The first step in what is hoped will be an explosion in top-level cycling in India will take place on February 21st with the holding of the first Mumbai Cyclothon - Tour de Mumbai.
The UCI 1.2-ranked event is the first major cycling race to be held in the country, which has massive numbers of people using bikes for transport, yet no real culture of competition.
It is hoped that the race – and the presence of teams like Saxo Bank and the Cervélo Test Team – will spark the imagination of the press and public, and build the momentum to develop the sport there.
An exemption to normal UCI rules is being sought for the event, as customarily x.2-ranked races are out of bounds for ProTour teams.
Saxo Bank is expected to be sending Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke as part of its squad, while Cervélo should also have a strong line-up. Former Tour de France stage winner Jaan Kirsipuu will lead the CKT-Champion System team. Others such as Giant Asia, Fly V Australia, Jayco and the Indian and Malaysian national teams will also be present.
A charity ride will precede the competitive event, with celebrities and the general public due to participate.
“As a competitive sport, nothing much has happened before in India,” said Dr. Akil Khan, the Managing Director and Chairman of IDsports, the organising company.
“Some small races in the Himalayan range are all the country has seen on an international level, but these have never featured any listed riders or teams. Ours will be the first of its kind, an international cycling criterium event with top teams from the world participating, and live television coverage on several channels.
“Essentially, India lives on bicycles but has never looked up to this most challenging and exciting sport. We want to change that.”
Khan said that promoting health amongst the Indian population is one of the targets of the project and, specifically, combating heart disease. Aside from trying to encourage the public to exercise more, some of the proceeds will go towards that goal.
The criterium circuit is 2.8 kilometres long and the start will see a neutral procession across the Worli Sealkink bridge, a 4km construction. The distance for the race is yet to be finalised, but it is expected to be between 90 and 100 kilometres in length.
In addition to the big pro names, he said that cycling legend Eddy Merckx will be endorsing the race, bringing extra publicity to it.
Staging a major international race in India is another step towards the globalization of cycling, a stated goal of the UCI. The hosting of ProTour events in Australia and Montreal has taken the top-ranked level of the sport to other continents, as have 2.HC events such as the Tours of California and Qinghai Lake.
While the Indian event won’t have the same ranking to start with, Akil Khan sees this as the first of several steps to bring pro cycling to the country. A multi-stage tour is planned for further down the line.
And, with a population of 1.17 billion people, there’s potentially a lot that the sport can gain, in terms of participants and – ultimately – future champions.
“Our future stands committed to taking this sport national, but with a step by step approach,” he explained. “Cycling is still in 20:20 cricket format stage, where people want to see more of quick criteriums, a visual spectacle, rather than point to point races, which are more for the genuine cycling lovers. This race will be the first step.”