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"We need more domestic races for the sport to grow": Naveen John, National Time Trial Cycling Champion 2014

Naveen John, 28, from Bangalore is a competitive road racing and time trial cyclist who grew up in Kuwait, worked and completed his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering at Purdue University in the US, and came back to India in 2012 and started racing as a cyclist for the Specialized Kynkyny Cycling Team in Bangalore.

Naveen John, 28, from Bangalore is a competitive road racing and time trial cyclist, who grew up in Kuwait, worked and completed his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering at Purdue University in the US, and came back to India in 2012 and started racing as a cyclist for the Specialized Kynkyny Cycling Team in Bangalore. He clinched the title of Indian Individual Time Trial Champion at the 2014 National Road Cycling Championships, held in December 2014 in Jamkhandi, Karnataka.

He covered the 39.6km out and back course in 52:44:00 at an average speed of 45.05km/hr.

In conversation with the National Time Trial Champion of India in 2014 Naveen John, fondly known as NJ

Q. Congratulations NJ!!  Let’s start with a bit of background – what were you up to before you got into cycling?

NJ: Well, before cycling, I was as far as you could possibly get from somebody you could typify as an "athlete". This sums it up: No. Physical. Activity. Whatsoever! I was pretty much into my books in high school and very competitive there. When I started college at Purdue, I was tipping the scale at 85-90kg. Things went from bad to worse w.r.t. to diet and I went as far as touching the high 90’s! Around 2006, having enough of the total physical wreck and lack of respect I had towards my body, I took a stand to change the way I ate and also started running. I lost about 15kgs in about 3 months through eating saintly “clean” and running a short 5-6km daily, without fail.

Q. Tell us about your sporting background... How did you get into competitive cycling?

NJ: I never “fell in love” with running and started riding to train for a fundraiser-bicycle ride I did in college. I wasn’t able to complete the ride fully but I loved every moment of it – being outdoors, pushing myself, speeding by vast swaths of countryside! When I got back from the trip, I wanted to keep riding, so I joined the Purdue Cycling Club, and the rest, as they say, is history! My college club did more to shape who I became as a person and as a cyclist than I’d like to admit. I trained and raced about 15-25,000km per year, for about 4-5 years. The quality and quantity of training and racing miles I put there set me up for where I am now.

Q. You are “The 2014 National Individual Time Trial Champion of India“!! How do you feel?

NJ: Right after winning the title, my team director also asked me the same question. I didn’t have an answer. For a couple of months later, I didn’t know what to feel. The truth is, the Gold medal itself was just a confirmation for everyone on the outside, of what I already knew. I say, “I knew”, because for about 2 years, I looked at my competition, I made an objective assessment of where I stood, I planned the improvements I needed to make with my coach, I trained objectively with a Power Meter, I planned for every eventuality. Once the race was over, the one thing I did feel was relief -- that my body and the day was decent, and that all the work and sacrifices counted for something. My ride that day was far from perfect. I wasn’t able to express my strength fully for a variety of reasons. A win is a win, but I want more from myself.

For me, the training, the sacrifices made at work, pausing my social life, are what I look at and think: “That's crazy!” Though most wouldn't, I’d do it again, in a heartbeat! 

Q. Will you be back this year participating in the National Road Cycling Championships again, defending your title?

NJ: Yeah, I will be back to defend my title this year. Our cyclists’ performances have been festering at a level for a while for the past couple of decades. My performance at this year’s ITT was a relatively bigger improvement in the (poorly kept) history of our sport in India. Most people don’t know that. My equipment is good, but my edge comes from my total dedication to putting out objectively superior performances, and I’m not shy to say it.

One of my biggest advantages is the fact that I’m training with power. Also, my team, whose support I’ve earned, has been invaluable.

Q. What are your other major achievements in competitive cycling, apart from this?

NJ: I’ve won a bunch of races, that to be honest, don’t really matter in the larger context of my sport, but I’ve enjoyed every moment of it regardless. I believe that my best is yet to come. A recent win that stands out though, was 2 months after my National ITT title. I had to throttle down and back up for the 35th National Games in Kerala.

Despite a harder course and tougher weather conditions, I performed closer to my trained capacity on the day. I put about 20 seconds into 2nd place – up on the 0.5 seconds between the same 2nd place rider and me at the National Championships. I was moving forward and lifting the ceiling of my sport in the country. That was an important achievement – the win was nice, but that I put in an objectively stronger ride than 2 months ago, was very satisfying! 

Q. You are a part of the best professional team in the country - Specialized Kynkyny Cycling Team (SKCT), how did they get in contact with you? And how did you experience your time for this team so far?

NJ: I got in touch with SKCT in 2012, a while after I was done with my Bachelor’s at Purdue. Over Facebook, I told Vivek Radhakrishnan and Venkatesh Shivarama – the Team’s Director and Manager back then -- that I wanted to win the Indian ITT title. I told them that I thought I had the legs and that I had quite a bit of race experience and wanted to help with planning and implementing training, race tactics, and logistics for the team. Both of them thought I was crazy and told me to stay in the US! I, however, booked my tickets to India, raced against SKCT the next day, and was on the team the day after!

The experience of riding and contributing to the team has been a learning experience that I value highly. It’s a team where you get back as much as you give. Riders who want to be part of this team think it’s just about how strong you are on the bike, or about riding bling equipment, or the visibility. The truth is, it’s more about coming in with goals, putting in the work required, holding yourself to a high standard of sporting ethics, and being able to bring something to the table.

We are probably the most professional team out there where everyone is a volunteer. Riders on SKCT have more skin in the game than most of their competitors, as we pay a part of own coaching fees and spend on our own nutrition and hydration needs and everyone works to support themselves in some way. Then, there is the windfall of support which comes from individual private investors. They're the ones that allow us to make training and race days something we don’t have to compromise on, making sure we are able to plan and execute to the best of our abilities.

There are a few teams, in any sport in the country, with a foundation as strong as SKCT’s, and that’s where everything we’ve done comes from and where they’re going to come from in 2015. There are plenty of gaps in resources that is keeping us from achieving our full potential, but, baby steps!

Q. How important is hydration, nutrition, discipline and planning in a sport like cycling, especially for an elite cyclist?

NJ: Essential. When you start to train with a plan spanning multiple months with the aim of timing peak performance to within a window of a couple of days, then consistency in training, nutrition, hydration, and rest, become the cornerstone’s of success.

At SKCT, we are supported and work with world-class resources in each of these areas. I work with Dan Henchy of PBScience for my coaching and PowerTap supports my team with power meters for training. From Chef Biju Thomas – co-conspirator at Skratch Labs - we’ve learned that when it comes to nutrition, it’s best to keep it simple, un-processed and natural, during both training and racing.

With hydration, as with nutrition, when you are training in the context of a multi-month-long plan, with back-to-back days of training, you have to make sure that you not just start and do your sessions adequately topped-off, but also finish your sessions not dragging your cramping behind back home. Adequate rest is the final ingredient to making sure you are hitting the next day’s training session with only the planned-for residual fatigue as baggage in your body. 

Q. You also work for BOTS, Bangalore (Bums on the Saddle) as a Bike Expert Counselor, whilst training for the big races. How do you manage your job and training together?

NJ: When I first joined BOTS in 2013, I worked 6 full days a week, but found myself thoroughly stretched when trying to squeeze in tough, 15-20hrs training weeks, with mainly recovery hours suffering. In 2014, in the build to my ITT title, with the support of my co-workers, I maintained a healthy balance of work and training. A shorter work week, but more intense 10-15hr training weeks, along with adequate recovery hours, worked out pretty well. In 2015, I’ve had to make the tough decision to move to a consulting role at BOTS, since that allows me to up my training volume/quality, and to contribute to my personal and team goals more fully, and focus more on the selected few athletes that I’m coaching. 

Q.  What are your strong moral principles that you believe in, as a sportsperson?

NJ: Well, I was never into sport growing up. I consider myself an athlete now. I’m really professional when it comes to my training, recovery, and I’m trying to iron out my nutrition and hydration constantly. Simply put, I don’t believe in shortcuts. Globally, the prominent parallely running narrative to my sport is that of doping.

While there are always people breaking or bending the rules, they’re not getting in the way of me winning National medals right now, but if ever they did, I would do my best to call it out, and if that didn’t work, then I’d quit rather than make the wrong choice. Fortunately, there are plenty of more lucrative careers in the sport and business besides racing bicycles at the National level in India, so that would be an easy choice!

Q. What is your daily motivation?

NJ: My daily motivation is my goals. I’ve got a plan chalked out to achieve my goals, so then it just falls on the habit of maintaining the integrity of every training session. With a little luck, and a lot of planning and execution, the results will come on race day. 

Q. According to you, what are we lacking in our current racing system and training regimes that our competitive and professional cyclists’ performance is still incomparable with the USA, European and Australian cyclists’ performances in the international events?

NJ: Having spent multiple months at training camps at both the State and National level, and training and racing at every level in the country, I’ve seen it all in my 2 years here. Here are a couple of reasons that stand out:

- Lack of consistency in training

- Lack of planned periodized training – No multi-month planning to make sure you’re getting the best out of the athlete across a season vs. cramming in enough a month before an event. Currently even our National Champions don’t know what they’re going to do in training till the morning of in some cases and only rely on their memory to remind them of what training load they start a week with

- Lack of implementation of modern training tools  – In an environment with a dearth of racing, the ‘test-train-recover-test’ paradigm using power meters or HR monitors (or even something as basic as a cyclo-computer, or even a watch) becomes all the more important if athletes are to improve.

- Lack of year-to-year progression in training – so important for making advances in endurance sports!

- Lack of a fixed racing calendar and a dearth of domestic racing – Having a fixed calendar is important so athletes are able to plan for peak performance. Also, all the training in the world just can’t make up for racing at a level you haven’t before. Though, with power training and clever use of local resources -- like moto-pacing and simulated racing -- you can come close.

- Lack of knowledge about nutrition, hydration and recovery – At National camp, finishing a hard 3-4hr training session with a bottle of water is considered being tough!

- Lack of enough coaches/mentors who have the knowledge to impart these basics on athletes.

Q. Who is your hero in cycling?

NJ: I don’t have anyone like that in cycling or outside. I try to pick-up the good bits from everyone in my life, from my competitors, and from the reported personalities of athletes/people out there. 

Q. What are your main goals for the year 2015?

NJ: My goal for 2015 is to lift my level from where it was in 2014. I have training targets, power numbers and weight targets in mind. But again, what’s going to be a confirmation for those on the outside, and a relief from the pressure I’ll put on myself, would be a defense of my ITT title and adding another National title in another event on the road. Another important goal of mine is to win a couple of National medals in MTB through an SKCT team mate of mine -- Kiran Kumar Raju -- who I am coaching this year!

Q. Would you like to share your future plans with us?

NJ: Before I hang-up the bike, I want to spend a stint of training and racing on the Continental circuit (which is the level right above the National level, and 2 levels down from the World Tour-level), but only if it can have a larger impact on the sport in my country and if it’s an opportunity to learn and grow in a structured setup.

With our National Federation cutting our road program to focus on the track, it’ll be up to the teams and individual riders to find ways to race the road and try to move to the next level themselves. Right after that, I’ll be making a short trip to Grad School to study Exercise Physiology to learn from the field and contribute to it, while working to move our sport in India forward.

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