Esow Alben spearheads India's cycling revolution

The teenage track prospect survived a tsunami as a young child. Now he's getting the crowd going in the velodrome and targeting Olympic gold.

Could Esow Alben become the first Indian to win an Olympic track cycling medal?

That's the plan, according to the man himself.

Not only that, but the confident 18-year-old is targeting gold.

"My coach tells me to aim for the diamond and you can settle for the gold," Esow said to CNN.

From tropical islands to track cycling

Alben hails from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a tropical archipelago some 1,400 km east of the Indian mainland and actually closer to Myanmar and Indonesia.

His father was a keen cyclist with his mother a former national-level kabaddi player.

The islands are renowned for their picturesque white sandy beaches and azure waters, but they were also the scene of a deadly tsunami in 2004 which claimed 2,000 lives.

Alben and his family escaped unscathed due to their property's fortunate position on high ground.

Ironically, in a country where cricket is the national sport, Alben discovered his first sporting love on the islands... rowing.

Alben, who also practised football and athletics, told The Bridge, “I remember how I used to cycle to do my rowing sessions in Port Blair.

"It was during my rowing practice sessions back in 2014 that I got excited seeing some of my friends cycling, and the sheer feeling of overtaking another cyclist got me excited to take up cycling.” - Esow Alben

Two silver medals at the 2015 Senior National Cycling Championship were closely followed by selection for India's National Cycling Academy, and Alben was on the path to becoming an Olympic track cyclist.

Adding a touch of Bollywood to proceedings

Alben announced his arrival on the world stage with a gold medal at the 2019 UCI Junior World Championships in Germany.

Alongside team-mates Ronaldo Laitonjam, Jemsh Singh and Rojit Singh, India secured a shock win over Australia in the final.

Alben also won silver in the men's individual sprint, and bronze in his favoured keirin event.

Those performances saw him invited to the prestigious Berlin Sechstagerennen (Six Day) event.

The teenager more than held his own against elite competitors, including Olympic silver medalist Maximilian Levy of Germany, and won the keirin on the penultimate day.

Alben's roots were never far away, with his favourite Bollywood-style music blasting out over the speakers before his timed individual attempts over one lap making him a firm fan favourite.

"I want to be an ambassador for both the islands and for India," Esow told CNN.

"I'm a showman, I like to play to the crowd. It's such a great honour to race here and I like to give something back."

India's cycling emergence

While Alben has spearheaded India's rise from relative obscurity in track cycling, he has been ably assisted by several other promising athletes.

Another Olympic hopeful is Deborah Herold, a fellow Andaman cyclist, who was forced to spend around five days in a tree trying to survive the 2004 tsunami.

The 24-year-old already holds several national records, and is the first Indian cyclist to make the UCI rankings of a discipline, in the 500m time trial.

With the foundations of Alben's senior career now laid, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics coming too soon to realistically consider a medal, he has turned his attentions to the next major events of his career.

“I feel I belong to the senior level and I really want to make the country proud at the 2022 Asian Games and 2024 Olympic Games,” Alben told The Bridge.

If he is able to continue at his current rate of progression, India may just quietly be starting to believe that their first cycling Olympic medallist is just around the bend.

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