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On 30th anniversary, India’s greatest cycle race remembered

Mario Rodrigues

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Cine star Sunil Dutt (second from right) flanked by the Wales team and other riders readies to lead out the BLITZ-Nehru Integration Tour of India 1989 from Bandstand, Bandra, in Mumbai.

Mumbai: Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution to nation-building has been extolled over the decades while also being ridiculed or ignored in recent times. Be that as it may, many of his achievements have stood the test of time, including some held in his name.

One such is the 10-day nine-stage 1,442 km BLITZ-Nehru Integration Tour of India 1989 from Mumbai-New Delhi, staged on the occasion of Panditji’s centenary celebrations exactly 30 years ago from November 4-13, which still remains India’s greatest, longest and toughest stage cycle, irrespective of other tall claims.

Cycling

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (right) greets the Soviet/Lithuanian team at the final prize distribution ceremony. Tour winner Mkestas Stiakenos is at extreme left wearing his leader’s red jersey. Pic courtesy PIB

It then offered a unprecedented Rs 1 lakh as prize money for the overall winner and a total purse of Rs 5 lakh. Pal Singh’s stunning documentary on the Tour, screened later on the national broadcaster, drew plaudits.

Four international teams (many more were interested but wanted the organisers to bear their air fare) took part, including the national teams of Lithuania (representing the Soviet Union) and India, and selections from Wales and (Air) Canada with international experience, besides several individual international and Indian riders. All told, the field was 100 plus strong.

Russi Karanjia, the flamboyant editor of the now defunct weekly newsmagazine, Blitz, was a long time sponsor of cycling, and the Parsi-dominated Indian Professional Cyclists Association (IPCA) sneaked in a proposal for a grand Tour of India to commemorate the Nehru centenary. As a sub-editor-cum reporter handling the sports pages, the proposal fell into my lap.

Canadian team

The Air Cananda team at the start of a stage.

One thing led to another and after a few months the route and stages were finalised: Bombay –Vapi – Bharuch — Ahmedabad – Udaipur – Chitorgarh – Ajmer – Jaipur – Alwar -New Delhi plus a 9 km mountain time-trial in Jaipur. The longest stage was Bharuch – Ahmedabad (196 km) while the shortest Udaipur – Chittorgarh (109 km).

The state governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and New Delhi hosted the riders in their respective territories while a few corporate donors also chipped in with cash or kind. The Tour was almost called off for want of a lead sponsor but Zandu Balm came in at the eleventh hour to save the day!

Local MP and cinestar Sunil Dutt led out the peleton in a ceremonial start from Bandstand, Bandra, before the actual race began on the Western Express Highway.

The well-acclimatised Soviet team seized the initiative thereafter. Mkestas Stiakenos exploded on the home stretch to nose out Carl Reglar (Air Canada) and Carl James (Wales) and grab the ‘red jersey’ in the first stage.

Cycling

The Air Canada team, winners of the mountain time trial, celebrate after receiving the trophy from Rajasthan CM Shiv Charan Mathur (left).

The Soviets then worked their asses off to keep it, with even their strongest rider, Arunas Tchaipele, acting as a domestique for the race leader. As team director Kazys Steponavicius told this correspondent post the Tour, “Once Stiakenos took the lead, the whole team began to work for him to retain his leading position. But we also pushed up our other riders during the stages depending on who was up to it!”

Organisation wise, there were a few hiccups, a mind boggling traffic jam on the Ahmedabad – Udaipur highway and a botched up finish in Jaipur included.

The hardy Soviets however made light of the hassles and won seven of the nine stages with only Phil Hodge (Wales) and Steve Baker (Air Canada) managing to spoil their party. Air Canada were surprising winners of the mountain time trial.

With their superior team work and by putting their riders in the top gc brackets one by one despite the combined efforts of the fast improving Welshmen and Canadians, the Soviets were able to comfortably power Stiakenos, a two-time winner of the Tour of Lithuania, over the finish line on the Rajpath in New Delhi.

The 24-year-old polytechnic graduate timed 39 hours, 44 mins 42 secs overall, finishing 12 minutes ahead of V Sinkavich, followed by teammates A Ivanov, M Jatulis and R Beikivich. Sixth was John Evans (Wales) ahead of Carl Raglar, Peter Ver Hessen and Andy Tout (all Air Canada). Indian international Kirpal Singh claimed 11th place.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi fittingly hosted the final prize distribution ceremony at his residence. As Welsh rider-reporter Stuart Stanton wrote in “A Passage to India” in the Cycling Weekly,

“All the trials and tribulations of the 10-day trek were forgotten at the final reception hosted by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. A man who was probably at that time under more personal stress than anyone else in the democratic world, he impressed us all with his dignified manner and grace.

“His was the 61st and shortest of the speeches we had listened to, but he said everything we needed to hear…We all felt very privileged to be part of this unique event.”

Find more stories from the author at Mario Rodrigues.

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