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By Agence France Presse
India hosts its first professional UCI-sanctioned road race this weekend, with hopes it will showcase home-grown talent and boost public interest in two-wheel transport.
The 100-kilometer criterium in Mumbai on Sunday will have a 120-strong field, including Australian sprinters Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke, both former Tour de France points jersey contenders.
The Tour de Mumbai has a UCI sanction and the backing of Eddy Merckx, the legendary five-time Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner.
Race director David McQuaid said finding a suitable course around the crowded streets of India’s financial capital was difficult but predicted a “tough, challenging” ride for the cyclists.
“No cyclist will find shelter nor get an easy ride,” he wrote on the event’s Web site.
The invitation-only Tour de Mumbai will see competitors ride 36 laps of a 2.8 km course, with sprints every fifth lap. The winner will receive 50,000 dollars.
Former Indian national champion Baqar Nasser, who is part of the race committee, said he was excited at the prospect of seeing so many established riders in the city.
“I wasn’t able to see this level of competition when I was riding,” he told AFP. “We have high expectations, even for riders from India. The Indian team has been training in Australia. We’re looking forward to seeing them. I think they will be in the top 10.”
The Tour de Mumbai — India’s biggest ever international cycling event — is a key part of a wider mass participation “cyclothon” that aims to raise the profile of the sport in this cricket-obsessed country and promote healthy living.
A 50-kilometer race is also being staged for 22 Indian state teams while 10,000 people have signed up for the shorter rides aimed at children and adults, Nasser said.
India has a small, but enthusiastic, band of cycling enthusiasts in its big cities who defy erratic driving and congested, pot-holed roads – as well as the perception of it as a poor man’s form of transport — to indulge their passion.
Medical professionals are backing the cyclothon as a way of promoting healthy living, as incidences of heart disease, diabetes and obesity are rising, with lack of exercise blamed.
UCI president Pat McQuaid said he hoped the event would lead to more Indians taking up the sport.
“I can only hope that the race we are preparing to follow here in Mumbai will be an important step on the road to the growth of cycling in India,” he wrote on the event’s Web site.
The assistant secretary of the Cycling Federation of India, V.N. Singh, told AFP that the race marks a huge step for Indian cycling.
“It’s the first time an international event of such a large magnitude has been conducted in India,” said Singh. “Certainly for the long-term development of cycling in India it is a good thing.”
Nasser said “the vision is there” to create a much larger Tour of India stage race in the future and, in the mean time, there are plans to organize similar events in other big cities.