Nigel Smith is changing India’s cycling culture one step at a time

The culture of cycling in India is still in its nascent stages but there has undoubtedly been a global boom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s for leisure or competitive events, the benefits of cycling are undeniable and with fuel prices on a high, not only is it the economical option but also environment friendly.

In this exclusive interview, Nigel Smith, British Cycling Level 3 Coach speaks about the potential for cycling in India, changing the culture of cycling, growing popularity, mental health benefits, helping trainees fulfil their potential and his future short/long term goals. 

Q 1) Being a British Cycling Level 3 coach, what brings you to India and how much potential do you see for cycling in the country?

I came to India in 2015 with my wife to support her career move. She works in retail for one of the Tata companies. The potential for cycling in India is huge. What is lacking is an administrative structure that can bring together all the regions and create a generic development programme across the whole country so that whether you live in Kochi or Kashmir, the type of learning activities, coaching, talent ID, competition and attitudes to the bicycle as a mode of transport as well as a fitness tool are the same. 

Q 2) What are your views on cycling being the next big thing in fitness in India? Do you feel you can change the culture of cycling in India?

As a fitness activity, sports will always be in competition with each other to be the next big thing, but certainly the number of people I see riding for leisure and fitness has increased in the past 6 years. My impact on the culture of cycling is limited to each individual or small group I’m privileged to work with. The culture is relatively very nascent, and I see and hear the cycling community’s thirst for more products, information, coverage etc. Whenever I find myself in a discussion with a cyclist, I just try and help broaden their horizons. It could be helping them decide which bike or brand they should buy, or maybe it’s just suggesting a nice route for a ride.

Q 3) Do you believe the cycling boom has been a COVID-19 fad or do you think it is here to stay?

Cycling has certainly seen a global boom due to COVID-19. I think the echo of that boom will be heard for many years to come. What’s frustrating, particularly for Indian cyclists, is the paucity of products available. To my knowledge, there are only two bike brands with a direct presence in India, Scott Sports being one of them. Everything else has to be imported via agents & distributors with very aggressive import duties on everything ranging from a pair of shoes right up to a bike. This restricts what the consumer can choose and afford.

Also read: My vision is to build an athlete development structure: Rosemary Owino

Q 4) Apart from the obvious physical benefits, how does cycling benefit mental health?

By exercising, we’re not only getting fitter, but also feeling better as well. The endorphins released during exercise leave us with a sense of positivity. Being healthier means we reduce the risk of illness, creating a desire to continue these habits. The sense of accomplishment, regardless of the scale of the task, felt after we’ve exercised can help massively with reducing anxiety and depression. Even if it’s just getting off the sofa to go for a short pedal outside, the sense of achievement and knowledge that you can do more next time is a fantastic motivator. 

Also, the camaraderie of group rides means riding with friends we can talk and engage with others. Being outdoors is a wonderful enabler for the relaxation of the mind and a stimulation for communication. Finally, the skills developed whilst riding a bike all require a mental engagement: balance, technique, being open to the sounds and sights of your surroundings whilst being mindful of others around you and your own ‘state’ (breathing & posture). You can be completely detached from the stresses of the world, yet totally engaged in the activity of riding a bike.

Q 5) What are some of the lessons that you learnt at the British Cycling Academy that you are looking to pass to your trainees so that they can fulfil their potential?

I coach riders from all corners of the performance spectrum – some are in their 40’s and venturing outside on a bike for the first time, others use the bike for improved fitness, and some aspire to National and International glory. Whoever I’m coaching, and at whatever level, the thing that’s stuck with me from all the coaching courses at British Cycling is:- decide what you want to achieve, create a process of multiple small steps that culminates in that achievement, agree milestones and how the difficulty will progress, then follow the process. I only ask riders to progress when we’ve agreed they’ve mastered a particular skill or effort level. Sometimes we have to repeat a step more times than we originally planned, but that’s ok. One of my mantras is we ‘learn through failure’ – identifying what went wrong, what we can do better. In that respect, every session can be a success.

Q 6) What are your short and long-term goals? How do you plan to achieve them?

I’m blessed to have a core group of very supportive clients, some of whom I’ve been working with for over 5 years. In the short term, my goals are to retain and hopefully grow this core group, helping them achieve on the bike all that they desire. I can only do this by avoiding complacency and trying to stimulate maximum client engagement through better sessions, better communication, and better feedback. I try (but don’t always succeed) to self-appraise after each session and seek feedback from the clients. 

Longer term, it’s three-fold. I’m already working with a handful of riders who will be competing at state and national level. With the help of Scott Sports India, I’d like to grow this group & create something where riders can spend more time training and learning about the sport together. There are too many silos with not enough horizontal integration. The bigger the groups, the greater the knowledge sharing, helping the sport to grow faster. Building on that group learning, I’d love it if some of the companies that support riders via free products in exchange for being an ‘ambassador’, thought a little more laterally. What if they all gave away 20% less product and pooled together to create a fund to send a handful of deserving riders abroad for more experience?

Secondly, I’ve recently led a 4-day curated cycle tour of Nashik for the more leisure-fitness rider. I see this as a massive opportunity to offer riders an incredible few days with wonderful cuisine, accommodation and on-the-bike coaching during rides so that on & off the bike they are taken care of at all times. I’d love to grow this little niche area of cycling through the groups I already work with and trying to engage more with bike riders through social media.

Finally, I’d just love the number of people using a bicycle for leisure or sport to keep growing and so whenever the opportunity arises, I’ll keep engaging with the cycling communities and spreading the bike benefits of freedom, fun and fitness!


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