In Conversation with Surya Thathu, a young gun who after steadily improving in the shadows for the past few years won Gold at Road and Track National Championship Racing in 2021…
Cover Image: Boney Panicker . Surya Thathu roaring like a lion after winning the race…
‘A bicycle journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single pedal stroke’, an oft repeated motivational quote among cyclists.
But with Surya, the journey didn’t begin with a pedal stroke, it instead started with a different set of wheels. He found himself skating on 8-wheels at the tender age of 5. Born in Himachal, his family shifted to Pune, when he was just 4 years old. And there in Pune the sun first dawned on Surya’s athletic abilities…
Surya Thathu: From Skates to Bikes to Gold
A Journey on 8-Wheels!
Unlike the rest of his family, Surya wasn’t interested in studies. He was tenacious and if someone tried stopping him, he would do that even harder.
His skating journey first took him into a team sport, but his dad wanted him to focus on an individual sport, rather than team. 2011 saw him participate in his first school nationals in speed skating. But performance anxiety saw him get feverish before his race and cop out.
Surya had been succeeding all thanks to his raw power, but he lacked any form of technique in his inline skating. He needed the guidance of a coach, who lived 20 km away. A simple logistical challenge forced him to leave the skates and take up athletics.
The Running Man
Post the skating antics, Surya took up athletics and started running 400 metres and cross country events. All that while he was riding a normal Indian cycle. He used it for cross training with no intention of doing anything about the humble bicycle.
Alongside his running, the cycle gradually made space in his heart and legs. He participated and won a school race without any training. Then went ahead and finished 4th at the zonal level. That was enough to pique his interest.
The next year he had another go at cycle racing and finished second in the zonal event, which allowed him to move ahead and race at the state level, where he finished 3rd. This was in 2016, where the cycling madness began in earnest.
At one point of time he was simultaneously training for athletics and cycling. He would have four training sessions in one day. Mornings would be spent cycling, then he would hit the gym, followed up with a run in the evening and finally another round of training. It was even more hectic that it sounds. All this while, he was supposedly studying as well!
His last foot race was when he raced a 12 km cross country race. With insufficient training and bad pacing, he ended up 8th and got selected for the zonals. But 8th was not good enough for Surya and the sun set on his running legs.
Two Wheels FTW!
By 2017, Surya owned a cool Merida, but from a racing perspective it was terribly under-speced, with a Claris 8-speed groupset, stock wheels and clip on aero bars. On that bike he went for a Time Trial (TT) for his University selections. The top 6 were to be selected to race the nationals. Surya scraped through in 6th!
At the nationals, Surya raced the Mass Start event and the little wanted berth on the Team Time Trial (TTT). He did a solid job at the TTT. For him, it is easier to give it all, when there are people around him, rather then when he is sat alone in an ITT.
In the 100 km Mass Start race, Surya kept his powder dry for most of it. And in the last one kilometre in the midst of a crash melee, he darted out and gave it all he had. Thinking he had sealed the deal. Unfortunately for him, with 25 metres to go, 3 racers zipped past and wrapped up the podium spots. Surya was left empty handed.
But that loss ignited the fire for something more. A lot more. He focussed on his ITTs and also races conducted by the Cycling Federation of India (CFI).
All Heart No Head!
The next year he clocked the second fastest time in the Maharashtra selections. He was strong and he knew it. During the mass start race he once again pumped his heart out. He would lead the bunch to catch all the attacks, doing most of the work at the front. With a full kilometre remaining he started his sprint to the finish line. As one would expect, that didn’t end well. With 100 metres remaining, 9 riders blasted past him, leaving him wallowing in 10th.
Pratap Jadhav, who has since become somewhat of a mentor for Surya, told him, that he was the strongest rider in the race. But that strength was of no use, if Surya didn’t use his head at the end of the races.
Every failure was a learning experience for him. As was the next experience in the university games.
He was in a 5 man breakaway, which got whittled down to 3. On the last lap he rubbed wheels with a racer. He didn’t realise that the wheel and brake had become best friends and were rubbing against each other. No matter how hard Surya pedalled, he couldn’t maintain the pace. He was dizzy and on the verge of fainting in an attempt to stay in the breakaway. Eventually he dropped off, only to later realise that the culprit was actually a faulty brake.
Black Hole at the End of the Tunnel
After quitting athletics and skating completely in 2017, Surya was entirely focused on cycling for the next year and a half. He was in top form, winning local races, prize money and even bagged a sponsorship deal with Giant Bicycles. Finally he got himself a carbon aero bike, a massive upgrade from his old Merida.
Things looked spectacular as the year progressed. Till the 10th of October 2018. A date which Surya won’t forget in a hurry. He had a crash while training, which landed him in the ICU, and 12 stiches behind his ear as a keepsake. The crash didn’t just leave a dent in his racing plans, but also a crack in the brand new bicycle frame.
After being discharged from hospital, Surya went home and did nothing but eat in anger. With nothing else to gain, he gained weight! By December he was back on a gym bicycle working on indoor spin sessions.
On the 21st of the same month, Surya went for a century ride, his first outdoor ride since the crash. 100 km was the race distance, so he needed to ensure, that at the very least, he would finish.
Deserted in Bikaner
The University Championships were held in Bikaner over the New Year holidays. He raced in the TTT and as expected did poorly. His teammates jokingly said, it was because of him that the team was nowhere. It was light-hearted banter, but enough to dig daggers deep into Surya. That pain was more visceral than the actual crash.
It was the darkest day in cycling for Surya. With no light at the end of the tunnel, just a big black gaping hole…
Let There be Light
Surya Thathu had a fire lit under his posterior when his teammate told him that he wouldn’t even be able to finish his Mass Start race. He set himself a goal of finishing in the leading bunch, if not he would give up racing.
That was a lofty target, as he didn’t have the strength to catch any breaks. He got lucky as the bunch reeled in the break and with 2 km to go, he got unlucky! Surya was boxed in near the road divider, with no space to make his way to the front. He saw an inch and made it a yard and pushed through the pack.
He found light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of a bronze medal round his neck. That was Surya’s first podium in his cycling career. It was a big deal coming back from a serious injury.
Like most things in life, getting the first is always the most difficult. Once you pop that cherry, then the going gets easier.
2019 also saw him track racing in Jaipur. He finished 7th, nothing fancy, but it gave him a taste of the possibilities. He then decided to take track racing seriously.
Life isn’t meant to be smooth sailing, and neither is cycling. And if you are riding on some of the velodrome’s of India, then neither is the track. Speedbumps all the way!
In June 2019, Surya was selected for the India training camp in Patiala. But the training wasn’t as hard as he liked. The camp backfired for him, and when he left 4 months later, he was nowhere close to his previous fitness levels.
The training, or lack thereof, saw his worst performance at the University Nationals in Amritsar later that year. For the first time in his racing career, spanning skating, athletics and cycling, Surya had to face the ignominy of pulling out of a race midway.
As Surya was doing the walk of shame with his bike, one of his teammates passed a snide remark within earshot, “Because of cyclists like this, Maharashtra is defamed. They go for India camp and then race so poorly and quit midrace.”
That scathing indictment cut like a blade. With his fitness so poor, he couldn’t make amends at the next race. Just about managing to finish it. Even in the next University Road Championship, he couldn’t perform as he wanted.
Just when things felt like it couldn’t get worse. He crashed while training. On the 10th of October 2019, exactly one year after his first crash. What made the crash all the more painful was that the federation trials were the next day and he couldn’t compete.
Training On Track & Off The Saddle
After all those crashes and smashes, Surya’s only remaining goal was to do well in the track nationals.
Around that time, he started talking to Shripad Shinde, a skating coach. Shripad started coaching Surya and helped him tremendously with the mental aspect of the sport. As well as guiding him with off saddle workouts.
Vikram Ingale, was another person, Surya found for inspiration. The only Indian to win a medal at the Asian level in skating, Vikram could advise him a lot on rest, recovery and a professional approach to sport.
The third person of this trio is Preeti, she provided the familial support system which Surya needed. That sisterly support which helped keep his head clear in moments of turmoil.
With their help, Surya made rapid progress in his training and mental fortitude. They provided the support structure which had been missing all those years.
Surya was gung ho about the upcoming nationals. But it was not to be. Racing was cancelled. The world as we knew it was cancelled. 2020 saw new challenges for every athlete. Finding motivation to train, with no racing in sight was difficult. Having those two people helped Surya weather the storm of 2020.
Unlocking in the Lockdown
During the lockdown, Surya unlocked the professional in him. He approached his training from a different perspective, ably coached by Shripad, who instructed him on gym workouts, plyometrics, and other off saddle workouts. This aided muscle building and strengthening and all the while, Surya was racking up miles on the saddle as well. Both indoors and outdoors.
31st December 2020, as a weird year came to an end, Surya had built his base fitness decently. He heard that the nationals trials were coming up and ended the year with a practice TT to assess his fitness levels. The next 3 weeks were spent targeting specific improvements and Surya bettered his timing by two and a half minutes.
The Run Up
Things started going to plan and Surya finished 4th in the state trials on the 30th of January. Not bad considering the others were on TT bikes, while Surya continued to use his road bike with clip-on aero bars.
A little more than a couple of weeks later, he once again was in qualifying mode, this time for the track selections. He was juggling track and road training. The endurance from the latter helping with the former. But he still needed to accustom himself to track riding.
He hit the Balewadi Academy track and the cyclists there asked him not to join them! Since he was a novice at track riding. Surya accepted that judgement and found himself on track all alone from 8 in the morning to noon. Anyone who has visited Maharashtra, knows how the earth becomes an oven by noon.
He would be the lone soul circulating the velodrome. And when he wasn’t going round and round in circles, he would be changing wheels, sprockets and the like.
Training for two disciplines is difficult and after training under the hot sun, he would go home, get some rest and head out to train on the road in the evening!
2020 National Road Racing Championships
It was time to put all that training to the test. Since the year 2020 had been cancelled, the championship was held in March 2021!
Surya was drafted in for the Maharashtra TTT. He worked hard for the team and for the first time, Maharashtra was fighting for 3rd place. But one rider in the team was a weak link and instead of finishing on the podium, the team ended in 7th.
With the TTT out of the way, Surya was completely focused on the Under-23 Mass Start race.
The race started at a comfortable pace and Surya was feeling strong. He was reeling in the attacks and riding at the front for the most part. Just when he moved back to the bunch, 3 guys attacked at the front.
That worried Surya since 2 out of the 3 were strong time trialists. Surya rushed to the front of the bunch and gave chase. There was no help forthcoming, he egged and begged others to pull at the front, with no success. A rider from Gujarat finally took a turn at the front, but that lasted just 200 metres.
Surya was ready to cry. He wanted to catch, he wanted to sprint, but here he was burning up all alone. With 700 metres remaining, the break was caught, and everyone started jostling for position for the final sprint. Gagan, the strongest in the race, started sprinting, Surya kept his composure till it was time to go all guns blazing.
He was so pumped, that he hadn’t even seen which gear he was in. With the first pedal stroke, he knew it was the wrong gear! Surya ignored the mistake and continued sprinting. Drawing level with Gagan and at that moment Gagan turned to look at Surya. That was it. Surya knew it was game over for the competition and he was winning it.
After years of learning from mistakes, Surya Thathu finally stood at the top of the podium with a gold medal around his neck. Everybody who congratulated him after the race had only one thing to say, “You deserved it the most…”
2020 National Track Racing Championships
On the 27th of March, just a handful of days after road racing, Surya went track racing in Hyderabad. It was a 15 km Scratch Race, which is similar to a Mass Start race on the road.
With limited track racing experience, Surya wasn’t quite sure what he needed to do on track. He had the legs, but not the strategy. The race progressed with attacks and counter attacks, Surya kept himself out of trouble to just get a feel of the race.
A few laps in, an SSB racer had built a big lead at the front, Surya was in the third bunch trying to catch the second. While chasing the second bunch, Surya heard a blast behind him. A fellow racer’s tyre had gone kaput. He didn’t dare look back, choosing to put his head down and focus on the guy’s ahead. He caught the second bunch and with the momentum he had built, he went past and attacked.
Within a lap he was abreast of the lead rider. The two played cat and mouse, while Surya was confident that when it came to the last lap, he wouldn’t be outsprinted. The last lap bell rang and Surya went for it like a scalded cat.
Crossing the line to be the National Men’s Track Champion. His second Gold of the month. This one all the sweeter, because he was racing against the best in the country and not within his age group.
Racing to Gold
The double gold which Surya won in 2021, wasn’t the result of a day, week, month or year. It is a result of life.
Surya Thathu has been in the racing business from the time he was a kid. From the day’s of his skating, athletics and now cycling, it has always been the mentality to race. He grew with that mindset, something which cannot be imbibed by starting at the age of 20.
How different is it?
He never thought about winning a race. It was more about doing a good job. In his cycle races, he has no interest in sitting behind someone else’s wheel and winning. He wants to lead from the front, and hammer home his strength.
Even while training, he doesn’t like sitting behind anyone’s wheel. He mostly rides alone and the few times he rides with other’s, it is the other who will be following him.
When he had his massive crash, he used the injury itself as motivation to come back stronger. Turning adversity into strength is the mentality you need to become champion. Because adversity will knock on your door, and whether that makes or breaks you, is up to you.
Road vs. Track
Surya feels, that if you have enough endurance miles on the road, then track is slightly easier.
The biggest difference of riding on track is the fact that you have a single gear ratio. If you get that wrong, your race is over even before it starts. Bike control is also incredibly important. You are riding at high speed in close proximity of one another. Having the skill to avoid crashes, while moving up and down the track is essential.
When you suddenly close gaps to the bunch faster than expected, you need to have proper bike control to slow down.
Raw Power & Technique
In his younger days while skating, Surya had survived on raw power with little technique. But as you get older and the world more competitive, just power isn’t enough.
His coach, gives him tips from the skating world on how to improve technique. Surya then applies that to his cycling.
Vikram and Preeti have been instrumental in helping Surya understand recovery and nutrition. Two elements which pay massive dividends to any athlete.
Solo Powered Training
Even though Surya lives and trains in Pune, a city oozing with road biking talent, he still chooses to train alone.
He doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his cycling stuff with everyone. It even took us a lot of time to convince him to talk to us for this article!
Most of his training is done solo and since his coach is a skating coach, all his bicycle training is on his own. He mostly trains by feel, rather than having a proper training schedule as most top Indian cyclists have. In that way, his training is far more old school, than the scientific training which is the norm.
Much of his base was built from his athletics days. The many hours of running is still there in his legs. And even though he loves running, he doesn’t do so anymore. It isn’t compatible with cycling, especially with Surya training for both track and road.
Enter the Future
For the future, Surya, is working on a step by step approach to improvement. He isn’t targeting international races. The goal is bettering his performance at the national level before heading out.
His reasoning is simple, if he can’t win authoritatively in India, then what hope does he have to perform well on the Asian stage. Only once he is close to the national track record and performing exceptionally at road races, then he will look outwards.
A ‘head firmly screwed on shoulders’ approach for someone who is yet to turn 23.
Another avenue which Surya is exploring seriously is ITTs on road and Individual Pursuits on track. He has always been more comfortable racing in a bunch, he now wants to improve his Time Trialist skills.
We wish Surya Thathu loads of luck in pursuing his cycling dreams and ambitions…
Photos Courtesy: Surya Thathu. You can connect with him on Instagram