CHENNAI: August 16, 2018. In the town of Aigle, Switzerland, some 110 kms from the capital of Geneva, a wiry Indian kid had just taken a sledgehammer to batter what was accepted wisdom. The insight, passed on from generation to generation, held that Indians don’t win cycling medals at the world level.
Esow Alben, racing with five others, dared to not only dream but execute his dream to perfection. In fourth place with two laps to go inside the velodrome, Alben floored the pedal to overtake two riders. With one lap remaining, he almost overtook Czech Republic’s Jakub Stastny.
In the end, he lost out on gold by 0.17 seconds, but he had created history. By winning a silver in keirin at the Junior Track Cycling World Championships, he had become the first Indian to medal at a World Championship in any level.
A year later, Alben has again pushed the boundaries. The 18-year-old, in the company of Ronaldo Singh and Rojit Singh, took home gold in the team sprint at the ongoing Junior Track Cycling World Championships in Frankfurt. Twice in the span of a year, Indian cycling has gone to a place it had no idea about till 2018.
As a 14-year-old, Alben was trying his hand at rowing. His parents had put him in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Academy in Port Blair as their youngest son was not making the best use of his time. But he wasn’t a natural fit in rowing because of his height. Mother Nelly picks up the story. “We saw an ad about a trial in rowing at the SAI campus. We decided we could put him there. He cleared his trials. A couple of months later, he gave cycling trials and started liking the sport immediately.”
Liking the sport is one thing. Being consistently good at is a different beast. Alben tamed that beast in the second time of asking. Soon after moving out of Andaman for the first time in 2015, he medalled twice at an event in Kerala. Scouts liked what they saw and a spot in the national camp followed soon.
His wardrobe resembles a small jewellery shop, but it wasn’t until 2018 when he started serving notice of his talent on a bigger stage. He was also on the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) Scheme for a while — the updated list has no cyclists — and wins at the Asian Junior Track Championship (one gold) followed by three gold at the Asian Track Championship meant he merited that place. Even though the Asian Games was a bit of a dampener, the silver at Aigle proved that Jakarta was the exception.
Ranked No 1 in the men’s junior keirin as well as sprint, Alben’s story has many more chapters to go before he can be considered an elite in his sport. But his rapid ascent — riding a Rs 4000 bike to owning a state of the art Look R96, a machine that costs upwards of Rs 9 lakh — is the story of Indian cycling.
In 2014, when the Cycling Federation of India (CFI) and SAI joined hands to open an academy to promote the sport, the focus was on what they already had. “The brief was to develop the programme in a way that the seniors develop,” CFI chairman Onkar Singh said. Like most best laid plans, this one, too, had a glitch. The seniors that the academy was attracting were already set in their ways. “We realised that they had already received lots of training, so for them to unlearn and re-learn would take years,” Onkar recalled. The plan changed, the academy’s onus was now on grabbing the best young talents in the country so as to catch them young.
Three members of one of the academy’s earliest batches were Ronaldo, Rojit and Alben.