Through sheer desire, Kiran Kumar Raju became one of India's greatest mountain bikers, and blazed a path for more to follow.
Kiran Kumar Raju was a bike racer long before he ever lined up behind starting tape.
Bangalore, India, consistently ranks as one of the most congested cities in the world, making it a difficult place to live for dedicated cyclists. But Raju, who prefers to go by “KKR” for short, always enjoyed the adrenaline rush of weaving between cars. In college he would time trial to class, leaving his home later than he should for a little extra motivation to beat his previous times.
Raju was always a good athlete, especially in cross country, table tennis and field hockey. His successes came less from natural-born talent and more from an almost psychological need to compete, however. Like a shark that can’t stop swimming. Sports staved off restlessness, and helped him focus on other aspects of life.
“Trust me on this when I say, when it comes to studies, I was not a bright student,” KKR says. “Sports played a major role in my studies and professional life. More than that, it gave me a lot of confidence that I can actually go on to do something. Until then, I never had hope for where I would go in life.”
KKR got a decent job as a civil engineer after he finished a master’s, but his schedule was hard: long hours, six or seven days a week. He felt frustrated in his daily life with no outlet for his excess energy. He didn’t have time for physical activity; his day roughly consisted of waking up, going to work, doing his job and coming home. KKR needed to adapt.
His commute to work was about 10 miles each way, so he started riding his bike from door to door. His office used a biometric system to log whether employees arrived by 9 a.m., which motivated KKR to beat beat the clock. He did 20 miles a day, “full gas, all the way,” and began to feel like himself again. He also picked up ultimate Frisbee, creating a routine that successfully wore him out. He’d leave his home at 5:30 a.m., ride to a space where he played Ultimate until 7:30. Then he’d go to work until 6 p.m., and get home in the late evening “completely knackered,” but also content.
KKR kept this routine for four years, from 2011 to 2014. In 2011, he started entering local road and mountain bike races, too, after volunteering at a few events. He didn’t own a bike he felt he could be competitive on, so he tapped into the cycling network around Bangalore to borrow equipment. His favorite race was the BBCH Nandi Epic, a 100-kilometer road race with a steep hilltop finish that’s part of the annual 10-event Bangalore Bicycle Championship series.
"Sports played a major role in my studies and professional life. ... Until then, I never had hope for where I would go in life."
In 2011, ’12 and ’13, KKR finished fifth, third and fourth, respectively. At the time, India’s cycling culture wasn’t as robust as it is today, so he largely raced against American and European expats in the area — especially in mountain biking, which hadn’t gained the same level of popularity as the road racing. Locals at the races began noticing him.
“They got excited because, ‘Oh, we have an Indian on the podium thanks to you,'” KKR says. Through his time spent racing Bangalore’s streets, he picked up the technical skills that other mountain bikers typically hone on singletrack trails.
Then in 2014, his life was thrown out of balance again. KKR received a promotion at work, which was an ostensibly positive life event that had the unfortunate consequence of ruining his commute. Suddenly, he was managing multiple projects and construction sites, and he couldn’t visit all of them by bike in any practical manner. He had more meetings, too, that he didn’t want to attend in sweat-pitted work shirts.
KKR’s racing suffered as a result. At that year’s Nandi Epic, he fell all the way to 21st. He felt he had to choose: Keep the steady career or pursue racing full time and continue to maintain an active lifestyle.
And, well, KKR was a bike racer long before ever put on a work shirt, much less lined up behind starting tape.
Changing careers isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. KKR is the eldest son in his family, and his job as a civil engineer had provided for them. He was also dating the woman who would become his wife. The people closest to him needed to give their blessing if he was going to realize his dream. After all, KKR’s choice affected them, too.
His girlfriend encouraged him immediately.
“She had quit a job as a software engineer and she was pursuing her passion too,” KKR says. “She started a travel company, and so she suggested, ‘I will take care of the finances or whatever is necessary, I think you should follow your passion because I clearly see you’re not enjoying your day job.’
“So I thought, ‘OK let’s take the plunge and see what best I can do.'”
"The biggest difference that Trek has given me is more than equipment; it's the mental support."
KKR’s immediate family was supportive, too. He feared they wouldn’t be. He was helping his parents with daily needs at the time, and contributing to his brother’s college fees. But KKR’s father told him to pursue racing as long as he could make enough money to sustain himself. “My father was like, ‘Don’t worry about the finances, I’ll do my best to take care of the family.'”
After mulling the decision for three months, KKR quit his job and hired a coach to get him ready to compete in 2015. However, he still needed sponsorship if he was going to keep himself afloat. Race-caliber equipment can be expensive, especially for an athlete who was planning to race both mountain and road bikes. KKR wouldn’t be able to borrow from kind benefactors forever.
At the end of 2015, KKR reached out to Trek through a distributor in India and struck up a relationship that has carried through the last six-plus years. Trek initially supplied him with a Domane SL6 and a Top Fuel 9.9, as well as accessories like shoes and helmets. KKR also received a stipend to help with training and travel expenses. If Trek’s support ended there, he would have been blown away, but the company continually followed up with him.
“The biggest difference that Trek has given me is more than equipment; it’s the mental support,” KKR says. “At any point of time in the last six years they never said, ‘Why do you need this?’ They were there to support me if I had a bad day in a race and say, ‘OK, you should just move on and I’m sure you’ll be able to do it.'”
KKR’s full-time racing career was a quick success. At the 2015 Indian Nationals, he won the cross country time trial and took bronze in the Olympic format. He followed it with another time trial national championship in 2016, and an Olympic format title in 2018. In total he has nine national medals, and numerous wins in local events, many of which are open to amateurs who get to see KKR’s speed and skill up close. Some of those riders represented potential corporate sponsors, with whom KKR networked and shared his story. They would often help cover race fees and more.
KKR is a well known presence at races now, not just because he is a decorated rider, but because his rise coincided with cycling’s growth in India. So much has changed since he started racing. The competitive fields are bigger and no longer dominated by expats. The equipment they use is much nicer; as an example, KKR estimates that just 10 percent of the riders at 2014 nationals competed in cleats, compared to roughly 90 percent today. And the courses are much more difficult; gone are the days when KKR felt he could complete an XC course on a road bike.
"My journey can help kids and their parents dream big."
One thing that hasn’t changed is the hustle. Though KKR is a relatively big name now, he still doesn’t train like athletes from traditional mountain bike strongholds like in the United States and Europe. He has to ride his bike nearly 20 miles to access Bangalore’s best trails, and even with his adept skills at combating traffic, the commute can be a slog. To complete a one hour trail session, he’ll often do five total hours of riding.
KKR is currently living in the town of Mysore, about 95 miles outside of Bangalore. There, the air quality is cleaner and the traffic much more manageable, but he’s constrained to his road bike due to a lack of good trails. He’s currently focused on big-mileage rides to rebuild his aerobic base coming off a Covid- and injury-hampered 2020.
KKR is proud of how far his country has come in terms of supporting cycling, but he’d like to see it go even further. He illustrates the gap to other nations via his attempt to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. KKR finished 19th at the 2019 Asian Championships, and needed a podium to go to Tokyo.
“If someone asked me where India stands in the world of mountain biking, I’d say, ‘I’m the fastest Indian, and I finished 19th place,'” KKR says. “The guy who won Asian Championship, when he goes to the World Cup, he finishes anywhere between 30th and 50th. Now you imagine where the world’s fastest riders stand, and where we stand.”
When his racing career is over, KKR wants to give young cyclists the head start that he never got. He was 28 when he quit his civil engineering job, and says he improved immensely with exposure to mountain bike culture in places like Australia, France and Switzerland. He has no regrets about how his career has unfolded, but part of him wonders what would have happened if he had started following his passion when he was 16 or 17.
Even so, KKR has become one of India’s biggest ambassadors to the sport. More than that, he’s an incredible resource to navigating life as a privateer. Becoming a professional mountain biker requires business acumen as well as physical talent and toil. And according to KKR, many people in India are unaware of the possibilities within the sport — for example, that it’s part of the Olympics.
"Especially my wife, to be able to support me emotionally. Because when I started seeing her, I had zero titles."
“Just understanding how an event is conducted at an international level gave me a lot of exposure and knowledge about the sport itself,” KKR says. “So I want to share this and talk to the kids and their parents, because parents clearly have no knowledge in the sport, apart from seeing the local races.
“My journey can help kids and their parents dream big.”
From training in a dense urban area, to building a support network, to marketing himself so that sponsors could find him, KKR made mountain biking a viable profession. Now he wants to pass along the blueprint as a mentor, and continue to grow the size and popularity of the sport until Indian riders are rising to the surface primarily due to their skill and talent — because not everyone has the sheer force of personality and desire to pave their own way into mountain biking the way that KKR did.
KKR thankfully doesn’t have to rip through traffic on his way to work to sneak in training anymore, nor does he want to. He has a daughter who is almost three years old now; as much as he enjoys thrill-seeking, he has a responsibility to stay healthy for her. And though dodging cars may have played a large role in KKR becoming the rider he is today, he acknowledges that he never would have gotten anywhere without copious help.
“I really owe big time to my wife, my parents, and the Bangalore cycling community who have constantly supported and pushed me and motivated me to stay in the sport,” KKR says. “Especially my wife, to be able to support me emotionally. Because when I started seeing her, I had zero titles.”
There is only one Kiran Kumar Raju, the man who gave up a steady career, who with uncommon energy and drive has made the most of his athletic talents. KKR was always a bike racer, long before it seemed possible for any Indian athlete. But he was lucky, too. One of the best mountain bikers in a country of more than 1.3 billion people could have slipped through the cracks if any one of many little factors had gone wrong.
How many more athletes like KKR could there have been? The answer is unknowable. But because he succeeded, so will countless more. That’s for certain.