Mysore - a 150 km journey - which was conducted prior to an event (TFN). This was my first official stint as a cyclist at an event and I took part as it was free, using the most basic Hercules MTB bicycle which I had. This is when I got an opportunity to interact with volunteers and decided to become one for the event myself in 2010,” said Kiran Kumar Raju or KKR, as he is popularly known.
There were 70+ riders taking part in this event, and Kiran wanted to make the most of this opportunity -- as he had a fancy for watching all the exotic carbon fibred race sports bikes with the child-like innocence which he had kept alive in himself. The speed at which the cyclists rode in and the technology that was put to use in the bikes is what drew Kiran to the sport. Eventually, his circle grew, and he was much more aware of any of the racing cycling events that were happening in Bangalore.
“The monthly Bangalore Bicycling Championship (BBCH) is one such event I got to know of through these interactions. In January 2011, I took part in my first event on a borrowed bike. In February of the same year, I also took part in a road event. I started taking part in MTB events and road events alternatively. What was surprising was that in the very first MTB event I took part in March 2011, I ended up on the podium on 3rd place, behind two foreign riders. The locals were also happy to see one Indian on the podium and this made me get the dose of motivation that I needed,” shares the 32-year-old, on how he got his first victory which drove him to pursue cycling.
Kiran realized that he belongs to the world of cycling post such an impressive show, that too with no professional training or expert guidance. The track course technicalities are something he enjoys immensely and these made him take a liking to Mountain biking. KKR used to borrow all the bikes he could get hands on to participate in events -- and a strong network formed during the TFN event helped his cause.
The randonneur goes on to share one of his life-changing moments, “One of the best moments for me till date is the 2013 BBCH -- when I signed up with my first sponsored team. The moment I signed the contract, there was no end to my excitement for the next week or so. However, I got carried away in one of my commute rides -- I crashed and suffered a broken jaw and had many stitches on my face. Post this; I had to undergo 3-4 weeks of liquid diet. I also had my first race coming up as part of this new team, participating in which was non-negotiable for me.”
Despite having minimum practice and not having the appropriate diet leading up to the race, Kiran finished on the podium. KKR credits this win of his to adrenaline; however, his innate talent for riding is also one of the major reasons for his profound success.
“It was just my day and I was lucky to have so many well-wishers,” adds a modest Kiran.
From then on, there was no looking back for the pedal junky and he kept winning one race after the other in 2013. This was certainly the breakthrough year for him to kick-start his professional cycling career and there were bigger things in store for him now -- the only way was -- up.
“Trek has always been my dream brand. On my return ride from Bangalore to Mysore, which I have mentioned earlier, my cycle had a mechanical issue and I could not continue. There was another rider who had abandoned the ride as he was in pain, and his bicycle – which was a trek – happened to be in the support vehicle. He was kind enough to offer me take his bike to continue the ride. I was extremely thrilled as it was my first hands on a high-end Trek bike. It became easy for me to overtake one rider after the other when I was riding on that bike,” KKR shares the tale of his experience with one of the biggest bicycling brand, Trek, the enthusiasm being evident in his voice.
Undoubtedly, the kind of technology Trek uses and the accessories range they have is just phenomenal -- so it is natural for any serious biker to fall in love with the brand. The brand not just provides bicycles and accessories; it completes the rider and becomes an extension of their personality.
Kiran could not become a full-time mountain biker as the sport was still growing in the country, and the number of events were limited. Hence, he took to road racing in order to sustain himself as he enjoyed that as well.
In fact, Kiran has also studied civil engineering and used to work at a Real estate company as a senior planning engineer. He worked at this firm from late 2010 to December 2014.
“After a very fruitful 2013, I had a major health issue in 2014, wherein I was unable to train. My professional career was doing well and I had even been promoted recently. My only mode of training was that I used to cycle to work daily, riding 40 Km every day. When I was promoted, naturally the work load increased and I had to visit more and more construction sites. The time I was able to devote to training reduced drastically, and it was clearly reflected in the poor performances I had in the events I took part in,” the mountain biker shares on how his job started to become a hindrance and stopped him from excelling.
There were races in which Kiran was ranked 25th and above, whereas he had finished in the top 5 in those very races a year back. This got him frustrated, and he felt that he was not happy – which is the ultimate satisfaction.
Kiran reveals the time he had had enough and decided to call it quits, “I made a call and decided that I do not belong to the construction field, rather I belong to the cycling world. My girlfriend (who is my wife now), also motivated me to quit my job and pestered me to pursue cycling full time. I was also clearly not enjoying my work, so I did what had to be done – quit my job. I could always trust my girlfriend as she was supportive of every decision I made. There were also multiple events coming up with decent cash prizes, and winning a bunch would have been good enough for sustenance.”
The king of mountains went on to win the nationals in 2015 considers it to be one of his biggest achievements. Even though he had a lucrative career financially, Kiran decided to take the plunge and give his passion his everything.
"I even had afterthoughts of joining the construction company again, despite being the national champion. However, if one has done the hard work, then one should just keep giving it their all and others will definitely come and support you. This is exactly what happened. I did a lot of crowdfunding, and people who did not even know me, pooled in money to support me after knowing my struggles. Things finally started falling in place," Kiran sighed.
A father of a 2-month old daughter who now needed his attention, he signed off by saying “I never looked back and set even higher goals for myself and just aimed to progress further. My ultimate goal would be to stand on the podium of Asian Continental Championships. If I can knock that off, then would come my ultimate dream – of representing India at the Olympics. The Continental Championships will be my ticket to the Olympics and I am willing to put in grueling hours of hard work to achieve that.”
Kiran's weekly training includes 13-18 hours on the bike, with the regimen of each day varying. In terms of mileage, it is about 400-600 Km. The highest training block has been a 22-hour week which included covering 650+ Km. Apart from this he also spends a weekly of 4-5 hours in the gym. Two days are the rest days, on which Kiran spends leisure time on the bike and his family.
Before getting into cycling, the pedal junky was the University Hockey captain during his masters and also a part of the Table Tennis team, besides doing cross-country running. He even used to play Ultimate Frisbee for a club team – Disco Deewane – in Bangalore. However, it was important for him to channelize his the energy in one sport and that is exactly what he did. He has won the MTB National Championship in time trial in the years 2015 and 2016.
It is a delight to interact with people like Kiran, who keep India's hopes alive in cycling at an international level, especially in a sport which the country has struggled with.
Many believe that cycling will grow as a sport when someone wins a medal internationally. However, to enable this, the government should also take the necessary actions as the sport is in dire need of its support. A salute to people like Kiran and all the other athletes who dare to dream despite knowing that they have an uphill ride (pun intended) ahead and will need to achieve their dreams singlehandedly.
A truly commendable feat of finishing on the podium in 76 (including 41 1st place) races out of the 123 he has taken part in, is sure to inspire others to take up the sport as well.