Paddle Heroes

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A village in north Kashmir’s Budgam district is cycling its way out of obscurity, quite literally.  Saima Bhat reports the change it has brought in the area and the dreams it has set into motion for realization

Cycling--It made instant news when former CM Omar Abdullah, who currently represents Beerwah area in Budgam district, gave his prized Merida Reacto – a bicycle used by professional – to local boy Mohammad Akbar Khan, 21, a national and International level cyclist.  It was a perfect photo-op moment for both Omar and Akbar. However, Akbar, who hails from remote Chak-i-Kawoosa village in Budgam, couldn’t help but laugh at his luck while rubbing shoulders with Omar.

In 2014, Akbar recalls, when Omar was CM, how he struggled to raise mere Rs 3000 to take part in a national level cycling event.

Every morning, Akbar carries his new bicycle on his shoulder, climbs a steep link-road. Once on the main road, he is joined by 61 other cyclists whom he trains.

In 2006, when Akbar was in Class 6, his elder brother won a bicycle at an army sponsored tournament. “That is when I first started to ride.” Within a year, Akbar started ‘Chinar Cycling Club’. “From next year I started participating in almost all local, state, national and international events,” said Akbar.

Once Akbar’s group reaches Tangmarg slopes, they are joined by around two hundred other cyclists from adjoining villages. In last few years Budgam has emerged Kashmir’s cycling hub.

Rifat Abdullah, a local journalist, who is member of J&K State Sports Council and Vice-President of District Sports Council, Budgam, says he is trying to convince Sports Authority of India (SAI) to recognize his district as a cycling village.

The demand found voice after one of Akbar’s student, Bilal Ahmad Dar, 14, was selected by SAI for a five year training programme at National Cycling Academy (NCA), New Delhi. Bilal was selected from among 150 cyclists who competed at Bakshi Stadium for the spot in May 2016. “There were students from all elite schools of Kashmir. They were better trained, had better gear, and better cycles. I just had passion,” said Bilal.

After Akbar, Bilal, a Class 8 student is the only other cyclist who made it to the prestigious academy.

If Bilal trians well, his stay at NCA can extend up to ten year. “It is an all expense paid training,” said Bilal, who joined Akbar’s academy three years back.  But Bilal, who is now a household name in his area, recalls how he had to skip meals for a week to convince his grandfather. The reason behind grandfather’s no was twin tragedies that stuck their family recently. “I lost my father in a road accident,” said Bilal. “After fifteen days my sister passed away.”

Fearing that Bilal too might meet the same fate, his grandfather was reluctant to let him cycle on the dangerous roads. “He thought it is too risky.”

But Bilal remained adamant on his choice. “Finally, my grandfather agreed and got me an Indian Hawk cycle for Rs 4500,” said Bilal emotionally. It was 2013.

After he got his cycle, every morning at 4, Bilal joins other cyclists on the road connecting his village Chak-i-Kawoosa to Srinagar city. “This 15 km road is macadamized. Plus it has less traffic during early morning hours,” said Bilal.

As of now there is no specific track for cyclists, they use roads meant for traffic. “I have already moved proposal to government for development of Narbal-Gulmarg road for cyclists,” said Rifat Abdullah. “If maintained this stretch can be best in the world.”

Bilal’s grandfather, a farmer by profession, saved Rs 1.50 lakh to get him an eleven gear modern cycle. In just three years Bilal is Kashmir’s top cyclist under junior category. So far Bilal has two gold and a silver medal to his name won in state level competitions. This year he grabbed 8th rank in a national level race. But Bilal claim to fame was when he defeated Kashmir’s top cyclist Umer Nabi in a 50 kms race. “I am thankful to Akbar for all the support,” said Bilal.

But Bilal is not the only one who idolizes Akbar. In 2011, Yaseen Ahmad Dar, 25, joined Akbar’s Chinar Club.

“It was fascinating to see Akbar every morning ride his bicycle. He used to be in his full gear,” said Yaseen. “But neither I nor my family had any money to buy a cycle.”

To realize his dream, Yaseen worked as labourer for fifteen days to put together Rs 4500 for Indian Hawk cycle. “I still remember my first day at training. I went empty stomach as I had no idea about what to eat before practice,” recalls Yaseen, who hails from Mirgund village in Barmulla district.

So far Yaseen has participated in fifteen races at local, state and national levels. “I won two gold, silver and some bronze medals at state level,” said Yaseen.

Cycling-omar-abdullahYaseen remembers how despite five days of exhaustive travel in train he managed to secure 7th and 8th rank in Karnataka and Kerala respectively. “It is extremely difficult to compete at such big events using basic cycles we have,” feels Yaseen.

To overcome that Yaseen took loan from the bank where he works as ATM guard and bought a professional cycle for Rs 1.30 lakh. “I lost that job when I had to stay away for three months to participate in a national level event,” said Yaseen.

Once back Yaseen started doing odd jobs by working as a labourer in workshops and saw mills, so that he can re-pay his loan. Yaseen has six gold medals in his kitty so far. “I am thankful to Akbar for helping me live my dream.”

Mansoor Ahmad, a social science student, he joined Akbar’s Chinar Cycling Club in 2012. “I was impressed by Akbar’s fitness,” said Mansoor who won first race within months of joining the club.

In 2015, Mansoor participated in annual ‘Tour de Kashmir’ event, and managed to get 3rd rank. Mansoor’s friend Waheed came 2nd.  Also, Mansoor came 11th in a national level event by riding his Indian Hawk cycle. “This my father bought for me for Rs 3000,” said Mansoor.

So far Mansoor has won 22 races out of 28 he participated in winning seven gold, three silver and eleven bronze medals.

Keeping his performance and passion in view Mansoor’s father, a shopkeeper by profession, managed Rs 45000 and bought Akbar’s second hand cycle for him. “I am restless till I get gold at national level,” said Mansoor who managed to bag 5th rank in Karnataka recently.

Waheed, a Class 12 student from Kanihama village, who has won every single race he participated in, is another rising star. “Every day Akbar and his friends would zoom past my college on their cycles. It inspired me,” said Waheed.

In 2011, Waheed’s father, an employee in irrigation department, got a brand new cycle for him after he lost his first one in Srinagar. One year later, 2012, Waheed joined Akbar’s Chinar Cycle Club. “I was kept in junior category.”

For next two years he won all competition securing either 1st, 2nd or 3rd rank on a cycle which cost him Rs 30,000.

Before Tour de Kashmir – 2015, Waheed recalls, he used to cycle all the way to Tangmarg, from there to Doedpather, then to Astaanmarg in Dhara, and back. “I have done 180 kms in a single day,” claims Waheed. “Still I managed to get second rank only.”

The winner was a cyclist from Haryana. After watching Waheed performance, education minister, Nayeem Akhter promised to sponsor a professional cycle worth Rs 3.50 lakh.  “So far I have not received a single penny,” said Waheed.

Recently Waheed’s father brought him a professional cycle for Rs 1.80 lakh on credit.

In senior level, Waheed has won three gold and ten silver medals so far. At junior level he has won at least fifteen races. Recently Waheed’s group got 7th rank in team time trails at national level event held in Kerala. In his free time Waheed works as a tailor. “It helps me support my passion and studies,” said Waheed.

Since Akbar won gold medal at national level in 2014 and 2016, a number of boys are into cycling in Chak-i-Kawoosa village. There are around sixteen professional cycles in the village.

Akbar, who was inspired by his elder brother, a sports instructor at a Srinagar school, started his career in 2008. “My first race was an inter-school level which I won,” recalls Akbar.

The chief guest of the event, Riyaz Ahmed Wani, helped Akbar perfect his cycling skills. “After that I won almost all races till I left college.”

Akbar’s collection of cycles is talk of the village. He has currently two cycles, one his elder brother won in a competition, and second Omar Abdullah gifted him. “I recently sold two cycles: one was sponsored by J&K bank and other was sponsored by Zaz Traders,” said Akbar.

Akbar wants local business houses to back players more often. “We have to visit a sponsor twenty times at least before they invest in any player,” said Akbar. “Right now only five players have sponsors, rest manages on their own.”

One local school Celestial Buds High School has also sponsored a few cyclists.

He feels youngsters in Kashmir have talent but lack proper training. “In NCA, we used to train for four hours in morning. Then we were served healthy breakfast. After that we were sent back to our AC rooms for rest,” recalls Akbar. “At 2 pm we used to wake up for next training session.”

But in Kashmir players have to train, then study, and then earn for ourselves, says Akbar.

Recently, Akbar was offered free-of-cost admission in MPED from Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU) for playing in their team.

In September 2016, Akbar will represent GNDU in annual inter-University Cycling championship. “University having maximum number of medals gets more grants,” says Akbar.

Ironically state government has no policy for these sports persons. “The one drafted lately is yet to get approval from the cabinet,” said Rifat.

Rifat is also trying to convert about 100 kanals of land in Narbal into a velodrome stadium. “Except Akbar no cyclist in Kashmir has seen a velodrome. They just know road and mountain cycling.”

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